Opening Principles: Part One

Beginners tend to lose games before they really get started because they randomly move pieces out onto the board with little thought being put into the moves they make. Often, you’ll see beginners making pawn move after pawn move during the opening, the first ten to fifteen moves of the game, while their more experienced opponent brings a variety of pieces into the game in a structured order. Beginners also have a bad habit of bringing their Queen out early, intoxicated by her power, thinking that one should employ the heaviest artillery early on to win the battle quickly. Beginners make a plethora of mistakes during the opening that lead to their downfall. Then there’s the beginner who memorizes a series of opening moves they found in a chess book. They make those moves without understanding the underlying mechanics of each move. Their more experienced opponent will make the appropriate responses, knowing why each move is made and it’s underlying principles, eventually making a move that starts a vicious attack. Our beginner wrings his or her hands in despair, not knowing what to do. If any of these scenarios sounds familiar, read on.

I’m going to break the opening principles down in great detail, exploring one principle per article. The first principle we’ll look at is controlling the center of the board with a pawn, something we should do on our very first move. When I say the center of the board, I’m talking about four squares, e4, e5, d4 and d5. These four squares make up the board’s center. The twelve squares that surround our four central squares are also important. Those squares are c3, c4, c5, c6, d3, d6, e3, e6, f3, f4, f5 and f6. What’s so important about the center of the board?

First off, the most important piece, the King, sits on a central file, the e file (the files are the eight vertical columns running up and down the chessboard, named (starting from the left) the a, b, c, d, e, f, g and h files). Since the opposition King is your target, going through the center of the board to get at him is the quickest approach. Another factor to consider is the simple fact that pieces have more power, the control of more squares, when they’re centrally located. On the chessboard, a Knight placed on one of the four central squares attacks or controls eight squares. That same Knight placed on the edge of the board attacks or controls four squares (half as many as when centrally located). A Knight on a corner square attacks or controls two squares. The same holds true for all pieces except the Rook. A Rook on an empty board controls fourteen squares no matter where it’s placed. Now you know why the center of the board is so important. Now to start the game!

Beginners are faced with a dilemma on their first move because they have a choice of twenty possible moves, sixteen pawn moves (pawns can move one or two squares forward on their first move, then one square at a time after that first move). Since Knights can jump over pawns and pieces, each player has a choice of four possible Knight moves. While an experienced player knows exactly what first pawn move to make, the beginner frets, trying to decide which pawn to push. In this article, we’re only going to look at initial pawn moves.

We know that our job during the opening phase of a chess game is to control the board’s center. We know that the central squares are d4, d5, e4 and e5. Therefore, we want to move a pawn that controls one of these squares. However, I need to amend this statement to say that we want to control a central square on our opponent’s side of the board. White’s half of the board consists of the first, second, third and fourth Ranks (Ranks are vertical rows running left to right, named the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth Ranks). Black’s half of the board consists of the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth Ranks. Thus, on White’s first move, we want to control the d5 or e5 square (on Black’s side of the board) and on Black’s first move, Black wants to control the d4 or e4 square (on White’s side of the board). Therefore, you should move a pawn two squares forward, not one square forward, because you want to control your opponent’s side of the center.

The reason pawns are so important has to do with their relative value, which is one. The pieces have values ranging from three to nine points (consider the King priceless). Therefore, a one point pawn that controls a square will dissuade an opposition piece from moving to that square if pawn can capture it since trading a Knight, for example, for a pawn would be a bad trade!

Knowing the importance of the central squares helps narrow down our choices regarding which pawn to use on move one. Since we know that pawns attack diagonally, we should choose a pawn that attacks the d or e files. This means the e, d and c pawns. What about the f pawn, you might ask? We don’t want to move our f pawn because moving that pawn can prematurely expose our King to attack. I’ve listed the pawns we want to move in an order the beginner should follow. You should start by learning e pawn openings, followed by d pawn openings and finally c pawn openings such as the English Opening. The beginner reading this should let out a sigh of relief since we’ve just narrowed our list of twenty possible first moves to one or two. I suggest that beginners learn e pawn openings first because d pawn openings lead to more closed positional games that require a skill set the beginner has yet to develop. However, you should study d pawn openings as soon as you’re comfortable with e pawn openings.

Playing white, the beginner should start with 1. e4. This plants one of your pawns firmly on a central square. However, having a pawn or piece on a central square doesn’t mean you control it. In the case of a pawn on e4, that pawn is controlling the d5 and f5 squares. Playing Black, the beginner should start with 1…e5, which controls the d4 and f4 squares. While there are other alternatives for Black’s first pawn move, such as 1…e6 (The French Defense), 1…c6 (The Karo Cann) or 1…c5 (The Sicilian Defense), these openings require a good knowledge of opening principles which the beginner needs to develop over time.

Moving a pawn to e4 for White or e5 for Black has an added bonus. With the exception of the Knights, all the other pieces are trapped behind a wall of pawns, unable to participate in the game. When White plays 1. e4, the pawn moves off the e2 square which allows the King-side or light squared Bishop and Queen to enter the game. The same holds true for Black upon playing 1…e5 (Freedom for Black’s King-side Bishop and Queen). You have to move pawns to get your pieces (other than the Knight) into the game. Ideally, White would like to play 1. e4 followed by 2. d4, which would give both Bishops immediate access to the board. However, 1…e5 stops White from being able to immediately play 2. d4 (although in some openings, White will play 2. d4, allowing Black to capture the d pawn). Remember, in chess there are two plans, yours and your opponents. You opponent isn’t going to let you have your way when it comes to controlling the board’s center and vice versa.

It’s important to make a first move that controls the center of the board if you’re commanding the White pieces. Since White moves first, the person in charge of the White army should take the initiative which means control of the board’s center. The person commanding the Black pieces is essentially a move behind. This means, as Black, you should aim to equalize the position. Thus, when White plays 1. e4, they have a foothold in the center. If Black makes a move like 1…a4 (a dreadful move) White will take advantage of this move and plant another pawn in the center with 2.d4 and Black will fall hopelessly behind in development. By development, I mean building up central control by developing or moving specific pawns and pieces. When Black plays 1…e5, Black has the same advantages as White such as control of a central square (d4) and the ability to bring the King-side Bishop and Queen into the game. Please note that just because you give your Queen access to the board doesn’t mean you should bring her out right away. The Queen is a powerful piece that will instantly become a target for the opposition should she be brought out early on. Save her for later.

When starting a game, always aim for the center and use a pawn to secure a foothold there. Since pawns have the least relative value (one), the have a great talent when it comes to keeping those more valuable pieces at bay (off of any square the pawn controls). Don’t go crazy and make nothing but pawn moves during the opening. Make one pawn move to start or two, should you have the opportunity to move the d pawn safely to d4, for White, or d5 for Black on move two. Pawns have to be moved to get your pieces into the game (except for the Knight). Learn to love and respect the pawn. Just because you start the game with eight of them and they have the lowest relative value doesn’t mean they’re not important. Every pawn has the potential to promote into a Queen.

We’re going to look at part two of your opening plan, bringing the minor pieces into the game next week. The minor pieces are the Knights and Bishops. For now, here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Enjoy!

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).