Studying openings is one of the most popular activities among chess players.
It is reasonable: if you are good at openings, you get a head-start for the middlegames or even endgames. The first stage of the game is also the most predictable one. You can cook certain lines or traps at home and then catch your opponents with them.
If you can prepare openings at home, it makes sense to prepare the best openings. But what kind of openings are those? It is important to understand that there are no universally best openings. Every opening has its pros and cons, and you should decide what to play depending on your style and preferences.
The most common idea is the opening should be the best according to the strongest engines. Top players tend to play only these openings. It is a good idea to add them to your repertoire if you are a principled player who wants to achieve much.
Let’s look at some of the engine-approved openings from White’s perspective.
1. Best Chess Openings for White
The Ruy Lopez
It starts with the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 and has been historically considered White’s top choice.
Black has many different ways of playing against Ruy Lopez. Most of the lines lead to complex strategic battles, but there are also sharp dynamic lines. This makes it hard to prepare for such an opening: you have to be a well-versed player who knows a lot of theory. At the same time, studying such a complex opening like Ruy Lopez can enrich your strategic understanding and make you a better player.
Best Chess Openings: The Queen’s Gambit
Not only the name of the popular Netflix TV show but also one of the best chess openings. It starts with the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 and has been played at the highest level consistently since the 17th century.
Black has different ways of meeting this pawn thrust, but overall the game tends to be more positional. Typically, White has a bit more space and easier development in the arising positions, but Black is very solid.
The Catalan Opening
This opening is tremendously popular nowadays. It is characterized by White’s moves d4, c4, and the kingside bishop fianchetto (g3, Bg2). The Catalan has been Magnus Carlsen’s main weapon lately.
In Catalan, White usually tries to put Black under long-time positional pressure in the center and the queenside. In most of the lines, White’s king feels secure, which makes White’s position safe and easy to play.
What are the best openings for Black at the top level?
2. Best Chess Openings for Black
The Petroff Defense
This opening is such a hard nut to crack that many grandmasters avoid playing 1.e4 if the Petroff is expected. Magnus Carlsen had to deal with it in his World Championship matches against Fabiano Caruana (2018) and Ian Nepomniachtchi (2021). White couldn’t get any real advantage out of the opening in any of those games.
The Petroff Defense starts with the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6, when Black wants to trade off the e-pawns and leave White with a symmetrical position with no attacking potential.
It usually leads to dry positions where it is hard to play for a win for either side.
Best Chess Openings: The Berlin Defense
Vladimir Kramnik used this opening to overthrow Garry Kasparov in the World Championship match in 2000. Since then Berlin has been one of the most common openings at the highest level.
It starts after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6, when the main line usually leads straight into the endgame: 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8.
The endgame is full of nuances. Both sides have a lot of different plans and setups. White could also avoid entering the endgame with 4.d3 or 5.Re1.
The Marshall Attack
It is another popular way of playing against Ruy Lopez.
Magnus Carlsen used this opening in his World Championship matches against Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi. The Marshall Attack starts after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5.
Black sacrifices the pawn on e5 to develop the initiative until White finishes the development of the queenside. The Marshall Attack has been analyzed by the best engines for decades, and White is struggling to find any advantage. That’s why lately, White mostly tries different Anti-Marshall setups on move 8 or earlier.
Best Chess Openings: The Najdorf Sicilian
The favorite of Robert Fischer and Garry Kasparov, the Najdorf Variation of the Sicilian Defense is one of the most popular ways to open the game in chess. It starts with the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6.
It leads to sharp and dynamic positions; often both sides go for a crazy attack against each other. The Najdorf Variation has been under the analytical microscope for decades, which means there is a lot of theory to learn. Yet, White still tends to struggle when it comes to getting an advantage against it.
The Sveshnikov Sicilian
This is another opening variation that was employed by Magnus Carlsen.
He successfully used it in the World Championship match against Fabiano Caruana, after which it seemed nearly everyone started playing the Sveshnikov. It starts with the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5.
Black grabs space in the center but, at the same time, weakens the d5 and d6 squares. When Evgeny Sveshnikov and Gennadij Timoscenko started advocating this in the 1970s, it seemed like a risky idea. Nowadays, it is proven that the concept works, and Black gets dynamic chances to compensate for the static weaknesses.
Best Chess Openings: The Nimzo-Indian Defense
One of the most versatile chess openings. Both sides have a lot of setups; some lines will lead to complex strategic battles, whereas others will turn the game into a sharp fight. The Nimzo-Indian starts after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4.
Let’s note that White could avoid it with 3.Nf3 or 3.g3. That is why apart from the Nimzo-Indian, you should also know the Queen’s Indian Defense, the Ragozin, or some other opening.
The Ragozin Defense
Most elite players have the Ragozin Defense as an addition to the Nimzo-Indian. It is a solid and, at the same time, active weapon. It is usually reached after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Bb4.
Best Chess Openings: The Queen’s Gambit Declined
This is the classical way of playing against 1.d4. It is popular at all levels, including the beginners’ and the World Championship matches.
Black’s strategy is simple: they strengthen the center, develop the kingside, and then see what to do on the queenside.
The Grunfeld Defense
Another popular opening with a lot of computer lines. It starts with the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5:
White can grab the center with 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3, but Black will immediately put pressure on it with …Bg7, …c5, …Nc6, etc. It is a great opening for dynamic players.
There are many other openings favored by top players and strong engines, but let’s now look at the ones that are often considered the best at the club level.
3. Best Chess Openings at the Club Level
The London System
It is one of the easiest openings to play: it requires almost no studying and memorization. White usually gets a safe position with a clear and logical development scheme.
One of the best advantages of the London System is that it can be played basically against anything Black does. This is a dream opening for those who don’t want to study much. At the same time, the London can be turned into a dangerous weapon, which has been shown by many top grandmasters in recent years.
The King’s Indian Defense
Modern computer engines may be skeptical about this opening, but you probably look to play against humans. The King’s Indian Defense is a great weapon if you want to go for a win with Black pieces.
Also, it is relatively easy to learn and understand.
Black develops the kingside quickly and then attacks White’s center with …e7-e5 or …c7-c5. You can play this scheme against any White setup, which makes the King’s Indian Defense even more attractive for players of different levels.
Best Chess Openings: Conclusion
There are many good and interesting openings in chess. Everyone should find what opening is best for them. To see what works better for you, study different lines and try to practice them online.
Also, let’s note that some opening traps can give you great results quickly, but eventually, your opponents will learn how to deal with them. For long-term improvement, it makes sense to study more serious lines.