The first few moves in a game of chess can lead to very different scenarios. Will the game be a wild, tactical and dynamic battle? Will it be a quiet, slow, positional game? Or something in between? Your choice of opening moves has a large impact on how the rest of the game will develop.
(Strengthening your opening play is one of the skills in the “7-Skills” Chess Training Model.)
There are many known chess openings (here’s a list of 42 well-known chess openings). Openings can be broadly categorized based on their shared characteristics. This page is an introduction to the types of chess openings and their typical impact on how the middle game will unfold.
Studying the different types of openings will help to improve your overall understanding of chess opening theory and is a useful addition to your knowledge of chess openings.
Types of Chess Openings
On this page you will find a summary and a few examples of 13 different types of chess openings. They are:
- Open Games
- Semi-Open Games
- Closed Games
- Semi-Closed Games
- Symmetrical Openings
- Opening Systems
- Gambit Openings
- Hypermodern Openings
- Classical Openings
- Flank Openings
- Tactical Openings
- Positional Openings
- Reversed Openings
Open Games refer to all openings that start with the moves 1.e4 e5. It is called “open games” because the centre will typically open up quite easily, increasing the tactical possibilities for both sides.
Open Games typically lead to positions where:
- Both sides prioritize rapid development of the pieces.
- Early clashes happen in the centre as both sides aims to occupy central squares.
- Early pawn-exchanges in the centre can quickly lead to very open positions.
- Tactical combinations are lurking since the pieces can move around more freely–due to the open nature of the centre.
- Both sides should get their king out of the centre as soon as possible, or risk sudden onslaught if the centre opens.
Example of an Open Game Opening
Diagram above: The Scotch Game is an example of an Open Game Opening. White wants to control the centre by exchanging his d-pawn for Black’s e-pawn.
If black responds to 1.e4 with anything else other than 1… e5, thus breaking the symmetry, the resulting opening type is known as a Semi-Open Game. It is called “semi-open games” because the centre will be partly open since only one player will initially have a pawn in the centre.
Diagram above: The Sicilian Defense is the most common occurrence of a Semi-Open Game.
Semi-Open Games imply that the symmetry has been broken and therefore the position is unbalanced. This disruption of the equilibrium offers unique and different opportunities to both sides. The objective is often to try prove that your approach is more effective than that of your opponent.
Example of a Semi-Open Game Opening
Diagram above: In the Yugoslav Attack (a variation in the Sicilian Defense), white will attack on the king-side (where the black king has castled), whilst black will try to counter as quickly as possible of the queen-side (where the white king has castled).
Closed Games refer to all openings that start with the moves 1.d4 d5. It is called “closed games” because the centre will typically be closed, partly sue to the fact both sides have a pawn in the centre that is already defended by the queen–which implies these pawns are less likely to be attacked or exchanged easily, resulting in a closed centre.
An immediate consequence of the initial moves 1.d4 d5 is that both sides will delay castling with at least one move because it will take at least one move extra to develop the bishop on the f-file (should white want to castle king-side).
Also note that the d-pawns are already defended by their respective queens–which means neither side can make immediate threats against the pawn in the centre (as is the case in 1.e4 e5 openings). For these reasons, in part, Closed Games are usually less tactical in nature than Open Games.
Example of a Closed Game Opening
Diagram above: The Slav Defense is an example of a popular Closed Game Opening. Black’s development typically won’t be as rapid as in Open Games, but the resulting position is still solid and there are a number of ways that black can transpose, at the right moment, to a Semi-closed Game.
If black responds to 1.d4 with anything else other than 1… d5, breaking the symmetry, the resulting opening type is known as a Semi-Closed Game. It is called “semi-close-games” because one player, but not both, will have a fixed pawn in the centre–which implies the centre will be somewhat, but not completely, closed.
In contrast to Semi-Open Games (where the imbalances are more tactical in nature), the Semi-Closed Games typically leads to positions where both sides rely more on strategic maneuvers and incremental improvements in the position, rather than on immediate attacks.
Example of a Semi-Closed Game Opening
Diagram above: The Queen’s Indian Defense is an example of a Semi-Closed Game. Semi-closed games often rely on hypermodern strategies. (Allowing the other side to occupy the centre whilst planning to undermine it later).
In symmetrical openings black aims to keep the balance for as long as possible by adopting the same setup as white. This is often an easy way for black to equalize in the opening, however, white will always keep the advantage of “having the move” in symmetrical openings.
Example of a Symmetrical Opening
Diagram above: The Symmetrical Variation of the English Opening. White can choose to break the symmetry first by playing 4.d2-d4. Now if black plays 4… d7-d5? then 5.dxc5 dxc4 6.Qxd8+ gives white an edge and proves black cannot maintain the symmetry indefinitely.
An opening system is a specific piece & pawn formation. This formation can usually be achieved through different move orders.
Example of a System Opening
Diagram above: The Torre Attack is an example of an Opening System. With minimal memorization you get a solid opening to add to your repertoire. White will adopt this piece & pawn setup against almost anything that black does, within reason of course.
Advantages of Opening Systems
A chess opening system is easy to learn and can help you get a decent position against many different responses.
Disadvantages of Opening Systems
The downside of an opening system is that it isn’t tailored against black’s unique responses. And since white isn’t fighting hard to obtain an advantage, it is relatively easy for black to equalize the position.
A gambit opening is an opening where you sacrifice one (or sometimes even more) pawns in exchange for certain positional advantages.
Example of a Gambit Opening
Diagram above: The Queen’s Gambit is the most common Gambit Opening in chess. Most of the time though, black declines.
Gambit openings are typically designed to speed up your development and/or slow down your opponent’s development. The side who sacrificed the pawn must play aggressively before the other side manages to solidify their position. The player who has the extra pawn will either try to hang on to material advantage or plan to return the pawn in exchange for regaining some initiative.
A counter gambit is an opening where a player responds aggressively to their opponent’s gambit–by offering a gambit themselves.
Example of a Counter Gambit Opening
Diagram above: The Albin Counter Gambit is an example of a Counter Gambit Opening.
Counter Gambit openings typically lead to complicated, high-risk positions where you rely heavily on strong calculation skills and/or a superior knowledge of the variations that can result from the counter gambit.
In contrast to classical openings, hypermodern openings dare the opponent to grab more territory in the centre than they can defend.
Example of a Hypermodern Opening
Diagram above: Alekhine’s Defense is an example of a Hypermodern Opening. Black invites white to play e4-e5 and grab space in the centre. Black then wants to prove that white over-extended their reach in the centre and black will undermine it.
Hypermodern Openings typically lead to positions where the player with more control in the centre tries to hold on to and expand their advantage in the centre, whilst the other player’s main priority is to undermine their opponent in the centre–by attacking it from the flanks.
The family of Indian Openings, Ie. King’s Indian Defense, Nimzo-Indian Defense etc. are named after the opening ideas used by Moheschunder Bannerjee, a strong Indian chess player in the late 19th century. In what would later become the hypermodern style, he often tried to control the centre with long-distance pieces rather than occupying it with pawns.
Classical openings are based on a very direct approach toward achieving the opening objectives, particularly with regard to placing and supporting pawns in the centre.
Example of a Classical Opening
Diagram above: The Ruy Lopez is an example of a Classical Opening. White immediately increases the pressure on the central e5-pawn by attacking it’s defender, the black knight on c6.
Classical Openings typically lead to positions where both sides use every move to fight for control of the centre. The classical approach to the opening is that it is best to fight for the centre right away, particularly by placing your pawns in the centre as soon as possible. In Hypermodern Openings, on the other hand, the strategy is to attack and undermine your opponent’s central pawns from a distance, mainly with pieces and flank-pawns.
A flank opening is any opening where the initial move for white is anything but 1.e4 or 1.d4 (or anything but 1… e5 or 1… d5 by black.) The strategy is similar to that pursued in hypermodern openings.
Example of a Flank Opening
Diagram above: The Bird’s Opening is an example of a Flank Opening.
In a flank opening you typically delay your attempts to control the centre by first developing on one or both of the flanks. A typical objective in a flank opening is to exchange a flank-pawn for a central pawn. By doing this you can indirectly increase your potential control in the centre–since you have an extra central pawn.
Tactical openings refer to any opening that is well-known for leading to positions where tactical opportunities abound.
Example of a Tactical Opening
Diagram above: The King’s Gambit Accepted, and in this case the Cunningham Defense Variation, is an example of an opening that leads to many tactical complications.
Amateur chess players sometimes prefer positional openings because they don’t trust their visualization skill in complex situations. They’d rather avoid complications, if at all possible. Strong players, on the other hand, may also favor positional openings but for a very different reason–it gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their superior position understanding in a low-risk environment.
Example of a Positional Opening
Diagram above: The Semi-Slav variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined is an example of a solid, positional opening.
Reversed Openings mostly refer to openings where white plays an opening usually played by black, but now with an extra tempo on hand.
Example of a Reversed Opening
Diagram above: The Reversed Sicilian Opening is an example of a reversed opening, with an extra tempo on hand.
Interestingly, this extra tempo often means that the strategies employed by white is very different than it would’ve been for black in the same position.
There is often an overlap between the different types of chess openings. For example, a flank opening can also be a hypermodern opening and a positional opening. It is also quite common for a certain type of opening to suddenly transpose to another type, which is why it is helpful to understand the typical characteristics and unique requirements of each opening type.