Opening Principles

Opening principles can help you feel more comfortable when you're out of the book

Learning opening theory can be overwhelming:

  • there are too many openings
  • there are too many variants
  • it’s not obvious where to start (it sounds kind of ironic)
  • it’s hard to come up with a systematic framework to learn openings

While this may sound discouraging, the opening is also the phase of the game where some general principles can go a long way. If you’re new to the game, learning openings principles is more effective than learning a specific opening or variation. Following opening principles helps reaching a sound middle-game and prepare for the actual fight.

Here are the most important principles:

The principles are presented in the same order in which you should apply them to your openings.

Control of the centre

As José Raúl Capablanca states in Chess Fundamentals:

The four squares, e4, e5, d4, and d5 are the centre squares, and control of these squares is called control of the centre. The control of the centre is of great importance. No violent attack can succeed without controlling at least two of these squares, and possibly three.

While this is more a general chess principle, it explains why e4 or d4 are so popular as the very first moves in a chess game. The idea is that you’re trying to develop your pieces efficiently while trying to get control of the centre. Because as Capablanca explains us, that’s what you need to start a successful attack.

Develop minor pieces first

Developing minor pieces before the queen and the rooks is important because exactly because the pieces are less valuable. If your queen is attacked by, say, a bishop then most likely you want to move your queen away as the exchange is clearly not in your favor. By developing minor pieces first, you make sure you don’t lose any tempi by moving the queen or the rooks from attached squares. This concept is very important during the opening phase as most times your opponent will do two things at the same time:

  • attack one of your valuable pieces
  • develop one of her pieces

This will often result in a strong advantage in the middle-game for your opponent. Furthermore, this principle is strongly connected to the next one, so let’s move on to that.

Move each piece once

During the opening, tempi are particularly important. If you follow the principles, you should be able to develop all your pieces in 7 or 8 moves (Capablanca also underlines this in one of his openings examples in Chess Fundamentals). In order to waste a little time as possible, moving each piece only once in the opening is a solid principle.

There are notable exceptions to this principle, in fact the principle itself can be expanded to:

In the opening, move each piece once unless there’s a tactic.

Examples will be provided in the near future. (The chess atlas is a work in progress!)

Castle early

King safety is of the highest importance, after all you lose the game if your king gets checkmated. Castling is a great defensive move and it helps developing the rook. Strong players often suggest you should castle as early as move 7 or 8, there are no exact rules but the point of the principle is that you should not leave your king in the centre. It’s easier to start an attack against your king when it’s in the centre.

Bring the queen into the game as late as possible

After the king the queen is obviously the most valuable piece at your disposal. The idea that you should bring the queen into the game as late as possible is, so to speak, the other side of the coin of the principle develop minor pieces first. The reasoning is indeed the same: if your queen is attacked, you most likely will lose a tempi to move or shield the queen from the attack.

Connect rooks

Rooks are very powerful pieces and ever more so when they’re connected. Connecting rooks can be considered the last step of the opening and it’s an important step of the development of your pieces in the opening.