Chess Opening Strategy for Beginners

Chess Opening Strategy for Beginners - How to get a Great PositionChess opening strategy – what is it?

A chess opening strategy is simply our plan to develop our pieces; that is, to get them to more active positions so they can influence the game more. However, we can’t just play whatever we like – our opponent won’t let us! Nor should we always move our pieces to the same squares; we have to take into account the unique characteristics of the position. There are, however, many guidelines that can help us get a great middlegame position. In this article we’ll cover some of the “dos and don’ts” of chess opening strategy to give you a better chance of winning your games.

The fight for the center

Chess Opening Strategy centerThe center (normally defined as the 4 squares d4, e4, d5 and e5) should be a major consideration in our chess opening strategy.

The reason for this is that nearly every chess piece is at it’s most powerful when on one of these squares. For instance, a knight controls on d5 controls 8 squares (e7, f6, f4, e3, c3, b4, b6 and c7) whereas a knight on a1 controls only 2. The more squares our pieces control, the more help they’re going to be in our game.

While it might take many moves before our pieces reach one of these central squares, the battle for control of them begins at move 1! Our opponent will be trying to claim the center too and it’s just as important to keep them out as it is to get there ourselves.

So, how do we control the center? We can use pieces and play something like 1.Nf3, controlling d4 and e5. Or we can use a pawn move like 1.e4, occupying one of the central squares and attacking another (d5). While 1.Nf3 is a perfectly good move, it’s the central pawn pushes 1.d4 and 1.e4 that are more popular. Why? Because they achieve another aim of good chess opening strategy at the same time: opening lines.

Opening lines

Chess Opening Strategy e4At the beginning of the game nearly all our pieces are stuck behind pawns. Only the athletic knights are able to jump free and get into the game. That’s why it’s important to open lines for our other pieces. With the move 1.e4 (advancing the pawn in front of the King 2 squares), we open up the f1-a6 diagonal for the bishop and d1-h5 diagonal for the Queen. With one move, we’ve: occupied a central square (e4), controlled another (d5) and prepared to develop 2 of our pieces (bishop and Queen). Later, we’ll want to move more pawns so we can develop other pieces too. But, a word of warning…

Keep pawn moves to a minimum

We need to make a couple of pawn moves in the opening to activate our other pieces but that doesn’t mean we should go on a crazy pawn-pushing mission to create space! Our pieces are much more powerful than our pawns so we should focus our efforts on getting them to active positions. There’s no point advancing all our pawns while our pieces stay at home, unable to join in the fight.

There’s another reason for holding back on the pawn moves: pawns can’t move backwards. Of course, this is basic knowledge so what do I mean? If you put a piece on a square that proves ineffective, you can always move it back on the next move. You can’t do that with pawns so we have to be very careful not to make a move that irreversibly weakens our position.

Pawns are quite strong on their original squares. They sit side-by-side and protect all the squares in front of them. If one is attacked, it can advance one square and be protected by its neighbor. Get too adventurous, however, and it can find itself isolated, surrounded and soon captured.

Pawns also form a defensive wall, especially in front of the King. Move too many pawns and it’s easy for your opponent to sneak in behind the pawns and start attacking.

Knights before bishops

So far, our chess opening strategy consists of opening lines, controlling the center and not making too many pawn moves. But which pieces should we move first? Emanuel Lasker, the 2nd World Chess Champion, famously stated we should develop our knights before bishops.  Before we look at why that is, let’s consider why we should develop knights and bishops before our other pieces.

Well, it’s too dangerous for the King to start wandering around the board while our opponent still has a huge amount of firepower to checkmate him with. Much better to tuck him away safely until things have quietened down.

And despite the Queen being the most powerful piece, we shouldn’t bring her into the action too early either. Our opponent would be able to bring a piece out and attack her, forcing us to move, then our opponent gets another move. They are improving their position while we keep moving our Queen to safety.

Finally rooks need open files to be at the most effective and files are rarely opened early on. If you bring a rook out onto a closed position, it can be trapped quite easily.

Ok, back to knights and bishops. There are a few reasons why we should (usually, none of these ‘rules’ are set in stone) develop our knights before bishops. First, they can control more of the central squares quicker: 2 of them in 1 move. Compare Nf3, controlling d4 and e5, to a move like Bc4, which only influences d5.

Secondly, knights can put pressure on the center while staying protected themselves. A knight on f3 is guarded by the g2 pawn; a bishop on c4 is open to attack.

And finally, bishops often influence a number of squares from their starting position, providing one of the central pawns has been moved to activate it. Knights need to come closer to the action to take part in the game. Bishops are long-range pieces and will be covering squares anyway.

King safety

Chess Opening Strategy King safetyAn absolutely key part of any chess opening strategy has to be King safety. Fail to protect your King and you’ll lose the game. That’s why it’s a good idea to castle as early as possible (later on, when you’ve got a better feel for chess and King safety, you might choose to delay castling for a while but castling early is rarely a bad move).

The other benefit of castling is that it gets your rook out of the corner and into the game.

The earliest you can castle is on move 4. You need to get the bishop and knight out of the way of the King and rook so 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.0-0 achieves this.

Don’t move the same piece twice

Again, this is a general rule of good opening chess strategy. Sometimes it will be unavoidable (like if one of your pieces is attacked and you have to move it). However, moving the same pieces twice in the opening is usually an indication that it was placed on the wrong (or an inferior) square to start with. Now, this doesn’t mean you should stubbornly stick to your mistake and keep your piece on a bad square. It’s more a reminder to take extra care with finding the right square in the first place!

After all, for every move you make, your opponent gets one too. Keep shuffling your pieces out and they will be organizing theirs into a terrifying attack!

Connect the rooks

Chess Opening Strategy Connected rooks“Connecting the rooks” means having them protect each other, as White’s do in the diagram on the right. Not only do they protect each other, but they also make it very difficult for your opponent to make use of any of the squares between them.

Once connected, either rook can move to any of the squares along that rank or file and still be protected.

Notice that, for the rooks to be connected, you need to have castled (in 95% of cases) and developed your other pieces too – all components of a great chess opening strategy.

Summing up

The opening phase is all about bringing our pieces to their most active squares as quickly and efficiently as possible. We want to control the center squares, improve our pieces and protect our King while taking into account the moves of our opponent.

There’s a lot to think about in the opening: which order to make your moves in; how to stop your opponent’s plan and where to place your pieces so they work together harmoniously.

However, the above rules of thumb will give you the basis of a strong chess opening strategy and help you reach a good middlegame position. Remember, the battle begins at move 1! There’s a lot we covered in this piece so if you’d like to become familiar with more chess strategies, we recommend checking out these powerful beginning chess tactics and opening strategy over on Chessable.

If you would like to further develop your chess opening strategy, take a look at Winning Chess Strategy for Beginners by GM Damian Lemos!

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