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.

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