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The last few months at our Wasatch Chess Club, we have been learning a lot about chess openings  We started with 1. e4 openings because it is an intuitive place to start if you have never studied openings before, but there are many different ways to begin a chess game.  My version of “Modern Chess Openings” is nearly 20 years old and contains 800 pages of opening theory.  This book is republished every few years to add new theory.  How can an amateur chess player like me ever hope to keep up?  While different chess openings have different overall strategies, they all attempt to accomplish the same basic fundamental ideas.


The chess board is a battle ground.  It has short range infantry pieces, fast moving cavalry pieces, long range artillery, and a general to lead the battle.  Generals want to control the high ground because the high ground wins battles.  On the chess board, the center of the board is the high ground.  To move through the board from your lines to your enemies, you must control the center.  Without control, you must circumnavigate the long way to the other side of the board while your opponent can move into your territory quickly and effectively.

Players often focus on the flanks…the right and left side of the board.  Support your attack of the center with every move.  All openings aim to do this by immediately occupying the center or immediately attacking the center.  If you find yourself in an opening you don’t know, attack the center.


Knights and bishops rule the open game; they are your minor pieces.  Many amateurs like to get their rooks out of the corner by moving the pawn blocking them in or bring their queen into the game early because of its many attacks.  This is similar to putting your cannons or archers on the front line.  They become very big targets for your opponent to attack.  In the opening, they belong behind your lines supporting the pieces in front of them.  Knights and bishops are powerful pieces, but pieces that can be traded.  Support your central pawns and break through the center by using your knights and bishops.

No minor piece should be left on the back row on its original square.  Before sending excursions into the enemy camp, each minor piece should be stationed in a position where it can support the attack, defend the king, and control important central squares.  When I walk up to a game where one side has all four pieces in the game and the other side has only two, I can predict the winner of the game with amazing accuracy right in the opening.  Before moving a minor piece twice, get them all into the game.


When evaluating a position to see who is winning so far, the first thing you look at is king safety.  If the king falls, the game is over.  This means that if you hope to survive the middle game, your king must be adequately defended.  You accomplish this goal by castling.  Castling gets your king out of the center of the board behind a line of pawns and moves one of your rooks to the center to support pawns and minor pieces.  I am always astonished when I look at a game from the romantic era of chess to see players sacrifice piece after piece to prevent their opponent from castling until it is too late.  The player with the significant material advantage loses the game.


I don’t mean move quickly.  I mean that each move on the board is like a tick of the clock.  Each move you make is a second closer to the end.  The same is true for your opponent.  Each time you make a move that forces your opponent to abandon his plan to deal with your threat, they lose time and you gain it.  As my chess teacher always said…”tempo, tempo, tempo.”

When an opponent moves a piece into your camp too early and without enough support, it is easy to drive them back.  You gain time by making moves like developing your knight off the back line to attack your opponents queen in the middle.  Your move developed a minor piece, one of our opening principles.  Their move must be to retreat the queen.  They were unable to accomplish their own plan and unable to improve their own position.


If you draw a line through the board between your pieces and your opponents, where would that line be?  Have you advanced your pawns beyond the center or has your opponent?  In chess, the player with the limited amount of space will have a hard time finding ways to get their pieces into useful positions while the player with more space can easily maneuver pieces to where they are needed.  If your opponent fails to contest your pawns in the center or on either side of the board, push them forward to give yourself more space and cramp your opponent.


By following these five basic principles, you can be a formidable opponent even when you do not have the correct line memorized.  When your opponent plays a move you don’t recognize, take a deep breath and ask:

  • Is my king safe?
  • Do I control the center?
  • Are my minor pieces in the game?
  • Can I make a move to gain time?
  • Where can I gain more space?

When you study openings, what principles do you think are most important?

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