7 Famous Opening Chess Moves: Your Path to Victory

Boy making a move in chess match

Chess is an ancient game of strategy that has become cloaked in a shroud of mysticism as acclaimed tales of talented, yet troubled, grandmasters have been dramatized for decades in various musicals, films, and television shows. Most recently, Netflix's The Queen's Gambit re-popularized chess and the eponymous move, but it doesn't account for the hundreds of other famous chess moves competitors can employ. Take a look at seven of these chess openings and see if their historic fame holds up with players today.

Opening Strategy and Theory

Chess is an inherently strategic game that involves players trying to parse out their opponent's plan while simultaneously acting and reacting. The player that uses the white pieces always opens the game with the first move, giving them a slight advantage. According to chess teacher Hugh Patterson, there are four different types of opening moves: Open, Semi-Open, Semi-Closed, and Closed.

These categories are defined by where the white player moves their first pawn and how the black player responds. Keeping in mind that a chessboard is numbered "a" through "h" horizontally and 1 to 8 vertically. Each type of opening gives an indication of where the pieces are going to end up on the board throughout the course of the game.

  1. Open - The white player moves their e2 pawn to e4, and the black player responds by moving their e7 pawn to e5.
  2. Semi-Open - The white player moves their pawn to e4, but the black player doesn't respond with a pawn to e5.
  3. Semi-Closed - The white player moves their d2 pawn to d4, but the black player doesn't respond with a d7 pawn to d5.
  4. Closed - The white player moves their pawn to d4, and the black player responds with a pawn to d5.
Chessboard and chess pieces

Seven Famous Chess Opening Moves

There are more than 1,000 opening combinations in chess, and casual players can't be expected to memorize every single option. However, knowing some of the most famous openings will give you a solid foundation to begin building your repertoire. Given that these combinations have all served many chess players well in their time, they're worth studying to improve your game.

Ruy Lopez (Spanish) Opening

Named after a 16th century Spaniard, the Ruy Lopez opening was recorded by Lopez himself and proceeds as follows:

  1. White pawn to e4 - black pawn to e5
  2. White knight to f3 - black knight to c6
  3. White light-squared bishop to b5, pinning black's c6 knight

In the mid-19th century, this chess opening started to gain popularity as Russian theoretician Carl Jaenisch helped encourage its use. Several grandmasters have employed this opener, such as current world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, as the sequence helps the white player accomplish several things: it develops another piece on the board, it sets up the chance to move and protect the king with the bishop -- known as castling -- and it puts pressure on the black player to respond.

Giuoco Piano (Italian) Opening

Known as the "quiet game" for its less aggressive approach, this opening has multiple variations that can occur. As with most openings, the Italian grew to popularity in the 19th century, with players such as first world champion Wilhelm Steinitz using it to their advantage. Generally, when this opener is used, the white player mildly attacks with a bishop.

  1. White pawn to e4 - black pawn to e5
  2. White knight to f3 - black knight to c6
  3. White bishop to c4 - black bishop to c5

The white player's response to how the black player meets their bishop determines what variation is engaged, either the Giuoco Pianissimo or an Evans Gambit. With this opening move, white is able to control the center of the board, develop multiple pieces, and prep to castle the king.

Sicilian Defense

The Sicilian Defense is an infamous and complex response strategy from the black player. there are multiple variations, beginning with the open and closed versions of the Sicilian. The strategy involves black fighting for the center of the board by not mirroring the white's moves, but attacking from the c-file instead. Invented during the late 16th century, the move was denounced during the mid to late-19th century by famous players such as Wilhelm Steinitz and José Raúl Capablanca. The move was revived during the mid-20th century and is now regarded as one of the openings that gives black the best chances of winning against an e4 opening. Within the Sicilian Defense, there are multiple variations, two of which include the Dragon and Najdorf.

The Dragon Variation is reputedly so named for the resemblance of the pawn structure to that of the constellation Draco -- meaning dragon.

  1. White pawn to e4 - black pawn to c5
  2. White knight to f3 - black pawn to d6
  3. White pawn to d4 - black pawn on the c-file takes white on d4
  4. White knight takes d4 - black knight to f6
  5. White knight to c3 - black pawn to g6, to be soon followed by black's bishop moving to g7

The Najdorf Variation, which was highly regarded by legendary chess player Bobby Fisher, begins the same, but eventually diverges.

  1. White pawn to e4 - black pawn to c5
  2. White knight to f3 - black pawn to d6
  3. White pawn to d4 - black pawn on the c-file takes white on d4
  4. White knight takes d4 - black knight to f6
  5. White knight to c3 - black pawn to a6, giving black protection on the b5 square from both white knights and white's light-squared bishop, and allowing black to develop the queen-side bishop and knight

French Defense

As is typical of most chess openings, the French Defense was first noted in the late-15th century, though it wasn't named until 1834 when the Paris Chess Club utilized the defense in a winning match against the London Chess Club, played by correspondence. A semi-open opening, this defense is an ambitious move signaling the black player's desire to fight. There are multiple variations from which the basic formula is derived, and these include the Winawer, Tarrasch, Rubinstein, and Exchange. Here's how the classic French Defense is enacted:

  1. White pawn to e4 - black pawn to e6
  2. White pawn to d4 - black pawn to d5

One risk of using this opening is developing a "French Bishop," which happens when black's queen-side bishop gets trapped due to the competition between the players working to outflank one another. Using the French defense can create a closed center and an impressive pawn chain, leading to a fun, positional game to play.

Scandinavian Defense

The Scandinavian Defense -- also known as the Center-Counter Defense -- is loved by beginners for the way it requires little knowledge about opening strategy and puts black in an immediate attacking position. Supposedly, this defense is as old as the game itself, being used in the first recorded game of chess that was played in Valencia in 1475. Although not many masters prefer this defense, Joseph Blackburne frequently used it during his matches. The move itself is favored because of its lack of serious opening strategy and how it can establish a solid pawn structure.

The Scandinavian Defense begins as such:

  1. White pawn to e4 - black pawn to d5

Though not a required component of the defense, many players follow this opening with:

  1. White pawn takes black on d5 - black queen takes white on d5

King's Gambit

Considered the most popular opening of the 19th century and originating in the 16th century, the King's Gambit was used in perhaps the most famous game of the 19th century. This "Immortal Game" was played in London in 1851 between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kierseritzky, where Anderssen sacrificed most of his pieces in order to win the game and check mate Kierseritzky. In the King's Gambit, the white player gets a change to control the center of the board by using his Queen's pawn.

  1. White pawn to e4 - black pawn to e5
  2. White pawn to f4

To accept the gambit, the black player can respond by moving their pawn off of e5 and taking white's pawn on f4. However, black players don't have to accept the gambit and can instead choose another variation.

Queen's Gambit

Currently, the Queen's Gambit is best known for Netflix's limited series of the same name, which details the experiences of fictional female chess prodigy Beth Harmon during the mid-20th century. Mentioned as early as the late-15th century and frequently used during the Romantic period of chess, the Queen's Gambit is perhaps the most famous sacrificial opening strategy.

  1. White pawn to d4 - black pawn to d5
  2. White pawn to c4, offering the gambit

Once white has offered the gambit, black can either accept the gambit by taking white's pawn on c4, or decline the gambit and seek to reinforce black's d5 pawn using a variety of different defenses, such as the Tchigoran, Tarrasch, or Orthodox. Using the Queen's Gambit as an opening move can give the white player an opportunity to control the center by forcing black to react to white's moves rather than develop their own pieces.

Put the Theory into Practice

Understanding the opening theory behind chess can help prepare you to engage in a strong game against your next opponent, but theory will only get you so far in a competition. If you've found a newfound spark for chess thanks to The Queen's Gambit or have always been fascinated with the game, take the time to put your knowledge of opening moves to work and get practicing.

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7 Famous Opening Chess Moves: Your Path to Victory