Opening Principles in Chess

There are 3 main stages to each and every game of chess. These are the opening, middlegame and endgame. The way in which you formulate ideas will depend on which stage of the game you are in. A defining characteristic of the endgame is that your king becomes an attacking piece, whereas in the middlegame your king would almost always be in danger, if it walked out into the open. To march your king out in the opening is a subject of humour.

The focus of this chapter is to highlight the main opening principles in chess, and to show you the consequences of disregarding these principles. There is a famous quote by Spielmann ‘Play the opening like a book, the middlegame like a magician, and the endgame like a machine.’ There are many truths in this.

Key Opening Principles

  1. Develop your pieces.
  2. Gain control of the center.
  3. Get your king to safety.

These 3 points are the key to every opening. If you can accomplish these, then you can move on to middlegame ideas, in particular attacking plans. Through the use of some illustrative examples, I am going to show you how masters use these principles to win their own games.

Tal Exploits Opponent’s Neglect for Opening Principles

Tal – Tringov

Amsterdam, 1964

In this game, ex world champion Mikhail Tal illustrates how important these fundamental opening principles really are. Once the position opens up, black is suffering from poor development, while white has got all of his pieces in the game. This positional advantage materializes in the form of a tactical combination, which leads to forced checkmate.

1. e4 g6 2. d4 Bg7 3. Nc3 d6 4. Nf3 c6 5. Bg5 Qb6

Already white has developed 3/4 of his major pieces, while black has only developed 1/4. The white knights on c3 and f3 control the central squares d4, e4, d5 and e5, so white clearly has a pleasant control of the center. Black has not yet committed a pawn to the center, but he will try to play e5 at a later stage.

6. Qd2 Qxb2 7. Rb1 Qa3

White has allowed black to win the b2 pawn. You could say he sacrificed this pawn, but white does get significant compensation in return. Since the b-file is now semi-open, white’s b1 rook has much better scope, and black’s queen on a3 is really misplaced. Therefor black will have to waste even more time to get his queen back into play. Meanwhile white will carry on with standard development.

8. Bc4 Qa5 9. 0-0 e6?

The last move 9…e6? was awarded a question mark, because it is a mistake. It is too slow – black can’t afford to lose any more time – he is behind in development as it is. Better was 9… Nd7 which prepares an immediate e5, saving a tempo.

White has achieved all the opening principles.

  1. All 4/4 minor pieces are playing a part in the game, and the rook on b1 is developed as well. Okay, the f1 rook would be slightly better on e1, in case the center opens up, but compared to black he has a huge lead in development. Black still only has 1/4 minor pieces developed, and it will be a long time before either of his rooks enter the game.
  2. White has a strong center, with pawns on d4 and e4 controlling the squares c5, d5, e5, f5. His pieces also support this center. Black has less space than white, and will suffer from a cramped position if he doesn’t play a pawn break such as e5 to take back some control of the center.
  3. White’s king is very safe, because it is castled. On the other hand, black’s king is still in the middle, and is likely to be subject to an attack from all directions, especially if the position opens up.

10. Rfe1 a6 11. Bf4 e5 12. dxe5 dxe5

There is a general rule which can be applied to many positions: Opening up the position favours the side who is better developed. This position is no exception. White is going to put a rook on d1 to demonstrate complete dominance over the d-file. All the pieces are perfectly positioned and there is no better time than now for white to attack.

13. Qd6!!

This is quite an unbelievable move. White leaves 2 of his pieces en prise, but capturing either of them will give Tal a completely winning position, and if Tringov does not capture either piece, then white will just carry on with the attack. In the game, black decides to take on c3. Let’s see what would have happened if he had taken on f4.

(13…exf4 14. Nd5! (threatening Nc7+ and Qd8#) …cxd5 15. exd5+ Be6 the only try 16. dxe6 white`s position is just too strong. For example 16… f6 17. Rxb7 with too many threats to stop.)

Qxc3 14. Red1 Nd7

Find the winning move for white.

There is a lovely combination that Tal had foreseen, which forces the win.

15. Bxf7+!

Another sacrifice – Once you have sacrificed one piece, you have to keep the momentum going. Throw more wood on the fire. The queen and knight combine powerfully in a number of checkmate sequences, and after the black king recaptures, white can bring his knight into the attack with tempo.

…Kxf7

If black doesn’t take the bishop, then 15… Kd8 will be met by 16. Rxb7 Ngf6 17. Bg5 with the unstoppable threat of Rxd7+ leading to checkmate.

16. Ng5+ The knight enters the attack with tempo. … Ke8 17. Qe6+ Black resigns, because there is no way to stop checkmate. If 17… Kd8 then 18. Nf7+ Kc7 19. Qd6# Don’t forget that the rook on b1 stops the king running away to b6, which is why it paid dividends to position it so actively in the first place.

Conclusions from the Game

In this game, black neglected all 3 of the opening principles, and as a result suffered a quick loss. White capitalized on his lead in development by opening up the position, and then moving the queen into an attacking position, even at the expense of a whole piece. Then Tal brought his rook onto the open file with the threat of checkmate on d8. Now, being a piece down Tal didn’t have time to faff about. He got on with the attack, by sacrificing yet another piece; his light squared bishop – to remove a defender of the black king – the pawn on f7. After black captured, white brought his knight in with check. It is well-known that the queen and knight coordinate well in checkmate combinations, and checkmate was unstoppable.

This game just goes to show that if you neglect your opening principles, then you might be subjected to an attack from an early stage. On the other hand, if you play like Mikhail Tal and ensure that your pieces are well positioned, and you have a strong center and king safety, then you may well notch up a few quick wins yourself! For further reading on this topic, I recommend this article, which teaches you how to understand the ideas behind the opening moves.

Pins in Chess – Winning Material

In this post, I will cover what pins are, and how they arise in games, and I will also show you how to distinguish between different types of pins in chess, from deadly ones, which can tear apart the unsuspecting players position, and those that are not too concerning.

What is a pin?

It is a tactical mechanism which prevents a piece from moving, because either the movement of that piece will put you in check or it will lose material.

How can a pin win material?

If a piece of lesser value is able to capture a pinned piece, then you can win material. Normally when one of your pieces is attacked, and it is of greater value than the attacking piece, you can move it away, but this is not possible, because the piece is pinned down. e.g 1: Queen pinned to king:

In the position above, black would like to move the queen on g5 out of the line of fire of white`s rook, however this is not possible, because it is pinned.

e.g. 2: Exploiting the pin with a pawn

In this position above, white wants to move the bishop away, so that the black pawn doesn`t take it. This is however impossible, because you can`t move into check – your king would be taken – this never happens in chess.

e.g. 3: Bishop Pins

Here, black pins the white knight on f3 down, because if it moves anywhere, then the black bishop will take the white queen – such a material advantage would win the game.

How to prevent pins from happening

The tactics based on pins are so common that there are few games that don`t have some point during the game when they occurred, or could have, but were stopped. Before I give you some of my own personal experiences of pins, I want to quickly show you how to prevent pins from happening.

The position above could arise after the following moves: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 exd5 4. Nc3 c6 5. Nf3 The French defence – exchange variation. The move 5…, Nf6 seems like a good developing move, but it walks into a pin with 6. Bg5. To prevent this, we can play 5…, h6 first, to control the g5 square, and stop the white bishop from coming there.

Practical Pins – From my own games

Nottingham Congress

I hope you can learn something from these examples, if nothing else, this part should help to familiarise you with the common features within a position for pins to occur. The first 3 examples are all from games I played at the 2018 Nottingham congress.

I was black, and my last move was 37…, Rc4 This leaves white in a hopeless position, because black is going to win some serious material. Play continued: 38. a5 Kc8 Getting my king off the open file, from where the white rook could check me. 39. g5 Ne4! There is overwhelming pressure on c4, so something has to give way. 40. Nxe4 Rxc1 a couple of moves later my opponent resigned.

In the position above, the white knight on h3 is pinned, this is not the crucial factor, but restricting the possibilities of your opponent is always good to do. I played here 15…, Nxf2 which won me a pawn after 16. Qxf2 Bxh3 17. Bxh3 Qxh3+ This was enough for the win, as I soon pacmanned the loose e-pawn. However, there was a stronger tactic that I missed. 15…, Rxf3! wins a clean piece, because after 16. Bxf3? Qxh3+ 17. Kg1 Qh2#

In the position above, the pin which causes black potential trouble is the one caused by my queen on a6, completely demobilising the black a7 pawn. If black had greedily gobbled up the h2 pawn: 30…, Rxh2? I can gain an advantage with the tactic 31. Rxb6 Winning an important pawn, which defends the black king. Black cannot capture 31…, Bxb6?? because I would recapture 32. Nxb6+ forking the king and queen, and winning. The game actually continued: 30…, Qd8 31. Na3 Qb8 32. Nb5! forcing black to retreat with …, R2f7 because of my threat of winning the bishop or in the event of R8f7 playing Nxd6 and after …, Bxd6,  Rc8 pinning and winning the queen.

Frodsham Congress

From the games that I played at the 2018 Frodsham congress, here are some positions where pins played an important role in the outcome of the game.

After 10…, h6 black attacks my g5 knight, but do I retreat the knight? No I don`t, because I dont have to. Here is how the game continued: 11. O-O-O Nf6 12. dxe5 dxe5 An asset is the open d-file. 13. c5!? Qe7 14. Bc4 Nd5 That knight has been on that g5 square for 4 whole moves, if the pawn ever takes the knight, then I will be happy to gobble up the h8 rook in return. 15. Nge4 Only now do I move the knight…It turns out that taking on d5 was probably slightly stronger.

16…, Re8 has just been played. Black is hoping to win back the piece he lost on e5 by the pin against my king and/or queen on the open e-file. I played 17. Ndf3 to support my e5 knight. They replied …, Be6 temporarily blocking up the dangerous e-file. I was only happy about this. I castled getting my king off of the dangerous file: 18. 0-0 Bd5 19. Qd2 Rxe5 20. Nxe5 Qxe5 so I give up the 2 knights for a rook, which results in me being the exchange up at the end of it. After some positional moves and manoeuvres, I won that game.

 

 

Central Control 2 – When the Centre collapses

When you have a large centre – by which I mean multiple pawns on the 4th rank – e.g. c4, d4, e4 or d4. e4. f4 (to name just 2 examples) then you have to make sure that your opponent can’t undermine this at a later stage. Many modern openings, which initially concede the centre will have counterattacking opportunities, where your large centre can actually become broken down. This is exactly what happened in this game I played when I was younger.

If you have a chess board, please get it out now as I begin with notation:

  1. d4 Nf6 2. Bf4 d6 3. c3 g6 4. Nd2 Bg7 5. e4 0-0 

Already, I have established a strong centre, but in a couple of moves time, black breaks down this big centre, claiming it to be unstable. 6. Bd3 This move was not best (6. Ngf3 is more accurate, giving more control over the e5 square) …, c6 Preparing to play d5 although an immediate 6…, d5 was stronger. 7. Qe2 Nbd7 8. Be3 e5! (figure 2) Now the critical break comes, and white is forced to make a decision on how to continue…

Already there is a lot of tension in the centre. 9. f4 c5 Here I make a positional mistake.

10. d5?! Now the pawn on e4 is a permanent weakness, because it can no longer be defended by another pawn. Better was 10. fxe5, releasing the tension, and opening up the f-file for my rook after a later 0-0 (play could have continued 10…, cxd4 11. exf6 dxe3 12. fxg7 exd2+ 13. Qxd2 Kxg7 ).

10…, a6 (More critical was 10…, exf4 11. Bxf4 Nxd5! A clever tactic 12. exd5 Re8 13. Be3 Nf6 14. 0-0-0 Ng4! though neither I nor my opponent saw this).

11. Ngf3 Ng4 

The main point of this knight manoeuvre is to exchange the knight for my dark squared bishop, which is a sensible exchange to make (Note: at top level bishops are usually worth a tad more than knights). To avoid this exchange  could play Bg1, but that is a really backward move, and you are very often punished for playing negatively in chess. Instead, I increase the tension in the centre. 12. f5 Nxe3 13. Qxe3 b5 

According to the engine, this position is actually equal. The trouble was that I failed to find the best move here. 14. b3?! The trouble with this move, is that it allows the black knight into my position. (14. g4 would have stabilsed my f5 pawn, and I have to say, I actually quite like my position there. My king is destined to stay in the middle, but that is not actually an issue, because he is somewhat safe there, and I have a ready made kingside attack with h4-h5 (play could have continued: 14…, c4 15. Bc2 Qb6 16. Qxb6 Nxb6 17. Kf2 Bb7 18. Rhg1 Nd7). 14…, Nf6 

In this position, the knight is threatening to come into my position by 2 different routes, and if I stop one of them, then the knight will go into the other square. These squares are g4 and g3. 15. h3 Nh5 16. Bc2 Ng3 17. Rg1 gxf5 

All of a sudden, my position looks awful. I can`t recapture on f5, because I would lose a pawn anyway after 18…, Bxf5 19. Bxf5 Nxf5 with a loss of a tempo, because I have to move my queen. 18. 0-0-0 f4 my centre has fallen apart, and I haven`t sufficient counterplay. 19. Qf2 Qa5 20. Kb2 f5!  This last move really blasts my centre open even more, and gets rid of black`s doubled pawn.

21. Ng5 going for some counterplay – it is better to go down fighting, than admit defeat straight away …, h6 22. Ne6 Bxe6 23. dxe6 Rae8 

In this complex position, we both overlooked something… 24. exf5? Nxf5?? black could have won on the spot with the inventive 24…,Qxc3 when Kxc3 loses to e4+ white can put the queen in the way with Qd4, but next move Bxd4 will be checkmate. 25. Bxf5 Rxf5?? According to the computer,black`s advantage dissappears instantly into thin air! This is because white can get active with the queen – I missed this. 26. Ne4 Rxe6?? 27. Nxd6?? I missed the way to draw… (27. Qd2 Rg6 28. g4 fxg3 29. Rxg3 Rxg3 30. Nxg3 Rf6 31. Nh5 Rg6 32. Qd5+ Kh7 33. Nxg7 Kxg7)

The game finished 27…, e4 28. Qe1 b4 29. Rd4 bxc3+ 30. Kb1 cxd4 31. Nxf5 Qxf5  Here I resigned.

Conclusions from the Game

In this game, it was all about the struggle for the centre, and there was a great deal of tension in the centre, which caused me to make a mistake with 10. d5 creating a permanent weakness on e4, which my opponent exploited with his knight manoeuvre.

This game really highlights how you have to be careful about pushing pawns, because pawns can`t go backwards. I think it might have been Philidor who suggested that pawns are strongest when held back, because they have more options, and every pawn move creates a weakness, because there is ground that is no longer defended by them, when you push them forwards.

How to avoid Making Pawn Weaknesses

Try to avoid creating permanent pawn weaknesses in your own games. Here are some questions you could ask yourself before you play a pawn move in the early middlegame:

  • Am I going to be left with any backwards pawns? (A pawn that can’t be defended by another pawn, because its neighbours are too far advanced – see the diagram after 13 moves – my e-pawn is backwards)
  • Am I going to be left with any isolated pawns? (A pawn that has no allied pawn on its adjacent files – for example see the final diagram – the black a-pawn is isolated. However this is somewhat irrelevant in that position, because black has an overwhelming advantage.)
  • Is it going to benefit me to keep the centre closed or to open it up? This should help you decide whether to capture or to push forwards a pawn.
  • Will there be any ‘holes’ in my position where an enemy piece can jump into? If so, which enemy pieces might head towards that square, and is that important?

Central Control – A Key Opening Principle

In every game, there will be some kind of fight for the centre. The centre is the heart of the chess board, where all of the action is happening. If you gain strong central control, you have more options of where to focus your attack later on in the game.

In the corner of the chess board, a knight has control of 2 squares. At the edge, it has 4 squares, but in the centre of the board, a knight has control of 8 squares. The potential of the knight is maximised therefore when placed in the centre. To support your central pawns, the knights are often used, because they are short ranged pieces, suitable for this purpose.

Please get your chess board out now, as I start with the notation.

King’s Indian Defence

To demonstrate this principle, I have looked at the 14th game of the World Championship Match between M. Botvinnik (white) and V. Smyslov (black), Moscow 1954:

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2 O-O 5. Nc3 d6 6. Nf3 Nbd7 7. O-O 

In this position, white has a strong grip on the centre with the pawns on c4 and d4. Whites knights are well placed on c3 and f3, from where they support their own pawns, and control the central squares (d4, d5, e4, e5). If white can play the move e4 soon, then white’s big centre would be hard to break down. To circumvent this, black strikes back in the centre immediately, with 7…, e5 White continues 8. e4 c6 

The move c6 prepares d5, where black gains more space, and doesn’t become overpowered by whites big centre. If black didn’t play these moves, then the position would soon become cramped, and black’s pieces would be restricted.

9. Be3 Ng4 Trying to exchange blacks knight for white’s bishop on e3, because at the top level it is widely believed that bishops are slightly favourable to knights, in most positions.  10. Bg5 Qb6 11. h3 Botvinnik was now surprised by: exd4! (see board below) When he had probably expected the knight to drop back with (11…, Nf6). If white takes black’s knight here, then black will take his. Materialistically this trade is fair, but positionally white is doing worse, because his centre has fallen apart.

This position has already become complicated, but white finds a good move here, which alleviates the threat of his knight being captured and at first it seems to win material…  12. Na4 It seems that since black has 2 pieces under attack, one of them will be lost. However due to tactical reasons, which Smyslov will have calculated beforehand, black can win back the temporarily lost piece. Qa6 13. hxg4 b5! 

 

The white knight on a4 has no squares to go to, so instead of worrying about a piece that is lost anyway, white wins back a central pawn with 14. Nxd4 bxa4 15. Nxc6 This is a tactic, not a blunder…, Qxc3 

How does white win back the material? Notice that the white light squared bishop is on the same diagonal as the black queen and rook. With white`s next move, white skewers these pieces. 16. e5 The tactical justification. Qxc4 17. Bxa8 Now black is the ‘exchange’ down. In return for this material loss, black claims that he is positionally better, and this soon liquidates in the form of material gains as we shall see…  Nxe5 18. Rc1 Qb4 19. a3 Qxb2 20. Qxa4 

Here black finds an excellent move 20…, Bb7! With the exchange of light squared bishops, the white king would suffer vulnerability on the light squares, which were previously guarded by the light squares bishop. From here onward, things complicate further, as the next sequence of moves brings about the exchange of: the black queen for both white bishops and his rook. 21. Rb1? (if white had played the simple 21. Bxb7, then the position would have been roughly equal. For example 21…, Qxb7 22. Rc3 h6) …, Nf3+ 22. Kh1 Bxa8! 23. Rxb2 Nxg5+ A discovered check – when the knight moves it unleashes the bishop. 24. Kh2 Nf3+ 25. Kh3 Bxb2 

After the exchanges have been made, black is clearly in an advantageous position. The three pieces are plenty enough for the queen, when in a few moves time they are fully coordinating. 26. Qxa7 Be4 27. a4 Kg7 28. Rd1 Be5 29. Qe7 Rc8! (see board below) Now the rook is ready to join in the attack. Notice that black’s king is safe on g7, because the white queen can’t threaten the king by herself, and black`s dark squared bishop guards against any checks on the dark squared diagonal.

30. a5 Rc2 31. Kg2 Blacks light squared bishop does a fine job of controlling white’s passed a-pawn’s queening square – a8. …, Nd4+ discovered check. 32. Kf1 Bf3 33. Rb1 Nc6 White resigned.

In this game, the control of the centre proved to be so important, especially in the middlegame. With 11…, exd4 black proved that white`s centre was not as solid as it seemed. After 14. Nxd4 White recaptures a lost pawn in the centre. When black plays 17…, Nxe5 white’s centre has collapsed altogether and the only plus in his position is that he has a queen.

If you have any questions about any of the positions that arose in the game, then please leave a comment below.