When Openings Go Terribly Wrong

There is a huge difference between simply memorizing an opening and fully understanding the underlying mechanics of that opening. While this should be obvious to anyone with a bit of experience, beginners often don’t consider the difference between knowing the moves (and move order) of a specific opening versus understanding the reasons those moves are made. Compound this with the fact that the very games beginners are memorizing in an effort to learn an opening are played by titled players and you have a recipe for disaster. If you’ve memorized an opening played by two master level players, you’re counting on your opponent making the same moves as were made in the game you memorized. This might work if you were playing a Grandmaster but when playing another beginner, you’ll never see high quality responses to your memorized moves. You can memorize a surgical procedure but if you tried to perform that procedure, you’d likely kill the patient because you don’t understand the reasons behind each swipe of the scalpel.

When we play through the games of the masters, we’re watching two very experienced chess players facing off against one another. There is a huge difference between the skill level of a master compared to the skill level of a beginner. Master level players have played the specific opening they’re employing thousands of times so they have practical experience. However, and more importantly, they have a solid grasp of the underlying principles that guide each move they make during that opening. They know exactly why they’re making a specific move. In addition, because they have played this particular opening so many times, they know what to expect in the way of responses, even the more off beat or off book ones. Underlying mechanics is the key here.

If you memorize a series of moves and responses to those moves, you expect your opponent to make the appropriate reply when it is his or her turn to move. Beginners more often than not, make moves that are not the best response to your memorized move. This means, you might be able to play the first three moves of your memorized opening flawlessly but then your opponent throws you a curve ball, making a move that you didn’t memorize a response to. What do you do then? Well, if you have no idea about the underlying mechanics or reason for a move, you usually go down in flames! This is when an opening goes horribly wrong!

Of course, we learn how to play by studying and subsequently memorizing the games of the masters so you can’t simply dismiss them as a slightly flawed learning tool. However, you need to understand the reasoning behind each and every move when studying an opening. By understanding the underlying mechanics of a move, you’re more likely to respond to an off beat beginner’s move correctly.

Of course, I have memorized plenty of openings including their mainline and variations, and this is a good thing. However, I understand why each move was made and know how to deal with opposition moves that take us off book. By book, I mean the excepted mainline/variation moves. Moves that are off book are those not normally played for whatever reason (usually because they don’t work). I know the difference between memorization and principled mechanics.

Principled mechanics are move ideas that apply the opening principles and their underlying mechanics. The great thing about the opening principles is that they allow you to decide on the appropriate response using sound guidelines to help make a decision regarding what to do. Again, when you learn an opening, you usually do so by studying the games of master level players. This does mean you’ll be memorizing a move order. However, you have to understand each opening principle and how it applies to the move being made. You also have to be flexible with move order because sometimes, move order changes in response to your opposition’s current position. This means that if you simply memorize a sequence of moves and try to play it in the order you memorized it, you may end up sinking the ship early! Underlying mechanics based on principled play is the only way to learn an opening.

Of course, I’ve harped on opening principles with the tenacity of a used car salesman who has just spotted a rube on the car lot, but for good reason, because you’ll get nowhere unless you know these principles inside and out. Yes, you have to do a bit of memorization but, you have to know why each move is made in order to successfully employ those moves in your own games! In short, you have to do both but cannot do one without the other!

I suggest that beginning players study the games of the masters in order to learn an opening. However, you must understand why one move is made in an opening sequence before proceeding to the next move. I’ve had beginning students look at me as if I’m out of my mind when I suggest they determine the thought process involved in masterly moves. However, it’s relatively easy when you have a few principles to guide you.

The three big opening principles are controlling the board’s center with a pawn on move one, developing your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) toward the center, castling your King to safety and further activating your pieces before launching an attack. The first principle, controlling the board’s center with a pawn is very straight forward. The e or d pawn is advanced two squares. However, beginners will often conclude that only the e and d pawns can garner such control. The English Opening starts off with 1. c4 and the Sicilian Defense starts with 1… c5. The beginner might think, “this isn’t an e or d pawn opening so there might be something wrong here.” Absolutely not. The pawn on c4, in the case of the English Opening, controls the d5 square (the same square controlled by 1. e4). With the Sicilian Defense, the pawn on c5 controls the d4 square (the same square controlled by 1… e5). Both these first opening moves adhere to principled play!

Developing your minor pieces is crucial to sound opening play. Beginners often develop a minor headache (rather than a sound position) trying to think of ways to bring their Knights and Bishops into the game. Playing through master level games, it becomes apparent that the minor pieces are usually developed to squares that allow those minor pieces to control, you guessed it, the board’s center. Then there’s the Ruy Lopz and subsequently the beginner’s perfectly logical question, “wouldn’t white’s King-side Bishop have greater control of the center on c4 rather than b5?” Players with greater experience know the answer to this question while those with less experience, are troubled by this move that seems to go against the opening principles. Here’s the thing, in the Ruy Lopez, the Bishop on b5 is attacking black’s Knight on c6. The Knight on c6 is defending the pawn on e5. If white trades Bishop for Knight, the pawn on e5 is undefended. So, it turns out that the Bishop, while not on c4, is attacking the board’s center, influencing the center via its attack on the c6 Knight. There are other openings where this idea of influencing the center without directly attacking it come into play. The important point is to look at a move, like 3. Bb5, and determine its underlying reason (opening mechanics). The longer you have to examine a move for its merits, the more you’ll learn!

King safety is the number one cause of lost beginner’s games. Beginners are taught to castle their kinds as soon as possible. But what of master level games in which the King isn’t castled immediately? Again we apply principled play and opening mechanics to the move(s) in question. King safety is the key phrase here. If we look at a master level game in which one player has the opportunity to castle on move four and doesn’t castle until move nine, there’s usually a few good reasons for not castling early. The first thing to look at is King safety. If your King is really safe, and this requires looking at the opposition pieces carefully to make sure there isn’t the opportunity for a quick attack, then you should consider further developing your forces. After all, the more control of the board’s center you have, the harder it is for your opponent to build up their position in the center. Master level players will build up control of the board before castling as long as their King remains safe. Also, if your opponent is building up his or her position, you might want to hold off on castling until you know the direction the attack is coming from. If your opponent builds up an attack on your King’side, you may want to castle Queen-side.

I can guarantee that, as a beginner, you’ll find yourself in positional situations in which there is no answer to be found from the memorization of an opening. Your opponent will make a strange move that isn’t found in any book on opening theory. Therefore, you have to use opening principles to guide your response. The principles I mentioned should immediately be applied to such a situation. Doing so will allow you to play a principled move rather than a “Gee, I’m just guessing here and I sure hope it works” move. The principles will not let you down as long as you understand the how and why of these principles. Play through your next master level game and ask yourself, with each move made in the game, if the above principles are being applied. If you find yourself not sure of how to respond to your opponent’s move, let the opening principles guide you!

Learn openings by playing through master level games. However, don’t go from one move to the next until you understand the reasons for that first move. You’ll only understand a move if you apply principles to the situation. When you understand the reasons behind a move, you’re grasping the underlying mechanics of that move and will improve your playing greatly. Principled play will take your understand of opening theory in the right direction. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. See if the principles applied!

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).