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If you have tried to win by surprising an opponent with a new opening and it backfired, consider trying the Catalan opening instead. Players who have not seen it won’t be sure how to respond, but you will start the game with control over the center.
The Catalan Opening is a flexible and easy-to-learn opening. Players who prefer to develop their pieces over a more aggressive, risky opening should add it to their repertoire. Since the Catalan leads to a strategic game, you need to understand the theory behind the moves to play successfully.
After you finish this guide, you will know enough to use it. The odds of winning or playing to a draw are overwhelming, and if you lose to a stronger player, you can learn from your mistakes. Let’s get started.
What Is The Catalan Opening?
The Catalan Opening is a variation on the Queen’s Gambit Opening. After moving d4 and c4, White fianchettos the light-squared bishop to put pressure on the h1-a8 diagonal. The most common opening moves are 1.d4 Nf6, 2.c4 e6, 3.Bg2 d5.
The Principles Behind the Catalan Opening
The Catalan typically starts with what is known as the Queen’s Gambit. First, you move the pawn in front of the queen two spaces forward (d4), attempting to trick Black’s queen into moving out too early.
However, you have other intentions. You want to control the board and bring pressure on Black’s queen-side while keeping your king tucked safely in the corner. And once your light-squared bishop is fianchettoed, you put pressure on the diagonal line that runs from your rook (h1) to Black’s queen-side rook (a8).
An early castle keeps your king safe, and you can now expand on the opening to further take control of the board, set the tempo of the game, and slowly chip away at your opponent.
The Catalan is considered a strategic opening that relies more on controlling the board and position of pieces than on the use of tactics. Even though it is an easy opening to learn, players who don’t have a firm grasp of tactics will struggle against a player who can use tactics to offset the advantages of this opening.
If you want to play a quick-strike game, don’t choose this opening. Instead, the Catalan is designed for patient players looking for an advantageous opening that can be played as a closed game or an open one depending on how Black responds.
Reminder: Tactics are the combinations of moves used to achieve a simple objective (such as capturing a piece). Strategy refers to long-term goals. For example, setting a trap to capture an opponent’s piece is a tactic. Likewise, attempting to take control of the center is a strategy.
How To Reach the Catalan Opening
Your first move is to move the Queen’s pawn forward two squares to d4. Next, take the queen-side bishop’s pawn forward two squares to c4. Then move the king-side knight to f3. The knight now protects the pawn on d4. The next move—pawn to g3—will surprise players who have never seen the Catalan before. Because you left your pawn on c4 unprotected, they might be tempted to capture it.
You are willing to sacrifice it for two reasons. One, your opponent won’t be able to capitalize on it beyond that and will have to retreat. And two, you can now move the king-side bishop to g2 (the fianchetto). Finally, castle to protect your king.
What To Do Next?
Obviously, your next moves depend on what your opponent has done. Let’s assume that Black had moved his pawn to d5 and captured your pawn on c4. Since it cannot do any damage in that position, move your queen diagonally to c3, creating a fork that puts pressure on Black’s pawn and checks Black’s king.
Whether Black blocks with the queen or knight, your queen can now safely capture black’s pawn. Black will attack your Queen, but you can move your queen to safety on c2, having established control of the center and possibly disrupted Black’s defense.
The sacrifice of a pawn was a small price to pay for having superior position and many pieces at the ready.
Why Play the Catalan Opening?
The Catalan is a good option for a player who prefers to play strategically instead of going for a big strike and hoping it works. In a game where you and your opponent are equally matched, gaining control of the center of the board is essential. Plus, the element of surprise can provide an edge.
When using the Catalan opening, you are using many ideal opening principles. For example, you develop the center without moving too many pawns. You castle early and don’t waste a move.
Finally, the opening has the advantage of working well with an open or closed game. Your pieces are not trapped and can quickly be brought out to strike at your opponent.
Main Line of the Catalan Opening
The main line of the open Catalan is:
- d4 Nf6
- c4 e6
- g3 d5
- Bg2 dxc4
- Nf3 Be7
White realizes it will lose a pawn, but it will gain an advantage in development. White’s bishop makes it harder for Black to develop its Queenside.
Best and Popular Lines of the Catalan Opening
The other lines of the Catalan are obviously dependent on what Black chooses do, mainly whether to refuse the exchange the pawns. Black will bring his c and e pawns to c6 and e6 and knight to f6 to protect its d5 pawn.
If Black chooses to do this, the game becomes a Closed Catalan. The best response for White is to protect the King by knight to f6 and a castle.
- d4 Nf6
- c4 e6
- g3 c6
- Bg2 Nd7
- Nf3 Nf6
Variations of the Catalan Opening
A variation of the Catalan is to move the queen’s pawn to d4 and then bring the king’s knight to f3. Black could respond with the king’s pawn to e5, which would most likely prevent you from developing the opening.
Instead, use the pawn to c4 as the second move as misdirection. It lets you bring out the knight and put the bishop in place.
Another option would be to start with the right side moves (g3 followed by kf3 and bg2). The advantage here is you have your bishop in place and can castle. But you have given Black the opportunity to control the center of the board, meaning you have lost White’s advantage of going first.
In the Alekhine variation, when Black takes the pawn on c3, immediately move your queen to a4 and capture black’s pawn on c4 on the next move. Should Black attack your queen by moving the pawn to b5, retreat. White has left the rook on a8 open for attack by your bishop.
What To Do When Black Takes C4
Black is going to be tempted to capture your pawn on c4. How should you respond?
For the most part, you should respond by continuing with the opening. Bring out your knight to protect the pawn on d4. If Black brings pawn to b5, respond with your knight on c3 and then proceed to complete the opening. This would be a blunder on Black’s part as it has opened the line from your bishop to his rook.
Black can also ignore the pawn on c4 and instead bring out his bishop’s pawn to c6, thereby keeping control of the c5 square. This move by Black usually forces a closed game.
Weaknesses of the Catalan Opening
A potential trap to avoid is waiting to put your pawn on c4 because it is not protected. If you do so, your opponent can begin to control the center of the board. You do not want to cede the center to Black.
A second potential problem that occurs if your knights do not advance to the center. Devastating forks with knights should occur in your opponent’s territory, but for that to happen, they need to be in the center. Consider moving your other knight out after you castle.
Also, do not let Black take too many pawns. That will make it more difficult for you to control the center of the board.
Weaknesses of the Catalan Opening
One disadvantage of this opening is it requires a strong knowledge of both strategy and tactics. So play it against weaker opponents but avoid it against stronger ones, not because the opening is bad, but a stronger player will have a better understanding of the complexity of the middle game.
Also, this opening will require that a player be willing to exchange major pieces before the endgame. If you are not comfortable exchanging queens early in a game, this opening might not be for you.
Finally, if you want to devastate your opponent with a king-side attack, the Catalan won’t work well. Your bishop on g2 is pointing in the wrong direction for that.
Statistics on the Catalan Opening
Catalan statistics can be viewed globally (number of wins, draws, or losses) or on the results of individual moves.
A Chess Tempo analysis of 11,357 shows that white wins 35.85% of the time. Another 36% of the time, the game is a draw, and the opponent wins only 28% of the games. So you have a 70% chance of either winning or playing to a draw.
An analysis of the fifth move by 365chess reveals that moving the pawn to e3 leads to white losing over 50% of the games.
Famous Games and Popular Players of the Catalan Opening
The opening got its name from the location where it was first played. At a tournament in Barcelona, a province of Catalonia, the Grandmaster Savielly Tartakower introduced the opening.
- The professional grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi successfully used the Catalan, including in this game against Naum Levin in 1949.
- The 1983 title match between Korchnoi and Garry Kasparov featured both Korchnoi and then Kasparov playing the Catalan. Kasparov bested Korchnoi in the last 3 games, each time using the same opening.
- Vladimir Kramnik used it in his 2000 title match against Kasparov and then the 2006 Chess Championship match.
- In 2010, Viswanathan Anand won two games in that year’s Championship matches.
- Ulf Andersson, Boris Avrikh, and Vladislav Tkachiev are three active players who use the opening.
Although the opening is not used as much as more well-known openings such as the Ruy Lopez, the Italian, English, or Reti openings, it is seen often in matches at the highest levels.
Books About the Catalan Opening
- For players ready to up their game but want simple and straightforward explanations, John Emms’ First Steps: 1 e4 e5 is an excellent start.
- Back to Basics: Openings by Carsten Hansen gives both an overview of opening principles and a brief explanation of all major openings.
- The Catalan: Move by Move by Neil McDonald covers the Catalan in detail, providing a detailed analysis of the opening, its variations, and how black could counter. In addition, McDonald shows how the opening was used in a variety of championship games.
- Play the Catalan by Nigel Davies also discusses the opening, but the heavy use of chess notation will challenge a beginning player.
- FCO: Fundamental Chess Openings by Paul Van der Sterren covers openings and responses. An excellent book for a player looking for a single-volume reference source. Think of it as a dictionary for openings.
- Finally, Pawn Structure Chess by Andrew Soltis is a must-have for players learning the Catalan opening. Instead of focusing on openings, Soltis writes about pawn placement as well as when to advance and when to exchange.
Why Doesn’t the Computer Recognize the Catalan Opening?
A computer doesn’t always recognize that your opening is a Catalan because some engines only recognize the first moves. Other names might be a Queen’s Gambit, a Reti Opening, or a Queen’s Pawn Opening. The program might also label the move a book move.
This simply means the opening is conventional and well-known. Openings were once listed only in chess books, hence the name.
What Should I Do After the Catalan Opening?
After the Catalan Opening, you should focus on some critical mid-game principles. You might be tempted to launch into an attack. But don’t. You have an advantage, and moving pieces with no plan in mind can eliminate it.
Players who haven’t encountered the Catalan opening will often capture the pawn on c4 and then mirror your moves. So you are faced with a board that at first glance has equal positions.
Instead, let’s look at some more advantageous moves you can make:
Bring Powerful Pieces to the Center
Powerful pieces can do far more damage in the center of the board than along the edges. For example, take the knight—if it sits along the flank, it can control four squares, but if it sits in the center, it can control twice as many squares.
Utilize Good Pawn Structure
Good pawn structure starts with controlling the center of the board. Pawns on the outside (flank pawns) can only attack in one direction, so they are weaker. In most cases, exchange your flank pawns for your opponent’s inner pawns.
As you move pawns, avoid isolating them, unless the isolation is temporary, or you plan to use the pawn to support a stronger piece.
In the end game, isolated pawns are hard to defend. And doubled pawns will also weaken your pawn structure and should be avoided.
When you move pawns forward, remember that a square that a pawn cannot defend is a prime candidate for your opponent to plant an outpost.
Create an Open File for Your Rooks
The Catalan opening often creates an open file. Due to the earlier castle, one rook can quickly move into the file. If you move the queen’s bishop and knight from the back row, you can bring the queen’s rook out and leave the castled rook to protect the king.
However, if you can double the rooks on the file, do so.
Create a Bishop Pair
Players often give up bishops in the mid-game to weaken black’s pawn structure. Unless you absolutely need to sacrifice a bishop, try to create a bishop pair. If you can place your dark-squared bishop near the g2 Catalan bishop, you have a significant positional advantage.
What Will the Catalan Endgame Look Like?
A Catalan endgame typically comes down to rooks and bishops. If White has been patient and been able to keep the bishop on g2, an attack on Black’s rook is imminent. Also, if you have placed your pawns on squares the opposite color of Black’s remaining bishop, they will be safe from bishop attacks.
If you can take out one of White’s rooks, you can double up the rooks on an open file, enabling you to remove Black’s remaining rooks. Black might try to fight on, but with only a useless bishop and pawns that can be taken out with your rook, Black might throw in the towel.
What Is the Neo-Catalan?
The Neo-Catalan variation builds the same structure on White’s Kingside, with bishop in g2, knight in f3, and king castle. However, instead of playing c3 and c4 pawns, move the knight’s pawn to b3. It is often a response to Black responding with the king’s pawn to e6.
How Can I Defend Against the Catalan Opening?
To defend against the Catalan Opening, players often use one of several variations of the Slav Defense to keep White from controlling the center of the board.
With the Semi-slav, Black creates a triangle of pawns with c6, d5, and e6. It will force White to play a closed Catalan, forcing White into tactical mistakes, thereby losing the Catalan’s advantage. However, it also traps Black’s powerful pieces.
Instead of bringing out the king’s pawn, Black leaves the line open so the bishop can quickly spring into action. Instead, Black brings the king-side knight to f6. The center is still supported, but Black has a little more firepower at its disposal. This is the typical Slav.
A third variation, the Chebanenko Slav, is like the regular Slav, except instead of bringing out both knights, Black moves the rook’s pawn to a6. This is an aggressive variation, and if Black doesn’t attack quickly, it weakens Black’s position.
The Catalan opening is gaining popularity, especially in club and tournament play. It is not an opening for players who want to attack quickly. Instead, it requires patience and a solid understanding of chess strategy and tactics. Expect to be successful if playing against weaker players. If you try the opening against stronger players, expect to learn from your mistakes.