Last week, we started looking at the opening through the eyes of the beginner playing Black. The key points I made regarding playing Black were that the same opening principles that apply to White hold true for Black as well. We dismissed the idea that White had a big advantage because of having the first move. However, I also noted that because White moved first, Black had to keep up by maintaining a balanced center and holding back on any premature attacks. Do you remember that game that I had you play through at the end of last week’s article? Today, we are going to play through Black’s opening moves from that game and do what we did a few article’s back when we played through the opening for White, analyze each move in terms of principled opening play. Let’s get started.
Something you most likely noticed with Black’s first move, 1…c5, was that Black didn’t open with a “d” or “e” pawn move. Instead, Black moved the “c” pawn from c7 to c5, which is The Sicilian Defense. Remember, when you see the word defense in an opening’s name, it indicates that it’s an opening for Black. The Sicilian Defense is an extremely popular opening at both club and professional levels and can be quite difficult for White to deal with. If you recall, our first job during the opening is to control the center of the board with a pawn. While beginners tend to accomplish this task by moving one of the central pawns, the “d” or “e” pawn, the “c” pawn can be equally effective in achieving this goal. Black’s pawn on c5 attacks d4, the same square that would be attacked had Black played 1…e5. The difference is that Black still has two viable center pawns in reserve, the “d” and “e” pawns. This can give Black a centralized advantage.
I should note that while moving the “c” pawn is fine, don’t move the “f” pawn at the games start because it exposes your King to a diagonal attack. While there’s an opening for White that does just that, The King’s Gambit, it’s best for beginners to leave their pawn structure intact on the side they choose to castle on, which is usually the King-side. After 1. e4…c5, White plays 2. Nf3. My students often ask me why White develops the King-side Knight since there is no Black pawn on e5 to threaten. It’s a good Question since I teach my students that the ability to make a threat while developing their pieces is an added bonus and forces their opponent to defend, which slows down their development.
The answer is fairly simple: Developing your King-side pieces first makes sense because it’s easier to castle on the King-side than Queen-side because there’s one less piece to develop (the Queen). More importantly, the Knight on f3 attacks two empty central squares, d4 and e5. Combined with the e4 pawn, White is attacking three of the four center squares, d4, d5 and e5. Keep in mind that many openings for Black are defensive in nature, allowing White to gain a greater control of the center in the short term. This doesn’t mean that Black is going to allow White complete centralized control. Black will start to challenge White’s centralized control at some point in the opening. Black’s goal here is to methodically build up a presence around the center and then test White’s resolve or control at some point during this game phase.
Black responds to White’s second move with 2…Nc6. Many of my students have noted that it appears as if Black is falling behind since White controls three or the four central squares while Black controls only two. Chess is a game of patience and Black must follow this idea. Often Black plays a wait and see game with White, letting White freely develop, hoping for an over-extension and then challenging White’s center. White continues with 3. Nc3 and Black 3…e6. To the untrained eye, it appears as if White is leap years ahead of Black in terms of development. After all, White’s two Knights alone control all four center squares. Black’s third move, 3…e6 seems rather timid. However, looks can be deceiving!
Let’s look at Black’s position after move three. The move 3…e6 opens up a diagonal for Black’s f8 Bishop that ends at the Black pawn on c5. This means that the f8 Bishop is protecting the c5 pawn. The Black pawn on e6 also prepares for a “d” pawn push, perhaps moving the d7 pawn to d5, when the time is right, which would challenge White’s center. Again, Black is playing a wait and see game. Often in chess, one player will all but enthusiastically encourage their opponent to over extend themselves and then go in for an attack. Players will often consider a large expansion of pawns and pieces in the board’s center without considering just how they’re going to defend all that material should it come under attack.
There’s one thing to consider above all else when allowing your opponent to build up a centralized position; when to challenge control of the board’s center. Again, it’s a question of good timing and tempo. In this opening, Black is making sure that there are options available regarding challenging the center. Moving the “e” pawn to e6 gives Black the option to defend the c5 pawn via the f8 Bishop as well as potentially playing d5 to challenge White’s center. Black can be more difficult for beginners to play because it requires a lot of strategic thinking, which we’ll get into when we look at the middle-game.
On move four, White plays 4. Bc4. Alright, White has a strong presence in the board’s center and can now castle on the King-side. However, this doesn’t mean that Black has a terrible position. Remember, the goal of the game is to checkmate the King and right now, White doesn’t have any way to do that based on the position. If you were playing this position as Black, you’d be building a defense with the idea that White is going to have to pay a price in both position and material to break through it. Black’s forth move, 4…a6, often leaves beginners scratching their collective heads in confusion. Aren’t we supposed to develop our center pawns and minor pieces first during the opening? The answer is yes! However, should Black have played another move such as 4…d5, White could bend an opening principle by moving the same piece twice with 5. Bb5, which would pin Black’s Knight on c6 to the King. This would be an absolute pin because moving the c6 Knight would leave the Black King exposed to attack which is against the rules. Playing 4…a6 Keeps White’s pieces off of the b5 square! Play continues with 5. a4. Again, beginners are often befuddled by these flank pawn moves. The idea behind White’s pawn move is to stop Black from playing 5…b5, which would dislodge the White Bishop from the c4 square. In our game, Black retorts with 5…Nge7.
This seems like an odd move because it’s generally not a good idea to block in your pawns and pieces because it makes it more difficult to get them into the game when they are needed. However, there’s a trade off here. The Black Knight on e7 is now helping to guard the d5 square. During the opening, you’ll often see players amassing material in a specific area to control a specific central square. I want you to work through these first four moves and really try to analyze them. Think about the opening principles and ask yourself if the moves played follow them. Make a small list of good points and bad points for each move based on the principles. Then play through the next five moves of the game. Use the same thought process to analyze those moves. Next week, we’ll go through them in greater detail. See you then!