The amount of articles, books, apps, and video content devoted to the topic of openings is absolutely staggering and a bit intimidating. Indeed the opening sets the mood for a game and can determine long term success or failure. There is great pressure to make a strong opening as seen in any game from a casual pick up to the world championship. The good news is that a strong opening rooted in some basic fundamentals can help you determine the path of your game.
As stated before there are tons and tons of sources on openings, but all share some of the same root principles. For demonstration sake, we will examine the Ruy Lopez or “Spanish Game”. This opening is named after a 16th century Spanish Priest and is still used at all levels of play today for very good reason, it works and follows some basic principles. So to begin, the first principle of a strong opening is also one that remains throughout the game – control the center.
If you can control the center of the board, in most cases you can control tempo and make your opponent play YOUR game. d4, e4, d5, and e5 aren’t just the heart of the board but the heart of many tactical and strategic elements. Controlling or possessing these squares can help ensure a favorable pawn structure and help to defend pieces on adjoining squares. So to control the center let’s play e4, arguably the best move on the board.
1.e4 does many things as you can see from the example above. First, it occupies a strong square in the center. It also allows for easy development of the Kingside minor pieces and opens a nice diagonal for the Queen to develop, part of the second major principle we will touch on – develop your pieces quickly. This brings more weapons into the fray and helps control the games tempo as discussed in my previous article “Tempo, Tempo, Tempo”. So let’s move to phase two…
2. Nf3 quickly brings the Knight into action and is the perfect compliment to a Kings Pawn opening. This move puts pressure on the e5 pawn and clears out space for you to castle very soon, another principle of a strong opening and one that remains throughout all games – protect your King. a Knight at f3 is a great defender of it’s King, can combat enemies in the center and the right side of the board, and can also really open up the Kingside and facilitate some great counter play as the game unfolds.
The next move in the Ruy Lopez line is Bb5. This prepares white to castle Kingside, threatens the Knight at c6, develops a minor piece, and controls the tempo all in one move. Once in this position white can determine many factors, set up some long term strategies, and leave many threats for your opponent to consider. From here there are tons of different lines and options for an interesting game.
To recap, let’s go over the key principles of a strong opening:
- Control the center – many say that whoever has the center has the game. As discussed earlier, controlling or owning these key squares in the center gives you a major advantage as the game unfolds. This ties in with the second point…
- Develop quickly – the more weapons you bring to the fight the better. If your pieces are bottled up or not developed with purpose you will find yourself at a big disadvantage at all phases of the game. When developing, do so with the intention to control the center. Remember – the sooner you have developed your pieces, the sooner you can castle.
- Get the King to safety – the ultimate purpose of the game is checkmate, period. The sooner you ensure your King is protected the sooner you can begin your assault on the enemy. Many games are different, so deciding how soon to do this will be dependent on many factors. As you develop as a player you will learn when better to delay this act in favor of attacking or developing other minor pieces.
- Move each piece once – as discussed in one my previous articles, “Tempo, Tempo, Tempo”, unless you can gain a major advantage such as a fork, do not move a piece more than once in the opening. Doing so will cripple your development and give tempi to your opponent. This allows your opponent to unleash their weapons earlier and put gross amounts of pressure on you.
The litany of opening theory is absolutely immense, but these guiding principles are the heart of a strong opening. Keep these in mind as your game starts and you are sure to have better battles with more victories. While there are many books and videos out there, in my opinion too many, the best content I have found is free on chess.com. From the landing page, the entire world of openings is readily accessible. https://www.chess.com/openings
I hope this article has helped to streamline one of the most daunting elements of the game and boosted your confidence. What my coach has always told me rings true, “follow the basic principles and put your pieces on their best square, they will know what to do.” While this is the briefest of introductions on the topic, this established a foundation that will make grasping opening theory and building a repertoire much easier. Remember to walk before you run, another piece of wisdom from my coach is to “know the rules before you break them.”