Finding the Right Opening

There are many ways to start a game of chess. We call the starting phase of the game, the opening and when it comes to the opening, we have many choices regarding the type of opening we employ. Beginners face their first challenge when deciding which opening is right for them. While all good openings (for both Black and White) adhere to the opening principles, some require a more advanced skill set if they’re to be employed successfully. Some openings are very clear cut and safe (beginners take note) while others are wrought with less clear cut (to the beginner) but still strong moves aimed at controlling the board’s center which is the goal of the opening. When choosing an opening to study and use, the beginner should always pick an opening in which the opening principles can clearly be seen. Too often, beginners choose openings that are currently being played on the tournament circuit or by their favorite chess player. This can be a deadly mistake for the beginner because their favorite player has spent years studying opening theory and can make the employment of a difficult opening seem easy. When our beginner tries to play that opening he or she doesn’t get the same results because extremely precise play (of the opening) is required. Should the beginner ignore these complex openings altogether? Absolutely not. However, they should build up to them, skill-wise, the way in which a musician learns simpler songs first and then moves on to more complex pieces.

The opening you eventually settle on depends on your personality. Are you aggressive and a risk taker or are you more reserved? As you improve your opening play, you’ll find an opening that suits your playing personality. However, to start, choose an opening that clearly demonstrates the opening principles. If you’re new to chess, the opening principles are a series of sound and solid ideas that serve as a guide regarding which pieces to bring into the game first and where to place those pieces. They can be thought of as the way in which you complete your opening goal which is controlling the center of the board (e4, e5, d4 and d5). The principles, simply put are as follows:

Control the center of the board with a pawn or two, develop (move) your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) towards the center squares, get your King Castled to safety and connect your Rooks. Avoid moving the same piece twice (or more) during the opening unless you have to. Don’t make too many pawn moves and please don’t bring your Queen out early. Lastly, always play to control the board’s center before your opponent does. There, that was simply enough. Write these suggestions down so you can refer to them. Also remember that principles are not rules and can be bent under the right conditions. However, you need to be very sure of what you’re doing before bending them. As for breaking the principles, doing so will lead to positional ruin.

To get an idea regarding what I meant by choosing an opening that clearly demonstrates the opening principles versus one in which the principles may not be as clear (to the beginner), let’s look at two openings, The Italian Opening and The Ruy Lopez (Spanish) Opening for White. Both openings start with 1. e4. This adheres to our first principle, controlling the center of the board with a pawn. After Black plays 1…e5, both of our openings play 2. Nf3. The Knight attacks two key central squares, adhering to our second opening principle regarding the development of our minor pieces. After Black plays 2…Nc6, we come to the move that defines and differentiates the two openings. In The Italian Opening, White plays 3, Bc4 and in The Ruy Lopez or Spanish Opening, White plays 3. Bb5. While there is a difference between the two moves, both moves influence the center.

In The Italian Opening, the Bishop on c4 attacks a center square (d5) while also aiming itself at the weak f7 pawn. This clearly adheres to the principle of developing your minor pieces towards the center. A beginner looking at this position will see the opening principles clearly in action. By the way, White can now Castle on the King-side so we’re following our principles to the letter. What of 3. Bb5? Beginners will look at this move and wonder how this could possibly influence or control the board’s center. Should black play 3…a6 and White then play 4. Bxc6 (the exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez), the e5 pawn will no longer have the protection of the Knight, thus the idea of indirect central influence. This makes perfect sense to the more experienced player but to the beginner, it’s often a lost idea!

If you wish to play chess at a high level, such as rated tournaments, you’ll have to eventually learn the Ruy Lopez. However, you need to learn how to walk before your run! Like the music student, you have to learn simple techniques before moving on to advanced techniques. It’s the learning process and it applies to every subject you study. One of the reasons that I suggest my beginning students learn The Italian Opening has to do with its simplicity and flexibility, eventually moving on to the Ruy Lopez only after my students have fully grasped the nuances of the opening principles.

The Italian Opening, 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4 (you’ll see why I didn’t include Black’s third move momentarily), nicely and clearly (for the beginner) illustrates the opening principles that are necessary to learn in order to master any chess opening. As for flexibility, this opening can transpose into the Evan’s Gambit or the Fried Liver Attack, giving the beginning player an introduction to two additional openings as well as introducing them to the idea of flexibility.

Flexibility is extremely important when it comes to chess. Many beginners create overly rigid plans that fail instantly when their opponent makes a move that doesn’t fit into that plan. This is especially true during the opening phase of the game. A beginner will learn the opening moves by solely memorizing them and then play them as memorized regardless of what their opponent does which leads to failure early on. With The Italian Opening, the beginner can react accordingly to their opponent’s moves. If Black plays 3…Bc5, the beginner can consider playing 4. b5, launching into the Evan’s Gambit or after 3…Nf6, play either 4. Ng5, signaling the Fried Liver Attack or sticking with the mainline Italian. Of course, I teach my beginning students the complete Italian Opening before teaching them The Evan’s Gambit or Fried Liver Attack. Again, what I like, in terms of being a chess teacher, is the clear and concise way in which this opening demonstrates the opening principles.

When learning chess openings, the beginner should always start with a simple opening and work their way towards more complex openings after their skills have improved. Beginners really should try many different openings as they gain a stronger knowledge of opening theory. They should also play both sides of the board when studying any opening because you’ll never know what your opponent is going to throw at you. I highly suggest a book that contains a large number of openings for both Black and White, such as The Dummies Guide to Chess Openings. This type of book allows the novice player to examine in some detail the large variety of openings available to them.

It should be noted that just because today’s current roster of Grandmasters aren’t playing a particular opening doesn’t mean that opening is bad, especially for the beginner or intermediate player. Don’t let opening trends dissuade you from playing a particular opening. Play what feels right for you but always remember, before you take on an opening, make sure it’s on par with you skill level. Of course, you should always exercise your brain by taking on an opening that is slightly beyond your skill set, even though it may be hard mental work when it comes to mastering that opening. Just make sure it isn’t so difficult that you become frustrated. How do you know if an opening is above your skill set? If you cannot clearly see the opening principles in action within the opening or the text describing that opening doesn’t make sense, work at other openings and build up your knowledge of opening principles. Then, when you’re more comfortable with opening mechanics, try the opening the once made no sense. Be patient, study theory, practice that theory, and you’ll be rewarded. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).