One of the most frequently asked questions is: What are the best chess openings? In the span of one week, I got that question several times. And not only by beginner chess players (you can find a different article on the best beginner chess openings here).
A 2200 FIDE thinks Sicilian “is not fitting her level anymore”. A 1500-rated thinks he needs to diversify and learn new openings. An IM thinks he must know “many more openings” in order to get the GM title. With all these video series around, it seems most people have big FOMO (fear of missing out) when it comes to openings.
They think they will miss the latest “winning” trend and then stagnate forever, just because of that damn opening. If that is you, then I have good news for you. There are a lot of Courses on Openings because you can sell them well. Not because they are especially useful.
Let me tell you the truth: Do not trust people who try to up-sell you the “best opening” course. Why? Because there is none!
There are many good, some dubious, and some bad openings. But none of them is the best. At least not the same for everybody.
There are only openings that fit a certain level and style of player. What works for your friend very well might be miserable for you.
I am convinced, the way one plays chess always reflects the player’s personality. If something defines his character, then it will also define his way of playing.Vladimir Kramnik
There is no one size fits. Nor are there any shortcuts.
The Leningrad Is A Great Opening, They Said…
Let me tell you a story. Back in 2014, I was thinking about adding a sharp line against 1.d4. I did not have to look too far to find a good example: my countrymate GM Nico Georgiadis started to play the Leningrad Dutch with phenomenal results.
As he worked out the lines with our mutual Coach GM Artur Jussupow, it seemed like a good and easy choice. With great expectations, I started to play the opening several times. I always felt horrible playing it.
And considering I was only implementing it against clearly weaker opponents, the results were also bad. Every move seemed so unnatural. And I simply felt uncomfortable with my weakened king and the worse structure.
While Nico got these great positions and seemed to handle the opening smoothly, I usually got a horrible position. Back then, I thought it was just because he got very lucky. “My opponents always play it so well and he is so bad” I used to say.
This position was the absolute low point. I played the Leningrad against a then very young and upcoming GM, Luca Moroni (he was FM and I was IM back then).
After 23 moves, my position was totally cramped and utterly hopeless. And this without any big mistakes. I just made moves that seemed natural to me but were totally against the nature of the position.
That is when I started to understand that Leningrad is probably nothing for me. I implemented it in less than 10 tournament games. The best decision was to stop playing it. It simply did not suit my need for clear plans with a stable center.
Now does that mean the Leningrad is a bad opening? Would I never encourage anybody to play it? NO! It simply means that opening is not suiting my style of play.
While I started out with the traditional Nimzo, Nico used to play the Benko Gambit. A dynamic and risky opening was suiting him very well. The point I am trying to make is:
Not every opening fits your style. The most important thing is to understand and like the positions, you get out of a certain opening.
Openings You Should Avoid
Having said that, there are some openings you should avoid playing. Not only because of their objective evaluation. But mostly because they rely heavily on tricks. Whenever you play an opening that depends on your opponent falling for a trick, you basically don’t learn anything. Why? Because one of these 2 scenarios will happen:
- Your opponent falls for the trick, and you win. Congratulations. You got the point but did not improve your chess 1 bit. At some point, this trick will not work anymore, and you will pay for it.
- Your opponent knows the trick, and you get a bad position. Now it just depends on him converting it.
In any case, the outcome of the game does NOT depend on your own play. If you only take one thing away from this article, then it should be the following:
Play Openings where the outcome of the game depends on your understanding and level of play.
Losing will accelerate your learning curve while winning shows your superiority in chess understanding. You can replicate that success also in the following game. This is a slightly harder, but way more consistent and long-term approach.
Having said that, there is nothing to be said against Gambits that rely on long-term compensations. Those might include the Benko & Budapest Gambit for example. I still do not recommend only playing such Gambits, but they are not bad per se.
Black is giving up a pawn for easier play and two semi-open files on the queenside. While white is objectively better, the game does not end if White finds 1 or 2 precise moves. There is a big fight ahead, and you can still win the game because you created some nice counterplay and outplayed your opponent!
Find The Best Chess Openings For YOU
So, what is the best Chess Opening for me, you might ask.
Before you search for an opening, you should try to understand your playing style. This is easiest done via your Favorite Player(s). Who are you most fascinated by? As the openings on Top Level have evolved so much with the Engines, there is not a lot of understanding of them anymore.
That is why I would recommend you find somebody out of the Top 20. In the best case, this player is around the level of your “end goal” in chess. If you have an end goal of 2300, you should not care at all what openings are played by 2600 GMs.
You will not play on this level, so there is no value in trying to see the trends there. So, then search for an FM whose games are nice and understandable.
You can also look out for a fellow chess improver. Just make sure that you have similar styles! If not, you will suffer the same way I did with the Leningrad… When you have a certain favorite, go check out what opening they play. Check some games and try to understand if you like the positions or not.
Do you understand the intention of the moves, or does every move seem alien-like to you?
For this step, you still do not need any help from an Engine. If you have absolutely no idea what is going on in every game you look at, this is probably not the right opening for you. Or you chose a player that is way above your understanding.
On the other hand, some games will seem very logical to you. All the pieces were put on squares you wanted them on as well.
This is a good sign that opening might suit you well. You can now start to learn the opening and play it.
Recap Of The 4 Easy Steps To Find A Fitting Opening
- Find a Player that resonates with you (If possible, not in the Top 20 of the World)
- Check out which Openings they play and play through some games
- Try to understand the moves they play. Do they come naturally to you? Are the positions to your Liking?
- If yes, then you have found an opening that could be a great fit. If not, see another opening he plays or start over by finding a new player.
Now it is time to analyze your newly found best chess opening. You can learn how to do that in this article.
How Many Openings Should I play?
I basically only played the French until I got my GM title. While this may not be the smartest, it somehow worked.
By saying this I want to take your fear away of “having to play more openings”. If you have unlimited time, then go ahead and play several openings.
Also, if you want to become World Champion it is advisable you start early to play different openings. You learn all the structures and this will serve you later on.
But if you have limited time and any Goal that is the GM title or lower, you do NOT have to play several different openings. It is by no means “bad” to play several openings. But your task is to find the most effective area and use your time there.
At some point, studying more opening theory will simply not be the most effective chess training anymore. What I recommend is the following
Start out with a small opening repertoire until you are fully in control of it. Try to understand the resulting positions in depth. Only if you really master that opening, you can go on to the next one.
Or as Ron Swanson would put it:
Never Half-ass two things, Whole-ass one thing.Ron Swanson, Park and Recreation
And if the results are great with that one single opening, there are very few reasons to mix it up. Obviously, if you get bored and occasionally want to mix it up, do it. But then don’t complain if the results start to be mixed up as well :-).
So, instead of playing with many things but not understanding any, I would rather focus on one thing and get really good at it. By that, I don’t mean you should know every line until move 20. I mean you should understand the position. Have a great feeling for plans and structure. Know where your pieces belong and which ideas of the opponent you should look out for.
Repeating some forced lines of a course will get you some easy victories. But in the long term, truly understanding the position will benefit you way more than that.
As always you need to decide between short-term and long-term thinking. As you should know by now, I am a heavy fan of the hard, long-term approach, that simply works so much better.
If by any chance you should feel that the type of opening you play now does not suit you at all, you are free to change. But then the idea should not be to expand your repertoire. But to find a new main opening that is more fitting to you!
Use Your Time Wisely
I am writing this article because I see way too many players on all levels spend way too much time on openings. The game is usually not decided in the Opening stage of the game.
The winner is the one who makes the next-to-last mistake.Savielly Tartakower
Be conscious of how you spend your time. Always try to do the most effective chess training. Do not lose your head because you don’t know the latest trends.
Whenever somebody tells you “Hey, I found the best Chess Opening” remain skeptical. It might be the best Chess Opening for them, but horrible for you. Any questions left? Check out the FAQ section below:
Openings that allow you to play logical moves and have simple plans, such as the Italian Game, London System, and Nimzo Indian Defense, to name a few.
Openings that rely heavily on tricks aren’t good for your chess improvement. Avoid trick-based openings like the Scholars Mate.
Find a player you look up to and has a similar playing style. Go through some of their games. If the moves in a certain opening come logical to you, this opening should be a good fit. Start to analyze it.
Starting with 1.e4, you can go for the Italian Game, The Scotch Opening or the Spanish Ruy Lopez. With 1.d4, you can aim to play the Nimzo-Indian, The London System or The Catalan.
Against 1.e4 you can play the Caro-Kann, Sicilian Defense or go for the classical 1…e5. Facing 1.d4, consider playing the Nimzo Indian Defense, the Queens-Gambit or, if you aim for more aggression, the Kings Indian Defense.
With White, I played the Catalan with a lot of success. With Black, my main openings were the French Defense and the Nimzo Indian Defense.