The Most Common Chess Openings

Some chess openings are better than others. Using a time-tested opening can help you improve your game and even boost your chance of winning. Recognizing and understanding the best openings will increase your confidence in the beginning phase of the game.

  • 01 of 10
    All diagrams © Ed Scimia

    The Ruy Lopez -- also known as the Spanish Game -- is named after Rodrigo (Ruy) López de Segura, a Spanish bishop, who analyzed this opening in his 1561 work, "Libro de la invencion liberal y arte del juego del axedrez," which translates as, "Book of the Liberal Invention and Art of the Game of Chess." Nearly half a millennium later, the Ruy is now one of the most popular chess openings. Chess experts have come up with numerous variations, and a wide variety of strategic plans...MORE are available to both White and Black.

    The starting position of the Ruy Lopez is reached after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5.

    Popular lines in the Ruy Lopez include -- but are not limited to -- the Morphy Defense, Steinitz Defense and Berlin Defense. Each of these, and several other variations, lead to numerous sub-variations.

  • 02 of 10

    First developed in the 1600s and perhaps the oldest chess opening, the Italian Game is reached by the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4. It remained popular through the 19th century but today has been supplanted by the Ruy Lopez as White's favorite choice on the third move. In this opening, Bc4 eyes Black's potentially weak f7 pawn, but over the years, improved defensive techniques have shown this to be less dangerous to Black than Bb5. Still, the Italian Game often leads to aggressive,...MORE open positions, which can be fun to play. This opening is still used at all levels and is quite popular among club players.

    Variations in the Italian Game include the Giuoco Piano, Two Knights Defense and Hungarian Defense.

  • 03 of 10

    The Sicilian Defense (1. e4 c5) is Black's most popular response to e4, especially at the highest levels of chess. By playing c5, Black immediately fights for the center and attacks d4 but avoids the symmetry of e5. The Sicilian Defense typically leads to a complex and dangerous struggle where both sides can play for a win.

    There are many distinct variations in the Sicilian Defense, each of which leads to different types of positions, including the Closed Sicilian, Classical Sicilian, Dragon...MORE Variation and Najdorf Variation.

  • 04 of 10

    The French Defense (1. e4 e6) concedes central space to White and limits the scope of his king's bishop but prevents tactics against f7 while allowing Black to have activity on the queenside and counterplay in the center.

    After the most typical line of 2. d4 d5, White's e-pawn is immediately pressured, and White must decide how to deal with this -- leading to several variations, including the Exchange Variation, Advance Variation, Tarrasch Variation, Winawer Variation and Classical...MORE Variation.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Like the French Defense, the Caro-Kann Defense (1. e4 c6) prepares d5 on Black's second move to challenge White's e4 pawn. The Caro-Kann is extremely solid, but not as dynamic as many of Black's other defenses against e4. Compared to the French, Black has avoided blocking his king's bishop but will require a second move to play c5 -- a source of counterplay, where a player in a weaker position, essentially, fights back.

    Popular variations in the Caro-Kann include the ​Classical...MORE Variation, Advance Variation, Exchange Variation and Panov-Botvinnik Attack.

  • 06 of 10

    Pirc Defense

    Originally seen as an inferior opening, the Pirc Defense (1. e4 d6) is today known as a solid choice. Black allows White to build an imposing center, then attempts to turn that center into a target for attack.

    Some common variations in the Pirc Defense include the Classical System and Austrian Attack.

  • 07 of 10

    Queen's Gambit

    White players who prefer a quieter, more positional game tend to prefer 1. d4 to 1. e4, after which the c4 break is the best way to play for an advantage either on the second move or soon after. The Queen's Gambit, marked by the moves 1. d4 d5 2. c4, is one of the oldest chess openings. This classical approach pretends to offer a pawn -- in reality, Black cannot expect to hold onto the pawn if he chooses to capture it -- in exchange for a stronger center.

    Black has several options, including...MORE the Queen's Gambit Accepted, Queen's Gambit Declined and Slav Defense.

  • 08 of 10

    Indian Defenses

    After 1. d4, Black is not obligated to play d5 in response. The best response to d4 is Nf6, which leads to a collection of openings known as the Indian Defenses. These openings, while less solid than the classical d5, offer more immediate opportunities for counterplay.

    There are many popular lines arising after Nf6, including the King's Indian Defense, Nimzo-Indian Defense, Queen's Indian Defense and Grünfeld Defense.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    English Opening

    The English Opening is a flexible choice for White. The English often transposes into openings normally seen after 1. d4, either exactly or with slight variations due to move order. You can also enter a "reversed" Sicilian Defense if Black responds with e5, where White is playing the Sicilian Defense with an extra tempo.

    One well-known setup that can arise from the English Opening is the Hedgehog Defense.

  • 10 of 10

    Reti Opening

    The Réti Opening (1. Nf3) is named after the great chess master Richard Réti. Like 1. d4 and 1. c4, the Réti also generally leads to closed positions, and all three moves can transpose into similar setups.

    One possible formation for White is the King's Indian Attack.

Other Openings

Just because these openings are the most common does not mean that other options aren't playable (or even quite good). There are numerous opening systems in chess that are played at the game's highest levels, and even more that are popular among club and recreational players. For some offbeat options, take a look at our page on unusual chess openings.