Saturday, May 23, 2015

Openings for Beginners

What opening should I play?

I see this question a lot on internet forums.  There are so many openings, with multiple paths and transpositions, it is no wonder beginners are confused.

General Advice

The advice most often given to beginners is to play the open games.  These are the openings that start with White playing 1.e4 and Black responding with 1...e5.  These openings are called the open games because there are usually pawns traded on the center squares resulting in open central files and diagonals.  With all these open lines, the pieces come into play quickly and it is often easy to figure out the best squares for your pieces.  Quick development, king safety, and the fight for the central squares are usually the main priorities of the open games.

All of the above tends to make the open games good for learning, but I think the best reason to play the open games is that when you lose, it will usually be easy to figure out your mistake because it will be punished tactically right away.  In the closed games, your positional mistake may not be exploited for another 10 moves, and the beginner will not be able to make the logical connection.

Who is the target audience of this advice?

The title says openings for beginners, and certainly anybody just learning to play chess should consider the opening advice listed below.  I would think players rated under 1200 should also be trying out these openings.  All the lines I give have been played by masters, so there is no need to worry that these lines are unsound.  If they suit your style you could play them as you progress up through ratings of 1600 to 1800.

I should also note that these recommendations are intended to maximize learning, not increase short term performance.  You may lose a higher percentage of games at first if you adopt these openings, but I am confident that your understanding will improve, and in the long term, so will your results.

Now for some specifics

To cut to the chase, I am recommending the Scotch Game, but using a modified move order.

The Scotch Game is usually reached by:

1. e4  e5
2. Nf3  Nc6
3. d4

when Black almost always plays  3...exd4

The move order I recommend is:

1. e4  e5
2. d4  dxe4
3. Nf3

and if Black responds with 3...Nc6, then we will have reached the same position.


Why this move order?

There are a couple of reasons why I recommend this particular move order.

  • Some of Black's best options are avoided with this move order (see notes below)
  • There are more opportunities for Black to make a mistake
Of course nothing comes for free, and Black will have a few options against this move order that are not available otherwise, but these are of little consequence.

What if Black doesn't play those moves?

That is a very good question.  I first want to show some lines in the Scotch Game, then I will give some advice on how to play if Black plays moves other than those that lead to the Scotch Game.

The Scotch Game

We will consider two main variations in the Scotch Game following these moves:

1. e4  e5
2. d4  exd4
3. Nf3  Nc6
4. Nxd4

Black will usually play either 4...Bc5 or 4...Nf6.   You will also need to prepare for 4...Qh4.   Beginners will sometimes play 4...Nxd4, but this should cause you no trouble.

Gambit options for White

White can choose not to re-capture the pawn on move 4.  There are some options where White can sacrifice a pawn to gain a lead in development with lots of open lines that may lead to an early attack.
4.Bc4 is the Scotch Gambit
4.c3 is the Goring Gambit.

When Black does not play 3...Nc6

These are some moves that Black may play instead of 3...Nc6
3...Nf6 is a variation of the Petroff Defense
3...d6 is a line in the Philidor Defense
3...Bb4+ and 3...Bc5 are options that are unique to this move order, but not problems for White.
3...c5 is sometimes played by beginners and is just bad for Black.

What if Black does not play 1...e5?

That will have to be another chapter.  In most cases, the idea of playing 2.d4 will be the right move, and against the Sicilian, you can follow up with 3.Nf3.


As White, I recommend beginning players aim for the Scotch Game (or possibly the Scotch Gambit) using the 2.d4 move order.   This will lead to positions that beginning players will be able to understand and learn from.  This last diagram is a summary of the lines discussed above.

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