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Chess 101: What Are The Best Opening Moves in Chess? Learn 5 Tips for Improving Your Chess Opening

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

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The study of chess openings as been a major part of the game for hundreds of years, with countless books devoted to analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of various sequences. Over the course of his career, former World Champion Garry Kasparov assembled a personal database of more than 20,000 openings and variations. At some point in your development as a chess player, you’ll need to look at openings. But what’s the best way to go about it?



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The Basics of Chess Openings

An opening is simply the first several moves made in a chess game. Most likely, they’ll follow one of hundreds of classic sequences (or one of the hundreds of variations on those sequences). More broadly, though, an opening refers to the first phase of a chess game, as distinguished from the middlegame and endgame.

A good opening allows you to:

  • Develop material
  • Protect your king
  • Begin positioning your pieces to press an attack or take advantage of your opponent’s mistakes.

Some openings are direct, immediately attacking the center of the board while aggressively developing material, while others are more subtle, advancing along the sides of the board and taking many turns to develop. As with overall chess strategy, the best opening is the one you can play most confidently. If you’re the kind of player who prefers to press the attack and set the momentum of the game, then a more aggressive opening may suit you better. Alternatively, if you prefer to set traps for your opponent and wait for them to make mistakes, then a more passive, flexible style of play might be your best bet.

The Most Popular Chess Opening for White Pieces

In modern chess, the most popular opening move for white is to immediately bring the king’s pawn forward two spaces. (This is notated as 1.e4.) The grandmaster Bobby Fischer called 1.e4 “best by test.”

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What Are the Advantages of 1.e4?

  • It immediately attacks the center. (Remember, control of the center is a major focus of the early and middle parts of the game.)
  • 1.e4 allows the immediate development of both the queen and a bishop. It forms the basis of some of the oldest and most popular openings in chess, including the Ruy Lopez (or Spanish) opening, the Italian Game (or Giuoco Piano), and the King’s Gambit.

Other Common Openings for White Pieces

After 1.e4, the most common opening for white is d4. This frequently leads black to respond with 1.d4 d5, which is commonly called a Closed Game.

Red and pink chess board setup 2

The key difference between e4 and d4 is that the latter pawn is immediately defended by the queen, which can lead to the popular Queen’s Gambit.

Other possible openings for white include starting on the flanks by moving a knight to f3 (notated 1.Nf3) or by moving a pawn to c4. These form the basis of some very popular openings, including the King’s Indian Attack or the English Opening. A number of great players in history of the game have favored 1.Nf3, because unlike 1.e4 or 1.d4 it doesn’t commit white to a particular strategy, but can transpose into a number of other openings, which can throw off a black player who commits too soon to a particular response.


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The Most Popular Chess Opening for Black Pieces

Black’s opening will nearly always depend on white’s first move. Because white goes first, black openings are often called “defenses,” though many of these (like the Sicilian Defense) can also be quite aggressive in their own right.

The most popular move for black is to bring its queenside bishop pawn forward to c5. This begins the classic Sicilian Defense, which has been used with great success by many of the best players in the world.

Red and pink chess board setup 3

What Are the Advantages of the Sicilian Defense?

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  • This is a highly aggressive opening for black, one that can set an unprepared white player back on his or her heels.
  • The Najdorf Variation of the Sicilian Defense is an extremely popular and well-studied variation that both Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov used to great effect.
  • If white opens with 1.d4, black has more than a half-dozen solid responses, which can lead to a number of well-studied defenses.
  • The response 1.d4 Nf6 is a flexible response that begins the popular set of Indian Defenses. These so-called hypermodern openings cede much of the center to white with the intention of picking that defense apart over time.
  • The response 1.d4 c6 may lead to the popular and solid Caro-Kann Defense, where black relies on a superior pawn structure to set up a favorable endgame.

Other Popular Openings for Black Pieces

If white goes with the classic 1.e4, black has several other ways to respond. 1.e4 e5 is a common response, leading to what’s known as an Open Game. (Note: an Open Game is different from what’s commonly called open chess.) From there, if white responds 2.Nf3, black may play Nf6, setting up what’s known as Petrov’s Defense.

Red and pink chess board setup 4

5 Tips for Improving Your Chess Opening

Editors Pick

Improving your chess opening can lead to improvements in your overall strategy and playing style.

  1. Control the center. Though there are positional styles of play that control the center from the outside, for beginners it’s important to learn the value of attacking and holding the middle of the board.
  2. Focus on developing your minor pieces. This means your knights and bishops. If the game looks relatively open, bishops will be your best bet. If there are lots of pawns clogging up the center, then you’ll want to rely more on knights.
  3. Protect the King. Part of the early game is finding a way to get your king to safety. Ignoring the King can force you to sacrifice pieces or delay development due to a quick attack. For a good example of what can happen to an undefended King, look at the Scholar’s Mate.
  4. Move each piece only once. Remember, every time you move a piece you’ve already moved, you’re not developing another piece. It’s nearly always better to have more material in the center of the board than to focus on two or three pieces.
  5. Don’t bring the Queen out too early. It may be tempting to get your Queen into the center of the board as soon as possible, but the more you rely on the Queen to mix it up with minor pieces, the more opportunities for trouble you create.

How To Find an Opening That Suits Your Playing Style

There are literally thousands of opening combinations in chess. There is only one major factor that should inform how you choose your openings: make moves that you’re comfortable making.

  • Many chess players, even Grandmasters, can fall into the trap of playing outside of their comfort zones. By choosing opening lines that suit your style, you can reach middlegame positions that also play to your strengths.
  • To make the most of your opening study, don’t limit yourself too much. You’ll never discover which style suits you best if you don’t experiment with different openings. Do you prefer sharp, open lines or quiet, maneuvering positions? You won’t know until you try both. Once you have developed a repertoire, you can focus more on preparing specific lines.

Learn more about opening moves from World Champion Garry Kasparov in his MasterClass.