The English Opening: Playing 1.c4

The English Opening or …

I am by no means a specialist on openings in general, or the English Opening in particular, but I have opened with 1.c4, 1.d4, 1.e4, and 1.Nf3 in my tournament career.

As many before me have said, 1.e4 is the most straightforward first move, and 1.d4 can be very direct as well if the player intends it to be so.

A 1.Nf3 user often employs transpositional “games” against their adversary, aiming for certain openings or variations while avoiding others. Two defenses that regularly get frozen out in this way are the Nimzo-Indian and the Grünfeld, when white plays an early Nf3 and c4, but not d4.

Why 1.c4?

One of the main arguments for 1.Nf3 is that it avoids 1…e5.

In contrast, the 1.c4 player wants to play “English” positions; not just transpose into favorable d4-lines. Specifically, I’m talking about positions that arise after 1.c4 e5.

The 1.c4 player likes playing these positions since black has ceded control over the d5-square white hopes to clamp down on:

I began to like these positions after studying How to Play the English Opening (Batsford, 2007) by Anatoly Karpov. The ex-World Champion spends a lot of time covering the Four Knights Variation with 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3:

…mainly through his games against Garry Kasparov and other absolute top players. He also covers other choices on move 4 besides g3.

Game Changers

Kosten's famous book on the English Opening

I doubt Kosten imagined the influence his small book would have on the popularity of the English Opening!

Karpov’s book is underrated, but that likely has to do with the enduring popularity of The Dynamic English (Gambit, 1999) by Tony Kosten, and the authority Mihail Marin established with The English Opening (3 Volumes, Quality Chess, 2009-2010).

Kosten and Marin recommend the move order 1.c4 e5 2.g3. Kosten’s book in particular is very system-based, which appeals to many players. But with the explosion of chess information over the past 20 years, black players are more aware than ever how to deal with his main setup, the Botvinnik System:

That doesn’t mean white should hesitate to play this way if s/he enjoys the resulting positions. The strongest ideas in chess are those that are effective even if your opponent knows they’re coming.

But the “Old” English Opening was Popular for Decades!

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 is less predictable: both sides have freedom to choose their preferred setup — black can even try 2…Bb4. Going into lines with 2.Nc3 is something to consider for a player who has more advanced positional skills than their peers and has reasonable hopes of outplaying them — though I wouldn’t recommend the English until a player is 1600, at least.

Flank openings are more structurally fluid than 1.e4 or 1.d4, but choosing 1.c4 over 1.Nf3 takes that to another level. If you can become a specialist in “pure” English positions, there are plenty of points to be scored simply through better familiarity of the terrain.

1 thought on “The English Opening: Playing 1.c4

  1. Ron Young

    I played 1. c4 a few times during Korchnoimania back in ’78. Once I fell into the trap with 1. c4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Nbd7 5. cxd5 exd5 6. Nxd5 Nxd5. I haven’t played it much since. John Watson came out with a 2-volume set then that was sort of a big deal at the time.

    Reply

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