English Opening – Learn different variations

The English are a flank opening that starts with 1.c4. It is a highly transpositional opening that might at times transpose to other d4 openings.

The English opening has comparatively less amount of theory than any other opening like the Ruy Lopez or Catalan. White has a fixed structure in most of the variations. This makes the opening easy to learn and can be mastered in a very short span of time.

White aims to control the light squares, and the battle takes a positional nature. It is a highly respectable opening and has been adopted by top players such as Mikhail Botvinnik, Garry Kasparov and modern-day heroes like Magnus Carlsen. In the English, white mainly aims to fianchetto his light-squared bishop in most of the variations.


1. Symmetrical English:

The symmetrical English starts with 1…c5 from black and is named so because black advances the c pawn two squares and at times aims for the same setup as that of white. The move order goes 1.c4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.Nf3 Nf6 6.0-0 0-0 7.d4 

This is the starting position of the Pure symmetrical variation. The position is supposed to be equal although white claims an edge.

1.c5 c5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 Here black can also play 3…d5 and sets up a Maroczy structure aiming to prove that white’s extra tempo is insignificant.

After 1.c4 c5, white can also play 2.Nf3. Play might continue 2…Nf6 3.g3 b6 4.Bg2 Bb7 5.0-0 e6 6.Nc3

The game in this structure becomes very slow and manoeuvring. Both sides must be on the lookout for pawn breaks.

Another line is 1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 e6

The main line runs 6.g3 Qb6 7. Ndb5 Ne5

This is a very sharp variation which involves some pawn sacrifices from both sides.

2. Reversed Sicilian 1….e5

This is the most popular response against the English both for club players as well as top masters. Almost everyone Carlsen, Caruana, Anand, Ding Liren, and Anish Giri uses this system from time to time.

Black’s position resembles that of a Sicilian with colours reversed.

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.g3 (note that white can also play 3.Nf3 and enter this variation) 3…d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5. Bg2 Nb6 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.0-0 Be7 8.d3

There have been millions of games played from this position. White tries to develop counterplay on the semi-open c file and stands slightly better.

Another variation is 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.d3 d6 6.e4

White’s moves are simple Nge2,0-0, Be3, Qd2 etc. White tries to play f4 and create some attacking chances on the kingside whereas black can counter with f5 or look for a play on the queenside.

The name of this setup is the Botvinnik setup.

After 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.d3 d6 White can also play 6.Rb1. Play might go 6…Nf6 7.Nf3 0-0 8.0-0

White plans b4 to b5 kicking the night and thus gaining some space on the queenside.

Black can also play 2….Bb4 on the 2nd move. The move order goes 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Bb4

With this move, black tries to avoid the theoretical battles and aims to damage white’s pawn structure by taking on c3. White usually plays 3.Nd5 then play might go 3..Be7 4.d4 d6 5.e4

White has more space and is ready to get the bishop pair by taking on e7.

Black can also opt for the f5 set ups with 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 d6 3.Nf3 f5

The line runs 4.d4 e4 5.Ng5!

White aims to play Nh3 and put the Night on the active f4 square.

3. 1.c4 e6 (Queens Gambit declined structures)

1.c4 e6 2.Nf4 d5 3.g3 Nf6 4.Bg2 Be7 5.0-0 0-0 6.b3

These structures often transpose into some kind of Catalan. Both sides are flexible and try to develop their pieces as quickly as possible. This setup was used by Magnus Carlsen in one of his games in the 2021 World Chess Championship.

4.Slav setup with 1…c6

1.c4 c6 

This setup is mainly employed by Slav players to be in their comfort zone. White can always transpose into some mainline slav by playing d4 at any moment. However, he can keep the game in pure English territory.

1.c4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.g3 Nf6 4.Bg2 dxc4!

Black aims to hold on to the pawn.

5.Qc2 Nbd7 6.Na3 g6

Black can also try to hold on to the pawn with 6…Be6

7.Nxc4 Nxc4 8.Qxc4 Bg7 and we have some kind of slav Grunfeld hybrid on the board.

5. 1…Nf6

Well, this move can transpose into many d4 openings at a later stage. 

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 0-0 5.e4!

White tries to be within the boundaries of the English opening.

5…d6 6.Nge2 This night is developed on e2 to clear the way for the f pawn at a later stage in the game.

6…c5 (Black can also play 6…e5)

7.0-0 Nc6

This setup is used by kings and Indian players. White has a comfortable position and can gain space both on the Queenside as well as the Kingside.

Another variation variation is the Carl-Mikenas attack which starts with 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3.e4 

Now black has two moves 3…d5 and 3…c5.

After 3….d5 play runs 4.e5 d4 5.exf6 dxc3 6.bxc3 Qxf6 7.d4 

Here black plays 7….b6. Aronian has tried 8.h4 here against Ding Liren in Candidates 2018.

If black plays 3…c5, play continues 4.e5 White pushes the night back and gains space.

4…Ng8 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.d4 cxd4 7.Nxd4! Nxe5

White has sacrificed a pawn in order to get control over the dark squares in Black’s camp. A strategic battle awaits in the future.

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 d5

This setup is played by Grunfeld players. Play might continue 3.cxd5 Nxd5 4.g3 g6 5.Bg2 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 

Here 7.h4! Is a modern idea in order to create attacking chances on the kingside?

6. Dutch Setups:

1.c4 f5

Again, the play might transpose to some mainline dutch.

2.Nf3 Nf6 3.g3 e6 4.Bg2 d5 5.0-0 c6 6.b3 0-0

Black opts for a stonewall setup which is rather solid.

1.c4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 g6 4.Nc3 Bg7 5.d3 0-0 Black opts for a Leningrad structure in this case.

6.e4! White wants to put the night on e2 to remain more flexible. 6….fxe4 7.dxe4 d6 8.Nge2 c5

White enjoys a small plus in this line.

7. c4 b6:

This setup is played by those who want the game to steer into some kind of Queens Indian. Black’s moves are rather simple, he will play Bb7,e6, Nf6 etc. White can play later d4 and enter into the main lines where he is more than comfortable.

Harikrishnan A

I am an International Fide Rated player with 10+ years of experience.

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