Besides the common opening moves 1.e4 and 1.d4, white’s most popular move is 1.c4, known as the English opening. It is called the English because it was introduced and regularly played by the English unofficial World Chess Champion Howard Staunton in the 1840s and 1850s.
Although it has its own style, the opening is very flexible and many times transposes into other opening lines. The objective is to apply pressure on the center d5 square without committing the queen pawn or the king pawn. Since it is a flank move, many players like the English opening because of its hypermodern style of play (using pieces from the sides along with minor pieces to apply pressure and control the center).
White’s 2nd move depends on black’s response. If black does not immediately try to control the center, white can fianchetto his bishop with 2. g3 3. Bg2 and start to apply even more pressure on the d5 square which gives white the control over the light squares. Many English games will start out very slow as both sides build up pressure around the center.
Understanding the English Opening
White has a variety of different ideas in each line. The general opinion is that the English opening is meant for positional and slow play. While it is somewhat true, historically, the English has been implemented by players with a very aggressive approach and amazing games have been produced. Garry Kasparov was a great specialist of the English opening and has played it several times in his career (even in his match against Karpov for the world crown).
This opening has always been challenging and unpleasant for black. The arising positions are often closed and lead to very little simplifications. We may say that it is no surprise that the middlegames are very complex and they demand good skills at strategy and understanding of the plans in each structure. The positional nature of the opening allows you to outplay your opponent by knowing key plans and ideas. Of course, there is also a plenty of theory in the English Opening that you have to be familiar with, however, the character of the opening is a lot less forced.
Most important variations of the English Opening
Against the English opening, there are many possible responses for black. He can go for a symmetrical setup with 1…c5, the Nimzo-English with 1…Nf6 followed by e6 and Bb4, the Four Knights variation with 1…e5 followed by Nc6 and Nf6 and the Reversed Dragon with 1…e5 followed by Nf6 and d5 immediately. Generally speaking, black can also go for Slav-like and King Indian Defense setups but here we will elaborate more on the four above mentioned responses
Symmetrical Defence: 1…c5
Symmetrical English is one of the most strategic openings. In order to successfully incorporate this line in the repertoire, white needs a very good understanding of the typical positional ideas and pawn structures.
The important thing that white needs to have in mind is to control the center with pieces rather than the pawns, while using the pawns for support and at the same time building on the position. Black needs to be careful because the pawnstorm on the queenside is inevitable.
The Botvinnik Setup
Another line that White can choose to play against the Symmetrical Defense, which is equally as good as the previous one, is the Botvinnik setup.
As mentioned earlier, White has a lot of flexibility and has the ability to choose what kind of game he wants. Exchanging the dark-squared bishop, opening up the white-squared bishop with f4, e5 and even creating a kingside attack are just one of the options White can choose from. White is building up the experience in this opening while black does not face this line so often.
This variation is a typical response from players who enter Nimzo-Indian setups as black against 1.d4. After moves:
Even though black goes for a soild setup, white can still challenge his pawn structure and continue with his plan to attack on the queenside.
Next few moves are obvious for white, putting his king to safety, developing his dark-squared bishop on b2 and connecting the rooks.
Black’s defense is also limited due to mating ideas on the kingside with the queen and bishop, so it is safe to say that white is doing well in this position.
The Four Knights
The Four Knights of the English opening is one of the variations of the Reverse Sicilian and is created after the moves:
While engine gives an equal position, white needs to remember the main ideas of the English opening. With good development, patient and steady play, white does not have weaknesses in this line and it is difficult for black to create targets. White can still go for a queenside attack, connecting the rooks and taking advantage of the semi-open c-file.
Reversed Dragon: 1…e5
We’ve reached a position which can arise from the Accelerated Dragon or the normal Sicilian Dragon (if White continues to play d3).
Here, white is up a tempo and even has some additional ideas to get an edge with moves like 8.a4!? or 8.Rb1!?
Of course, White can also play the main moves 8.d3 and 8.a3.
This variation also shows how solid white’s position seems to be and that the ideas are crossing each other throughout the opening, regardless of how black wants to respond.
Illustrative Games In The English Opening
Explore the different continuations with the Chess Opening Explorer or search our database for more games on the English Opening.