If you are reading this article, you either feel this way right now or have before: being stuck in a loop with your chess openings, not knowing what you are doing wrong or why your opponents always seem to get the best of you from early on in the game.
While many beginners have the wrong mindset of focusing too much on opening theory instead of learning the basic principles of the game, it is true that you must learn how to act in the early stages of the game if you wish to achieve an interesting middlegame.
More than knowing concrete opening names and variations - we’ll get to that in a second! - there are some ground principles that you must be aware of.
Here are some of the things you should keep in mind at all times:
1. Central control and space
By now, you have probably heard that you should control the central area of the board with your pawns on the first move - which is why we see most chess games begin with 1.e4 or 1.d4 instead of 1.a4 or 1.h4, and rightfully so.
But have you ever thought why? Why is the center so important, and which roles do our pawns play when placed in there from early on, compared to being advanced on either of the flanks?
First of all, you should be aware of the fact that any chess piece (except for the Rook, due to its particularity of always controlling 14 squares, regardless of where it is placed) maximizes its potential when placed in the central squares.
For instance, a Knight in the centre (placed on d4, d5, e4 or e5) controls a total of eight squares. If you place the exact same Knight on a4 or h4, it will control only half of this amount.
In addition to this, there is one vital reason for which the d and e pawns should leave their initial squares as soon as possible: to open up the way for the Bishops to come out into the game.
The fact that the Bishops are set free is directly connected to the next opening principle we are about to cover…
- Piece development and activity
The above diagram has been extracted from a classical game, played in 1866 between Wilhelm Steinitz and Adolf Anderssen.
It is the perfect example of what we call underdevelopment in chess: while Steinitz’s minor pieces are all developed and playing active roles in the game, Anderssen’s two Bishops and one of his Knights are still in their initial squares.
Obviously, activity is a crucial principle in chess. The more active your pieces are, the higher their chances of joining forces to attack the enemy King, or develop different kinds of dangerous plans.
Often, in chess, there is the possibility to sacrifice pawns - sometimes even pieces! - if your opponent has to lose too much time to take them. That way, you may be able to seize the underdevelopment or discoordination of their pieces.
For the same reason, it is advisable to be extra careful when you have the possibility of taking one of your opponent’s pieces or pawns: they may have a trick up their sleeve, and you must always prioritize the activity of your own pieces!
- King safety
The above position depicts a vulnerable King, standing on the f8 square after having been checked by White’s Queen on h5.
As you surely know, there is a special move in chess: castling. Castling roughly means “exchanging” the King’s placement with the Rook’s placement. That way, the King will be safer nearer the corner, while the Rook will be more actively placed in the central files of the board.
However, there are some rules associated with castling: when the King is under the threat of a check, it must not castle. And once it moves, that means no more castling for the entire game.
For instance, in the above diagram, Black has just moved his King to f8 after White gave a check. For that reason, he is no longer allowed to castle, which is a big compromise.
Prioritizing King safety is a wise approach to the opening stage of the game - not only because losing the right to castle would massively affect the outcome of the game, but also because the King is much more vulnerable and exposed in the center. Unlike with all of your other pieces, in general, the way to go is to bring your King away from the center, rapidly and effectively!
- Pawn structure
Like the renowned French chess player André Philidor once said, pawns are the soul of chess.
One could think that this is because they have the power of being transformed into a different piece once they reach the eighth rank, which is definitely a soulful characteristic - but this famous quote has a wider, hidden meaning.
This meaning is linked to pawn structures. A pawn structure is, in general, the way that pawns are placed on the chessboard, and by carefully analyzing this arrangement, you will find yourself with a lot of information about how the position you have at hand must be played.
In broad terms, pawns like to be together, as, that way, they can defend each other. A “healthy” structure can roughly be one in which no pawn is left alone, such as the position in the above diagram.
On the other hand, when pawns are left alone, they can become easy targets. Take a look at the following diagram to understand this.
This opening position is completely fine for Black - but, if you are just starting out in chess, it is not advisable for you to play something of this sort. White has an easy target, which is the pawn on d5, and if you are not experienced enough to exploit the pros and cons of having what is called an isolated pawn, you will certainly find yourself in trouble sooner or later.
Taking all of these things into account, there is certainly a question lingering in your mind: what exactly should I play in the beginning of the game?
- And now what? Your first chess repertoire!
In a game as broad as chess, there is no winning formula - not even if you’re a Grandmaster!
The choice of which opening to play is personal and delicate, and you must keep in mind that no one knows yourself better than you do - that being said, guidance and advice are always welcome.
By choosing, studying and practicing your favorite chess openings, you will slowly build your own opening repertoire. Apart from some arguable exceptions, there is no “good” or “bad” opening choice - but there is a great difference between what works best for you and what doesn’t.
In order to start dedicating yourself to creating your own repertoire, there are some things to take into account: your personal preferences and your style as a chess player are the most important.
If you are unsure, don’t worry - it is completely normal not to know yourself as a chess player yet. Make sure to practice with a lot of online games. Books and DVDs can also be extremely helpful, as long as they are suitable for your level.
Here are some valuable tips to help you out with the process of creating your own repertoire:
- Choose openings that follow the basic principles of chess you have studied;
- Avoid openings with too much theory, in which you have to memorize long lines and concrete moves;
- Keep your repertoire small and consistent, and try to always play the same openings in all of your games - it will help you learn and gain experience in such positions;
- Don’t change your openings too frequently, but try to be as critical as possible if you feel that something is not working well for you;
- Practice your openings regularly with online or on-the-board games, and if you encounter a new or surprising move, write it down and analyze it later.
Little by little, your repertoire will start taking shape, and it will be less and less common for your opponents to catch you off guard in the first few moves. Good luck!
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