Opening evolution

By Bill Wall


A chess opening is the group of initial moves of a chess game.  A sequence of opening moves that is considered standard is referred to as “book” moves.  Hundreds of openings have been developed since the beginning of chess.  There are 20 ways to open the game for Whites first move (known as 1 play) in chess (16 pawn moves and 4 knight moves).  There are 400 unique positions after White and Black’s first move each (2 ply).  There are 5,362 possible positions after three moves (3 ply), two moves for White and one move for Black).  Of the 5,362 positions, 1,862 are unique.  There are 71,852 total positions after four moves (4 ply), two moves for White and two moves for Black), of which 9,825 positions are unique.  There are 822,518 possible positions after 5 moves (5 ply), three moves for White and two moves for Black, of which 53,516 positions are unique.  There are 9,417,681 total positions after six moves (6 ply), 3 moves for White and 3 moves for Black.  Of these, there are 311,642 unique positions.  Despite the large number of possible opening moves, there is a strong bias toward a small subset of chess openings.  The evolution of chess openings throughout history is interesting among master play as new ideas are discovered in the openings and computer analysis is used to calculate the advantage or disadvantage of each move.

Chess opening trends are like fashion – some high profile person finds a new resource and suddenly it is all the rage.  In chess, if a world champion like a Steinitz, or Lasker, or Capablanca, or Alekhine, or Botvinnik, or Tal, or Spassky, or Fischer, or Karpov, or Kasparov, or Carlsen plays a new variation in an opening, other chess masters will also start playing that variation.  The opening will be analyzed, played, studied, then fall out of fashion until someone uncovers a fresh new variation in this opening.  Nowadays, with the advent of computer analysis, the serious chess player needs to have a basic understanding of almost every opening.  These days most chess masters go for what chess engines like, and are always looking for new wrinkles and theoretical novelties.  So it is important to trace the evolution of chess openings.

The earliest printed work on chess theory whose date can be established with some exactitude is Repeticion de Amores y Arte de Ajedrez by Luis Ramirez de Lucena, published around 1500, which included among other things analysis of eleven chess openings. Some of them are known today as the Giuoco Piano (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4), Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5) , Petroff's Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6), Bishop's Opening (1.e4 e5 2.Bc4) , Damiano's Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f6), and Scandinavian Defense or Center Counter Defense (1.e4 d5), though Lucena did not use those terms.  Lucena seems to be the originator of 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5, and not Ruy Lopez, but openings are usually not named after the first person playing it.  The opening name, if it is named after a person, usually goes to the person who analyses and publishes his analysis in chess magazines and journals.

Around 1505, the Göttingen manuscript was published by an unknown author.  It introduced other chess openings such as Philidor’s Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6), the Ponziani Opening (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3), the Queen’s Gambit Accepted (1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4), Bird’s Opening (1.f4), and the English Opening (1.c4).

In the 16th century, opening books covered the King’s Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.f4) and the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5). 

In the 18th century, the “Modenese” or “Old Italian style” school came to prominence.  It favored rapid piece development and direct attacks on the enemy king’s position, often involving sacrifices.

In the early 1800s, the most popular openings were the King’s Gambit Accepted.  In the 1820s, the Scotch Opening (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4) was discovered and played by correspondence and local events.  In the 1830s, there were a lot of Italian Games (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3) and an introduction to the Evans Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4).  The most popular Sicilian Defense was 1.e4 c5 2.f4.  If White switch from 1.d4 to 1.d4, the most common opening was the Queen’s Gambit Defense (1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4).  In the 1840s, the English Opening (1.c4 ) and the French defense (1.e4 e6)became popular.  In the 1850s, the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 with 3…Nf6 the most likely response) was getting played more often.  Henry Bird was trying to popularize his Bird’s Opening (1.f4).  The popular Sicilian lines were 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 and 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6.  In the 1860s, the Two Knights Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6) was becoming popular.  John Owen was trying to popularize his opening, the Owen’s Defense (1.e6 b6).

The early period of chess from the late 1700s to the 1880s was the “Romantic” school full of gambits, sacrifices and swashbuckling attacks.  The games were dynamic and full of tactics where speed of development was of high importance.  Winning was secondary to winning with style.  Everyone accepted gambits (it was unsporting to decline a gambit – the sacrifice of a pawn or piece), not declining gambits.  There was no technical mastery of long-term planning.  The most popular openings were the King’s Gambit Accepted (1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4) and the Evans Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4).  Rapid development was followed by rapid attack.  By the 1860s, defensive technique was beginning to be improve against the more Romantic openings like the King’s Gambit and Evans Gambit.  The Romantic school of chess ended in the 1880s when Wilhelm Steinitz showed that good defense and strong positional play could win games. 

The next period of chess was known as the “Classical” or “Modern” school where 1.e4 was mostly played and control of the center was by pawns in the center, such as 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 or 1.d4 d5 2.c4.  The chess openings emphasized the importance of avoiding pawn weaknesses, strong outposts for knights, and striving for good bishops developed for attacking in open positions.  Many of the direct attacks against the enemy king during the Romantic era were demonstrated to be unsound.  Classical players like Steinitz and Tarrasch often invited their opponent to launch a premature attack in order to show the unsoundness of the attack.  The Classical era showed the accumulation of small advantages and the necessity of a player to obtain a positional advantage in the opening.  Openings were selected to avoid weaknesses in the pawn structure and preferred only to move pawns as an aid to development.  This Classical period lasted from the 1880s to the 1920s.

Hypermodern chess emerged after World War I in the 1920s.  This opening style showed that games could be won through indirect control of the center, which challenged the old Steinitz and Tarrasch dogmatic view that the center must by occupied by pawns (1.e4 e5 and 1.d4 d5).  The major opening theorist for hypermodern chess was Aron Nimzowitch who advocated controlling the center of the board with distant pieces rather than pawns.  Hypermodern openings include the Réti Opening (1.Nf3 and 1.Nf3 d5 2.c4), King's Indian Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6), Queen's Indian Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6), Nimzo-Indian Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4), Grünfeld Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5), Bogo-Indian Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Bb4+), Old Indian Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 d6), Catalan Opening (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3) , King's Indian Attack (1.Nf3, 2.g3, 3.Bg2, 4.O-O), Alekhine's Defense (1.e4 Nf6), Modern Defense (1.e4 g6), Pirc Defense (1.e4 d6), Larsen's Opening (1.b3), Sokolsky Opening (1.b4), and to a lesser degree the English Opening (1.c4).

In the 1920s and 1930s, top players like Aron Nimzowitsch, Richard Reti, Savielly Tartakower, Ernst Gruenfeld, and Alexander Alekhine felt that the existing chess openings had become boring and too orthodox and dogmatic.  They led the hypermodern movement.

In the 1940s, the Soviet school of chess took over and dominated the world of chess for the next 30 years or so.  The Soviets and Eastern bloc players devoted much time and effort into producing extensive concrete opening analysis in an age before computers.  Only Bobby Fischer cracked the Soviet school of chess for even greater and deeper analysis of openings.  For Fischer, “1.P-K4 was best by test.”

After Fischer virtually disappeared from the chess scene after 1972, the Soviet dominance once again resumed.  The Soviet approach to chess was characterized by its heavy reliance on thorough opening preparation and concrete analysis with sound openings. 

In the 21st century, strong chess engines, stronger than any top grandmaster or world champion, are being used in assisting players to select the best openings.  Players such as Carlsen, Nakamura, Anand, and all the young grandmasters all train using the best chess engines available and select the best opening against a particular player.  They are all in possession of databases of over 4 million games and all the openings that have ever been played in grandmaster chess, backed up by statistics and analysis.

Over time, some chess openings have dropped popularity and openings have become more diverse in the 21st century.  The most popular first White moves have been 1.e4 (King’s Pawn Opening), 1.d4 (Queen’s Pawn Opening), 1.c4 (English Opening), and 1.Nf3 (Zukertort or Reti or King’s Indian Attack).  In the 19th century, 1.e4 was played 90% of the time.  Starting around 1890, 1.d4 started to replace 1.e4 in some of the top master games.  In 1920, 1.d4 started becoming more popular and overtaking 1.e4 as the main first move in master chess.  In the 1920s and 1930s, hypermodern chess with 1.Nf3 (Reti or Zukertort Opening), 1.e4 Nf6 (Alekhine’s Defense), 1.e4 d6 (Pirc Defense), and 1.e4 g6 (Modern Defense) became popular.  In the 1940s, there was a slight rise in 1.c4 (English Opening).  In the late 1960s, 1.b3 (Larsen’s Opening) started being played more often in master chess.

When 1.e4, the moist popular opening, was played, Black mostly responded with 1…e5 (the Open Game) up until the 1930s.  From the 1930s to the present day, 1…c5 (Sicilian Defense) has become the dominant defense in master play against 1.e4.  In the 1870s, there a rise in 1…e6 (the French Defense), comprising 5% to 10% of master games.  In the 1930s, there was a rise in 1…c6 (Caro Kann) and 1…Nf6 (Alekhine’s Defense).  When 1.d4 was played, 1…d5 (the Closed Game with Queen Pawn and Queen’s Gambit) was the most popular response until the 1920s, when 1…Nf6 (Indian Defense) became more popular with new opening innovations.  1.d4 f5 (the Dutch Defense) has been used sporadically throughout the 20th and 21st century.  The 1.d4 other than 1…d5 moves are the Single Queen Pawn or Semi-Closed Games.

In the 19th century, 1. e4 e5 2.f4 (King’s Gambit) was extremely popular.  By the 1920s, it almost disappeared in master play.  By 2000 it was almost extinct in master play as no new ideas have been discovered to make it popular again.  Other openings that seems to have disappeared are 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 (Vienna Game) and 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 (Bishop’s Opening), which was popular in the 19th century, but almost gone in the 20th century, and almost extinct in the 21st century among master chess games.  1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 has been the most popular choice for most of the time in chess.  1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 has been the most popular choice in the Sicilian Defense. 

Openings such as the King’s Gambit and other gambits such as the Evans Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4) have not really disappeared despite the lack of recent grandmaster games.  It is still often played among amateur chess players, correspondence play, Internet play, and blitz play.  Grandmasters avoid it simply because of the risk-reward factor of having to solve so many complex positions over the board in a limited amount of time.  You can be sure, however, that every Grandmaster has studied the King’s Gambit and other less common openings with their team of coaches and trainers with the help of the best chess engines.

A good example of an opening that fell out of fashion that was brought back to the highest levels of grandmaster chess is the Scotch Opening (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4).  The opening was popular in the early 20th century, but disappeared at the highest levels of chess play.  Then world champion Garry Kasparov revived it in the 1990s and it was popular for a time.  It has now almost disappeared in Grandmaster play. 


New major openings are rare.  Perhaps the last major gambit opening was Benko’s Gambit (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5), which Paul Benko introduced in the late 1960s and heavily analyzed in the 1970s.  At first, Black was winning most of the game in master play, but with time, it has been neutralized and is now rare among top grandmasters.

The older chess openings tend to be named for geographic places and people. Many openings are named after nationalities, for example Indian (1.d4 Nf6), English (1.c4), Spanish or Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5), French (1.e4 e6), Dutch (1.d4 f5), Scotch (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4), Russian (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6), Italian (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc4 Bc5), Scandinavian (1.e4 d5), and Sicilian (1.e4 c5). Cities are also used, such as Vienna (1.e4 e5 2.Nc3), Berlin variation if the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6), and Wilkes-Barre (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 Bc5).


Today, the estimated first move popularity is:

1.e4  43%

1.d4  37%

1.Nf3  10%

1.c4   8%

1.g3   1%

1.b3  <1%

1.f4  <1%

1,Nc3  <1%

1.b4  <1%


I did a little survey of chess opening frequencies from several chess databases from the 1800s to 2016. After looking over a million games or so and keeping tabs of the first few moves, this is the result.

1.e4 was the most common opening, representing 70% of the sample. This was followed by 1.d4, representing 20%. This frequency goes up to 37% as more master games are included and amateur games excluded.

The next most common was 1.c4, representing 5% of the sample. Again, this number goes up with more master games and less amateur games. But our sample represents chess at all levels.

The next most common was 1.Nf3, representing 4% of the sample. Thus, 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4, and 1.Nf3 represent 99% of all openings in most databases.

The next most common was 1.b3, closely followed by 1.b4, 1.f4 and 1.g3. These openings represented .9% of the sample.

Next came 1.Nc3, 1.g4, 1.e3, 1.Na3, and 1.Nh3

The rarest moves were 1.a3, 1.c3, 1.f3, 1.h4, 1.d3, 1.a4, and finally 1.h3.

The most common response to 1.e4 was 1...e5. The next most common was 1...c5.

Next came 1...e6, followed by 1...c6.

Next in frequency was 1...Nf6, 1...d5, then 1...d6.

Next came 1...g6, 1...Nc6, followed by 1...b6.

Then came 1...a6, then 1...g5.

Finally, the rarest moves were 1...f6, 1...a5, 1...Nh6, 1...Na6, 1...f5, 1...h5, and 1...h6. I found no 1...b5 move.

The most common response to 1.d4 was 1...Nf6, followed closely with 1...d5.

Next came 1...f5. These 3 moves (1.d4 d5, 1.d4 Nf6, and 1.d4 f5) represent over 90% of the responses to 1.d4.

Next in frequency was 1...e6, followed by 1...c5.

Still rarer were 1...b6, 1...b5, 1...d6, 1...Nc6, 1...g6, and 1...e5

Finally, the rarest moves were 1...c6, 1...h6, 1...Nh6, and 1...f6.

I found little or no 1...a5, 1...a6, 1...Na6, 1...g5, or 1...h5 moves in response to 1.d4.

Here are some classifications of chess openings.


Open games are usually double king pawn games (1.e4 e5).


The most common response is 2.Nf3 (King's Knight Opening).  However, White can play:

2.a3 - Mengarini's Opening (normally arises after 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.a3)

2.Bb5 - Portuguese Opening

2.c3 - Lopez Opening or MacLeod Attack

2.c4 - Whale Opening (or the English Opening, Whale variation - 1.c4 e5 2.e4)

2.Nc3 - Vienna Game

2.Bc4 - Bishop's Opening

2.Bd3 - Tortoise Opening

2.d3 - Clam Opening or Leonhardt Opening or Indian Opening

2.d4 - Center Game

2.d4 exd4 3.c3 - Danish Gambit

2.d4 exd4 3.Qxd4-  Center Game

3.Ne2 - Alapin's Opening

2.f3 - King's Head Opening

2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 – Ruy Lopez

2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 Ponziani Opening

2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 without 3…Nf6 – Three Knights Game

2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nc6 – Four Knights Game

2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 – Italian Game

2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 – Giuoco Piano

2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 – Evans Gambit

2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Be7 – Hungarian Defense

2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 – Two Knights Defense

2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 - Scotch Game

2.Nf3 d5 – Queen Pawn Counter Gambit or Elephant Gambit

2.Nf3 d6 – Philidor Defense

2.Nf3 f5 Latvian Gambit

2.Nf3 Nf6 – Petroff’s Defense

2.Qf3 - Napoleon Opening

2.f4 - King's Gambit

2.Qh5 - Parnham's Attack or Danvers Attack or Wayward Queen Opening


Semi-Open games are 1.e4 without 1...e5


Black can play:

1...a6 - St. George Defense or Birmingham Defense

1...a5 - Ware Defense or Corn Stalk Defense

1...b6 - Owen's Defense

1...c5 - Sicilian Defense

1...c6 - Caro Kann Defense

1...Nc6 - Nimzovich (Nimzowitsch) Defense

1...d5 - Scandanavian or Center Counter Defense

1...d6 - Pirc (or Modern) Defense

1...e6 - French Defense

1...Nf6 - Alekhine's Defense

1...g6 - Modern (or Pirc) Defense

1...g5 - Basman Defense or Macho Grob or Borg

1...f5 - Fred Defense or From Reversed or Duras Defense

1...f6 - Barnes Defense

1...h5 - Pickering Defense or Goldsmith Defense

1...h6 - Carr Defense

1...Na6 - Lemming Defense

1...Nh6 - Adams or Hippopotamus or Wild Bull Defense


Closed games are the Double Queen Pawn openings (1.d4 d5)


The most common reply is 2.c4 (Queen's Gambit).  Other moves are:


2.Nc3 - Chigorin or Veresov

2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bg5 – Richter-Veresov Attack

2.e3 - Stonewall Attack

2.e4 - Blackmar-Diemer Gambit (usual is 1.d4 d5 2.e4 dxe4 3.Nc3)

2.Nf3 - Zukertort Variation

2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3 – Colle System

2.Bf4 - London System or Sarratt Attack

2.Bg5 - Bishop Attack or Zot or Levitsky Attack

2.f4 - Mason Attack

2.g4 - Zurich Gambit

2.Qd3 - Amazon Attack


The Semi-Closed Game is 1.d4 without 1...d5.


Black can play:

1...b5 - Polish Defense

1...b6 - Queen Fianchetto Defense

1...c5 - Benoni Defense         

1...c6 - Anglo-Slav Defense

1...Nc6 - Lundin or Van Geet Defense or Queen’s Knight Defense

1...d6 - Pillsbury Defense or Rat Defense or Wade Defense

1...e5 - Englund Defense                

1...e6 - Franco-Indian Defense

1...Nf6 - Indian Systems (the most common of the semi-closed openings)

1...f5 - Dutch Defense

1...g5 - Borg Gambit

1...g6 - Kotov-Robatsch Defense


Flank Openings are as follows:

1.b3 - Larsen's Opening

1.b4 - Sokolsky or Polish or Orangutan Opening

1.c4 - English Opening

1.Nf3 - Reti or King's Indian Attack or Zukertort Opening

1.f4 - Bird's Opening

1.g3 - Benko Opening


Irregular Openings are as follows:


1.a3 - Anderssen's Opening

1.Nh3 - Amar or Paris Opening

1.f3 - Barnes or Gedult's Opening

1.h3 - Clemenz Opening or Basman’s Attack

1.h4 - Despres or Kadas Opening

1.Nc3 - Dunst Opening

1.Na3 - Durkin's Attack

1.g4 - Grob's Attack

1.d3 - Mieses Opening

1.c3 - Saragossa Opening

1.e3 - Van't Kruijs Opening

1.a4 - Ware or Meadow Hay or Crab Opening


Tactical openings are usually gambits or sharp openings.


Positional openings are usually closed openings.


Statistically, White’s best openings by winning percentage are:


Queen’s Gambit

English Opening

King’s Indian Attack

Ruy Lopez

Four Knights Defense

Giucco Piano


Statistically, Black’s best openings by winning percentage are:


Nimzo-Indian Defense

Pirc Defense

Sicilian Defense

French Defense

Alekhine’s Defense

Modern or Robatsch Defense


The most drawish openings are:

Bogo-Indian Defense

English Opening

Four Knights Defense

Gruenfeld Defense

King’s Indian Attack

Torre Attack


Petroff Defense

Nimzo-Indian Defense



YouTube - Evolution of chess openings, 1850-2014.