An occasional series which might provoke comments. I’m setting out to try and articulate some of the chess knowledge I’ve acquired over the years in the hope that it might be helpful to others or at least challenge why we do what we do. Some of it will sound familiar, chess has been around a long time and I’ve learnt over the years from many diverse sources not specifically acknowledged. And these are my personal thoughts, and should be treated with suitable caution. In this first article I’m going to start with some thoughts about the start of the chess game, something I expect to return to at a later date.
The opening phase of the game is the first dozen moves or so in which you and your opponent seek to put pieces on good squares that will help in your plan to gain superiority later in the game. If you put your pieces on good squares at the start of the game, then they will work better together later on. A single piece on a bad square may prove your downfall if you have to waste time putting it on a better square later, or maybe the game might pass that piece by completely if it is somewhere with no influence on the developing struggle, so you need to ‘know’ your openings.
[Please note: People do often mistakenly talk as above about ‘knowing an opening’ – I know the Dragon, or I’ve been taught the Benko (chess has lots of names for sequences of moves ) Although it is important to understand move sequences – as in some openings you can go wrong very quickly if you get the precise order wrong- it is more important that you understand the general aims and strategies that might arise. And you need to understand what your opponent wants to achieve (what is a good result of the opening for him) as well as what you are trying to do, so that when something unexpected happens, you can distinguish between something which is unusual (you won’t have seen everything) and what is bad (because they understand less than you.) And then you can respond appropriately…] Understanding the aims of both sides is a challenge, but very necessary as you don’t get to play all the moves. Key point for juniors – your opponent gets to play moves as well which may challenge your plans.]
So what openings should I play?
As with all aspects of chess, developing an understanding of openings takes time, and many people continue to have relatively limited knowledge even after many years of playing. Some change their openings frequently rather than try to obtain a deep understanding of any one system. Sometimes this is for variety, or because they simply don’t like the positions that arise. They may feel the position is too tactical or too passive. But constantly re-inventing yourself with limited time to spend on chess may be harmful, unless you can get to a level of deeper understanding with your new opening.
What sort of positions do I like? Do I like to launch a direct attack on the king? Am I happy playing more slowly against weaknesses in my opponents position. Am I happy in blocked positions? Do I like defending and waiting to counterattack? Whilst there are plenty of openings that offer a mixture of quiet and aggressive options, others rapidly become very complicated and tactical. You won’t see me play the Sicilian as Black, but some club members enjoy the tactical melee that can frequently result. And I have a poor grasp of fianchetto systems (putting a bishop on g7 or b7) so the Pirc and the King’s or Queens Indian are not normally for me. (I’ve been known to play some stuff just for variety when faced with a less proficient opponent. This is not to be recommended, as it is all too easy to wander into the unknown and get confused.)
Many chess players soon realise that even the opening phase of the game is complex. Some choose to play openings which are relatively uncommon, so that both players are left to their own devices. Some of these are good, others relieve much of the tension at an early stage. I played 1 b3 for a number of years because I realised that there were too many replies to e4 that I didn’t have time to analyse. And I still play 2 c3 if my opponent answers 1 e4 with...c5. Others will try to play universal systems where you can quickly bash out half a dozen moves almost without thinking about what your opponent is doing. But you still need to understand the opening ideas!
The opening is rarely decisive in chess at lower levels where it is possible to make more inaccuracies and not be punished. But some openings may be less effective against stronger players and may place a greater requirement on you to really understand your stuff.
Some juniors are taught to play gambits and other tricky lines, so that they can think about fast piece development and tactical ideas. These are good lessons, but winning lots of games in these openings may not be a pointer to success further on. The Italian Game with e4 e5 followed by bishops and knights contesting the middle of the board is adequate and can be seen even today at the highest levels of chess but I have seen plenty of players who can play six moves and then get stuck. Key ideas need to be learnt as well as moves. (I might have said that before )
Your knowledge may never be put to the test. I used to know a lot about the Benko Gambit, but many of my opponents played moves that meant it never occurred on the board. I knew less about the systems they played. So you want to use your time learning about positions that are likely to arise at your level of the game.
Why I don’t recommend the French Exchange variation or other methods of simplification
(e4 e6, d4 d5, ed5 ed5)
White starts with the advantage of the first move, and should be seeking to set the agenda. Chess is about psychology as well as good moves - the stronger player will normally win irrespective of approach, but if my opponent simplifies the position to dodge my pet lines I can start to relax. He may of course be an expert in these lines so there may be a degree of bluffing but normally he is just trying to keep things simple. Chess is a game played in the head so I’m not keen on moves that just duck the challenge, unless they are in some way intended to create tension or imbalance. Symmetrical positions can be tricky, but not that much, so avoid them.
I’ve deliberately not set out to tell you how to play openings, but a search on the internet for ‘chess openings’ will quickly lead you to a variety of articles and also some basic principles of opening play. Having whetted your appetite I’ll cover some of this stuff next time.
Cautionary note: There are an awful lot of books out there on individual openings and a lot of them are too detailed for most people or cover too narrow a subject matter. Do ask other players for recommendations and try to see a book before purchasing. Some of the publishers also now allow you to download sample chapters from books in pdf form, so that you can see the level of detail. [ I’ve mentioned books as the most common or traditional learning tool, but there are also videos on line or DVDs] I’ve recently purchased two rather large volumes which provide a repertoire for black after e4 e5 and a third more concise book on d4. I like chess books, although don’t always read them as thoroughly as I should. But even with these purchases I have to work out what I want to play going forward as white!
The author would welcome feedback or questions from club members or visitors, perhaps sharing experience on learning openings/ constructing an opening repertoire, good learning resources for all levels. Indeed any reaction at all would be good J