Over the last several articles, we’ve looked at the first three opening principles; controlling the center of the board with a pawn, developing our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) to centralized squares, and castling our King to safety. This week, we’re going to look at the further development of our minor pieces and maintaining a good defense. While I’ve mentioned that there are three primary opening principles or goals you must employ to be successful in your opening play, beginners often stop following principled opening play after achieving the minimum requirements of these three goals. Beginners reason that they’ve gotten a pawn to a central square, have at least two of their four minor pieces in play and their King is safe, so it’s time to charge across the board and win the game quickly. Premature attacks more often than not lead to a quick loss. What should the beginner do once they’ve reached the bare minimum requirements of opening play?
Continue developing! Premature attacks tend to fizzle out quickly, leaving the attacking player with a weak position their opponent can exploit. The more material you have in the game, the more attacking options you have. The opening game is all about developing your forces to active squares. Just because you’ve gotten a pawn to a centralized square, developed two of your minor pieces towards the center and castled, doesn’t mean you’ve reached your opening goal. Think of it this way: The opening sets up your middle-game which, in turn, sets up your endgame. Thus, how well you play during the opening defines (generally) how well your middle-game will be. Sure, you might be able to use Scholar’s Mate against a hapless beginner but it will not work with against a stronger player. So how do we keep developing during the opening. Take a look at the position below, starting with White’s fourth move.
Black’s third move, 3…Nf6, follows opening principle two, developing your minor pieces towards the board’s center. This move also poses a threat to White, since the Black Knight on f6 attacks the White pawn on e4. In previous articles I’ve mentioned that the threat against the White pawn is really not a viable threat because, if White leaves the pawn undefended, Black would lose time by attacking it. Remember, you don’t want to move the same piece multiple times during the opening. It’s better to keep developing new pieces to build up your presence in the board’s center. It’s now White’s turn. What should White do?
Most beginners will play 4. 0-0, castling on the King-side. They know that castling is extremely important and one of the big three opening principles. While there’s nothing wrong with castling, and you want to castle sooner that later, it’s better to hold off if your King is not in danger. During the opening, there is a single square that can cause problems for your King and your ability to castle. This is the f2 square for White and the f7 square for Black. We say that these squares are weak. The reason we say they’re weak is because their only defender is the King. Let’s say that Black managed to get the f6 Knight to g4. From g4, the Black Knight would be attacking the f2 square and if Black was able to then capture the White f2 pawn, the Black Knight would be forking the White Queen on d1 and the White Rook on h1. White could move the Queen but then Black’s Knight would capture the h1 Rook. White would now be unable to castle on the King-side. White could use the King to capture the Black Knight, but then White would be unable to castle on either side of the board. However, in the above game, there’s no real threat of this until Black’s Knight moves within attacking range (g4). Therefore, further development should be done by White. White plays, 4. Nc3.
This is a better move than castling. While both moves (4. 0-0 or 4. Nc3) follow the opening principles, further development allows White greater control of the center. Again, you want to develop or move as many of your minor pieces towards the center as possible during the opening. Let’s say that Black follows with 4…Bc5, a move that follows the principles. If you follow the g1-h7 diagonal, you’ll notice that Black’s Bishop is aimed at the the f2 pawn. In some opening play, Black will sacrifice the c5 Bishop by capturing the f2 pawn in an effort to force White into capturing back with the King. If White does this, the King will be unable to castle. While this doesn’t normally take place, it is a threat that must be considered. What should White do on move five?
The first question to ask yourself is how far away from an attack (as White) is my King? We know that Black could play 5…B xf2 on Black’s next move. However, it’s White’s turn. Black could also play 5…Ng4, doubling up the attack on the f2 pawn, which could be problematic for White. However, that’s a move away and it’s White’s turn. You could castle (5. 0-0) now but in our game, White plays 5. d3. This move releases the White Bishop on c1, allowing it some mobility on the King-side. While 5. d4 is more often played, beginners should learn how get all their minor pieces in the game before directly attacking the board’s center, a principle we’ll explore later on in this series.
Black decides to castle on move five, playing 5…0-0. Don’t worry if Black has castled first. It’s better to continue with opening development if your King isn’t in danger, rather than quickly making your King safe by castling. However, don’t wait too long to castle or you might not be able to! Development is the name of the game during the opening. White plays 6. Bg5, attacking the Black Knight on f6. While the Knight and Bishop have the same relative value, there’s a reason the Bishop moved to g5. This move slows down the development of the Black Knight on f6. See if you can figure out why.
Lastly, keep the idea of defense in mind during the opening. The moves made in our sample opening keep White’s minor pieces, with the exception of the White Bishop on g5, close to home so they can help repel any attacks. All the minor pieces developed work with one another in a coordinated effort. To maintain a good defense, consider each of your opponent’s moves in terms of potential attacks. When your opponent moves, look at every square that pawn or piece controls. If those squares lead to a potential attack on your side of the board, make sure you can defend your position before progressing or developing further. Next week, we’ll delve further into our opening studies, examine coordination between your pawns and pieces and look at three things you must not do during the opening, the principle of don’t as I call it. Here’s a game to enjoy until then.