Every successful journey begins with a well-planned and smart beginning. Chess is no exception to this.
Chess openings form a strong base of the game. They serve as an essential gateway from where you can reach favorable middlegame positions.
Over the years, many openings have been invented, analyzed, and redefined with tons of theory.
For someone who has just started learning the game, it’s natural to be confused and overwhelmed with so much information out there!
If this overwhelms you, don’t worry! I’m here to make it easy for you. Playing the opening comes down to 4 things:
- Choosing an opening that suits you.
- Understanding the opening fundamentals
- The errors you should avoid
In this lesson, I will go over them one by one.
The Basics – How to Choose an Opening that Suits You?
Chess is a game of strategy – a strategy that starts even before the actual game begins! So first and foremost, you need to decide which openings you are going to play.
To make the selection process easier, you need to keep in mind a few important factors –
1. Your Playing Style
In the early parts of your career, the opening you adopt largely depends on your playing style. This is because you still haven’t mastered the balance of playing both tactical and positional openings.
I also have two helpful guides for you on my website which you can check out as a reference:
2. Your Opponent
Sometimes you can prepare a surprise opening depending on your opponent’s style of play.
When you bring in a surprise element, you have a chance to shake your opponent’s mental strength at least by some degree!
Getting them into uncharted territory or making them play openings that are not their strengths puts you in a place of advantage!
3. The Situation of the Tournament You’re Playing in
Okay, this tip applies to slightly advanced players or those who have decent tournament playing experience.
Suppose you are playing in a tournament where you are clearly leading and only need a draw to secure your championship. In that case, you can go for openings that have chances of equalizing faster.
This is, however, suggested to players when they have a strong command over their tactical and positional abilities so that they can handle any position with ease.
Once you have fixed an opening, it’s time to learn some guiding rules.
Always Remember your Fundamentals!
The fundamentals in chess form the core of your understanding of the game. They are rules or principles that guide you and simplify your playing process. They can be useful whenever your opponent plays an unknown move in the opening.
So what are these fundamentals with respect to chess openings? Often termed as “Opening Principles”, the following are some essential rules you must remember –
1. Control The Center
The central squares of e4, d4, e5, and d5 are extremely crucial. They serve as an important maneuvering square or a firm stronghold for our minor or major pieces later on in the game.
Occupying them from the start also helps us acquire space so that our pieces can develop and maneuver.
This is the primary reason why the most popular opening choices are 1.e4 or 1.d4. Even if White begins with 1.Nf3 or 1.c4, the moves still control the e4 or d4 square in one way or the other.
The same can be said for openings from the Black side as well.
2. Develop Your Minor Pieces
After the initial strategy of controlling the center, you must develop your minor pieces to optimal squares. Ideally, you should put your pieces in squares from where they can control the maximum possible area.
In the opening stage, controlling a large number of squares is a good thing as it limits your opponent’s moves. It also gives you a chance to develop your own pieces in those squares or adjacent ones.
3. Castle and Protect Your King
Depending on the opening that you have chosen, castle long (on the queenside) or short (on the kingside) as soon as possible. (You can learn more about kingside and queenside castling here.)
Protecting the king is the most important aim of the game. So if you don’t do that, you can get into some serious trouble!
By castling, not only do you ensure your king’s safety, but you also develop your rook and bring it into play!
4. Develop Your Queen and Connect Your Rooks
After developing your minor pieces and securing your king’s safety, it’s now time to pay attention to your major pieces!
Placing your queen on a good square that doesn’t hinder the movement of other pieces and also gives some purpose to the queen is sufficient in the opening stage.
Connecting the rooks and further centralizing them on ‘e’ or ‘d’ files is the ideal way to go ahead.
These are the four basic principles that guide you in developing your pieces in the opening.
You should understand that they are only “guiding” principles. It is not compulsory that you follow them in the exact same order always.
For example, in Open Sicilian, White develops his queen before he can castle.
The main aim of these fundamentals is to help you understand the general way of developing in the opening. You can make slight changes in the order depending on your chosen opening.
Additional Tips to Reduce Errors in Openings
You are now aware of the fundamentals of opening development. But there are some pitfalls you might fall into. Here I will try to make you aware of some common errors and how you should avoid falling into one of them.
But let me give a quick disclaimer – Remember that these are tips and not “commandments” engraved in stone! Don’t follow them blindly!
These are general suggestions that work in most games. However, if the position demands something else, be prepared to change the course accordingly.
Now let’s get started with the tips –
- Don’t move the same piece more than once unless necessary – Time is of the essence in the opening. The more quickly you develop your pieces, the better control you get over squares. The better control over the squares you have, the lesser number of squares your opponent controls.
At the same time, the quicker you finish the development phase, the faster you can move on to formulating aggressive plans for the middlegame.
So in the process, if you unnecessarily move an already developed piece again, you are losing out on precious time. Hence, avoid doing so unless your piece is under attack.
- Don’t make any pawn move without thinking – A pawn is the only piece that cannot retreat once it goes forward. It moves in a single direction. Hence, all pawn advances must be carefully thought about.
I’ve seen so many beginner games where pawns have been pushed recklessly. Later such pawns become weak or create juicy squares which your opponent’s pieces will love to occupy.
Remember though pawns have less materialistic value, they have a useful role to play. They support minor pieces and control important squares. A single pawn advance can open a position and allow your pieces to flow into the position. On the other hand, a pawn advance can also close the position. So their movements must be planned and purposeful.
- Develop towards the center – The simple logic behind this is that a piece can control more squares from the center. The more centralized your piece is the more scope of movement and control of squares they possess.
Just put a queen, knight, or bishop in the middle of the board and you will find out for yourself.
Developing in such a way not only creates a good base for the middle game, but also prevents your opponent’s unnecessary threats.
- Make a provision against a possible back rank mate beforehand –
Moves such as h3(for White) or h6(for Black) come in handy in two ways.
They secure a flight square for your king against any back rank mate threats in the future.
They also control the important g4/g5 square, not allowing an opponent’s minor piece to occupy that place.
In the position above, after White’s h3 move, their King has a breathing square on h2 and the pawn stops Black from moving his bishop to g4-square.
It is usually a very small move but is of underrated importance. Trust me, your king will thank you later for creating an escape square for him!
- Don’t make unnecessary queen moves in the beginning – The almighty queen is the most important piece on board.
And you might know how painful it is to lose this piece. If you develop your queen early, disregarding your minor piece development, then it can be pretty disastrous. What happens is that your opponent gets a chance to develop his pieces, while simultaneously attacking your queen.
This results in his pieces coming into the game faster, while you are forced to spend moves protecting your lady.
You must avoid this at all costs.
On the other hand, if your opponent recklessly moves his queen in the beginning, use all the tempi it gives you to launch an attack! (In case you don’t know, ‘tempi’ is the plural form of the word ‘tempo’. I have actually written a complete article on tempo here on my website. If needed you can take a quick look at it and come back here again)
Preparation is the Key!
With all this knowledge, I’m sure you will be able to develop your pieces in the opening with ease.
But, wait a minute! You know how to play an opening…but do you know how to prepare opening theory?
Knowing opening theory means knowing the exact moves and the strategy of a particular opening.
30-years ago, when there were no computers, you could figure out opening theory on the board itself. But in today’s world of advanced computers, if you don’t know the theory well, you can land in hot waters right from the beginning itself.
I have jotted down a few important points that will serve as guiding blocks for you while you prepare your openings –
- Be firm in your theory preparation – Be it a simple structure coming after only 10-12 moves, or an in-depth razor-sharp position arising after a 20 move variation – whichever way you choose to play, make sure you know it well.
Be thorough in your knowledge of moves leading up to that position and other variations that might branch out on the way. You can use chess.com’s opening explorer to assist you in this process. (You can check out my Complete Guide About Is Chess.com Premium Worth It here).
This way, you save a lot of time in the beginning and also put pressure on your opponent by playing confidently.
- Familiarise yourself with the possible middlegames – The best way to get to know the positions that will result from your opening is by playing lots of games on it.
By doing so, you get to know every possibility and reduce the chance of being surprised on board.
You can play a lot of blitz games online or practice with a playing partner. Either way, make sure you try out every possible move and find a counter to it.
- Study a lot of model games – Model games are basically those games that are played by top players in the opening you are preparing.
You can more often than not, blindly trust their preparation and follow the way in which they continue the game.
You get a lot of insight and crucial ideas from such games. And it saves you a lot of preparation time as well!
The amazing benefit of having a strong opening preparation is that you will most likely never go into unknown territory. You will always be in the driver’s seat and your opponent wouldn’t be able to deceive you.
I have taught you all the basics of how to play chess openings! I hope this lesson was informative for you and that you learned a lot from it.
My final piece of advice would be – Choose and prepare your openings well, always remember your fundamentals, and don’t be afraid to modify a variation on board if necessary!
Now, let’s move on to the next lesson…