5 Must-Know Variations of the Powerful English Opening

The 5 variations of the English Opening (1.c4) you must know are:

  • Symmetrical English (1.c4 c5)
  • Classical Variation (…e6)
  • Reversed Sicilian (…e5)
  • King’s Indian Defense in the English (…g6)
  • Slav set up (…e6 and …c6)
5 must know variations of the english opening blog image

The English Opening in chess is a strong opening for players who enjoy positional games.

1.c4! heralds the English Opening in chess
1.c4! heralds the English Opening in chess

There is a lot of satisfaction to be had in grinding down your opponent.

Black can easily and unknowingly slip into a terrible position without being aware of his danger. The small white advantages will add up until they give you an overwhelming position.

Although there is no heavy theoretical burden in the English Opening, you still need to know the ideas and strategies in 5 essential variations.

GM Anatoly Karpov scored many good victories with the English Opening in his chess career. Take a look at his game against Lubojevic, presented by GM Damian Lemos.

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Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

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1) The Symmetrical English Opening in Chess

Against the Symmetrical Variation of the English Opening, a proven system to use with white is the Botvinnik System. You are unlikely to ever go wrong using a system regularly employed by a world champion.

In chess the English Opening symmetrical variation starts with 1.c4 c5
In chess the English Opening symmetrical variation starts with 1.c4 c5

In the Botvinnik System of the English Opening, white will place pawns on c4, d3, and e4. He will fianchetto the bishop on g2 and develop the g1-knight to e2.

Developing the knight to e2 keeps the f-pawn unobstructed and avoids the pin after …Bg4.

The f4 advance is a crucial element of white’s opening strategy.

White has three plans, one for each part of the board: kingside, center, and queenside. These plans are:

  • close the center and attack on the kingside,
  • play the d4-advance at the right time, and
  • expand on the queenside with b4-b5 while keeping the center closed.

Black Prevents White From Playing the Botvinnik System

The only way for Black to prevent white from playing the Botvinnik system is with an early …d5. Black will usually play …Nf6 first to avoid the loss of time that follows 2…d5 3.cxd5 Qxd5 4.Nc3.

Play is more likely to unfold in the following manner:

1.c4 c5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Nc3

english opening in chess where black prevents the botvinnik system with an early ...d5
The English Opening in chess where black prevents the Botvinnik system with an early …d5

Black must now choose between 5…Nxc3 and 5…Nc7. The retreat to c7 intends to establish a Maroczy structure with colors reversed following ..e5.

Capturing on c3 is not a good move for Black because, after bxc3, the b-file is open for a rook. A rook on b1 will combine with the bishop on g2 to put a lot of pressure on the black queenside.

Also, capturing on c3 allows white to recapture towards the center with a flank pawn, which is an advantage in itself!

A good way for white to meet 5…Nc7 is 6.Qa4+. The queen on a4 and bishop on g2 combine very nicely to cover the c6 square.

english opening 5...nc7 6.qa4+
English Opening 5…Nc7 6.Qa4+

After the natural 6…Bd7 white can simply retreat the queen to b3. This puts pressure on the now undefended b7 pawn.

Symmetrical Play Will Lead to the Botvinnik System

Of course, if Black doesn’t play for the Maroczy Bind or a variation of the Tarrasch Defense, then white will implement the Botvinnik system.

1.c4 c5 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.Nc3 Nc6 5.e4

english opening botvinnik system starting position
English Opening Botvinnik system starting position

After 5…e6 6.Nge2 Nge7 7.d3 d6 white plays 8.Rb1. This removes the rook from attack by the bishop on g7 and helps support b4.

english opening botvinnik system 8.rb1
English Opening Botvinnik System 8.Rb1

This is not to say white has given up on the d4 advance. A quick Be3 can support this pawn advance, eliminating white’s only weakness – the hole on d4.

2) Classical Variation With …e6 Against the English Opening in Chess

An excellent approach to counter the Classical Variation of the English Opening is to adopt a double-fianchetto. White introduces this with the move 3.b3

1.c4 e6 2.Nf3 d5 3.b3

classical variation of the english 3.b3
Classical variation of the English Opening with 3.b3

A thematic way for Play to continue is 3…Nf6 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 O-O 6.O-O

classical variation of the english with 6.o o
Classical variation of the English Opening with 6.O-O

Black can advance his pawn with 6…d4 or claim more control of the center with 6…c5.

White Can Enter a Reversed Benoni

After 6…d5, white is happy to enter a reversed Benoni with an extra tempo because he gains control of the critical e5-square.

Note that the move 1.c4 creates a lovely square for a white knight on c2. After d3 to stop the advance of the black d-pawn, white can play Na3-Nc2.

Combined with Bb2, the knight attacks the pawn from c2. A rook on e1 will help the knight on f3 prevent black from supporting his d4-pawn with …e5.

A more cautious approach by Black is to continue in the classical spirit with 6…c5, but this does nothing to stop white’s plan.

7.Bb2 Nc6 8.e3

classical variation of the english 6...c5
classical variation of the English Opening 6…c5

All the moves played are naturally developing moves. This is what makes the English Opening an excellent choice to play with the white pieces.

8.e3 is the only slightly tricky move you need to remember. The idea behind e3 is to give the white queen a central square to move to and connect the rooks.

Qe2 will allow white to place a rook on d1, lined up against the black queen on d8.

Thanks to the bishop on e7, the black queen will struggle to step out of the line of fire.

White’s plan is to continue his development with Nc3 and play the d4 advance. Opening up the center will allow the white bishops to show their strength on the long diagonals.

3) The Reversed Sicilian In the English Opening

This is a variation of the English Opening where white must pay attention to his move order right from the start.

The most critical factor in choosing between equally good moves is how much theory you wish to learn.

Popular moves for white in this position are 2.Nc3 and 2.g3. There is nothing wrong with either move.

Keep in mind the move 2.Nc3 allows black to play a Reversed Rossolimo, while 2.g3 allows black to play a reversed Open Sicilian with 2…Nf6 3.Bg2 d5.

Reduce Your Theoretical Workload With 2.d3

A good approach by white is to hold back a little longer before engaging and play 2.d3. This is a dual-purpose move that controls the e4 square and allows white to meet …Bb4+ with Nbd2.

Blocking the check with the knight on d2 means white does not have to worry about a weak pawn structure if black captures the knight. White will either get the bishop pair without any weaknesses or gain time attacking the bishop with a3.

This variation of the English Opening in chess shows the flexibility of the Opening at its maximum.

After 1.c4 e5 2.d3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.a3

1.c4 e5 reversed sicilian in the english
1.c4 e5 Reversed Sicilian in the English Opening

We have a position of the Najdorf Sicilian with colors reversed. If white is allowed to play b4, we enter a variation of the Paulsen Sicilian.

Black can stop b4 by playing 4…a5, but white simply shifts to a Dragon Sicilian setup with 5.Nc3 g6 6.g3 Bg7 7.Bg2 d5 8.cxd5 Nxd5 9.O-O

reversed sicilian in the english where white adopts a dragon setup
Reversed Sicilian in the English Opening where white adopts a dragon setup

In this position of the English Opening, White’s strategy is to develop his queenside pieces and look to create weaknesses in the black queenside.

Even though black managed to exchange queens in this next game it didn’t save him.

Korobov, A. – Pavlov, S2., 1-0, Aeroflot Open A 2018

4) King’s Indian Defense Setup in the English Opening in Chess

GM Damian Lemos is well-known for his excellent Deep Dive Opening series. There is nobody better to help you learn how to play the English Opening against the King’s Indian setup.

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This defensive setup for Black is robust against many openings but allows white to play the Botvinnik System in the English Opening.

The Botvinnik System is a good choice for White because it is very effective against every black choice on move 7!

1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.Nc3 0-0 5.e4 d6 6.Nge2 e5 7.0-0

kid against the english opening
The King’s Indian Defense against the English Opening

In this position, Black can play:

  • 7…c6
  • 7…Nc6
  • 7…Be6
  • 7…Ndb7

White’s plan remains the same-to play d3, Be3, Qd2, and f4.

This plan is simple, effective, and dangerous!

However, don’t neglect to bring all your pieces into Play. The rook on a1 can help support the d4 advance from d1.

In the next game, the rook on a1 first supported white’s expansion on the queenside before moving to the center. Notice how the white pieces combined exceptionally well with the g2 bishop to play on the light squares in the black camp.

Bachmann, Axel – Darcyl, Tomas, 2017, Magistral Memorial Jorge Szmetan(3), 1-0 

5) The Slav Setup Against the English Opening in Chess

Many chess players choose a setup they can use against multiple openings. When playing black, some of the options available are the Queen’s Indian Defense, King’s Indian Defense, and Slav Defense setups.

The critical factor for both players in this variation of the English Opening in chess is that White hasn’t played 1.d4. This allows him to choose how to respond to Black’s development of the bishop on c8.

…Bf5 can be met with d3 blocking any thoughts of a black knight landing on the c2-square. Should black play …e6 before developing the bishop, then white still can play d4.

When playing a flexible opening like the English Opening in chess, you must keep a relaxed mindset.

After the usual Opening moves, 1.c4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 white has the sound and straightforward option of 3.b3. This prevents any ideas by black of capturing on c4 and keeping his extra pawn with …b5.

slav setup against the english opening in chess
Slav setup against the English Opening in chess

The double-fianchetto system is exceptionally effective against 3…Bf5. An essential maneuver for white is swapping the queen and a1 rook.

White can play Rc1-Rc2 and Qa1 when the queen and bishop combine to increase pressure on the a1-h8 diagonal. The queen can also support a minority attack on the queenside. 

Akopian – Gemy, 2012.08.28, Chess Olympiad, Istanbul TUR, 1-0

White Plays Without a Kingside Fianchetto Against 3…Bg4

A move you are likely to encounter more often than …Bf5 is …Bg4. This move has been played twice as much as …Bf5.

3…Bg4 is best met by 4.e3 to prevent any weakening of the white pawn structure. Instead of the double-fianchetto system, white develops in a more classical style with Be2, Nbd2, Rc1, O-O, and h3.

White has a valuable waiting move in 4.Bb2 if black delays developing his light-squared bishop.

Inserting 3…Nf6 before …Bg4 doesn’t change anything. The following game shows that white simply continues with his plan.

Final Thoughts

Yes, there are 5 essential variations you must know if you want to play the English Opening in chess. The good news is these five variations comprise nearly everything black has tried against the English Opening.

The plans for white are very straightforward, and your theoretical workload is further reduced by the fact these strategies are often used in many of the variations.

There is no doubt the English Opening in chess is a powerful opening you can rely on and play for many years as you advance in chess.

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