The Opening

The possible ways to open a game, while not limitless, total into the millions. As covered in the Opening of the Game tutorial, each player starts with twenty (20) different possible moves by the Knights and pawn advances to choose from to make as his or her respective opening move. One may see using simple mathematics White (20 possible initial moves) times Black (20 possible initial moves) that at the start of the game there already exists a very high number of possible combinations that White and Black may make by their respective initial choices. With each succeeding move or pawn advance in the opening, there is an exponential increase in the possible combinations for the players to choose from which are called lines.

On each successive move after the players’ respective initial first moves, there are a multitude of available lines which the players may choose to follow by making this move or that move…this pawn advance or that one…this capture or that capture…this pawn advance or that piece move. At its “heart” then, in my view the best way to conceptualize chess is: A game of chess is and always will remain a matter of choices made by the players.

The term opening thus refers to the choices made by the players for their initial few moves in the game. As a general rule, an opening usually consists of the first five to ten moves of a game. This is when the players engage in initial skirmishes and battles to set up their respective positions on the chessboard and attempt to deflect the other player from accomplishing that goal. An opening is not limited to the players merely moving pieces and advancing pawns to develop the position of their respective fighting units.

Instead, it is when players are to be skillful artists. During the opening, the players are creating opposing differences, which will bring into play tensions that will govern the players’ skirmishes and battles as the game progresses. The goal in an opening is for the each player to develop their respective intended positions around which they intend to launch their respective attacks, counterattacks, and create defenses.

Openings thus refer to the broad range of possible moves with pieces and pawn advances available to be made by players in the initial few moves of a chess game. How and why will the players position their respective fighting units for the ensuing skirmishes and battles in the middlegame phase, and the progressive development of what type of endgame will be played out on the chessboard.

The phrase opening strategy refers to the collective sense of how to position a player’s pieces and pawns on the chessboard to accomplish his or her early goals. How does a player reach his or her intended position? How does he or she go about, at the same time, thwarting or attempting to thwart the opposing player’s goals and intended position? Opening strategy thus consists of the tactics initially employed by each of the players. Combined, the elements at play in any particular opening (the initial moves made by the players) are grouped into patterns called opening ideas and theory. There are many excellent books and publications devoted to helping a player to develop the elements and concepts to apply during the opening phase of a game. There are many excellent books and publications devoted to helping a player to develop the elements and concepts to apply during the opening phase of a game.

One I strongly recommend is The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings (algebraic edition) by Reuben Fine (full reference provided in the Recommended Readings section). Another one is The Complete Book of Chess Strategy, Grandmaster Techniques from A to Z by IM Jeremy Silman (full reference provided in the Recommended Readings section).

Two broad classifications of openings are d-pawn openings and e-pawn openings, also called respectively Queen-pawn openings and King-pawn openings.

As a general rule, beginners should concentrate on learning and playing d-pawn openings. Doing so assists greatly in a player just beginning to develop sound theoretical bases for understanding the concepts of moving pieces and advancing pawns, and making connections between the principles of initiative, space, mobility, positional structure, and pawn structure. The e-pawn openings usually are much more complex and present far greater challenges regarding tactics and strategy. E-pawn openings often create significantly harder positions to visualize and analyze especially regarding positional structures and pawn structures.

While there are many components to playing chess as seen by the earlier tutorials, to understand the opening phase generally it is best to develop a keen understanding of the endgame phase first as mentioned previously. So let us turn to the four essential elements of an opening.

1.   Creation of pawn structure, with primary emphasis on
pawn center and centralization.

2.   Development of pieces and positional structure.

3.   Castling.

4.   Fianchetto.

These elements when combined often create recognizable patterns of initial moves made by players, starting from a typical set of initial moves and then developing along lines emanating there from which have advantages and disadvantages for each player both during the opening and as the game progresses into middlegame phase.

The initial moves, while not indicative necessarily of how a game will ultimate play out, are a like a bell-weather or barometer of the expectations and hopes of the players. They signal possible and perhaps likely lines of play to come in the game. These patterns are called opening systems or shorter openings, and are given distinctive names – some familiar ones might be the Sicilian, the French Defense, the Caro-Kann, the Slav, the Four Knights, and the King’s Indian Defense. Over time, as has been historically true, more will be devised and created. A key ingredient of opening systems is to learn their principal pattern recognitions, which greatly enhances a player’s ability to develop an overall sound game plan.

While testing out various types of openings is natural, every beginner – and indeed every player – faces the same questions. Should he or she be an aggressive attacker and play with abandonment taking the play of the game right to the opponent? Or, should he or she be more oriented toward defensive and conservatively play? Should he or she patiently play a game of waiting and seeking to lure the opposing player into hidden traps that may devastate the opposing player? Or, should the player use a mixed style?

The style of play chosen dictates strongly the types of openings the player ultimately chooses and prefers to play because some openings are better suited for the first style, others for the second style. Then there are the middle ground ones…where the ebb and flow goes both ways…and even others which may be classified generally as more risky and/or highly unusual/unorthodox ways to play a game. The better course is to choose one or two good openings to play and develop a sound understanding of the theoretical ideas and concepts for the one or ones chosen. How is this done? Certainly studying the opening is one important way, yet the real teacher is experience.

Most chess coaches and teachers stress that a beginner often better serves the goal of learning chess by picking one (or perhaps at most two) opening systems and to stick with it (or them) for at least a year, playing it or them as much as possible. A player who is a beginner needs to develop an understanding that he or she might be forced in any particular game to play differently than desired because the opposing player does not cooperate and throws a curve ball…an unfamiliar opening, an unfamiliar move, a seemingly odd move, and the like. It is better to stick as close as possible to the player’s preferred opening and focus on it when this occurs for a couple of good reasons.

First, it may help to force the opposing player to come around in a circle pattern and force the playing of one or more lines through which the game may progress back to a familiar line in the player’s preferred opening system.
Second, because it helps to develop a deeper understanding of the principles of the player’s preferred opening system.

Aligned with this concept is another path to reaching familiar terrain: reversed openings. This is where a player undertakes playing a game with a familiar opening but with the seemingly wrong fighting units: an opening often played by White but played with the Black pieces, or a Black opening with the White pieces. Playing a reversed opening can help to steer a game into lines and positions with which the player is familiar and often understands better than those in unfamiliar opening systems. Engaging in a reverse opening allows a player the possibility to use his or her knowledge and experience in an advantageous proactive manner, rather than a disadvantageous reactive manner. To play a reverse opening requires the player to have the basics of the opening system fairly well learned so that he or she has a keen understanding of the available early lines and what to try to accomplish with the reverse opening. It does a player no good to try to play a reverse opening if he or she doesn not understand the opening system to begin with at the start of the game.

Perhaps the best way to view the opening phase then is to classify it as being the learning phase of the game. Why? The opening is when the players engage in their first few encounters getting the opportunity to size each other up. They get to assess their respective possible strengths and weaknesses. They get to observe how the other player reacts to the moving of the opposing pieces and advancing of opposing pawns. The opening is when they have the best chance to create a game plan designed, hopefully, to take advantage of the other player’s weaknesses. Comparing it to life, it is astoundingly similar to the period between birth and the middle twenties.