Have you ever walked past a chess-game and on seeing players engrossed in the game, wondered, “What are they staring at … and for so long?” Chances are that you’ve never played this fascinating game.

While you can’t be sure of what’s going on in their heads, don’t believe that they’re considering whether to go away for a weekend and to spend the time binge-watching a series on Netflix.

In all likelihood, they are considering what their next move should be. Do they move a pawn which will expose the King to attack and hearing the feared ‘Check’ announced? Should they castle or move another piece to protect the King?

When you view a board carefully, say at the start of a game, you’ll soon recognise that chess is basically a clash between opposing armies. The sets may be made out of stone, light and dark wood and, nowadays, even plastic. Traditionally, pieces are black and white. However, these days you may find them in different colours, even red and blue. The last set would definitely not be for the purists amongst us.

Notwithstanding, this set may be very attractive to the younger generation which is showing a growing interest in the game, thanks to a TV series like The Queen’s Gambit and movies like The Coldest Game (2019) and Queen of Katwe (2016).

There’s not much sense in trying to teach toddlers chess strategy, when all they want to do is run around the room with their favourite horse or castle.

Once you become serious about playing the game, you will definitely become interested in chess strategies to win games.

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Top First Moves in Chess

The best first move to make is to start learning how to play the game.

Otherwise, there is no best first move. If there were, everyone would be employing it and each game would become boringly predictable, with many people losing interest in it.

However, this game is everything but boring. Games can become nail-bitingly interesting with audiences watching in silence and with bated breath, wondering who has the best chess strategies to win.

White often dictates what Black’s first move is going to be, since White always plays first, according to the FIDE (International Chess Federation) rules. Opening strategies in chess will, thus, be dependent upon whether you are White, starting the game or Black responding to your opening gambit. If you have any intention of playing chess at an international level, you must acquaint yourself with the rules which govern chess as set out in the FIDE handbook.

Nearly all tournaments worldwide are played according to FIDE rules
Virtually all chess tournaments around the world are played according to FIDE rules. Photo credit: Rrrodrigo on Visualhunt.com

The first move to be played is dependent on several factors: firstly, the colour that you’re playing and your preference, your level of expertise and how experienced you are, and how aggressively or cautiously you like to play. The first-move question can succinctly be answered:

The Spanish game (the Ruy Lopez) is the most popular.

Of all the opening strategies in chess, the Ruy remains extremely popular, even after being around almost 500 years. This opening gambit was analysed in the 1561 book, the “Book of the liberal Invention and Art of the Game of Chess.” written by the Spanish priest, Ruy Lopez de Segura. Since then, many variations of this chess opening have been devised by expert players. Today, there are a number of strategic plans that can be utilised by both Black and White. The Berlin Defense, The Morphy Defense and the Steinitz Defense are popular defensive strategies which Black can use in response to the Ruy Lopez. Each one of these manoeuvres and numerous others have also led to a number of sub-variations.

The Spanish opening’s first three moves are: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5.

If you’re struggling to make sense of this, it would be good for you to revisit your notes on chess notation. Let us, for now, take at look at what other chess openings offer alternatives to both Black and White.

Openings: Best Options for White

As White plays first, you will have the first move which can give you a measure of control. It is important for you not to lose this control or advantage. To maintain this advantage, you want to keep your opponent wondering what your next move will be while he/she is reacting to your every move. This helps to keep him/her on the back foot.

The most popular first move, for White, is queen’s pawn to e4. It appears in the Italian, Ruy Lopez and Scotch openings, in the Four Knights and Giuocos, the Fried Liver games and in a number of other games. One of the main ideas behind this move is to gain control of the centre of the board. This move also frees up your Bishop, as well as your Queen, two pieces with long-range attacking and defensive abilities.

Openings, that allow you to take control of the centre of the board, are key to putting you in a position to winning a game. The Giuocco Piano is one such option, which is excellent for any novice player.

Your first move would be moving a pawn to e4, a pretty standard opening, which an experienced opponent may mirror. Next, you would bring into play your King’s knight, by positioning it one square (f3) diagonally behind the pawn at e4, thus threatening Black’s pawn at e5. You opponent may mirror this move. Then, position your King’s bishop on c4. Black’s Bishop may now be moved to c5 to confront your bishop.

At this point, a great move would be to castle. Your King is moved two spaces towards your rook, which in turn, jumps over the King and takes up a position on the square other side of the King.

What does castling do? It offers the King a more secure position, aware from the board’s centre, behind a line of pawns and with a Knight in offering further security. This move also allows you to preserve a solid pawn structure, which is an all-important factor of good chess strategy.

Of course, before outlining or adopting a particular strategy, you must know each chess piece’s value and the power that it has.

Openings: Best Options for Black

White moves first, right? This does not mean that Black has to remain on the defensive, though. Some players like to go at White quite aggressively. One way to do this is to employ the Sicilian Defense, an approach which has be utilised successfully by many a grandmaster in recent times. The Sicilian is an aggressive and complex opening which has a number of variations. Many experts recognise it as Black’s best-scoring and popular response to White’s e4 opening.

Feel free to mirror your opponent's moves until you decide on a different gambit
It’s common for chess players to mirror each other’s moves, at least until one plays a variation of a standard gambit or opening. Photo credit: Strocchi on VisualHunt

If you’re an absolute novice, you could try to mirror your opponent’s moves, which may lead to a draw, dependent on how the skill level of your opponent.

Something to keep in mind: Black will most likely secure a draw, when responding to e4 with e5.

Once you’ve gained more experience and have become more confident, you can then start employing strategies and various gambits that you have learned and practised.

Another strategy, to employ which may upset White’s supremacy, is the Scandinavian.

Reply to White’s e4 by making d5 your first move. It may appear that you’re sacrificing a pawn. However, you are really creating a scenario where s/he has to give up control of the board’s centre. Do not, however, utilise your Queen to capture that particular pawn; rather position your King’s knight at f6.

This will place more Black pieces in the centre of the board and save your Queen to be available for later plays.

Avoid checkmate by playing a good defense
The primary rule of playing chess is good defense to avoid checkmate. Photo credit: Orest U on Visualhunt.com

Great Openings for Beginners to Learn

The whole objective of a game of chess is to trap your opponent’s King in checkmate. If you can’t achieve that, at least push for a draw or stalemate – a situation whereby the King can still move, but cannot capture the pieces which can put him in check.

It is often true that the first few moves may already determine the outcome of a game, reminiscent of the idiom: Well begun is half done. The Reti opening for example, gives you a 52% chance of winning according to the chess stats website, Chesstier.

There are a number of other impressive openings which a novice can aim to master and employ. They include:

  • The Italian Game -  apparently the oldest opening
  • Caro-Kann Defense: much like the French, but more effective for White
  • English Opening: great flexibility for White
  • The French Defense outlines advantages for both White and Black
  • Indian Defenses: somewhat different to the Queen's Gambit, it does offer  alternatives to the popular d4 d5 opening.
  • the Pirc Defense gives White many possibilities, while Black may be forced to counter-play

Other facets of play, in terms of which gambit to employ, must consider:

  • pawn structure: keep your pawns available (handy) -never isolated, while at the same time trying to push your opponent into such a situation
  • securing your King: your King must be protected at all times- never exposed or isolated
  • control of the board’s centre
  • development: focus here is on the placement of pieces such as knights and bishops.

Taking control of the centre of the board should be an integral part of your game plan, as it gives you a great platform from which to command the game and secure a victory.

It is vital to develop an almost unbeatable chess strategy by perfecting the basics: controlling the centre, protecting the King and developing pieces. For help with this, check out our article Chess Strategy and Tactics for Beginners.

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Trevor

Career teacher turned writer. Passionate about family, running, and the great outdoors.