The Most Common Chess Openings

A hand moving a chess piece

Illustration: The Spruce / Lara Antal

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 can increase your confidence in the beginning phase of the game.


Watch Now: Clever Chess Opening Strategies

  • 01 of 10

    Ruy Lopez

    Ruy Lopez

     Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

    The Ruy Lopez —also known as the Spanish game—is named after Rodrigo (Ruy) Lopez de Segura, a Spanish bishop who analyzed this opening in his 1561 work, "Libro de la Invencion Liberal y Arte del Juego del Axedrez," the "Book of the Liberal Invention and Art of the Game of Chess."

    Nearly half a millennium later, the Ruy remains one of the most popular chess openings. Chess experts have come up with numerous variations, and a wide variety of strategic plans are available to both white and black.

    The starting position of the Ruy Lopez is reached after the following moves: 1. e4, e5; 2. Nf3, Nc6; and 3. Bb5.

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

  • 02 of 10

    Italian Game

    Italian game in chess

    Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

    First developed in the 1600s and perhaps the oldest chess opening, the Italian game also called the giuoco piano, "the quiet game" in Italian, is reached by the moves: 1. e4, e5; 2. Nf3, Nc6; and 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, 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 two knights defense and the Hungarian defense.

  • 03 of 10

    Sicilian Defense

    Sicilian Defense in Chess

    Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

    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, they are the closed Sicilian, classical Sicilian, dragon variation, and Najdorf variation.

  • 04 of 10

    French Defense

    French defense in chess

    Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

    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. This leads to several variations including the exchange variation, advance variation, Tarrasch variation, Winawer variation, and classical variation.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Caro-Kann Defense

    Caro-Kann defense in chess

    Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

    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 variation, advance variation, exchange variation, and Panov-Botvinnik attack.

  • 06 of 10

    Pirc Defense

    Pirc defense in chess

    Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

    Originally considered an inferior opening, the Pirc Defense (1. e4, d6) is now accepted 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 of the Pirc defense include the classical system and Austrian attack.

  • 07 of 10

    Queen's Gambit

    Illustration of chessboard displaying Queen's Gambit

    Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

    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 and 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 the player chooses to capture it in exchange for a stronger center.

    Black has several options: the queen's gambit accepted, queen's gambit declined, and the Slav defense.

  • 08 of 10

    Indian Defenses

    Indian defenses in chess

    Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

    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: the king's Indian defense, Nimzo-Indian defense, queen's Indian defense, and the Grunfeld defense.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    English Opening

    English opening in chess

    Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

    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

    Reti Opening

     Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

    The Reti opening (1. Nf3) is named after the great chess master Richard Reti. Like 1. d4 and 1. c4, the Reti 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. 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.