Trapping Pawns and Slashing Knights

How to Open in Chess Like a Grandmaster

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If you strive to have expertise in any portion of a chess game, make it the opening. If you’re inexperienced, then it’ll be all anyone remembers before you get frustrated and overturn the board after a misstep with the queen. At family gatherings it’ll impress the relatives — like juggling or being able to sew on a button.

But more seriously, faced with a blank board, like an artist looking at a blank canvas, amateurs can frequently suffer from chessblock, making the game a challenge instead of a lasting, cross-cultural battle of ingenuity.

Late in the game, once the majority of the pieces are in close quarters, many moves will be dictated completely by responding to an attack or making one of your own. By contrast, at the opening there is wiggle room, and thus some help is handy. We spoke with Raven Sturt, a 23-year-old player ranked among the top 100 active players in the US and an International Master hopeful, to gather some advice on getting your chess game off to the best start possible.


The opening is an extremely important part of the game. However, of the three parts (opening, middlegame, and endgame) it is the least important. The reason for this is that in the opening there is so much of the game yet to be played, and thus there is so much more room, if you make a mistake, for your opponent to mess up and let you back into the game. Losing a pawn in the opening will certainly put you at a disadvantage — but one which you can still fight from. But a similar error in the endgame will often be fatal.

Chess is closely tied to time. That is to say that when playing, you are constantly faced with the trade-off between the long term and the short term. Every move addresses one of these facets and many address both. Long-term planning is generally guided by strategic understanding, knowledge and intuition. On the other hand, short-term ideas are part of dynamics that rely on creativity, energy and raw perseverance in calculating (working out moves through logic alone). [Read more on creative energy in our interview with the director of Magnus, a documentary about the game’s greatest player.] A game’s opening is incredibly crucial to this flow as the opening can either produce a position which is very dynamic, or one which is very strategic.

Opening theory has developed to an incredible extent over recent years, which is heavily due to the growth of chess computers. Openings have received this attention mostly because they’re how players at the top try to win against each other. All of them know that everyone’s endgame and middlegame skills will be relatively impeccable, and that is why they all seek to beat each other in the opening where a specially prepared surprise can give them an overwhelming advantage in the first 20 moves. I’d argue that openings are by far the least basic aspect of the game. There is so much variance; even though so many games have been played, there are still many roads yet to be traversed! To back this up, most endgames now have been solved by computers, and I’m sure within the next couple years they will all be. Meanwhile, computers still have some difficulties in the opening where they must look much, much deeper.

My favorite opening is the Ruy Lopez. It is a very rich system with many variations (think of a tree with many branches) and is one of the oldest openings known to man, with its name coming from the 16th-century Spanish priest who first wrote about it.

A good rule of thumb I like to follow for both attacking and defending is to make sure all your pieces are doing something. The battle happening on the chessboard is a team game, and it’s very important to make sure all of your players are being useful. The biggest mistake players make when opening in chess is rushing and trying to win immediately. Going back to my last note, a good and successful attack is one that employs your entire army, not a few soldiers.

A general scheme is as follows: Push a central pawn (in front of your king or queen, that is) two squares. Develop your knights and bishops, moving pawns wherever necessary to let them out. Castle and move the queen up one square in any direction (Up straight, up left, or up right). Now you’ll be well developed and your rooks will be connected (chess lingo meaning that nothing will be in between them).


Additional Illustration by Andrew Haynes