What Opening Do Most Grandmasters Play

What Opening Do Most Grandmasters Play


Chess openings are a stimulating thing to write and read about, that’s why there are so many books, videos, studies. But with so much information and so many different openings available it can be difficult to find out what you should do, so what opening do most grandmasters play? Keep reading to learn more about how to best of the best play chess.


White Openings

Because black plays the first move, they often dictate how the game is going to go, here are some of the more popular moves played at the highest levels of chess.

1…e4 – King’s Pawn Opening

This is the most popular opening move at all levels of chess. It was the favorite of Bobby Fischer who called it “best by test” and it remains popular to this day.

In this opening white immediately tries to fight for control of the important d5 square. For white the idea is simple, as long as there is a pawn on e4 the opponent can’t kick their g1-knight when it moves to f3.

When white claims the f3 square (by playing e4, black must keep in mind that f6 will not be safe for his g8-knight if white simply advances their e4-pawn to e5. The simple way to fix this is for black to imitate white’s move and play e5, this leads into the Open Game.

Most openings that start with e4 are considered more aggressive and “sharper” than those with d4 but that is still just a general ideal, in most games both players will have plenty of chances of influencing the way the game will be played after e4.

1.d4 – Queen’s Pawn Opening

Besides e4, d4 is the most popular opening for white. It’s a different way to start the game for white but its just as dangerous. The initial idea is to prevent black from playing e5 immediately, but it also discourages black from developing their b8 knight.

In general, this opening leads into white slowing black down instead of accelerating white’s development.

The normal responses to d4 are: d5 and Nf6 because other moves enable white to take the center with 2…e4. In the past this was frowned upon but nowadays with modern engines and new theory this is a viable option.

To learn how to play d4, white players should be familiar with the Queen’s Gambit and its variations, the King’s Indian, the Queen’s Indian and the Nimzo-Indian Positions.

Today there are more d4 players at the master level than e4, with an interesting stat: in world championship matches 1…d4 is played 5 times as much as 1…e4!

1.Nf3 – Zukertort Opening

This is an interesting move that is most likely used by experienced players to stall for time, they can play Nf3 and wait for black to commit to a pawn move, then they will choose a specific line that they like more.

The entire premise is that Nf3 is going to be a useful move, so it might as well be played now, this opening can easily transpose to many other openings, but because it directly prevents blacks 1…e5 it ends up having much more in common with 1…d4 openings than with 1…e4.

The disadvantage to playing this move is that black can play almost anything after the first move so having knowledge of many different opening lines is beneficial.


Black Openings

Because black must respond to white’s first move, we separated the moves into e4 and d4

1.e4 c5 – Sicilian Defense

The combination of 1.e4 c5 is called the Sicilian Defense and it is the most widely studied opening in all of chess for many reasons. It was first introduced way back in 1594 but it didn’t gain mainstream popularity until the 20th century when it was popularized by players like Kasparov and Fischer who made it the most popular opening for black.

Many players attribute the enduring popularity of this move to its success at the highest level and the combative, sharp games that it produces. Unlike other openings for black the Sicilian is an active opening that makes it possible for the black pieces to counterattack the opponent.

This opening is famously complex, so most coaches tell beginners to stick to easier and less technical openings like e5 but its still widely played at all levels with varying success. Here are some of the variations of the sicilian.

The Najdorf

The most popular variation thanks to Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov favoring this one. The moves:

1.e4 c5  2.Nf3 d6  3.d4 cxd4  4.Nxd4 Nf6  5.Nc3 a6.

In this version of the sicilian, black paces a pawn in the a6 square which is key for stopping both of white’s knights and the light squared bishop. More often than not it leads to a queenside attack.

The Dragon

Named for the supposed resemblance to the draco constellation (I don’t see it), this is one of the sharpest variations and one of the most popular variants of the sicilian.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6

The main idea of this line is that by moving the pawn into g6 allows black the opportunity to fianchetto the black bishop on g7. This bishop is the key of this opening and can often have as much impact as a rook especially if white castles queenside. There is also the accelerated dragon variation in which black foregoes moving the pawn first and instead goes straight into bishop on g7.

The Classical Variation

In this version of the sicilian black actually wants to develop the minor pieces in the traditional fashion, this is in sharp contrast to the Dragon and Najdorf versions.

This version is not too popular as the other versions so some players play this to make white uncomfortable and it often works that way.

There is More

There are more variations and then we’d have to get into white’s different responses including the “anti-sicilian” moves so we’re stopping here for now. If you want to learn more about the sicilian then there is no shortcut but studying for a long time.

1.e4 e5 – Open Game

Although not as popular this is still the second most played move after 1.e4 for black at the master level. In this classical move black fights for the center of the board directly with a pawn on e5. It’s a way to directly interfere with white’s plan in e4, it often leads to more open games with opportunities for both players.

Because of the symmetrical nature of this move, the longer black tries to maintain equality the more dangerous it becomes thanks to white’s extra move. The next move is basically sealed for white with 2. Nf3 being 10 times as popular as any other move, it quickly threatens black’s e5 pawn.

This move saw a significant decline at the highest level after the 20th century.

1. e4 e6 – French Defense

This is the third most popular move for black, the French defense has a solid reputation as a solid move but it can often lead to a lack of space for black. Thanks to the pawn structure that commonly forms after this move black most likely will develop his pieces on his stronger queen side of the board.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5, 3.Nc3

This is the most common line and the one that happens in about half of the games in the database.

1.d4 Nf6 – Indian Defense

This move starts the entire line of Indian defenses, like the sicilian this move puts the fight for the center on the backburner and instead black allows white to populate the center but eventually black will attempt to undermine this classical center position.

This opening also leads itself into a lot of transposition so players should take that into account, the move Nf6 is flexible enough.

1.d4 d5 – Closed Game

The classic response to 1.d4, this move opens up the diagonal for the light squared bishop and discourages black from playing e4.

There is not much else to say about this opening at this level, but the lack of popularity for this move is thanks to the Queen’s gambit which is an excellent opening and is the main reason why this one is less common at the top.


Choosing a chess opening depends on your personal style and comfort level with different types of positions. However, for average players, it’s often recommended to start with classical openings that have been well-studied and provide a solid foundation.

Because master players are so great at chess what works for them might not be optimal for your average chess fan, for those experts recommend solid standard openings like the Ruy Lopez, the Italian Game or the Queen’s Gambit if you like d4.




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