Opening Principles Part Two

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Opening Principles Part Two


I teach chess professionally at six public and private schools here in the San Francisco Bay Area. My classes are one hour long which can seem like a lifetime to my elementary school students (K through 6). Therefore, I have to make the lessons interesting and my presentations exciting enough to hold their interest. The class is divided into two 30-minute sections. The first 30 minutes is used to present a “Master’s” game which I analyze and present to my students. I chose the games from a huge game database I use for teaching. During the second half of the class, my students try to use what they saw during my game lecture in their own games. I try to choose games that are short (up to 24 moves in length) and games that demonstrate the point I’m trying to make in each lesson. During my presentation of the “Master’s” games, I have the students participate by asking them questions about a specific position. We use a Socratic method of learning in which both student and teacher are engaged in discussion.

These lectures for the Chess Nuts Group (my favorite group) are based on my lectures given over the last 10 months as a chess teacher in the school system here in San Francisco. The first part of this series dealt with the most basic of opening principles which we’ll review before looking at our featured game. This second part of this series looks at the use of basic tactics, gambits and aggressive attacks combined with sound opening principles. We’ll be looking at a game played between chess legend Paul Morphy and his father Alonzo Morphy. While the game took place back 1849, White’s sharp attacks and aggressive style will help any contemporary player improve their game.

Before we jump into the action, let’s quickly review our basic opening principles. These are principles rather than rules. This means that on some occasions they may be ignored. However, you have to keep in mind that there is good reason these opening principles have been around for a long time. It’s because they work. If you break an opening principle, have a fantastic reason for doing so (we’ll see Paul Morphy bend one of the opening principles for a great reason). So here are a few basic opening principles to keep in mind:

1.       Gain control of the center quickly, preferably before your opponent does. The center consists of the d4, d5, e4 and e5 squares. Also considered part of the center are the squares immediately surrounding d4, d5, e4 and e5. Why the center? Because your pieces (and pawns) exert greater influence or control of the board from the board’s center.

2.       Develop your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) to good squares as soon as possible. Good squares are those that allow a minor piece the greatest control of the board as possible. Therefore, a minor piece should be as close to the center as possible.

3.       Castle as early as possible. King safety is an absolute must. While you want to Castle as soon as you can, you need to make sure you have good central development prior to Castling. Castling has the added benefit of placing a Rook closer to the d or e files where it is extremely effective.

4.       Do not move the same piece twice during the opening unless absolutely necessary.

5.       Do not bring your Queen out early. A good opponent will be able to develop his minor pieces while chasing your Queen around the board.

6.       Connect your Rooks. When the time is right, move your Queen up one rank so the Rooks have free reign to move across their starting rank. This allows them to protect various pawns and pieces out on the board.

7.       See the entire board. Look at the positions of all of your opponent’s pieces before making a move. I mean every piece, regardless it position. Obviously, you want to pay close attention to any enemy pieces out on the board. However, by looking at every other piece, regardless of its position, you’ll get used to seeing the entire board. Often pieces are lost because players are too busy looking at the center of the board. A long distance piece like a Bishop may be just out of your line of sight, waiting to slice across the board and capture one of your unprotected pieces. You’ll also notice any potential moves your opponent might have waiting in the wings. Pay close attention to long distance pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queens. Again, see the entire board.


Now let’s get to the game between Paul Morphy and his beleaguered father, Alonzo. The game was played in 1849 in New Orleans. Paul had played many games with his father who introduced the young Morphy to chess. While father easily beat son for many years, the son eventually eclipsed his father’s tactical abilities as we’ll see in the following game.


In this game, we see a standard classical e4 opening. The first few moves can be found being played at any contemporary chess club today. However, as the game develops we’ll see the attacking style of Paul Morphy and his genius in action.


1.e4…e5: This is probably the most played first move in the history of chess. For those of you who didn’t read through my first lecture, there are a number of reasons why this is such a strong first move. Our first principle states that early central control is our goal. During the first move only the pawns and Knights can move. These means there are a total of 20 possible moves (16 pawn moves and 4 Knight moves). While you could control two of the central squares (d4 and e5) by moving your Knight to f3, you take a chance of exposing your Knight to future danger (1. Nf3…e5 2.d4…e4 and the Black e pawn is attacking the Knight, forcing it to move).


Pushing the e pawn to e4 allows White to occupy the e4 square while attacking the d5 square. It also opens a line for both the White light squared Bishop and White’s Queen by opening the e2 square. This means the Bishop can be developed which assists in principle two, developing your minor pieces to good squares (such as a future move of the Bishop to c4). This in turn, leads to quicker Castling. One simple move accomplishes many tasks. By making a similar move (1…e5), Black accomplishes the goal.


2.Nf3…Nc6: Let’s look at White’s reasons for making this move, then we’ll look at Black’s response. Principle two states that we should move our minor pieces to good squares as soon as possible. Moving the Knight to f3 is fantastic for a number of reasons. First off, we’re attacking Black’s e pawn. This means that Black will have to defend the pawn or lose it. White is forcing Black to respond. By forcing Black into defending we may be forcing him to make a move he doesn’t want to make. Paul Morphy was brilliant at forcing his opponent into making moves that were not part of his opponent’s plan! The Knight on f3 also exerts control over the d4 square, making it difficult for Black to go after that square. Moving the Knight to f3 develops a minor piece to a good square and prepares for King-side Castling. However, there’s an added benefit to placing the Knight on f3. This benefit is that the Knight on f3 controls two key squares, g5 and h4. At first glance, the beginner might not see the threat. However, if you follow the h4-d8 diagonal, you’ll notice that Black’s Queen is sitting on one end. Both the g5 and h4 squares also sit on this diagonal. The Black Queen could easily slide down the diagonal and attack White’s King-side from either of these two squares if they were not protected by the Knight on f3.


Black counters with 2…Nc6. There are a number of ways to protect the e5 pawn. However, the majority of them block in one of the two Black Bishops, costing Black time or tempo. For example, if Black played 2…d6, his pawn would block in his dark squared Bishop. Worse yet, if Black played Bd6, he’d be blocking in his d pawn which, turn blocks in the light squared Bishop. Playing 2…Nc6 avoids the traffic jam and develops a minor piece. Black would have preferred to play Nf6 to develop of the King-side which is faster than Castling Long (Castling Queen-side) but had to defend the hanging pawn. Tip number one: force your opponent to make moves they don’t want to make. This costs them tempo and time is a critical factor in chess.


3. Bc4…Bc5: White develops his light squared Bishop to c4. This is a great square for the Bishop to be on. The reason is simple. The White Bishop is sitting on a long diagonal that cuts through the d5, e6 and f7 squares. Of importance are d5 and f7 squares. Now both the e4 pawn and the Bishop on c4 are controlling the d5 square. Black has no control of this important central square at the moment. Also of interest is f7 and it’s extremely weak pawn, who my kids call Freddy. The pawn is weak because it’s only defense comes from the King. The f7 (for Black) and f2 (for White) squares have been the scene of many fast checkmates, so defend them wisely. Black plays an identical move, setting his sights on the d4 and f2 squares. So far, we’ve seen fairly standard moves for both Black and White. Now things start to get interesting.


4. b4…Bxb4: To the beginner, pushing the b pawn to a square clearly under the control of the Black Bishop might seem like cruel and unusual punishment for the poor pawn. However, there’s a good reason for this move. This is a sacrifice. Why simply give up or sacrifice a piece? There has to be a good reason otherwise you’d be giving up material without any reward. Sacrifices are generally made in order to gain a better position. There are other reasons for sacrifices but we’ll look at those in another lecture. Paul Morphy pushes his pawn to b4. Now Black has a decision to make. Black can either move to another square or capture the attacking piece. Either way, Black has to move his Bishop and this goes against the opening principle, never move the same piece during the opening. Alonzo Morphy decides to take the Bishop which, as we shall see, is a big mistake. His reasoning was simple. He was going to have to move the Bishop anyway so why not win a pawn for his trouble. Black takes the pawn with 4…Bxb4. Black feels confident, after all, he’s just won a pawn! We’ll see on move five why this was a mistake on Black’s part!


5. c3…Bc5: Paul Morphy thrusts another pawn into the Black Bishop’s line of sight. However, this pawn is protected and Black cannot take it. The c3 pawn is protected by both the d2 pawn and the Knight on b1. Black has to move his Bishop for the 3rd time. This is a loss of tempo or time. You can think of losing tempo as losing a turn. During the opening game timing is absolutely crucial. Lose time and you’ll lose the opening. Black moves his beleaguered Bishop back to c5. Some of you may be wondering why Paul Morphy would go through all the trouble of giving up a pawn to and chasing the Bishop. Take a look at the a3 square and then look at the White Bishop on c1. Watch what happens over the next few moves.


6. d4…exd4: Yet another of Paul Morphy’s pawns gets taken from the board. Why did the young chess genius give up his d4 pawn? He is now two pawns down. Black takes advantage of this situation and captures the pawn with 6…exd4. An individual with solid chess knowledge might think that Paul Morphy was extremely overrated if using the first six moves of this game as the basis for their decision regarding Morphy’s skills. However, a closer examination of the position will provide a glimpse of the vicious attack that is soon to come. Take a look at the position from Black’s point of view. Should Black take the d4 pawn? The easiest way to determine attacking outcomes it count the number of attackers versus the number of defenders. Black has three attackers (the pawn on e5, the Bishop on c5 and the Knight on c6). White, on the other hand has three defenders of the d4 pawn (the pawn on c3, The Queen on d1 and the Knight on f3). So we’re even regarding the number of attackers versus the number of defenders.  This being the case, we have to look for a positional advantage for White. After all, why would White throw a pawn into the line of fire, especially when White is being played by Paul Morphy! Black takes the pawn with exd4. In a situation like this (for Black), you want to capture with the lowest valued piece or in this case, pawn. Black knows that this single capture will lead to a potential series of exchanges. Therefore, you start with lesser value pieces to do the capturing. That way, if something goes wrong, you haven’t lost valuable material.


7. cxd4…Bb6: Paul Morphy takes the d4 pawn with his own c pawn. Black has to retreat his Bishop because an exchange would lead to a loss of material for Black. This reinforces the idea of using lower valued material to capture. Had White used the Knight to capture the pawn, Black might have considered trading his Bishop for the Knight. However, cxd4 makes a trade a loss for Black. Therefore, the Bishop moves once again.


8. 0-0…Na5: White uses Black’s great loss of tempo as the perfect time to Castle. If you compare White’s position to Black’s, you’ll notice that White has great central development while Black’s development is lopsided. Black counters with Na5, attempting to dislodge the annoying Bishop. This is a mistake on Black’s part. While there is nothing wrong with trying to force an opponent’s piece off of the central squares, you have to so with greater control of the offending piece. White calmly refutes Black’s attack on the following move. This further increases Black’s loss of tempo.


9. Bd3…d5: White moves his Bishop to d3 which keeps the Bishop close to center and safe at the same time. Black decides on a weak attempt to break up White’s center. This is not a great idea if you’re facing an attacking master like Paul Morphy.


10. exd5…Qxd5: White has developed a plan for going after Black’s exposed King on e8. By taking Black’s d5 pawn with his e pawn, Morrphy starts clearing a path up the center of the board. He is also counting on Black taking back with his Queen. Forcing the Queen onto the board’s center does more harm than good, as we shall see later on!


11. Ba3…Be6. When I show students this specific move (especially beginning students) they first think it’s a wasted move for White. However, if we think about the rules of Castling, we’re reminded that the King cannot Castle if he moves through a square under the opponent’s control. The Bishop on a3 attacks the f8 square making it impossible for Black to Castle King-side (at least for the moment). With this in mind, why would Black play 11…Be6? The primary reason has to do with threat assessment. If you look at the Rook on f1, you’ll see that it can easily move to e1, checking Black’s King. Black considers this an immediate threat and responds accordingly. When faced with multiple threats, deal with the threat that poses the most immediate problem.


12. Nc3…Qd7: I love this move for White. It is so simple a way to develop a piece while creating a further loss of tempo for Black! The Knight attacks the Queen and her majesty must move or be lost. Now look at White’s position and compare it to Black. White has great development while Black’s pieces are cramped. Black may be ahead in material but White owns the board’s center. Paul Morphy knows he has the superior position which helps explain his next move.


13. d5…Bxd5: At first glance, it looks like White just lost another pawn due to a questionable move. However, when you start looking at the position after the Bishop takes the White pawn on d5, you see big problems for Black. Try to look two moves ahead before making any move. This means that before you move a piece, play the following two moves for both sides out in your head. This will give you a rough idea about the effects your move will have. It also allows you to determine whether or not your move is solid or a potential blunder. What did Black miss by taking the White pawn? The White Rook or Queen can quickly check Black’s King. White’s c3 Knight can capture the Bishop on d5. There are a number of potential problems Black now faces. A good general rule of thumb; don’t grab pawns because you can. In chess, greed is not good.


14. Nxd5…Qxd5: White makes an even trade with Black, trading Knight for Bishop. As you get better at positional chess, you’ll stop to think about Knight versus Bishop. In a closed game where there isn’t room to move around, your Knight is more valuable. In an open game, with access to the diagonals, the Bishop gains in value. The Bishops are favored in White’s aggressive attacking strategy, so the trade off was worth it. What do you think about Black taking the White Knight out with his Queen? Let’s find out how Paul Morphy manipulates his opponent’s most powerful piece onto an ineffectual square!


15. Bb5+…Qxb5: If you study the game of Paul Morphy, you’ll notice that Morphy had a knack for corralling his opponent’s pieces in to cramped positions by sacrificing pieces. This was part of his amazing style of play. If you were playing White, wouldn’t you want to see your opponent’s pieces shoved into the corner? The check could have been blocked with the c7 pawn or the a5 Knight. However, black sadly chose to capture the checking Bishop with his most powerful piece. When faced with a check, use the simplest solution for getting out of it. For example, 15…c6 might have been played. Always start with the simplest solution to a problem. Analyze the position two moves into the future and, if the future position looks sound, go for it!


16. Re1+…Ne7: Often, we’ll see a great check waiting to be played. When we look at Master’s games, we often wonder why they didn’t just make the check earlier in the game. The reason has to do with timing. Beginners are prone to making what IM Andrew Martin calls “silly checks.” This type of check is made prematurely. In good chess, timing is everything, especially when checking your opponent’s King. If you’re going to check your opponents King you need to get more than just a check out of it. What you’re looking for is a check that will give you a positional advantage once the check is played. This is why White waited to check the Black King with the Rook. Paul Morphy was waiting until his opponent’s pieces were in a cramped position before checking with the Rook. Black responds with a block by bringing the Knight to e7. The problem with blocking a check is that you often end up allowing your blocking piece to become pinned to the King. Now Black’s Knight is pinned to King as long as the Rook is on e1. Another Black piece has now been taken out of commission!


17. Rb1…Qa6: This is a great example of using your Rooks actively in the game! Too often, beginner’s Rooks sit on their starting rank, doing nothing to improve the position. Here, we see both of White’s Rooks playing extremely active roles in the game. Unfortunately, Black moves his Queen to the worst possible square, a6. Compare White’s position to Black’s position. Black is cramped into a corner while White has endless possibilities. The bell has tolled for Black and the bitter end is near.


18. Rxe7+…Kf8: This is a fantastic check and demonstrates the power of using pieces in combination. Black cannot take the Rook with his King because the Bishop on a3 protects it! Black is forced to shuffle his King over to f8. White’s pieces are storming towards the Black King and at this point, there’s not much Black can do about it!


19. Qd5…Qc4: It is obvious that White can mate Black’s King and all Black can do is to chase the White Queen with his own Queen. This is what I mean about good piece placement. White has consistently moved his pieces to good squares, sacrificing material in exchange for positional advantages. This game is a wonderful balance of aggressive attacks, sacrifices and positional plays.


20. Rxf7+…Kg8: Once again, White checks the Black Queen under the protection of another piece (in this case, the Queen on d5. There’s nothing left for Black to do except face his bitter and tragic end.


21. Rf8# and it’s all over. White has covered all his pieces and there is no escape for the poor Black Queen.


This game is a fine example of attacking chess at its best. It also solidifies our understanding of not only the opening principles but basic tactics as well. For those of you new to the art of sacrifices be forewarned. Sacrificing pieces requires planning ahead. If you want to try your hand at a sacrifice or two, make sure you think about the position at least two moves ahead. The best chess players in the world can make an extremely complicated move look easy. That is the mark of an expert. For now, try to incorporate one or two of the ideas discussed during this lecture. Before you put what you learned into practice, try it out on your computer’s chess program. Set the program to a low playing level (there’s no point in trying out your new found knowledge when your computer’s playing at a 2500 playing strength) and go to work. If your plan doesn’t work the first time around, analyze the position and try it again. Improvement requires practice which means you’ll have to work at it. Next time around we’ll look at dealing with those annoying opening traps we occasionally find ourselves faces. For now, I want everyone analyzing this game. Ask yourself the following questions: Where did Black position start to go wrong? What was Black’s worst move? What was Black’s best move? It is more important that you study the loosing side’s position and what could have been played to improve (in this case Black) it.

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