Last week, we looked at the difference between “the opening” and “an opening.” We also started to explore one of the first openings beginners learn, The Italian Opening. We worked through the first three moves for White and left off at Black’s third move. With each move, we were able to see the opening principles in action. Now, we’ll delve further into the opening principles by discussing principle three, castling your King to safety. Before getting into castling, let’s review what was covered last week and consider a third move for Black.
Going into this week’s article, you should remember that the opening describes any moves made within the first ten to fifteen moves of a game. An opening, refers to a specific opening. By specific, I mean that an opening being played, such as The Italian Opening, follows a specific move order regarding the pawns and pieces. An opening, such as the King’s Indian, follows a slightly different order regarding which pawns and pieces come into the game and when they enter the game. As you develop your opening skills, you’ll fully understand this idea. No matter what specific opening you play, all good openings follow the opening principles. I did mention variations last week. A variation of an opening is just that. You’ll see openings referred to as either a mainline or a variation. The mainline is the traditional way of playing an opening. In a variation, there’s a slight change to which pawns or pieces enter the game and when they enter the game. Both mainline and variations to the mainline share the general characteristics that define the opening in question. As we explore a few openings in this series of articles, we’ll see examine mainlines and variations to the mainline, so don’t worry if you’re a bit confused. Now, let’s look at Black’s third move in The Italian Opening.
When you play a specific opening it’s not a good idea to suddenly change your mind and start playing another opening. Stick to you initial plan. However, with The Italian Opening, White has the opportunity to switch openings without great consequence (as long as White has strong opening skills). In chess, we would say that White has transposed from one opening to another. We’ll briefly look at that after Black makes move three. Here’s the game after move three for White (play through the initial moves to get to move three):
It’s now Black to move. What should Black do? Follow the opening principles! As I mentioned before, White has a slight advantage because of making the first move. This doesn’t mean that White is better than Black! It means that Black has to maintain equality regarding control of the board’s center before launching any attacks. Premature attacks during the opening are generally doomed to fail. You need to get a large number of pawns and pieces into play before attacking because with greater material in play, your attacking options increase. Having options is a good thing in chess!
We know that opening principle two tells us to develop our minor pieces towards the board’s center. Black has already developed the Queen-side Knight to c6 where it controls the center. Now it’s time to consider moving another minor piece, either the King-side Knight or Bishop. Let’s look at a move for both of these pieces. We’re focusing on Black’s King-side minor pieces because White is in a position to immediately castle, while Black is at least two moves away from sheltering his King. We’ll start with 3…Nf6 (See the game below).
3…Nf6 is an excellent move. Here’s why: With Knights on c6 and now f6, Black’s two Knights control all four of the center squares. White only controls two, e5 and d4. Remember, the opening is all about getting your minor pieces into play and controlling the board’s center. The Black Knight on f6 also threatens the White pawn on e4. Does this mean that White must defend that pawn? The answer may surprise you! It turns out that White doesn’t have to defend this pawn. Why? Later in this series, we’ll look at three things you don’t want to do during the opening. We’ve already learned that we don’t want to bring our Queen into the game early. Another thing we don’t want to do is to move the same piece multiple times during the opening. Doing so wastes time, which we’ll look at when we explore what I call the principle of don’t (as in don’t do this or that).
Black could also play 3…Bc5 which is also a good move because it positions the King-side Bishop on an extremely active square. It mirrors the White Bishop on c4. Both the Knight and Bishop moves also clear the path for castling on Black’s King-side. So, which move is better? As a beginner, either move would be acceptable. However, White could transpose or change The Italian Opening into another opening on move four, such as the Evan’s Gambit by playing 4. b4, or the Four Knight’s game by playing 4. Nc3. We look at that next week. If you’re playing Black, there’s no reason to worry about a sudden change because you have the opening principles to guide you. When in doubt during the opening, always refer back to the principles. Let’s look at White’s response after Black plays 3…Nf6.
It’s White to move and White has a choice to make, either continue developing the minor pieces towards the board’s center or castling. As an instructor, I have to drive home the importance of castling early with my beginning students. Otherwise, they’ll leave their King exposed and quickly get checkmated. With an absolute beginner in this position, I would suggest castling, just to reinforce this principle. However, this is only because beginners tend to ignore castling until it’s too late. With more advanced students, I recommend holding off on castling in favor of further development, unless their King is in danger. While castling is one of the three big opening principles, timing should always be considered. In our position, White’s King is in no immediate danger.
For a beginner, my advice regarding when to castle is simple. Look at all your opponent’s pawns and pieces and determine whether or not they have a direct line of attack to your King. If there are attacking lines heading toward your King, consider castling. If not, consider developing. It’s not often that easy in reality. Why? Remember the rules of castling, which are very specific in regards to exactly when you can castle. Thus, if think that you’re opponent can exploit one of the castling rules, such as controlling a square you king has to travel across, consider castling sooner rather than later. Try to expand your calculations out to two moves. Look at your opponent’s immediate move, when it’s their turn, and determine whether they can threaten your King. Then, consider your opponent’s move after that initial move. Can they block your King’s access to any square it must travel across. If they can, consider castling.
At the end of the day, it comes down to putting what you learn into practice. The more games you play, the experience you gain. I suggest using what you’ve just learned against a chess playing app or program. Simply knowing the opening principles doesn’t win games. You have to put those principles into action. The more you use them, the better your play will be. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!