11 March 2012

Why I Play the English Opening

The English Opening has been very, very good to me.  (I haven't always been good to it, that's another subject.) But why play it?  What does it offer that others don't?

As I've mentioned before, it's likely to be unfamiliar to most opponents and therefore will provide a practical edge to someone who knows it better, although admittedly it's unlikely to score quick wins (with some exceptions).  It has consistent strategic themes in its various branches and is not sharp, so you don't have to worry about losing to a newly discovered tactic in opening theory.  These are good reasons to play it.

But it's not the best reason.

I recently got a copy of Starting Out: The English, which I'll eventually get around to going through completely (and did so: go here for a summary of the different lines and ideas in the English); right now I'm partway through Art of Attack in Chess and need to work on other aspects of my game besides openings.  But I'm already enthusiastic about the book.  It lists my own favorite English Opening work, How to Play the English Opening by Nigel Povah, in the bibliography.  In its first pages it also makes the audacious claim that if you have to play for a win, you should choose the English.

That's right.  Not 1. e4, so sorry.  Not 1. d4, move along.  The English.

When Kasparov was down 12-11 in the 1987 World Championship, with only one game remaining, what did he pull out against Karpov?  That's right, the must-win 1. c4.  I mean, how much more must-win can you get than having to win against Karpov or lose the world championship?

[Event "World Championship 34th-KK4"] [Site "Seville"] [Date "1987.12.18"] [Round "24"] [White "Kasparov, Garry"] [Black "Karpov, Anatoly"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A14"] [WhiteElo "2740"] [BlackElo "2700"] [PlyCount "127"] [EventDate "1987.10.??"] [EventType "match"] [EventRounds "24"] [EventCountry "ESP"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1999.07.01"] 1. c4 e6 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. g3 d5 4. b3 Be7 5. Bg2 O-O 6. O-O b6 7. Bb2 Bb7 8. e3 Nbd7 9. Nc3 Ne4 10. Ne2 a5 11. d3 Bf6 12. Qc2 Bxb2 13. Qxb2 Nd6 14. cxd5 Bxd5 15. d4 c5 16. Rfd1 Rc8 17. Nf4 Bxf3 18. Bxf3 Qe7 19. Rac1 Rfd8 20. dxc5 Nxc5 21. b4 axb4 22. Qxb4 Qa7 23. a3 Nf5 24. Rb1 Rxd1 25. Rxd1 Qc7 26. Nd3 h6 27. Rc1 Ne7 28. Qb5 Nf5 29. a4 Nd6 30. Qb1 Qa7 31. Ne5 Nxa4 32. Rxc8 Nxc8 33. Qd1 Ne7 34. Qd8 Kh7 35. Nxf7 Ng6 36. Qe8 Qe7 37. Qxa4 Qxf7 38. Be4 Kg8 39. Qb5 Nf8 40. Qxb6 Qf6 41. Qb5 Qe7 42. Kg2 g6 43. Qa5 Qg7 44. Qc5 Qf7 45. h4 h5 46. Qc6 Qe7 47. Bd3 Qf7 48. Qd6 Kg7 49. e4 Kg8 50. Bc4 Kg7 51. Qe5 Kg8 52. Qd6 Kg7 53. Bb5 Kg8 54. Bc6 Qa7 55. Qb4 Qc7 56. Qb7 Qd8 57. e5 Qa5 58. Be8 Qc5 59. Qf7 Kh8 60. Ba4 Qd5 61. Kh2 Qc5 62. Bb3 Qc8 63. Bd1 Qc5 64. Kg2 1-0 '/>

(If you can't see at first why Karpov resigned, White will inevitably win Black's g-pawn after some bishop maneuvers, then it's all over.)

(Also, compare this with Annotated Game #2, which has some similar opening characteristics, although sadly it didn't turn out as well for White.)

The English happens to fit both my aesthetic and practical criteria for an opening selection, so I'm happy playing it.  I hope you're just as happy with your own opening selections.  If not, why not take a look at 1. c4?


  1. Hey ChessAdmin!

    I think the aesthetic consideration might be the most important!

    If it looks fun it probably is. I have adopted a policy of changing my openings (with the Black pieces anyway) roughly once a year. My reasoning is that this way I am exposing myself to a lot of different chess positions, ideas and plans.

    I have also recently toyed with the idea of having two openings as White. 1.e4 AND I think I really like the Nimzo-larsen attack. In a year or so I will pick something else.

    As can be seen on blog I also think if there is a position that is not comfortable for us (for me it is the open Sicilian as White) it behooves us to dive in and learn it. When I tried to avoid the open Sicilian I still got bad results. Now I have won two in a row in the open Sicilian.

    So I think aesthetics, exposure to many types of positions and facing fears is a good way to approach opening choice. (by the way I have always thought the Dutch looked cool and want to eventually give that a real go!)

  2. Hey Tommyg. I think it's important to have an open mind and appreciate the different types of chess that you run across. I used to not look at most master games in openings I didn't play, thinking they wouldn't be of any use. I missed a lot of good opportunities to learn that way and thereby expand my own knowledge base. You could say that my aesthetic appreciation of chess has expanded since then.

    I also strongly think people shouldn't feel forced or obliged to play specific openings because they're popular or recommended by a leading GM or whatever. If people hate the English for whatever reason and would never play it, no problem. Part of the magic that goes into being a chessplayer is the element of personal choice in your approach the game.

  3. Something to think about, my English-playing friend, is here, "some kind of souped-up Benko Gambit"!

  4. FYI, that link currently goes to a web developer site.

    I nonetheless Googled "English souped up Benko Gambit" and found the below url, which I think you're talking about:


    Tony Miles beat Karpov with the St. George (1.e4 a6), but I still haven't seen a lot of it since then. Probably a reason for that.

    Regarding the specific initial sequence in the above game link (1. c4 a6 2. Nc3 b5) I wouldn't play 2. Nc3 either, probably would go for 2. Nf3 instead and head for a fianchetto with g3 as a follow-up. Declining the Benko Gambit, as I understand it, is also the best route for White in that opening (or at least not going the full gambit route).

    Reminds me a bit of the Bellon Gambit (also featuring ...b5) where White also does best to decline it.

    1. Ha, a slip of the linkage there, but yes, that was the game I was thinking about. I wasn't too serious but it was good for a chuckle. 2. Nf3 probably takes most of the possible sting out of it.

    2. Anything that wins is serious!

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