English Opening – A Complete Guide

by | May 25, 2022 | Complete Guides, English Opening, Recent | 0 comments

Beginning players sometimes move flank pawns because they have tried e4 and e5 openings and still lost. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for flank openings. The English Opening is one that is popular and powerful and can easily frustrate your opponents.
The English Opening is a flank opening beginning with 1.c4 that stakes claim to d5 early and leads to control in the center of the light squares. This opening is in the top five most popular and most successful of White’s first twenty potential moves.
This post will cover the English Opening in detail, including how to reach it, the main line, traps to avoid, and more. I’ve also suggested some great books for further reading on this popular opening.

What Is the English Opening?

The English Opening lets White control the central spaces with its first move, c4. It gives White flexibility to deploy other pawns and lets it develop its major pieces easily. Based on Black’s response, White should be prepared to transpose to an opening like the Queen’s Pawn or King’s Pawn.

Read on as we explore the central ideas behind the English Opening and why you should play it. You will learn the main lines, variations, and things to watch out for. Also, we will explain when you should switch to another opening.

English Opening Theories

The English Opening is a flank opening, which means that play starts from the side. Other flank openings include the King’s Indian Attack and the Reti Opening.

Although White opens from the flank, it is not content to let Black control the center. Instead, White’s theory is to gain control of the center by attacking from the flanks.  White allows Black to place pawns in the center, waits patiently, and attacks when its pieces are in place.

Think of it as setting up an outpost before placing your pawns.

The English Opening often leads to the hypermodern style of playing. One of the leading thinkers of hypermodernism, Aron Nimzowitsch, showed how the center could be controlled by distant pieces. Letting Black to occupy the center made them easy prey for White.

However, the English is not considered a true hypermodern opening but a precursor to it.  Overprotection, formalized concepts of pawn chains, and prophylaxis are among the theories linked to the hypermodern style.

Another critical theoretical consideration when choosing this opening is its transformative nature. Some chess players call it the “chameleon” opening. Just like a chameleon changes color depending on its surroundings, the English can easily transpose into other popular openings.  If the player senses danger from Black’s defense, White can adjust the opening quickly.

How To Reach the English Opening

The first moves for White are c4, Nc3, and Nf3.

White starts with the bishop’s pawn to c4, leaving the central pawns (d and e).

You can see the hypermodern theory of controlling center squares without having a pawn on one. The c4 pawn controls d5 (along with the knight on c3). The c3 knight also controls e4.  Meanwhile, the knight on f3 can attack d4 and e5.

Black can respond with

  • c4 Nf6
  • Nc3 e5
  • Nf3 Nc6

Sometimes Black will play e5 and then Nf6. But with the English Opening, if White and Black are evenly matched, White can mostly ignore Black’s moves and continue to develop his pieces.

Why Play the English Opening?

Players should play the English opening because it allows you to see how your opponent will respond and adjust your play. White can easily transpose to another opening, and starting with the English can prove especially helpful when you are facing an opponent for the first time.

The opening is also an excellent option for players who want to balance aggressive play with patience. Early placement of the pieces is the patient part, and once you find Black’s weakness, start your attack.

Sometimes we need a psychological edge, and a flank opening can surprise your opponent. Bobby Fischer surprisingly used the English Opening in a match against Boris Spassky.  And for a double whammy: how about starting with a flank opening and then switching to an e4 or e5.  Your opponent’s head will be spinning.

English Opening Main Line

Due to its transformative nature, it isn’t easy to pin the opening down to one main line. Instead, there are several different approaches, depending on what White wants to do and how Black responds.

The Balanced Structure Approach

If White wants to delay occupying the center and build a balanced structure, the pieces will be placed as follows:

  •  Pawns on c4, e3, and f3 (the others stay put)
  • Knights on c3 and e2
  • Bishop on h2
  • King-side castle.

The pawn structure in this placement is strong. The b or d pawns can move up to guard the c4 pawn if need be. Due to the fianchetto, the light-square bishop controls the h1-a8 line. Both knights can be developed quickly, and the king is safely tucked away.

The dark-squared bishop is blocked in, but most players do not fianchetto it to b2 because they lose tempo doing so.

The Queenside Attack

When White wants to play more aggressively, the goal for the opening pieces is this:

  • Pawns on b4, c4, d3, and g3 (the others stay put)
  • Knights on c3 and f3
  • Bishop on g2
  • King-side castle.
  • Queen’s rook on b1 (to protect the b pawn)

This positioning allows the dark-squared bishop to develop quickly.

The Nimzovitch-Botvinnik System

This pawn structure can be frustrating to Black because the main weak point is a pawn on b2, far from the king. White’s goal here is to have this structure:

  • Pawns on c4, d3, e4, g3, and h3 (the rest stay in place)
  • Knights on c3 and e2
  • Bishops on e3 and g2
  • King-side castle


Variations of the Main Lines

The Reverse Sicilian

The name of this line of play comes from the fact that Black’s first move (king’s pawn to e5) looks like the Sicilian Defense, except the colors are reversed. Both pieces then play their knights, and White moves to fianchetto the kingside bishop.

In the Reverse Sicilian, Black’s first move will be e5, followed by White’s Nc3. Black brings out the knight to f6, and White abandons the attempt to fianchetto the bishop and also plays the knight to f3. Since this move puts pressure on the e5 pawn, Black moves the other knight to c6.

White moves Bh3 to prepare for the fianchetto. Black has several options. One is the dark-squared bishop on c5 to put pressure on the d4 square. A second option is the queen’s pawn to d5 to challenge White’s c4 pawn. Or Black can move Bishop to b4, threatening White’s knight on 3c.

White can ignore the bishop and knight moves since Black would not attack with them and continue setting up the offensive structure.

However, if Black moves the pawn, White will be forced to respond directly. One option is to forgo the fianchetto and move the king’s pawn to either e3 or e4, with e3 probably the safer option as the bishop is now free to protect the c4 pawn.

The Symmetrical Variation

In this variation, White begins with c4, and Black responds with pawn to c5. Instead of Nc3, White moves Ng3 to have more options. Black moved Nc6. This move gives Black additional control over the d4 square.

Knight to c3 is White’s play for the d5 square. Black plans to double down on the d4 square with g6. White plays g3. Black then fianchettos his bishop. White does the same. Both sides castle, and now the two sides are mirror-images of the other.


  • g3 Bg7
  • Bg2 Nf6
  • O-O O-O
  • d4 cxd4
  • Nxd4

King’s English Opening

Another variation to try is the King’s English Open. It is an aggressive opening suitable for players who do not mind exchanging queens early in a game.

  • c4 e5
  • g3 g6
  • d4 exd4
  • Qxd4 Nf6
  • Nc3 Nc6
  • Qe3+ Qe7
  • Nb5 Qxe3
  • Bxe3 Kd8

White has better control of the center of the board and can develop pieces easier than Black.   Black will be forced to move the King to avoid the knight’s check, resulting in the loss of a rook.  Not only will Black have to get its pieces out, but he will also have to work harder to protect his king.

Other Variations

Additional variations sometimes used by Black include the following set-ups–Slav, Queen’s Gambit, and Dutch.

The Slav variation has Black responding to c4 with f5—another flank position. Blocking Black’s f-pawn will destroy the pawn structure to protect the king, so a better move for White is g3.  Black moves the queen’s pawn to e6 to support the f-pawn. Black also solidifies his control of the d5 and e4 squares. However, White’s next move—Nc3—gives White an advantage on those squares.

Moving the pawn to c6 is an excellent move for Black. The c6 pawn will support Black’s d5 pawn, which will be his next move. White usually ignores the move and castles. Next, Black develops the dark-squared bishop to d6, and White moves the queen’s pawn to d3.

  • c4 f5
  • g3 Nf6
  • Bg2 e6
  • Nc3 c6
  • Nf3 d5
  • 0-0 Bd6
  • d3 0-0

White has created a powerful trap for Black. After a series of pawn exchanges (8. e4 fxe4 9. dxe4 dxe4), Black’s pawn on e4 can be taken by either knight or the bishop on g2.

Traps of the English Opening

Players who are used to attacking can fall into traps with the English Opening, such as this one:

  • 1.c4 e5
  • 2.Nc3 Bb4

If White moves Nd5 to attack the bishop, Black moves Bc5.  White brings the other knight to f3 to attack the pawn, which Black moves to e4.  White can retreat, but the aggressive play is to attack Black’s bishop with d4.  Black responds by retreating the bishop to f8.

  • 3.Nd5 Bc5
  • 4.Nf3 e4
  • 5.d4 Bf8

White continues to attack, moving the dark-squared bishop to f4. Black pretends to ignore the attack on his c7 pawn that could lead to disastrous results and instead takes White’s knight on f3. White checks the king with the knight to xc7, Black responds with Qx7, and White takes Black’s queen.

  • 6.Bf4 exf3
  • 7.Nxc7 Qxc7
  • 8.Bxc7

White is feeling mighty triumphant, having taken Black’s queen. Instead, because of its overly aggressive play, it fell into the trap. Black checks White with the bishop to b4, and the only way White can respond is by blocking with the Queen, which Black takes.

Weaknesses of the English Opening

While the English Opening offers White control, it does have its weaknesses. For one, the development is slow. Though this can work to White’s advantage against an impatient opponent. White plays patiently and waits for Black to make a mistake. But if the two are equally matched, White can wind up being the one to make a mistake.

Also, there are fewer direct attack opportunities with this opening. But as the trap above demonstrates, it’s best to not be overly aggressive when playing the English opening, as it can backfire. The goal is to have Black make mistakes.


The English Open has a solid win rate for White—39%.  Black wins 26.7% of the time, and in 34.3% of the games end in a draw. This puts it on par with the King’s pawn and Queen’s Pawn openings.

Black’s response to c4 affects White’s chances.

Black’s response White’s odds increase Black’s Response White’s odds decrease
Bf6 41.8% g6 34.4%
f5 42.5% b6 34.6%
d6 44% c5 37.5%
d5 61.7% e5 38.4%
If Black plays g6 and White responds with either d4 or d5, his odds go back up to 40%!

Famous Games and Popular Players

Howard Staunton successfully used the opening in a June 1851 match against Bernhard Horwitz. The focus on controlling the center of the board over direct attack kept the opening from achieving much popularity during his time.

Players such as Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, Anatoly Karpov, and Garry Kasparov used the opening in world championship matches.

In 1963, Tigran Petrosian played the Great Snake Variation of the English Opening in a match against Mikhail Botvinnik.

In-game 6 of the 1972 World Championship Match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, Fischer opened with the English, which he had never done before in a championship game. The Fischer-Spassky match is considered a classic, and Fischer went on to become World Champion.

Garry Kasparov used the English Opening in the final round of the World Chess Championship of 1987.  He had to win if he wanted to keep his title, and win he did.  In his comments about this game, Kasparov wrote:

“And what could be more annoying for Karpov than my turning the tables and playing like Karpov?”

In 2016, Fabiano Caruana defeated Viswanathan Anand, playing the English Opening aggressively. White’s pawn structure advantage caused Black to continue losing material to protect his King.

In the movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Professor Moriarty uses the English Opening. It should come as no surprise that Holmes wins the match—blindfolded, no less.


Carsten Hansen’s The Full English Opening: Mastering the Fundamentals which can be bought from Amazon.com has some of the clearest explanations of the purpose of the variations in the opening and how to react to Black’s moves.
For those readers who are familiar with the Opening Repertoire from Everyman Chess, The English by David Cummings from Amazon.com will not disappoint.
Anatoly Karpov had great success with the English by transposing it. In How to Play the English Opening from Amazon.com, he thoroughly explains how to do that successfully.
The Chess-Player’s Handbook by Howard Staunton from Amazon.com, initially published in 1847, is still in print. Although it is not helpful to a beginning player, a person interested in chess history might want to have a book written by the creator of the English opening.


Should a Beginner Learn the English Opening?

A beginner should learn the opening after becoming familiar with Black’s responses. The irony of learning the English opening is that White can set up a powerful defensive structure, but a more experienced player can use a defense such as the Caro-Kann, for which White is unprepared.

This often happens because White has been taught that the English Opening lets White develop its pieces without worrying too much about Black’s moves. So, White creates the pawn structure, fianchettos the Kingside Bishop, and castles. And then White cannot find a suitable move because Black played an opening White had not recognized.

Therefore, the English Opening is best for intermediate players.

What Does It Mean To Transpose?

To transpose means to have two or more objects change places. In chess, it means to reach a position using a different set of movements.

For example, White can use the Queen’s Gambit:

  1. 1.d4 d5
  2. c4 e6
  3. Nc3 Nf6

Or White can use the English Opening:

  1. 1.c4 Nf6
  2. Nc3 e6
  3. d4 d5

In either case, White has a pawn on c4, d4, and a knight on c3.

In our example, Black’s pieces were on the same squares, but that does not always happen.  Players sometimes use transpositions to confuse or frustrate their opponents or to have them place a piece that gives an advantage to the player using the transposition.

Black will sometimes try to make White to transpose to another opening. For example, if a player does not like a c4 opening, Black might respond with an unorthodox move such as b5 to force White to abandon the opening.

Why Is It Called the English Opening?

The English Opening could also be called the Staunton opening, named after the English chess player Howard Staunton. He used the opening in an unofficial English world championship match in 1843 and again in London in 1851, at the world’s first official international chess tournament.

Staunton’s contemporaries rarely used it, and it wasn’t until the 20th century and the rise of classical and hypermodern positions that it achieved its current popularity.

Ironically, the chess pieces used in official competitions are called the Staunton chess pieces, but Staunton did not design them. Instead, Nathaniel Cook is credited as the designer of the Staunton chess pieces (although some suggest that his brother-in-law, John Jaques, should also be credited with their design).

Maybe the opening should be called the Staunton and the pieces part of the Cook chess set.

Final Thoughts

The English Opening is a popular and successful opening that all players should have in their repertoire. It’s a flexible, chameleon play that can easily be transposed and is enjoyed by beginners and GMs alike.