Last week, we looked at tricks and traps that can occur during the opening. This week, we will start working through your first full opening to master, The Italian Opening. Before you say, “oh no, I’m now going to have to learn something new,” take a deep breath. There’s good news! You have already learned the foundation of this opening in the last twelve articles. That’s right! We’ve been looking at The Italian Opening throughout this series. Why choose this opening as your first? Because it clearly shows the game’s opening principles in action and you’re already familiar with some of it’s foundational moves! Let’s do a quick review of the principles employed in this specific opening, and any other good chess opening.
The three opening principles most important to good opening play are controlling the board’s center (d4, d5, e4 and e5) with a pawn, moving your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) to centralized squares that allow them to control the board’s center, and castling your King to safety. These are the three most important principles. We know that we don’t want to bring our Queen out early, make too many pawn moves or move the same piece over and over again during the opening. There’s another principle that we’ll introduce this week and in next week’s article, fighting for then center. While we generally want to develop our forces (pawns and pieces) to active, centralized squares before launching an attack, there are exceptions to the game’s principles and really good players know how to capitalize on those exceptions. One such exception is fighting for the center when necessary. What do I mean by fighting for the center?
When you watch two strong players work through their openings, you’ll see a fairly even balance regarding who has centralized control. Often, one player will launch an attack to gain greater centralized control. Since this is a series of articles written solely for beginners, we’ll sometimes see games in which one player gains a noticeable advantage, control-wise, during the opening. The player who is behind in development can sometimes change this unbalanced position by breaking up their opponent’s control of the center with an attack. This doesn’t mean launching an all out assault to deliver a fast checkmate, but rather an attack that breaks up your opponent’s center and subsequent control. Of course, the best way to avoid this problem is by following the opening principles from move one! However, you should always look for a way to break up your opponent’s control of the board’s center and sometimes, exchanging a pawn early on does just that. Now let’s dig into The Italian Opening. Set up a chessboard with the game’s starting position.
Generally, you can’t determine exactly what opening your opponent is playing until a few moves into the game. The Italian Opening is an opening for White and starts with 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6 and 3. Bc4. On White’s third move, 3. Bc4, that indicates that White is playing this specific opening (The Italian Opening). Note that this opening can transpose or change into another opening such as The Evan’s Gambit. However, we’ll be looking at The Italian Opening here. Let’s break down White’s first three moves in terms of the opening principles. Move one 1. e4, is a sound move that follows principle one, controlling the board’s center with a pawn. This move also opens a line or diagonal for the f1 or King-side Bishop, allowing White to rapidly develop this otherwise trapped piece. Black’s first move, 1…e5, does the same thing. On move two, 2. Nf3, White follows principle two, developing your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) towards the board’s center. 2. Nf3 does a few other things as well. It brings White closer to castling, controls the d4 square and attacks Black’s e5 pawn, forcing Black to consider defending that pawn. Black defends the e5 pawn with 2…Nc6. Because Black didn’t move the f8 or King-side Knight, White is closer to castling than Black. White’s third move, 3. Bc4 gives a strong indication that The Italian opening is being played. Let’s look at this move in more detail.
White’s third move, 3. Bc4, moves another minor piece to a centralized square and clears the way for White castling on the King-side. Having the option to castle early on is important. Often, players hold off on castling until it’s too late. Their opponent might create a position that stops castling outright or that player won’t be able to move the necessary pieces out of the way in time to castle. In The Italian Opening, White has the option of castling after move three. Therefore, if there’s a potential threat to White’s King, White can quickly castle before that threat has a chance to stop the White King from seeking shelter. What does White do after 3. Bc4?
White’s fourth move depends on what Black does on move three. This is where variations come into play. A variation is a response (a move) to your opponent’s move in a specific opening that slightly alters the way in which that opening is played (move-wise). All openings have variations. We’ll look at a few variations based on Black’s third move. Black’s two main options are 3…Bc5, the Giucco Piano, and 3…Nf6, the Two Knights Defense. These are not the only moves Black can make, merely, the most likely moves made based on historical game analysis.
Variations are a great reason as to why you shouldn’t simply memorize a series of opening moves! While you do have to memorize the moves within a specific opening, you need to fully understand the reasoning behind those moves. You must understand why each move is made. What you have learned about the opening principles within this series of articles will help you determine the reason behind specific opening moves. If you just memorized the mainline of The Italian Opening and made those moves regardless of what your opponent did during the opening, your game’s opening would be a disaster. While the first three moves of The Italian Opening can essentially be played regardless of what Black plays (within reason), the fourth move depends on Black’s third move. This week, we’re going to look at how to respond to move three by Black and next week, we’ll continue with the rest of this opening.
The two most common moves for Black’s third move are 3…Bc5 and 3…Nf6. Both of these moves follow opening principle two, the development of minor pieces towards the board’s center. How should White reply? Use the opening principles as a guide. Let’s say that Black plays 3…Bc5. It’s not uncommon to find somewhat symmetrical positions in this opening, so Black isn’t copying White’s moves. Black is trying to gain control of the board’s center in the same way White is. White could castle on move four with 4. 0-0, which we’ll see shortly. However, there are better options. One of these is 4. Nc3, strengthening White’s presence in the center. This would be a good move for a beginner new to opening play. Next week, we’ll look at an immediate attack on the center by White on move four. This week, we just want to become acquainted with this opening. Playing 4. Nc3 follows the principles and develops yet another minor piece towards the board’s center. What if Black plays 3…Nf6?
This is another case of relying on the opening principles! You should always consider any threat made by your opponent to your pawns and pieces before considering a move. In this case, the Black Knight on f6 attacks the White pawn on e4. Does this mean that you should defend it? Not necessarily. Some common beginner’s moves played in this opening (for White), include castling, 4. Nc3 and 4. d3. You might think that castling ignores Black’s threat against the e4 pawn. Remember, you don’t want to move the same piece multiple times during the opening, if avoidable. If Black captured your pawn (4…Nxe4) after you castle (4. 0-0), you could play 5. Re1, chasing the Knight away and forcing Black to waste further time. If White plays 4. Nc3, the opening has been transformed into the Four Knights Opening. Playing 4. Nc3 protects the White pawn on e4 and puts pressure on Black’s d5 square. It further develops your minor pieces, which is a good thing to do during the opening. If White plays 4. d3, White is playing the Giuoco Pianissimo (the very quiet game). The move 4. d3 does open a line for your c1 Bishop. However, it isn’t very aggressive. Your homework this week: Play through each of these responses for White and determine which one you think is best based on the opening principles.
Next week, we’ll look at these three moves for White on move four and talk about their merits and potential problems. We’ll also continue with our studies of this opening and talk about a more aggressive approach to employ, fighting for the center. I know that there seem to be a lot of variations/transitions early in The Italian Opening. Just remember, that these different moves that lead to the various variations all follow the opening principles. You never know what moves your opponent will play during the opening, so you need to be prepared for anything. When we finish our study of this opening, you’ll actually know how to play a few different openings and have a good grasp of basic opening play. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!