Opening Principles for the Beginner and Intermediate Chess Player

This is a guide to developing effective habits during the opening and getting into an equal middlegame. Middlegame strategies and tactical patterns coming soon.

Reaching 2000:

A guide to principles used every day by GMs and taught by coaches can be explained in short, aphoristic fashion. While this overview will omit nuance, such as when one might disobey an opening principle and when one should, these ideas will ensure that if they are being followed within the first fifteen moves, one will develop properly and find winning chances. This is a guide to responding correctly to any move; not a guide to playing against 1.d4 or 1.e4, but a guide for how development is best achieved against any opening; no moves need be memorized to learn these fundamental principles that will soon become integrated parts of your game, and you will worry less about losing pawns than you will about having poor quality pieces. 

While I think it is possible to do without knowing “specific” openings, I do not think it’s possible without a thorough understanding of what those openings facilitate in terms of principles of good piece deployment. Opening theory is just how we describe the understood methods of achieving this, as an historic community that evolves and learns one generation to the next, ever continuing to improve upon older ideas and refining them to meet new approaches to the game.

Developing in a way that facilitates a smooth transition into a winning position requires a knowledge of at least fundamentals, fundamentals that do not necessarily require knowing the exact move order of a given opening. For example, there are a number of opening fundamentals I always try to adhere to, regardless of my first move. These are a set of principles for development I’ve found to be easily teachable, and immensely helpful once internalized.

1) If given a chance to take the center, take it; not only will it allow both of your bishops to sit “developed at home” but they will not be blocked by the pawns, allowing them to be used to their full potential.

2) Do not obstruct the development of one piece in the development of another. For example, if you have two choices for moving your knight, and one of them would obstruct another piece, develop it to the square that allows for movement of other pieces and one which does not take a square from another piece. You see this a lot in younger/new players. They have a hard time organizing because their opening choices unintentionally impede the realization of full mobilization. Consider the effect placement of one piece may have on another, and work to ensure that they are complimentary to one another, not in competition for space. your doesn’t limit the power of your other pieces.

3) Don’t waste moves. Making a lot of early pawn moves, for example. If you’re going to move a pawn, it should be for the purpose of clearing a space for a piece. Same for giving up material: if sacrificing a pawn gives your bishop greater vision, i.e., puts it in a position to cover twice as many squares, it is worth it. If you can sacrifice a pawn to block in an opponent’s piece, it is worth it. Sometimes, in closed positions, limiting the movement and mobility of an opponent’s piece is [almost] as important as maintaining mobility of your own.

4) Keep in mind all generalized advice is meant for broad, not specific application. Positions will often call for exceptions, and it is important to understand these exceptions. Such as moving a single piece several times in the opening – without a good reason, and a better reason than a ‘one move threat’, it is better to commit to full mobilization and then infiltration with combined forces.

5) Consider your opponents best pieces and work to trade or otherwise neutralize them. If you notice that a certain color complex is going to be locked, or your opponent has all their pawns on a certain square, trading off a bishop that would normally guard those squares deprives them of vital territory, territory which may be used to invade.

6) ‘To take is a mistake’ – never take a piece for the sole reason of taking a piece. Sometimes it is better to leave the tension and increase it, and try to get an opponent to tie their pieces down to defending. It is almost always better to push your C and pawn to C4 before developing the knight; it can, depending on your broader strategic goals, keep the barrier of friction – the line where an opponent’s piece comes into your home/first four squares – and maintaining this barrier and dulling an opponent’s pieces can justify moving a pawn when otherwise it feels you’ve made too many early pawn moves.

7) Coordinate with purpose. If you can develop without blocking your pieces in with other pieces, without unnecessary pawn moves (not, say, playing a move that will allow for greater piece mobility on the next move, which is usually fine. To fianchetto a bishop, for example). Games are won through the coordination of pieces, not by one piece alone.

8) Be mindful of how many moves you and your opponent are from castling and do all to facilitate your own and everything to make it more difficult for your opponent. Sacrificing a piece to wreck a king’s safety, or to get three pawns – especially if this will give you a majority, is something to consider.

9) Rooks belong on open files. Being “fully developed”, in my opinion, is when you’ve castled to safety, have a workable plan, and your rooks are connected. Next you look to get them onto squares that give them the most board vision. In openings, usually, theory comes down to putting these principles into practice based on the community’s collective history and understanding. Opening theory is so classified for it has been shown to help achieve these principles, that is; the facilitation of harmonious development, which doesn’t block in one’s own pieces, affording you time to make a plan around how you want to try and attack. Looking for weaknesses, mistakes, and provoking these mistakes and weaknesses are issues for the middlegame, say, from move 15-30 or so.

10) Your pieces need your help to attain to their greatest mobility, strength, and effectiveness. While these principles are all generalized and require no amount of move-order memorization, they are easy to put in practice and keep in mind. By following these principles, one will usually arrive at opening theory without necessarily intending to do so. Knights – bring them closer to the center; in an opening, knight’s before bishops – as a means of securing a center and its reinforcement, if necessary, from the flank. The best way to find a weakness is to create one, and the better you understand and execute your own strategies the more effective your play will be.

11) There are always exceptions! Is a knight stronger than a bishop? Depends on the position. Are two rooks worth a queen? Depends on the position. Everything is position dependent, and when in the opening stages of the game, don’t let your dedication to a set way of arranging your pieces cause you to overlook potential blunders that can be exploited immediately.

12) No one calculates 10-15 moves ahead. It is a waste of time — as one can usually see, after checking a calculation from move – best counter – move – best counter – and now? Don’t look so far ahead on one line that you neglect to consider more promising moves. In a given position, one has maybe 3 good moves, and a good rule of thumb is to look at ‘candidate moves’ (I think this comes from Kotov’s Think Like a Grandmaster, but I’m not sure at the moment). Check out the forcing variations first; look as far as you need to see whether it yields a promising position, or if you can find easy counters. If a piece is attacked, consider if it must be moved immediately. One can always attack an opponent’s piece of equal or higher value, which affords you the opportunity to reroute on your own terms and in a way that doesn’t undermine or put the kibosh on your strategic goals.

13) Misc. tips – No man fears an opponent who plays every opening decently, but an opponent who plays one system very, very well. Find a game plan (which is what an opening is, really, the battle formation a general orchestrates before engaging the enemy) that works for you, which allows you to put these principles into action.

These are principles I’ve developed over the years and they have helped me immensely.