The English Opening: Chess Simple and Good

The English Opening: Chess Simple and Good

When you mention the English Opening in chess, people are most likely to think of 1.c4 with a kingside fianchetto. This is the most well-known way to play the English Opening.

Of course, it is not the only way to play this chess opening, and if you are looking for something a little different to gain an edge, the English Opening without g3 is an excellent opening choice.

Most chess players prepare for the English Opening with a kingside fianchetto. Now you can take them into unchartered territory by being flexible in your approach.

Three Notable Games of the English Opening in Chess

Viktor Korchnoi - Jan Timman1977.04.30, 1-0, NED-ch Round 10, Leeuwarden NED


Le Quang Liem - Bu Xiangzhi, 2010.02.11. 1-0, Aeroflot Open Round 3, Moscow RUS


Boris Spassky - Tigran Petrosian, 1969.04.23, 1-0, World Championship Match Round 5, Moscow URS


The English Opening Is Flexible and Strong

The flexibility of the English Opening in chess is evident from the fact you can adopt a g3 or an e3 approach. Even more rewarding is with the e3 system, you can change the nature of the opening.

The English Opening in chess starts with 1.c4, which clamps down on the d5 square.

The English Open is often chosen by players who would rather not learn a lot of theory that comes with 1.d4. If you enjoy playing against one or two defenses to 1.d4, that leaves many other defenses you must learn to meet.

By playing the English Opening with e3, you can keep it positional, enter 1.d4 lines, or adopt an active approach by entering an IQP (isolated queen’s pawn) position.

The English Opening is suitable for club players because it relies on natural developing moves that are easy to remember. You will often develop your knights to f3 and c3, play e3 to support the central d4 advance, and meet …Bb4 with Qc2.

Even if you play the English Opening with g3, including a few lines with e3 makes it harder for your opponents to prepare for you in tournaments. There might be a defense by Black that you aren’t doing well against in the g3 variation, and having a second option is always helpful - especially if the other weapon is part of the same opening.

Many of today’s strongest players have played the English Opening with e3, including MVL, Caruana, Giri, and Duda.

English Opening in Chess: The Natural 1…e5

Since 1.c4 controls the d5 square, it is only natural for Black to clamp down on d4 with 1…e5. Although this variation might begin at a sedate pace, it is not long before play becomes active.

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.e3 Bb4 5.Qc2

Apart from preventing the double pawn weakness, the queen on c2 helps control the b1-h7 diagonal. A sound strategy for White is Nd5 combined with Qf5 intending to double pawns by capturing twice on f6.

There is nothing wrong with choosing to control the center by capturing on c3 with bxc3. Ding Liren used 6.bxc3 to defeat Sergey Karjakin in 2019.

6.Qxc3 is the more popular recapture.

5…Bxc3 6.Qxc3 Qe7 7.d4 Ne4 8.Qd3 exd4 9.Nxd4 0-0 10.Be2 Qb4+ 11.Kf1 Qe7

Black invested two moves with the queen to stop White from castling, but the White king is perfectly safe on f1 or f2. In the middlegame, White’s strategy will be to open the position for the bishops and activate the rook on h1.

Although f3 is an excellent move to dislodge the knight from e4, be careful about opening the f-file if Black responds with f5.

Black’s task is made simpler with exchanges, so if you are playing white, maintain the tension by avoiding exchanges as much as possible.

Jan-Krzysztof Duda - Ian Nepomniachtchi, 2019.08.01, 1-0, GCT Paris Rapid & Blitz Round 11, Paris FRA


The Symmetrical English Opening With …e6

The flexibility of the English Opening in chess is something both sides enjoy. Black can choose to start with 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 c5 or 1…g6 and 2…c5.

Because there is no direct contact in the English Opening right away, either side can continue with their standard development plan.

The vital move to remember is that after 1.c4 c5, you develop the knight to f3 instead of c3. Again, if Black plays 1…Nf6, then play 2.Nc3, keeping the option of entering the Botvinnik System.

You can also transpose into your preferred 1.d4 line against the King’s Indian or Nimzo-Indian. For example, 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3.d4 Bb4 and now 4.Bd2 is a little-known and dangerous option against the Nimzo-Indian Defense.

Black can reach a solid position with setups involving …c5 and …e5. Meeting 1…c5 with 2.Nf3 limits Black’s options while giving White the chance to transpose to other openings.

Against the more traditional g3 setup, Black can mirror White’s moves and achieve easy equality. If you are going to enter an equal middlegame, at least make your opponent work for equality.

When you choose 2.Nf3, you can play an early d4 advance.

1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 e6 6.a3 Be7

7.e4 0-0 8.Nf3 d6 9.Be2 b6 10.0-0 Bb7

Although White enjoys a space advantage and clamps down on d5, Black’s position is solid without any weaknesses. Because Black lacks space, White does best to minimize exchanges.

When Black plays …Ne5, do not be afraid to retreat your knight to d2. Playing f4 will prevent a repetition with …Ne5 and increase the space advantage.

The loss of time playing Nd2-f3 is not critical in this position. Time grows more valuable when you start your attack.

Look at how Aronian’s patience got rewarded in his game against Leko.

Levon Aronian - Peter Leko, 2007.09.16, 1-0, World Championship Tournament Round 4, Mexico City MEX


The English Opening Symmetrical Variation With …g6

Against a kingside fianchetto by black, establishing a Maroczy Bind and expanding on the queenside is an excellent approach. This strategy allows you to centralize while developing and place a brake on Black’s counterplay.

The bishop on g7 is a powerful piece if it has something to attack on the h8-a1 diagonal. Move your pieces off the diagonal, and it is no longer anything to fear.

Place your rooks on b1 and c1 where they are off the diagonal and can support your queenside pawn advance.

Always remember to keep an eye on your opponent’s plans! Sometimes we can get too caught up in our strategy and forget somebody is playing black and trying to win the game.

1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 5.e4 Bg7 6.Be3 Nf6

The vital move to remember in this variation is 6.Be3.

Playing the opening on autopilot can cost you a piece.

After 5…Bg7 the knight on d4 is attacked twice by Black’s bishop and knight while defended only once by the white queen. Even in the simplest of openings, reminding yourself of the reason behind each move is a good idea.

7.Nc3 0-0 8.Be2 d6 9.0-0 Nxd4 10.Bxd4 Bd7 11.Qd2 Bc6 12.f3

Once again, white enjoys a pleasant space advantage and centralized pieces.

This position was reached via transposition by Magnus Carlsen, who used the Rab1 and Rfc1 approach well. Magnus’ game against Mamedov started as a Sicilian Defense.

Magnus Carlsen - Rauf Mamedov, 2010.11.16, 1-0, World Blitz Championship Round 10.1, Moscow RUS


The English Opening Against the Strong Slav

When playing against the Slav setup with the English Opening in chess, you can fianchetto your bishop on the queenside. The other bishop is developed on e2, allowing White to choose between short or long castle.

After castling short, White will seek to play in the center with d4. Long castle is combined with an aggressive pawn storm on the kingside.

One of the advantages of playing the English Opening in chess is you can focus on piece placement rather than memorizing opening theory. The piece placement remains the same whether you play in the center or aggressively on the kingside.

1.c4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.e3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.b3 Nbd7 6.Qc2

Once again, the queen develops to c2 just as it did in the 1.c4 e5 variation. These recurring moves make it easier to play the English Opening in chess.

6…Bd6 7.Bb2 0-0 8.Be2 Re8 9.0-0 b6 10.d4

White will continue by developing the rooks to d1 and e1. This strategy is simple yet very effective and leads to a complex middlegame.

Enjoy Zoltan Medvegy’s courageous play in this position against Peter Prohaszka in this battle between two evenly matched 2500 players.

Medvegy, Zoltan  - Prohaszka, Peter, 2012.11.26, 1-0, HUN-ch 62nd Round 5, Heviz


In Conclusion

The English Opening in chess with the kingside fianchetto is the most popular way to play this chess opening. However, the lines without a kingside fianchetto are no less dangerous, and you can confidently play them.

Even if you play the English Opening with g3, it does not hurt to have another line or two that you can use to surprise your opponent. Catching your opponent by surprise will give you an edge that is not to be discounted.

Because your opponent is more likely to have studied the English Opening with g3 having a second approach will serve the club and tournament player well. As you have learned, the English Opening with e3 is a good line that has scored victories for the world’s best chess players.

Former world champion and great attacking player Boris Spassky was willing to use it in his World Chess Championship Match against Tigran Petrosian. This method of playing the English Opening in chess is still seen in games between strong players today.

The common strategies and moves that repeat themselves reduce the time you need to study opening theory. None of the middlegame strategies rely on knowing complicated lines.

Go ahead and try something new, or shake things up a little if you already play the English Opening in chess.

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