Basic Principles of Chess Openings

Chess board game
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For new players, learning the numerous gambits, defenses, attacks, and variations of chess openings can seem like an impossible task. Trying to learn detailed opening lines is not only unnecessary for beginners but probably counterproductive.

Instead, new players should first learn the basic principles of chess openings. These principles not only set out a good, general guide on how to play the opening but also help to make sense of more advanced opening theory.

Control the Center

Illustration of control the center in chess
Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

Our first opening principle is control of the center. The center―particularly, the squares e4, d4, e5, and d5―is the most important area of the chessboard; control of the center allows more mobility for the pieces, as well as easy access to all parts of the board. Attacks in the center also tend to be the most effective. These factors often turn the opening into a fierce battle for central control between the two sides.

In the diagram above, White has done an excellent job in establishing control of the center. Their pawns on e4 and d4 control many key squares, while the knights on f3 and c3 are well placed to quickly jump wherever they may be needed.

Conversely, Black has played the first few moves poorly. Their pawns on a5 and h5 do not influence the center at all, and their knights on a6 and h6 are limited in their movements.

King Safety

Illustration of king safety in chess
Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

In the opening, it is crucial to keep king safety in mind. Weakening the position of the king can lead to quick losses, or force the sacrifice of material to keep our king from being checkmated. Similarly, if the opponent's king looks vulnerable, it is important to exploit this before the king can find a more secure position.

Often, the f-pawn (f2 for White, f7 for Black) is the weakest point in the opening for each side. The diagram above arises after the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 f6? 3. Nxe5 fxe5 4. Qh5+. White is taking advantage of the weak e8-h5 diagonal created by Black's second move and has a large advantage.

Sometimes, these weaknesses can even result in quick checkmates. One example which works on the same idea of weakness along the king's diagonal is the Fool's Mate.


Illustration of castling in chess
Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

As king safety is so important, it is usually advisable to castle early, particularly for beginners. A castled king is typically safer than one in the middle of the board, and castling will usually avoid the quick checkmates that can be frustrating for beginners.

In the diagram above, both players have castled within the first 5 moves of the game. Both kings are quite safe, and neither player needs to fear a quick checkmate.

It is also worth noting that the positions around the kings―specifically, the three pawns in front of the castled kings―have not been disturbed. Moving these pawns in the opening will generally make the king very vulnerable, as it opens lines of attack for the other player's pieces.


Illustration of development in chess
Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song 


Freedom is related to development. In the opening, it's important to allow the pieces to move freely into the game, facilitating robust development. When pieces or the central pawns are blocked, it makes it much more difficult to develop the match properly.

Pieces should also be developed to squares where they have great freedom of movement. A piece that has very limited movement is not much better than one still on its starting square.

A common mistake made by beginners is developing one piece to a square that hinders the development of other pieces. In the above diagram, both players have developed their kingside bishop to the square in front of their d-pawn (d3 for White, d6 for Black). While developing a bishop is a good idea, the placement of these bishops prevents each player from moving their d-pawn, making it more difficult to develop their queenside bishops or gain more control over the center.

In addition, both bishops are now hemmed in somewhat by their own e-pawns, which block their movements along one diagonal. For instance, the White bishop would have been better developed to c4 or e2, where it would have had freedom of movement in two directions. Similarly, the Black bishop would have more freedom on either c5 or e7.

Illustration of freedom in chess
Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

When the game begins, the pieces have little influence. The knights are the only pieces that can move off the bank rank; the others need pawns to move so that they can enter the battlefield.

The process of bringing the pieces off of the bank rank and into the game is known as development. It is important to develop quickly; the player who is ahead in development has an advantage, as they have better chances to attack or gain the initiative.

Development is more than just moving pieces. There are several principles to keep in mind when developing.

  • Knights and bishops should be developed first. In general, minor pieces should be brought into the game before the major pieces. Knights and bishops can influence the center and create attacking opportunities while being less vulnerable to attacks than rooks or the queen.
  • Don't overuse the queen early. Related to the previous principle, moving the queen around early in the game is often a mistake. While the queen is valuable, this also makes it vulnerable; every time it is attacked by a weaker piece, it must move to avoid capture. After all, trading a queen for a knight or bishop isn't a good idea.
  • Don't move the same piece multiple times in the opening unless necessary. It is more important to bring many pieces into play, and attacks using only one or two pieces are rarely successful.
  • Develop with threats. Threatening the opponent's pieces will force him to take defensive action, rather than continuing their own development.

In the diagram above (which arises after the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Qg4 d6 3. Qh5 Nf6 4. Qf3 Bg4 5. Qa3 d5 6. Qa5 Nc6 7. Qa4), White has only developed their queen, leaving him far behind Black. Meanwhile, Black has followed the principles of development well, bringing three pieces into play and constantly harassing White's queen.


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