Chess Opening Theory

Initial Position


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8 {{{square}}} black rook {{{square}}} black knight {{{square}}} black bishop {{{square}}} black queen {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black bishop {{{square}}} black knight {{{square}}} black rook 8
7 {{{square}}} black pawn {{{square}}} black pawn {{{square}}} black pawn {{{square}}} black pawn {{{square}}} black pawn {{{square}}} black pawn {{{square}}} black pawn {{{square}}} black pawn 7
6 {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king 6
5 {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king 5
4 {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king 4
3 {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king {{{square}}} black king 3
2 {{{square}}} white pawn {{{square}}} white pawn {{{square}}} white pawn {{{square}}} white pawn {{{square}}} white pawn {{{square}}} white pawn {{{square}}} white pawn {{{square}}} white pawn 2
1 {{{square}}} white rook {{{square}}} white knight {{{square}}} white bishop {{{square}}} white queen {{{square}}} white king {{{square}}} white bishop {{{square}}} white knight {{{square}}} white rook 1
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Introduction

In chess, unlike tennis, it is not possible to win by serving an ace.
—Irving Chernev, chess writer

So, you've learnt the rules of chess. You've learnt that developing your pieces and controlling the centre is a good plan, and letting lots of your pieces get captured for free is a bad one. (If you have doubts about any of that, head over to the Chess Wikibook first!)

Now it's time to answer that $64,000 question that's on the tip of every new chess player's tongue. The question that cuts right to the heart of what it means to be a competitive board game player:

How can I beat my friend in like, four moves?

Beating your friend in four moves

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that it's not a myth - there really is a way to checkmate your opponent in four moves! The bad news is that an opponent who sees it coming can foil your plans. This stands to reason, because if there was a guaranteed way to beat your opponent in four moves, no-one would play chess.

The four-move checkmate, and the method of foiling the four-move checkmate, are simple examples of opening theory, the subject of this Wikibook.

The opening is the first part of a game of chess, and theory is all of the plans, counter-plans and counter-counter-plan-plans that chess players have built up, over centuries of trial and error, to try and gain an advantage out of the opening.

A successful four-move checkmate would be a very nice advantage. Sadly, an unsuccessful four-move checkmate, much like an unsuccessful banzai charge, leaves your forces badly placed and vulnerable. Plus, once you're familiar with the four-move checkmate, it's obvious when an opponent is trying to spring it on you. Attempt a four-move checkmate, and you will almost certainly be unsuccessful. So assuming you don't want to be left with badly placed and vulnerable pieces, what should you do instead?

The short answer is "it depends what your opponent does". The long answer would require a whole library of books - or a single easy-to-navigate Wikibook, which is what you now have in front of you!

Why the four-move checkmate doesn't work

Let's look at that four-move checkmate, as it illustrates well the difference between good opening theory and bad. White's first move is 1.e4.

Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
8 a8 black rook b8 black knight c8 black bishop d8 black queen e8 black king f8 black bishop g8 black knight h8 black rook 8
7 a7 black pawn b7 black pawn c7 black pawn d7 black pawn e7 black pawn f7 black pawn g7 black pawn h7 black pawn 7
6 a6 black king b6 black king c6 black king d6 black king e6 black king f6 black king g6 black king h6 black king 6
5 a5 black king b5 black king c5 black king d5 black king e5 black king f5 black king g5 black king h5 ur 5
4 a4 black king b4 black king c4 ul d4 black king e4 white pawn f4 black king g4 ur h4 black king 4
3 a3 black king b3 black king c3 black king d3 ul e3 black king f3 ur g3 black king h3 black king 3
2 a2 white pawn b2 white pawn c2 white pawn d2 white pawn e2 cross f2 white pawn g2 white pawn h2 white pawn 2
1 a1 white rook b1 white knight c1 white bishop d1 white queen e1 white king f1 white bishop g1 white knight h1 white rook 1
Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
The position after 1.e4. The White bishop and queen can now get out and do some damage.

The move 1.e4 clears the e2 square, which allows the queen and f1-bishop to move out into the centre of the board and contribute to the game. Both of those pieces are important to the four-move checkmate.

Black replies by copying White: 1...e5. Then White brings out the bishop that was freed by 1.e4, and puts it on c4 where it attacks Black's vulnerable pawn on f7: 2.Bc4. Black isn't entirely sure what's going on, and so copies White again: 2...Bc5.

Then White makes a bold queen move: 3.Qh5. This attacks the Black pawn on e5. Now Black can't copy White any more, because 3...Qh4?? would lose the queen for nothing. So instead Black defends the threatened e-pawn with the innocent 3...Nc6.


Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
8 a8 black rook b8 black king c8 black bishop d8 black queen e8 black king f8 black king g8 black knight h8 black rook 8
7 a7 black pawn b7 black pawn c7 black pawn d7 black pawn e7 black king f7 black pawn g7 black pawn h7 black pawn 7
6 a6 black king b6 black king c6 black knight d6 black king e6 ur f6 black king g6 ul h6 black king 6
5 a5 black king b5 black king c5 black bishop d5 ur e5 black pawn f5 black king g5 black king h5 white queen 5
4 a4 black king b4 black king c4 white bishop d4 black king e4 white pawn f4 black king g4 black king h4 black king 4
3 a3 black king b3 black king c3 black king d3 black king e3 black king f3 black king g3 black king h3 black king 3
2 a2 white pawn b2 white pawn c2 white pawn d2 white pawn e2 black king f2 white pawn g2 white pawn h2 white pawn 2
1 a1 white rook b1 white knight c1 white bishop d1 black king e1 white king f1 black king g1 white knight h1 white rook 1
Solid white.svg a b c d e f g h Solid white.svg
Black has failed to deal with the lightning attack on f7 by the White bishop and queen, and is about to get four-move-checkmated with 4.Qxf7#.

But White's real target wasn't e5, it was f7! White plays 4.Qxf7#. The # stands for checkmate. Oops!

Where did Black go wrong here? Let's allow Black to take back the move 3...Nc6 and replace it with 3...Qe7! which defends the f7 and e5 pawns simultaneously. Now, what does White's queen think she's doing on h5? Everything she can attack is defended, and she's going to get evicted as soon as Black plays ...Nf6.

So White decides to take back 3.Qh5 and replace it with a less banzai-like move 3.Nf3. Now White is playing the opening sensibly! Black still has an attack on the e5 pawn to worry about, but White's knight is going to be well placed even after Black defends the pawn.

Not only that, but White has removed both pieces from between the king and h1-rook, which means kingside castling has become an option. If you ever find yourself in the opening with no idea what you're supposed to be doing, aiming towards kingside castling is a solid plan 99% of the time.

So although White's third move was an over-eager one, it looks as though White was onto something by playing 1.e4 and 2.Bc4...

White's first move

Sure enough, the move 1.e4, called the King's Pawn Opening, is the single most popular initial move. That's true at every level of chess from beginner to super-grandmaster.

If we fixate on castling kingside as soon as possible, we can see that advancing either the e-pawn or the g-pawn is a pre-requisite. The bishop on f1 can't go anywhere until you do. 1.e4 has a number of other advantages:

  • It frees the queen too - she likes to have breathing space even if she isn't planning to charge out to h5!
  • It avoids placing an obstruction on the diagonal between c1 and h6. This is important because at some point White will want to develop the c1-bishop too.
  • It contributes towards White's control of the centre squares.

A quick note about navigating this Wikibook: each page in this Wikibook corresponds to a single position, which will be shown in the diagram on that page. You are currently looking at the page for the initial position - the way the pieces are laid out when you first set them up on the board. One or more links will appear in the main body of the text, like this one: 1.e4. These representing possible moves from that position. Choose a move, click it, and reach a new position. Sometimes a list of common moves will appear under the page diagram, and if you find reading words about chess positions boring, you can pick the next move from that list too.

So what alternatives to 1.e4 exist?

There are two other reasonable moves with which White can make a start on Operation Castle As Quickly As Possible: 1.Nf3 and 1.g3.

  • 1.Nf3 is the 3rd most popular initial move. It's a sophisticated way of stalling for time. White reckons that Nf3 will almost certainly be a useful move sooner or later, whereas every pawn move is an irrevocable commitment. 1.Nf3 has the benefit of cutting out the reply 1...e5 by Black, which is a move that Black likes to play for all the same reasons that White likes to play 1.e4.
  • 1.g3 is the 5th most popular initial move. It doesn't immediately influence the centre, but White plans to follow up with Bg2 which does. The hypermodern school of opening theory, (ironically) most influential in the 1920s and 1930s, was all about controlling the centre with pieces rather than occupying it with pawns.

Queen's Pawn Opening

The idea of making it difficult for Black to play the move ...e5 immediately suggests another possibility: 1.d4, called the Queen's Pawn Opening. This is the 2nd most popular initial move, but it's in the same ballpark as 1.e4 in terms of games played. All the other legal moves combined appear in about half as many games as 1.d4. You could describe the opening theory solar system as consisting of Planet e4, Planet d4, and some dust.

Benefits of the Queen's Pawn Opening:

  • It releases the c1-bishop. We've already seen that releasing bishops is a good idea.
  • It controls some central squares, which is also a good idea.
  • It discourages 1...e5. In fact, 1.d4 e5 is a real opening, but not one with a terribly good reputation. It's a gambit, which is a specific kind of opening in which material (pawns or, rarely, larger pieces) is sacrificed to gain an advantage in position. If there's no material sacrificed, it's not a gambit. "Opening gambit" is a tautology. Despite what the musical CHESS may have told you, not every opening is a gambit!
  • If Black copies with 1...d5, White can then play 2.c4, the Queen's Gambit, hoping to draw Black's pawn away from the centre. The Queen's Gambit is the champagne and caviar of White openings and is a huge reason for the popularity of 1.d4. The mirror-image King's Gambit, 1.e4 e5 2.f4, has a far sketchier reputation.

Planet e4 or Planet d4?

Nearly every serious player has, at some point, had to decide whether 1.e4 or 1.d4 is more to their taste. How do they choose? Lots of people will try to tell you that e4 openings are swashbuckling and tactical, whereas d4 openings are sedate and strategic. This is far too broad a generalisation. You're not going to get put into a four-move checkmate by a player who opens 1.d4, but that doesn't make you any more likely to get away with playing terrible moves. Read Irving Chernyev's instructional books, or the collected games of the great inter-war players Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine, and you'll soon discover how easy it is to get buried under a tactical avalanche while playing a "sedate" Queen's Gambit.

Others

Away from Planets e4 and d4, there are a few more asteroids of note. 1.Nf3 and 1.g3 have been mentioned already.

  • 1.c4, the English Opening, 4th most popular move. White frees the queen, discourages the move 1...d5, and makes absolutely sure that the c-pawn won't get stuck on c2 behind a knight on c3. The resulting positions have more of a 1.d4 character than an 1.e4 character, and indeed the move d4 often follows later.
  • 1.f4 is Bird's Opening, the same idea as the English but on the kingside. It doesn't prevent 1...e5, incidentally. 1.f4 e5 is the well-known From Gambit and contains a fiendish trap for an unwary White player.
  • 1.b3 is Larsen's Opening, a hypermodern idea akin to 1.g3. Instead of preparing to castle kingside, White tries to scare Black out of it by pointing a bishop at g7.
  • 1.Nc3 is the Dunst Opening. White makes absolutely sure the c-pawn will get stuck on c2. There are many possible transpositions after 1.Nc3. A transposition just means playing the same moves in a different order. Where a position A is most commonly reached through opening B, it will be classified under opening B. If you reach it through opening C, you will have transposed from opening C to opening B. For example, 1.Nc3 e5 2.e4 is a transposition to the Vienna Game, because the Vienna Game move order is 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3.
  • 1.b4 is the Sokolsky Opening. White reckons Larsen's opening can be improved upon by moving the pawn further forward. The pawn controls more space on b4 instead of b3, but is more vulnerable - and the space it controls is not space that typically needs to be controlled. It's a sort of fashionably eccentric opening for people who wear bow ties.

The remaining 11 legal moves all have names, because humans love to name things, but they aren't serious attempts to gain an advantage. They exist for the same reason that collective nouns for animals exist: as collector's items for intellectuals.

All possible initial moves

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a4
a3
Na3
b4
b3
c4
c3
Nc3
d4
d3
e4
e3
f4
f3
Nf3
g4
g3
h4
h3
Nh3

Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings

ECO volume A : English Opening, Benoni Defence, Dutch Defence, King's Indian Attack, Benko Gambit, Old Indian, Bird's Opening
ECO volume B : Sicilian Defence, Caro-Kann Defence, Pirc Defence, Modern Defence, Alekhine's Defence, Scandinavian Defence
ECO volume C : Ruy Lopez, French Defence, Petrov's Defence, King's Gambit, Philidor Defence, Giuoco Piano, Two Knights Defence, Scotch Game
ECO volume D : Queen's Gambit Declined, Queen's Gambit Accepted, Slav Defence, Tarrasch Defence, Grünfeld Defence, Queen's Pawn
ECO volume E : Nimzo-Indian Defence, Queen's Indian Defence, King's Indian Defence, Catalan Opening, Bogo-Indian Defence

Statistics

Approximate chances: White win 39%, Draw 32%, Black win 29%
Estimated first move popularity:
e4 43%, d4 37%, Nf3 10%, c4 8%, g3 1%, b3 0.3%, f4 0.2%, Nc3 0.1%, b4 0.1%, all other moves less than 0.1%.

Using this wikibook

You can use the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings (ECO) code index if you prefer to navigate to positions that way.

When contributing to this Wikibook, please follow the conventions for organization.

Theory table

References

  • Batsford Chess Openings 2 (1989, 1994). Garry Kasparov, Raymond Keene. ISBN 0-8050-3409-9.
  • Nunn's Chess Openings. 1999. John Nunn (Editor), Graham Burgess, John Emms, Joe Gallagher. ISBN 1-8574-4221-0.
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