Opening Principles: Part Two

Last week, we discussed the importance of controlling the center of the board with a pawn move or two, giving the greatest consideration to 1. e4. As I mentioned. We don’t want to make too many pawn moves during the opening, opting instead to introduce our minor pieces quickly. For any beginners reading this, the minor pieces are the Knights and Bishops while the major pieces are the Rooks and Queen, Both types of minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, have a relative value of three points each. We use the word “relative” because the value of these two very different pieces can fluctuate based on the position at hand (on the chessboard). If the board is wide open, meaning there are plenty of free squares void of pawns and pieces, Bishops can control a great deal of territory, being able to attack long distances across the board. If the board is clogged with pawns and pieces, our Bishops are limited in their mobility so the Knight, who can jump over pawns and pieces rules the roost. Thus, When the board is littered with pawns and pieces (belonging to both players), the Bishop has limited abilities so the Knight has greater relative value. Bishops rule open positions or games while Knights lord over closed positions or games.

The Knight and Bishop are like night and day in that both are key parts of a complete cycle. Night follows day and day follows night, both tied together in an endless cycle. However, night and day each has unique qualities or attributes that distinguishes one from the other. In chess, both the Knight and Bishop are considered minor pieces and are closed tied to one another when it comes to the opening, middle and endgames. However, the way in which each moves is absolutely different, one being designed for close combat fighting while the other more like a long distance sniper. Knowing which one to use for a specific positional situation is crucial to one’s chess success. Before we discuss this last idea we first, as beginners, need to know how to employ both pieces during the opening phase of the game, the first ten to fifteen moves. Remember, the opening builds the foundation for the rest of your game. Fail during the opening and it’s not likely that you’ll even get into a proper middle-game!

There’s an old chess adage that states “Knights before Bishops” and while it’s not a rock hard rule, there are good reasons for developing (moving) your Knights before your Bishop. In the first article in this series, I mentioned that we have to move some of our pawns out onto the board in order to give our pieces mobility. Getting your Bishops into the game requires moving at least two pawns, otherwise, our powerful Bishops will be stuck on their starting squares, inactive, and you don’t want to leave pieces inactive. The Knights, on the other hand, have the ability to jump over pawns and pieces, be they yours or your opponent’s pawns or pieces. This means they have immediate access to the board. The Knight’s ability to jump over any material (pawns and pieces) in their way makes them an extremely valuable weapon, especially when the board is clogged with pawns and pieces. You should note that their ability to jump means you cannot block an attack by a Knight. This is valuable because it reduces the way in which you deal with an attack by one. When attacked, you often have the choice of moving the attacked piece, blocking the attack or capturing the attacker. That’s potentially three choices. I say potentially because you don’t often have the choice of all three methods of dealing with an attacker. Removing one of those methods, blocking an attack, can thus severely limit your choices!

Another consideration regarding the power of the Knight is the way in which it moves. All the pieces move in a linear manner, straight lines along the ranks, files and diagonals. The Knight moves in an “L” shape which makes it slightly more difficult for the novice player to follow. Therefore, beginners and even more experienced players sometimes miss a Knight’s attack because of its peculiar movement. However, you should always keep in mind that this “L” shaped movement can make it slow going when it comes to the Knight attacking a square directly next to it. Now let’s talk about where the Knight should go during the opening.

We know from the first article in this series that we want to control the board’s center (especially those central squares on our opponent’s side of the board) during the opening. Once we employ a pawn or two (don’t make too many pawn moves at the game’s start), it’s time to bring in the minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops. The key point to remember about Knights is that they can enter the game without moving a pawn. In the last article, I suggested that beginners commanding the White pieces start off with 1. e4 (1…e5 for Black). Now, as White, we want to bring a minor piece into the game and no other piece is better suited (for the beginner) that the King-side Knight. The Knight has a choice of three squares, e2, f3 and h3. While 2. Ne2 (the Alapin Opening) does adhere to the opening principles by controlling one of the four central squares (d4, d5, e4 and e5), it blocks in the White Queen and White’s light squared or King-side Bishop. Don’t block in your pieces when possible because doing so means you’ll have to unblock them which comes at a cost of tempo or time and time is of the essence during the opening phase of the game. Playing 2. Nh3 is an absolute stinker of a second move. Not only does it not control the center but a Knight on the rim or edge of the board controls half as many squares as it would when placed on a more centralized square. This leaves 2. Nf3 which is developing with tempo. Tempo? In chess tempo means time and Black will have to expend the extra time to defend the Black pawn on e5 that the Knight on f3 is now attacking! Moving the Knight to f3 also has some bonuses. Not only does it attack the Black pawn on e5 but it also controls the d4 square as well as the g5 and h4 squares. What’s so important about g5 and h4? Those are two Squares Black’s Queen might take up residency on in an effort to launch an early King-side attack. It also adds a defender to the h2 pawn and brings White a move closer to castling on the King-side. In short, 2. Nf3 does many things at once and if every move you made during a game did more than one thing, you’d be winning more games than you lost!

Black’s best response, at least for beginners is 2…Nc6. This move protects the e5 pawn as well as putting pressure on the d4 square. Remember, when you’re commanding the Black pieces, you’re a move behind so you should aim to equalize the position, keeping things balanced rather than trying to launch a premature attack.

After developing you’re first Knight, you may want to consider either developing your remaining Knight with a move like 3. Nc3 (for White) or 3…Nf6 (for Black). Developing both Knights allows you to control all four of the central squares. Place Knights on c3, f3 (for White), c6 and f6 (for Black) and note the squares they control. Remember, Knights can jump over pawns and pieces so they can control the center very quickly, without having to move any pawns. The opening phase of the game is a race to see who gains control of the center first. The player that does gain control of the center first will usually have the advantage because the opposition doesn’t have much in the way of counter play since you control key squares they need to place their pawns and pieces on. Centralized control is the name of the game when it comes to the opening.

Now let’s look at those deadly sharp shooting snipers, the Bishops. The Knight, because of his ability to jump over any pawn or piece on the board, is an expert in close combat. However, when the board is wide open (plenty of empty squares ), the Bishop is King, so to speak! The Bishop, unlike the Knight who has to get up close and personal with his target, can attack an opposition piece from the comfort of his own starting square. However, bringing your Bishops into the game requires moving the e and d pawns (or b and g pawns), so their immediate entry onto the board is hampered until some pawns are moved.

The best places for the Bishops (at least for the beginner) are c4 and f4 for White and c5 and f5 for Black. A Bishop moved from f1 to c4 as it’s first move into the game, controls more squares than anywhere else it’s moved to along that diagonal. Remember, the more of the board you control the less of the board your opponent controls. From the c4 square it cuts through the board’s center squares and aims itself at the weak f7 pawn. For Black, the c5 squares has the same effect. Sometimes, you don’t have the option of placing a Bishop on the c or f files because there may be opposition pawns controlling those squares. Beginners are often tempted to use their Bishops to pin opposition Knights to either the King or Queen. While it seems like a good idea, the pin can easily be broken or the Bishop pushed away by pawns. On occasion, a player will ignore the pin and let you capture their Queen. When you do, they deliver a nasty attack that leads to mate. Therefore, when looking for a Bishop move (other than c4 or c5), I suggest making a non committal move, such as placing a Bishop on the e or d files (for White, e2 or d2 and for Black e6, e7 or d7) where it can move to either side of the board quickly if needed for an attack. Good chess players build up their position and the activity of their pieces before launching attacks.

Next week, we’re going to put our pawns and minor pieces together in an opening and see how they work together, as well as discussing castling. Until then, 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).