Once upon a time, playing the opening phase of a chess game was fairly straight forward and simple. Classical theory subscribed to the notion that you merely had to occupy the board’s center with pieces. This is why you find games played before the hyper-modern school’s revolutionary ideas on opening theory starting with 1. e4…e5. This still widely played first move for both players allowed the King-side Bishop and Queen instant access to the board. When the hyper-modern school, led by Nimzowitsch and Reti, introduced centralized control using long distance pieces that could influence the board’s center from a safe distance, opening theory started on a long and often difficult to understand journey. Today, opening theory has become so complicated that even seasoned and experienced players have trouble with their opening studies. As for the beginner? They find themselves hopelessly lost in a quagmire of variations and complicated lines. The real problem with opening theory, for the beginning and average player, is that it’s become far too complicated to easily study.
The technological revolution that’s given beginners a plethora of choices when it comes to studying the opening further complicates things. When I first took up the game, you bought a book and learned opening theory by playing through page after page of various openings, most of which had little in the way of useful commentary, and then applied that knowledge to your games. While the advanced player could pick up bits and pieces of useful information from these books, a beginner such as myself, would become hopelessly lost. Again, there was little in the way of useful commentary. The question I found myself asking after having played through the first few moves of an opening I found in a book was “why was this move made?” Even today, with instructive DVDs and interactive programs created to teach a specific opening, beginners are still confused. Why all the confusion?
Many of the openings played by both professional and club player alike were created hundreds of years ago. They were fairly straightforward back then because they were new. However, these openings have all gone through long periods of change because strong players were constantly refining them over time, adding variations to deal with specific moves made by their opponents. These variations improved the original opening. However, an opening that once had a mainline and a variation or two suddenly had a slew of additional variations, all of which had to be understood in order to play a particular opening well. Add computer programs, now strong enough to add additional input regarding specific opening moves, and you’re left with further confusion on the part of the beginning or average player.
I happen to love studying opening theory and because I’ve taught and coached chess for many years, I have a good understanding of a wide variety of openings. However, the beginner embarking on the study of opening theory probably isn’t going to share my enthusiasm. They’re going to be confused and frustrated. The beginner wanting to improve their opening play will pick an opening that looks interesting to them, purchase a book or DVD on that opening, start studying and then find themselves quickly lost. How does the beginner avoid becoming lost?
To truly be able to get the most out of studying a specific opening, you have to fully understand the underlying mechanics of opening theory, the opening principles. These principles form the foundation for every good opening no matter how different one opening is from another. Understanding the opening principles completely is the only way a beginner can hope to learn and master a specific opening. So important are these principles that you shouldn’t be allowed to read a book about a specific opening until you’ve read a book about the underlying principles common to all openings. To avoid having to purchase a book that helps you understand how to read another book, I’m going to give you a quick explanation of the opening principles that you can use to determine why a move was made as you read through a book or watch an instructional DVD on a specific opening.
The opening is essentially a race to see which player gains greater control of the board’s center (d4, d5, e4 and e5) first. The opening generally represents the first twelve to sixteen moves. The opening principles guide you through the tasks you must undertake during this time frame in order to achieve your opening goal, controlling the board’s center. Note that openings for Black generally have the word “defense” attached to their names, indicating it’s an opening for Black while openings for White simply use the opening’s name. All decent openings will employ the following principles.
Principle one, control the center of the board with a pawn or sometimes two. This means moving the “e” “d” or “c” pawn. In openings for White, one of these pawns will be moved two squares forward so that it attacks or controls one of Black’s two center squares, e5 or d5. Black will counter by moving the “e” “d” or “c” pawn two squares to control White’s center squares e4 or d4. There are some openings in which Black will move a pawn one square forward to either e6, The French Defense or c6, The Caro Kann. Do yourself a favor and avoid openings that start with the “f” pawn being moved first.
Principle two, develop your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) toward the center of the board. One thing all good openings have in common is the development of Knights and Bishops towards the center of the board. If White moves the King-side Knight on move two, it will more likely than not move to f3. From f3, the Knight attacks or controls e5 and d4. White might move the Queen-side Knight to c3 on a subsequent move because from c3 the Knight attacks or controls e4 and d5. Black’s ideal Knight squares are c6 and f6. As for the Bishops, here things can get a bit tricky. In The Italian Opening, after 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, White moves the king-side Bishop to c4. This follows our second principle, developing minor pieces towards the center. From c4, the Bishop attacks or controls d5 and puts pressure on the weak f7 pawn. However, beginners often become confused by The Ruy Lopez or Spanish Opening. After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, White moves the King-side Bishop to b5. The beginner has trouble seeing how this influences the center. The Black Knight on c6 defends the pawn on e5. If white trades the b5 Bishop for the c6 Knight, the Black pawn on e5 is no longer defended. This is an example of a piece indirectly controlling the center. There are some openings that place a minor piece on a square that doesn’t directly attack or control a center square. These pieces are more often than not, indirectly influencing control of the center by attacking an opposition piece that is itself directly controlling the center.
Principle three, castle your King to safety. When beginners first learn these three primary principles, they’re taught that they should castle early which translates to castle as soon as you can. However, when they read a book or watch a DVD on specific openings, they find that castling occurs much later in the game than they’re taught. This is because the games being represented in the instructional material are usually the games of highly skilled players who hold off castling in favor of further piece development. They don’t castle early because their King isn’t in danger. They make moves that further gain control of the center instead.
The one thing you’ll notice when reading a book or watching a DVD on a specific opening is the constant development of pawns and pieces in order to gain greater control of the board’s center. When a move is made during the opening you’re studying, examine all of the squares that the just moved pawn or piece controls. The opening is the phase of the game where you activate pieces, moving them to squares that give them greater mobility and thus greater control of the board’s center. Players also make moves that restrict their opponent’s pieces. Often, as in the case of a player moving the “h” pawn, the move is made to keep a Bishop from pinning a player’s Knight to either the Queen or King. There’s a good reason for each move made in a specific opening. Because commentary is often sparse, it’s up to you to determine why a move was made. Take your time and try to figure out the reason for a specific move. I recommend using an online search engine, such as google, to help you with your opening studies. There are plenty of websites that offer great commentary on various openings.
Yes, it will be confusing for beginners to study opening theory but if you take the time to really learn the opening principles before taking on a specific opening, you’ll have an easier time with your studies. A book I recommend is Chess Openings for Dummies by James Eade. It provides an excellent, basic guide to the opening principles and walks you through a number of openings for both Black and White. It’s a good place to start because it will also help you select a good opening to further study. Remember, you have to learn the underlying opening principles before you can truly understand any opening. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!