A Minimalist Guide to Chess Openings
When you first start learning to play chess you typically have other people at a similar level that you can play against. In the beginning both players will be nervously shuffling pieces and capitalising on mistakes of their opponent and ending in one player eventually having more material than the other where they will more or less accidentally checkmate the other player. As time goes on you start to spot the common mistakes; those moves that lost you material in the previous game and so you will stop playing those moves. It is through this trial and error that people improve: they learn what loses and they choose something else.
Eventually the players will get to the level where they don't really see any mistakes from their opponents and so to take pieces they will have to actively use tactics. These include forks, pins, skewers and revealed attacks. This should be the main focus of for most school level players. Often a single successful tactic will net enough material to win the game. The other thing that should be learned is the basic checkmate patterns. So learning to checkmate with two rooks, then with just a queen and then with just a rook are all important.
However eventually you will get to the stage where you are happy with you tactics filled middlegame and your pawn pushing endgame, but you feel like you are always going into the middle game at a disadvantage because the people around you know lots about openings. That is the first point at which you should start learning them.
A word of warning here. There are many opening traps where to set them up you have to put yourself at a disadvantage. They will get you some cheap wins against unprepared opponents, but they will harm you long term if you want to play better people. In this I include scholar's mate (using the Bishop and Queen to attack the f pawn and checkmate the King in 4 moves) and, to a lesser extent, the Fried Liver.
We are going to pick an opening for you with the aim of getting you comfortably into the middle game with openings which are sturdy enough to be solid at every level of play. Pick one of these and you could happily play them against a grandmaster just as validly as against your school mate. You need to learn three openings, one as white and two as black. Let's start with white:
With white you get to pick your first move. There are two very common choices the Queen’s pawn (d4) or the King’s pawn (e4). You need to choose one and focus on it. I haven't played e4 in a decade, but by concentrating on just the d4 I only have to worry about half of the possible responses. Let's look into them:
e4. This is the most popular opening for a reason. Expect open games with lots of tactics (forks etc), fast attacks and traps. Common responses include either your opponent doing the same e5 where you should develop your Knights and Bishops and try to capture the centre, or you opponent playing c5 where you should try to occupy the centre with nf3 and then d4. This will suit your playstyle if you like open games where they may be half a dozen things being threatened at once.
d4. This leads to closed games where the board gets blocked up with long chains of pawns that are shunted up against each other. Knights will be more important than in other games because they can hop over the locked board. Expect positional play where you move pieces to a space, not because it wins you material, but because it is a better spot for it 10 moves later. These games have fewer fireworks and I love them. Suggested first three moves against almost anything: d4, c4 and nc3. Usually you will gain space on the queenside of the board (left for you).
As you can see white doesn't actually get much of a choice with openings, they simply choose which half of the opening theory they are going to use. It is up to black to choose within that framework which opening will be played. Therefore they need a response against e4 and a response again d4. I'll give a few options for each. My advice is pick on for each branch and stick with it: over the years you will see all of the little variations and side lines of your opening and it will get to the point where you know it better than the majority of people you play.
Reponses to e4.
e5. This is the most popular response at school level and the second most common at grandmaster level. It opens up routes for your bishop and queen and grabs space in the centre. Usually play will be fairly symmetrical with openings like 1.e4 e5 2.nf3 nc6 3.bc4 (or bb5). Any of these routes lead to very open games full of tactics and attacks for both sides. Look up the Ruy Lopez and the Italian Game.
c5. The Sicilian is a very popular opening. Typically you will end up with a structure where you are attacking into the centre from the flanks, but are not occupying it yourself. Fianchettos are common (where you move the pawn in front of the king's knight forward one and then develop the bishop behind it) and these games can be very sharp and exciting. Considered by many to be black's best response to e4. Look up the Sicilian Dragon.
e6. The French Defence usually follows with 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 where white and black create a big chain of pawns in the centre of the board which cramps everything up. If you usually play Queen's Pawn games because you like the closed positions then this might be for you. Black will be on the defensive at the start of the game, but will have the better structure eventually when they burst through. Very solid as an opening, no big risks.
Responses to d4.
d5 2.c4 c6 or d5 2.c4 e6 are both very safe variations that will get you a solid game. Concentrate on developing Knights, Bishops and controlling the centre. They are called the Queen's Gambit Declined and the Semi Slav and play similarly. Normal play will suffice to get a fair position for both players.
nf6. Any opening that starts with this is called an Indian opening. Two continuations I recommend are (from White's second move) 2.c4 g6 3.nc3 bg7 which is called the King's Indian Defence (KID) and has you attacking from the flank rather than occupying the centre. Very positional. Watch as White's huge pawn centre falls under it's own weight. It is particulary good for positional players. The second is the Nimzowitsch Indian which is usually just shortened to the Nimzo. It begins 1.d4 nf6 2.c4 e6 3.nc3 bb4 with the bishop often swapping off for the knight is it is forced to move with pressure from the pawn coming to a3. Less positional but perhaps closer in spirit to a lot of King's pawn games.
And that's it. So pick a pawn as white and stick to it. Choose responses to both major pawns as black and stick to them too: make it so that you are more familiar with whichever line you pick than your opponent. If in doubt you should just follow the principles of capturing the centre, getting your Knights and Bishops out and castling. Don't spend too much effort learning long lines of play, instead focus on getting into a sensible middlegame where you can win by playing your usual bag of tactics tricks such as forks and pins. My advice is to pick whichever you like the sound of best and do a quick read up of the motivations of the opening on Wikipedia.