A Comprehensive Guide to the English Opening 1.c4

IM Siegfried Baumegger     February 10, 2024

1. Introduction

2. Basic Concepts in the English Opening

3. English Opening - Sample Game

4. The Reversed Sicilian 1.c4 e5

5. Symmetrical Variation 1.c4 c5

6. Systems after 1.c4 Nf6

7. Other First Moves for Black

8. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The English Opening is named after Howard Staunton who first played it in his match against De Saint Amant in 1843. 1.c4 did however not catch on with his contemporaries and it took until the 20th century, when players like Nimzovich, Reti, and Rubinstein drove forward its development. Every World Champion played the English Opening at some point in his career, with Botvinnik making a great contribution to shaping it into a modern weapon.

Is the English Opening very theoretical? On the one hand: not so much - it’s possible to play 1.c4 followed by 2.g3 against “everything”. This economizes on the necessary preparation and a basic knowledge of plans and setups gets you started. On the other hand, 1.c4 can be interpreted aggressively, aiming for a direct confrontation in the center. Typical examples are the Mikenas Attack 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3.e4, or the line 1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4, in the Symmetrical Variation. Those lead to attractive and sharp play, but need some extra study time.

One major difference between 1.c4 and 1.Nf3 on the one hand and 1.d4 and especially 1.e4 on the other, is the presence of a large number of transpositional possibilities. The lack of contact between the two sides’ forces allows each player considerable freedom in developing his pieces. Working out specific move orders to avoid some of Black’s preferred defences or at least obtain a favourable version thereof is the daily bread and butter of the typical 1.c4-player!

The theoretical overview is structured in four different sections: the Reversed Sicilian 1...e5, the Symmetrical Variation 1...c5, Systems after 1...Nf6, and Black’s other alternatives on move one.


2. Basic Concepts in the English Opening

Control of the d5-square

With 1.c4 White begins a fight for control over the d5-square. This can be followed up with g3, Bg2, and Nc3, further strengthening the grip.


While the Fianchetto of the light-squared bishop is by no means compulsory, it’s a favourite setup of many c4-players. Also 1.c4, 2.g3, and 3.Bg2 can be played regardless of Black’s opening choice.

Botvinnik Setup

There are a great many possibly pawn structures arising from the English Opening. I specifically mention the Botvinnik setup because it’s quite popular and can be used against a variety of defences; for instance the Reversed Closed Sicilian or the King’s Indian. In certain lines of the Symmetrical Variation even both sides can go for it.


The diagram shows the Botvinnik setup for the White. The pawns on c4 and e4 control some important light squares. The king’s knight goes to e2 rather than f3 for two reasons: firstly, the f-pawn is free to advance, and secondly, it’s an important defender of the square d4. White doesn’t want it to be exchanged after ...Bg4 and needs to be able to break the pin by f3. White will either force through the move d3-d4, when he will enjoy a space advantage, or keep the center closed and start playing on the wings with f2-f4 or b2-b4.

Transpositions and Move-Order Tricks

As in the Reti Opening, both sides need to take into account various transpositions. When studying the English Opening, mapping out the road to certain key positions is part of the work. Both sides can be cunning in avoiding certain option’s of the opponent by using specific move orders.

Examples from White’s Point of View

  • A common way of avoiding the Grünfeld Defence is 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 g6 3.e4. Having prevented ...d5, White is ready to transpose to the King’s Indian after 3...Bg7 4.e4. One might ask why the Grünfeld should be prevented in the first place. This active defence presents a headache for many d4-players. Black get’s very active play and in order to pose some problems, White has to go very deep in his preparation. So, part of the motivation to play 1.c4 can be attributed to laziness.
  • If Black is going for a Nimzo-Indian with 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6, White has the Mikenas Attack with 3.e4 ready. While this is of course playable for Black, the well prepared c4-player has good chances of getting the initiative.
  • The move order 1.c4 followed by 2.g3 is very popular. This avoids one of Black’s most popular setups, the Hedgehog. For example 1.c4 c5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.Nf3 and 4...b6? is now inferior due to 5.Ne5. Black’s move order works against 2.Nc3, for example 2...Nf6 3.g3 e6 4.Nf3 (4.Bg2?! d5!) 4...b6.

Examples from Black’s Point of View

  • Playing 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e5!?. Black goes for the Reversed Sicilian once White puts the knight on c3. This can be an issue for players who have 1.c4 e5 2.g3 in their repertoire, as with the knight on c3 Black has lines with ...Bb4 available.
  • Going for a Slav setup once White has committed himself to g3: 1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 c6!? 3.Bg2 d5. After 4.Nf3 there’s a choice between the solid continuations 4...Bg4, 4...Bf5, 4...g6, and the sharp gambit line 4...dxc4. As Black can determine the character of the game, this is a good practical choice (see Repertoire against the Reti Opening, King's Indian Attack, and English Opening by GM Alvar Alonso).


3. English Opening - Sample Game



4. The Reversed Sicilian 1.c4 e5

1...e5 is one of the most popular answers to 1.c4. It’s a good choice for 1.e4-players as the character of the game is often very similar to the Sicilian Defence. On the other hand, 1.c4-players who have the Sicilian in their repertoire with Black are probably happy to reach their favourite Defence being a tempo up. While the extra move is of course useful, it doesn’t always guarantee an opening advantage. Black is often helped by the fact that at some point White must commit himself to a certain setup. The second player can then go for the most promising counter plan. One example: 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Bb4 3.g3 (3.Nd5 is best) 3...Bxc3!? 4.bxc3 d6 5.Bg2 Nc6 6.Nf3 f5!?.


Black profits from not having his king’s knight on f6! With 6...f5 he gets a good version of a Reversed Grand Prix Attack. The doubled c-pawns make White’s pawn structure less flexible. Black will finish his development (...Nf6, ...0-0) and then go for an attack on the kingside (...f4, ...Qe8-h5, etc.).

The most usual plan for White is to develop in the spirit of the Sicilian Dragon with 2.Nc3 (or 2.g3) Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3. Other popular lines are the direct 4.d4, 4.e3, and 4.e4. Against most of White’s setups Black can play analogous to the Open Sicilian with ...Nf6 and ...d5. Lines with ...Bb4 are possible once a white knight lands on c3. If White keeps back the move Nf3, then ...c6 followed by ...d5 (like in the Alapin Sicilian) becomes an option.

A useful overview of various strategic themes and ideas for a repertoire is presented in Understand the Reversed Sicilian.

Four Knights Variation 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6


White’s main option is 4.g3 which can lead to the Reversed Dragon after 4...d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.Bg2. Now the big main line used to be 6...Nb6 (don’t fall for 6...Be7? 7.Nxe5!) 7.0-0 Be7, see the analysis in our sample game Kortschnoj-Arnason for a short overview. In 1.c4 e5 - Complete Repertoire for Black, by GM Davorin Kuljasevic,  this line of the Reversed Dragon is the backbone of the suggested repertoire.

A new trend is to play 6...Bc5!?, which somehow escaped the theoreticians until Grischuk played it in 2017. Now the tactic with 7.Nxe5 Nxc3 8.Bxc6+ bxc6 9.bxc3 (or 9.dxc3 Qe7) 9...Qd5 10.Nf3 Bh3, leads to a good position for Black. Another motif from the Sicilian Dragon, 7.0-0 0-0 8.Nxe5!? Nxe5 9.d4 Nxc3 10.bxc3 Bd6 10.dxe5 Bxe5, that is known to be a good equalizer for Black, turns into an equalizer for White...not a great achievement. Since this forcing tries do not bother Black, he is able to develop his pieces more actively than with the “old” 6...Nb6. To avoid this line, White can choose the move order with 2.g3 – see below.

Although 4...d5 is theoretically fine, playing an Open Sicilian might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Solid alternatives are 4...Nd4, 4...Bc5, and particularly 4...Bb4 – which featured prominently in some World Championship matches Kasparov – Karpov.

The second most popular move is 4.e3. Now playing a reversed Open Sicilian with 4...d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5, leads to a slightly better game for White after 6.Bb5!. The established main line is 4...Bb4 5.Qc2 Bxc3!?. It might be surprising to see Black voluntarily exchange his bishop for a knight but this is justified by concrete factors. 6.Qxc3 Qe7. Now White’s queen turns out to be exposed to attacks with ...Ne4 or after ...d5 cxd5 Nxd5 – Black has adequate counterplay. Alternatively 6.bxc3 is played – accepting a worse pawn structure but aiming to get a solid grip in the center with e3-e4. 6...e4 7.Ng5 Qe7 8.f3.


8...exf3 9.Nxf3 0-0 10.Be2 b6, with chances for both sides, is a decent way of playing the position. In recent games Bacrot, Nepomniachtchi, and most recently Jorden van Foreest against World Champion Ding Liren (Tata Steel 2024) have demonstrated a radical solution: 8...d6!?, simply giving away the pawn! It seems that in the endgame after 9.Nxe4 Nxe4 10.Qxe4 Qxe4 11.fxe4 it’s impossible for White to make any progress due to the defects in his pawn structure (engine evaluation 0.00).

GM Mihail Marin’s course 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 - Complete Repertoire for White is based on the ambitious 4.e4. White radically prevents ...d5 and is ready to gain more space with d2-d4. Black has two equivalent options: the sharp 4...Bc5 5.Nxe5 Nxe5 6.d4 Bb4 7.dxe5 Nxe4 and now for instance 8.Qf3 Nxc3 9.bxc3 Ba5 10.Bf4 0-0 11.0-0-0!?.


A very double-edged position: White has more space and an active position but also serious weaknesses. Both sides have their chances and the better prepared player is likely to prevail.

4...Bb4 is the solid alternative, leading to a strategic fight. For example: 5.d3 d6 6.a3 Bc5 7.b4 Bb6; White will complete his development and prepare the move f2-f4.

What else is there? 4.d4 exd4 5.Nxd4 Bb4, and now the well forgotten 6.g3 has recently been tried. One good answer is 6...Bxc3+ 7.bxc3 Na5!? 8.Qd3 b6!?, when Black’s better pawn structure offsets White’s pair of bishops. 6.Bg5 was played in most of the games, though it doesn’t pose big problems; for example 6...h6 7.Bh4 Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 0-0 9.e3 Ne5 with the idea of breaking the pin by ...Ng6.
Less direct options are 4.d3 and 4.a3, simply aiming to get a playable Sicilian type of position.

Three Knights Variation – Part 1 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nf3 f5 and 3...g6

The aggressive 3...f5 (amongst other lines like 2.g3 h5!?) is explored by IM Kushager Krishnater in his database Ambitious Repertoire against the English Opening. This leads to complex, positions, often with a space advantage for Black. For instance, 4.d4 e4 5.Ng5 Bb4 6.Nh3 Bxc3+ 7.bxc3 d6 8.Nf4 Nf6.


Black has clear targets and White needs to play energetically to not end up strategically worse. The unbalanced nature of the positions arising from the ...f5-lines makes them a good weapon to play for a win as Black.

White should definitely come prepared: Marin’s suggestion 3...f5 4.g3 Nf6 5.d4 e4 6.Nh4!?, with the idea of rerouting the knight via g2 to f4 can be an interesting try.

With 3...g6 Black may want to play a Reversed Closed Sicilian, however with this move order, 4.d4 (it’s important to play this now, as Black is about to take d4 under control with ...Bg7) is a good option for White. 4...exd4 5.Nxd4 Bg7 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.g3 Ne7 8.Bg2 0-0 9.0-0 Rb8 may be playable, but White seems to be just better after 10.Qc2 followed by b3. The surprising 6...dxc6!? 7.Qxd8+ Kxd8 was tried by strong players like Duda and Anton Guijarro. Black has some equalizing chances based on his strong g7-bishop, though after 8.Bg5+ Ke8 9.0-0-0 White keeps a small plus.

Three Knights Variation – Part 2 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3

This variation has seen a major theoretical discovery in the last few years! The pawn sacrifice 3...e4!? 4.Ng5 has been resurrected with the new idea 4...c6!?. It’s somewhat shocking that Black can just give away a good central pawn, but theory and practice show the viability of this approach. The sequence 5.Ngxe4 Nxe4 6.Nxe4 d5 7.cxd5 cxd5 8.Ng3 was already played in over a hundred games.


Now the knight gets hunted again with 8...h5, for instance 9.e3 h4 10.Ne2 Nc6 11.d4 Qf6 12.Nc3 Qg6 and Black has sufficient compensation due to his lead in development. The engines show a minimal advantage for White, whereas Black scores more than 50% in practice. The latest trend is 5.Qa4!?, which led to a fascinating, though anything but error-free struggle in Maghsoodloo – Abdusattorov, Tata Steel 2024, from which the Uzbek youngster emerged victorious.

The “old” 4...b5!? is still tried now and again, and can be a good surprise weapon. Taking on b5 leads to good compensation for Black after 5.Nxb5 h6 6.Nh3 c6 7.Nc3 d5 or 5.cxb5 d5. The established antidote is 5.d3!, with one key idea being 5...dxc4 6.dxe4 h6 7.Nxf7! Kxf7 8.e5, winning back the material with a superior position.

Other moves than 3...e4 hardly have independent significance. 3...d6 4.d4 Nbd7 leads to the Old Indian Defence after a subsequent ...Be7 or a sub-line of the King’s Indian after ...g6 and ...Bg7. The sharper 4...e4 5.Ng5 is somewhat dubious.

Reversed Closed Sicilian 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6

Since White didn’t go for an early Nf3, playing a Fianchetto makes a lot of sense. White is no longer in time to advance in the center with d2-d4, as Black’s bishop comes to g7 on the next move. After 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.d3 d6 we reach a first tabia. Starting from here, both sides can choose between several ways to develop their pieces. White has 6.Rb1, 6.e3 (followed by Nge2), 6.Nf3, and the popular 6.e4 (the Botvinnik System). Against any of these Black may answer 6...Nge7, 6...Nf6, or 6...f5. Both sides can finish their development undisturbed by the opponent. In general Black will get active on the kingside, while White has good prospects in the center and on the queenside.

White Plays 2.g3 or 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3

With the move order 2.g3 White prevents some lines. Without a knight on c3 lines with ...Bb4 are no longer an issue. A more specific idea can be seen in the Reversed Dragon after 2...Nf6 3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.0-0 Bc5? 7.Nxe5!.


This typical move secures an advantage in this exact position. When reaching the Reversed Dragon via the Four Knights Variation White would have a knight on c3 instead of having castled – there Nxe5 is not effective as pointed out above. This is not the only subtlety: 6...Be7 is answered by 7.d4 with a slight initiative for White, which means that Black is left with 6...Nb6 to prevent d4. Now an interesting alternative to the main move 7.Nc3 exists in 7.b3!?, which leads to comparatively “fresh” positions.

On the other side of the coin 2.g3 allows Black options that he normally does not have. Firstly, there are 2...c6 and 2...Nf6 3.Bg2 c6. Those became quite popular, when it was discovered that 4.d4 e4! is fine for Black, for instance 5.Bg5 d5 6.Nc3 Nbd7!.


Black manages to secure his central position. Grabbing a pawn with 7.cxd5 cxd5 8.Nxd5?? fails to 8...Qa5+. Another try, 4.Nf3, leads to a variety of complicated lines after 4...e4 5.Nd4 d5 or 5...Qb6.

Another option for Black is to go for a Reversed Closed Sicilian with 2...Nc6 3.Bg2 g6 (see above). In contrast to the Three Knight’s Variation White isn’t in time to answer ...g6 with d2-d4.

GM Michael Roiz has assembled a comprehensive two-part repertoire based on 2.g3, Complete Repertoire for White after 1.c4 e5 2.g3 - Part 1 and Part 2.

And the move order 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3? Here 3...c6 is again possible, but most importantly 3...Bb4! is theoretically excellent for Black. That said, Carlsen used 4.e4!? to beat Caruana in the tie-break of the World Championship in London 2018. The position resembles a Reversed Rossolimo Sicilian. Magnus defended against 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 with 3...g6 in the course of the match, and he used his expertise in these positions with colours reversed! Given time, good solutions emerged for Black. For instance 4.e4 0-0 5.Nge2 b5!? 6.cxb5 a6, which the engines give as equal (0.00), was played in a blitz game Svidler-Carlsen (!) in 2020. Making a long story short: 2.g3 avoids the option with 3...Bb4 and is the more practical choice.

Odds and Ends

There’s hardly established theory after moves like 2.d3 and 2.e3. Those are probably good ways to get out of book – just playing a Sicilian a tempo up, without any great pretense. A more concrete option is to go for 2.Nf3, immediately attacking e5. After 2...e4 3.Nd4 a reversed Nimzovich Sicilian arisis. This offbeat line has good surprise value and is explored in English Opening - Complete Repertoire for White with IM David Fitzsimons.


5. Symmetrical Variation 1.c4 c5

With this chapter we start looking at lines where countless transpositions are possible. After 1.c4 c5 this concerns especially the Reti Opening. Move orders with an early Nf3 were already dealt with in A Comprehensive Guide to the Reti Opening (chapter 6, “Systems after 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5”). Here we will deal with Systems involving an early  g3 and Nc3.

Should White start with 2.g3 or 2.Nc3? If he is going to play g3 in any case, then it’s more practical to start with 2.g3 as this avoids the Hedgehog. Let’s compare the move orders: 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.Nf3. Now 4...b6? runs into the embarrassing 5.Ne5! d5 6.cxd5 exd5 7.d4, with strong pressure for White. After 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 e6 4.Nf3 (this is necessary; after 4.Nc3?! d5!, with the threat of ...d5-d4 is strong) 4...b6 5.Bg2 Bb7 leads to the regular Hedgehog.

Systems after 1.c4 c5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2

We will look at 3...d5 (the Rubinstein Variation) and 3...e6. 3...g6 will be looked at further down in “Pure Symmetrical Variation”.

Rubinstein Variation 3...d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Nc3 Nc7

5...Nc7 was Rubinstein’s idea – Black intends to play ...e5 with a reversed Maroczy Bind. This is a very ambitious concept – if Black succeeds then he will have more space and can easily be better. White has his work cut out for himself: play actively and put Black’s center under pressure. A typical line runs 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.0-0 e5 8.d3 Be7 9.Nd2.


With his last move White ‘threatens’ the doubling of Black’s pawns and wants to put e5 under pressure with Nc4. After 9...Bd7 (ignoring the threat with 9...0-0 10.Bxc6 bxc6 is possible, with double-edged play) 10.Nc4 f6 11.f4 leads to sharp play, for instance 11...b5 12.Ne3 exf4 13.Nf5!?.

GM Michael Roiz suggests the sophisticated move order 6.d3 e5 7.Be3!? in his database Symmetrical English - Complete Repertoire for White. White postpones Nf3 in order to have Bxc6 ready in reply to …Nc6. In many lines Black’s c5-pawn will be attacked with Rc1 and Na4 - Black needs to defend very accurately to avoid becoming seriously worse.

Keres-Parma Variation 3...e6 4.Nf3 d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5

Instead of 5…Nxd5 in the style of the Semi-Tarrasch, 5…exd5 6.d4 would lead us to the Tarrasch Defence. After 5...Nxd5 the main line runs 6.0-0 Nc6 7.Nc3 Be7 8.Nxd5 (keeping the tension with 8.d4 is also possible) 8...exd5 (8...Qxd5?! exposes the queen) 9.d4 0-0 10.dxc5 Bxc5.


A structure with an isolated queen’s pawn has arises. This looks like a main line Tarrasch except that one pair of knights has been exchanged. In general simplification favours the side playing against the isolated pawn; though without a knight on c3 Black has the maneuver ...Bf5-e4 at his disposal. As so often in these positions, White is slightly better and has long term chances, while Black has active piece play as compensation for the IQP.

A word to the move order: after 4.Nc3?! (instead of 4.Nf3) 4...d5! 5.cxd5 exd5! would be awkward for White – Black threatens to play ...d5-d4.

Pure Symmetrical Variation 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.Nc3 Nc6

For now both sides have developed in perfect symmetry. This may appear dull at first sight, but in fact can be played ambitiously with both colours! White can count on the advantage of the first move to generate some chances, while Black can decide on the appropriate setup after White has committed himself.

There are many possible continuations on move five: 5.a3 with the idea of an early Rb1 and b4, 5.e3 with Nge2 and d4 to follow, the flexible 5.d3, 5.e4 with a Botvinnik structure, and the most popular 5.Nf3. We will look at the latter in a little more detail.


Now it’s Black’s turn to choose between several options. The symmetrical 5...Nf6 is best answered by 6.d4! (after 6.0-0 d5!? is possible) 6...cxd4 7.Nxd4 0-0 8.0-0, with White keeping slightly better position due to his space advantage. The Botvinnik setup with 5...e5 is well established, though at least White has a choice of interesting continuations, e.g. the complex 6.d3 Nge7 7.h4!?, with the idea of a piece sacrifice after 8...h6 8.h5 g5 9.Nxg5!?. This is anything but clear, but it leads to an interesting, unbalanced game (analyzed in the above mentioned database of Michael Roiz). 5...e6 is constantly popular (check out the textbook game Petrosian-Fischer, from the match USSR vs Rest of the World in 1970). The gambit 6.d4!? Nxd4 7.Nxd4 cxd4 8.Ne4 leads to sharp play with chances for both sides.

Finally the flexible 5...d6 (recommended by GM Swapnil Dhopade in his Symmetrical English - Complete Repertoire for Black). After 6.0-0, again, there are different ways to go; switching to the Botvinnik setup with 6…e5, playing 6…e6 only now (having avoided the gambit with 6.d4 which was mentioned above), 6…Bf5 with the idea of …Qd7, and Dhopade’s suggestion, the comparatively rare 6…Rb8!?. Let’s see some ideas by looking at a sample line. 7.e3 Nf6 8.d4 0-0 9.b3 Be6!?.


If one doesn’t know that 9…Be6!? was already played in some high-level games by Vidit, one could assume it’s just a blunder. 10.d5?! is well met by 10…Nxd5 11.cxd5 Bxc3, while another point of …Be6 can be seen after 10.Bb2 cxd4 11.exd4 d5!, with a perfectly good position for Black.


6. Systems after 1.c4 Nf6

As after 1...c5, many transitions to various openings are possible. In particular players with the black pieces should be aware of certain move orders that are designed to avoid some of their defences. Playing 1.c4 allows White to avoid the Grünfeld Defence or the Nimzo. We will look at “pure” English systems with 2.Nc3, and more briefly 2.g3. For lines involving an early Nf3 I refer you to A Comprehensive Guide to the Reti Opening.

Mikenas Attack 2.Nc3 e6 3.e4

Instead of transposing to the Queen’s Gambit Declined with 3.Nf3 d5 4.d4 or an Anti-Nimzo system with 3...Bb4 4.Qc2, White can play the aggressive 3.e4, threatening to advance with e5 or to occupy the center with d2-d4. Black can directly counter in the center with 3...d5 or play 3...c5, which leads to a complex gambit line.

Let’s first take a look at 3...d5 4.e5. 4.cxd5 exd5 and only now 5.e5 is interesting as well. For example 5...d4 6.exf6 dxc3 7.Bb5+ c6 8.Bc4 is an interesting pawn sacrifice, while after 5...Ne4 6.Nf3 White scores well in practice. 4...d4 (4...Ne4 is no longer popular as after the simple 5.Nf3 followed by the development of the kingside, the e5-pawn cramps Black’s position) 5.exf6 dxc3 6.bxc3 Qxf6 7.d4.


Now 7...e5 is the most popular continuation. Playable is 7...c5 8.Nf3 h6 9.Bd3, when White gets an easier game – it will take time to activate the c8-bishop, while White can often start a dangerous attack with moves like h4 and Rh3-g3 to follow. 7...b6 is ok, though a bit slow. One trap to avoid: 8.Nf3 Bb7?! (8...h6) 9.Bd3 Bd6? 10.Bg5 Bxf3 11.Qd2!. Black doesn’t lose the queen right away due to the resource 11...Bf4 12.Bxf4 Bxg2, though the position after 13.Rg1 Bb7 14.0-0-0 is winning for White. After 7...e5 it would not be a good idea to try and win a pawn with 8.Qe2?!. After the simple 8...Be7 9.dxe5 Qg6 Black has an excellent position. The critical line is 8.Nf3 when can try the solid 8...exd4 9.Bg5 Qe6+ 10.Be2 Be7 with hopes of gradually equalizing after 11.cxd4 Bxg5 12.Nxg5 Qe7. Or the complex 8...Nc6 9.Bg5 Qg6; for instance 10.d5 Nb8 11.h4 with chances for both sides. White has the initiative, while Black has the better pawn structure.

The other main line 3...c5 4.e5 Ng8 sees Black giving up two tempi in order to control d4. White’s sharpest try is the pawn sacrifice 5.Nf3 (5.d4 cxd4 6.Qxd4 is a solid alternative) 5...Nc6 6.d4 cxd4 7.Nxd4 Nxe5 8.Ndb5.


White is targeting the weak dark squares. Now 8...d6? runs into 9.c5!, when Black’s position starts to crumble. After the better 8...a6 9.Nd6+ Bxd6 10.Qd6 White gets lasting compensation for the sacrificed pawn, e.g. 10...f6 11.Be3 Ne7 12.Bb6 Nf5 13.Qb4 Nc6 14.Qc5 Qe7 15.Qxe7 Nfxe7 16.0-0-0 with an ongoing initiative, even after queen’s have been exchanged.

In summary the Mikenas variation can be a great weapon for attacking player and one for which Black must be thoroughly prepared if he goes for the move order 1...Nf6 2.Nc3 e6. For a theoretical coverage look at GM Mihail Marin’s database 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 - Agressive Repertoire against 2...e6, 2...c5, and 2...d5.

Lines after 2.Nc3 d5 3.cxd5 Nxd5

This might be the choice of players who have the Grünfeld in their repertoire against 1.d4. Since after 2…g6 White can already play 3.e4, this is the last chance to play an early …d5. Now 4.Nf3 was covered with the Reti Opening, which leaves 4.g3 as a move of independent significance. 4…e5 leads to the Reversed Dragon and 4…c5 to the Rubinstein Variation. In the spirit of the Grünfeld is 4…g6 5.Bg2 Nxc3 7.bxc3, though Black hasn’t the customary counterplay against White’s center as he isn’t committed to playing d4). White has also some attractive options after the retreat 5…Nb6, e.g. the cunning 6.d3!?, leaving for the time being open the diagonal of the g2-bishop open, while also preparing Be3, Qd2, and Bh6, or the more direct 6.h4!?.

Lines after 2.Nc3 g6 3.e4

With 3.e4 once and for all rules out the Grünfeld and hopes to reach a King’s Indian after 3…d6 4.d4. Since he hasn’t played Nf3 yet, he can even choose one of the more aggressive systems against the KID, e.g. the Sämisch, the Averbakh, or even the Four Pawns attack. What are the alternatives? 3…c5 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 leads to the Maroczy System, a none too popular choice, as Black’s position is solid but passive. Instead, the move 3…e5!? has become topical. 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Nxe5 0-0!?. This pawn sacrifice is the new twist. 5…Nxe4 6.Nxe4 Bxe5 7.d4 Bg7 8.Bg5 gives White a clear advantage. What is Black’s compensation after 5…0-0? Let’s play some more moves…6.Nf3 Re8 7.d3 d5!.


Opening the position and putting White’s center under pressure is a key resource. Now most games went 8.cxd5 Nxd5 9.Bd2 Bg4 10.Be2 Lxf3 11.gxf3 Nb4. Despite the engine evaluation being in White’s favor, Black has good practical compensation due to the weaknesses in White’s position.

White plays 2.g3

This is the choice of players who want to play c4 followed by g3 against everything. Apart from committing to a Fianchetto White enjoys some flexibility regarding the development of the king’s knight and the central pawn structure. Depending on his preferences the first player can transpose to a d4-opening within the next few moves (provided Black doesn’t play an early …c5 or …e5). Or alternatively do without d4 altogether and play for example a Botvinnik setup against the King’s Indian, e.g. 2…g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.Nc3 0-0 5.e4 d6 6.Nge2.

Since 2.g3 gives Black more freedom than 2.Nc3 (when White can follow up aggressively with e4 and d4), Black can also switch to a Slav setup with 2.g3 c6 (not possible against 2.Nc3 as 2…c6 could be answered with 3.e4!). Then, 3.Bg2 d5 4.Nf3 leads us into Reti territory. Transitions to the Reti or the Catalan are also likely after 2…e6.


7. Other First Moves for Black

If Black does want to go for a Slav or QGD setup he’s likely to play 1...c6 or 1...e6. Dutch aficionados will have 1...f5 ready, while adherents of the King’s Indian or Modern Defence can go for 1...g6 or 1...d6. Finally, there’s the more offbeat, Owen Defence 1...b6 (see Play the Owen Defense against 1.c4, by GM Mihail Marin). Let’s look at these continuations one by one.

1…c6 might transpose to the Slav with 2.d4, to the Reti with 2.Nf3 d5 3.g3 or 3.e3, or to the Panov Attack of the Caro-Kann with 2.e4. While the Reti-Slav is similar in character to the Slav Defence – i.e. leading to closed, solid positions in general – the Panov leads to lively play with an IQP. So playing 2.e4 could pay off against an opponent who would like to play the Slav but on the other hand isn’t a Caro-Kann player. That said, White himself should have some experience in playing positions with an isolated queen’s pawn, when going for the Panov.

After 1...e6 it’s a similar story. 2.Nc3 d5 3.d4 transposes to the QGD, 2.g3 d5 3.Bg2 to the Neo-Catalan (lines without d4) or Catalan. 2.Nf3 d5 3.e3 leads via a different move order to GM Davorin Kuljasevic’s  Reti Opening Repertoire for White after 1.Nf3 d5 2.e3. 2.e4 can be tried too, though after 2…d5 3.exd5 exd5 4.d4 we reach a subvariation of the Exchange French, that isn’t particularly dangerous for Black. An interesting move order for Nimzo-Indian players could be 1…e6 2.Nc3 Bb4. This is investigated by GM Grigov Grigorov in his course Practical Repertoire against 1.c4 and 1.Nf3. He has worked out some intriguing ideas like 3.Nf3 Bxc3!? 4.bxc3 f5!?, using motifs of the Nimzo-Indian and the Dutch. Or 3.Qc2 c5 4.a3 Bxc3 5.Qxc3 Qf6!?.


Black challenges the White queen; though he ultimately lost, the ending is quite safe for Black in Giri-Kramnik, Tata Steel 2023: 6.Qxf6 Nxf6 7.b4 b6 8.Nf3 Nc6 9.Rb1 d6 10.e3 e5!. Kramnik put the pawns on the dark squares to restrict White’s queen’s bishop – Black has a healthy position.

Dutch setups can be played against any closed system. Apart from transposing to the Dutch Defence with 2.d4, White has more cunning ways to combat 1…f5. For example 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2. By not committing the d-pawn, White keeps the possibility of breaking in the center with d3 and e4. This could be effective against the Classical Dutch (lines with …e6 and …d6) and especially the Stonewall. For example 3…e6 4.Nf3 d5 5.0-0 c6 6.d3 Bd6 7.Nc3 0-0 8.e4!.


After this central break White is much better. Black’s move order was somewhat cooperative of course, but not having e4 as an outpost for a knight, makes for a quite unattractive Stonewall. A purely “English” recipe against the Leningrad setup with 3…g6 is for instance 4.Nc3 Bg7 5.d3 0-0 6.e4 d6 7.Nge2. Adopting the Botvinnik formation does not necessarily guarantee a theoretical advantage, but scores reasonably well in practice.

If the player behind the black pieces has the King’s Indian in his repertoire, it makes some sense to immediately play 1…g6 or 1…d6, keeping back the g8-knight. In case White doesn’t play d4, then Black might go for …e5 and …f5 (not available once the knight is on f6), if he does than apart from playing something like 1…g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.e4 d6 4.Nc3 e5!?, a transposition to the King’s Indian with 4…Nf6 is possible. Possibilities for White include once more the Botvinnik setup, or playing 2.g3, keeping various options open. Without d4 on the board a ton of transpositions remain feasible. E.g. Black plays …c5 leading to the Symmetrical Variation, or he plays …e5 leading to a Reversed Closed Sicilian.

Lastly 1…b6 is a perfectly playable move. Let’s look at the some ideas in the most straightforward line: 2.d4 Bb7 3.Nc3 e6 4.e4. White managed to build a broad center, but Black can (and must!) generate pressure against it. 4…Bb4 5.Bd3 f5! 6.Qe2 Nf6 7.f3 Nc6 8.Be3.


Now Black can generate counterplay by different means:8…f4!?9.Bf2 e5 playing for dark square control is analyzed by Marin. The immediate8…e5 is also possible, as is8…fxe4 9.fxe4 e5.This is in no way the end of the story, but serves to show some important resources for Black after1…b6.If White doesn’t occupy the center with pawns, than many transpositions to the Queen’s Indian Defence, and the Nimzo are possible. Sometimes even Dutch motifs play a role:2.d4 Bb7 3.Nc3 e6 4.a3!?. As …Bb4 is prevented, Black must find some other counterplay.4…f5!? 5.d5 Nf6 6.g3 Na6 with a complex position.


8. Conclusion

  • As is the case with the Reti, the English Opening allows for great flexibility. That goes for White and Black – both sides can choose between a variety of setups and different move orders to get there.
  • 1.c4 can be played by players of various styles and levels of play.
  • A simple scheme of developing is available: 1.c4, 2.g3, 3.Bg2, possibly followed by 4.Nc3.
  • The English can also be played in a more concrete and aggressive way: 1.c4 followed by 2.Nc3 with the intention of occupying the center as fast as possible (for example the Mikenas Attack).
  • Transitions between 1.c4, 1.Nf3, and 1.d4 are fluent. Even if you plan to play  1.c4 exclusively, it makes sense to build up a basic knowledge of 1.Nf3 and 1.d4 in order to take the maximum advantage of favourable transpositions.
  • Study the classic games of the World Champions!  This helps in getting a good understanding of the opening in general without going into the theory.
  • Pick a first class contemporary specialist of the English Opening (for example Nepomniachtchi, Mamedyarov, Tomashevsky, etc.) and study his games to get an understanding of the more modern concepts.


All Openings