Last week, we started to work through The Sicilian Defense (an opening for Black). We played through the first five moves of the game. When I teach a specific opening to beginners, I teach that opening three to five moves at a time. When my students understand those three to five moves completely, we move on to the next set of moves. We work through each move carefully, using the opening principles to determine exactly why that move was made. While some teachers try to teach an entire opening in a single lesson, I feel it’s much better to closely examine each move in detail so the student fully grasps the reasoning behind it. Using the opening principles, my beginning students can easily answer the question, why that specific move was made? We’ll continue with last week’s game, examining the next five moves of The Sicilian Defense. Before we start, I want to briefly discuss transitioning into the middle-game. Wait, aren’t we still working through the opening? Yes we are, but eventually the opening will end and the middle-game will begin.
It’s been said that your opening sets up your middle-game. Therefore, how well you do during the opening will often indicate how well you’ll play through the middle-game. This is not to say that a bad opening will lead to a bad middle-game. What this idea means is that you’ll increase your middle-game opportunities by playing a good opening. Of course, if you’re an absolute beginner, you probably don’t know what’s expected during the middle-game, so let’s briefly talk about that now. This should also help explain why we employ the opening principles at the game’s start!
One of the best ways to improve your playing is to play through the games of the great players. This can be difficult for beginners because strong players will often make moves that require deep calculations, so the reasoning behind a move may not be apparent until later in the game. However, if you use the game’s principles to guide you, the majority of the reasoning behind each move will make sense.
Beginner’s games tend to end violently with a sudden checkmate, rarely going through the game’s three phases; the opening, middle and endgame. However, as the beginner improves, their games become longer and naturally go through each of the three phases. I’ll go as far as to say that if you follow the opening principles, as a beginner, you’ll be less likely to succumb to an early mating attack by your opponent. Let’s look at why you want to set yourself up for the middle-game and what the middle-game is all about!
If you play through or watch a game played by strong players, you’ll see that the middle-game seems to be where all the real action is. By action, I mean that the middle-game is where you see amazing combinations and tactics that lead to one player gaining a material advantage, having more pawns and pieces remaining on the board than their opponent. The middle-game is where you see the bloodiest of battles with both players fighting tooth and nail to come out ahead in material. The player who has more material (pawns and pieces) than their opponent has more opportunities for mating attacks that can lead to victory. How do you become the player with the material advantage? By setting up a good position going into the middle-game. A good position is one that gives you more attacking possibilities than your opponent. I’m not talking about immediate mating opportunities, although those can occur. I’m talking about opportunities to capture more material than your opponent during this phase of the game which will give you a decisive advantage during the later middle-game and endgame. How do you set up a good middle-game position? By getting your pawns and pieces into the game during the opening. It all comes back to your opening play.
The opening is all about the development of material towards the center of the board. When you finish your opening play, you should have amassed a strong centralized presence. Let’s continue last week’s game:
Last week, we ended with move five for Black, 5…Nge7. White responds with 6. Qe2, which moves the Queen off of the first rank, which will help connect White’s Rooks later in the game. Often, you’ll see the opening principles performed slightly out of the order in which they are taught. In this series of articles, we looked first at controlling the board’s center with a pawn, then bringing in the minor pieces, then castling and finally moving the Queen to connect the Rooks. In this game, the Queen is moved before White castles. There’s nothing wrong with this. Often, because your opponent thwarts your initial plans, you’ll have to make a move you might have wanted to make later in the opening. As long as that move is principled, it’s alright. Now to Black’s sixth move.
Black plays 6…Ng6. Wait a minute, didn’t I say that you shouldn’t move pieces over and over again during the opening? Yes I did! However, if you have a good reason for doing so, then you should do so. Both players in this game are strong players, so a move that might seem bad may be a case of the stronger player calculating a few moves ahead. The reason behind that move may become clear a few moves later. How should you analyze such a move if your calculation skills are not fully developed? Look at the squares the piece attacks. The Black Knight that just moved to g6 is attacking d5 and f4. The square of importance appears to be d5. If you look at the Knight on c6, you’ll see that it too is attacking d5. In short, there are always clues to be found when determining why a specific move was made.
White now plays 7. d3, which allows the c1 Bishop access to the c1-h6 diagonal. White’s move needs no explanation, it frees the c1 Bishop! Black responds with 7…Be7. Beginners tend to use their Bishops more aggressively, moving them to squares that pin pieces during the opening (which we’ll discuss in a few weeks), whereas strong players tend to activate their Bishops to squares where they can control diagonals on either side of the board. Black’s seventh move does just that. The Black Bishop on e7 can rush to either the King-side or Queen-side if need rather than being posted on one side of the board or the other. To improve your calculation skills, determine why 7…Bd6 wasn’t played.
White plays 8. Be3, centralizing the Bishop and giving White the option of castling on either side of the board. Black now plays 8…0-0, castling the King to safety. White responds in kind with 9. 0-0. The best players in the world know the absolute value of making their King safe and so should you! Play continues with 9…f5, attacking White’s center. While we discussed the idea of fighting for the center, doing so is not without risk. Once the Black pawn leaves the f7 square, the Black pawn on e6 is now pinned to the Black King. Because you cannot move a pawn or piece if it allows your King to come under attack, The Black d6 pawn is stuck. White takes advantage of this pinned d6 pawn and plays 10. exf5. Again, the Black pawn on d6 can’t capture back because the Black King would be exposed to check, which is against the rules! Therefore, Black capture back with the Rook, 10…Rxf5. I mentioned in an earlier article that you shouldn’t bring your major pieces, Rooks and Queen, out into the game early. Black does just this. There are times when you can bend the principles but you need to completely understand them to do so and even that doesn’t guarantee success.
We’re going to end this lesson here, Next week, we’ll look at the middle-game and how that phase of the game applies in this specific game. Play through the next five moves of this game. Create a list of positive and negatives for each move. Determine whether or not each move follows the opening principles. If a move, such as White’s next move in this game, doesn’t seem to follow the opening principles, play through it and see if it makes sense a few moves later. See you next week!