Best Chess Openings – A Definitive Guide

The best opening chess moves do two things:

  1. Fight for the center,
  2. Develop a piece.
Best Chess openings blog image

Each player wants to control the center of the board (the d4, e4, d5, and e5 squares) because pieces placed here will control more squares than if they were nearer the edge.

Developing your pieces means getting them to better squares. For instance, at the start of the game, the bishops, rooks, and queen cannot move. You need to move a pawn to open the way for them.

The best opening chess moves are 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.Nf3, and 1.c4. These all attack at least one central square and either develop a piece or make it possible to do so on the next move.

Other similar-looking moves like 1.f4 and 1.Nc3 aren’t as strong. Moving the f-pawn weakens the king’s protection, and 1.Nc3 blocks the c-pawn from being moved. In addition, 1.Nc3 doesn’t really control the center as Black can still play 1…d5. 

 Every one of these four best chess opening moves is suitable for a beginner to play.

Before deciding on one of the four best opening moves to focus on, it’s a good idea to learn how to study the openings. In the popular Master Method Course, “Smash the Barriers to Your Chess Success,” IM Anna Rudolf shows us how to learn the opening, build a repertoire, and much more.

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Opening Moves to Avoid

In order to figure out the best chess opening moves, we put the cart before the horse. First of all, we will take a close look at some bad and dubious opening moves and try to understand the different downsides of these moves. After that, we can analyze better approaches to start the game.

In the following article, we investigate the moves from White’s perspective. The article discusses three categories of chess moves, starting with White’s weird first moves and building up to rare or semi-mainstream options. The aim of this article is to help you learn theoretical sound chess opening chess moves. Of course, if you are completely new to chess, you should first check out our guide on how to set up the chessboard. 

Worst Chess Openings

One of the worst first moves for White to play is 1.g4. With this move, White does not fight for the center – an important concept in chess – and gives Black a clear target to attack. best opening chess moves for black against 1.g4 is 1…d5! He occupies the center and directly attacks White’s loose pawn on g4 with his bishop on c8.

If White, for example, defends his pawn with a move like 2.f3, this can lead to a quick mate. The move 2…e6 looks harmless but threatens a deadly checkmate on h4 with the queen.

White can defend by playing 3.h4, but with 3…Bd6 Black renews the threat of mating White on the e1-h4 diagonal. The move 4.Rh3 (defending against …Bg3++) results in a beautiful mate in two. Black can sacrifice his queen with …Qxh4 and after White takes the queen with 5.Rxh4 (there is no alternative), Black ends the game with 5…Bg3++.

Admittedly, this example might be a rare occurrence in practice, but it illustrates that Black can take advantage of these bad opening moves by playing the most simple of moves in response.

Another bad chess opening move is 1.f3 as it irrevocably weakens white’s king position without doing anything useful. Once again either 1…e5 and 1…d5 are the best opening chess moves for black against 1.f3.

Moreover, bad moves include 1.Na3 and 1.Nh3. These chess moves ignore two basic rules at the same time – not only that “a knight on the rim is dim” but also they force White to move the same piece a second time in the opening, losing valuable tempo, after Black plays 1…e5 or 1…d5 threatening to double White’s pawns by capturing the knight with his bishop.

Unusual Chess Openings

1.h4, for example, is a dubious move and definitely not one of the best opening chess moves for white. The move is not as bad as 1.g4, but it does nothing to assist in gaining control over the important central squares.

Furthermore, castling kingside is less attractive after the move h4 as the kingside is already weakened. Thus, the move is rarely seen among serious chess players.

Obviously, White can’t fight for an advantage with this move, but it shouldn’t be too bad as it doesn’t create any weaknesses.

Chess moves such as 1.e3, 1.d3 or 1.c3 are playable and do not weaken White’s position, but there is no particular point to play them except for avoiding theory and your opponent’s preparation. Due to the fact, however, that we’re looking at all the moves from a beginner’s perspective, we don’t need to fear preparation at an amateur level at all.

Against these openings the best opening chess moves for black are the simple 1…e5 and 1…d5, which take control of the center and give black a space advantage.

Thus, such chess moves waste time, get in the way of developing all of your pieces into useful squares and they don’t fight for control over the center.

1.g3, for instance, is not a bad move at all and it can transpose to other openings such as the English. The main drawback of this move, however, is that it enables Black pieces to occupy the center with any moves they wish to play.

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In essence, it is recommendable for any beginner to avoid the mentioned weird chess opening moves right from the beginning of their training because they can lead to quick losses and disadvantageous positions from the very start of the game.

When you make it easy for your opponent to play the best opening chess moves for black you are releasing any pressure he might feel.

Strong Chess Openings

As we’ve seen, if White does not occupy the center with their pawns, Black has the opportunity to do it! Therefore, it is recommended that White plays active, space-gaining chess moves right from the start.

Choosing 1.e4 as Your Best Opening Move

Best Chess Openings - A Definitive Guide

What makes 1.e4 one of the best opening chess moves for white is you immediately create the possibility for two pieces to develop. These are the bishop on f1 and the queen.

 1.e4 also makes it more difficult for Black to play 1…d5. If Black plays …d5, then we can take the pawn and, when Black recaptures with the queen, play 3.Nc3 – developing our knight and attacking the queen at the same time. 

Black has to move their queen, and it’s our move again. We have essentially developed our knight without it costing us a move. This is called “developing with tempo.”

1.e4 is the most popular opening move, although 1.d4 is played nearly as much. The legendary Bobby Fischer declared 1.e4 to be “best by test” and opened his games this way nearly exclusively.

After 1.e4, Black can respond in many different ways. They might mimic your move with 1…e5 – the so-called “open games.” Other possibilities include attacking the center from the wing (1…c5, the Sicilian Defense) and delaying the fight for the center by preparing first with moves like 1…e6 and 1…c6.

One of the best opening chess moves for black against 1.e4 is the Sicilian Defense (1…c5). Many beginners are put off by the amount of theory in the Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4).

Best Chess Openings - A Definitive Guide
Open Sicilian Starting Position

However, you can minimize the theory by choosing to play one of the Anti-Sicilians. Players who like open positions can play the Alapin (2.c3).

Percy Ramirez – Ricardo Martina, 1976.10.30, 1-0, Olympiad Round 5, Haifa ISR

Positional players can play the closed Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3).

Boris Spassky – Efim Geller, 1968.04.13, 1-0, Spassky – Geller Candidates Quarterfinal Round , Sukhumi URS

Instead of entering the heavy theoretical workload in the Ruy Lopez, you can choose to play the Scotch Game or the Four Knights Opening. 

Best Chess Openings - A Definitive Guide
Scotch Opening Starting Position

Here is an excellent example of how dangerous the Scotch Opening can be; played by the legendary Jose Raul Capablanca.

Jose Raul Capablanca – Marc Fonaroff, 1918.06.18, 1-0, Casual Game, New York NY USA

Know Your Pawn Structures

Best Chess Openings - A Definitive Guide
The Advance Variation of the Caro-Kann Defense is a good choice for White

Another good reason to make 1.e4 your best chess opening move is to play the Advance Variation against the French Defense and the Caro-Kann Defense – two popular defenses for Black against 1.e4.

The French Defense Advance Variation begins 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 and the Caro-Kann Defense Variation starts with the moves 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5.

Playing variations with a similar pawn structure helps you reduce your opening theory because you can focus on the common strategies associated with the pawn structure.

Another standard pawn structure for White that arises in chess openings is the isolated queen’s pawn. You cannot reach an isolated queen’s pawn structure against all of Black’s defenses to 1.e4, but it happens more frequently than you might think.

What makes 1.e4 one of the best chess opening moves is that you can start off by keeping things very simple and look to play more complex openings as your middlegame and endgame skills improve.

The added safety is knowing if you play the mainlines arising from 1.e4 will reach a solid middlegame position from the opening.

Best Chess Openings - A Definitive Guide

Another of the Best Chess Opening Moves is 1.d4

 1.d4 is one of the best opening chess moves for white and is the preferred first move of many World Champions, including Anatoly Karpov.

1.d4 opens the way for the c1 bishop and the queen, although it’s better to develop the other pieces before bringing the queen out. One advantage 1.d4 has over 1.e4 is that the pawn is immediately protected.

 When you begin making 1.d4 your best chess opening move, make the courageous decision to play the mainlines.

If you are a beginner who wants to improve in chess, then playing the mainlines will benefit your overall chess improvement.

Best Chess Openings - A Definitive Guide

Classical Development is Always a Sound Approach

If you choose 1.d4 as your best opening move, you will need to learn a system against defenses where black plays …Bg7. The most common of these is the King’s Indian Defense and Grunfeld Defense.

The move 1…Nf6 is one of the best opening chess moves for black against 1.d4.

For beginners playing in the classical style is an excellent way to start. Some of the best opening chess moves for white against the Kings Indian Defense is placing your pawns on d4, c4 and e4, your knights go to c3 and f3, and you develop your bishop to e2 where it doesn’t block the queen from defending d4.

Best Chess Openings - A Definitive Guide
KID Classical Variation

Mikhail Tal – Robert James Fischer, 1959.10.11, 1-0, Bled-Zagreb-Belgrade Candidates Round 20, Bled, Zagreb & Belgrade YUG

Against the Grunfeld, you can achieve a good position by seizing control of the center with 5.e4, develop your knight to f3, and look for an opportunity to advance your d-pawn. 

8.Rb1 is one of the best opening chess moves for white against the Grunfeld Defense because moves the rook off the a1-h8 diagonal.

Play might begin 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Nf3 c5 8.Rb1

Best Chess Openings - A Definitive Guide
Grunfeld Defense 8.Rb1

Boris Gelfand – Alexey Shirov, 1998.08.20, 1-0, Rubinstein Memorial 35th Round 4, Polanica-Zdroj POL

The classical development of the knights to c3 and f3 are the soundest and best opening chess moves for white against the Queen’s Gambit Declined, Queen’s Gambit Accepted, Slav Defense, and Semi-Slav.

The game is much easier for beginners if you keep your pawn structure from being damaged. Against the Nimzo-Indian Defense, you can prevent having your pawns doubled by playing 4.Qc2.

This variation is named after former world chess champion Jose Raul Capablanca.

Here he demonstrates how to play the system named after him.

Jose Raul Capablanca – Hermanis Karlovich Mattison, 1929.08.15, 1-0, Karlsbad Round 13, Karlsbad CSR

The Benoni defenses and Benko Gambits are formidable defenses to meet. Playing an early …c5 is one of the best opening chess moves for black against 1.d4 because it forces white to make a decision.

Fortunately, understanding Black’s plans will help you safely navigate these openings.

The Modern Benoni Defense

One of the best opening chess moves for black in the Modern Benoni is …Bg4 and exchanging the bishop. Since the bishop and knight both want to go to d7 it makes sense for Black to exchange one of these pieces.

The simplest and most effective plan for White is to play an early h3 to prevent …Bg4.

For example 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nxc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6

Modern Benoni 5...d6
Modern Benoni 5…d6

In this position, the main pawn breaks for each side are e5 for white and …b5 for black.

6.e4 g 7.Bd3 Bg7 8.h3

Modern Benoni 8.h3
Modern Benoni 8.h3

White will develop his remaining pieces to their most logical squares with Nf3, Bf4, Re1, and Rd1 after Qd2 or Qe2. This simple plan is challenging for black to meet because his position is very cramped.

Mamedyarov, S. – Svidler, P., 2018.05.09, 1-0

The Benko Gambit

Unlike a lot of gambits in the Benko Gambit exchanging pieces is not something Black fears. The common plan of White exchanging pieces and winning the endgame because he is a pawn up doesn’t work against the Benko.

Remember, the piece activity and open files that black obtains provide enough compensation for the sacrificed pawn.

One of the key tactics for Black in the Benko Gambit is to win time by playing …Bxf1 which forces White to castle by hand after Kxf1. That’s why developing the bishop to g2 before playing e4 is a sound strategy for White.

Once again simple, solid play by White is the way to go.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5

Benko Gambit 3...b5
Benko Gambit 3…b5

4.cxb5 a6 5.bxa6 g6 6.Nc3 Bxa6 7.g3 d6 8.Bg2 Bg7 9.Nf3 Nbd7 10.Rb1 0-0

Benko Gambit 10...0 0
Benko Gambit 10…0 0

This is an excellent position to play with either side, but keep in mind White has an extra pawn and will add to his space advantage with 0-0, Re1, and e4.

Grischuk, Alexander – Tregubov, Pavel V, 2017.03.12, 1-0

The Catalan Opening

Although the variations with classical development are sound, it is possible to play in a more positional style with a kingside fianchetto. When White adopts this Catalan-style approach, he often delays the move c4 too.

A powerful opening for both positional and attacking players is the Catalan Opening. Vladimir Kramnik, a former world chess champion, used this powerful chess opening with great success.

Here is IM Mat Kolosowski to take you through one of the crucial tactical opportunities in the Catalan Opening.

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Learn more about the Catalan Opening and the tactics available to both sides in an iChess exclusive 80/20 Tactics Multiplier The Catalan Opening course. IM Matt Kolosowski will guide you through the opening and ensure you are familiar with the tactical opportunities you must know to win games.

Vladimir Kramnik – Alexander Morozevich, 2007.09.14, 1-0, World Championship Round 2, Mexico City MEX

The Best Chess Flank Opening Move 1.Nf3

Best Chess Openings - A Definitive Guide

One of the best opening chess moves for positional players with white is 1.Nf3, commonly known as the Reti Opening. 

White avoids staking a claim in the center with his pawns and starts by developing the only piece he can without a pawn move – his knight.

 1.Nf3 controls both the d4 and e5 squares and provides extra protection for your king, especially if you castle kingside later. 

The move 1.Nf3 is sure to catch a lot of club players by surprise. They are more likely to devote their opening studies to meeting 1.e4, 1.d4, and 1.c4.

Flank openings frequently avoid early exchanges, which means you will enter the middlegame with more pieces to launch an attack.

The move 1.Nf3 is usually followed by 2.c4. White will often fianchetto both his bishops to put pressure on the long diagonals and target the center.

 A fianchetto is where a player moves the b- or g- pawn one square and puts the bishop on b2 or g2. This places the bishop on the longest diagonal – potentially the most active line.

 By playing c4 and then Nc3, White adds to the pressure against the d5-square. Exchanging the c-pawn for the d-pawn will give White a pawn majority in the center. 

What Makes the Reti Opening A Good Choice for Beginners?

The Reti is an excellent opening for beginners because you develop your pieces quickly to strong squares. Early castling protects your king, who is well-defended by the bishop on g2. 

The advance e3 gives the White queen the option of going to c2 or e2, depending on where Black positions his rooks. On e3, the pawn also defends the d4-square.

Along with placing the bishops on long diagonals, centralization forms a crucial part of White’s strategy. The rooks will support the White pawns as they advance and open the center.

1.Nf3 is one of the best chess opening moves for beginners because the plans are easy to remember, your king finds safety early, and your pieces focus on the center.

Richard Reti – Jose Raul Capablanca, 1924.03.22, 1-0, New York Round 5, New York, NY USA

The English Opening Is One of the Best Chess Opening Moves – 1.c4

Best Chess Openings - A Definitive Guide

1.c4 is known as the English opening and can be traced back to the famous British chess player from the Victorian era, Howard Staunton. More recently, fifth world champion Mikhail Botvinnik contributed a lot to the development of the English opening.

 1.c4 is one of the best chess opening moves because it attacks the center (d5) and allows Nc3 to be played in the next few moves. Since the significant drawback of 1.Nc3 is it blocks in the c-pawn, playing c4 first is logical.

 Cutting back on theory isn’t the only advantage to making 1.c4 your best chess opening move. The English opening offers you lots of attacking possibilities while being based on sound positional principles.

The Botvinnik System

The Botvinnik System is a great attacking weapon at the beginner and club levels. There is little Black can do to interrupt your ideal development.  

White will place pawns on c4, d3, and e4 before playing the f4-f5 advance to attack the kingside. Developing the knight to e2 instead of f3 keeps the long diagonal open for the bishop on g2.

Another advantage of placing the knight on e2 is it covers the hole on d4 while supporting the advance of the d-pawn. 

What makes 1.c4 an excellent chess opening move is you get to play across the board. White can play on both flanks and in the center, depending on the defense chosen by Black.

The English opening is a versatile chess opening you can play against almost every Black set-up whether it’s 1….e5, 1…c5, or 1…Nf6.

Knowing where to place your pieces and the strategies for White is more critical than learning cutting-edge theory.

1.c4 is one of the best chess opening moves because it is a dependable opening that offers good attacking options. The English opening is an opening you can play for many years as you become a stronger chess player.

Interestingly enough, Garry Kasparov chose to play the English Opening against Karpov in his must-win world championship match.

Kasparov, Garry – Karpov, Anatoly, World Chess Championship, Seville, Spain, Round 24, 1987, 1-0

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the best first five moves in chess?

The five best first moves in chess are 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4, 1.g3, and 1.Nf3.

What are the ten best opening moves in chess?

The five best opening chess moves for black are 1…e5, 1…d5, 1…e6, 1…c5, and 1…c6.

White’s five best opening chess moves are 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4, 1.g3, and 1.Nf3

What is Carlsen’s favorite opening?

Magnus likes to play the Ruy Lopez and English Opening with white. When playing black Magnus most often chooses the Ruy Lopez Berlin Defense and the Queen’s Gambit Declined.

What is the most aggressive chess opening?

Unsurprisingly the most aggressive chess openings involve gambits. Gambits involve offering material, usually a pawn, in exchange for rapid development.

If you are looking to play an aggressive opening you can consider the King’s Gambit, Evan’s Gambit and Danish Gambit against 1…e5. When facing the Sicilian Defense (1…c5) the Smith-Morra Gambit, also known simply as Morra Gambit, is a great choice.

What are the 4 opening principles in chess?

The four main opening principles in chess are:

  1. Control of the center – these are the e4, d4, e5, and d5 squares.
  2. Develop your pieces.
  3. Get your king to safety.
  4. Don’t waste time by moving the same piece more than once in an opening.

What is the Queen’s Gambit in chess?

The Queen’s Gambit in chess occurs when White plays 1.d4 and 2.c4. This is one of the oldest known chess openings mentioned in the Gottingen manuscript dating back to 1490.

The move d4 stakes a claim in the center and controls the e5-square. The gambit 2.c4 aims to exchange Black’s central d5-pawn for a side-pawn or increase White’s control of the center by covering the d5-square.

What is the Sicilian opening in chess?

The Sicilian opening is a defense used by Black against 1.e4. Black replies with 1…c5 controlling the d4-square and offering to exchange a side pawn for White’s central d-pawn.

This is Black’s most popular defense to 1…e4 and is a counter-attacking defense. From the very first move, Black creates an unbalanced position.

Because of Black’s success in the Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4) players with white have tried a number of different systems called Anti-Sicilian systems.

How many opening chess moves are there?

There are twenty possible first moves by each side in a game of chess. The eight pawns provide sixteen possible moves because they can move one or two squares on the first move, and the knights account for four moves (Na3, Nc3, Nh3, and Nf3).

Out of these twenty possible moves there are only four that are considered the main options for White’s first move (1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4, 1.Nf3).

Building on the Best Chess Opening Moves

The explained fundamental concepts are here to help any beginner improve their chess game and start their games with an appropriate chess opening. If you keep these strategies in the forefront of your mind and refresh and deepen your knowledge from time to time, nothing will stand in your way of advancing at chess.

Don’t forget the basics of chess openings: fight for the center from the beginning as White (if you don’t, the best you can get out of your opening is an equal position), don’t give up your first move advantage – (play actively).

All four of these best chess opening moves have proven themselves over time. They all offer beginners the opportunity to create an opening repertoire they can rely on.

No matter which one of these four opening moves you choose, you are sure to find openings to suit your style of play.

Breaking down your repertoire into smaller bite-size pieces will make the task much more manageable. 

As a beginner, you don’t need to know the theory of your best chess opening move as well as a titled player. You only need to know enough to reach a good middlegame position. 

Sticking with any one of these four best chess opening moves for any length of time will slowly but surely deepen your understanding of the typical opening positions. 

Over time your knowledge of the opening theory will naturally expand as you analyze more of your games.

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Best Chess Openings - A Definitive Guide

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