English Opening: What Are the Most Aggressive Variations?
The English Opening has a reputation for leading to slow and positional battles, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be played aggressively. The opening can also transpose easily. So which English openings are the most aggressive?
The most aggressive variations of the English Opening are the King’s English, Queenside Attack, and the Great Snake Variation. Therefore, a player needs to know the main lines of these openings and how Black is likely to respond.
This post will cover the more aggressive variations of the English Opening, including how to play them and how successful they are. We’ll also cover traps and weaknesses of the opening, and answer some frequently asked questions.
Is the English Opening Aggressive?
The English Opening is an aggressive, flank opening that begins with pawn to c4 where White attempts to control the center from flank pieces. Unlike an opening such as the Italian, which is usually played less aggressively, White can choose how to approach the opening.
Black’s early movements can dictate whether White transposes to another opening, which is one way that the English can become aggressive. White can also choose to play the opening less aggressively and wait for Black to blunder.
What Are the Most Aggressive Variations of the English Opening?
The variations this article will focus on are those that have been used successfully at the highest levels of play and have 40% or more win rates for White:
- King’s English Opening
- Queenside Attack Variation
- The Great Snake Variation
- Flohr-Mikenas-Carls Variation
Others, like the Zviagintsev-Krasenkov Attack, have even higher win rates, but they don’t have enough games in the major chess databases for us to feel comfortable recommending them.
King’s English Opening Principles
The King’s English Opening Variation derives its aggressive nature from several choices White makes:
- Move the g-pawn early for a light-colored bishop fianchetto.
- Attack Black’s pawn.
- Wait for Black to castle and make a move that forces Black on the defensive.
How To Play the English Opening Aggressively
The traditional opening line goes like this:
- 1.c4 e5
The King’s English Opening variation is an aggressive response to Black’s e5. The e5 pawn controls the dark-colored squares d4 and f4. White responds with g3, which does two things. First, it sets up the light-colored bishop to fianchetto, thus giving white better control of the central light-colored squares. Second, the g3 pawn can also attack the f4 square.
Black can continue to play aggressively by bringing out the knight to f6, giving control to the light-colored squares in the center.
White then fianchettos to g2 and Black continues to play aggressively with d5.
- 1.c4 e5
- g3 Nf6
- Bg2 d5
White has several options to play defensively. Pawn to d3 could be followed by Nd2, but Black could capitalize on that by capturing the pawn. The resulting pawn exchange would leave White’s pawn structure severely damaged.
What could seem like an aggressive move for White–Queen to a4, putting the king in check while protecting the pawn, will result in Black blocking with the light-colored bishop. If White’s queen retreats to c2 to protect the c4 pawn, Black can move the pawn to d4, further invading White’s territory.
White could also play pawn to b3, but Black has several responses that would keep the pressure on White.
A more aggressive option is cxd5. Black takes the pawn with the knight. White can now bring out the queenside knight to c3, forcing Black to retreat.
- cxd5 Nxd5
- Nc3 Nb6
In the next series of moves, you can see how White is getting ready for a Queenside attack. White usually castles in the English Opening, but not here.
- d3 Bc5
- Bd2 0-0
- Rc1 Re8
White’s Rook on the C file is laying the groundwork for the attack. Black’s castle cost it a tempo, and White now begins an attack.
This opening was used successfully in a 2019 match between Levon Aronian and Alexander Grischuk in Norway. Aronian played the King’s English Variation, and Grischuk resigned.
Levon Aronian vs Alexander Grischuk
Magnus Carlsen used the King’s English Variation against Viswanathan Anand in a 2008 match. Carlsen attacks even more aggressively, bringing his pawn to d5 before the fianchetto.
- 1.c4 e5
- g3 c6
- 3.d4 e4
- d5 Nf6
- Bg2 Bb4+
The early check eventually causes Anand to lose a tempo when he castles, and Carlsen responds with the a3 pawn attack on Anand’s bishop, forcing a retreat.
- 6.Bd2 Qe7
- Nc3 0-0
- a3 Bc5
Carlsen uses these early aggressive moves to force Anand to resign.
The Queenside Attack Variation
If you want to break down Black’s defenses on its queenside slowly, the Queenside Attack Plan can help you do that. Your pawn structure will remain strong, and you will be able to gain space. Black, meanwhile, will have a more difficult time finding a way to attack.
Typical moves for White would be c4, Nc3, g3, Nf3, Bg2, 0-0, d3, and Rb1. White can begin to advance the pawn on the b-file with the aim of landing the pawn on b5.
The Great Snake Variation
With this opening, White establishes a wall of pawns on the 4th row—c4, d4, and e4—with each protected by either a knight or a bishop. If Black is going to set up the defense first, by bringing out the knight and setting up a fianchettoed bishop, followed by a castle, you will be able to control the center of the board and be able to develop your dark-squared bishop quickly.
- c4 g6
- d4 Nf6
- Nc3 Bg7
- E4 d6
- Nf3 0-0
- G3 Nbd7
Follow the rest of the opening at Chesstempo.
Flohr-Mikenas-Carls Variation (A18)
This lesser-known variation has an impressive win rate of 54.15% for White. After c4, White plays Nc3 followed by e4. Even though both pawns are protected, White leaves the King exposed.
Black responds with the queen’s pawn to d5, in an attempt to control the center.
- 1. c4 Nf6
- 2. Nc3 e6
- 3. e4 d5
- 4. e5 d4
- 5. exf6 dxc3
Out of the two choices for White—pawn exchanges or e5—the less aggressive move (e5) is attempted less often and has a lower win percentage. Instead, White captures using the c4 pawn, and Black takes with the e6 pawn. Next, White moves to e5, threatening Black’s Knight. Black could retreat the knight and lose a tempo or move to e4 and threaten White’s Knight.
Here is the opening at 365Chess.
Traps such as the Elephant or Rubinstein for the Queen’s Gambit Declined or the Mortimer or Noah’s Ark for the Ruy Lopez are based on those openings.
However, because it is easy to transpose to another opening, a player who doesn’t know the natural transpositions might fall into one of them.
One weakness to playing an aggressive English Opening is not taking the time to castle, leaving your King vulnerable. Also, the fianchetto on the kingside bishop can be a wasted move if you choose to control the dark-colored squares.
But the biggest weakness is that a less aggressive version of the English Opening frustrates Black, causing the player to blunder. In a forceful, open game, you give Black more opportunities to find weak spots in your defense.
According to the Chess Tempo database of openings, these King’s English Variations have the highest win rates for White.
|English Opening, King’s English Variation||White Wins||Opening lines|
|Four Knights, Botvinnik Line||40.1%||1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e4|
|Reversed Sicilian||42%||1.c4 e5 2.Nc3|
|Two Knights, Fianchetto Line||45.7%||1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3|
|Zviagintsev-Krasenkov Attack (response to Anglo-Indian defense)||46.6% *||1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3.Nf3 Bb4 4.g4|
|Flohr-Mikenas-Carls Variation (a18)||45%||1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3.e4 d5 4.e5|
*less than 300 games in Chess Tempo database.
Famous Games in English Opening
Fabiano Caruana vs. Viswanathan Anand
Caruana played an aggressive English Opening in this match in 2016. Because White’s center is well-coordinated, starting with move 16, Black begins retreating.
16 moves later, Black resigns.
Anatoly Karpov vs. Johann Hjartarson
If you want to see how a Grandmaster plays the English Opening aggressively, this game is a master class in keeping the pressure on Black.
Out of the many books devoted to the English opening, most include the more aggressive lines and variations. Tony Kosten’s The Dynamic English from Amazon.com concentrates exclusively on the aggressive ones. The book balances explanation, analysis, and practical examples and would be an excellent choice for an intermediate player.
Who Should Play the English Opening Aggressively?
An experienced player should attempt an aggressive English Opening. The opening requires a player to know transposing openings, so it is best to learn them first.
Before playing aggressively, first become comfortable with the standard lines, where Black’s opening moves don’t affect your development nearly as much as one of the aggressive lines.
Which Defenses Should I Learn First?
The two most common defenses Black will play are the Reversed Sicilian (1. …e5) and the Symmetrical Defence (1. . . .c5). The Reversed Sicilian is an aggressive opening that suggests Black plans to challenge you directly for center control. On the other hand, the Symmetrical Defence is often a sign that Black intends to play defensively.
Because the English Opening can be a challenge for Black already, it is often unnecessary to play it aggressively. However, most players have a style that best suits them, and an aggressive player should not ignore the English Opening just because it is not as aggressive as others.