Opening Principles: Again?

Opening Principles: Again?

KeSetoKaiba
KeSetoKaiba
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20

Lots of beginners often ask “How do I improve at chess?” - Many members ask seriously and a few use this opportunity as a chance for trolling. The helpful ones just go around the forums and repeat the same answers, but this is boring after a while. After all, to the chess beginner: this is new. For the seasoned player, this is repetitive. It got me thinking: why not just create one place and direct beginners here instead?

This blog article is that place!

Here, I will attempt to give beginners solid (although generalized) advice on how to improve when starting out. Following “opening principles” is the default answer that can probably get most players to 1000+ chess.com rating within a few months of learning (and for some perhaps even in less time). I hope that other chess.com members will share this with beginners by directing them here. It helps them learn good information and it is easier on the “Good Samaritan” to just direct them to this resource than to explain (and re-explain) the same things over and over again. If this is helpful, then please send the hyperlink to others.

What are “opening principles” in chess? They are guidelines that help you usually get a solid position without needing to memorize moves. These “guidelines”, or "principles", are things like "control the center", "develop pieces" and "castle early". There are many others too, but these are the ones I find most important.

Controlling and influencing the center is important in chess - not just in the opening! First of all, what is the “center?” Particularly it is the central squares e4, e5, d4, d5, but sometimes close to the center is just as relevant. It reminds me of something Siegbert Tarrasch said, “Chess is a terrible game. If you have no center, your opponent has a freer position. If you do have a center, then you really have something to worry about!”

Why is the center important in chess? There are a few reasons and some of them are positional concepts that are difficult to convey. I think the easiest way I can explain its importance is by bringing up the idea of mobility and centralization. Almost every chess player knows how “active chess pieces” are super important; we want our pieces doing something and not just sitting there; we have an army to use! How can we know where our pieces should be placed though? After all, the opponent might switch plans or an attack may spring up from seemingly thin air. The answer: we don’t always know where our pieces will be best! If we place them towards the center, then they are never that far away from the action and they can quickly go to where they are needed.

Another reason the center is valuable in chess is because it usually cramps the opponent. If you control the center of the chess board (or influence it more than the opponent pieces), then you are cramping the enemy forces. In chess, this is typically a “space advantage” - meaning that you have more “space”, or room, to work with. If you are cramped, then it is hard to move pieces around because your own pieces get in the way and it is sometimes easier to blunder. If you ever realize that the opponent controls the center (or influences it more than you do), then usually a good plan is to fight for the center or to play on the flanks of the chess board. However, having the center yourself usually makes things easier. A topic certainly above beginner level (but I think it is okay to at least mention it) is called “hypermodern chess.” This is a complicated play-style of chess where you allow the opponent to control the center just so you can target it later in the game. If it sounds risky, that is because it is. The positions are usually sharp and heavily-theory-based to make the plans work, but these openings are playable (Grunfeld Defense is one example of a hypermodern chess opening where Black allows White to control the center so they can target it later). I don’t want to give anyone the impression that going after the center in the opening is the ONLY way to play solid chess, but it is the easiest way that beginners should stick with and even grandmasters usually try to control the center in the opening. It really is that important!

Developing pieces is closely connected to controlling the center. “Pawns” in chess are NOT considered “pieces.” This opening principle is telling the player to develop “pieces” to active positions off the backrank and usually influencing the center of the board (especially the squares e4, e5, d4, d5). The “Knights” and “Bishops” are called “minor pieces” and the “Rooks” and “Queen” are called “heavy pieces.” Typically, you will develop the minor pieces first and then develop the heavy pieces. However, this is not a rule: just something that usually happens because they are easier to develop and because the Rooks in the corner of the board are usually the last pieces to bring out.

There is an old adage saying, “develop Knights before Bishops”, but I disagree with this; I understand where they are coming from though. Usually the Knights will be the first pieces to develop, but many solid openings develop a Bishop before both Knights are out. Some examples are the Italian Game (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4) and the Ruy Lopez/Spanish Opening (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5). Both openings develop a Bishop (on move 3) before both Knights are developed, but why is this popular? Simple. It is a good way to play and the openings are solid mainlines. The reasoning behind telling beginners to develop “Knights before Bishops” is because it is easier than explaining the complex underlining motifs. The “shortened, but complicated” explanation is because you should first develop the things where you know they should probably go. What do I mean by this?

It is best to spend moves on ideas we know are probably good than to play moves that might not be great; by delaying the moves we are unsure of, then the chess position might become easier to interpret later in the game and we will become more sure about what the correct ideas are. “Knights before Bishops” usually works because it is easier to tell where Knights “belong” compared to where Bishops may be most active. In the opening, Knights are usually most active on the squares c3, f3, c6 or f6. The reason is because they are influencing two squares in the center after just one Knight move. For instance, let us say the chess game just started and White plays 1. Nf3 (The “Reti” opening move [named after the grandmaster Richard Reti who popularized this move]). This is a good move because it follows “opening principles” by developing a piece and controlling the center. In this case, the Knight move from the g1 square to the f3 square influences the central squares d4 and e5 at the same time. The other Knight moves (to c3, c6, f6 as well as f3) are good because they control 2 central squares at once as well.

However, where should the chess player place the Bishops to become active? The answer changes a lot based on what the opponent plays and we do not know what they will play! Take the f1 Bishop for example. Let us imagine a new chess game starting and neither side has moved, where should the f1 Bishop go to become active? It can’t move yet (since pawns keep it blocked in right now), but where should it eventually go? Will this Bishop be best on the square c4? b5? Maybe it will fianchetto on the g2 square? This is partly why people just say “develop Knights before Bishops”, it is easier than the long reasoning I am giving. The player should typically develop the Knights (because they are usually easier to position towards the center) and then develop the Bishops (and other pieces) later in the game because then the opponent has played some committal moves and we might better judge where our pieces belong.

Castle early is another great opening principle to follow. Castling is one of the “special moves” in chess because it is the only move where you can move two pieces in one turn! Castling really is overpowered; this gets the King into a safe haven of a pawn shelter and the also develops a clumsy Rook out of the corner in a single move! What more can you ask of a developing move? If you aren’t familiar with basic chess rules like “castling” then check out this great resource from chess.com:

https://www.chess.com/learn-how-to-play-chess

Castling is important because King safety is important. If you get checkmated, then you lose the game; not protecting your King early on is very dangerous. In the endgame, the King actually can become a great attacker. In the opening stage and middlegame stage of chess though: the King is a liability and needs to be sheltered. A general guideline (with exceptions of course) is that the King can safely come out again once the “heavy pieces” (Rooks and Queen) of the opponent are captured. With few or no heavy pieces, the King is a lot less likely to become checkmated for leaving its shelter.

There are many other helpful tips and guidelines to learn in chess, but I hope this can get some beginners started in the correct direction.

Here is a helpful (shortened) list of opening principles and pre-move checklist things to follow. My chess.com friend @IMBacon posted this in a 2018 forum (which can be found here is someone is curious: https://www.chess.com/forum/view/chess-openings/do-i-really-need-to-study-openings). Here is what they recommend:

“…Opening Principles:

  1. Control the center squares – d4-e4-d5-e5
  2. Develop your minor pieces toward the center – piece activity is the key
  3. Castle
  4. Connect your rooks

Tactics...tactics...tactics...

Pre Move Checklist:

  1. Make sure all your pieces are safe.
  2. Look for forcing move: Checks, captures, threats. You want to look at ALL forcing moves (even the bad ones) this will force you look at, and see the entire board.
  3. If there are no forcing moves, you then want to remove any of your opponent’s pieces from your side of the board.
  4. If your opponent doesn’t have any of his pieces on your side of the board, then you want to improve the position of your least active piece.
  5. After each move by your opponent, ask yourself: ‘What is my opponent trying to do?’"

 

Also, what chess.com helpful resource would be complete without one of the hyperlink lists from @kindaspongey ? This list was taken from a forum thread from February of 2020 (which can be found here for curious members: https://www.chess.com/forum/view/for-beginners/resources), but @kindaspongey has posted and re-posted these helpful resources in many places on chess.com over the years. Here is a list of beginner resources they provided:

"... for those that want to be as good as they can be, they'll have to work hard.
Play opponents who are better than you … Learn basic endgames. Create a simple opening repertoire (understanding the moves are far more important than memorizing them). Study tactics. And pick up tons of patterns. That’s the drumbeat of success. ..." - IM Jeremy Silman (December 27, 2018)
https://www.chess.com/article/view/little-things-that-help-your-game
https://www.chess.com/article/view/how-to-start-out-in-chess

https://www.chess.com/blog/michechess89/8-tips-to-increase-your-online-rating

https://www.chess.com/news/view/rapid-chess-improvement
https://www.chess.com/news/view/a-new-years-resolution-improve-your-chess-with-new-lessons

https://www.chess.com/article/view/mastery-chess-lessons-are-here
"... In order to maximize the benefits of [theory and practice], these two should be approached in a balanced manner. ... Play as many slow games (60 5 or preferably slower) as possible, ... The other side of improvement is theory. ... This can be reading books, taking lessons, watching videos, doing problems on software, etc. ..." - NM Dan Heisman (2002)
https://web.archive.org/web/20140627084053/http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman19.pdf
"... If it’s instruction, you look for an author that addresses players at your level (buying something that’s too advanced won’t help you at all). This means that a classic book that is revered by many people might not be useful for you. ..." - IM Jeremy Silman (2015)
https://www.chess.com/article/view/the-best-chess-books-ever
Here are some reading possibilities that I often mention:
Simple Attacking Plans by Fred Wilson (2012)
https://web.archive.org/web/20140708090402/http://www.chesscafe.com/text/review874.pdf
http://dev.jeremysilman.com/shop/pc/Simple-Attacking-Plans-77p3731.htm
Logical Chess: Move by Move by Irving Chernev (1957)
https://web.archive.org/web/20140708104437/http://www.chesscafe.com/text/logichess.pdf
The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played by Irving Chernev (1965)
https://chessbookreviews.wordpress.com/tag/most-instructive-games-of-chess-ever-played/
Winning Chess by Irving Chernev and Fred Reinfeld (1948)
https://web.archive.org/web/20140708093415/http://www.chesscafe.com/text/review919.pdf
Back to Basics: Tactics by Dan Heisman (2007)
https://web.archive.org/web/20140708233537/http://www.chesscafe.com/text/review585.pdf
https://www.chess.com/article/view/book-review-back-to-basics-tactics
https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5856bd64ff7c50433c3803db/t/5895fc0ca5790af7895297e4/1486224396755/btbtactics2excerpt.pdf
Discovering Chess Openings by GM John Emms (2006)
https://web.archive.org/web/20140627114655/http://www.chesscafe.com/text/hansen91.pdf
Openings for Amateurs by Pete Tamburro (2014)
http://kenilworthian.blogspot.com/2014/05/review-of-pete-tamburros-openings-for.html
https://chessbookreviews.wordpress.com/tag/openings-for-amateurs/

https://www.chess.com/blog/ForwardChess/book-of-the-week-openings-for-amateurs
https://www.mongoosepress.com/catalog/excerpts/openings_amateurs.pdf
Chess Endgames for Kids by Karsten Müller (2015)
https://chessbookreviews.wordpress.com/tag/chess-endgames-for-kids/
http://www.gambitbooks.com/pdfs/Chess_Endgames_for_Kids.pdf
A Guide to Chess Improvement by Dan Heisman (2010)
https://web.archive.org/web/20140708105628/http://www.chesscafe.com/text/review781.pdf
Studying Chess Made Easy by Andrew Soltis (2009)
https://web.archive.org/web/20140708090448/http://www.chesscafe.com/text/review750.pdf
Seirawan stuff:
http://seagaard.dk/review/eng/bo_beginner/ev_winning_chess.asp?KATID=BO&ID=BO-Beginner

https://web.archive.org/web/20140708090229/http://www.chesscafe.com/text/review492.pdf
http://www.nystar.com/tamarkin/review1.htm
https://web.archive.org/web/20140627132508/http://www.chesscafe.com/text/hansen173.pdf

https://www.chess.com/article/view/book-review-winning-chess-openings

https://www.chess.com/article/view/book-review-winning-chess-endings
https://web.archive.org/web/20140708092617/http://www.chesscafe.com/text/review560.pdf

My hope is that this can be a helpful resource for beginners seriously asking about chess improvement. Opening principles in chess is extremely helpful because you can just follow these guidelines and get a playable position most of the time. With opening principles, you will never have to memorize tons of openings, because these opening principles you can apply in any opening situation. Following these opening principles won’t always get you into the objectively “best mainlines” and sometimes you might fall into an opening “book trap.” However, 95% of the time, you will get a solid position and it is far easier to remember the exceptions than to memorize everything from scratch (which isn’t even practical, nor a good strategy, but this discussion is perhaps one for another time).

Hope this helps,

chess.com friend: @KeSetoKaiba