Openings for Beginners

Feb 3, 2009, 12:00 AM |
4 | For Beginners

This is not going to be a terribly advanced lesson since I'm not a terribly strong player, but I thought it might be helpful to explain some basic opening ideas and offer the sort of advice I would have found helpful when I was just starting out.

The opening can be a scary part of the game, no obviously tactical ideas in sight (unless you think Qh5 is a strong 2nd move with a view to a quick mate!) and it can be difficult to come up with a plan, especially if your opponent plays something you aren't used to seeing. So, rather than suggest a rote memorisation of 'correct' moves, I suggest relying on first principles to get you safely in to the middle game with a fighting chance.

1) Fight for control of the centre.

This is a Ruy Lopez or Spanish opening, the battle is all about the centre. White's 2nd move Nf3, common in other openings as well, immediately threatens Nxe5, this limits black's response. Black responds with Nc6, defending his pawn. White then threatens this defender with Bb5 indirectly attacking the pawn once again. Black plays a6 to chase the bishop away, and so on - if white takes the knight on the 4th move he can't actually keep the pawn. If he takes it, black plays dxc3 then follows up Nxe5 with Qd4 threatening the knight, if it moves he will take the e pawn with check. Even the quiet looking move c3 is a preparation for d4 offering the square c2 for the light square bishop to support white's centre. The ideal position is to have a pair of pawns on the 4th rank (5th for black) This classical pawn centre controls c5, d5, e5 and f5 with the two central squares being attacked by two pawns each. A centre like that, supported by minor pieces is a huge positional advantage. Even the flank openings some masters favour involve controlling the centre from afar, with a fianchettoed bishop, for example. No master would ever play a4 for a first move.

2) Avoid weakening your basic position on principle. You must try not to create holes, or weaknesses in terms of backwards pawns, doubled pawns etc especially near the king. Often when a bishop pins a beginner's knight on f3, they will play h3 (h6 with black) to 'put the question' to the bishop (the question is are you gonna take the piece or get lost?) but this should be avoided if at all possible since the king's position is strongest when the 3 pawns are on their starting squares. If a piece is pinned near your king, try to support it with other pieces so you don't have to take back with a pawn, if you end up with doubled pawns on the f or h files, a mating attack may not be far behind. Then when you look over your defeat there is no point thinking about better tactics when the attack came, you must go back to where your position initially became weakened. This is where analysis comes in handy, blundercheck on chessbase programs will show you where you went wrong and give you some ideas on when to shore up your defences.

3) Make each move count. Many fresh beginners like to open with a4 or even h4, but what does it threaten? In what way does it help development? In what way does it take control of the centre? The answer is nothing, no way and it doesn't. Often the idea is to continue with Ra3 or the equivalent but if black has answered the terrible a4 with the superior e5 then Ra3 will be followed by Bxa3! Giving black a material and positional advantage. Often you will hear about moves 'with tempo' this means you force the other side to make a move they don't really want to, and therefore have more time to make your own moves. An example springs to mind.

Notice that black's move 4... Bb4+ develops a piece and gives check! An appealing move for many beginners, but a check is not half a checkmate, sometimes it allows your opponent to do exactly what they want to. The answering move 5 c3! in response stops the white queenside knight from taking up his usual post there, but also it stops the check and forces the black bishop to move again (to avoid capture). This is how the initiative is gained. Black's idea is to head to d6 to defend his newly won f pawn. However 6 e5! again stops the bishop in his tracks. Note that although black can stop his bishop being taken with 6... Qe7 (pinning white's pawn) This cannot save the f pawn and white has a considerable advantage after the unpinning move 7 Qe2.

3) Get castled! The exception is when the centre is blocked with pawns but most beginners should get in the habit of castling as soon as possible to aid the development of their pieces. Castling is only possible if neither the king and rook have moved, there are no pieces inbetween and none of the squares are in being attacked eg a bishop attacking a square that the king would have to pass through will stop him castling, and indeed, sometimes keeping your opponent in the centre is a good way to attack. You do this in any computer based chess by dragging your king two squares towards the rook - note that in queen side castling this may require an additional king move to b1 to help guard the a2 square. After you have castled and your minor pieces (knights and bishops) are off their starting squares you can connect your rooks (having them on the same rank where they defend each other) and look for ways to use them on open files where pawns have been exchanged.

4) Remember when to ignore the rules. This is an important one and will become more important as a player becomes stronger. I have a vivid memory of playing someone not much worse than me when I was rated about 1200, they castled in to a nest of my own pieces and checkmate followed two moves later. I said to him 'it was a bad time to castle' and he replied 'you should always castle as soon as possible!' Hmm! Even if it loses instantly? You should know when to ignore mechanical rules and be flexible. You have to meet your opponent's threats even if it means playing a move you might not wish to make in other circumstances.

Finally I offer a simple puzzle. You must always be on the lookout for opening errors by your opponent and be ready to punish them without delay. The following position occurred in a tournament game between two very strong players after a Sicilian opening that went 1 e4 c5  2 Nf3 Nc6  3 d4 cxd4  4 Nxd4 e5  5 Nf5 Nge7. Black may like this set up in various Sicilian variations but it might not be ideal here...



After a time you may want to find out more about openings, you'll decide on a few you like, your favourite opening as white, and what you like to play against e4 or d4 with black. If you have some kind of chess program you can input an opening move and see what the response is, since these programs have opening books with millions of positions in. Or you can get an actual book yourself and try to really understand the positions and this is probably the best way. I think 'Mastering the Chess Openings' in 3 volumes by IM John Watson is a good way to start but if you know what opening you like, you can get something specific to the openings you prefer, though you may find that some are fairly technical. There are many, many books on openings - the starting out series is quite good and you could try a dvd on the opening instead, perhaps with interactive questions and exercises. Again I'd like to recommend Logical Chess Move by Move by Irving Chernev as in each game it explains every single move played by both sides and is good for beginners who know the rules but want to improve their skills. Good luck. See you in the middlegame! :-)