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A recent question by xaisoft got me thinking about a problem I had as a novice player. When I first started to play chess, I thought that the moves in an opening were independent of the moves made by the other side. For example, so long as white played 1. e4 I could play the Sicilian Dragon regardless of White's second move.

So my question is, how would you explain to a complete novice what the objective of chess opening book moves? Not a specific opening but just the concept or idea of a chess opening in general.

I'm not so much looking for an explanation of opening principles, but more about about how chess players use the openings in their games.

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This is an excellent question and I look forward to the answers. As a beginner I find myself in this position all the time. I hope my opponent is going to play book moves so I can just play the next one, but for example, if I get to the Ruy Lopez and after Bb5, my opponent decides to do something like g3(no matter how good or bad it is), it throws me off because I feel my opponent either has some trick/trap up there sleeve or they have no idea what they are doing, so I have a hard time deciding whether to continue with book moves or handle the g3 move. –  xaisoft Jul 17 '12 at 13:38

7 Answers 7

up vote 29 down vote accepted

In improvisational music, like jazz for example, the musicians will play a song that has been composed in advance, but by choice they go "off-script" and, cooperatively, make their very own creation in the moment, guided by the structure of the composition but nevertheless doing something distinctly new with each performance. In order to do this well, and create something of beauty that actually sounds good, jazzers need to have a solid understanding of how and what to play; in a word, they need to know what moves make sense, among the essentially infinite possibilities that are available to them, within the musical context that they're in. Far from being "mere" players of the music, they are composing on the spot.

Something similar - though different in important ways - happens when two players sit down to play a game of chess. The most notable difference of course is that here, unlike the musical setting, the play is competitive rather than cooperative. That is why there comes a point in every chess game where one is forced to improvise. You can try coming in with a pre-composed script that you want to play, but your opponent most likely isn't going to play along. Each player will have to compose his or her half of the game on the spot.

You can think of a chess opening that has its own name and well-known variations much like a good song with its musical score. Through much playing, it has stood the test of time (both on the White side and the Black side) and is recognized as something of worth. In this sense, such openings are a good thing for a chess player to become familiar with. (Consider this: would you rather listen to music made by someone who's already absorbed a lot of other music, or someone who's never heard any before?) But just as someone who has done nothing but memorize the scores of a few good songs would be at a loss if asked to compose a great new piece, a chess player who has focused too much on memorizing opening lines will continually run into points where he's at a total loss as to what to do.

In each case - the composer and the chess player - what is truly useful for future performance is to seek an understanding as to what makes the individual components of a song/opening good or bad, and how they fit together to work toward a common goal, be it an aesthetically pleasing piece of music or a won game of chess. To make one's own worthwhile creations, it is more important to know how to find one's own way than just to know what others have done in the past. But the latter kind of knowledge can definitely help with the former, as long as one focuses on the ideas and principles underlying the moves, rather than just the moves themselves.


As an addendum, here is an illustrative example of how not to use book knowledge in one's games. During a 1988 tournament, a strong GM was about to have a game as Black, and was skimming through the latest Informant for some up-to-date theoretical information. There he found a game in the Petroff Defense, in which Black managed to secure a draw, that featured what was listed as a theoretical novelty (TN) on move 5 for Black. Without thinking much about the value of the move, our intrepid GM decided to give it a go himself. The game played out so:

[FEN ""]
[White "Alonso Zapata"]
[Black "???"]
[Result "1-0"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nxe5 d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4 5. Nc3 Bf5 6. Qe2 1-0

Black is going to lose a piece, so he decided to resign. What had gone wrong? Well, the game that had slipped into the Informant had in fact been a pre-arranged draw between GMs Tony Miles and Larry Christiansen, in which they each mindlessly played out some moves and shook hands:

[FEN ""]
[White "Anthony Miles"]
[Black "Larry Christiansen"]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3 Bf5 6.Nxe4 Bxe4 7.d3 Bg6
8.Bg5 Be7 9.Bxe7 Qxe7+ 10.Be2 Nc6 11.O-O O-O 12.Re1 Rae8 13.Qd2 Ne5
14.d4 Nxf3+ 15.Bxf3 Qd7 16.c3 b6 17.Rxe8 Rxe8 18.Re1 Rxe1+ 19.Qxe1 Kf8
20.g3 ½–½

If our strong GM had spent even a few moments thinking about the why of the "script" he'd just glanced at, he never would have played as bad a move as 5. ... Bf5??. Note too how important it was for White to be ready to improvise; Black's fifth move is so bad that White couldn't have expected it to be played, but when it was, White rightly sensed that something was off about it, and duly found the appropriate punishment. The moral of the story: even the strongest of players need to be careful not to rely too much on book "knowledge." It all ended well for our hero though, as he now enjoys the title of world champion.

Zapata - Anand (Biel 1988)

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+1. Good analogy. Your statement: "....focuses on the ideas and principles underlying the moves, rather than just the moves themselves" hits the nail on the head. –  xaisoft Jul 17 '12 at 17:21
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@Ed, could you add a practical example? That would really make this answer perfect. I think this does a really good job of explaining it in the abstract. It would have been very useful to me when I first learned to play... back when I knew so little I didn't even know how much there was to know. –  Robert Kaucher Jul 17 '12 at 17:27
    
@RobertKaucher, I'm not sure exactly which aspect of the answer to illustrate with an example, but I have an idea for something to add ... in a bit. –  ETD Jul 17 '12 at 17:51
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@Wow! I didn't know about that story. Very interesting. –  Akavall Jul 17 '12 at 18:55
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Larry has said that he and Miles agreed to play the exact line in the hope of tripping someone up in the future. I don't think either one of them would have ever dreamed that it would be someone of Anand's caliber! –  Andrew Jul 17 '12 at 21:33

I think Ed Dean's answer is quite beautiful; a very interesting take on the concept. I will offer an alternative explanation as well, from a slightly different angle.

Chess is a game of tactics and strategy - tactics being things that can be calculated, and strategy being longer term thinking, broad principles which tend to offer advantages at some point in the future (which is not feasible to calculate).

When a game starts, you could (try to) calculate your way through, i.e. purely use tactics. This is obviously going to be quite difficult, since the number of possible moves is very high during the opening/midgame. You could also use broad principles of development, and just place your pieces in good positions. Doing this without considering tactics would often leave you open to clever tactics by your opponent, who may be able to get an advantage (material, initiative, structural, etc).

This is where openings enter - they are moves which have been thought through by thousands of people over decades and centuries, certainly more time than you have during a single game. If both you and your opponent have absolutely perfect knowledge of openings (which is pretty much impossible), you are likely to end up with a position which is more or less equal. In this case, you have at least survived the first part of the game, and can now apply your own thoughts to defeat your opponent. This is not a very likely scenario for several reasons:

  • The number of openings and combinations is staggering; unless you are a serious tournament player, you will only know a tiny fraction of them.
  • Players will often try to get the opponent "out of the book" by making moves which are unlikely to be known by the opponent. This is a fairly common idea, especially at lower levels of the game, or if the opponent does not have a strong grasp of strategy and is blindly following the openings.

I feel it is important to stress again that a player should have a solid grasp of strategy, as well as be able to calculate well, before trying to use openings as a competitive advantage. In the long run, those tools are typically more useful and valuable.

To answer your actual question, players can use openings in several ways:

  • To exploit holes in their opponents opening repertoire - "quick" wins by gaining material, early attacks, etc.
  • Ensuring their own safety by at least avoiding such attempts by the opponent. In fact, every point has a similar counterpoint (I won't explicitly name them) - you are playing directly against your opponent, so anything that would give them an advantage, you have to stop them from doing.
  • Attempting to gain a slight advantage by taking the opponent into a line which they don't understand well, and having some prior knowledge on how to exploit this. E.g. there may be a typical move towards the end of an opening which may seem logical, but creates a known weakness which can be attacked - a slight advantage, but often enough.
  • By choosing the various branches of the openings (and the opening itself), attempting to guide the game into a style which the player is more comfortable with. You have to be aware of the different options you are offering to your opponent with every move - if you open 1. e4, you should be prepared to play against ...e5, ...c5, ...e6, etc. Each of those then branches, and you would typically have your favoured (and prepared) response to each, because you don't want to have holes in your knowledge that your opponent can exploit.

To summarise, in openings we find a large wealth of knowledge and ingenuity, cleverly worked out and nicely written down for us to consume. Used correctly, they certainly are a competitive advantage, or at least something necessary to stay competitive at higher levels. Many people feel that studying them is cheap, or unfair, but I think they are simply a part of the game. Being better prepared for a battle is a fact of war, which chess is. Your approach to openings (along with many other important aspects and skills) will play an important part in how your play chess.

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You make some great points. Another thing also about trying to get an opponent "out of the book" is that for example, I usually play the Italian Game and I guess by my opponent either studied a few of my games or played a different move, albeit still a book move, correct me if I am wrong? But he went from the Italian Game to the Evans Gambit which I was not clear on, so that threw me off, so if I haven't confused anyone already, going from one familiar opening to another one can throw someone off as well. –  xaisoft Jul 18 '12 at 13:30
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@xaisoft Well, in this case, the Evans Gambit is a fairly straightforward continuation of the Italian game. But yes, it is still a "book" move. By getting an opponent "out of the book", I meant getting them out of their book, i.e. their zone of comfort. This can be done using either book or non-book moves, although the latter is perhaps more risky. –  Daniel B Jul 18 '12 at 13:48
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In some cases, two openings will reach the same position via a different series of moves. This is known as transposition, and if you wish, you can use these opportunities to shift from one opening (which you dislike) to another one which you are more comfortable with. Of course, this assumes a fairly well developed opening repertoire. –  Daniel B Jul 18 '12 at 13:51

Unless you have an encyclopedic mind coupled with an eidetic memory, it would be virtually impossible to memorize all the openings and their lines. A good thing that you could do to improve your game would be to study the concepts of popular openings, along with solid grounding in tactics and strategy.

For example, the French Defense. White aims for control of the center with 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5, while black is challenging for it. A lot of times this is going to be a somewhat cramped game in the center, with black generally developing a queenside attack and white generally developing a kingside attack.

If you know the general theory (center control, kingside development, etc) behind a lot of the major openings, then you can at least muddle through well enough to get to a middle game. You have an idea of what to expect for moves without having to memorize individual move lines. Then, once you figure out your strengths, you can give a little more in depth study to openings and responses that favor what you are good at.

Edited for the OP revision: For a complete beginner, the first things to concentrate on are the rules, piece moves, relative values of the pieces, and phases of the game. Tactics and strategy can be introduced, but in a very general sense.

The objective of an opening can pretty much be summed up as develop all your pieces, and get the king to a safe position. Different openings will set up you for different attacks in the middle game, which is what I was alluding to with the french example above.

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You are answering more about a chess opening, I'm thinking more about chess openings in general. How would you explain to a complete novice what the concept of a rehearsed opening is? Not what the objectives or a specific opening. –  Robert Kaucher Jul 17 '12 at 15:29
    
I edited my question for a bit more clarity, sorry, JohnP. –  Robert Kaucher Jul 17 '12 at 15:32
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I still think my answer fits. I used the french as an example, and then explained that you want to learn the general theory and concepts behind openings, such as center control, flank attack, etc. If you know the concept behind the opening, you can play moves to support that, even if they aren't "book" moves. –  JohnP Jul 17 '12 at 16:00
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But it assumes that I even understand what the idea of an opening is in the first place. –  Robert Kaucher Jul 17 '12 at 16:10
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I would have answered in much the same way that JohnP did. This seems to be an indication that we can't understand what you are asking. I can think of several possible interpretations of your question; is any of these what you are looking for? "How, given the moves of an opening, can one determine the purpose of playing that opening?" "Why do players memorize openings?" "How do players incorporate openings into their games even though opponents might deviate from book lines?" "What is the definition of an opening?" –  David Spencer Jul 17 '12 at 16:33

Chess opening are like plays in the huddle of a football team. One could play football in the playground by simply improvising or making up plays, but this hardly will get a person to the Super Bowl. So if a novice wants to play chess without an organized and studied concept of what he is doing - great! However he will never leave "playground football". If the player wants to play in the NFL, they need a well structured system on how an opening is played. Although all openings cannot be memorized, one can become an expert in the field of openings they choose to play. WCM Claudia Muñoz www.chesscampeona.com

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Excellent analogy between the football (playbook) and chess(opening book). In chess just like in football, improvisations are made to plays to throw off the other team or player, but they are still sound and structured. –  xaisoft Jul 18 '12 at 19:50

Chess players should know the three phases of chess play, i.e. opening / mid / end game phases. The objective of any phase is get get an advantage over your opponent (materially, positionally or tactically) or at the least to have equality with the opponent in that phase. If you get an opening advantage you need to maintain that advantage through the mid and endgame phases and it could help you win the game. If you are brilliant or lucky or both you can win the game in the opening (how many beginners know and/or fall for Scholars mate?!). If you lose the advantage or equality in the opening then you need to play well in the mid and/or end game to try to win the game back. Simple!

Hope that helps...happy chess :-)

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It helps to know the book moves and the main variations of the openings that you play. Realize that if your opponent deviates from them early in the game, he's probably making an inferior move. (Unless he's a world class player that can discover new lines.)

In the case of the Ruy Lopez, g3 is a bad move for White, particularly if he has castled king side. The reason is that his light squared bishop is on the queenside, which is to say that it can not protect the light squares on his king side. You're likely to be able to play your light squared bishop to g4 or h3 and really disrupt White's game.

Amateur players tend to make moves that are inconsistent with what has gone before. You need to learn to identify such situations and take advantage of them. On your side, you need to think, "does the move I plan to make have a good relationship with my previous moves?

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The opening is actually the first 10-20 moves in the game. The purpose of the opening is to develop your knights and bishops and protect your king by castling either kingside or queenside. Another purpose of the opening is to grab the center of the board (the squares e4, d4, e5 and d5) and benefit of this control during the rest of the game. The opening is used to mobilize your forces and protect your king. The next stage will be to mount an attack on the opponent's position, either on one of the flanks, or right at the center. It is possible to attack the opponent directly during the opening with the aim to catch the opponent king before that king has the time to castle. Yet generally it is recommended to master all three phases of the game (opening, middlegame and endgame) before trying fancy attacks in the opening.

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