Lecture One: Opening Principles

Lecture One: Opening Principles

Mar 17, 2011, 1:21 PM |

If you follow a few simple opening principles you’ll be able to handle anything your opponent throws at you. The good news is that you don’t have to memorize a series of specific openings. You just have to practice these principles faithfully and not panic when your opponent plays a move you don’t understand.

Many people feel that playing White gives them an advantage. While White does get the jump in tempo, a well planned defense by Black can eliminate this issue almost immediately. White may go first but in a way, White is showing you their hand from the start. Think of it as a poker game in which your opponent shows a few of the cards in their hand before the betting starts. Having a preview your opponent’s plan can work to your advantage.

If you’re playing White, you’re expected to make a move that controls or attacks in the center of the board. If you’re playing black, you’re expected to defend against the attack. Whether you play White or Black, the goal in the opening is the same: You need to learn to develop you pieces quickly and have those pieces work as a team. Teamwork is critical to successful playing. Central control is the key during the opening game. The sooner you gain control of center, the greater the chances are of eventually winning the game.

Too many times the beginner drags the Queen out and runs it around the board trying to pick off an opponent’s pieces. While this may work on an absolute beginner, a seasoned player will turn this fatal mistake into an advantage, chasing their opponent’s Queen around while soundly developing their own pieces in the center of the board.

So our primary goal in the opening game is to gain control of the central squares (d4, d5, e4 and e5) while developing your pieces (specifically the Knights and Bishops). You’ll also want to Castle early, but we’ll cover that later. These goals can only be achieved through teamwork. When a soccer team plays a game, they don’t send one player out to face the other team. Rather, they send a group of players onto the field who work together. Chess uses similar principles. Your pawns and pieces must work together as a team, with one piece backing or protecting another. Let’s start by looking at developing our pieces quickly.

Rapid Development

We’re going to look at why developing our pieces quickly and Castling early works to our advantage. We’ll also look at why snatching pawns prematurely can turn a winning opening into a disaster. The game in the example is Brown versus Quinteros. The game starts with White playing e4, while Black counters with c5, employing the Sicilian defense. The Sicilian defense is extremely popular with serious players because it defends against White pushing a pawn up to d4. White plays Nf3, keeping an eye on the d4 square. Black plays d6, which backs up the c pawn and covers the e5 square. White seizes the opportunity and drives the Bishop up to b5, checking the King. The move itself isn’t bad since it develops a piece and checks the Black King. Black’s only response is Bishop to d7. White trades off the Bishops with Bishop taking d7 followed by Black’s Queen taking back d7. Now things get a little strange. Remember, this game is being played by two Grandmasters.

White moves his pawn up to c4. It looks like White’s plan is to move his Queenside Knight up to d5. Take a good look at d5. This is a crucial square that, if White gets his Knight placed there, could cause havoc for Black’s game. The pressure is now on Black to formulate a plan to keep White off of that square. Black moves his Queen to g4, which is extremely dangerous. While the Queen forks the pawn at e4 and g2, the move is not without risk. One of the most basic principles of the opening game states not to bring the Queen out too early. This is also a blatant case of chasing pawns when you should be developing your minor pieces and gaining control of the board’s center. White keeps his cool and Castles Kingside. Black’s Queen takes the e4 pawn and White pushes his pawn to d4 which opens up the diagonal for his dark squared Bishop and gives White’s Queen the ability to move. Black on the other hand, now has an exposed Queen in the middle of the board. White is developing cleanly while Black is going to have to work fast or go down in flames. Grabbing pawns isn’t worth the price you pay in tempo and a critical part of the opening is tempo.

A trick to ensure that you make good moves early on is to pretend you’re a chess teacher having to explain each of your moves to a student. Before you make a move, explain it (to yourself). This will cause you to reexamine the move and perhaps see any potential flaws. Back to our game:

Black decides to take the pawn on d4 with his c5 pawn. Rather than playing mechanical chess and taking the pawn back, White plays Rook to e1. This is a great move because it forces Black’s Queen to move while placing the White Rook on a key square. Black is losing tempo because of a bad case of pawn greed. White moves his Knight to d4, taking a pawn but more importantly, gaining a great central position. The added bonus, White’s Queen has to move once again. Black, knowing he has moved his Queen three times, decides to take the c4 pawn to at least give this move some validity. Guess what? The Black Queen is going to have to move its Queen again after White moves his Knight to a3.

There’s a theme here. White is developing his pieces because he is using sound opening principles, while Black has to shuffle his most valuable piece around the board because he broke the most basic of opening principles. Finally Black retreats his Queen back to c8, having wasting the critical part of the opening on a pawn. Let’s look at what Black has achieved for the last ten or so moves. Black has a two pawn lead with no development of his pieces. White, on the other hand, may be down a few pawns but is a much better position in relation to the center of the board. Who would you rather be Black or White? While White doesn’t have all his pieces in the board’s center, he has a Knight placed on a central square and his remaining pieces can easily move into strategic positions.

White moves his Bishop to f4, which covers the e6 and d5 squares. This is a great location for the dark squared Bishop. Even after all those Queen moves and no development of Black’s pieces, Black moves his Queen again to d7. White responds by moving his a3 Knight to b5. If White gets his Knight to d6 it will crush Black’s game. Black is desperate and pushes a pawn up to e5. Desperate moves produce desperate results. This move is a temporary fix akin to using masking tape to repair a leaky pipe. Now Black is making moves not to win material but to keep White’s attack at bay. White is in a great position and should consider a sacrifice.

Black is ahead material, but his extremely poor position counters this. When your opponent has extremely poor development and you have good development, you can consider going in for an attack on the opponent’s King, even if it means sacrificing a piece. However, it requires some careful calculation and planning, so don’t try it if you’re new to the game.

White plays Bishop takes e5. Advanced played will see this as the smartest move to make, while beginners may be questioning the exchange of a Bishop for a pawn. Of course, Black has no choice but to take the Bishop with his d6 pawn. White then takes the pawn with his Rook, checking the King in the process. Black has to block the check rather than move his King. White responds by moving his Rook to d5. Take a moment to carefully look at this move. At first glance, you may think the Queen can simply take the Rook. However, if you look at the Knight on b5, you’ll see that it can fork the King, Queen and Rook on its next move provided Black’s Queen takes the White Rook. Had black taken the Rook on d5, White would have moved his Knight to c7 crushing Black with a 3-way fork.

Black ends up playing Queen to c8. Once again the Queen is on the move. White responded by moving his Knight to f5. At this point, the end is near for Black. White has his two knights in great positions, not to mention the Rook and Queen combination on the d file. White’s goal now is mount a rapid attack to finish Black off. Even in a great position, there is always a chance of your opponent wiggling out of a possible mate. Black’s next move seals his fate, King to f8. White responds by taking the Bishop with his Knight. Black cannot take the Knight with his own Knight because it would force his King into a back rank mating scenario, so Black takes the Knight with his King. White moves his Rook to e5 checking the King. At this point, Black resigned, knowing that the end was two moves away.


The point of showing you this game was demonstrate that violating opening principles, even at Grandmaster level, can have dire consequences. At least six of the seven overall opening principles were broken by Black and the results were predictable. What was the defining bad move?

Before I answer that, let me say that it is easy to analyze a game from the comfort of my office. It’s another thing altogether to be sitting in the hot seat, fighting it out on the chessboard. We all make mistakes when feeling the pressure of a game. Imagine that pressure at a Grandmaster level! Now for the move that I feel caused the greatest problem: The Queen forking the two pawns. One thing I teach my students early on is not to grab pieces without a good reason. Just because a piece is hung (without protection) doesn’t mean taking it is completely to your advantage.

Use the three primary opening principles when making the first 7 to 12 moves of the opening and you’ll end up with a better position. These principles are simple: First, develop pawns to gain control of the board’s center. Second, develop your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) quickly and early. Third, Castle the King early because safety is a critical factor. Above all, explain every move you make as if you’re teaching the opening to a beginner and you’ll catch potential mistakes before you make them.

The next part of this series will look at opening principles in the Italian and Spanish games and how to deal with pushy Bishops.