A Proper Charlie

When teaching basic opening principles to my pupils I use the acronym DCK to emphasise our three aims at the start of the game: Development, Centre Control, King Safety.

A few years ago someone asked me a good question. Given that these are our aims at the start of the game, how come so many players choose the Sicilian Defence: 1. e4 c5.

1.. e5 appears to be a better developing move: it opens lines for the bishop as well as the queen, while 1.. c5 only opens a line for the queen, which we’re not supposed to bring out too soon.

1.. e5 also appears better in terms of central control. It controls d4 and f4 while 1.. c5 controls d4 and b4.

Finally, as 1.. e5 releases the f8 bishop it leaves Black one move closer to bringing his king to safety by castling.

So, a good question indeed. How should I answer it? I explained that, in the main lines of the Sicilian Defence (and why they are the main lines is another good question, but let’s just say that, at higher levels at any rate, they score better than the alternatives) White plays 2. Nf3 followed by 3. d4. Black’s plan is to trade off his c-pawn for the enemy d-pawn, reaching a position with an advantage of two pawns to one in the centre.

We teach beginners, naturally enough, to use their centre pawns at the start of the game, and not to move our wing pawns more than is necessary. We demonstrate how Morphy only moved his e- and d-pawns when beating his aristocratic opponents. Perhaps we’re missing a trick in failing to explain that in very many openings Charlie the c-pawn plays an important role.

Consider also the Queen’s Gambit: 1. d4 d5 2. c4. Again, White is hoping to trade his c-pawn for the black d-pawn, giving him a two pawns to one advantage in the centre. There’s nothing very much wrong with Black allowing this as long as he’s ready to hit back at White’s centre with ..c5 or ..e5 at an appropriate point.

Another way to look at the opening from White’s perspective is that he’s trying to get two pawns together on the 4th rank. Often this will be on e4 and d4, but sometimes he’ll prefer c4 and d4, and occasionally e4 and f4. The Hypermodern School taught that this is not necessary, and instead you can control the centre from the flanks, but that, again, is another story.

So after 1. d4 Nf6 White will usually choose the non-developing 2. c4. He wants to get two pawns together in the centre, and Black has prevented 2. e4.

Understanding that if we’re White we try to get two pawns together on the 4th rank, and that we can use Charlie to help us do this, is important in understanding the Giuoco Piano and the Ruy Lopez. After 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5, White can, instead of the boring Giuoco Pianissimo, play 4. c3, following up with 5. d4. (Or, as is the modern fashion, with 5. d3, preferring to develop first while taking d4 away from the black minor pieces, and perhaps finding a suitable moment for d4 later in the game.)

Again, in the Ruy Lopez, we see very similar ideas. We also see the typical knight manoeuvres for White: Nb1-d2-f1-g3-f5 or Nb1-d2-f1-e3-d5. This will be the subject of a future post when I reach the relevant chapter of Move Two!.

There are other ways, apart from the Sicilian Defence, for Black to use his c-pawn in the fight for the centre.

In the French Defence, the key move for Black in most variations is ..c5. We can see this, for instance, in the Advance Variation: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5. Again, Black would like to trade his c-pawn for White’s d-pawn, and perhaps later, via a timely ..f6, trade his f-pawn for White’s e-pawn as well.

In the Caro-Kann Defence, as well as some lines of the Scandinavian Defence, Black plays ..c6 to help set up a solid position in the centre. In these openings the black knight will often be developed via d7. In the Queen’s Gambit, Black is well advised not to play an early Nc6, blocking the c-pawn, unless he really knows what he’s doing. Instead, he has the choice of setting up a solid central position by playing c6, as in the Slav Defence, or hitting out at White’s centre with c5, as in the Tarrasch Defence.

Finally, White can move into Hypermodern territory by choosing the English Opening: 1. c4. Now if Black plays e5 it’s a reverse Sicilian Defence, but he has many other viable options as well.

So perhaps we need a different approach to teaching the openings to novices. While it’s easy to get children to play Giuoco Pianissimos and Spanish Four Knights, at some point fairly quickly we need to ask them to consider Charlie the c-pawn. We’re often using three, not two pawns to fight for the centre: the c-pawn as well as the d- and e-pawns. Very often, as a result of this, our queen’s knight will emerge, not at c3/c6 but at d2/d7 instead. Learning this important lesson will steer our students away from turgid positions with e4/d3 against e5/d6, teach them how to handle a wide variety of pawn formations, and give them a wider understanding of chess culture.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.