Basic Opening Ideas

  • GM arunabi
  • | Dec 12, 2011

First of all, I would like to congratulate you on your most recent article. It was very well written. However, I have one question. All titled players that I know say that you should learn the ideas behind openings, more so than the opening lines themselves. I am an 1800-rated USCF player and would like to learn how to do this. As white, I play d4 generally followed by Nf3 and a transposition into a slav, semi-slav, QGA, QGD, KID, or queen's indian. As black, I play the caro-kann against e4 and the nimzo/queen's indian against d4.



Dear Chessisgood,

Learning the ideas behind openings means, rather than memorizing long theoretical variations it is important to know where to put your pieces and make a pawn formation and build a long term plan accordingly. Every opening is unique and has its own ideas, some openings require fast and aggressive ideas and motifs and some openings it is important to play slow and just maneuver your pieces to a good square. Watch the top level players games, try to understand the idea behind every move. There are some basic ideas in each opening and you can understand their moves only when you know what both sides are fighting for. One of the very basic idea in the opening is the problem with Black's c8-bishop. In most of the opening Black will be struggling to find a good placement for this bishop. White on the other hand will try to maximize his pressure and create problems for Black. When you watch chess games you need to understand such ideas. To begin with i will give some basic ideas behind each opening. I explanations will be brief as i cannot cover all the openings extensively in one article.



In these kinds of pawn structures, Black usually strives to get the c5 or e5 break. White has to stop this or try to get another significant advantage like bishop pair or better piece placement or create some weakness for Black. He has to be ready to face this break sooner or later. If white can stop this break it is even better for him as he gets to play on both the kingside and queenside and Black will be left without any clear plans.

The Chebanenko Slav is different from the regular slav lines. Black gives his opponent the move, without clarifying the situation in the centre. White has several ideas against it. 5.g3 in the spirit of the Catalan. 5. cxd5 as in the exchange slav. 5.Qb3, 5.a4,5.Bg5 are some of the options for White. Black solves his problem with the c8-bishop by waiting with a6 with the idea of bringing out his bishop to f5 or sometimes g4. Qb3 is really not a threat as he can defend the b7-pawn with Ra7. With a6 Black weakens the dark squares around his camp and tries to play a light square strategy. Since Black's position is cramped he needs space for his pieces, hence exchanging pieces is usually good for Black. In this line there are no immediate plans and White at some point will get the e2-e4 pawn break and try to play against the weak dark squares.

Semi Slav:

The Semi-Slav is divided into two parts with 5.Bg5 and 5.e3. Both lead to extremely complex battles and the belief in olden days was that 5.Bg5 is the most challenging against the semi-slav. After 5.Bg5 Black has three choices. The Botvinnik System, the Moscow Variation and the Cambridge Springs.

Theory has evolved by leaps and bounds since the introduction of both the Botvinnik and Moscow varaitions and it is not easy to give a clear picture in these systems. But I shall give some basic ideas so that you have at least some knowledge to face these lines.


Usually in the Botvinnik system Black gets a pawn mass on the queenside. It is an open game and the position often leads to sudden tactical blows. Black's main trump is his queenside pawn majority as it guards the king and also threatens to advance in the ending. White usually enjoys a safe king on the other side with a fianchetto bishop to protect its monarch. A basic idea in this system is that, the ending might be more dangerous for white as Black has connected pawns in the fifth rank. White's idea in these lines will be to initiate an attack on the queenside and destroy Black's pawn mass before he reaches the ending. This system leads to open positions full of tactical possibilities.


The Moscow system often leads to comparatively closed positions, but when the position is open then it leads to plentiful complications just like the Botvinnik system. White has three main ideas in this system. The d4-d5 break in the centre can open up the position and has the capacity to destroy Black's pawn structure. Ne5 and f4-f5 is the second idea that White always needs to look for. If none of these ideas work then White can play slowly with the b2-b3 break and look for d4-d5 or f4-f5 ideas later.

Cambridge Springs:

Black still has not solved the problem of the c8-bishop and that is where the opening battle lies. White needs to get the central e3-e4 break before Black develops his bishop to b7 and get his c6-c5 break. Basically White just needs to play against Black's light-squared bishop. 



White can choose 5.e3, in order to steer the game into positional and not so sharp lines. The positions arising in the meran variations after 6.Bd3 are very complicated and double edged and players who prefer more positional lines can play the anti meran with 6.Qc2. In these lines if Black can complete his development and play c5 he will equalize pretty easily and White cannot claim any advantage. So White has to make sure that Black doesnt execute this idea so easily. White needs to make sure that Black makes some concession like weakening his pawn structure or giving up his bishop pair etc before he gets to play the c5-break



Most often the Queen's Gambit Accepted leads to IQP(Isolated Queen Pawn) Structures. In one of my previous articles I recommended the book Winning Pawn Structures to understand more about the IQP positions. When you play with an isolani you have to make sure you dont exchange your pieces as exchanges will only help Black in the endgame. Look for the d4-d5 break. This break can be very dangerous if it is done at the right moment. White has other ideas like Ne5 f4-f5, Playing along the c-file, a2-a4 and Ra1-a3-g3 or h3 etc. White has to attack and gain some material advantage in the middlegame or else he will be on the verge of losing the game.



In the classical variation of The King's Indian Defence, black comes for an all out attack on White's king. Black usually doesnt care much about White's activity on the Queenside and even sacrifices material to gain time to complete his attack on the kingside. White needs to break open as many files as possible on the queenside. The c7 and d6 pawns will be the targets and if you can get them before Black starts an attack then White will be clearly better. Black's light-squared bishop is an extremely dangerous piece and if possible White should eliminate it. If White's attack succeeds on the queenside then White wins, if Black manages to hold White's attack and if he initiates an attack on the kingside then Black wins. It is as simple as that. In the Samisch Variation White usually treats the position like Dragon Yugoslav Attack and begins his attack on the Kingside and Black plays on the Queenside.




4. g3 Ba6, The point behind this move is, Black intends to disturb the harmony in White's camp. To defend the pawn on c4, White needs to make some concession like Nbd2 or b3 or Qc2 etc. It is best for White if he can get his knight on c3 rather than d2 in such positions, since sooner or later Black will play d5 and c5, then the Knight on c3 usually creates problems for the pawn on d5.

After 4.g3 Bb7 Black gains control over the e4-square. Usually after the exchange of knights on e4 Black holds the e4-square with his bishop. If White can push this bishop away and play e4-d5 then White is better or else Black equalizes easily. So the battle often revolves around this idea.




The Caro-Kann is an opening specially designed to solve the problem of the c8-bishop for Black, since in the French Defence the bishop is usually stuck behind the pawn walls and is left without much scope. In the advance variation of the Caro-Kann Defence Black just needs to make sure he completes his piece development. White has lot of space and he has the option of gambling his pawns on both sides. But the trump for Black is that he always has f7-f6 break and c6-c5 break. If white isnt careful with his pawn structure soon the position will open and White will be left with weak pawns and too much space for himself which will be decisive for him. A basic idea in the Caro-Kann is that Black should maintain a healthy pawn chain and wait for White to create weaknesses and then initiate an attack. Endings usually favour Black as he always maintains a healthy pawn chain.


Nimzo Indian:

Black is ready to give up his bishop in order to create some weakness in White's camp. White in return gets the bishop pair, but Black needs to make sure that the center doesn't open as bishops might prove decisive. In some cases After Bxc3 bxc3 Black creates annoying pressure on the c4-pawn with b6,Ba6,Nc6,Na5 he can even increase the pressure with c5 and Rc8. The only thing that Black needs to look out for again is that the position doesn't open up for the bishops to operate. It is always important to keep the position closed or else White will enjoy a slight but lasting advantage. With 4.Qc2 White doesnt allow the doubling of the c-pawns, he takes the bishop on c3 with his Queen. But this allows Black to complete his development fast and attack the center before white completes his development.


So whatever the opening you study make sure you learn some basic ideas like this. When you study the games of elite players then you will understand what exactly they are trying to do.


  • 3 years ago


    Join Sämisch Variations to learn and play this variation.    
  • 5 years ago


    very helpful. I'll keep coming back to get refrenshened as I learn more openings.

  • 5 years ago


    Great introduction to the ideas of many of the great themes, thanks GM arunabi! I've played games with most of these themes, admittedly, half intentionally and half not. I had a battle royale as white in a tournament that I lost to an 11 yr old (hats off to you Raymond!!) that was, as I learned later, the Classical KID as presented here. I didnt know that I was supposed to open files and attack Queenside until now!

    I was having troubles countering the QG and I dabbled in a few of the main openings as black to find something I liked. I found the Dutch Defence and, for me, it gives me a reasonably solid closed defence that has a bit of bite (Im not on my heels getting pummelled against the berserker-style players). Youve got to find your flavour!

    Kopo, everything went algebraic in the early 80s, weve got to get with the times! Seriously, algabraic notation is worth getting a handle on because the notation better gives you a gridlike framework to think with a-h, 1-8; it really is easier (Im an old coot too, but you cant find a book nowadays that has BQN4) since with algebraic you can visualize the moves by both black and white in one framework. Give it a chance, youll then gain access to thousands of new books and puzzles etc!

    Thanks again GM arunabi

  • 5 years ago


  • 5 years ago


    Thanks, really helpful.

  • 5 years ago


    GM Arunabi.

    Nice article. Is there a book which covers openings at this level, i.e. beginner to intermediate level without getting bogged down in too much theory? The level covered here is what I am looking for.

  • 5 years ago


    Agree with everyone else. Very well organized and clearly written article. I am glad NJChristian presented the Caro-Kann advance, I enjoy playing it, and was unawares of underlynig theory. While this might not be the place, since Koko already mentioned it, could someone suggest a good method for learning the algebraic system?

  • 5 years ago


    Not only know the ideas but play the opening in the right spirit that it was intended to be played in.

  • 5 years ago


    Wonderful article..really very helpful for me and other chess beginners... I m waiting for your next articles with E4 pawn openings..... again thanks for this super article. 

  • 5 years ago


    Thank you for the article, I really love to play d4 in all of my games. Now I know more about my opennings that I should play :))

  • 5 years ago


    thanks and more power to you.....

  • 5 years ago


    Thank you GM Arunabi for your useful article.

    As white, I usually play 1. e4. I enjoyed reading this article to understand key principles in a couple of 1.d4 systems. As well, I believe it's a good "teaching material" for beginners.

    Well written, structured and keeping an overview on a couple of openings. It summarize key ideas of Chessisgood's opening repertoire.

    To complete this article in some cases, it would have been really interesting to have black basic ideas and plans as well as white's.

  • 5 years ago


    @ Arunabi:  Good article, patiently worked through.  It gives me the same feeling though that I have always had of confusion.  Chessisgood talked about what he plays as white: e4 and Nf3.  Then everything he lists is a "defense".  I thought that White always was on the offense and used gambits etc because of the early opportunity at the center.  I thought "defense" meant you were playing black.  I realize you can make the same moves on the opposite side of the board but are they not known by another name?

  • 5 years ago


    This is by far one of the best articles I've read on this site thus far, keep up the good work.

  • 5 years ago


    Kokopeli, you realise you can click de notation next to the board?

  • 5 years ago


    Great article, tremendous insight. Understanding the concept of opening moves helps get off to a better start. Thanks.

  • 5 years ago


    Exemplary illustrations at any level of chess. You have demonstrably explained step by step the varying confusion I have had with opening movements, especially, Caro-Kahn and the Nimzo-Indian variations. Thank you.

  • 5 years ago


    If you want a new, proven line in the Caro_kann advance that tends to be more exciting, I suggest the following.

    This system, as stated, is sometimes not suited for Caro-Kann payers who prefer the traditional, slower, more positional games that the traditinoal lines offer, but it is my personal favorite and is proven by many great players, most notably perhaps in the Botvinnik-Tal match (hence its name, the Botvinnik-Tal variation) and both players went on to later use it succesfully as black.
  • 5 years ago


    opening theories and transpositions = atlantic ocean 

  • 5 years ago


    U have excellant material on this website but I cannot understand most of the comments becuz I do not know the algebraic system of notating.     I'm an old fart (born 1934) who learned the old P-K4 system and do not wish to try learning somehing new at this point in my life.      I joined this website because I enjoy playing with live opponents.     I realize I''m missing some good stuff here but what do U do with a dinasaur who would rather watch old Lawrence Welk reruns on UTube rather than try to learn something new?

    By the way - the reason Santa is so jolly is because he knows where all the bad girls live.     Ouch.   Koko.

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