Why I Dropped the London System

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The London System is a very easy and effective opening to use at all levels of chess. Magnus Carlsen himself has used it not long ago and it is a favorite among popular chess streamers, Eric Rosen and Aman Hambleton.

I started playing chess around six years ago. I came into chess completely blind, not even knowing how the pieces moved. After six months or so I had a blitz rating of 1000 on chess.com, after two years I was above 1200. I was consistently getting bad positions out of the opening. Nothing was more frustrating to me than being completely lost after just a handful of moves. It was around this time I started to look at openings.

Opening Study

I have always enjoyed studying openings. Not only does it make my openings stronger but this study also gives me an understanding of what plans to look for in different openings. It also helps me see new tactical ideas in common positions I see in my games. All of these benefits are secondary to the enjoyment of the game. I will only ever improve in chess in the long run if I am enjoying myself and I enjoy looking at openings.

London system first two moves

The London System

I decided to learn and play the infamous London System as white. I’m a fan of slower, positional chess in general and I set out to improve my pure chess skill. I felt as though going for a simple (albeit equal) opening with lots of middlegame play would be a good way to go about improving.

The London is dead simple to play. In nearly all lines you end up playing e3, c3, Nd2, Nf3, and Bd3 with kingside castling.

Common london system setup
A standard London setup.

This setup is simple, solid, and hard to break down for black. Better yet, the move order is not very important- you can pick your favorite. The first “plan” in the London is to break with e4 or sometimes c4 and to try to get your rooks to good squares.

There’s a free and very digestible Chessable book on the London called Short & Sweet: The London Series. This book took me as far as I needed to go and it only covers 22 lines in total. You can learn the whole book in an afternoon. More serious learners may want to tackle The London System: Essential Theory by none other than John Bartholomew.

The London was great for me to avoid being lost in the opening (in my games as white, at least). I was also very excited to play games with the white pieces so I could show off my new opening and learn.

I want to again emphasize the importance of enjoying the game of chess. If your goal is to improve the game must stay fun or you will not stick to it. For me, having a fun opening to try out and iterate on was crucial to my enjoyment of the game.

Problems with the London

Time passed and I felt myself stagnating in a few big ways. First, I was getting the same position over and over. This is good for getting a very strong understanding of an opening but bad for overall chess improvement. The play was getting monotonous and I was just getting bored of all my games with white.

One drawback of the London is that it is dead simple to play against. It is virtually impossible to blunder against the London if you are making sane moves. I have found that as a general rule in chess: the easier an opening is to play, the easier it is to play against. I’m sure you can quote me exceptions.

The London has also gotten so popular that everybody who does a fair amount of opening study will have a pet line against London setups. This is a big loss particularly in slow, over-the-board chess because it puts the opening in your opponent’s wheelhouse. Your opponent now gets to decide what type of game they want to play, rather than vice versa. They choose if they want something slow and positional or sharp and tactical. This conceit was the final straw to give up the London.

Moving On

Once I had decided to give up the London System, the next logical question is what to play instead. I had a few criteria that were important to me.

Dynamic

I wanted something that gave dynamic and slightly more tactical positions. The London leads to notoriously dry middle game positions. I would rather play positions that were more tactical without going full Benko gambit.

Ambitious

The London also leads to very equal positions and, given a prepared opponent, the position is almost always equal (at best) out of the opening. I figured if I was going to spend the time on learning a brand new opening from scratch it may as well give me an advantage.

1. d4 Based

I am a d4 player at heart. I tinkered with e4 early in my “career” but it doesn’t follow my style of positional chess. Most chess YouTubers and streamers I watch play d4 and most of my foundational chess understanding comes from these openings.

I didn’t want to start completely from scratch. It’d be great if my experience with the London would carry over in some way to help me build a more solid and ambitious repertoire.

Enter Catalan

After consulting a familiar face around here at Chessgoals, Matt Jensen, I was happily convinced to take a look at the Catalan. The more I saw, the more I liked, and it happened to fit all my criteria. One exception may be “ambitious.” A perfectly prepped grandmaster or a finely-tuned engine will equalize with no trouble. Against everyone else, I would submit that in all lines of the Catalan white does get an advantage. Admittedly, this opening is more in the solid category than ambitious.

catalan opening
A standard Catalan-like set-up

The Catalan is usually hallmarked by a fianchettoed light square bishop, with d4, Nd2 (or Nc3 in many lines), Qc2, and e4 to come, stapled with a kingside castle. This opening is dynamic and leads to very fun and robust middlegames.

Of course, black does not always play into the Catalan, so you must be prepared against many replies. The Kings Indian, Queens Indian, Gruenfeld, Tarrasch, Benoni, the Dutch, and other sidelines as well must all be prepared against.

I followed ChessExplained‘s book Keep it Simple: 1. d4 as my guide through this process. The book is huge and I don’t recommend going through every line. I myself have studied about 250 of the 1000+ lines recommended. Christof does a great job of covering these openings in-depth and after following his recommendations for the past six months, I’ve found myself a great new opening to rely on.

For further study check out Georg Meier’s course Attack with the Catalan! This provides an excellent primer in middlegame play and, you guessed it, how to play for an attack out of the opening.

Results

I’ve enjoyed playing the Catalan immensely. I’m not seeing the same opening over and over anymore and I feel I am giving my opponents a much bigger chance to go wrong early in the game. Here is an example of a game I won purely due to opening preparation.

Black was down a full rook after just six moves and was clearly not prepared against an early kingside fianchetto. Light square weakness is a theme that comes up all the time in this opening. Since it is sort of off-beat, many players play their normal stuff against the Catalan and find themselves in a bad position without doing anything drastically wrong.

I want to highlight another game that shows black fade into a bad position while playing all normal-looking moves.

Here black must have mouse-slipped, hanging mate in 1. If they defended against checkmate the position is +2.5 because white is winning an exchange with no compensation in sight for black.

These opening wins were both against solid, 1600+ rated opponents on chess.com. There are almost no games that lead to decisive victories when playing the London.

Against nearly everything black has thrown at me, I’ve always found myself in a highly playable position with a lot of play. I am consistently getting fresh positions and am learning how to combat many different types of middle games, rather than seeing the same positions over and over. Most importantly, chess is fun again.

Conclusion

If you are feeling stuck or stagnant with your openings, tossing in something new can be a great way to help you find new ideas in chess. I also would bet that it helps your overall chess game improve as well. I’m feeling similarly with my black openings, so I’ll report back when I have something to share on that front.

If you aren’t sure what new opening to try out check our guide on the best chess openings for all skill levels. If you want to improve your overall chess, try out our 12-week study plans and improve with our data-driven (and master-approved) plans.