Essential Chess Opening Principles for Absolute Beginners

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Essential Chess Opening Principles for Chess Beginners Principles for Chess B
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We get it. Chess can be tough, especially as a beginner. Lost in a sea of potential decisions, crushing doubts, and with no guiding light to show the way, many chess beginners end up randomly moving pawns and getting stuck in a losing position within the first few moves. Maybe you’ve come here after a series of painful losses. Maybe you just want to beat your dad. Or maybe you want to build up some confidence before starting to play chess. The good news is: you’ve come to the right place. Chess opening principles are like the foundations of a building. Without them, everything will crumble. But once you lay them, the possibilities you can construct are nearly limitless.

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What Are the Key Chess Opening Principles for Beginners?

For a beginner, there is nothing more important than understanding the underlying concepts that govern the opening of any chess game. These opening rules determine which player will gain an advantage after the first moves, from beginner games to grandmaster clashes at the very highest level. These principles are the basis of how to play the game and once you know them, you gain the key to rapid and long-lasting improvement.  

So, without further ado, here are six essential chess opening principles that will help you improve your chess and make sure you always know what to do at the start of a game.

1. Develop your Pieces

Most chess games can be divided into three phases (provided you don’t get checkmated in four moves). If the game lasts long enough, there will be an opening, a middlegame, and an endgame. As a rule of thumb, you can consider the opening phase of the game to be over when both players have developed their minor pieces (knights and bishops) off the back rank, and they have castled (moving their king to safety, crossing over with one of their rooks). Once these tasks have been accomplished, you enter the middlegame. Below is an example of a completed opening from both sides. On move 7, White places their bishop on e3, Black responds by castling, and the game’s opening is complete:

Black castles after seven moves to complete their development.
Some people may argue that the queens should also be off the back rank here, connecting the two rooks. While this is an important chess opening principle, it should generally not be prioritized over the development of minor pieces and castling, as we will discuss later.

With this in mind, you can understand why the first chess opening rule is simple enough: develop your pieces. To grasp the point of this opening principle, you need to understand what you are trying to achieve by the time you enter the middlegame.

When the game starts, your pieces are not optimally placed. They are distant from your opponent’s king, susceptible to attack, and doing nothing to prevent your opponent’s pieces from advancing. By the time the opening is over, you want to have improved the position of your pieces as a whole. This includes getting your king to safety, controlling more of the board, setting up potential attacks, coordinating your pieces in attack and defence, and restricting your opponent’s pieces as much as possible. To achieve this, the moves you make should prioritize the development of your pieces. For example, by moving your knight to f3 (a natural opening square for this piece), you control important squares like d4, e5, and g5, and you set up several possibilities for future attacks in combination with all the other pieces you will have developed in the opening:

White moves their knight to the f3 square, a principled move in a chess opening.
By moving the knight to f3, White is controlling important central squares and is one step closer to castling on the kingside.

By contrast, if you decide to play 1. f3 (as shown below) you take away this square from your knight, expose your king to attack, and control only e4 and g4, much less desirable squares to conquer in the opening:

White plays a move that runs contrary to chess opening principles, 1.f3
Here, 1.f3 is played. This is considered one of the worst first moves you can make.

Early on in a chess opening, making the most of every move is vital, and 1.f3 commits several cardinal sins: not developing your minor pieces, weakening your king, and making it harder for you to develop your knight. If your opponent responds to this move following the chess opening principles recommended in this article, you will be in for a rough ride.

2. Control the Centre, Control the Game

Before you go playing 1.Nf3, there is another essential concept to understand: in a chess opening you are in a fight for control of the centre of the board. The central squares in a chess game are a key part of the battleground; whoever controls the centre is likely to have much better prospects as the game develops. There are thousands of years of opening theory to back this up (tl;dr), but essentially, having central control boils down to a few key benefits:

  • It increases your piece mobility and flexibility, and takes these advantages away from your opponent.
  • Your pieces have greater influence on the game when established in central positions.
  • Attacks built from the centre can often lead to a decisive advantage.

Classically, the agreed-upon best way to control the centre is to occupy it with your pawns, which (besides their other qualities) are difficult to remove and good at blocking your opponent’s pieces. For this reason, the two most recommended first moves for beginners as White are 1.e4 and 1.d4. Though these two moves usually lead to quite different games, they both help White to stake a claim on the centre, with the additional advantage of opening up a diagonal for White to develop either their kingside bishop (after 1.e4) or their bishop on c1 (after 1.d4) on the next move. Of course, your opponent will also be interested in disputing this central control, and after 1.e4, they may challenge this pawn by attacking it with, for example, 1. …Nf6. At this point, White should add a defender to this pawn, such as 2.Nc3 or 2.d3, in order to retain their grip, while continuing to develop. And so the game will go on. 

Of course, the different ways in which the two sides fight for the centre in the opening of a chess game are various, and this principle has been distilled from several lifetimes’ worth of thought and study. The important thing to understand as a beginner is that you should not simply give your opponent free rein in the middle of the board. Before you play an opening move, ask yourself: Does this improve my control on the centre (or will it help me do so in the future)? If not, you might want to reconsider.

For a more in-depth explanation of the importance of central control, the strategic course by IM Andras Toth, Chess Principles Reloaded – Center, is extremely popular for all the right reasons. Or, if you’d like to get right in to learning about some concrete opening theory about king’s pawn and queen’s pawn openings, check out our ultimate guide to 1.e4 (also known as the King’s pawn opening), and FM Daniel Barrish’s free Short and Sweet course introducing key concepts behind 1.d4 (the queen’s pawn). 

3. Coordinate your Pieces to Maximize their Potential

First, though, it’s time to introduce another vital chess opening principle: the need for coordination. In an ideal situation, if White were given as many unopposed moves as they wanted (let’s say Black for some reason decided to move their queenside knight back and forth for the first ten moves) the position you could hope for might look like this:

The ideal position that the White pieces could hope to achieve in a chess game
While this is quite unlikely to ever happen in a game, it is a helpful illustration of how important control of the centre is in a chess opening. Look at all the squares that the White pieces dominate. This would not be a pleasant game for Black.

Of course, if they know what they are doing, the player with the Black pieces will be fighting for the exact same centre, trying to restrict White’s central control and develop their own pieces. In a principled chess opening, every move counts. Any time you waste allows your opponent to gain a better foothold in the game, and reduce your opportunities to develop and coordinate a winning position. For this reason you need to be as economical as possible with your moves. In order to complete step 1 (develop your pieces) and step 2 (control the centre) in time to avoid your opponent taking over, you need to make moves that facilitate both of these goals at the same time.

To do this, you need to coordinate: your pieces should be working in harmony — claiming space on the board, controlling key squares, and defending one another from attack — not blocking or slowing down the progress of any other piece you want to develop. Let’s look at another example. From the below position, if White plays 2.Ne2, they will develop their knight, but block in their bishop on f1, costing them another tempo before they’ll be able to develop this piece. If White plays their queen’s pawn to d3, they defend the pawn on e4 (good) but again restrict the path of the kingside bishop (bad). If coordination were our only preoccupation, a good move for White would be to play 2. Nc3, developing the queenside knight, lending support to the pawn on e4, and not blocking the path of any other minor pieces. In fact, this move also paves the way for a later move of Bb5, with the bishop protected by the knight.

According to opening chess principles, a coordinated and logical move from this position would be 2.Nbc3.
According to opening chess principles, a coordinated and logical move from this position would be 2.Nbc3.

Note that White could also play 2.Ke2 here (an infamously bad and uncoordinated move) entirely ignoring all opening chess principles, blocking in their bishop and queen, wasting at least a couple of moves, exposing their king as much as possible, and forfeiting castling rights. Even though this opening has recently gained some dubious popularity among grandmasters, it is a perfect example of what not to do in a chess opening for beginners.

But coordination is about more than not blocking your other pieces in! As you play more chess, you will learn that different chess openings have different plans associated with them. These plans could include attacks that one player wants to build towards, a weakness they want to create in their opponent’s structure, or a positional advantage they want to gain. Let’s look quickly at a famous opening as an example: the Queen’s Gambit. In this opening, after 1.d4 d5 2.c4, White is waiting for Black to capture their pawn on c4 (this is known as the Queen’s Gambit Accepted), after which White will probably play 3.e4 or 3.e3, establishing two powerful central pawns. But if, after 2.c4, Black plays 2. …e6 (known as the Queen’s Gambit Declined), White can continue their development in a way that is both logical and in coordination with White’s main plans for this opening. The answer is 3.Nc3, developing a knight while also putting additional pressure on Black’s pawn on d5:

Here Nc3 is a mainline move for White, putting pressure on the d5 square.
Here Nc3 is a mainline move for White, putting pressure on the d5 square.

Note how this is a much more purposeful piece placement than a move like 3.Bf4 would be in this situation. Even though moving the bishop to f4 develops a minor piece and doesn’t block any other pieces, it has no real purpose on f4. In contrast, after Nc3, if Black decides to take on c4, White can play their pawn to e4 and dominate the centre, and if Black doesn’t take, White can play cxd5 (the Exchange variation) or simply keep developing with a view to add more pressure to Black’s centre in the future. The great thing is, you don’t need to study any specific lines or variations to be able to play principled moves in a chess opening. All you have to do is remember the underlying concepts covered here and your play will improve dramatically! This knowledge of basic chess opening principles will also make a lot of deeper opening theory make a bit more sense when the time comes to learn a new opening. 

To learn more about the concept of coordination in chess openings, check out Chessable co-founder IM John Bartholomew’s episode on piece coordination from his very instructive Chess Fundamentals series.

4. Protect your King, He’s Kind of Important

Now that you’ve mastered developing your pieces, coordinating them, and controlling the centre, the next of the chess opening principles you need to incorporate to your play is arguably the most important so far: king safety. As this is a guide for absolute beginners, it’s worth repeating a key rule of chess: you lose by getting checkmated. Even if you have completely developed and coordinated your pieces and have orchestrated an attack that has won the opponent’s queen, it doesn’t mean a thing if your king is trapped on the next move.

The simplest way to protect your king in the opening is to get it out of the centre as soon as possible. The best way to do that is to develop your pieces and castle. Once you have done this, you can be reasonably sure you will at least make it to the middlegame. Take a look at this example from an opening called the Italian Game (an opening often recommended to players just starting out). After 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 d6 4. O-O…, White has a nicely developed and coordinated kingside, a safe king, and the ability to freely go about developing the rest of their pieces without worrying about a swift checkmate:

White castles on move four in a chess opening named: the Italian Game.
On move four in the Italian Game, White castles and protects their king.

Beyond checkmate threats, another reason to get your king out of the centre is to avoid falling prey to tactics, such as forks or pins, which are especially dangerous when your king is involved. Tactics are a very important part of chess, important enough to be worthy of their own blog post: A Course Exploring Chess Tactics. For the remit of this blog post, suffice it to say that getting your king castled and safely tucked away is a very important opening chess guideline! 

Note that for similar reasons, another golden rule is: Be very careful about moving your f pawn. While pushing this pawn can be tempting to block an attack on your queen or to try and attack a knight on g4, it exposes your king to tactical manouevres, and can hurt you in the middle game.

5. Don’t Bring Your Queen Out Early (Unless You Know What You’re Doing)

Not counting your king (you already castled, right?), your queen is your most important piece, and for that reason it is also a natural target for your opponent to attack.

How is this so? Because your queen is so valuable, your opponent should have no qualms with sacrificing one or even two of their minor pieces to win it. This makes your queen especially vulnerable to attack if you bring it into the foray too soon.

Let’s look at an example that may be familiar: let’s say that after 1.e4 e5, White decides to play 2.Qh5. Black plays 2. …Nc6, correctly defending their pawn and developing their knight. If White plays 3. Bc4, looking to set up a Scholar’s Mate on f7, Black needs to know not to play Nf6. But, if instead White plays an inoffensive third move, such as 3.d3, Black can develop their other knight to f6 and attack the white queen at the same time! As White is forced to move the queen away from the attack, Black is essentially given a free move to further improve their position. This theme could continue if White moved their queen away to h3, then 4.h3 d5 would allow Black to attack the queen again by opening up their queenside bishop. So, finally after 5.Qe3 Be6, look at the resulting position:      

Here Black has outplayed White, gaining a superior position.
Here after five moves, Black has a serious lead in development and a strong claim on the centre, while White has just moved their queen around the board.

The main point here is: even if you are able to move your queen out of harm’s way, your opponent can often gain an ominous lead in development by attacking your queen and forcing you to move it uselessly around the board while they improve their pieces. This is known as developing with tempo, and is one of the main reasons to avoid bringing out your queen until all your other pieces are developed. Note that there are several sound openings which advocate bringing your queen out relatively early on, but while these are fine to play once you have more experience, for beginners it is not recommended! 

6. Don’t Blunder (Pay Attention to Your Opponent)

This final chess opening principle will be a short one. There is no quicker way to botch a chess opening than to give up your pieces for no reward. A blunder is defined as a critically bad move that leads to you losing material or irrevocably damaging your position. Everybody blunders and, unfortunately, the only way to remove this from your game is through bitter experience (although there is also Chessable’s popular Blunder Busters course, which may save you a lot of blunder-related misery).

It is an extremely recommendable practice to double or triple-check before you make any move, asking yourself: Can my opponent take this piece or another piece for free? If you have any undefended pieces, you should constantly be scanning for ways in which your opponent could unleash a tactic to win them. Another good question to ask is: What does my opponent want to do? What was the purpose of their last move? Putting yourself in your opponent’s shoes makes it much easier to anticipate threats to your position and weaknesses you need to address.

Having said that, opening traps (move orders you can study to catch an unprepared opponent off guard) are a constant (and fun) part of the game and sooner or later you will fall into one, no matter how well you calculate. When this happens, treat it as a learning experience. You’ll be less likely to fall for the trap again, and you might even trap your next opponent with the same trick.

Conclusion and Further Study for Chess Opening Principles

With these six opening concepts for beginners safely under your belt, you should be much better prepared for the opening phase of a chess game against any opponent. Apply them well and you will be well on the way to leveling up your game. The beauty of it is, the more you play, the more you will appreciate just how deep these fundamental rules run. The better you understand them, the more you will enjoy your chess.

If you want to delve further into studying the art of beginning a chess game and become a master of chess opening principles, check out our blog post on how to learn a chess opening properly, or pick any opening you fancy on Chessable’s courses page and dive in. Aside from that, the best way to learn is to play, make mistakes, rinse and repeat… Enjoy!

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