Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
In the chess game between Beth Harmon and Benny Watts in The Queen’s Gambit Netflix show, Beth displays her attacking skills and defeats Benny in only 17 moves.
Beth Harmon knows her chess history. When it comes to attacking chess, you can learn a lot from the games of Paul Morphy.
Beth followed the well-known “Opera House” game. Two noblemen didn’t want to miss their chance to play against a chess legend. Wanting to get back to watching the opera, Paul Morphy set about finishing the game quickly.
Like Benny Watts, the two noblemen helped by making basic errors that violate chess opening principles.
What Beth Harmon did Right
Playing through the above game you will see Beth Harmon developed her pieces faster and more efficiently than Benny.
The bishop on c4 and knight on c3 work with the e4-pawn to control the center and the d5-square in particular. The queen helped control this square as well, while also creating a threat against f7.
Although beginners are advised not to bring out the queen early in the game nor to move the same piece twice in the opening, there are always exceptions to the rule.
Beth’s queen developed by capturing the black bishop on f3. When it moved to b3 this loss of tempo was balanced by the threat to f7.
When Beth castled queenside she accomplished three things with one move. These were
- getting the king to safety,
- bringing a rook into play on the open file,
- and creating a threat against d7.
In this position, black is completely lost.
The whole game:
What Benny Watts did Wrong
Benny’s moves helped Beth reach a won position by aiding her development and central control. As early as the fourth move, white had a significant advantage.
Instead of capturing on f3 with 4…Bxf3, black should have developed a piece with 4…Nc6 and accepted the loss of a pawn. Play might have continued 5.exd6 Bxd6 6.Bb5 Nge7.
Suddenly black has four pieces developed and can castle on his next move. Unlike in the game, where the king was stuck in the center and the bishop on f8 was undeveloped.
The capture 4…Bxf3 was the second move in the opening by the same piece. This can be justified if you get positional compensation in return.
In the Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation, white weakens black’s pawn structure after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Bxc6 dxc6
Here 4…Bxf3 by Benny helped white develop a powerful attacking piece.
After 7…Qe7, Benny needed to realize the only way to defend his pawn on f7 and develop his bishop was to play …g6, …Bg7, and short castle.
Getting the king to safety in the opening is very important. Even giving up the f7 pawn by playing …Nd7 and castling long would have been preferable to what transpired in the game.
Beth would be a pawn up and favorite to win the game, but Benny could have maintained hopes of drawing the endgame.
Instead of developing or getting his king to safety, Benny went on the offensive with …c6 and …b5. Attacking before you develop your pieces seldom ends well.
The Three Chess Opening Principles that Beth Harmon Followed
Chess is a complex game and there will always be exceptions to the general rules. Whenever you are breaking one of the accepted rules be aware of the extra risk you are taking.
In the opening there are three guiding factors:
- Control the center
- Develop actively
- King safety
Control the Center
The center in chess is comprised of four squares – e4, d4, e5, and d5 (highlighted in the diagram below). Controlling the center is crucial because it gives your pieces greater mobility.
A queen on e4 controls a lot more squares than a queen on h1. In an open position, a bishop in the center is extremely powerful.
There are two ways to control the center. You can control them with your pawns by playing 1.e4 or 1.d4, or you can control them with your pieces and play 1.Nf3.
Controlling the center with your pieces is the hypermodern approach. Using your pawns to stake a claim in the center is the more traditional approach.
Often one player will advance pawns to the center squares. Their opponent will use his pieces to challenge this control of the center.
Controlling the center is a major strategic achievement. When developing your pieces make certain their development increases your control of the center.
The goal of your development in the opening is to place your pieces on their best squares. Doing this will naturally increase your influence over the center.
A simple guideline is to develop your knights, bishops, get your king to safety, and then develop your major pieces. Because minor pieces can often attack your major pieces, it’s best to develop the queen and rooks last.
When developing, try to create threats as Beth Harmon did with 7.Qb3 when she forced Benny to develop his f7 pawn.
In the Queen’s Indian Defense, for example, black often attacks white’s pawn on c4.
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.g3 Ba6 – attacking c4!
When you create a threat in the opening, your opponent has to react to it. This could delay the development of a piece.
In the Queen’s Indian Defense example above, white might play b3 to defend c4. Pawn moves in the opening slow down your development.
Try to complete your development within the first 10-14 moves of the game. Keep the number of pawns moves to no more than 5 and get your king to safety.
Being ahead in development allows you to choose which side of the board to play on or to play on both sides if you want.
Development is important but don’t just go with the flow. Always stay aware of what your opponent is doing and be ready to punish any error he makes in the opening.
Gambits are Good Choices for Rapid Development
A lead in development is so important there are many openings involving gambits. Gambits usually involve sacrificing a pawn or even two pawns.
Gambits are played to obtain
- a lead in development – Danish Gambit
- positional advantages like a superior pawn structure – Benko Gambit
- or control of the center – Evans Gambit.
Gambits are tricky. It’s a good idea to learn about the gambits that can be played against you. You don’t want to try finding a refutation at the board.
For example, if you play 1.d4, you will need to know how to play against the Benko Gambit, Budapest Gambit, and Albin Counter-Gambit.
If you play the Dutch Defense, you need to know how to play against the Staunton Gambit.
There are many factors to consider when choosing a safe square for your king. The position of your opponent’s pieces is a helpful guide.
If your opponent has a bishop on b7, your king won’t feel very safe on g2 or h1. The h2 square could be the safest square for your king.
Castling is usually a safe way to get your king to safety. Remember, there are exceptions to every chess rule, and sometimes you could castle into an attack.
Avoid moving the pawns in front of your king unless you have a very good reason.
The move h3 can give your king an escape square but it can also give black ideas of sacrificing a bishop with …Bxh3.
Building an Opening Repertoire
A good opening repertoire will allow you to reach the middlegame with a comfortable position. Or a winning one like Beth did.
The two essential factors in choosing your opening repertoire are
- your style of play
- and how much time you have to study the opening.
Choose your repertoire based on the positions you like to play. Gambit openings are not a suitable choice if you prefer to build up pressure slowly.
There’s no reason for black not to play aggressively. Try one of these five counter-attacking defenses if you enjoy playing attacking chess.
If you don’t have much time to devote to your opening studies, it’s best to avoid openings like the Sicilian Najdorf, where knowing theory is essential.
Determining how much time you have to study the openings will also help you use your time more productively.
Reassess your current opening against the four moves you are most likely to face with black – 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4, and 1.Nf3.
Give each line a rating, with those you love getting 5 stars and the ones you hate getting 1 star.
Then compare the positions in your preferred lines and look for ways to replace the lower-rated lines with ones you enjoy playing.
Final Thoughts on Beth Harmon versus Benny Watts
Beth Harmon learned from a past master. This is a great way to improve your own play.
When you have selected your opening repertoire, it’s a good idea to study the games of strong players who played these openings. Learn from past and present chess masters.
No matter how big your material advantage, if you are checkmated, you lose the game. Benny was ahead with a queen and a knight for two pawns, but it didn’t save him.
Chess guidelines have proven their worth over time. Make use of them while you are learning.
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