Opening Studies for the Beginner

Learning the game of chess, beyond the basic rules, is perhaps the most daunting endeavor any beginner undertakes. Of course, it’s the idea of having to learn or master something from the very beginning (from scratch), all the while traveling along an often bumpy road that leads to mastery, that seems herculean in effort not matter what the subject being studied. However, there’s a second and third factor that makes learning difficult and those factors are, the approach taken and the material actually being studied. With a subject such as organic chemistry, learning is very straight forward (not easy but straight forward). What I mean by this is that the overwhelming majority of organic chemistry textbooks are written for college classes that follow a structured curriculum. Also, organic chemistry is the study of carbon based molecules and the curriculum is designed to start with simple carbon based structures and move on to more complex ones, with the previous chapter of the textbook laying the foundation for the current chapter being read. It’s a very a, b, c, d or straight forward approach. However, trying to learn the game of chess (beyond the rules) can be extremely difficult for the novice player. With so many learning options and approaches available to the beginner, our novice player can become hopelessly lost and ultimately discouraged before they even have a chance to really learn something. Therefore, we’re going to look at how the beginner should approach, for example, learning various chess openings.

The first questions beginners should ask themselves are what methods of study are appropriately suited for my (beginner) skill level, what materials within that chosen method (books, videos, software programs) are specifically written for my skill level and lastly, how can I maximize the time I spend studying? We’ll look at each one later on, but first we have to talk about the importance of understanding the game’s opening principles.

The opening principles are a simple series of ideas or concepts that have been proven to really help players lay a solid foundation for the rest of their game. As I mention to my students, the house you live in is only as solid as the foundation that house is built upon or in chess terms, your game is only as good as the foundation its built upon and that foundation is built during the opening phase of the game, the first ten to twenty moves.

Thankfully, for the beginner, there is a set of opening principles to guide them as they study the opening. These principles are simple: Control the board’s center (d4, d5, e4 and e5) with a pawn (or two), develop (move) your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) toward the center and Castle your King to safety. We always want to fight for the center of the board during the opening, which means moving pawns and pieces towards their most active opening squares as soon as possible, those that control or influence the board’s center. Therefore, we want each move we make to employ a principle. There are things we don’t want to do such as bringing our Queen out early, making too many pawn moves and moving the same piece over and over again (during the opening). Employing these principles will ensure that the beginner builds a much better foundation for the rest of their game. If this isn’t reason enough to employ the opening principles, consider this thought: You will never understand why various moves are being made when you sit down to study a specific opening unless you know these opening principles!

All good chess openings employ the opening principles and use them to their fullest advantage. If you know these principles, you’ll understand why certain moves were made during a specific opening. Of course, deciding which of the many openings is right for you is another story altogether. There are over a thousand openings and the next task the beginner faces finding the right one for them. Some teachers have suggesting choosing an opening that fits the player’s personality. However, just because you’re a chaotic person doesn’t mean you should pick a chaotic opening, such as The Benko Gambit, to learn first; especially when you’re just starting your chess career. This would leave you in a world of hurt because the opening is far above the beginner’s skill set. You need to start with simpler openings such as the Italian Opening. Many teachers consider the Italian too passive but I think it’s better suited for the novice player because the opening principles are clearly defined within the opening’s moves and the opening can transpose (change into) a couple of other openings (The Evan’s Gambit and the Fried Lived Attack) which allows the beginner to broaden their opening studies a bit using the same starting moves. In other words, the Italian Opening serves as the foundation for the other two openings mentioned above. Only after the beginner has done some work studying opening theory should they move on to more complex openings. Start simple and then move on to more advanced ideas.

Beginners have a choice regarding their method of study, such as books, DVDs and software programs. Which method a beginner chooses depends on what type of learner they are. If you’re a visual learner, then DVDs or software programs will be more suited for your needs. However, before investing in DVDs or software training programs, consider a book that provides an overview of the opening principles and the many openings played by contemporary chess players. I would recommend Chess Openings for Dummies by James Eade. This book (which I’ve read twice because I don’t recommend books unless I’ve read them) carefully explains the opening principles and gives you an overview of a number of different openings from both White and Black’s perspective. The explanations are clear and concise and the opening principles are pointed out throughout the books many and varied openings. I’m often asked by those who start reading this book, which of those many openings in the book should I start my studies with? The answer is simple: Start with the opening that made the most sense when you played through one of the sample games provided within the book. When reading this book (or one of the other fine books on openings for beginners), you’ll find openings that don’t make sense from a beginner’s perspective, such as the Ruy Lopez or Spanish Opening. This is an opening you must eventually learn but later on when you really have a solid grasp of the principles. Stay away from these until you know more about opening theory. Eventually, as your understanding of theory increases, that opening that didn’t make sense early on will now make perfect sense. When you find an opening and can say to yourself, that makes sense (regarding the moves within the opening), you’ve found an opening to study in more detail.

General opening theory books often give you a game in which White wins and a game in which Black wins, centered around the specific opening being discussed. Play through and study both perspectives (White and Black). You may find an opening that you love and will use every chance you get but remember, you may have to play against that very opening so you need to know how to defeat it! Always study both sides of the board when it comes to openings.

When working through the opening, don’t move on from one move to the next until you know exactly why that move was made. Skipping over moves because you don’t understand them will lead to further confusion because one move during an opening often sets up the following move. Take your time when studying opening theory, especially as a beginner. Patience is your new best friend. Go through the entire book, even if you’ve found an opening you love early on. You want to at least have a feel for the many openings played. You don’t have to memorize every opening in the book, just be able to look at the first few moves of a variety of openings and understand why (in terms of opening principles) those moves were made. Speaking of memorization: Avoid simply memorizing openings as opposed to understanding the underlying mechanics. If you don’t know why a move way made, you’ll become lost very quickly. Opening principles are the beginners lifeline so hang on to them for dear life!

When you study an opening, learn some of the variations to that opening as well. When the beginner sees an opening being played out in a book, they’re seeing a specific game in which specific moves were made. However, in real life, other moves are often substituted into the opening mainline (the way it is traditionally played), creating what are called variations. Again, use the opening principles to guide your studies.

You could spend a life time studying openings. However, I suggest that the beginner choose an opening for White and one for Black (remember, you can’t always play the White pieces so you need to know openings for both sides of the board) and study them, starting with the mainline and working outward towards the more popular variations. Start with a book covering the principles and a sampling of openings for both White and Black. When you feel comfortable, then try DVDs and training software. I have my students hold off on these training tools until they’ve gotten a solid grasp of the opening principles. Also, take it slow, starting with small blocks of time set aside for studying. A solid twenty minutes during which you’re concentrating fully is worth a great deal more than two hours of your mind starting to wander because you’ve lost focus. It takes a lot of time to build up your mental stamina so you can sit for three or four hours and concentrate on your studies. Keep it simple and streamlined. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys know their opening theory!

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).