The Chess Angle

Ep. 81: The English Opening (1. c4) from Black's Perspective

September 10, 2023 Long Island Chess Club Episode 81
The Chess Angle
Ep. 81: The English Opening (1. c4) from Black's Perspective
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode, we unravel the English Opening from Black's point of view for club players and adult improvers. We tackle the unfamiliarity and anxiety that comes with confronting 1. c4 and share three variations that will boost your confidence as Black.

00:00 - Intro
05:50 - Symmetrical Var. (1...c5)
10:33 - Nimzo-English (1...Nf6)
16:58 - English Defense (1...b6)
26:52 - Outro

Starting Out: The English (Amazon)

After 1. c4:

Symmetrical English:
1. ...c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 g6 4. Bg2 Bg7 5. Nf3 Nf6

1... Nf6 2. Nf3 2... e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Qc2 O-O 5. a3 Bxc3 6. Qxc3 b6

English Defense:
1... b6 2. Nf3 Bb7 3. Nc3 e6 4. g3 Bxf3 5. exf3 c5 6. d4 cxd4 7. Qxd4 Nc6 8. Qd1 Rc8

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Speaker 1:

Welcome to the chess angle. This is not your typical chess podcast. If you're an amateur or club level player, the chess angle is for you. Our content is aimed at busy adults who are serious about the game but have limited study time. Featured guests include both amateur and titled players alike. And now here's your host, director of the Long Island chess club, neil Belon.


Welcome everyone. Thanks for tuning in. I'm going to get right to it this week, without any fluff or filler. This is all about the English opening. This week, specifically from Black's point of view, we're going to discuss how to defend against one C4. And, based on comments that I've heard, both online both at the club, people tend to freak out when they see one C4. They'll have the black pieces wide opens with one C4, and right away they get very nervous. They feel like they never handle it right, they never play it right. So I'm going to go through three very basic variations, two of which I favor, but I'm going to show you three of them. I am going to put a PGN in the show description, so if you want to copy and paste that into an engine, you can use it as a starting point. There's also a book I'm going to recommend as a reference, but, that being said, there's plenty of material that I won't even mention Plenty of courses, online YouTube videos. Really depends on how much you want to get out of it. So this is going to be a very rapid fire episode, similar to a lot of my season one episodes, and I'm going to jump right in and I will tell you that C4 is really nothing to worry about. So I'm going to divide this into two main parts. I'm going to discuss exactly what the English opening is and then, as I said, I'm going to give you some variations for you to try out and there's one, two really, but one especially that I tend to favor and you'll see the symmetrical variation which we're going to start with. I really don't use it myself that much, but you should be aware of it because it could be a good starting point, and I would say this is geared towards beginners or advanced beginners, maybe those approaching the intermediate level. But, that being said, regardless of rating, I think it'll be enjoyable, no matter where you're at. And, as always with these opening episodes, this is not a deep dive. I'm not looking at every variation and all these lines. I'm not going to look at every nook and cranny. That's just not possible. I'm just going to give a basic overview and some recommendations for further study and you can then look at it on your own. But what I'm hoping to do is just allay the fears and nervousness that come with C4. So what is the English opening? Again, white opens with C4 and right away he's aiming to control D5. That's a major theme in this opening. So White plays C4. He will usually follow up with knight C3, which also controls D5. And very often a kingside-feeing Keto with G3 and bishop G2, which again all controls D5. So it's very positional in nature and I think the reason a lot of those with the black pieces get frustrated with this opening is because they really haven't developed a regular response to it. They're kind of just sort of winging it. They have a basic idea of what it's about, whereas against E4 or D4, they might be a little bit more comfortable. So a couple of general things about the English. So yeah, again after C4, the idea is to control D5, usually with knight C3. G3 and bishop g2. That's sort of the main schematic, and white will look to break with D4 in the middle. That that's a break that he usually plays for, that D2 to D4 push. But here's the thing with the English you need to be aware of it can very easily transpose Into a Queen's pawn opening that you do know and that you're comfortable with. It can easily transpose Into the slob. It could easily transpose into a Nimzo or Queens Indian, which is a variation we're going to discuss. It can easily transpose into a lot of normal Queens pawn structures and one of the ideas and things to keep in mind when you face an opening. That is not what you would expect, because most people would expect e4, d4. Although c4 is common, it's not really unconventional. But when you're facing something that let's say you don't expect let's say you're facing the English and You've only seen it a few times and you really haven't studied against it you can try to transpose it into an opening that you do know, try to steer the game Into an opening that you do know and that you're comfortable with. And that can happen pretty easily with the English, because c4 Is a very flexible move and if he follows up with knight c3, which he usually does, and then d4, etc. Again it'll transpose into a lot of openings that you do know. So keep that in mind and that's going to be a theme throughout this episode. So let's start with the idea of playing a symmetrical Response. So, basically, after c4, blacks going to play c5. So white is aiming to control d5 and Black then aims to control d4. Right, he basically uses the same idea that white does, but for the d4 square, and Then, after knight c3 and then knight c6, g3, g6, bishop g2, bishop g7. We have kind of a symmetrical position, and this is a very common idea where, both sides being Kedel on the king side and, as you can see, we're developing our pieces with a goal in mind, which is very important. Development doesn't just mean to move your pieces off of their original squares. That's part of it. You need to move them off of their original squares with a goal in mind and you'll notice, with the variation I just gave you, each player has a specific goal. White is aiming at the d5 square. Every piece that he's moved has to do with controlling d5, right? Obviously, he had to go g3 to get the bishop out, but his pawn knight and bishop are all aiming at d5, and the same is true for black on d4. So this is a common way to play the symmetrical English. And then, of course, what's going to happen now as far as plans, white is going to look to push in the center with d4 and Black is going to look to push in the center with d5. These are just some ideas. White then usually plays knight f3 and then black follows with knight f6, and then this is a typical Symmetrical English idea. Usually both sides will now castle, and then it's a question of who will get that push in the center. First, a lot of different ideas. From this point on I don't want to get too much into the weeds, but that's the basic idea. Let's go through that one more time c4, c5, knight c3, knight c6, g3, g6, bishop g2, bishop g7, knight f3, knight f6, and that's your symmetrical English. Again, black is aiming at d4, white is aiming at d5, both sides will likely castle. So that is one idea that you may want to look into now. The resource I'm recommending I was going to mention it later, but I might as well mention it now and I'm taking some of these ideas from this book. Of course, whenever I do these opening episodes, I also check everything with an engine. I'm not just kind of doing this off the top of my head. The book that I recommend is Starting Out the English by Neil McDonald from Everyman Chess. As you know, I am a huge fan of the Starting Out series from Everyman Chess. No, I do not have a relationship with Everyman Chess. I do not have any type of arrangement with them. I simply have been using their books for years, long before this podcast was even an idea in my mind. I've been using it for years. It's how I learned most of my openings. The Starting Out series by Everyman Chess is excellent because the explanations are just so good. They're easy to understand. There's plenty of written explanations. They do not include endless mind-numbing variations. They'll show some sidelines, of course, but they really go out of their way to help you understand the ideas and the themes, which is what you want, because that way, if a book move isn't played, you'll still have an idea of what you're supposed to do. As far as plans, that's what I love about this book A lot of diagrams. Again, a lot of explanations have a thing called a tip or a plan or a remember. There's a lot of symbols and highlights. They're just very well-written. The Starting Out series. As far as books, I know there's a lot of courses online and stuff and, of course, there's plenty of YouTube videos, but as far as books, the Starting Out series is excellent For the English opening at the amateur level. As far as books, this book is probably all you need Now. Are there other books on the English out there that might be just as good or better? Of course, I'm not giving you an exhaustive list. I just like to recommend things that I've used myself and that I know are good. I do recommend Starting Out the English Again by Neil McDonald. I will put a link in the description if you want to check it out. The next variation, which is one of my favorites. I enjoy playing this way a lot. It's not the one I use lately, but I will break this out occasionally, what they call the Nimzo English. You basically give one C4, the English opening a Nimzo Indian type of treatment, and it can often transpose into one of those openings. If, like me, if you're a Nimzo and Queens Indian person, you can try to steer the game into one of those openings, which can easily happen with the English, as with any Indian defense. After C4, we're going to reply Nf6 right away, as I've mentioned before, against anything other than E4, nf6 is a very dependable and very flexible move. I use it a lot. C4, nf6, we're going into the Nimzo English. White then usually plays knight f3 and then black goes e6, of course, and the idea with e6 is that you're opening up the diagonal to develop the dark squared bishop which, as you probably guessed, is going to go to b4. After white plays knight c3 and you're probably going to chop for the knight on c3, undermining white's control of d5. So let's go back. So we have c4, knight f6, knight f3 and then e6, and then white will play knight c3. And then of course we're going to do bishop b4, which is essentially like a Nimzo Indian, but c4 is played instead of d4. And remember that dark squared bishop. Most of the time you will end up trading the bishop for the knight, even if it doesn't double white's pawns. The reason is moving the bishop back. If he teases your dark squared bishop with a3, let's say, moving your dark squared bishop back is silly, it's a waste of time. Why did you move it there? Just to move it back. And of course you got to be careful of a tactical shot here that can lose your bishop. After a3 you don't want to go bishop a5 because then you're going to lose your bishop to b4. There's a little tactical thing where the pawns trap your bishop. So the easy rule to remember and I'm speaking in very broad strokes right now when you play bishop b4, either in the English, like the Nimzo English, or even in the regular Nimzo Indian, you're almost always going to take on c3, because even if white plays queen c2, then recaptures with the queen so his pawns aren't doubled. The idea is that you're gaining a tempo and then a lead in development. So black gives up the two bishops for very smooth development. Right, he can now castle because, remember, you moved your bishop, your king's bishop and your king's knight right away, so you're kinking castle. So black is happy to give up the two bishops for very smooth development. That's a key theme in the Nimzo Indian. White now plays queen c2 and again the pgn is in the description if you want to follow this or plug it into an engine and then black castles and then if white plays a3 which is common here, of course we're going to take. Bishop takes c3, because again, if we move it back to a5 it's going to get trapped. If we move it back to e7, that's just a waste of time and this way we gain a tempo and also by chopping the knight on c3 again, we're undermining white's control over d5. So, after bishop takes c3, queen takes c3 so as not to damage the pawn structure, and then b6, fiend Kedowing the light squared bishop on b7 and adding to our control over e4. I really like fiend Kedowing my queen's bishop against any type of d4 or c4 opening. You know that. But of course it makes sense because you're adding control to e4, which the knight is already covering. Okay, so these are typical sort of Nimzo ideas. So again, to review, with the Nimzo English you are basically applying a Nimzo Indian type of treatment, or even a queen's Indian type of treatment, against the English. It can easily transpose into a Nimzo Indian anyway, so just be aware of that. But it's a very, very nice way of playing against the English while still having a good position. Black is castled. He's going to follow up with bishop b7 very smooth development and he's right there in the game. He can look to hit in the center. You know, it might be d5, it might be c5. You know, knight c6. There are different ideas depending on how white plays, but this is a very, very nice variation for black. So let's review that. So the Nimzo English once again c4. Knight f6, knight f3, e6, getting out the dark squared. Bishop, knight c3, bishop b4 Nimzo style there. Queen c2, to prevent the doubling of pawns. Black castles, a3 hitting the bishop. We go bishop takes c3 only move, that really makes sense and then Queen takes c3 and then b6, followed by bishop b7. That's the idea. That's the plan for black. He's controlling e4 now I should say, after Queen takes c3, there are some other ideas other than b6, but I kind of like to fiend Keddo, that bishop, right away, and after bishop e7, some ideas for black might then be d6 and then knight b, d7, that type of thing, and and it looks very much like a Nimzo. And I want to repeat what I said at the beginning of this the English opening is notorious for transposing Into typical Queen pawn openings and if you're comfortable with those structures, that's a good thing. That's what you want, because if not, why can easily turn it into something else, something completely different, and that's what's going to lead us into our third and final variation. Now our final variation, which is what I play. This is how I've been playing the English opening Exclusively for the past couple years or so. After c4, I play b6. B is in boy. And here's the interesting thing this actually has a name. For all this time I thought I was just doing like c4, b6, like it was something I came up with. This actually has a name. It's actually called the English defense. So c4 is the English opening and apparently b6 is the English defense. I must confess I didn't know that. I just kind of thought of yeah, I just played b6 and I tried to steer it into an opening. I know but it has a name the reason I like b6 it's very flexible and it's similar to the Nimzo English in that it can lead to that type of position, because usually I'll follow up with something like e6, b7, knight, f6 and it's looking like a Queens Indian, nimzo Indian type of structure. As far as my own studying Against the English, I'm gonna make a little confession to you. I really don't spend a lot of time studying the English opening Because I just play b6 and then my thinking is I know enough about other openings that I can kind of steer it into something that I know. And even if white doesn't do that, if he plays something completely different that's not related to an opening I already know, I just kind of go with it. So I'm gonna be honest against the English opening. I basically say I'm gonna play b6 and go from there. I'm being completely honest, like that's the extent of my preparation Against c4, because I find, at least at the amateur level, at least at the club, at least with my games it often goes in different directions anyway and you can just use your basic knowledge of chess to kind of get you through it. But that's really what I do. I really don't study the English opening. It's really c4 and then b6. That's the extent of it. So just to kind of explain this a little bit, the symmetrical that I explained earlier on, which you should be familiar with, I really don't play. I don't play c4, c5, the nymzo English which I sometimes play. I haven't been doing it lately. That can also come from playing b6 right away. Anyway, like all these can transpose, like all three variations, I guess, technically can transpose into each other. So a lot of times the move order might be switched around, but when it all comes out in the wash you it ends up being the same thing. So even after c4, b6, it might end up becoming a nymzo English, because I know I'm gonna play night f6 early at some point. Okay, but let me give you a Line with b6, because there's an idea when you actually give up that fiend Kettled Bishop on b7 for white's night on f3 and it allows you smooth development on the queen side. So there's one little finesse I want you to be aware of. But, as I said, I'm gonna be completely honest and this is something that also Saves me study time Against the English. My plan is pretty much c4. I'm gonna play b6 and go from there. I'm not gonna wing it. But, as I said, I know enough about the structures that I can just kind of see where it goes. Now. Again, that's as someone you know. I've been playing. While I have a certain amount of experience, if you're more of a beginner you're gonna have to study these other Variations and your other Queen pawn openings. But you're gonna see as you get stronger as a player and as you get more comfortable, you'll be able to take these kind of shortcuts. So I would not be able to sit here and give like an hour speech or something on B6 variations. But I do want to give you this one line because, as I said, there's this bishop trade that I think is a very, very interesting idea. So c4, b6, white plays, knight, f3, bishope, 7. And just a little side note, it's always a good idea to complete a fiend ket as soon as you can. What I mean by that? If you move your b-pawn or g-pawn like b6, g6, or as white b3 or g3, try to get that bishop there right away, because your rook is hanging in the corner and if you're not careful it can lead to some tactics. So just keep that in mind. So anyway, c4, b6, knight f3, bishop b7, and then white plays knight c3, black goes e6, then g3, and then very interesting move Black goes, bishop takes f3. And now you may say, wait a minute, why are you trading? Right, because you probably read this in a book somewhere, right? Why are you trading that beautiful fiend, ket, old bishop on b7 for that knight on f3? The reason is and this is a common idea in the English two things. You're doubling white's pawns because obviously he has to go. He takes f3. There's no tactics or anything. He's, otherwise he's down a piece. So after bishop takes f3, he takes f3. His king side is maybe a little bit weak, and not really, because the bishop will be there. The light squared, bishop. But you've doubled his pawns and your development now and the arrangement of your pieces is going to be very smooth. So that's the trade off and the idea is that after bishop takes f3, e takes f3, black follows up with c5, and then white goes d4, which is a very good move, because if he allows black to play knight c6 first, he can't play it. So after c5, white hits in the center, white goes d4, good move, getting that in before black can play knight c6, black trades c, takes d4, queen takes d4, knight c6 hitting the queen, and then the queen goes back to d1, which is probably the best move, and then black goes rook c8. So now your queen side has a nice little structure. There you have the rook on the semi-open file, the knight is really nice on c6, and then if white fiend kettles the bishop on g2, there's really nothing to worry about on that diagonal because your light squared bishop is now gone and your rook is out of the corner. So it's one of those things you ruin white's pawn structure for very nice piece placement and smooth development, kind of like with the Nimzo Indian. Right With the Nimzo Indian you trade that dark squared bishop for the knight on c3 because you get smooth development in exchange for the two bishops. But again, I think the whole like I have the two bishops. To me that's one of the most overrated things in chess. So many amateur players, even very strong amateur players, talk about having the two bishops, but they generally don't have the chops to really take advantage of it, and that's another common theme at the amateur level. So it's one thing to know that you have the two bishops, but that's a far cry from actually playing the right moves. Don't get too caught up in the whole like two bishops thing because I know a lot of like GM's and strong players talk about that. If you're in an end game and it's kind of an open position, like then the two bishops, then the strength of the two bishops might stand out. But usually in an amateur game so much is going to happen by the time you get there. Anyway, yada, yada, yada. I don't want to get distracted. You get the idea. Let's go through that entire variation from the beginning. Okay, but again you can follow it. It's down below and that trade trading the bishop for the knight on f3 to double white's pawns for smooth development. Black then plays c5, knight c6, rook c8. I really like that idea. So again, c4, b6, english defense knight f3, bishop b7, knight c3, e6, g3. Then Bishop takes f3, white has to play e takes f3, and then Black goes c5, white goes d4. Good move, getting that in before. Black can play knight c6, black trades c takes d4, queen takes d4. Knight c6, hitting the queen, queen goes back to d1, and then rook c8. Black's queenside structure is really nice. He's going to follow up now by developing his kingside bishop and his knight, probably castling, and Black is in good shape and the doubled pawns on White's kingside could be a problem. Either way, it's an interesting game. Now, when I play b6, it usually doesn't go this way, because whenever I play it, whoever has the white pieces usually does something else, like it's c4, b6, and then a lot of times they do something weird, which is why, see, when I say for me, see, this is why, like cookie cutter study plans are, you know, can be dangerous For me after c4, b6, these are just my opponents. They always do something strange, right, it's like c4, b6, and then it's like something. So I decided I'm just going to keep it flexible, I'm not going to really study anything, I'm just going to use the principles and theory that I know and that's kept me in good shape, because it allows me to not overthink and just kind of be flexible based on what White does. Because if you get into the mindset, well, I definitely want to do this. You know, this is the opening I want to play, or this is what I studied this week. Yeah, but if White doesn't cooperate, if your opponent doesn't cooperate with that, you're then going to try to force something that doesn't fit the position. So I just say c4, b6, and you know, let's dance, let's see what happens. So I just wanted to give you these variations. I hope this helps. You may want to check out the book Again. This is a little bit of a rapid fire episode but, that being said, really appreciate you listening and I hope you win your next game. Have a great day, everybody.

Symmetrical Var. (1...c5)
Nimzo-English (1...Nf6)
English Defense (1...b6)