Last week, we started to dig into The Italian Opening. This week, we’ll continue our examination of this classic opening for White, examining the further development of our material under the guidance of the game’s opening principles. Before concluding our discussion of The Italian Opening, which we’ll do next week, I want to talk about a few key ideas you need to understand in order to make headway during the game’s opening phase. These ideas also apply to the game’s other two phases, the middle and endgame, so they’re well worth learning. We’ll start today’s work by looking at the principle of fighting for the center.
As I mentioned last week, there are times when you need to disrupt or break up your opponent’s control of the center. You may wish to balance the position out if your opponent has greater control or you may wish to make it more difficult for your opponent to gain a further foothold in the center. What’s important is that you have a good reason to fight for the center. You should generally choose development over attacking during the opening. Again, don’t attack the board’s center without a good reason. Remember, the more pawns and pieces you have in the game, the more attacking possibilities you’ll have. Let’s go back to move four for White (See the example below).
After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6 and 3. Bc4…Nf6, we see the start of The Italian Opening for White. I should mention that if you see the word “Defense” attached to an opening, such as the King’s Indian Defense, it’s an opening for Black. If the opening doesn’t contain the word “Defense,” it’s an opening for White. Let’s look at the position going into move four for White. This position is from one of my beginning student’s games I recorded a few years ago. Both players know the rules of the game and have a limited knowledge of the game’s opening principles.
If White wanted to play the most subtle of The Italian Opening’s lines, White might play 4. d3, protecting the e4 pawn and giving the White Bishop on c1 some room to move (mobility). While there’s nothing wrong with this move, it’s not very aggressive. If you’re playing White, you’re like a tennis player who has the first serve. Having the first serve, you’d be expected to really thrust the ball across the net, not lightly tap it over to your opponent. This idea holds true in chess, within reason. You don’t want to start attacking your opponent immediately but you should consider trying to maintain an advantage which comes into fruition by playing in a more aggressive manner. With this in mine, what should White do?
Your first job, as White (this holds true for Black as well), is to assess or analyze the position. With each move made by either player, the position changes so you have to do constant analysis, Analysis is a word that frightens the beginning player because they get a vision of a top level player doing extremely complicated calculations quickly within their mind. Yes, the world’s best players can do deep, complicated calculations when analyzing a position. How can the beginner possibly do what top players have been training to do for decades? What positional analysis really means is that you’re looking at the interaction between all the pawns and pieces on the board, figuring out if your opponent is making any threats or if you can make any threats, either immediately or in the future. Therefore, our first job in analyzing this position is to determine any threats made by our opponent.
Black’s Knight on f6 is threatening White’s pawn on e4. We’ve already determined that this threat is a veiled threat, so if Black decided to attack the White pawn, Black would be wasting time after White went after the marauding Knight. Threat assessment it a crucial skill in chess and often during the opening, threats are not as powerful as they first appear to be. With this said, you still have to work through the threat to determine it’s validity. Now, let’s take a look at the board’s center and determine who has greater control.
Black has Knights on both c6 and f6 which allows Black to control all four of the board’s center squares (e4, e5, d4 and d5). White, on the other hand, is only controlling three of the four squares. Black has greater control of the board’s center, but only a slight advantage. White has a number of options such as 4. 0-0 or 4. Nc3. However, White can solve the problem of the unprotected e4 pawn and disrupt Black’s control of the center by attacking or fighting for the board’s center with 4. e5, which is what was played in this game. The student playing this game spent a lot of time trying to determine whether or not to play 4. e5. I asked him exactly how he made his decision and this is how he did it:
He saw that Black’s Knight’s gave Black greater control of the board’s center because they attacked all four central squares. He saw that he only attacked three of those four squares. He wanted to protect his e4 pawn even though he knew the real threat was low. When he thought about playing 4. e5, he did something all good chess players do throughout the game, counting attackers and defenders.
Counting attacks and defenders is the key to a successful attack or defense. Here’s how it works: Let’s say you want, as my student did, to play 4. d4. You need to see how many Black pawns and pieces attack d4 and compare that to how many White pawns and pieces attack d4. If you look at the position, you’ll see that the Black pawn on e5 and a Black Knight on c6, both attacking d4. That’s two attackers. White has the Knight on f3 and Queen on d1 defending d4, should White choose to move the d2 pawn to that square. Now you have to play through the sequence of moves following 4. d4 to determine the outcome of any exchanges of material, since the number of attackers equals the number of defenders. Generally, you want to have more attackers than defenders when attacking or more defenders than attackers when defending. However, when fighting for the board’s center, an equal number of each is fine, depending on the move sequence you choose when going through with the attack or defense. I want you to set this position up on a chessboard and play through exchanging material.
White wants to play 4. d4 and knows that Black will capture White’s pawn after that move. How is White so sure about this capture? If Black doesn’t play 4…exd4, White will do one of two things, either play 5. d5, attacking Black’s c6 Knight or 5. dxe5 attacking Black’s f6 Knight. Either way, White’s one point pawn will be attacking a three point Black Knight, forcing the Knight off of a strong opening square and disrupting Black’s opening. In our game, Black plays 4…exd4. White could have played 5. Nxd4 but decided to continue to disrupt Black opening position with 5. e5, forcing Black’s f6 Knight to move from a strong square.
This was an example of an opening attack for White used to disrupt Black’s control of the board’s center. While you don’t want to launch attacks early in the opening, a situation may arise in which an early attack might be just what is needed. Always ask yourself, before launching any attack, does this attack help my position? Be honest in your answer. I know it’s fun to capture pawns and pieces but doing so can lead you down the road to positional ruin. Personally, I tend to play more conservatively during the opening but will still launch an attack if the end result is damage to my opponent’s opening position. Next week we’ll end our look at The Italian opening by playing through a master level game in which White plays the Italian. We’ll look at each move for both players and compare them to the game’s opening principles. Here’s a game to enjoy until then!