Learning the fundamental elements of chess opening strategy is essential to make progress in chess. When you shed the beginner label, it becomes necessary to improve upon the basics.
Obviously, and thankfully, you cannot rely on Fool’s Mate or Scholar’s Mate to win your games against stronger opponents. You will soon need a deeper chess opening strategy to win games.
The basic opening principles will remain important no matter how good you become at chess. Fortunately, for more ambitious chess players there are ways to energize your opening play.
Basic Chess Opening Strategy: A Quick Refresher
Before we can build upon the basic chess opening strategy, we must be sure that we know these principles. Here is a list of five chess opening principles:
- Control the center of the board.
- Develop your pieces quickly.
- Only move each piece once in the opening.
- Castle early.
- Don’t develop your queen early.
When your opponent neglects any of these principles, ask yourself, “How can I punish him?” There is always a way to gain an advantage, but it often requires a vigorous response and even a sacrifice or two.
Read more about the basic chess opening strategy in the following article.
Chess Opening Strategy #1: Taking Advantage of Bad Development
Recognizing bad development by your opponent is a simple matter. Nonetheless, punishing him for neglecting his development is not as easy as it sounds.
Using your lead in development is a chess opening strategy that requires courageous and active play. Time is an essential element of chess, and if your opponent falls behind in development, you must not give him time to recover.
Surprisingly it is not only beginners who neglect their development. Whenever you find it hard to believe your opponent will ignore his development, remind yourself even world chess champions make this mistake.
In this video from his Master Method course, GM Romain Edouard shows us how Bobby Fischer took advantage of Boris Spassky’s poor development. Don’t let the opportunity to gain an early advantage pass you by.
In many instances where your opponent falls behind in development, you will need to sacrifice material to open the position.
Keeping your opponent’s king stuck in the center is often worth a piece sacrifice!
Players have sacrificed as much as two pieces and several pawns to expose their opponent’s king even at the highest levels. The success of these sacrifices clearly shows the danger of falling behind in development.
If your opponent tries to grab space with pawn moves and leaves his king in the center, you must be on the lookout for opportunities to sacrifice a piece or pawns, especially when your opponent needs more than one move to castle.
Before you retreat a piece, always look for other moves first. Consider all the active moves first because it is these moves you will use to punish your opponent for neglecting his development.
When playing an attacking player as strong as Alexei Shirov neglecting your development is suicidal. Jerzy Lapinski, rated 2200 Elo, neglected his development against Shirov and got crushed in less than twenty moves.
More importantly, Lapinski was reminded that a material advantage of +14 is no consolation if you get checkmated.
Shirov, Alexei – Lapinski, Jerzy, 1990, 1-0, Daugavpils
Thematic Sacrifices Are Crucial Elements of Chess Opening Strategy
One way to get more comfortable with sacrificing material is to learn the common sacrifices in your chosen opening. For example, in the Sicilian Defense Dragon Variation, a thematic exchange sacrifice for black is …Rxc3.
For White in the Open Sicilian, a common strategy to open lines is to sacrifice a knight on e6. Moreover, this sacrifice becomes more potent if Black chooses to go for positional gains at the expense of his development.
Another thematic sacrifice involves sacrificing a knight on b5. Sometimes it is necessary to combine these sacrifices or switch from one to the other.
In the following position, Black chose queenside expansion and is looking to place a knight on c4. However, he has neglected his kingside development, and his king is two moves away from castling.
Bryan Smith took advantage of this and played 11.e5!
Here is GM Smith explaining his thought process behind the sacrifice and how the rest of the game continued.
Smith, B. – Williams, J., 2009.10.11, 1-0, 2nd Sunday Pitman Round 5
Chess Opening Strategy #2: Playing With the Initiative
Even in the opening, it is possible to seize the initiative with active play. This chess opening strategy is one you can use with both white and black.
Undoubtedly, seizing the initiative often means thinking outside the box.
The Slav Exchange Variation is a drawish opening, but Jobava managed to inject life into the opening. He put his opponent under pressure, and even though his opponent found the right moves, there were many opportunities for him to go wrong.
After 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Bf4 Nc6 5.e3 Qb6 6.Nc3, Jobava played 6…e5
Although chess engines will tell you this is not a good move, Jobava put his opponent under pressure with his aggressive opening strategy. You don’t need to play the soundest moves all the time in chess.
Giving your opponent challenging problems to solve is without a doubt how you seize the initiative!
Despite playing a “bad” move as early as move 6, Jobava went on to win the game. In fact, according to Stockfish, he had a decisive advantage on move 19.
Tupac – Jobava, 2021.12.31, 0-1
Let Your Preferred Middlegame Positions Determine Your Openings
Achieving aggressive middlegame positions is only possible if you are prepared to fight for the initiative in the opening. Sometimes this means prioritizing development in your opening strategy over material.
For example, the Slav Defense Geller Gambit is a good choice if you want to play with the initiative in the opening. White sacrifices at least a pawn to gain excellent central control.
There are many good attacking players you can learn from, including Daniel Jubov.
In his game against Ievgene Posni, he deliberately left his rook hanging. Nevertheless, Posni wisely chose not to capture the rook.
Amazingly, accepting the sacrifice gives White an advantage even with the best defense by Black.
The critical position was reached after 1.c4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.d4 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.e4 b5 6.Be2 e6 7.0-0 Bb7 8.b3 Bb4 9.e5 Bxc3
In this position, Jubov played 10.exf6, and Posni replied with 10…gxf6.
The crucial position arises after 10…Bxa1 11.gxf7 Rg8 12.Bg5.
Stockfish suggests 12…Qd6 as Black’s best defense yet gives White an advantage of more than +1.2 despite being a whole rook down. This evaluation shows you how difficult the position is to play with the black pieces.
Jubov’s opening strategy of development and central control helped him gain a strong initiative.
Daniel Jubov – Ievgene Posni, 2021.12.31, 1-0
You Can Seize the Initiative in Flank Openings Too
Even in a highly positional opening like the Reti Opening, it is possible to sacrifice material and take the initiative.
1.Nf3 d5 2.c4 c6 3.g3 Nf6 4.Bg2 dxc4 5.0-0 Nbd7
6.Qc2 Nb6 7.Na3 Be6 8.Ng5 Bg4 9.Nxc4 Bxe2
Now White can offer an exchange sacrifice with 10.Ne5 Bxf1 11.Kxf1 Qd4 12.Ngxf7 Rg8. Unsurprisingly, Black prefers 10…Bh5 defending f7.
Grandelius, Nils – Perunovic, Milos, 2019.09.28, 1-0
Bonus Tip: What to Do When Things Go Wrong
We’d all like to be in control of our games from start to finish. The reality is there will be games when we fall into a bad position.
When you find yourself with poorly developed pieces, remind yourself it happens to the greatest chess players of all time as well. Remember, an excellent way to activate your pieces is with a sacrifice.
In the following position, Jose Raul Capablanca, playing black, has two bad bishops and a misplaced knight on h5.
Instead of trying to defend the e7-pawn Capablanca played 19…Qd7 and exchanged queens after 20.Qxe7. Capablanca activated his pieces and won the endgame despite entering it a pawn down.
Lasker, Edward – Capablanca, Jose Raul, 1924.04.11, 0-1, New York International Masters-01, Round 18, New York, NY
Seizing the initiative and punishing bad development are two strategies that are much alike. A lead in development helps take the initiative, and having the initiative makes it easier to punish bad development.
Taking your chess opening strategy to the next level will enrich your play and make you a stronger chess player. Sacrificing material can be difficult at first, but it is an essential skill you must acquire to improve your level of play.
Each chess opening strategy is potent on its own, but don’t hesitate to use them together.
Understanding why a lead in development is important and seeing how other chess players use sacrifices to win games is essential.
GM Romain Edouard will give you lots of excellent examples and clear explanations about why each sacrifice works in his top-quality Master Method course.
Along with attacking masterpieces and punishing bad development, GM Edouard will also help you improve your positional and endgame skills.