What are Magnus Carlsen’s favorite openings?

Magnus Carlsen is one of the most ingenious individuals that have ever played the game of chess. Most people revere him, look up to him, and want to adopt his style of play, which brought me to this article.

People have wondered what openings are Carlsen’s favorite? I think I can sufficiently answer this question since I have been following him for a long time.

Here’s what I’ve learned from observing Magnus Carlsen’s opening choices:

Magnus Carlsen”s favorite opening with white is the Ruy Lopez with the notation of 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3. b5. This kind of position fits his long-term playstyle. With black he often goes with the berlin notation of 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3. b5 Nf6. These openings allow him to have a safe and solid middlegame.

There aren’t any interviews or something that would express Carlsen’s favorite opening. Favorite after all is a relative term but I have seen these openings to be something Carlsen regularly used, which should have value. I will talk about all of it in this article, let’s begin.

What are Magnus Carlsen’s favorite openings when playing white?

Ruy Lopez, Scotch game, English opening, Italian game, and the King’s Indian attack are Carlsen’s favorite openings when playing white.

Ruy Lopez

This is a reliable opening that Carlsen regularly uses when he is playing white, he’s not alone in this though. In fact, most of the professionals have a friendly relationship with this line and most of its variations.

It is sort of top of the “meta” in the chess opening book that you’d expect to see at least once in top tournaments. It’s no wonder that Carlsen also plays it like everyone else as if it’s the norm, because it is.

It is a very flexible opening where White naturally has an advantage, being able to grab space and have decent development. There are little to no traps in this theoretical line (although there are some) so it is a safe choice when attempting to have a fair game.

The king can castle with ease, the knights and bishops have clear developmental patterns, and the center is for white. It’s really hard to seek an opportunity with this solid set up, there are a lot of risks for even trying.

Although black will still be fine after the sequence of theoretical moves, white will still have a slight advantage. Carlsen plays this even in really serious matches where he is trying to win, so that in itself tells something.

Scotch Game

This opening is more conspicuous than the previous one, it is rarely present in competitive settings. Former world champion Garry Kasparov regularly plays this (mentor of Carlsen), so that may have rubbed into him.

He doesn’t play this as much as the Ruy Lopez since it is on the kinda offbeat, but still do so once in a while. Though I really only see him doing this in banter matches and when he is feeling creative.

The early push in the center ensures an open game where things might become aggressive. I believe Kasparov chooses this due to his style of play (aggressive), which gives him some opportunities here. 

Carlsen is not that type of player so he does not subscribe to this as often. This can still lead to a very quiet game if both sides have managed to castle and stabilized their pawns.

The bishop pair from both sides usually have a clear line of development in this opening, giving them some sort of potential. But then again, the early push of the center may give weaknesses to both black and white, so it may become complicated.

English opening

Now, this is a more common sight than the Scotch in Carlsen’s own repertoire. He plays this really often since it compliments his style of play of being quiet and positional.

He is not too quiet (he can become aggressive too) but mostly he’s just a positional maniac. Of course I’ve seen him implement this opening in a lot of serious matches too.

This is a very, very quiet opening that urges some incremental positional play. And you shouldn’t expect any aggressive plays on this one, most games that come from the English are pretty uneventful.

There’s a lot of lines black can opt for when playing against the English which will determine the nature of play. But the most common is symmetrical English which is closest to the definition of equality in chess.

It is called symmetrical since it almost only copies moves from white, which makes it equal. I think Carlsen uses this when he is ok with a draw and could afford a quiet position.

Italian Game

The reasoning behind this one is similar to the Ruy Lopez, and why Carlsen plays it too. In fact it is the same line leading to the Ruy Lopez where the bishop is only slightly positioned differently.

I think this is Carlsen’s go-to move when playing normally against strong opponents. It’s really hard to find a tournament he played where this is not present.

If the Ruy Lopez is a decent “ok” opening for both black and white this one is more dubious. A lot of positions that can arise from these are closed (though some are open) and both sides have to skirmish their way in.

There’s a lot of really cool things from this line too like the fried liver attack or its subset, the Traxler counter-attack. But I repeat, it could turn really positional if the pawns are locked in place.

White has no problem in this, the pieces are well centralized, the king is castled, and there are lots of motives. I cannot say that there is a lot of advantage over black, but is definitely still a sound choice to make.

King’s Indian Attack

Now this one is quite different, Carlsen does not regularly play this but I think it is his favorite. He even used this in several world chess championship matches against Vishwanathan Anand, so he is not just playing with this one.

A lot of top players do not really feel the same way with this opening (it is quite rare) but some still do play it. I think primarily because it is more of a beginner-type of an opening where there are better options to make.

The King’s Indian attack is more of a system than an opening, meaning there aren’t any specific set of moves. As long as you get in the famous position of the King’s Indian attack, then it is still considered a part of that line.

It is more of a hyper-modern type of an opening where the pawns are not really controlling the center unlike other approaches. The upside is the pieces will be controlling the center (not the pawns) and would be active from the start.

The king will castle pretty early too so there are lesser likelihood of being attacked and not castling.

What are Magnus Carlsen’s favorite openings when playing black?

Sicilian Pelikan, Dutch defense, Berlin defense, Queen’s Gambit Declined, and Nimzo Indian Defense are Carlsen’s favorite openings when playing black.

Sicilian Pelikan (Lasker/Sveshnikov) variation

This one used to be a very unpopular opening and was brought by Magnus Carlsen himself. He used it extensively during his world chess championship match against Fabiano Caruana, which is the highest competition.

He himself does not play this at all before that match in London (world chess championship) but has grown fond of it since then. Due to his extensive preparation on this, every major battle he had has been played in Sicilian Pelikan.

It’s not that rare these days to find a game of him where things have unfolded from this opening. There are more major spaces for white here, but should not be enough to convert into something significant.

Arguably one could say that this is an extremely good position for white (the pieces are developed, there are no problems, the king is ready to castle). But since this is mostly uncharted territory there are lots of innovative ideas here not yet explored.

And Carlsen proved the feasibility of this by standing up against a really strong player like Fabiano Caruana. Since then I regularly encounter this line from the excessive amount of fans by Carlsen (I am one of them).

Dutch Defense

I feel like this is one of those meme lines that Magnus usually opts for when playing against someone informally. He did use it competitively on various occasions but against significantly weaker opponents than him.

This opening is usually frowned upon by top grandmasters whenever even thinking of playing it. It is not popular definitely, but Magnus is the guy to play unpopular lines so I can understand.

The early pawn push of the black pawn weakens the kingside where attacks can potentially be focused. White can castle queenside here and start some frenzy of a pawn pushing in order to realize an attack.

Black on the other hand can control the center and develop the pieces (although awkwardly) where he is sure to defend. There really isn’t that much upside when playing this opening with black (except maybe the slight control of the black squares).

The advantage I think here is psychological, the opponent is pressured to make something happen where black can deliver various punishments. Plus the theoretical lines in this opening are not as developed as other popular ones giving room for brilliancies.

Berlin defense

Unlike the two previous ones who are more dubious when it comes to the popularity side, this one is extremely popular.

It suffers the boom when Kramnik uses it to take the championship crown from monster Kasparov (with the Berlin) not allowing him to win a single game.

It seems Carlsen took a lesson on this since he regularly implements it in very tight situations. Before he popularized the Sicilian Pelikan this is what he has used the most than any other opening (competitively).

There is a very nice line here where black can immediately trade queens and head straight into the endgame. And if you know Magnus you know that he is the master of the endgame, so he takes a liking to it.

Black here chooses to immediately develop both two knights in order to not get left behind by white in development. White is slightly better in this of course (like every other opening) but is not significant enough to be converted.

Black can easily get the bishop out of there and start castling to continue playing the game. There are few traps in here as well so Magnus can use his positional style even if the end game is not realized.

Queen’s Gambit Declined

Just like the Berlin, the Queen’s gambit declined is a top choice for masters replying against 1.d4. Basically it is the Berlin, just that it is a reply to a different line where Berlin is not available.

And Carlsen plays it a lot, and I mean very extensively since I rarely see him play any other line than this. Perhaps the one below would be the exception if it was made possible (Nimzo-Indian).

But more or less, Carlsen plays this more than the Nimzo Indian since it is just more reliable for bringing a good position.

Black here locks any potential early attack that could happen by having that pawn chain.

If White wants to keep things open here, he would have to trade the pawn in the center and stabilize the position. Even with that black with just equalize and still not give advantage to white.

If things remain open though then yes black will be a little bit cramped, but would still have nice options. Overall it is just a solid setup for black that doesn’t give any advantage, that is why Carlsen uses it.

Nimzo Indian Defense

I have briefly mentioned this above, but this is another opening that not only Carlsen uses but other grandmasters too. This is more avoidable though than the queen’s gambit declined since you can opt for the Anti-Nimzo.

But I do know that Magnus never misses an opportunity to go for this setup with black. He is really comfortable with the details of playing it, so it’s no wonder it has become his weapon.

There’s a lot of other aggressive plays here made possible by the pinning of that bishop. I personally have fallen for the tactic of being piled by the Knight and eventually losing a piece.

Even if there’s no attacking potential that has been realized here, the real idea is to exchange the bishop for the knight. That pinned knight is really doing a good job controlling the center and undertaking important central squares.

By eliminating the knight, black can now easily fight for the center where he is not capable before. Plus the black bishop probably won’t have a bright future anyway since the black pawns will cramp the position later on.

Will you play Magnus Carlsen’s favorite openings?

When playing white, Carlsen prefers going for a Ruy Lopez at about 30% of the time and the English opening at about 15%. When having black, Carlsen chooses the Berlin defense about 35% of the time and the Queen’s Gambit declined at about 25%.

The openings mentioned above are real fundamental solid setups that professionals approved of (some are weird though).

But I believe that this should only be a guide, not a very specific hint that should be explicitly followed.

Magnus after all is a genius, most people won’t be able to fathom ideas that he implements. But if this works for you then you should continue doing it, since it works or it might work.

I recommend beginners to not focus on this (openings) but once you needed a pet line then this could become really useful, that is all, sleep well and play chess.