Chess Opening Principles
Created at: 2020-12-28 ; Last updated: 2021-01-17
If you ask ten chess players what the most important opening principles are, you will probably get ten different answers. Nonetheless, I want to compile a list of the answers that are most frequently given.
Before we start, I would like to motivate this list with the goals in the opening. With this information it will be easier to understand why different principles have been established as important. This can best be summarized with a quote from the book “Common Sense in Chess” by Emanuel Lasker, the World Chess Champion for 27 years, from 1894 to 1921.
Out first step will be exactly analogous to that of a commander of an army. First of all we shall mobilize our troops, make them ready for action, try to seize the important lines and points which are yet wholly unoccupied.
-Emanuel Lasker in Common Sense in Chess 1896
The primary goal in the opening should be to develop our pieces, control the center and get our king to safety.
Principle 1: Develop your pieces
With the introduction, it is probably no wonder that the first opening principle in the list is to develop your pieces. But this is essential for a good position in the middle game.
In the book, Emanuel Lasker even goes so far as to say: Why it is so important to develop your pieces can be seen very well in this game:
While white developed their pieces, black neglected to develop their pieces with their unnecessary pawn move. The huge advantage in development has resulted in tactics for white.
Principle 2: Don’t make too many pawn moves
As we saw in the game above, moving our pawns too often in the opening can quickly become a serious problem.
To help us understand why that is, we can look at one of Aron Nimzowitsch’s axioms, which he described in his famous book My System:
A pawn move must not in itself be regarded as a developing move, but merely as an aid to development.
So we should choose our pawn moves wisely. They should be designed to develop our pieces.
In the book Common Sense in Chess, Emanuel Lasker even goes so far as to say:
Don’t move any Pawns in the opening, but the d and e Pawns.
Principle 3: Don’t move the same piece twice
So far we have said that it is important to develop your pieces. So is it twice as effective to move your pieces multiple times, developing them twice in a way?
With a question like that, it’s probably not surprising that the answer is no (see Betteridge’s law of headlines). To understand why, let us take a look at another game:
In this short extract you can observe the disadvantage of moving the same piece twice clearly because black not only moves his developed bishop twice, but also gives it up for the knight. Thus white can develop their queen with tempo. The result is that white has developed three pieces and has castled, while black is left without any developed piece.
Do not exchange your developed pieces in the opening. Unless there is a tactic that justifies it.
Again we can end this section with a quote by Emanuel Lasker:
Do not move any piece twice in the opening, but put it at once on the right square.
Principle 4: Develop your queen last
Or in other words, don’t develop your queen too early. I just wanted to have a positive headline for a change rather than just preaching with “don’ts”.
But why shouldn’t I develop the queen early? Isn’t she the strongest character on the field? Yes, she is, and that is exactly why she is also the most vulnerable.
Every time the queen is attacked, she has to move. She cannot be defended like our pieces. For example, suppose our opponent decides to attack our knight with a bishop. We can defend the knight with our other pieces. Now, if the opponent takes the knight, we can capture back and we don’t loose anything. On the contrary, our opponent has wasted several moves and we should have a developmental advantage.
Let us now imagine that our opponent attacks our queen with their bishop. In this case, we cannot defend our queen because an exchange would be in our opponent’s favour. Therefore, we have to move our queen again and our opponent has a developmental advantage.
The queen is the strongest but also the most vulnerable piece. Every time she is attacked she has to seek cover.
What is the result of the game? White has developed three pieces while black has only moved his queen back and forth. White was able to develop their pieces for free because they attacked the queen and black had to waste their turn trying to save their queen.
Principle 5: Castle as soon as possible
Do not leave your king in the centre because he will be vulnerable there. After you have moved your pawns forward in the centre to develop your pieces, lines to your king will have opened up. Your opponent could use these open lines to attack you.
But there is a solution: this one weird trick will save you: Castle.
After you have castled, there are once again pawns in front of your king that can protect him from attacks. Why this is so important can be observed in the famous game Wilhelm Steinitz vs Curt von Bardeleben:
Curt von Bardeleben did not cast in this game and therefore always had to deal with Steinitz’s attack. Since Steinitz opened the centre, he had many open lines for attacking the black king.
Principle 6: Take control of the center
What can go wrong if you don’t control the centre can be seen in the game Caruana vs Aronian:
After only 25 moves stockfish gives white a +9 advantage, which means stockfish thinks white is so much better as if Caruana had an extra queen. Yet both players have the same number of pieces. Black has fewer good squares for his pieces, whereas white has more control over the board and can coordinate his pieces more easily.
These were the opening principles I heard most often. Of course, this does not mean that you should always follow them 100% blindly. In some positions it can be worth breaking them. And that’s the good thing about chess, there are no black and white rules that always apply. There is always a balance to be found.
Do you want to discover the best way to learn openings? I also wrote a post on how I study openings.Back
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