Opening Principles Part Three: Working Together

In the first two articles in this series, we talked about pawns and minor pieces, specifically, what to do with them at the start of the game. The opening, the first ten to fifteen moves, is the foundation you build the rest of your game upon. Build that foundation right and you’ll set yourself up for a good middle-game, meaning you’ll be able to launch successful attacks which leads to a winning game. Build it wrong and you’ll more than likely be punished and lose the game. We know we should initially control the center with a pawn or two and then bring our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) out to active squares, those that also add to central square control. However, there’s another key idea we must embrace and that’s coordinating our pawns and minor pieces.

Our pawns and pieces must work together the way in which a successful sports team works together. This means coordination between all members of the team. One team member can’t win a game by himself and if everyone on the team is working against one another, chaos ensues (as well as a big loss). Coordination is a skill beginners must develop if they wish to improve and win games. While our first two opening principles, controlling the board’s center with a pawn or two and developing the minor pieces towards the center, seem easy enough to comprehend, there’s a bit more to it. Again, pawns and pieces must work together.

We know that control of the board’s center is your primary goal during the opening. Step one is moving a pawn or two to control one of those central squares (an opposition central square). Step two is bringing out the minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops to add additional support to your centralized pawns as well as further centralized control. Now what?

Let’s start by looking at the Italian Opening (for White), an opening that all beginners should consider learning first. I suggest this as a first opening because the opening principles are clearing seen and learned when playing it. We’ll look at the first three moves. White starts with 1. e4 which opens up diagonals for both the Queen and the King-side Bishop. Just because it opens a pathway for the Queen to enter the game doesn’t mean you should bring her out right away. You have better pieces to bring into the game. When Black plays 1…e5, White follows with 2. Nf3 and Black defends the e5 pawn with 2…Nc6. White’s third move, 3. Bc4, puts the Bishop on a diagonal that cuts through the center and attacks the weak f7 pawn (weak because it’s only defended by the Black King). There are other squares upon which the Bishop can move to such as e2, d3 or b5 ( Bb5 being the Ruy Lopez opening which is a bit advanced for the absolute beginner). Moving the Bishop to e2 is rather passive and Blacks in the Queen. Moving the Bishop to d3 blocks in the d2 pawn and prevents the dark squared Bishop on c1 from coming out along the c1-h6 diagonal. You should never make moves during the opening that block in your pawns and pieces (within reason). Moving the Bishop to c4 seems to be the best choice here (for the beginner) and is the move that defines this opening. Let’s say that Black plays 3…Nf6. Now what do we do?

Principled play tells us that we should continue with the development of our pawns and minor pieces. When in doubt as to what to do, consider a move that adheres to the opening principles regarding the development of your pawns and pieces.

You should always try to find three potential moves before simply committing to one move. As the old chess adage goes, when you find a good move, look for a better one! We could make the move 4. d3 which allows the d pawn to protect the e4 pawn. While this appears to make sense since the pawns value is one while the Knight’s is three (meaning Black won’t trade Knight for pawn), try to think of a better move. How about 4. Nc3? The reason 4. Nc3 is better than the pawn push to d3 (remember, this article is for beginners first learning opening principles) is that the Knight on c3 is defending the attacked pawn and also attacking the d5 square. We want to control as much of the center as possible before our opponent does. When your opponent makes a move, look to see if any of your pawns or pieces are being attacked. It a pawn or piece is attacked and it has no defender, add one! The other move to consider would be 4. 0-0, Castling on the King-side (we’ll get into Castling next week). Castling is important but if your King is not under attack, hold off and continue development. Black play 4, Be7, Now What?

Now we can consider 5. d3. This move bolsters the e4 pawn and gives the Bishop on c1 a diagonal to patrol. Notice that the Bishop on c4 is outside of White’s pawn chain. Had White played 3. d3, our King-side Bishop would have been trapped. This is what I mean by piece coordination and not blocking in your pawns and pieces! The few moves shown above are to serve as a starting point for understanding opening principles and piece coordination.. Of course, there are many ways in which both White and Black can play but beginners should start by just simply getting their pawns and pieces to active squares, those that control the center of the board. As you get better, you’ll play more advanced openings and their variation. For now remember, you have to learn to walk before you can run. Next week we’ll look at Castling. It’s simple to learn but there’s more to it than you think. Here’s a game to enjoy until then.

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).