Essential elements to understand in your openings

By Bryan Castro / On / In Chess improvement, Learning chess

Essential elements in chess openings
Approximate reading time: 9min

Beyond the Opening Moves

As we study our opening repertoire using Chessable, there are a few aspects that we should work on understanding and applying in our games. By understanding these, we will be able to connect the reasons behind the moves we choose in the opening phase and connect them to plans and moves in the middlegame and beyond.

The opening is the staging ground for your middlegame operations. Each move dictates what you can and cannot do in the middlegame.

I often talk to other amateur players and they will often say something to the effect of “play the opening moves that you memorized and then just play chess once you’ve left your theoretical knowledge.” This is all well and good, but by understanding a few important aspects of your openings, your ability to “play chess” once you’ve you are on your own at the board will be enhanced.

Over time, doing your repetitions and expanding your opening repertoire with Chessable will help you intuitively and naturally understand the elements I will be discussing. By knowing what to look for ahead of time, you can enhance this process by noting them in your repertoire.

The learning process is cyclical. Doing your repetitions will help you remember and understand your openings. Efforts to understand your opening moves will help you remember the moves. Chessable is the tool to put it together.

As your skill in chess increases and you begin to develop your own personal style, you can use these elements to select openings that fit with your preferences and proclivities.

Primary Win Conditions

The term win condition (or as some game theorists term victory condition) is the way that your opening set-up or variation wins games. This is the first thing you should try to understand about your opening, because it leads to the other elements.

Of course, this does not mean that your win conditions are the only way to win with your opening, but the particular configuration of pieces and pawns tend to lead to certain plans.

Here are a few practical examples.

Consider one of the main line of the Berlin Defense of the Ruy Lopez after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4 Nd6 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8. Qxd8+ Kxd8 (diagram):

Ruy Lopez Berlin Defense

Because of the exchanges in this variation, this opening often heads into a complex endgame battle. White’s win condition involves using his kingside majority to eventually create a passed pawn and win in the endgame. Black’s win condition involves using the advantage of having the two bishops to compensate for the damage in his pawn structure. Chess theory says the battle is about even and currently the world’s elite players take up both sides of the argument.

Compare this to the Schara Gambit after 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 cxd4 (diagram):

Schara Gambit

In this opening, Black sacrifices a pawn to accelerate piece development and open lines of attack. Black’s primary win condition is to use his development advantage and open lines on a direct attack against the king. Conversely, Black’s win condition is to survive long enough where the extra pawn would be close to decisive. Players who take up this gambit as Black need to be willing to play with a lot of energy and perhaps be ready to sacrifice more material to meet his aims.

Here’s an example of a recent encounter between two masters where White fails to secure the safety of his king and Black’s swarming pieces are just too much.

Pavlidis, Anastasios (2410) vs Grishchenko, Sergey (2442)

3rd Norway Chess Blitz, Stavanger NOR

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 cxd4 5.Qxd4 Nc6 6.Qa4 exd5 7.Nf3 d4 8.Nb5 a6 9.Bd2 Bc5 10.Rc1 Qb6 11.Na3 Nf6 12.Nc4 Qa7 13.Nce5 O-O 14.Nxc6 bxc6 15.Qxc6 Bb6 16.g3 Bb7 17.Qa4 d3 18.Be3 Bxe3 19.fxe3 Bxf3! (diagram) 0-1


Depending on your understanding of the game, you may start to notice these win conditions on your own as your study master games within your opening as well as your own games.

A great resource to understand this and the other elements I will mention are the excellent repertoires created by titled players here on Chessable. For example, International Master Christof Sielecki (aka Chessexplained) created a complete repertoire for Black against 1.d4.

The key is that not only the chosen variations and analysis, but also the illustrative games and commentary to really help you understand the moves within the repertoire. Studying a repertoire in this fashion will help you save a lot of time and effort by leveraging the experience of the master.

How to Handle the Center

Often, the plans behind your opening flow from the type of center your have. Many opening systems have similar central structures so you can study these as you will see them often in your games. I will leave it to you to study the various types of central structures – e.g. fixed, dynamic, etc. – but I will give you a few examples on how the center affects your planning. I encourage you to try to understand these in your openings.

In our first example, let’s look at the position from one of the main lines of the King’s Indian Defense.

After 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5. Nf3 O-O 6. Be2 e5 7. O-O Nc6 8. d5 Ne7 we have the following position (diagram):

King's Indian Defense


From this position, the locked center has led masters for decades to the following general plans: White will try to push his pawns and attack on the queenside, while Black will prepare to play the thematic pawn break …f7-f5 and attack on the kingside. As we discussed in the above section on win conditions, each respective player’s ability to carry out these plans will determine the outcome.

What is important to note here though is that these plans are partially a result of the locked center. Because the center is locked, play must ensue on the wings. Therefore, sometimes one or both players avoid this type of center in the King’s Indian – for example, with the Exchange Variation: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5. Nf3 O-O 6. Be2 e5 7.dxe5 dxe5 8. Qxd8 Rxd8 (diagram):

King's Indian Exchange Variation

Here, the symmetrical nature of the center as well as the exchange of queens leads to a more drawish game that often leads into the endgame. Players who play the King’s Indian Defense with Black must be ready for both types of central structures and be familiar with the type of play that ensues.

Many opening variations will lead very quickly into a certain type of central structure and thus study of model games and typical positions will be profitable.

However, certain openings such as the Reti (1.Nf3 d5 2.c4) can often lead to many types of central structures as well as transposing to other opening systems altogether. It is important to study these as well, but we have to be flexible and understand at what points in our opening our opponent can determine the direction of the game.

Thematic Pawn Breaks

Understanding the central structures in our opening systems lead naturally to the thematic pawn breaks in our systems. Understanding when, why, and how we achieve these pawn breaks is important if we are to maximize our effectiveness with our openings.

A good example of understanding the power of pawn breaks is to compare the traditional Queen’s Gambit Declined with the Chigorin Defense of the QGD. First, let’s consider the Queen’s Gambit Declined after the typical moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 (diagram):


Although we are very early in the opening and play can go in many directions, we often will see that Black prepares to break in the center eventually with …c5 (or in some cases with …e5). There are many ways to do this, sometimes right away, as in the Tarrasch Variation of the QGD (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5) or sometimes after some preparation with …b6 or even after first playing …c7-c6 and then later playing …c6-c5. Despite the many ways to get there, the pawn break …c5 is a key way for Black to fight for the center in the Queen’s Gambit Declined.

Now let’s consider the Chigorin Defense of the Queen’s Gambit Declined after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nc6 (diagram):


We can see here that the problem now is that the knight blocks the c-pawn, thus delaying or preventing our key …c5 break. Of course, Black has some compensation for this in that he gets a knight developed. Consequently, Black will often play for a …e5 break while White will often use the lack of Black’s …c5 break to build up a strong center.

Although many high level players over the years have championed the Chigorin such as Boris Spassky and more recently Alexander Morozevich, this key “flaw” in Black’s play have kept the Chigorin as a less popular variation within the Queen’s Gambit Declined.

So learn the thematic pawn breaks in your opening and note them in your repertoires in Chessable. As with the Queen’s Gambit Declined, the pawn break may be fairly early in the variation or may come later after some preparation. Understanding when and why they work will help you utilize them more effectively.

Key Minor Pieces

The next element that is important to understand in your opening repertoire are the key minor pieces. We may know that in closed positions, knights tend to be better than bishops because the bishops might get locked in by his own or his opponent’s pawns. Conversely, in fairly open positions, bishops tend to shine with their long lines of attack. However, as we delve deeper into our opening knowledge and understanding of chess in general, these relationships between the minor pieces get more complex.

Understanding which minor pieces to keep and which ones to exchange as well as where to best place them is essential if we are to make the most of our opening repertoire.

Consider the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defense: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 (diagram):

Dragon Sicilian

Black’s dark-square bishop will play a critical role in many games in this variation. White often castles queenside and attempts a kingside pawn storm against Black’s king while Black does similarly on the queenside. Black’s bishop – commonly known as the “Dragon” bishop – often contributes to Black’s attack while also helping to defend the dark-squares near his own king.

A common strategy for White is therefore to trade this bishop off. Sometimes, in doing so, he has to make concessions elsewhere. An example of this came in a World Championship encounter between Garry Kasparov and Vishy Anand in their 1995 World Championship match. Although Anand with White was able to exchange the dark-square bishops, in taking the time to do so he failed to get his king to safe haven and that was enough for Kasparov to win as he tears apart the center to get at White’s king.

Anand, Vishwanathan-Kasparov, Garry

World Championship Match (Game 13), New York 1995

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.Qd2 Nc6 8.f3 O-O 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.h4 h5 11.Bb3 Rc8 12.Nxc6 bxc6 13.Bh6 c5 14.Bc4 Qb6 15.Bxg7 Kxg7 16.b3 Be6 17.Nd5 Bxd5 18.exd5 e5 19.dxe6 d5 20.Be2 c4 21.c3 Rce8 22.bxc4 Rxe6 23.Kf1 Rfe8 24.Bd3 dxc4 25.Bxc4 Ne4! (diagram)


Diagram 9

White resigned because he will soon lose a lot of material. For example, if 26.fxe4 Rf6+ 27.Ke1 Rxd4+ 28.Kd1 Rxc4 with an ongoing attack for Black.

Chess is a complex game and that you should not blindly avoid exchanges or make exchanges based on key minor pieces alone, but instead use your knowledge to guide your planning. The reason certain pieces are more important than others in certain positions are not by arbitrary preference. It is because the particulars of the position such as the pawn structure, weak squares, and open lines of attack may favor one piece as opposed to another.


When you are studying openings, there are many things to look at, including specific move orders, transpositions, common middlegame positions, common endgames among others. Depending on the specific opening, this can be very complex.

However, if you can start recognizing and applying some of the elements in this article, you can start to make sense of the nuances within your openings. This combined with your own game experience and consistent repetition and practice of your openings with Chessable will help improve your chess results.

About Bryan Castro

Bryan Castro is a businessman, writer, and chess enthusiast from Buffalo, NY. Besides chess, he enjoys practicing martial arts, playing piano, and spending time with his wife and children.