Before we dive head first into loads of opening theory, I would like to first outline what the opening is, what the goals of the opening are, and how we should study them to maximise our development. The opening is normally the first 10 to 15 moves of the game, where each player decides what pawn structures they want to achieve, and on which squares they develop their pieces to, along with a few other important goals, which I summarise below:
Goals of the Opening
- Develop your pieces.
- Gain Strong central control.
- Find a safe place for your king – often by castling.
- Gain a solid pawn structure – with few or no weaknesses.
As a novice player, you really need to focus on improving your tactical vision, strategy and positional play before focussing on opening theory, but even at this stage it is helpful to understand some of the foundations of the opening principles. About 35 years ago, former world champion Karpov played against a number of amateur players at a simul event, and he said to his friend “These amateurs play like grandmasters! I might lose some of the games” to which his friend replied “Don`t worry, after the first 15 moves they will be on their own…”
I think that to generally improve your chess it is good to experiment with a wide range of openings, until you find the one that suits you. However, when you do find the opening that suits you, stick with it and study it deeply, so that you become an expert on how to play that particular opening, and you will do well. GM Simon Williams became an IM, and the only opening he played as white was The English opening up until that point in his career.
The Possible moves from move 1
On the very first move, there are 20 possible moves, which are illustrated below:
Out of these moves, some are rarely played, because they do little to help achieve the opening goals, some even hinder it. Most often you will see the moves e4 and d4 being played on move 1, so it is important that you know what to do against them. Here is a table of the first moves, and how many times they have been played by masters on chess.com:
- e4 – 880,000
- d4 – 694,000
- Nf3 – 196,000
- c4 – 142,000
- g3 – 17,000
- b3 – 7,700
- f4 – 6,500
- Nc3 – 2,600
- b4 – 2,000
- e3 – 700
The London System
I am going to recommend this opening to novices at chess, because it is not too complicated, and the strategies can be recycled in a number of positions, so you don`t have to learn loads of theory. Also if you play a different move to the best move early on, you are less likely to suffer than in some openings. The world number one has played this opening on numerous occasions, so if it is good enough for Magnus Carlsen, it is good enough for me! First of all, let`s see how Magnus ground down a strong GM in a Titled Tuesday event on chess.com:
World no.1 Wins with the London System
1.d4 Nf6 2.Bf4 e6 3.Nf3 c5 4.e3 d5 5.c3 Nc6 6.Nbd2 Bd6 7.Bg3 O-O (figure 1) This is a typical position that you will get if you play this opening. Both black and white both have 3 well developed pieces, and they have a good grip on the centre. They are both already well on their way to fulfilling opening goals 1 and 2. Black believe that his king is safe in the castled structure, but white does not tend to rush castling in this opening. It is more flexible to keep your options open as white, and not commit at this early stage.
8.Bb5 Bxg3 9.hxg3 Qb6 10.a4 h6 (figure 2) In compensation for the doubled g-pawns, Magnus has an open h-file for his rook, which could prove dangerous later on.
11.O-O Bd7 12.Qe2 Ne7 13.Ne5 Bxb5 14.Qxb5 Magnus offers the exchange of queens, which will leave Magnus with a small edge, since white will always have pressure along the open a-file after axb5. Rfc8 15.Rfc1 Qc7 (figure 3) Black prepares for the c-file to open up, by moving the heavy pieces onto that file.
16.a5 a6 17.Qa4 Nc6 18.Nd3 c4 19.Nc5 This knight has found a good outpost. It is hard for black to kick this knight away with b6, because of axb6. Nd7 20.Nxd7 Qxd7 21.b3 cxb3 22.Nxb3 Qe7 (figure 4) Positionally, white is doing well. The advantage that white has over black here is small, but it is enough for a win if you are Magnus Carlsen. The open b-file may soon be occupied by a white rook, to try and win the b7 pawn. Black`s knight (in comparison with the white knight) is a bad piece. It is not even threatening b5, because white will take en passant with axb3.
23.Nc5 Na7 24.c4 dxc4 25.Rxc4 Nb5 26.Rac1 Rc7 27.Nd3 Rac8 28.g4 Rxc4 29.Rxc4 Rxc4 30.Qxc4 Kh7 31.Ne5 g6 (figure 5) At this point we must acknowledge that black has less than 10 seconds on the clock now, while Magnus has 71 seconds.
32.Qc8 Kg7 33.Nd7 Nd6 34.Qc7 f6 35.f3 Kf7 36.Kf2 h5 37.gxh5 gxh5 38.e4 Ke8?? With 3.4 seconds left on the clock it is understandable, but this is a horrible move, blundering a pawn. From here, black completely crumbles. 39.Nxf6+ Qxf6 40.Qxd6 Qh4+ 41.Ke2 Qg5 42.Qxe6+ I don`t think black could have defended with 41. Qf6 either, because Qb8+ picks up the b7 pawn. Kd8 43.Qd6+ Ke8 44.Qe5+ (figure 6) black resigns. 2 pawns down against Magnus in an endgame is game over.
My first Win with the London System
1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 Nc6 3.e3 e6 4.Nf3 Bd6 5.Bg3 This is all standard.
5…Bxg3?! This allows me to get an active rook on the h-file, which plays a crucial part in the tactics to come. An improvement is: ( 5…Nf6 6.Nbd2 O-O 7.c3 Re8 8.Bd3 e5 9.Nxe5 Nxe5 10.Bxe5 Bxe5 11.dxe5 Rxe5 12.Qe2 This variaiton leads to a roughly equal position). 6.hxg3 Qd6 I was slightly surprised by this, however I noticed that after my next move, the Qd6 move looks rather silly. 7.c3 Now the Queen on d6 is not going anywhere funky, for example the Qb4+ is not a trick I have to watch out for. 7…Nf6 8.Nbd2 It took me some thought to confirm my thoughts on this move, because I was worried about Ne4, but I calculated that if Ne4 was played in this particular position I could gain an advantage with ( 9.Nxe4 dxe4 10.Ng5 Qd5 11.Nxh7! Ke7 12.Rh5 Qd6 13.Qg4) White`s pieces occupy much more active squares, and an attack is easy for white to construct, and black`s king and queen are misplaced, and the queenside rook and bishop are asleep. The battle will be over by the time they have put their armour on. 8…Bd7 9.Bd3 Ne7!? Why? The knight is not going anywhere, it was better on c6, when at least it provides better control over the e5 sqaure. 10.Ne5 Nc6 Black has wasted 2 precious tempi, which he could not afford to lose. ( 10…Ng6?! To carry on with the bad plan. 11.Nxg6 fxg6 12.Bxg6+! Ke7 When white has a very easy game in hand. ) 11.Ndf3 Ne4 12.Qc2 At the least this threatens to win a pawn with Bxe4.
12…Nxe5 13.Nxe5 Nf6 14.g4 Restricting your opponent is an important part of chess. If black ignores my last move, then the knight on f6 will be put to shame. 14…g6 ( 14…O-O-O 15.g5 Ng8 16.Rxh7 Rxh7 17.Bxh7 and white is completely winning ) 15.g5 After this move, I believe the position was totally winning for white, regardless of how black replied 15…Ng8?! This falls for a great attacking motif. ( 15…Nh5 16.g4 Ng7 This knight looks funny on this square, as it does not have a future.The doubled g-pawns prove to be a strength here, since the front g pawn stops black breaking with f5 or h5 with en passant.)
Puzzle – White to Win
16.Bxg6!! fxg6 ( 16…hxg6? 17.Rxh8 Kf8 18.Nxg6+ fxg6 19.Qxg6 Ke7 20.Qg7+ Kd8 21.Rxg8+ Be8 22.Qf6+ When I am completely winning. ) 17.Nxg6 Ne7 18.Nxh8 O-O-O 19.Nf7 This final nail in the coffin leads my opponent to resign. 1-0
Summary of Main Ideas
Play 1. d4 Your opponent will then most likely respond in the following ways:
Against any one of these above moves, I recommend that you play 2. Bf4
The point of this move is to get your dark squared bishop outside of the pawn structure, as you will often play e3 – if the bishop was still on c1, then it would be hitting the e3 pawn and would be a bad piece.
Less common are:
Now, after you have brought the bishop out, you should aim to play Nf3 soon, and e3 to support the pawn on e4.
Here is an example #1: 1.d4 d5 2. Bf4 Nf6 3. Nf3 e6 4. e3 (figure 10)
This is the typical development of the minor pieces in this opening.
After you have developed your dark squared bishop and your king`s knight, it is often best to develop your queen`s knight to d2 – Nbd2. The main point of this move is to support the e4 advance, that you should aim to play in the middlegame.
In the next few moves, you ideally want to develop your light squared bishop to d3 – Bd3 – from this square it points towards the castled black king, and you should play c3 to support yout pawn on d4. If you want to be a bit more adventurous, then c4 is playable in many variaitons, and this may resemble some sort of Queen`s gambit, but with a good dark squared bishop.
The example #1 could continue: 4…, Bd6 threatening Bxf4, when after exf4 white will have cumbersome doubled pawns on the f-file, which will slow progress. 5. Bg3 This is a good move to remember. Just dropping the bishop back. You should note that 5…,Bxg3? is not playable on account of 6. hxg3 when white has a very dangerous open h-file, which in conjunction with Bd3 aiming at h7 will give white far too much initiative. 5…, c5 6. c3 consolidating the d4 pawn. White should aim to keep his pawn on d4 for as long as possible. 6…, 0-0 7. Bd3 c4 8. Bc2 (figure 11)
Example #2: 1.d4 g6 2.Bf4 Bg7 3.e3 Nf6 4.h3 Magnus Carlsen likes this move, because he prefers long positional games. The point of this move is that if black plays Nh5 to try and win the dark squared bishop, then Bh2 will save him. The point is that at top level, bishops are considered to be worth more than knights. O-O 5.Nf3 c5 Here black offers a pawn, but white really shouldn`t take it, because the Bg7 will get far too much scope, if the pawn is removed from d4, and will likely pick up the pawn on b2. The pawn can also be won back immediately by 6…,Qa5+ 7. Qd2 and Qxc5. 6.c3 d5 7.Nbd2 b6 solidifying the c5 pawn, and making way for a Q-side fianchettoe (Bb7) 8.Bd3 Nh5
What move should white play, when black plays Nh5…What was the point of h3?
9.Bh2 Yes that`s right. Alternatively, you could try Bg3, and claim that the open h-file is enough compensation. You should often castle Q-side in these lines. Bb7 10.O-O Nc6