Why Learn Openings?

A young student of mine asked me why he should learn a number of different openings rather than simply apply sound opening principles. On the surface, you might dismiss this question as rather silly, but he brings up a good point. When learning how to play chess, we learn that there are specific principles to be followed during the opening phase of the game. Beginners are taught the idea of allowing opening principles to guide them when they’re not sure what move to make. It’s easy to see why beginners might think that the opening principles are the cure all for studying opening theory. Of course, opening principles will take the beginner a long way on their journey towards improvement. However, they will only take you so far.

One of the problems that keeps many players from studying opening theory is it’s complexity. Let’s face it, even the most enthusiastic improving player will become glassy eyed when faced with reading and playing through the ECO (Encyclopedia of Chess Openings). I’ve seen beginners become catatonic upon opening this book for the first time. It might as well be written in Sanskrit as far as the novice player is concerned! I know plenty of decent casual players who don’t know a lot of opening theory, but manage to apply opening theory and reach a playable middle-game. However, it is important to know a bit about opening theory if you plan on playing well over the long run. With my students, I feed them a little opening theory at a time rather than shoving the entire ECO down their throats at once. So what’s the big deal with knowing openings and opening theory?

Imagine if every move your opponent made during the first ten to fifteen moves (the opening) gave you a clue as to what their next move would be. You’d essentially know what was coming and could counter that future move with a good move of your own. Now image that each move your opponent makes during the opening leaves you drawing a blank except in regards to opening principles. I think I’d rather be in the scenario in which each move provides a clue! Understanding a little opening theory allows you to know what’s coming next from your opponent.

You don’t have to know every move, both mainline and variations, of a specific opening. You just have to know the basics, say the first ten moves if you’re a beginner. If you know the first ten moves of ten openings, five for black and five for white, you’ll have a much easier time navigating the starting phase of the game. This means learning ten openings and the first ten moves of each opening. It is nowhere near as hard as the beginner might think. Here’s how I teach this idea:

I start with the Italian Opening for two reasons. First, it clearly illustrates the basic opening principles. Second, it can transpose into the Evan’s Gambit, which I also teach. I then introduce the Ruy Lopez because of move three, 3. Bb5. We compare the placement of the Bishops, c4 in the Italian and b5 in The Ruy Lopez. The idea here is to build on the foundation of 1. e4, 2. Nf3, so that learning and remembering move order in the various openings is easier. Next up, The Scotch, again building on those first two moves. Since I work with beginners and improving players, we tend to avoid certain openings due to their complexity, which is over the heads of less experienced players. Next we learn the King’s and Queen’s Gambit in that order. Since my students have met the Evan’s Gambit, they know why we sacrifice a pawn and understand the basic nature of Gambit play. Now we look at openings for black.

We start with 1…e5, working on maintaining equilibrium against white. Too often, beginners playing black will either play too timidly or launch premature attacks. Therefore, we learn how to balance the position into the middle-game. We don’t define this first opening but rather employ principled opening play. Then we look at the French Defense and the Caro Kann. Only then do we look at the King’s Indian Defense. The reason for this order is because learning the King’s Indian first can leave students playing too defensively, not going after the center at the right time. Lastly we look at the Sicilian which takes the most amount of time due the numerous lines. I recommend that my students don’t play the Sicilian until they really understand the other openings for black I teach.

When I teach these openings, we learn three moves at a time. With the Ruy Lopez, for example, we learn 1. e4, 2. Nf3 and then 3. Bb5. White’s third move is important to grasp or understand regarding the opening principles. In the Italian Opening, the Bishop is placed on c4 (3. Bc4) which directly influences the center. When the Bishop is placed on b5, it indirectly effects the center because, if white exchanges the Bishop on b5 with the Knight on c6, black’s e5 pawn is no longer defended. The b5 Bishop therefore uses the threat of exchanging itself for the black Knight on c6 as an example of proper opening principles, control (indirectly) of the center.

We then look at the next three moves in each opening, going over how those moves adhere to the opening principles. Each subset of three moves is gone over with the previous three moves until my students not only know the move order of each opening but the underlying principles or mechanics behind them. In the end, my student learn basic opening theory while strengthening their understanding of opening principles. While you don’t have to memorize the ECO, having a basic knowledge of opening theory will take you a lot farther in your chess careers. Try my suggestion. Here’s a game 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).