Best Chess Openings for All Skill Levels

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The best chess openings can be a bit subjective. Are we thinking about the best chess openings according to the highest-rated chess computer? Or are we thinking in terms of the openings that follow the general principles of chess? For this article, we are going to discover the top openings at each level and discuss why they may be scoring well.

To determine the best chess openings I am going to be using the lichess opening explorer and translating those ratings with the rating comparison page to chess.com blitz ratings. Each move will be given a score that is equal to [white win %] minus [black win %]. Only moves played within 10% of the time of the most popular move will be considered.

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Novice and Beginners (<1100 Chess.com Blitz)

For players rated less than 1100 chess.com blitz, it’s probably not worth the time to dig deeply into opening theory. At this level, it’s very important to focus on playing games, analyzing those games, and studying tactics puzzles. Chess.com’s article Chess For Beginners | Study Plan: The Opening is a great place to learn about openings.

We have three tracks of resources for beginners. Free study plans (Novice, Beginner) contain quite a bit of useful information on recommendations for studying and what has worked for players in the ChessGoals survey. One step further is to sign up for the free study plan worksheets.

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We also have new 12-week premium study plans that let you know day by day what you can work on (Novice, Beginner). These help hold players accountable and we are building a community in the Chess.com ChessGoals Club.

Intermediate (1100-1699 Chess.com Blitz)

The intermediate level is where players should start to think a bit deeper about their specific opening repertoires. This is especially true as we reach the advanced level of 1700.

Best Chess Openings For White

1.e4 and 1.d4 are the only two moves within the 10% threshold, e4 scoring +3 (49% white win % – 46% black win %) and d4 +5. 1.e4 is about 2.5 times as popular as 1.d4, but 1.d4 tends to post more problems for the opponent. How often do you hear people complain about facing 1.d4? Quite a bit!

Catalan Opening

After 1.d4 d5 2.c4 (+11) e6 3.Nf3 (+10) Nf6 4.g3 we reach a position that scores +18 for white! The Catalan is one of my favorite openings for white and it’s a nice solid system that’s easy to learn the common plans and pawn structures.

Let’s follow the most common replies for black at the intermediate level, and the recommended top-scoring moves for white.

The above position has a StockFish evaluation of +0.75 for White, which is close to a 3/4 pawn advantage! The score for white is 62% and for black 28%. Let’s take a look at the different imbalances in this position that favors white:

  • Center control: Pawns on d4/c4, a knight on f3, queen on e2, all influence the center
  • Space: Pawns on d4 and c4 give white more room to maneuver
  • Development: The rook on d1 and queen on e2 are better placed than the black counterparts. The bishops are also better placed for white.

There is an incredible resource available from Grandmaster Georg Meier on chess.com called Attack with the Catalan!

Best Chess Openings
Attack with the Catalan

Georg is a well-renowned opening theoretician and the format is a nice balance between learning and testing your knowledge.

Other Defenses

Even though they technically are not referred to as the Catalan, kingside fianchetto systems with d4/c4 will serve you well against almost any system black can throw at you. For very ambitious/advanced players, Boris Avrukh has a repertoire based on these exact systems in a four-book series. I have the older version of this series and used it myself to help me reach the master level.

Book 1A: The Catalan (Black plays …d5, …e6, and …Nf6)
Book 1B: The Queen’s Gambit (Black plays 1…d5 and not Catalan)
Book 2A: King’s Indian & Grunfeld (Black plays 1…Nf6 and 2…g6)
Book 2B: A catch-all for dynamic systems not covered above

Best Chess Openings For Black

Caro-Kann

I selfishly love that this opening came out on top. Even though I have had mixed results with the system above 2000 rating, the Caro-Kann has been one of my personal favorites for over 20 years. After 1.e4, c6 scores -3 and after 2.d4 d5 the score is equal. Starting with an equal system is not easy to do when you move second. There are two main systems that you’ll encounter in the Caro-Kann. We are coming out with a complete Caro-Kann Course that should be ready in early 2021.

1. Advance Variation

The most challenging system against the Caro-Kann. White grabs extra space in the center, and often black will play …c5 as a pawn break which requires moving the c-pawn a second time in the opening. The move order is 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5.

Caro-Kann Advance Variation: Botvinnik-Carls Defense

This has also been a personal weapon of mine over the years, and it’s scoring a whopping -11. At the intermediate level, the first player is really struggling against the setup. Typically, 3…Bf5 will be played as the mainline and your opponents will probably have a system ready. 3…c5 is just offbeat enough to throw off your opponent, yet it’s still playable at all levels.

Grandmaster Alexei Kornev recommends 3…c5 in his book A Practical Black Repertoire with d5, c6 part 2: The Caro-Kann and Other Defenses.

The book was published in 2017 and is the most recent repertoire resource I could find on the 3…c5 Caro-Kann Advance.

GM Kornev covers the main lines with 4.dxc5, as well as some of the trickier lines like 4.c4 and 4.Nf3. This system will hopefully put you into a solid position where you know the ideas better than your opponent. Notice a theme forming?

2. Classical Variation

The classical variation used to be the most popular back when I was an active youth player. This can variation arises after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 or 3.Nd2 dxe4. White gets a nice center and a small lead in development. Kornev’s book recommends the main line 4…Bf5, which scores +4. The Smyslov System, 4…Nd7, is second in popularity and scores +2. The move that scores the best for black (-2) is the surprising 4…Nf6.

Benko Gambit
Benko Gambit

Most players will capture the knight on f6 immediately, and we can then capture back with either the e-pawn or the g-pawn. Taking with the g-pawn leads to more dynamic play with the half-open g-file available for attack. Capturing with the e-pawn is a bit more solid, but can also lead to some nice kingside attacks with the extra pawn pushing up the board.

I don’t personally own this DVD course, but it looks like the best resource on the 4…Nf6 Caro-Kann. It includes over four hours of video and interactive training.

This combination of video and interactive training is what makes chess.com lessons so effective. There is also a Caro-Kann repertoire series on Modern-Chess.com that recommends:

Benko Gambit

Against 1.d4, 1…Nf6 (-1) scores much better than 1…d5 (+9). I think the reason for this is due to the complexity of 1…Nf6 systems. Black can pick the King’s Indian Defense, for example, and know all the ins and outs of the system. After White goes for the common 1.d4 2.c4 setup the best scoring option is 2…c5.

The resulting position after 5…g6 scores an incredible -11, favoring Black by quite a bit. I have played both 1…d5 systems and the Benko Gambit, and I can definitely say there are pros and cons to each. If your opponent is preparing specifically for the Benko Gambit, they may be able to find a line you are not prepared for. Overall though, I had much better results with the Benko Gambit than I did with any 1…d5 systems.

It feels strange to gambit a pawn without a kingside attack, but there will be tremendous long-term pressure against White’s position if you know the general ideas on where to put your pieces. The Modernized Benko Gambit by Milos Perunovic looks to be a good resource, but I personally don’t have a copy of the book.

Other Systems

For other systems like 1.c4, 1.d4, the London, etc. the best scoring defenses tend to be a combination of …Nf6 and …c5, which falls in line with our Benko Gambit repertoire. I don’t have any specific resources for these except to do some exploring and see what you think. Against the popular London System, I really like the early …c5 and …Qb6 plans.

Conclusion

The best chess openings tend to have a few things in common.

  1. Slightly offbeat
  2. Solid king safety
  3. Attacking potential or active pieces

I hope that you enjoy exploring some of these openings and can try them out in your own repertoire. There will probably be a future post on the best chess openings for advanced and expert level players. Subscribe to our emails (sidebar) to stay updated on future posts and to receive the free study plan worksheet.