You Must Know Your Opening Basics!

  • IM Silman
  • | Nov 21, 2012

IMPORTANT: [At the end of the puzzles, you should click MOVE LIST so you can see my instructive notes and variations. If you are having trouble solving a problem, just click SOLUTION, and then MOVE LIST. Even if you solve everything, DO click MOVE LIST or you might miss an important bit of prose.]

Modern Defense

After 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 White played the odd 3.e5

White wrote: “Wanting to close in the opponent’s dark-squared Bishop.”

That’s a noble idea, but there’s a problem with it: Black’s general plan is to attack white’s center, while White can often build up a big pawn center and use it (eventually) to initiate an attack, or to simply use it as a space gaining device that will squeeze his opponent to death in boa constrictor fashion.

Both sides can go about their respective plans in various ways. White can go for the gusto with lines like 3.f4 followed by 4.c3 or 4.Nc3 when the center is firm and White (at the moment) controls the c5, d5, and e5 squares. Black will try and bash this center with breaks like …c7-c5 or, on occasion, …e7-e5.

White can also go for a bit less, which also risks less: 3.Nf3 d6 4.Nc3 (or 4.c3 followed by Nbd2) trying to create a small but firm center. As always, Black will seek to pressure this center by (at some point) …c7-c5 or …e7-e5 or …Bg4 followed by …Nc6 or even …a7-a6 followed by …b7-b5 and …Bb7, to name just a few setups.

Clearly, the soul of this opening is central battle: one side builds the center, the other strives to tear it down. If you aren’t aware of this impending battle, you can’t play either side of this opening correctly.

And this (finally) brings us back to 3.e5. White, before developing anything, pushes his e-pawn a second time and allows Black to initiate immediate central strikes: 3…d6 4.f4 dxe5 (There was no hurry for this, but everything still makes sense.) 5.fxe5 and here Black played the clueless 5…e6?, not only blocking his light-squared Bishop, but also sets up a d6-hole if Black plays the thematic …c7-c5. Instead of the advance of the e-pawn, which has nothing to do with the position, Black should have played 5…c5 cracking white’s center (even 5…Nh6, intending an eventual d4-bashing …Nf5, made sense) 6.Nf3 Bg4 when Black is living up to his center-killing responsibility. Black never got around to attacking white’s center. Instead he played …c7-c6 (horrific) followed by …b5 and …a5 and just tossed stuff forward without having any idea about how his opening works.

French Defense

The following game was played in a serious tournament with a slow time control.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Ngf3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.a3?! Qb6 8.Nb3?!

White hasn’t played the opening well since his 7.a3, common in lines like 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.a3, isn’t very wise here since the Knight on d2 (which breaks the protective connection between the white Queen and the d4-pawn) is usually misplaced for the a3 system. His 8.Nb3 further highlights his position’s deficiencies.

As you can see, when players with 2000+ USCF ratings can’t get through the opening by move 7, then everyone is vulnerable to opening disasters!

How should Black react to white's inaccurate opening play?

In this game Black avoided the best line due to an irrational fear (e.g., a White Knight living forever on d4. You can see black's comment in the problem's move list.) that had nothing to do with the immediate position, and would never have occurred if he played correctly. 

Make Sure Your Pieces and Pawns Work Together

1.c4 Nf6 2.b3 e6 3.Nf3 d5

In the diagrammed position, what would make more sense, 4.d2-d3 or 4.e2-e3? 

Actually, 4.Bb2 (which is pretty much the same thing as 4.e3 since e3 will usually follow) and 4.g3 are the most popular moves here, but if we have to choose between 4.d3 or 4.e3 then 4.e3 wins hands down. Why? When White played b2-b3 his intention was clear: to place the Bishop on b2 and strive to control the a1-h8 diagonal. The move d2-d3 has nothing to do with controlling the dark-squares (in fact, it actually weakens the dark squares inside white’s camp), but e2-e3 does since it hits d4 (which is a dark-square). From the diagram, White should play 4.Bb2 followed by e2-e3 (or 4.e3 followed by Bb2) when an interesting, strategic battle would ensue (also note that in many lines White will eventually play d2-d4 after Bb2 and e3. The immediate 4.d3 seriously cuts down on white’s options). Remember: chess is a team effort. Right from the opening you want to have your pawns and pieces working together for the same goals!

Here’s a famous (and extremely exciting!) game that features the setup we were talking about:


* What we saw in all these examples is quite common. People play an opening because they watched (or came across) a game that attracted them. But they play the opening without knowing what it’s about. I highly recommend that you make a point of knowing the verbal explanations behind every opening you play – what is the philosophy behind it? What are the normal ways to implement this philosophy? That way, no matter what crazy thing your opponent might do, you will know how to play your side.

* In openings like the Modern Defense, the Pirc, the Alekhine Defense, the Grunfeld, and others, the soul of the opening tends to be fixated on central battle: one side builds the center, the other strives to tear it down. If you aren’t aware of this impending battle, you can’t play either side of this opening correctly.

* The French Defense is a very dynamic opening that features lots of key strategic setups. Learn the basics of those setups, and you'll do very well with the French.

* When developing, it's important to know where your pawns and pieces generally go so they can complement each other.


If you want me to look over your game, send it to

I need your name (real or handle), your OPPONENT’S name (real or handle), both players’ ratings, where the game was played, and date. If you don’t give me this information, I won’t use your game! BTW: I’ve noticed that many people are reluctant to give me their opponent’s name. This is very strange! Showing the names of both players is the way chess games are presented in databases, books, magazines… everywhere! Permission from the opponent isn’t necessary. If permission was necessary, everyone who ever lost a game wouldn’t allow their name to be on it!


  • 4 years ago


    Great article!

  • 4 years ago


    what insight! Botvinnik's play was amazing,  I would never have thought to play 22 NG5, I like how he kept the tempo instead of taking the bishop on move 35, I'm gonna try and be a bit more imaginitive when i play from now on.

  • 4 years ago


    @aehp: Fundamental Chess Opening (FCO) by van der Sterren; it gives you the basic lines for every major opening (and most sub-variations), and, more importantly, the author explains the ideas behind each of the moves.

    From there most people move onto Modern Chess Openings (15th Ed.) by de Firmian, which builds on FCO by offering deeper analysis - but I've had FCO for about a year and a half now, and I've got a way to go before I need to upgrade to MCO.

  • 4 years ago


    it was useful, thanks

  • 4 years ago


    botvinnik beast ggs

  • 4 years ago


    Very nice. :)

  • 4 years ago


    VirtualChessX: 25.g6+ Kf8!? 26.Qe6 Ne5! 27.de5 Bc5+ 28.Kh1 Bg2+ 29.Kg2 Rd3;

  • 4 years ago



    In the Botvinnik-Chekhover game 25.g6+ Kf8!?


    What does black need to do after Qxe6 ? threating mate with Qf7# next move?

  • 4 years ago


    I absolutely loved the Botvinnik game; he's the real iron fist in the velvet glove, wham!! Imagine corralling your opponent's pieces into a corner then having the confidence to sac 3 pieces while you run his King down like roadkill!

    The first opening I learned was from this really old book on the "King's Indian Attack", almost paint by numbers and explanations of each move, why they were made and the themes of each variation. Chess for sub-idiots so it was perfect for me. I played that opening for years with much success since I understood what the plan was supposed to be. After learning that opening, others came easier. I don't play the KIA much now, since I've 'found' other openings that seem to better suit my style of play.

    The KIA is a pretty safe, solid (boring) opening for white, but you won't get bushwacked as easily (which was my problem) with it by the one-trick-pony gambiteers.

  • 4 years ago


    In the Botvinnik-Chekhover game 25.g6+ Kf8!?

  • 4 years ago


    Your complete book of chess strategy was my first chess book ever read Jeremy. I learned so much from it, and I still go back to it from time to time. Thanks for such a great work!

  • 4 years ago


    someone can recomend me some opening books

  • 4 years ago


    Mattwhpc: My advice is to study 1. b3 as white because its a solid, good move and its pretty hard to go wrong as white if you know the ideas. Ive tested it in OTB-games and won every game with it (about 10 games), one was rated around 2300 rating. So it cant be bad :). You basicly go pretty fast into a midgame so if you hate opening theory this is the perfect choise. There is a pretty good movie for free on youtube by igor smirnov where he explains all the ideas. Takes like 2 hours of study and you got basicly all opening theory you need as white (beside general opening theory or common sense). The best part is that almost no player under 2000 rating knows what to do against it and they often misplay or waste a lot of time.


    You can play it as black too and since 1.b3 can transpose to queens indian defense you basicly have the same ideas. But i would advice you to play sicilian hyperaccelerated dragon agains e4 as black. Many ppl even on 2000+ rating dont know the opening as white and it is easy to learn and it is a solid choise. I have gotten a winning position in less than 10 moves against 2000+ ELO players! And many chess players will try to do some kind of kingside attack which results into a dragon line with you having an extra tempo and one extra tempo in that line is deadly...

    Against d4 your can play queens indian which is basicly "shares" theory with 1.b3. It is a very good opening, popular among top GMs and can lead to exciting midgame play.

    Now you can handle most openings and you can spend more time on important stuff. Like midgame strategy, endgame and pawnstructure!

  • 4 years ago


    I found this very helpful. However, as a beginner I don't really know which openings I should be learning first. I have studied the English a bit and have had a bit of success with it (mainly because few beginners know how to handle it). I don't know what to learn next. hmmmmmm....

  • 4 years ago


    Thanks IM Silman.  Very instructive!

  • 4 years ago


    I'm actually not to in the know on these openings, but I was overjoyed when I found the right moves. Despite just starting it yesterday Nimzowitschs "My System" seemed to have very applicaple logic to these in the section he had on the opening in general.

  • 4 years ago


    I have used Fundamental Chess Openings (FCO) for the verbal description of the openings. However, it tends to be a little too vague because it covers almost all openings. The only other books that seem better are the first two volumes of John Watson's Mastering the Chess Openings. It has its shortcomings (i.e. focusing on the most popular or most strategically rich variations).

    Is there a better source for finding opening exegisis?

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