A Survey of Chess Openings

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Choosing openings for a repertoire can be difficult, even for a Grandmaster. For a player early in his/her chess career, the choices are even more difficult. Is a particular opening suitable for a scholastic or weekend tournament with fast time controls, or only as a drawing attempt against the world champion? Is a particular book really a shortcut to avoiding lots of theory, or is the author trying to sell a book about an opening all strong players avoid for some reason?

In the following list of openings and recommendations, I emphasize solid and practical openings that make up the repertoires of chess greats from the past and present. In general, I recommend learning and trying main lines before worrying about move transpositions and avoiding certain openings. This approach has several advantages.

Your openings pose challenges for all levels of competition.

You have an opening repertoire that can be used for your entire chess career.

You are standing on the shoulders of giants.

You have an excellent framework on which to fit the rest of your chess education.

White

The best way to get a good position and to pose problems for your opponent is to fight for the center and to develop your pieces quickly. I strongly recommend that the beginning chessplayer open with 1. e4 or 1. d4 as White. For information on the differences between 1. e4 and 1. d4, see the article comparison: 1. e4 vs 1. d4.

1.e4

By far the most popular response to 1. e4 is 1… c5, the Sicilian Defense. I recommend you play 2. Nf3 and 3. d4. This is the most common and most aggressive way to handle the Sicilian Defense. Both sides have lots of choices, and it’s usually an exciting game! Study the games of Fischer.

Against 1… e5, I recommend White aims for the Ruy Lopez (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5). This keeps long term pressure on Black. Study the games of Fischer, Alekhine, and Keres.

Against 1… e6, the French Defense, I recommend either 2. Nc3 or 2. Nd2. Study the games of Botvinnik and Fischer.

1.d4

I recommend following up with 2. c4 against either 1… Nf6 or 1… d5. What you play after that will depend on how Black plays, and he has quite a few choices. See the section on Black’s defenses to guide your choices as White. Study the games of Botvinnik and Alekhine.

Black

Against 1. e4

I think any of the following openings would be an excellent choice for your primary response to 1. e4.

Sicilian Defense (1… c5) – The pawn structure is immediately imbalanced, which often leads to interesting tactical games. However, there are positional lines too, so there’s something here for everyone. The vast majority of Grandmasters play the Sicilian at least some of the time, so you’re in good company if you play this opening. Study the games of Fischer.

1… e5 – Often leads to open positions but is very solid. Study the games of Keres and Karpov.

French Defense (1… e6) – Typically leads to closed strategic positions, and is very solid. Study the games of Botvinnik and Nimzovich.

The following are also reasonable openings but in my opinion they have drawbacks that make them inadequate for the primary repertoire of a beginning tournament chessplayer.

Caro-Kann (1… c6) – A safe and solid opening. However, as your chess career progresses, you’ll want something more aggressive so your opponent will face tougher tests.

Pirc (1… d6) – A provocative opening that is often played by strong players to put their opponents on their own resources. However, it gives White a lot of leeway and can be tricky for Black to play.

Alekhine (1… Nf6) – Another provocative opening that gives White many choices. Black may be able to equalize but he has to work harder in this opening than in others.

Against 1. d4

I think any of the following openings would be an excellent choice for your primary response to 1. d4.

King’s Indian – One of Black’s most aggressive and popular responses to 1. d4. It’s also an excellent setup against just about any moves other than 1. e4. Study the games of Fischer and Bronstein.

Nimzo-Indian, Queen’s Indian, Bogo-Indian, and Catalan (1… Nf6 and 2… e6) – Very solid without being passive. Study the games of Nimzovich.

Semi-Slav – Solid, yet has the potential for dynamic play for Black. Study the games of Botvinnik, Dreev, and Kaidanov.

Queen’s Gambit Declined, Tarrasch Defense – Black gets an isolated pawn but good piece play as compensation. Study the games of Keres, Spassky, and Kasparov.

The following openings are reasonable but you’ll need another opening in reserve if White doesn’t allow these.

Benko Gambit – Fun and popular. Unfortunately, White can, and often does, adopt a move order that prevents it. Study the games of Khalifman.

Dutch, Leningrad Variation – Some players of the Dutch dislike the Staunton Gambit, but if you don’t mind that then the Leningrad Variation is a good weapon. Study the games of Malaniuk.

Slav – Solid, not quite as dynamic as the Semi-Slav but still giving Black reasonable play. Pawn structure is similar to that of the Caro-Kann. White can avoid this opening with certain move orders. Study the games of Smyslov.

Benoni – Very tactical. Considered a little suspect if tried against certain White move orders. Some lines of the King’s Indian transpose into the Benoni. Study the games of Tal.

The following openings are also reasonable, but would handicap a beginning player if used as primary openings in his/her repertoire.

Grunfeld – This is a good opening that many players of the White pieces feel uncomfortable playing against. Unfortunately for Black, White has many sharp choices Black must be ready for, so preparing to play the Grunfeld is probably the most demanding of any opening.

Dutch, Stonewall Variation – As with the Leningrad Variation, you’ll have to deal with the Staunton Gambit. Also, many beginning players fall into the trap of playing this variation mechanically, hampering their chess education. Study the games of Botvinnik.

Queen’s Gambit Accepted – A good solid opening but not aggressive enough to be a primary opening in your repertoire.

Queen’s Gambit Declined other than Tarrasch Defense – Most of the variations of Queen’s Gambit Declined don’t challenge White very hard, and they aren’t very interesting to play for Black. The Cambridge Springs Defense is interesting for Black but White can avoid it with the Exchange Variation. Study the games of Botvinnik and Alekhine.

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