The Nerd Club - Basic Opening Principles

The Nerd Club - Basic Opening Principles

Oct 16, 2016, 3:45 AM |

Hi chess friends,


This is the blog for the CMT-group chess club. The idea is to teach a bunch of theoretical phycisists how to play chess. 


Here I will try to teach you the basic opening principles that I was taught early on, which I still believe make an awful lot of sense. The point is that by learning these principles (and following them!) you avoid having to memorize all kinds of opening variations; you can simply rely on the logic of the opening 'rules' to guide you to a fine position. If this approach does not appeal to physicists, I don't know what would.


The three opening 'rules' are (in no particular order):


  1. Develop your pieces.
  2. Control the center (meaning the 4 center squares of the board).
  3. Get your king to safety (often this means castling).

At the end of the blog post I will also mention some different opening strategies to follow if you want a quiet game, or want a dynamic, tactical game.

Develop your pieces

To develop your pieces basically means that you should get your pieces active somehow. Mostly here we are focused not on pawns but on the other pieces. Normally we try to develop the knights and bishops first, then later worry about the rooks and queen. Basically, we need to develop our whole army before we should focus on bringing down the opponent. 

An important corollary that follows from the theorem is: Try not to move the same piece twice in the opening. Sure, sometimes it is necessary/good to do so, but generally you should avoid moving the same piece multiple times in the opening since this will hinder the development of your other pieces, thus violating the theorem!

Control the center

Controlling the center is very important in the opening stages of chess. Normally by controlling the center we mean controlling it by pawns, supported by minor pieces maybe. The basic idea is that the center is where your pieces have the greatest scope (a knight controls more squares from the center than from the side of the board); also if you control the center, you will generally have more space than your opponent. More space means that you have more freedom to maneuver your pieces to optimal squares, whereas your opponent's pieces might get cramped due to the lack of space.

I have made an in-depth analysis of the importance of space (maybe it is a bit advanced) that you can read here:

Get your king to safety

Getting your king safe in the opening is a very important principle, and one that I feel beginners sometimes neglect. The basic idea is that often times the center of the board is where the fight will be, i.e. it is hard to keep the center of the board closed down - often times there will be some open lines and diagonals in the center. But if your king is still on e1/e8, that means that these open lines and diagonals might very well point towards your king. This exposes your king to all kinds of tactics and attacks, and normally it simply does not go well unless you know what you are doing (or your opponent doesn't). In any case, getting your king safe normally means getting him behind a safe wall of pawns that can protect the monarch from the enemy pieces. This is usually done by castling.

If you want to see some examples of how to take advantage of an un-castled king, I made a blog post about attacking chess, which focused a lot on attacking the un-castled king:

So, those are the three rules. In my opinion, you can get really far only by following the above rules; but if you want to be successful with them, you have to be very resourceful in using them. You have to insist on following these rules, and this sometimes means being creative and maybe even sacrificing small amounts of material in order to get what you want out of the position, or denying your opponent the ability to follow the rules as well.

Let me show you an example game I played against Ajit recently:

So as you can see, in my opinion it is okay to sacrifice small amounts of material in order to maximize your ability to follow the opening principles and minimize your opponent's ability to do the same. In general I think at your (and my) level, sacrificing a small amount of material in order to get active pieces, remove your opponent's ability to castle or establishing firm control of the center should be automatic! Therefore I will present to you below some examples of opening gambits - openings where one side sacrifices small amounts of material in order to obtain some opening advantage. Hopefully if you try and play some of these lines, you will get a feel for the advantages and disadvantages of material gain vs. activity, which is very important to try to understand. Sometimes you will be punished for giving away the material, but it will be fun and you will hopefully learn a lot on the way!
The following are very standard well-respected gambits:
I hope that gave you some idea of how you can actively and creatively try to follow the opening rules. Here are some more suggestions on gambits that try to maximize the opening advantages by giving away a little material:
Now these are just a few gambits that I showed as an example. But what I like about them is that they try desperately to follow the three opening rules and deny their opponent's ability to do the same, even if that means sacrificing a bit of material. If you can get the same kind of determination in your opening play, I think it will take you far.