Opening Principles Part Six: Managing Principles

We’ve looked at what to during the opening and what not to do during the opening. To review, what we should do is control the board’s center from the start with a pawn, develop our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) to active squares (those that control the center) and Castle our King to safety. What we shouldn’t do is make too many pawn moves, move the same piece more than once (unless necessary) and bring out our Queen early. These opening principles have been around for a long, long time and have been proven to work. They’re simple enough to learn and their logic is somewhat self explanatory. However, applying these principles accurately during the opening, the first ten to fifteen moves (typically, although some opening variations are longer), can be difficult for the beginner. Applying the opening principles requires knowing when to make a specific principled move. It’s all about exact timing. Take Castling for example.

We know that many beginner’s games are lost due to the novice player not Castling his or her King to safety. Having a safe King means that you can get on with the business of attacking your opponent’s King. Beginner’s are taught that they need to get their King Castled as soon as possible. As a chess teacher and coach, I tell my beginning students this, but I do so to get them into the habit of Castling early in their chess careers. As they improve, I then teach them to hold off on Castling, if their King is safe, so they can further develop their pawns and pieces during the opening. Knowing an opening principle, such as Castling your King to safety, is important, but knowing just when to Castle is even more important. During the opening phase of the game, gaining control of the board, especially the central squares, is the most important task. If given the choice between Castling when your King is safe or furthering the development of your pawns and pieces, development should be your choice.

Another important decision to make during the opening is which minor pieces to develop (move) first. The minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, have the same relative value, three points each. We know the opening principles tell us to bring our minor pieces out during the opening. However, which minor pieces should we develop first? The beginning player we consider both equal in terms of development. However, if given the choice between developing a Knight or a Bishop, you may want to consider the Knight. Why? Knights have the ability to jump over pawns and pieces, be they your own or your opponent’s. This means that you don’t have to move a pawn prior to bringing a Knight into the game. After 1. e4…e5, developing the King-side Knight to f3 (2. Nf3) is most often played because it allows the Knight to develop actively with tempo. Tempo is time in chess terms and a Knight on f3 attacks Black’s e5 pawn, forcing Black to defend that pawn. While you could move the King-side Bishop to c4, which would attack a central square as well as Black’s weak f7 pawn, the Knight move to f3 is more forcing, in that it causes Black to react by defending the e5 pawn. Therefore, you should consider the order in which you develop pieces during the opening.

Another consideration is cooperation between your pawns and pieces. Good chess player’s pawns and pieces work together. They support one another rather than acting independently of one another. If you have a White pawn on e4 and Black moves a Knight to f6 to attack it, how do you defend it? This brings up the idea of not blocking in your pawns and pieces. If you have your King-side Bishop on it’s starting square (f1) and you defend the e4 pawn by moving the d pawn to d3, you’re blocking in the Bishop. This means that Bishop doesn’t have immediate access to key squares that help to control the center. A better move (for beginners) would be developing the Queen-side Knight from b1 to c3. From it’s c3 perch, the Knight not only defends the e4 pawn but it puts pressure on the d5 square. Remember, you want to control central squares on your opponent’s side of the board. Beginner’s sometimes defend the e4 pawn by playing their King-side Bishop to d3 which blocks in the d2 pawn as well as the Bishop on c1. Always consider moves that don’t block your pieces in.

Play for piece activation during the opening rather than fast attacks. The problem with fast attacks in the hands of the novice player is that they more often than not fall apart which leads to a losing game. When developing your pawns and pieces during the opening, always try to get them on their most active squares. A typical opening for the beginner is the Italian Opening, which starts off 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4. These first three moves for White adhere to the opening principles. If Black plays 3. Nf6, you have a few choices as what to do as White on move four. You could Castle (4. 0-0). I mentioned that you should put off Castling if your King is safe, which the White King is at this point. However, Castling activates your King-side Rook which can than be moved to e1 should the f6 Knight capture the e4 pawn. Black would have to react to this move in a defensive manner. You could also consider 4. Nc3 developing your Queen-side Knight which defends the e4 pawn and puts pressure on d5. If Black played 3…Bc5 you could play c3 preparing for d4 on a subsequent move, ignoring the potential attack on e4, if Black plays 4…Nf6, and preparing to attack Black’s center. Remember if the f6 Knight takes on the e4 pawn, you can always move the Rook to e1. These moves have logical reasons behind them. They’re following the opening principles but also are part of a plan. While the opening principles provide a plan that covers the length of the opening, your opponent is going to do everything possible to disrupt your plan.

This means you have to be flexible with your opening moves (and opening plan). Make moves that do more than one thing when possible. In our above example, when the Black Knight moved to f6 and White countered by moving his Queen-side Knight to c3, the move did two things. It defended the attacked White pawn and put pressure on d5. This is why pieces are stronger when centrally located. The more squares a piece controls, the greater your options. If you have more options than your opponent, you’ll have a better game. The greater a piece’s options, the greater it’s ability to be flexible if your plans suddenly change do to an unexpected opposition move. Plans change during a chess game and when your opponent makes a move that changes your plan, you have to be able to adjust and take a new course of action.

Rook activation is very important. Just because your Rooks usually become active later in the game, doesn’t mean they can’t be useful early on. Beginner’s often activate one Rook via Casting but leave the other Rook sitting in the corner on it’s starting square. Connect your Rooks by moving the Queen up one Rank which allows both Rooks to move along their starting rank. However, to connect your Rooks, you must activate your minor pieces first so they don’t restrict their (Rooks) movement. Rooks are excellent bodyguards that can guard pawns you want to move across the board later in the game.

In closing, it comes down to activity, coordination and knowing who to bring into the opening and when to bring them into the game. I suggest playing through some openings and, after each move, asking yourself why that move was made and what opening principle does it adhere to. Studying games is a sure fire way to improve your game. Also don’t play mechanically. For example, we don’t like to move a piece twice during the opening, instead bringing a new piece into the game with each move. However, if you’re about to lose a Knight and the choice is treating this principle as a hard rule and losing the Knight or bending the principle and moving the Knight out of danger, move the Knight. Principles are not rules of the game but good ideas. Speaking of games, here’s one 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).