How To Play the Early-Game in Chess

Chess is a slippery-slope game.  Barring major mistakes, once a player gains an advantage, that advantage magnifies slowly until it becomes a game-winning edge, usually in the form of a promoting pawn.  Though there are thousands of openings to memorize, adhering to some fundamental tenets can guide you through the early stages of play.

A quick primer on standard chess notation:

  • Squares are each assigned a letter and number for quick and easy reference.  The letter refers to the "File," or vertical column, starting from White's left (the A-file) to the right (the H-file).  The number refers to the "Rank," or horizontal column, starting with the column closest to the White player (Rank 1), and ending with the farthest column (Rank 8).  The square in the lower left is the square A1, and the square in the upper right is H8.
  • A move is identified by the piece that moves, and the square to which it moves.  B is for Bishop, King is for King, N is for Knight, R is for Rook, and Q is for Queen.  So Qf3 means a Queen moves to square f3.  If a move is identified only by the square it moves to, it is always a pawn move.  If a piece is capturing on a square, it is identified with an "x", such as exf4 (the e-pawn captures on f4).  If two pieces of the same type can move to the same square, move is identified by the file or rank from which the piece begins the move.  For example, if two knights on different files can move to d3, the notation for moving the knight on the b-file is Nbd3.  If they share files but are on different ranks, the notation could be N4d3 (named for the knight from the 4th rank).

A few basic guidelines for playing the early-game:

  1. Aim to control the center with every move.  1.e4 and 1.d4 are the two most popular opening moves for White because they directly occupy and assert influence on the center from move one.  The most popular defenses to 1.e4, 1.e5 and 1.c5 are immediate counter-thrusts that fight to ensure White doesn't gain overwhelming space advantages early in the game.
  2. As White, aim to play both e4 and d4.  As Black, aim to restrict your opponent's control, or be ready to wrest it from your opponent.  If White allows you, try to play d5 and e5 yourself.  Controlling these squares is critical to the smoother deployment of the rest of your forces.
  3. Move knights before bishops.  Generally, because knights can only make short leaps, it is much less a mistake to deploy a knight towards an undeveloped board than commit an outpost for your bishop.  You'll find that your bishop will often be harassed or positioned poorly if you move it early, while it is harder to counter Nf3 or Nf6.
  4. Do not bring your queen out early.  Though there are rare exceptions to this rule, bringing out your queen, especially onto your opponent's part of the board, generally allows your opponent to develop his position while chasing your queen.  By the time she's safely tucked away, your opponent will have a significant advantage in the number of pieces deployed, and you'll find your game crumbling quickly.
  5. Do not move the same piece twice.  For many of the reasons illustrated above, you don't want to keep moving a piece, especially if your opponent is gaining tempo by chasing you.  This isn't to say if your pieces are attacked by pawns, you shouldn't move them away. The goal is to keep your pieces from positions where they can easily be harassed.
  6. Protect the king.  Regardless how far in material you are, the game ends if you lose the king.  Castling early not only protects your king behind the safety of a wall of pawns, but it develops a rook towards the center at the same time, essentially developing two pieces with one move, a bargain you can't miss over the course of the game!  Similarly, if the situation arises, try to deny your opponent the ability to castle by forcing the king to move, or covering squares the king would have to castle through, rendering the move illegal.


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