5 popular chess openings that you need to memorize (explained)

5 popular chess openings

When I was studying chess a very very very long time ago, I am used to hearing two or three named chess openings… 🙂   Queen’s Gambit, Ruy Lopez, and Sicilian Defense.  

What I didn’t know is that there are many other chess openings that I didn’t know existed.   I did a little research and found out that the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings (ECO) organized code for the list of chess openings.  

You can check out the list of chess openings according to ECO here.   Learning all of it will take time obviously, so since I am also teaching my daughter the importance of chess openings, I decided to learn and list five popular chess openings that chess beginners should know.

5 popular chess openings that you need to memorize (explained)

Do check out one of our recommended articles:
“Chess Puzzles of two and three move checkmates” click here to read blog post!

First, why do we need to learn chess openings?

The opening is one of the essential stages of every chess game.   The way you play your first few moves is going to dictate the rest of the game.  

Play the opening well; you are going to have a significant advantage. Play it poorly, and you will find yourself scrambling to defend your King all game long.  

Chess has so many possibilities right from the get-go.

So, how many chess openings are there?

Based on what I have seen and read from Wikipedia and Encyclopedia of Chess Openings (ECO) there are at least 500 chess openings that were taken from hundreds of thousands of games from masters or grandmasters only.  

ECO carefully selected chess openings that are most commonly seen being played by masters or grandmasters level.  

If you want to check out the list of chess openings, click here to read the full article from Wikipedia but keep in mind that this list does not include several chess combinations.  

Because there are several chess combinations in the first move alone…

Also read this article: 13 Valuable Chess Tricks and Lessons

How many possible chess combinations are there in the first move?

Once your pieces are set-up, you will find that you have a choice of 20 different moves to start with as white.  

Once white moves, black will also find that they can choose between 20 different opening moves.  

Put together, and there are already 400 possible combinations right on the first move alone! It is mind-blowing to think just how many possible chess openings there are then, considering that openings usually last 12 moves in.  

The good news for us is that we don’t have to guess which of the nearly infinite amount of combinations will help us to victory.

Rules of thumb in chess opening

Chess is a very old game. Geniuses over the years have done extensive studies on chess openings. Their studies have given us direction in the opening stage.  

So instead of just making random moves and hoping for the best, we now have something to work towards.   Today, there are rules of thumb that we can follow in the opening.  

These are to control the center, bring out your minor pieces (knights and bishops), play active moves, don’t bring your most powerful chess piece (which is your Queen) out too early, and protect your king.  

Follow these rules, and you will have a solid opening every time.

Memorize chess openings

If you want to get even better at openings though, it pays to learn and memorize some of the best openings ever made.  

These openings are prevalent and are played at every level of chess.   It is often said that you need to play the opening like a book.  

This means you need to memorize the exact moves that are proven to give you the most significant possible advantage out of the opening.

Today we are going to have a look at 5 of the essential openings to know in chess for beginners

We’ll have a look at the basic ideas behind these openings, and some of the more popular variations of them as well.

When you know the ideas behind the opening, you will be ready to use it to crush your opponents in every game you play.

So without further ado, let’s get started.

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1. The Ruy Lopez or Spanish Game Opening (1. e4, e5 2. Nf3, Nc6, 3. Bb5…)

This is the most popular chess opening.

Learning and mastering this opening is a must for every chess player because everybody, from beginners up to the professionals, uses this opening.

The Spanish are an enjoyable opening that promises direct play with plenty of tactics involved.

However, it isn’t going to set the board on fire like some other openings.

One of the reasons why this opening is grand for beginners is because it is simple, and it follows the rules of thumb very closely.

Learning this opening will give you an idea of what the battle in the opening is really like.

Ruy Lopez Opening Chess Moves Explained

It starts with 1. e4. White quickly looks to control the center by putting a pawn up there. Black matches this effort by playing e5.

Whites next move is 2. Nf3.

This is an excellent defense for many reasons.One, it develops a minor piece.
Two, it helps control the center.
And three, it puts pressure on black’s pawn on e5.

If black doesn’t do anything about it, white can capture it and be a pawn up.

There are several ways to defend the pawn

The most popular and arguably, the best way to do this is by playing Nc6.   This is because not only does the knight on c6 protect the pawn, but it also develops a minor piece and helps to control the center as well!

Remember, make active moves, even when you are defending.   The third move is the signature move of the Spanish game, bishop to b5.

This move is what sets the tone for the rest of the game

The move bishop to b5 is an excellent move. It not only develops a piece, but it also asks black a lot of questions.  

How is black going to deal with the threat of the bishop taking the knight on c6, followed by the knight on f3 taking the pawn on e5?

Those moves make the Spanish game. From here, black does have several great responses: the main-line (3… a6), the Berlin defense (3… Nf6), or the Steinitz defense (3… d6).   Each variation is going to give you a different game out of the Ruy Lopez chess opening.

However, the overarching theme of this opening is that it is a constant battle for the center

White tries to establish an active center, while black does what its best to counter this.

2. The Queen’s Gambit Opening (1. d4, d5 2. c4…)

For players who don’t like the active and tactical games they get out of the Spanish, Queen’s Gambit might suit them better.  

This is because the Queen’s Gambit often leads to quieter games, games that are more about strategy and positioning your pieces rather than tactics and direct attacks.

Also, read article about “advanced chess strategies” just click the link to learn more!

Queen’s Gambit Opening Chess Moves Explained

It starts with 1. d4. The general idea is that opening with e4 is more tactical, while d4 is more strategic.  

Of course, there are a lot of exceptions, but most of the time you’ll get quieter openings with d4.   Black responds with d5. Just like in the Spanish game opening, black wants to counter white’s control of the center straight away.  

Then comes the move that makes the Queen’s gambit, white plays c4.   This move makes a lot of sense because white is once again trying to control the center.

It is also an excellent active move because white uses his side pawn to challenge black’s center pawn (center pawns are considered more valuable).

However, the first time you see this move, you might think it’s crazy.

Why is white giving up a free pawn? Can’t black play 2. dxc4 and be a pawn up?

The answer is that the pawn is not free.

Black taking the pawn is not considered to be a good move.

This is because after the follow-up move 3. e3, there is no way for black to hold on to his pawn without giving up too much.

One example would be 3… b5, 4. a4, c6 5. axb5, cxb5 6. Qf3 and suddenly black can’t properly defend his rook on a8.

This is why most players won’t take the pawn, but will instead play something like the Queen’s Gambit Declined (2… e6) or the Slav Defense (2… c6).

Both of these moves lead to more strategic games.   You will find that the theme of these openings is going to be more about shuffling your pieces around, trying to get them to the best positions before you strike at your opponent.

3. The Sicilian Defense (1. e4, c5)

Openings are a little different when you are playing with the black pieces.   Right from the start, you already have a slight disadvantage since white is always going to be one move ahead of you.  

This is why, whereas white seeks to push their advantage in the opening, black’s goal is to neutralize it.   But this doesn’t mean black should play passively or defensively.

One of the most successful openings for black is the Sicilian Defense, an opening where black fights fire with fire.

If you enjoy crazy games, the Sicilian Defense is for you.

This is one of the sharpest openings out there.

Packed with tactics all over the place, Sicilian games are often a race of whoever can checkmate their opponent first.

Sicilian Defense Opening Chess Moves Explained

The games out of this opening are so sharp; some players give up playing 1. e4 altogether to avoid it. Plenty of players play 1. e4 hoping to get the Spanish game they are used to.  

Instead of responding with e5 though, you can take the game on a completely different direction by playing c5!   The idea of this c5 move is terrific. Instead of pushing a center pawn right away, black uses his side pawn to put pressure on the center.  

Black wants to keep his center pawns at home until they can be used for his advantage. The game can go anywhere from here. But the most common way to continue playing is 2. Nf3, d6 3. d4! cxd4. 4. Nxd4…

This is known as the Open Sicilian

White gives up a center pawn to get his pieces out as quickly as possible. Black, on the other hand, will look to take advantage of the fact that white no longer has two center pawns.

This chess opening is not for the faint of heart.

What usually happens next is white, eventually, castles queenside, while black goes kingside.

This opposite side castling allows players to push their pawns up the board to join in on the attack of the king. In the Sicilian, it is checkmate or be checkmated.

Playing this opening is going to force you to be on your toes at all times

One slip and you could find your king trapped. But if you are someone who wants to set the board of fire, the Sicilian Defense is going to be perfect for you.

4. The Indian Defense (1. d4, Nc6)

The rule of thumb is to try and get your pawns to the center to control it.   However, in modern times, a lot of players are leaning towards the Indian Defenses.  

The idea behind the Indian Defenses is instead of directly challenging for the center, and the black player uses his pieces to undermine white’s center pawns.

Indian Defense Opening Chess Moves Explained

That is why instead of matching white’s 1. d4 move with d5, black will play Nc6. Once again, the game can go anywhere from here.

There’s the Nimzo-Indian (2. c4, e6 3. Nc3, Bb4), Queen’s Indian (2. c4, e6 3. Nf3, b6), King’s Indian (2. c4, g6 3. Nc3, Bg7), and plenty of others.

But the overall theme of the Indian defenses is that black gives the control of the center to white and creates a fortress back at home.

Black is relying on the fact that white’s expansion to the center is going to leave weaknesses that can be exploited.

The Indian Defense leads to a very strategic and positional type of game

As black, you will often find that you have less space to work with than white.   But if you are good at the strategic game and good at shuffling your pieces to the right places, the Indian Defense is going to be a powerful weapon for you.

However, great care needs to be taken when playing an Indian Defense.

These defenses are sometimes not recommended for beginners as they don’t follow the rules of thumb directly.

If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, the Indian Defenses are going to be nothing but suffering for you.

Beginners should go for the Queen’s Gambit Declined if their opponent opens with d4.

5. The French Defense (1. e4, e6)

Last but not least, the French Defense.   Black is always trying to find ways to neutralize white’s early advantage.  

We looked at how black can do this with fire (Sicilian) and patience (Indian) already, now let’s take a look at how to choke the game.

French Defense Opening Chess Moves Explained

The idea behind the French Defense is to create a locked up position.  

Black wants to create a closed match, where pawns are head to head with pawns, and their pieces are behind them.  

This is why when white plays e4, black response with e6.   This encourages white to grab the center by pushing d4, which they almost always do. And black follows this up with 2. d5

Black offers an exchange of pawns which white usually doesn’t accept.

This is because taking this exchange often leads to boring games where nobody has an advantage.   Instead, white can go for the Advance French (3. e5), the Winawer (3. Nc3), the Tarrasch (3. Nd2), and more.  

The game can go anywhere from that stage. But in most French Defense games, white will eventually push their pawn up to e5 and create the famous French pawn structure.  

Throughout the entire game, this structure is going to play a significant role.

This pawn structure completely locks up the center, forcing both players to find creative ways to attack from the flanks.

The French Defense is going to test how good you are with the little space you have.

Once the French pawn structure is in place, it becomes a strategic battle.   The one who can shuffle their pieces to be in the right place at the right time will ultimately emerge victoriously.

Wrapping Up

Those are just 5 out of the thousands of openings in chess.   But these are five openings that you are sure to come across, so it is vital to know the ideas behind these openings.  

Learning these five openings will also give you an excellent starting repertoire that you can build on as you become better and better at chess.  

I do hope you were able to learn something new in this article or even help you teach your kids the importance of learning chess openings.  

You can build a solid foundation when you do start learning some of the best chess openings mentioned in this article.   Have fun learning chess openings! 🙂

Check out my best chess resources for kids and adults here.

Gary Flores

Hi there! I'm a dad with kids who loves to learn how to play chess by learning online - also, this is my way of refreshing my knowledge about this game of tactics & strategy. I created chessdelights.com to inspire people who are also learning, re-learning or teaching their kids the game of chess.

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