Opening Principles Part Five

So far, we’ve learned about developing a central pawn (or two) at the start of the game, developing our minor pieces and Castling. I was going write the next article in this series about combining these three principles, using the Italian Opening as an example. However, I think we should discuss a few things you don’t want to do before moving on to walking through a typical beginner’s opening (also played by the greats), the Italian Opening. The article examples of what not to do are mistakes typically made by beginners. Rather than simply criticize things you shouldn’t do, we’ll look at these mistakes from the beginner’s point of view in an effort to understand why they’re made. When you examine both points of view, you often walk away with a better understanding of the issue at hand. If you’ve made or make these mistakes, this article should help to explain why they don’t work. We’ll start out by discussing the moving of pawns during the opening, specifically what you shouldn’t do in regards to pawns.

We know that we have to move at least a few pawns during the opening in order to get our pieces into the game. Ideally, White would like to be able to safely move the e and d pawns to e4 and d4, while Black would like to move the e and d pawns to e5 and d5. These moves give each player an opportunity to quickly develop their Bishops. Unfortunately, we seldom get the chance to create a classical two pawn center because our opponent also wants to control the board’s center and will make every effort to crush your opening plan. The ruining of plans in chess is what makes the game exciting!

Pawns are great for controlling the center because of their low relative value. The pieces, which are worth substantially more will normally not move to a square controlled by a pawn because that pawn would capture it. Thus controlling key squares with pawns seems like a reasonable opening goal. Beginner’s will take this idea too literally and move pawn after pawn, neglecting the minor pieces, while the experienced player will move a minimum number of pawns, favoring the development of their minor pieces who can control far greater territory on the board. I completely understand the beginner’s point of view. Use your pawns to control the board because the pieces, both major and minor, will keep away from those squares controlled by one’s pawns. However, pawns can only control one or two squares whereas pieces have far greater control. Moving too many pawns , especially those closest to your King, can leave an opening that can pave the way for an opposition mating attack. Did I mention that the more pawns you have in play, the more pieces get tied down to their defense? Then there’s pawn structure. Most beginners haven’t mastered the art of proper pawn structure which means their pawns are often in a state of disarray. Pawn moves are absolutely committal since pawns can only move forward. They can’t run away (move backwards) when the going gets tough. It’s best to keep your initial pawn moves to a minimum and get your minor pieces into play early on.

Don’t move the same piece twice during the opening unless you have to. If you’re rushing to an appointment, you go from point A to point B as quickly as possibly. This means you’re not going to take a side trip to point R then over to point Y. If you want to move the King-side Bishop to c4, do it directly. Don’t move it to e2 and then on the following move, to c4.

Beginner’s have a tendency to gang up on the f7 pawn for Black and the f2 pawn for White. Again, I understand the beginner’s mindset. Gang up on their f7 pawn (for example) with a Bishop on c4 and a Knight on g5 and you can either check the Black King, costing it the right to Castle, or fork Black’s Rook and Queen, winning material. The beginner walks away with an advantage (so they think). There’s only one problem. The Knight, in the case of the fork, has to move three times to get to f7. While the Bishop in the case of the check, has to move twice. Meanwhile, Black gets a chance to bring a new piece into the game with each move. This means that Black can get ahead in development. Development is the name of the game when it comes to the opening. Bring a new piece into the action with each move.

Then there’s the desperado piece. To my beginning friends, I understand your thinking: Bring one piece into the game and see how many pieces you can subsequently capture with it. Then bring out another piece all by it’s lonesome self and repeat the process. It sounds reasonable to the beginner but your opponent will be busy developing his or her pieces, gaining control of the board’s center while avoiding your lone piece. You’ll end up checkmated in no time! The more force you bring into the game, the easier it is for you to launch a meaningful attack. Pawns and pieces work best when they work together. Again, bring a new piece into the game (towards the center) with each move during the opening.

Then there’s the Queen. Everyone who plays chess has been intoxicated by the Queen’s power. Beginner’s look at the Queen as a nuclear weapon that can be brought out, aimed at the enemy, fired across the center of the board and detonated at some point. Unfortunately, the Queen doesn’t work like a bomb. In chess, when you bring the Queen out early, she gets chased around the board as the opposition develops his or her pieces. Sometimes she gets trapped and you lose her. I know she’s powerful, combining the moving ability of the Rook and Bishop. However, chess is more like old fashioned warfare in which you gradually introduce more powerful weapons as the battle continues. Yes, it’s tempting to try and end the game quickly but it’s simply too dangerous to bring her into the game early. Do yourself a favor, save her later on.

Lastly, don’t make passive moves. Some beginners make passive moves employing the logic that their opponent will have to bring the battle to them. They plant their pawns and pieces on their side of the board, often piling up around their King hoping their wall of pieces will protect his majesty. Unfortunately, experienced players will know just how to break down your safe walls and take out your King. They’ll go as far as sacrificing material to rip your safety net apart. If you make moves that control central squares your opponent needs to us in order to attack, the opposition’s attacking chances will be greatly reduced. Make moves during the opening that control the center.

Try not to do the above mentioned things and your game will improve. There’s nothing wrong with being defensive but you have to know when to be offensive. Players who know the perfect balance of both win games. Next week, we’ll put it all together. Until then, here’s a game to enjoy (I suspect one of these players never brought his Queen out early again)!

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).