A Foundation for Beginners Sixteen

The week, we’ll the look at the opening from Black’s perspective. While we did discuss some move options for Black during our examination of the opening, we didn’t examine in detail how you should play the opening as Black. There are some misconceptions regarding the opening game for Black that I want to address, as well as some considerations to make if you’re playing Black. Today, we’re going to start our examination of the opening for Black by discussing the misconceptions first followed by a few considerations you need to take to heart. We’ll start with the biggest misconception beginners have regarding Black. What is that big misconception? White has a better chance of winning because White gets to move first!

Seasoned players would simply scoff at this idea. Yet beginners often believe this misconception to be true. I more often that not, hear a groan from my beginning students when they lose a coin toss and end up having to play Black. It doesn’t matter whether or not that student is an adult or a child. Beginners think that having to play Black somehow handicaps them. They really think that White has an enormous advantage. Why do they think that White have the advantage? Because White gets to move first, meaning White is always one move ahead of Black. Is this fear of playing Black well founded? Let’s look at this question from both sides of the coin.

The rules of the game state that White moves first so yes, White is technically a move ahead of Black throughout the game. What does moving first mean in terms of the overall game? Not much, overall. If you look at a large database of historical games, you’ll see that Black wins plenty of games. If playing Black was such a losing proposition, no one would play chess. While it turns out that White tends to win between 52% to 56% of the time, that percentage has to do with factors that do not come into play within the beginner’s skill set. Black has an equal number of pawns and pieces and follows the same set of rules as White. The playing field is level! In the end, the better player will always win, regardless of color. So what gives beginners a fear of playing Black? Not being able to move first! Let’s look at this issue of moving first during the opening.

A game can end in as little as four moves (Scholar’s Mate, although there is a rare two move mate for Black) or last over a hundred moves. Let’s call the average game length somewhere between forty and fifty moves. Beginners might finish their opening in ten or twelve moves. Therefore, the opening constitutes a small part of the overall game, move-wise. I mention this because beginners have plenty of time to change the balance of the game. While your opening play creates a foundation for the rest of your game, you have the middle and endgame to gain any ground lost during the opening. However, you should always try to build a strong positional foundation from the game’s start rather than trying to fix things later on.

Your job, during the opening, is to get control of the board’s center with a pawn or two and your minor pieces, make your King safe by Castling and finally, activate your forces (pawns and pieces) so that they’re controlling as many centralized squares as possible. Development is the opening goal. Since White gets to move first, White does gets to claim a stake in the board’s center first. However, this doesn’t mean that White has greater control of center throughout the opening. This means that, if you’re playing Black, you have to maintain equal control of the board’s center. If White plays 1. e4, Black will generally respond with 1…e5, which equalizes control of the center. White’s e4 pawn attacks d5 and Black’s e5 pawn attack d4. Both players are in equilibrium. Centralized control is balanced. If White plays 2. Nf3, which attacks the Black pawn on e5 and the vacant d4 square, Black can respond with 2…Nc6, which defends the pawn on e5 and also attacks the vacant d4 square. The point here is that Black is keeping up with White, maintaining a balance regarding control of the board’s center.

If you’re playing Black as a beginner, you want to keep up with White and try to equalize control of the center (d4, d5, e4 and e5). This can be difficult for the beginner who loves to attack when given the chance. To avoid falling into the pipe-dream of premature attacks for Black, use the opening principles to guide you. Develop rather than destroy. Always try to maintain equilibrium by equalizing centralized control. With each move made by White, count the number of central squares White controls and compare them to the number of squares you control as Black. That number should be equal, close to equal or greater than White’s number. It may be tempting to launch a quick attack or jab at White’s position but taking the time out to do so can cause you tempo problems.

Tempo or time is critical in chess. If you fall behind in your opening development, your opponent will build a solid centralized position that will be difficult to deal with. Because White moves first and Black is a move behind, anything that causes Black to lose time during the opening is amplified. Therefore, tempo or timing is more important for Black during the opening than White. As a beginner playing Black, you should always play to further your development during the opening. Pawns enter the game first, followed by your minor pieces, with all your forces aimed towards the center. There will be plenty of time for attacks during the middle-game. Playing Black, you have to exercise patience. Remember, attacks tend to have a better chance of success when you have more options. By options, I mean having more pawns and pieces in the game (off of their starting squares). The greater number of active pawns and pieces you have in the game, the greater your choices are when it comes to attacks.

Play through the game below. The first thing you’ll notice is that Black doesn’t start the game with the “e” or “d” pawn. Instead, Black starts off moving the “c” pawn, signaling the start of the Sicilian Defense. We’ll go through this opening for Black next week and examine how well Black follows the opening principles and whether or not Black maintains balanced control of the board’s center. As always, ask yourself why each move was made by both players. I’ll see you next week and we’ll work through this game in detail.

Hugh Patterson

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Hugh Patterson

Author: Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat). View all posts by Hugh Patterson

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