What is a chess opening?
Chess opening is a term that refers to the initial moves which lay the foundation for a chess game.
There are numerous ways of playing the opening phase of a chess game. By the 16th century chess players had already realized that certain opening moves proved more beneficial than others. They had started giving specific names to specific openings and had made the first steps towards the development of opening theory.
With the development of modern chess, opening theory has become more and more significant. Certain chess openings have been analyzed for almost a hundred years now, making them become more or less standard. These openings are known as book openings.
Opening theory is constantly evolving. Every now and then, strong chess players manage to find new moves in well-known positions that change the evaluation of a certain book opening. Such moves are known as theoretical novelties.
It has to be said that the opening theory has undergone truly revolutionary changes in the last 20 years. The development of the modern chess computers was the prerequisite for the invention of the chess opening databases, which have accelerated the flow of chess information and assimilation of chess knowledge.
Nowadays, theoretical novelties are common occurrence and their number and frequency are constantly increasing. Following recent trends in opening theory is a must for any chess professional. Most of them have a "Second"; usually a strong grandmaster who analyzes certain opening lines, discovers new ideas, and documents his findings.
Before getting to the point where a player starts analyzing complicated variations and finds theoretical novelties, he has to be familiar with the basic principles of chess openings.
In other words, you have to learn how to walk before you can run.
Basic principles of chess openings
We will now take the look at the basic principles of chess openings that are helpful in formulating strategy for successful opening play
1. Play toward the center
A common and rather good piece of advice for chess beginners is playing toward the center of the board. Therefore, a beginner should probably prefer opening the game with the advance of his king or his queen pawn.
To get a feeling of why this is a good idea, let’s look at the position arising after White moves his king's pawn: 1 e2-e4
The move "opens the path" for two White pieces:
- The Queen is able to operate along the d1-h5 diagonal
- The Bishop is able to operate along the f1-b5 diagonal
Compare that with the situation arising after the advance of the pawn on the flank:1 h2-h4
Here White has only created moves for his rook to h2 or h3 (if we disregard the knights for the moment).2. Develop your pieces
One of the main goals of the opening play is rapid development of the pieces. Any sort of “action“ in chess is impossible without participation of the majority of one's pieces. Therefore, one should aim to place his pieces on useful and purposeful squares as soon as possible.
A natural question would be what constitutes a useful and purposeful square. Although it depends on the concrete position, a rule of thumb says that generally pieces in the center stand much better than pieces on the edge of the board. Perhaps you have heard the witty quote by old chess master Siegbert Tarrasch:
“A knight on the rim is dim.“
As an example, consider the position after White's opening move 1 Ng1-Nf3
We can see here that knight could jump to eight different squares the next time White moves this knight (assuming those squares were not actually occupied by White’s own pieces).
Compare that to the position arising after 1 Ng1-Nh3:
It is obvious that the square h3 is inferior place for a knight, since from h3 he can only jump to four squares on White's next move.
3. Take care of the king
This principle should be a pretty obvious one, if you know the rules of chess.
Numerous games were lost because one side got too eager to attack, before castling, and got punished because the king in the center often represents cannon fodder.
Whenever you are in an opportunity to castle and you don't see a reason why you should avoid that move, it is never a bad idea to actually play it.
Another way of formulating this principle is: “Castle early and castle often.“
4. Pieces before pawns
One mistake beginners often commit is moving their pawns too often in the opening. It is important to remember that pawns don't move backwards.
If you are in doubt about a particular pawn move or don't have an idea about it's purpose, perhaps it is better to avoid it at all and look for a better move instead.
For instance, consider the following diagram:
White's last move was 3 a2-a3. This pawn move doesn't contribute to White' position and represents a loss of precious time. Chess players often say that White has lost a tempo for nothing.
Therefore, developing another piece with 3 Nb1-Nc3 or 3 Bf1-Bc4 is preferred
5. Knights before bishops
The principle saying that it is better to develop your knights before your bishops should be immediately apparent.
Due to the fact that knight's movement makes the L form, it's speed of advancing is restricted.
For instance, in order to reach the f7 point with his knight (that is typically considered as a weak point in Black's position), White has to move it three times.
Compare to that, it only takes two moves for the bishop to reach the same square (if we assume that the path to that square is clear):
Therefore, it is a good idea to bring your knights closer to the place of action while simultaneously waiting with your bishops for the further development of events. Because of their unlimited range, bishops should be considered more flexible.
The famous Legal's mate is a vivid illustration of the dangers awaiting those who commit their bishops too early.
6. Don't move the same piece twice
Unless you can accomplish a specific goal, like winning some material, you should refrain from moving the same piece in the opening more than once.
Moving the piece for no reason merely loses tempo and any experienced player will consider it as a pure gift, say thank you very much, and continue to take advantage of it.
7. Don't bring your queen out too early
Her majesty is your most valuable piece and you typically don't want to trade it for a mere knight or bishop.
Therefore, if you take your queen out too early, your opponent may be able to exploit that by attacking it with his pieces and accomplishing the following:
- Since his pieces are developed with threats (see number 9 on this list), he is gaining time by attacking your queen
- Your queen has to move after it is attacked, so you are losing time as well
The previous post about Scholar's mate has already mentioned the disadvantages of early queen adventures, but let's take a look at another example:
White has already moved his queen twice in the opening (losing tempo). He threatens the b7 pawn, but Black can simply ignore that threat and continue his development:
White should probably avoid taking the pawn, but let's see what happens if he does it:
5 Qb3xb7 Ra8-Rb8!
Black already has three pieces in play, and White's queen is forced to move once again:
6 Qb7-Qa6 Nc6-Nb4!
Black now violates the principle of moving the same piece twice because he can win material by force. After White moves his queen, Black can give check on c2 with his knight, and capture the rook on a1. Clear indication that something has gone terribly wrong for White.
8. Connect the rooks as soon as possible
This principle is tightly connected with principles two and three.
At the start of the game, the rook is a piece that has the most trouble in entering the game. Being hemmed by pawns and pieces and unable to jump over anything, it takes at least three moves to include one rook into a game.
Considering that the rook is the second strongest piece, the player who manages to connect his rooks faster and give them a useful role may easily gain the upper hand.
9. Try to create a threat
The following position is a nice example of creating a threat right out of the opening.
Black has just captured the White pawn on d4. If White simply recaptures, then Black can consider taking the knight on a3 with his bishop and doubling the White pawns.
However, White has a more forceful response:
Creating the threat of Nc7+, forking Black's king and queen and winning material.
Black can naturally prevent this threat, but he has to lose tempo in the process and White can continue to fight for an opening advantage.
It is important to note that one shouldn't create threats merely for the sake of threatening something, but also try to obtain something in strategical sense. For instance, in the given position, White has improved the position of his knight on a3.
Therefore, the threats should be a part of the bigger picture, which is also known as a plan.
10. Formulate a plan (develop the pieces with purpose)
The concept of planning in chess is usually the hardest thing for a beginner to digest.
World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik said that every strong player will formulate a plan already around move eight.
Extensive analysis of the art of planning in chess is well beyond the scope of this article. Whole books were written about planning as an integral part of chess strategy.
But, in order for the reader to get a feeling about what planning essentially is, let us look at the typical position arising from the Queen's gambit declined (see classification of chess openings below):
In the position above, White usually has one of the following plans:
- Advancing his b pawn to b5 and exchanging it for the adversary c6 pawn
- Preparing a central e4 advance
Black tries to counter White's plans and develop his own:
- Playing the sequence g7-g6, Nd7-Nf8-Ne6-Ng7 and Bc8-Bf5, achieving a favorable exchange of the light squared bishops
- Countering b5 advance with the c5
Don't be discouraged if you find these things too advanced yet. The stronger the player gets, the less difficulty he has in selecting a successful plan. Just remember that choices of plans are tightly connected with the chosen opening.
Finally, a word of caution (which appears to become a customary theme for my articles) is once again required here.
As you make progress as a chess players, you will start to notice that modern chess has showed that almost every single principle listed above is sometimes faulty.
Modern opening theory is much more concrete and doesn't fall under a predetermined set of rules.
Therefore, these principles should be regarded more as guidelines for opening play, and not as dogmas. Because the only definite rule in chess is that no rule in chess is definite.
Classification of chess openings
Opening theory is endless. Trying to find your way through the forest of opening variations while remembering weird opening names can be quite confusing (some opening names are truly remarkable though; take the Sicilian Pterodactyl or Hyper Accelerated Dragon as a examples).
Therefore, in order to make this task easier to remember, opening theoreticians have realized that a system of classification of chess openings is required.
The system of classification shouldn’t be too narrow and should include every relevant opening under one category or another. On the other hand, making it too broad is also not very helpful, as the very point of creating a classification system loses its point.
During the earlier days of chess, when players were still making baby steps in understanding our ancient game, classifying openings was a rather simple task, since there wasn’t much diversity in the opening choices.
However, with chess development, players realized that openings which were once considered as total rubbish are actually very much playable. Therefore, the classification of the openings got slightly more complicated.
For the sake of this article we will use the popular opening classification which divides the openings’ 6 big groups, based on the first couple of moves that each player plays:
- Open games
- Semi-open games
- Closed games
- Semi-closed games
- Modern openings
- Irregular openings
We will examine each group in greater detail in turn.
Open games are characterized by the moves of the king pawns from both the White and Black player. The first opening moves characterizing open games are:
1 e2-e4 e7-e5
White's first move is opening two pieces (bishop and the queen) and is fighting for it's fair share of the center. Black replies symmetrically, hindering White's occupation of the center and opening two pieces of his own.
Since the king is not defending the pawn on e4 (important difference compared to closed games examined later), a play can gain some time by attacking it while developing his pieces.
Also, once a player advances his d-pawn, there is high probability of pawn exchange in the center, resulting in the center without any pawns, or the so called open center. Hence the origin of the name of the group of openings.
The open games include some well known openings, such as:
The open games include some well known openings, such as:
- Ruy Lopez or Spanish opening – 1 e2-e4 e7-e5 2 Ng1-Nf3 Nb8-Nc6 3 Bf1-Bb5
- Giuoco Piano or Italian opening 1 e2-e4 e7-e5 2 Ng1-Nf3 Nb8-Nc6 3 Bf1-Bc4
- Scotch opening 1 e2-e4 e7-e5 2 Ng1-Nf3 Nb8-Nc6 3 d4
- King's gambit 1 e2-e4 e7-e5 2 f2-f4
In contrast to open games, in semi-open games Black doesn't reply with the move e7-e5 to White's e2-e4. Instead, he opts to break the symmetry by one of the following:
- breaking in the center immediately with d5 (Scandinavian defense)
- preparing the d5 counter by the moves e6 or c6 (The French defense and Caro-Kann defense)
- fighting for the control in the center with the advance of the c pawn (The Sicilian defense)
Statistically, around 70 % of e4 games result in a semi-open game, which is definitely a respectable number.
Closed games can be regarded as the twin brother of the open games. Instead of starting the game with his king's pawn, White moves his d pawn on the first move instead, and Black replies in symmetrical fashion:
1 d2-d4 d7-d5
It can be said that the move of the d-pawn makes way for “half of one piece“ to enter the game. With the move d2-d4 White opens the c1-h6 diagonal for his dark squared bishop. The Queen can also develop on the next move, although her movement is restricted by the pawn on d5.
Since the d pawn is defended by the queen once it advances, it isn't as weak as the e4 pawn was in the open games. Also, moving the second pawn in the center is suddenly a much more difficult task, because the e-pawn is not defended by the piece on the first rank and can always be captured by the d-pawn once it advances.
Therefore, the battle for the e4 square is often a central theme in closed games and the resulting positions are often more strategic and “slower“. The center isn't blasted open immediately, hence the name of this group of openings.
Some of the openings belonging to this group are:
- Queen's gambit declined - 1 d2-d4 d7-d5 2 c4 e6
- Queen's gambit accepted – 1 d2-d4 d7-d5 2 c4 dxc4
- The Slav defense - 1 d2-d4 d7-d5 2 c4 c6
- The London System - 1 d2-d4 d7-d5 2 Bf4
Semi-closed games feature the same first move by White as closed games, but Black's response is different. Instead of fighting for control of the e4 square with his pawn on d5, Black opts to control the e4 square with his pieces, starting with the knight on f6:
1 d2-d4 Ng8-Nf6
With this move, Black breaks the symmetry in the position and intentionally tries to steer the game toward unbalanced positions where both chances have sides of winning.
Semi-closed games are encountered at least as regularly as closed games in response to 1 d2-d4.
Some of the openings belonging to this group are the following:
- The King's Indian defense – 1 d2-d4 Ng8-Nf6 2 c2-c4 g7-g6 3 Nb1-Nc3 Bf8-Bg7
- The Grünfeld defense 1 d2-d4 Ng8-Nf6 2 c2-c4 g7-g6 3 Nb1-Nc3 d7-d5
- The Nimzo Indian defense 1 d2-d4 Ng8-Nf6 2 c2-c4 e7-e6 3 Nb1-Nc3 Bf8-Bb4
- The Queen's Indian defense 1 d2-d4 Ng8-Nf6 2 c2-c4 e7-g6 3 Ng1-Nf3 b7-b6
- The Benoni defense 1 d2-d4 Ng8-Nf6 2 c2-c4 c7-c5 3 d4-d5 e7-e6
Previously examined opening groups constitute the basis of the modern opening theory. 90 % of the games will feature an opening belonging to one of the four groups mentioned (this number is just a rough estimate, of course).
However, in order to make this article complete, it is impossible not to mention the openings that appear in remaining 10 % of the games.
It wouldn't be a grave mistake to label all these openings with the same name. Throughout the history, opening theoreticians and books authors have done exactly that and grouped these openings under various names. Other openings, irregular openings, utter rubbish are some of the examples.
However, in my opinion, such classification is not entirely correct. Because there are some “other openings” that are more playable and that one can occasionally encounter over the board. And considering that chess masters realized their strength during the later stages of chess development, they were labeled the modern openings.
Therefore, I have decided to make a clear distinction between those openings and ones that really make no sense whatsoever.
Compared to open and closed games, in modern openings one or both sides refrain from occupying the center too early. Instead they develop quietly on their own half of the board, developing pieces without creating any weaknesses.
Modern openings include various combinations of moves for both White and Black and there are numerous openings that belong to this group. Some of the openings are given below (please note the diversity of the openings moves from both sides):
- English opening – 1 c4
- Larsen-Simagin opening – 1 b3
- Sokolsky or Orangutan opening – 1 b4
- Bird's Opening – 1 f4
- The Modern defense – 1 e4 g6
- The Alekhine's defense – 1 e4 Nf6
Finally, we have arrived at the last group of openings. Irregular openings represent a group, whose openings moves suffer one or more serious defects. For instance, a total of twelve White first moves belong to this group, with defects being as follows:
- moves that are considered too passive for White: 1 d2-d3, 1 e2-e3, 1 c2-c3 or 1 Nb1 – Nc3
- moves that weaken White's position: 1 f2-f3 or 1 g2-g4 (cf. Fool's mate)
- moves that neither help White's development nor control the center: 1 a2-a3 1 a2-a4 1 h2-h3 or 1 h2-h4
- moves that develop a knight to the edge of the board (remember the opening principles examined previously): 1 Nb1-Na3 or 1 Ng1 – Nh3
Naturally, analogical responses by Black to White's conventional first moves also suffer the same defects and belong to the same category.
How to choose the ideal chess opening?
In this article, we have explained some of the most important principles of play in the opening and also classified these chess openings.
The logical question that suggests itself at this point is, “How do I choose the ideal opening, when there is such an abundance of possibilities?
Future middle game plans and strategies are tightly connected with the opening choice. Also, sometimes it is possible to go straight into endgame directly from the opening. Therefore, choosing the opening moves directly influences subsequent play in a chess game.
First of all, for a competent opening choice, a player should be familiar with his own strengths and weaknesses. Do I enjoy quiet positional play, or wild attacking games? Do I like to sit behind pawn chains, or play with my pieces? Do I get nervous when my king is in danger? Answers to all these questions should serve as guidelines when selecting the opening choice.
Secondly, one should also be aware of strengths and weaknesses of one's opponent.
For instance, imagine for a moment that you are playing the former World Champion, Mikhail Tal. Tal was famous for his imaginative, attacking play. Therefore it would make a lot of sense to select an opening that would steer the game toward a very dry and “boring“ position.
Finally, keep in mind that, regarding chess openings, the old saying of “less is more” isn't the best approach. The more openings you are familiar with the better, because selecting an appropriate opening for a specific game becomes an easier task.
It is true that most non-professionals chess players don't have the time for deep opening study. It is also true that studying less openings in greater detail is more rewarding than trying to play everything superficially (jack of all trades, master of none).
However, assuming you have the time and are willing to put some effort, in the domain of chess openings more is definitely more.
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