Learning an Opening

Beginners often make the mistake of memorizing an opening before they have a solid grasp of its underlying mechanics. The problem with memorizing an opening, as opposed to learning the mechanics underlying the opening (the opening principles), is that you’ll run into serious trouble the moment your opponent makes a move not included in your memorization. Memorizing an opening is not the same as learning an opening. Before learning a specific opening, you must have a solid grasp of its underlying principles. All openings, from the Hippopotamus to the Nimzo Indian, share a common bond. That common bond is the underlying mechanics or principles that make the opening work. Once the beginner has learned the underlying principles (controlling the center with a pawn, active piece development and castling), it’s time to learn a specific opening.

Choosing a specific opening depends on the type of player you are. If you’re aggressive you might chose a more aggressive opening while the more reserved player might chose a more defensive opening. Once you determine what opening fits your general style of play, it’s time to sit down and learn that opening. Beginners should stick to openings that are flexible and simple to learn such as the opening I mention below, the Italian opening. Here’s how I teach an opening to my students.

I teach chess concepts in units of three. For example, when learning the opening principles, we focus on the three critical ideas of putting a pawn on a central square, developing our minor pieces to active squares and castling. I tell my students to always look for three possible moves before committing to one. Of course the game of chess is divided into three phases which was the primary reason for teaching concepts in units of three. I use this number in teaching openings as well.

The first opening I teach the beginning student is the Italian opening. Out of all the openings, this opening allows a beginner to see the opening principles in action very clearly. After 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6 and 3.Bc4…Nf6, white has a pawn in the center, two minor pieces on active squares and is ready to castle King-side. An additional benefit to learning this opening is that it lays the groundwork for learning the Evan’s Gambit and the Fried Liver Attack. However, the key point to learning this opening is the clarity it provides regarding basic opening principles.

We approach learning the opening’s moves in groups of three, starting from move one. Each move is carefully examined to determine which opening principle is being applied. Using the Italian opening, let’s look at the first three moves, starting with move one. White plays 1.e4. When learning an opening, examine every move carefully, even the first move! I tell my students that placing a pawn on e4 has multiple benefits First off; it gains a foothold in the center of the board. However, it also allows the King-side Bishop and Queen to have access to the board. Then we discuss the type of game an e pawn opening can lead to (open game). We then define open and closed games, which leads to a discussion of Bishops and Knights. Next we look at move two, 2.Nf3. This move attacks the pawn on e5. However, there’s more to this move than simply attacking a pawn. The Knight on f3 also contests the black pawn’s control of d4. The Knight also attacks the g5 and h4 squares which helps protect white from a black Queen raid on those files. The point here is to really discuss and examine each move in great detail which helps reinforce the understanding of the move’s underlying principles.

Move three, 3.Bc4, brings up a couple of interesting points. The first is the weakness of the f7 square (f2 for white). This square is weak because, at the game’s start, it is only defended by the King. This makes it a natural target. The second point I bring up with my students is the idea of moving pieces to their most active squares. If we look at how many squares the Bishop controls on c4, we see that the number is ten. The Bishop is extremely active on c4. I solidify this example by looking at the Bishop when placed on d3 where is not only has less activity but blocks in the d pawn and Queen-side Bishop. This leads to a brief discussion about not making opening moves that block in other pawns and/or pieces.

After going over the first three moves of our opening, I quiz my students. Before moving on to the next three moves, each student must understand the underlying principles of each of the previous moves. Once I’m satisfied that everyone has a good grasp on the mechanics behind each of those moves we move on to the next three moves of the opening. Of course, the further you delve into the opening, the more complex it becomes due to numerous variations. Because I’m working with young beginners, I stick to the mainline.

After those first three moves we move onto the next three moves. Before starting into the next grouping of three moves (moves seven, eight and nine), I review the opening from move one. This helps etch the opening’s moves and underlying mechanics into a student’s memory. By frequently going back to move one and playing through the sequence of moves learned up to that point, students get a better idea of how each move helps build up a stronger position. Yes, they’re committing the opening to memory which is memorizing. However, they’re working through the mechanics as they go along which makes the difference.

It really comes down to looking at each move in an opening analytically, using the opening principles to define the underlying mechanics of that move. When studying the moves within an opening, don’t move on from one move to the next until you completely understand the underlying mechanics up to that point. Remember, memorizing an opening and understanding it are two different things. Here’s 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).