Chess Opening Principles

Up front, I am far from being a chess master.  If you’re experienced enough to know that you’re not very good, we’d probably have a decent game.  But, I’ve done some research on chess openings, and played quite a few games, and would like to put together a quick, accessible summary of some sound opening principles.

These opening principles are guidelines: you will find plenty of exceptions as you play.  But faced with so many options, this should help to narrow them down.

What is the opening for?

In general, the opening is for:

  • developing pieces
  • protecting the king
  • controlling the center

One of the first things you’ll find as your game improves is that you are not trying to win in the opening.  You are just laying the foundations for a sound middle game.  As we learn in life, a strong opening is the key to creating your own luck.

The opening challenge

Almost all openings begin with either e4 or e5 for white.  This is a play for the center.  Black often responds in kind.  The key here is that white plays first.  That 1/2 move advantage is large for white, enough so that white and black typically have different goals in the opening: white’s goal is to secure an advantage, whereas black’s goal is to achieve equality.

The chess narrative

A chess match has three components: the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame.  Not so unlike a book.  And similar to a book, it can be a bit unclear as to when one ends and the next one begins.  So think of the opening as the part of the book where the story is established.  The characters get introduced, the major themes may be outlined, the world is described.  But more subtly, the pacing of the story may be set, the writing style and intentions laid out.

Similarly in chess, the opening gives players a chance to horse trade to achieve their desired narrative, which takes shape in the middle game.  In the opening, characters are introduced in the form of pieces being played to key squares.  Subtle differences can lead to a majestic and sweeping middlegame with valiant piece exchanges, or it can lead to a calculatingly tactical set of skirmishes for control of a single key square.

As you advance, you’ll discover ways to guide a game to become the type of game that you would like to play, which includes guiding a game to become the type of game that your opponent does not want to play.

The tactics

Here are some rules of thumb that I have found useful:

  • Don’t move a piece twice (this includes pawns) – it’s all about rapid development at this point.  Moving a piece twice is often a waste of time because the narrative has not yet unfolded.
  • Only move the King and Queen pawns eatly
  • Knights then Bishops – in the quest for efficient development, knights are often the easiest to deploy.  There are really only two squares where you’d want to move a knight: the bishop file, or the next one towards the center.  The Bishop has several more to choose from, so you may like to let the narrative unfold a bit before introducing this character.
  • Knights and Bishops then Rooks – the rook is very powerful, but takes time to unleash correctly.  Leave it home until you see where it will unleash maximum firepower.
  • Castle, please Castle – This protects the king, connects the rooks, and develops a rook, all in one move!  Just do it, do it early, and do it kingside.
  • When in doubt, castle – I like to get my development on as quickly as possible.  Usually at some point I’m not sure where I want to go next, so Bam!  Castle, done.  Castling when your opponent castles can help too.
  • Develop your side of the board – it’s dangerous across the border.  Your pieces will be subject to attack by lowly pawns, which will force them to move twice.
  • Play for the center – The four squares in the middle are the most strategic positions to own early in the game.  Play to them, support them, own them

The principles

Fast, solid development is the key to a strong middle game.  To think about the speed of a game, the notion of tempo was introduced.  While it is roughly the same as a move, there is a critical difference: you can gain and lose tempo over your opponent.  To gain tempo, you make moves that cause your opponent to waste moves.  An easy example of this is attacking while developing.  You make a move towards the middlegame, while forcing your opponent to react to you.  To give an idea of the importance of tempo in chess, black starts the game down one tempo, and overcoming that is one of black’s primary goals.

Controlling the center of the board allows you the most freedom while restricting your opponent.

A strong pawn structure is crucial.  Moving  just one pawn wrong can expose your king and cause you to waste tempi in protecting your line.  Try to leave the kingside pawns home to protect the king for castling, and delay moving the queenside pawns until you have a goal for them.

What’s next?

Play some games.  Get used to the tactics and principles.  Read further.  For reference, these are some good articles in the same area:

http://www.chess-strategies-tactics.com/chess-opening-principles

http://www.chess.com/blog/NimzoRoy/chess-opening-principles

Read books, play through some games.  I recommend studying Capablanca, as I find his games incredibly clear for such a high level.

Then, learn a few openings.  Two or three are good for a start…one as white, and then a black response to P-K4 and P-Q4 each.  I’m always amazed at how quickly games diverge from the openings.  But you will notice themes.