How to Learn Openings as a Beginner
I have had the opportunity to teach children and adults how to play chess. It has been a joy to do so, and I have often been asked how to go about learning openings. During my classes, I often don't have time to go into detail, and often go into the commonly known general principles:
- Control the center
- Develop you pieces
- Get you king to safety
However, to someone who has just learned chess this is hard to conceptualize. Searching on the internet I have found some decent resources but they either are too general, repeating these same general principles, or too specific and thus too advanced for beginning players.
So hopefully with this guide I will try to find a good middle ground so that if you've just learned how to play chess, you can find a way to navigate the opening moves of a chess game.
I hope to do this by first giving a little more information about the general principles. Then I will actually show you some examples and show you how these principles are executed by good players. Finally I will give you some practical advice about how you can learn more as well as some resources such as books and videos you may find helpful.
The Principles of Opening Play
It is important to note that the principles are just a guideline. Sometimes you may have to break one of the principles for a specific reason. It is beyond the scope of this guide to go into too many of the exceptions but just remember this as you learn more about chess and run into an "exception to the rule."
Principle #1: Controlling the Center
Controlling the center in the opening is very important. There are a couple reasons for this:
- When you control the center, your pieces have more room to maneuver and can coordinate better for both attack and defense.
- Conversely, if your opponent cannot "get a piece" of the center, his or her army will have less room to move.
What is the center?
Generally, the center are the squares d4, e4, d5, and e5. As seen here:
In practice, when both sides are fighting for the center, they will often concede some of these squares to the other in order to plan specific strategies around them. These involve lines of attack, key squares for a piece, as well as well-timed pawn breaks. I'll write more about these things at another time. In general though, against good competition, it is difficult to have full control of the center, but you want your fair share of it.
Principle #2: Develop your pieces
Besides controlling the center, your opening moves should also get your army mobilized. Usually, the pieces are developed in the following order (but again do not feel you have to stick to this if your specific game situation calls for other moves):
- First, a pawn or two are played to place a foothold in the center.
- Next, typically the "light" pieces - your bishops and knights - get developed next.
- Finally, you develop your rooks (usually one of them via castling) and your queen.
We will look at a few examples after we discuss our next principle.
Principle #3: Get your king to safety
Because the object of the game is to checkmate your opponent's king, king safety is essential. usually this is done by castling either kingside (the short way) or queenside (castling long). Modern chess theory - moves that have been tested and refined by chess master throughout the history of chess - sometimes has exceptions where it is best not to castle the king, but a majority of the major opening systems and lines of play involve castling. The reasons that castling makes the king safer include the following:
- Since you are fighting for the center, a lot of piece activity will be happening in the middle of the board. Keeping your king in the center makes him a target of that action.
- Typically, your pawns on the side are not moved very much in the beginning of the game, so you they can provide cover for your king.
- Castling also develops and "connects" your rooks so they can protect each other.
The Principles in Action
Here I just want to show you how these principles play out using some popular openings. One thing to note is that at this stage, I encourage you not to try to memorize the moves, but instead try to understand the purposes behind them. As you continue your research and progress in chess, you will start to learn and commit to memory the moves you want to play.
Example #1: The Italian Game
Here is an example from a popular opening. As you continue your chess study, you will find the rich history of specific opening lines. This particular line has been played since the mid 19th century and still played by masters today!
Example #2: Queen's Gambit Declined
In our first example, we looked at an opening initiated with the King's pawn (1.e4). This next example is a popular opening starting with the queen's pawn. I think beginners should start with one of these moves with White. There are other good moves and we'll go over those as well in future articles, but for a long time, these two moves were considered the strongest for White and the strongest players in the world still use them regularly.
For more examples of these principles in action, Chess Grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez goes into a little more depth with these basic principles and how the openings developed around the basic concepts such as the center and development.
These are just a few examples for solid opening moves for White and Black to give you an idea how to apply the general principles. We will have other opening systems in future articles, and there is a lot of information in books and on the internet. This will give you a good start.
Advice on Studying Openings
Now that you know the general principles and have seen a couple examples of how chess masters throughout history have applied them, here are some next steps you can take to improve your opening play.
- Get yourself a general book on the openings that cover a lot of the common and popular openings. As a beginner, I would not use an encyclopedic work that has moves but not much explanation. Instead, I recommend the book I used when I started studying chess: Winning Chess Openings by Yasser Seirawan. Yasser has a fun conversational style and as a former US Champion, he knows his stuff.
- After each of your games (which you should record if possible), look up your opening in your book. See where you (or your opponent) deviated from the moves in the book and try to figure out why.
- In the beginning, don't worry about memorizing the moves. The basic rule is: Don't memorize a move that you don't understand. You will remember the moves more easily when you understand the purpose of each move. There are openings where it is important to understand and remember specific orders, but don't just blindly memorize.
- If you use chess software such as Chessbase or SCID to record your games, avoid using the chess engines to analyze the opening moves. At this point in the game, the analysis generated is fairly useless for you in trying to understand the opening. The only time the engines may be useful is if you or your opponent made a big blunder that can be exploited by tactical means. Even in this case, I recommend you try to figure it out without the engine first and then let the engine check your own work. More on chess engines in another article.
- Try different opening moves. Don't specialize too early in your chess development. First, learning different openings will expose you to many different positions and will help develop you as a player. Also, you will learn more about your own personal style and temperament as you discover which openings feel better for you. As you strengthen your overall game, you can start to study specific openings in more detail. I will write more on developing an opening repertoire.
- Remember to study all parts of chess - not just openings. It is a dangerous trap that many beginners fall into. Studying openings can be fun, and there is the allure to "surprising" your opponent with a new opening. Don't do it! Remember to study middlegame strategy as well as endgames and practice your tactics as well.
- Besides using your book, you can look up whole games in specific openings with a database like Chessbase or online resources like Chess Tempo (www.chesstempo.com). It is good to study whole games played by masters to see how good players handle the positions in your opening.
The opening is an important phase of the game. Learning how to start your games properly will allow you to get a healthy position where you can launch attacks or defend effectively. Chess openings have a rich history and can provide aesthetic pleasure also. Come back often to learn about more common openings as well as other aspects of chess. Good luck!
What are your opening questions? Are there moves you don't understand? Let me know and maybe I'll create an article to answer your questions.
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