Few topics intrigue and intimidate newcomers to chess like the study of so-called “Opening theory.”  We hear stories of Masters who can play 15, 20, or 30 moves from pure memorization – despite the number of possible 20-move sequences to begin a game of chess being in the billions!

The complexity of the study of chess openings has led many a chess player to hold numerous misconceptions about this important phase of the game:

  • Some have grown frustrated with chess, saying “I didn’t realize it was just a memorization contest” (this, of course, isn’t true!)


  • Some have claimed to have met chess players who “memorized EXACTLY what move to play against ANY sequence of moves I could come up with – all the way to the end of the game!” (Magnus Carlsen better watch out if such a player ever arises.)


  • Some take things to the other extreme, saying “Learning chess openings is only for Masters. It’s not applicable to amateur chess when most games are decided by tactics.”


The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. Chess is not a “memorization contest,” and it is true that one can get by, at least to a certain point, on only a rudimentary understanding of chess opening principles.  Yet no one can deny that a deep understanding of chess openings – and the plans associated with each one – is a huge advantage at ANY level of chess.

So…what is the purpose of learning chess openings? And how do we go about learning them?

In chess, it’s good to have a plan.

Everyone knows this.  But in some positions, coming up with a plan can be rather difficult – even for Masters of the game. The endless complexity of the game of chess has kept it relevant for centuries, captivating the minds of young and old alike – but there’s nothing worse than the frustration of staring blankly at the board in front of you, not having a clue what to do!

The GOOD news is that the following position occurs in every chess game you will ever play: 

The starting position in chess

If we can learn a good plan to implement from this position, we’ll be on our way to getting off on the right foot in each and every chess game we ever play.  This is why we study chess openings.

The study of chess openings can be broken into two major categories:

  • Learning Opening Principles
  • Memorizing Specific Opening Moves (“Opening theory”)

If you’re new to chess, never fear! Learning the principles of chess openings alone will give you a massive advantage over your opponents and set you on your way to rising through the ranks, without memorizing a single sequence of moves.

If you’ve mastered these principles and are ready to begin your journey into a labyrinth of chess opening theory…keep reading. We’ll get there shortly!

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Chess Opening Principles

Keeping the following opening principles in mind will serve you well.  Even when you begin memorizing specific sequences of moves, these principles are still crucial to playing the opening successfully – if your opponent plays a move you’re unfamiliar with, you’re back on your own, and these principles will be your lifeline!

  • Control central space with your pawns. Controlling space gives your pieces room to maneuver, and denies squares to enemy pieces.


  • Castle early. Once the center opens up, it will be dangerous for your king to be stuck on its starting square.  Castling tucks your king safely away in a corner, and also allows you to connect your rooks – good for contesting open files in the middlegame!


  • Develop your pieces. Each player starts each chess game with eight pieces sitting lazily on their own back rank.  You won’t win many games if they stay there too long.  Make pawn moves when needed to control space, but have a sense of urgency in getting your pieces into the action.


  • Don’t move the same piece twice without a good reason. If your opponent methodically brings all their pieces into the game, while you move the same piece again and again, you’re going to fall behind in piece development.


  • Don’t make unnecessary early queen moves. If you do move your queen, make sure that she can’t easily be harassed by enemy pieces. There’s a good reason why knights and bishops are often developed before the queen – check out the video below to learn why!


  • Strike while the iron is hot! If you succeed in getting a large lead in development (especially if you’re castled and your opponent isn’t), you need to act quickly or your opponent will catch up! Open the center and start a tactical skirmish with your fully mobilized army, before your opponent’s troops have left their barracks.


  • Safety first. None of the above principles give you a license to make unsafe moves that allow your opponent to win free material.  Carefully assess the safety of each move before making it – in chess openings and in ANY chess position.  If your opponent violates this principle, capitalize on it, regardless of what the above principles say – after all, it would be silly to avoid capturing a free enemy queen because you don’t want to move the same piece twice in the opening!


  • Be cautious about exposing the “King’s Short Diagonal.” The video below will show you why.

Chess Opening Theory

Let’s talk specifics.

In light of the principles discussed above, it should come as no surprise that white’s two most popular opening moves are, by a large margin, 1. e4 and 1. d4 – The King’s Pawn Opening and the Queen’s Pawn Opening, respectively.

Opening Principles - white should take the center

These moves are perfectly in accordance with the principles listed above.  They secure white some central space from the get-go, and they each open a path for a bishop to develop.

In fact, there are several openings where white first plays 1. e4, then develops his kingside knight to f3 (2. Nf3), then develops his light-squared bishop somewhere (whose path was cleared by white’s first move), and then castles to the kingside on move 4 – the earliest castling possible in a game of chess. Beautiful adherence to classical opening principles!

Black reinforces the knight
White is quick to castle!

Of course, several other moves are perfectly reasonable for white. 1. c4 and 1. Nf3 and played frequently for example, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with them (the former controls some central space, and the latter develops a piece as early as move 1!)


For the purpose of simplicity, I’m breaking down our study of the chess openings into 3 categories:

  • King’s Pawn Openings
  • Queen’s Pawn Openings
  • Other Openings


A Brief Note on Transpositions

Did you know that it’s possible for a Queen’s Pawn Opening to arise without playing 1. d4 on move 1?

Consider the following position after 1. Nf3 Nf6

White has a lot of flexibility

If white plays 2. d4 here, this is a Queen’s Pawn Opening despite the game beginning with 1. Nf3.  The position after 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. D4 can also be reached by the sequence 1. D4 Nf6 2. Nf3 – both completely reasonable opening sequences.

In chess, we call this a transposition – as in, “White began the game with 1. Nf3, but we later transposed into a Queen’s Pawn Opening.”

We’ll be exploring the topic of transpositions further as we delve into our study of the chess openings.


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King’s Pawn Openings

White puts the pawn on e4

The King’s Pawn Opening is often considered white’s most aggressive option. World Champion Bobby Fischer was famously preferential towards this opening move, calling it “Best by test.”

Black has many options when responding to the King’s Pawn Opening:

  • Black can occupy the center himself. The symmetrical 1….e5  is good for all the same reasons that white’s first move is good.  1…c5 (the Sicilian defense), grabs space for black as well – and creates an imbalanced position right from the start.
Black wants to take space in the center
Black occupies the center!
Black wants to strike at white's center
A challenge to the King's Pawn!
  • Black can forgo challenging the center right away and develop his pieces in a different style.

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Queen’s Pawn Openings

White advances the queen's pawn

In the Queen’s Pawn Opening, black’s two most popular options – by an enormous margin – are 1…d5 and 1…Nf6.  Both moves make a lot of sense – each move is clearly desirable from an “Opening Principles” perspective, and they each immediately take the e4 square under control, preventing white from dominating the entire center by following up with 2. e4

1…f5 (The Dutch Defense) is sometimes played, with the same purpose.


Unlike King’s Pawn openings, Queen’s Pawn Openings are much less defined by black’s first move.  Transpositions are much more common, and the defining features of each unique opening system under the Queen’s Pawn umbrella often only materialize after a few moves have been played.

This is likely because, unlike the King’s Pawn, the Queen’s pawn is already defended (by the queen) when it arrives on d4 on move one. In a King’s Pawn Game, threats to each side’s e-pawn occur early and often, and play can take on a forcing, tactical nature – but in a Queen’s Pawn Opening, each side has a little more “wiggle room.”


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Other Openings

White is considering his first move

Of all of white’s other options. 1. c4 and 1. Nf3 are the most common.  These openings will sometimes transpose to Queen’s Pawn Openings (or, less frequently, to King’s Pawn Openings), but there are certainly unique opening systems defined by these starting moves which can be learned as well. 1. Nf3 is often called the Reti Opening, while 1. c4 itself is known as the English Opening


Other options, like 1. f4 (The Bird Opening), 1. b4 (The Polish Opening), or 1. g4 (The Grob Opening) are much more committal and will rarely transpose to anything else. Even if you don’t plan to employ these rarer first moves yourself with white, it’s worth taking a little time to familiarize yourself with how to handle them – in case your opponent decides to get creative on you when they have the white pieces!

Other rare openings include:

The Van Geet Opening

The Hungarian Opening

The Kadas Opening

The Ware Opening

The Mieses Opening

The Sodium Attack


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