5 Basic Opening Principles of Chess to Always Follow

The Sicilian
A normal chess opening where both players attack the center with pawns

When playing chess, there are a lot of possible combinations to think about.  Having so many options makes it very hard to know where to start, especially if you are just starting out with the game of chess.

In this article, I have compiled 5 of the best pieces of chess advice for newer players to follow.

These are common principles to abide by every time you play a game of chess.  

Now it’s important to understand that they are principles and sometimes principles can and should be broken.  If you see a clear advantage, or your opponent has given up their queen, by all means break these principles to secure that advantage.  

However, chasing a juicy pawn in exchange for a deviation from these principles may result in a bad position.

Below are what I consider to be the 5 main principles all players should keep in mind when playing the opening in chess.

  1. Attack the Center
  2. Develop Knights and Bishops from the Back-Rank
  3. Don’t Move your Queen Too Early
  4. Protect your King
  5. Don’t Move a Piece Twice

Continue reading to see more about why these are my main principles I have chosen.

These principles were taught to me when I was playing chess back in high school, but I still remember them and teach them to any new player who is starting out in chess.  
Even when I’m playing tournaments, I will always keep these principles in the back of my mind to make sure I don’t fall into a trap.  

1. Attack the Center Squares

The pieces in chess are focused around the center as every piece naturally has more movement in the center.  The squares that make up the center of the board are e4, e5, d4, and d5 (highlighted below).

chess focus on the center

The center is a very important area of the board in the opening of chess since it’s where all the action happens. Players generally push their central pawns first followed by their knights and bishops.  With a lot of pieces able to attack the center quickly, it makes sense to attack and defend these squares as in the example below.

attack the center

While bishops can more easily be developed into the center of the board (as in Bc4) some openings focus on fianchettoing a bishop instead to give it a longer line of sight.  Below, you can see each bishop controls 5 squares ahead of it, and one behind it (f3, e4, d5, c6, b7, (with an eye on a8) in addition to h1 for white below).  The same is true for the black bishop.

bishop long line of sight

In this example, however, the white bishop only can attack 3 squares and backwards towards 2 squares (d5, e6, f7 as well as b3 and a2).  Additionally, white’s bishop can be attacked more quickly than black’s bishop can by pushing pawns.

bishop in center vs fianchetto bishop

 

It’s interesting to note that the queen can move out anytime, but is generally not advised to do so (see principle #3).  If you move it too early you won’t be able to develop your minor pieces.  If you move your queen to the center right away and your opponent has developed his minor pieces before you, he will then have a nice target to push around the board.

2. Develop Your Minor Pieces (Knights before Bishops)

Let’s start with what minor pieces means.  In short, minor pieces are your knights and bishops, while major pieces are your queen and rooks.  Pawns and Kings are not considered, but of course they are important.  When I say to develop your pieces I mean to bring them off the backranks (1st row for white, 8th row for black).

develop minor pieces

You will be in a greater position if you can develop BOTH of your knights and BOTH of your bishops before you move your queen or your rooks (aside from castling) as you will have more pieces able to attack the center more quickly.  The chances you will have to gain a piece, such as a pawn, is very good if you can get more pieces to focus on the center.

Your minor pieces are very important and can help you gain an edge in the game of chess. If you can go ahead by one point (gaining a pawn) in the opening and you are evenly matched with your opponent, chances are you will be ahead going in to the mid and end game.  

The Evan’s Gambit is an opening that I love to play that openly violates the second principle of chess openings.  Many games in this opening I will win and still have my queen side knight sitting in its original starting position.  The reason is that I need to move so quickly in the Evan’s Gambit I actually have no time to develop that knight.  Doing so would cause me to completely lose my position, and since I have already given up a pawn (or sometimes three) I would be at a huge disadvantage if I spent even one move developing.  That being said, I still strongly advise you to always at least try to develop your minor pieces.

evans gambit cannot develop knights
Click to View Game Annotation

Many great players have studied this opening and looking at the best lines of play and in many of them the knight generally doesn’t move in the first 10 moves.  Sometimes the queen will move more than once and the knight is still back on its B1 starting square. This is because all of the other pieces are working towards the F7 square while the knight does not have an easy path to the F7 square. For this reason, playing as quick as possible to keep your opponent off-balance means you have to wait to move that knight. It is openings like the Evan’s Gambit that go against these opening principles that should only be played when you have mastered the main concepts.

While developing your minor pieces means to bring them off of the back-rank, you still want to bring them towards the center.  While it would count as development to bring you knight to h3 on your first move, you would be limiting your knight’s sight.

knight moves cut in half
A knight developed away from the center has less movement
kngiht with a lot of sight
A knight in the center has 8 possible moves (if pieces weren’t in its way)

Developing your knights to c3 or f3 (for white) is a better choice because it helps to attack or defend the center and help you push your pawns with protection.  Additionally, if your opponent goes against these principles and develops their queen too early, you can push your opponent’s pieces around the board and away from the center.

In general you want to develop your knights before your bishops just because bishops can be pushed around too easily and are more prone to moving multiple times (see principle #5 below).  There are certainly openings that the bishop moves out before knights, but in most cases it isn’t advised to start the game off this way.

3. Don’t Move Your Queen Too Early

I advise all players not to move their queen too early in an opening because it leaves your most valuable piece too vulnerable.  The queen is the strongest piece and to a lot of newer players this means she must be used right away.  However, it’s important to note that your queen can never win a game by itself.  It can certainly go far into the game and capture a lot of pieces, but it can never win on its own.  Having your minor pieces support the queen means you will find more success and lines of attack.

Newer players generally like to go for the 4 move checkmate, which involves moving their queen on move 2 or 3.  The idea of this is to catch your opponent off guard and hope they don’t make the correct move.  You always want to keep in the back of your mind that you are playing the best player ever to play the game of chess and that they always know what you’re planning.  If they don’t see your plan, great, you can capitalize, but if they know what you’re planning as if they’re inside your head, then they will not fall for your traps.

four move checkmate

Sometimes newer players will also move the queen just to check the king.  A check that doesn’t accomplish anything is a useless check and is actually a waste of one of your moves. It is better to move your queen with the reasoning behind it than to move it just for the sake of moving it.

Additionally, moving a queen too early means your opponent has an easy target that they can push around the board, forcing you to violate principle #5. In chess, if you can force your opponent to do something they don’t want to do, you are always at an advantage.

An example of this is the Scandinavian opening in which black plays d5 in response to e4. If white takes on the d5 square and black takes back on the d5 with their queen, white now has a new target. Since black has about no pieces yet developed in this situation, white is able to develop with tempo and attack the queen.

 

In this example, the queen taking d5 back right away is not advisable because white will next play Nc3.  The queen must move since it is under attack and if it moves to the e-file to check the king (a useless check), the white bishop or the white knight can develop to the E2 square. White has now developed two minor pieces that help control the center of the board while black has accomplished nothing. White is now ahead in development and could more easily develop the rest of their minor pieces and create an attack much more quickly than black can.

The Scandinavian is a legitimate opening when played correctly.  Best would be to not take back the d5 on with your queen and instead most players develop their knight to f6 attacking the d5 pawn while provoking c4. The Scandinavian is not meant to move the queen too early, but instead allows black to create a semi open file for the queen to attack later.

Here is an example game from my YouTube that goes over a game against an 1850 player who violated this principle and paid for it.

 

4. Castle and Move Your King From the Center

Surprise checks can ruin your focus, timing, and position, so it’s important to hide your king away from the center, which is where all of the pieces are.  Castling is an extremely important important part of the opening because if you lose your king, you lose the game.

Castling accomplishes two things.  You are moving your king away from the center where all the action is happening and bringing your rook into the game to help attack/defend the center.  You are able to castle on either the king-side or the queen-side.  It’s important think about which side you want to castle before you do so as the motion of your opponent’s pieces and your own pawn structure can determine which side you go to.

If there’s a lot of focus on your queen side, it would be unsafe and unwise to castle this direction because you’re putting your king in danger. That’s an example where you would want to castle towards the king side.

In most openings, castling king-side (annotated as 0-0) is the best choice because it is a safer way to castle and it can also be accomplished more quickly. The quickest white can castle on the king side would on white’s 4th move.  

king side castle

Castling queen-side (annotated as 0-0-0) is generally more offensive of a move and can be used to attack your opponent’s king (if the d-file is open) or prevent your opponent’s king from also castling queen-side.  The structure of the pawns on a normal queen-side castle means your king is not safely behind 3 pawns like it would be in a normal king-side castle, but this can be good or bad depending on your position.  

queen side castle

castling
A game view position of castling king-side


Kingside castling is more prone to back-rank mates while queenside castling can give a weakness on the a2 pawn.

back rank mate

queen side castle

Once you or your opponent has castled the focus of the game can shift. Both players will still be attacking the center, but both sides also will be attempting to move towards where the king is positioned.  When planning your opening attack, try to consider where your opponent’s king will eventually move to, considering both queenside and kingside, but trying to force one over the other.  

Finally, it’s important to consider attacking the opposite side your opponent’s king has castled to as there are now 2 less pieces to consider on that side.  Sure the rook that “jumped over” the king can move to that side, but that removes a defender on the king as well.  Always keep your opponent confused or divide their attention where you can.

5. Don’t Move the Same Piece Twice

The opening of chess is all about timing and seeing which side can complete their plan first. The best way to accomplish this goal is to reduce the amount of times you move a piece, even if it seems like a good idea at first.

The most obvious example is to avoid moving a pawn one square, followed by another square just a few minutes later (example, pushing e3 followed by e4 later).  This is a more obvious example because the pawn can just move to e4 right away, but I used to do this every time I played the Caro-Kann.  

moving a pawn twice

I would push c6 on my first move, and a few moves later I would push c5 (moving the c pawn twice in the opening).  I did this because I thought it was a better, more solid defense.  It turned out I was right and that someone had thought it it hundreds of years before I did: this is the French Defense.  By continuing the study this opening, I ended up abandoning the Caro-Kann and instead playing the French Defense.  Because I understood the eventual push of c5, starting with e5 as my first move started to make more sense and I played it more.

the fried liver

A less obvious, but more common mistake I see a lot if a player moving one of their knights to a square that attacks an eventual vulnerability.  An example of this is the Fried Liver where you move your knight from f3 to g5 in an attempt to attack the King’s f7 square.  

It forces you to commit to a sacrifice if your opponent pushes h6.  If you don’t sacrifice your knight on f7, you must move it back to f3, which violates this principle of moving your piece twice.

Another example is to move your bishop to attack a piece, but move it again because of pawns attacking it.  This is why bishops are tough to move in the center (as opposed to fianchettoing them).  Pawns can more easily attack bishops and force them to move multiple times.

The Evan’s Gambit is again a great opening example to cite here.  By giving up my b4 pawn, the bishop moves a second time to capture it.  After white plays c3, the bishop must move a third time.  This creates the time that white needs to gain tempo (timing) and create an attack oftentimes quicker than your opponent can defend it.

evans gambit
evans gambit

6. Bonus Principle: Have a Plan

As a bonus to these 5 opening principles it’s always important to have a plan. Having a plan is better than having no plan at all. It’s for that reason that memorizing openings is not going to help you when your opponent plays differently than the opening that you know.  While prepping for a recent tournament, I was playing a speed chess game a few minutes beforehand in person.  My opponent was moving very quickly because he knew the opening, but there was a specific point where he stopped moving completely and said “wait, this isn’t the Yugoslav!?”  He then spent over a minute on his next move because I had played offline.  

It’s for this reason you should constantly be planning and executing your own plan based on what your pieces are doing rather than blindly moving.  That’s why it’s important have a plan in the back of your mind even if your opponent defends against it.  You can then begin to develop another plan so that way all of your pieces are moving with harmony.

Again it’s important to note that not all of these ideas must be adhered to every game you play. You’ll find that breaking the rules sometimes can help you to an easy victory despite going against these principles.  Use these 5 principles to help advance your over the board play even if you are more advanced.  It’s important for all players to go back to the basics sometimes and understand the why behind your opening moves.  

If you’d like to see some of the main ideas of these many openings click here to see my in-depth analysis of 43 of the most commonly played Chess openings. You’ll be able to see not only what each opening is to be able to study it further but some basic ideas behind the moves.