Opening Principles for Younger Beginners

The opening phase of a chess game is extremely important because it builds a foundation for the rest of your game. How well your game goes is more often than not based on the foundation you build during the opening (roughly the first 8 to 14 moves). It’s just like building a house. Build it on soft ground and it will quickly sink. Build it on solid ground and it will last for many years. When a brand new player sits down for that first game, they often become bewildered when considering their first move. After all, there are twenty possible first moves for each player (sixteen pawn moves and four Knight moves). While there are literally thousands of books written about chess openings the majority of them are too advanced for younger players or teach specific openings with complex variations beyond their understanding. While there are some good books on the opening for young beginners, an understanding of some basic opening concepts will complement any reading done later on. The beginner should start out by using a set of opening principles to guide his or her play. These opening principles are the basis for all chess openings.

There are three primary principles that are used to create a successful opening. These principles are guidelines that have been proven to work. The wonderful thing about using these opening principles is that they help the beginner respond to an opponent’s moves, even if they’re unfamiliar with the specific opening employed by the opponent.

Principle One: Control the center of the board

The center of the board consists of the squares d4, d5, e4 and e5. Why is the center so important in the opening? Starting out, both Kings occupy positions on the e file making them vulnerable to an early attack. Pieces are also more active when centrally located. A Knight, for example, controls eight squares when placed on or close to a central square. That same Knight, placed on the edge of the board, controls only four squares and when in the corner, controls two squares. This holds true for the rest of your pieces. What’s a good way for a beginner to get control of the center on the first move? Use a pawn, but not just any pawn! For a young beginner, I recommend moving the e pawn, moving it to e4 (as white) or e5 (as black). A white pawn on e4 occupies a central square, e4, and controls another, d5. A black pawn on e5 occupies that central square and controls the d4 square. There is an added bonus to both pawn moves. These moves allow the light squared Bishop and Queen access to the board. In my classes we call this a “move with benefits.” Of course, you can start a game using a pawn other than the e pawn, but beginners should become familiar with e pawn openings first. Now that we have a lone pawn firmly planted in the board’s center it’s time to add some support.

Principle Two: Developing Minor Pieces

Chess is a team sport with each pawn and piece playing an important position on your team. Now that we have moved a pawn to a central square, we need to bring in other teammates. Minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, play a decisive role in the opening. Rather than bringing more pawns into the game we should bring in a minor piece. Beginners often have trouble decided where to move a piece. Knowing that pieces are more powerful when near the center, we should only consider moves that allow us the most active position. Let’s look at the Kingside Knight. After 1.e4…e5, moving our Kingside Knight is a good idea. However, there are three squares we could move to, e2, f3 or h3. Where should the Knight go? Here’s where we can use the idea of counting squares to guide our decision. Moving the Knight to e2 allows the Knight to control six squares but blocks in the light squared Bishop and the Queen. Moving to f3 allows the Knight to control eight squares, the maximum number of squares a Knight can control. Lastly, moving the Knight to h3 controls only four squares. Moving the Knight to f3 appears to be the most active choice. The Knight on f3 is a move with benefits since it attacks black’s e5 pawn, puts pressure on d4, protects the Kingside and brings white closer to castling (principle three). Black counters with 2…Nc6, protecting the e5 pawn. The game might continue with 3. Bc4. Using our square counting method, we see that our Kingside Bishop moved to c4 controls a greater number of squares than anywhere else it could move to. The Bishop is also controlling the center, targeting the f7 pawn and clearing the way for castling. A move with benefits! Black might counter with 3. Nf6. Now it’s time to talk about our next principle, castling.

Principle Three: Castle early

When the game starts, both players’ Kings are sitting on a central file, where they’re easy targets. Castling is the best way to get the King to safety. Of course, there’s an added benefit! You activate the Rook. Rooks are powerful pieces but do no good when they’re sitting on the starting squares. How soon should you castle? Many beginners become so fixated with King safety that they forgo a strong developing move in favor of castling. To determine when to castle, I have my students ask themselves a couple of questions. First, is their King in immediate or potential danger (they must look at every one of the opponent’s pawns and pieces in relationship to their King)? Have they developed at least three minor pieces and have at least one pawn in central play? Obviously, if the threat of danger exists, castle. If not, consider further development of your minor pieces. I do have an ironclad rule for my beginners, you have to castle within 6 moves. I created this training rule so my newer students make sure to castle before it’s too late.

These three principles are the young beginner’s primary goal during the opening. As they learn more, we build upon these principles, adding further ideas to their knowledge base. While there are additional principles to consider, the beginner often becomes overwhelmed by too much information so I keep it simple until these three concepts are understood. I will introduce these further principles in the next article.

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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).