As a chess teacher I am often asked the following question: Is it better to survey all aspects of the game at once to lay a solid overall foundation, or is it more advantageous to study certain areas of chess intensively from the start, possibly to the temporary neglect of other matters?
If time were not a factor, the idea of “all and everything” would be an acceptable one for the average chess player. But the solution for the pragmatic player who is looking to increase his playing strength rapidly with as little as an hour a week to practice has to be different. As a chess teacher, my number-one priority is to actually help my students improve their level of play. When they want to do so in a reasonably short time period, the most practical advice I can give them is to concentrate on a few things, mainly opening moves and principles. Once they have built up this specialized but powerful arsenal, they can fill in the gaps and broaden their knowledge.
Of the three traditional phases in the game of chess—the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame—the opening is always the most significant to the average player. That’s because every game has an opening, and therefore certain opening principles are important to every game. You’ve got to play the opening to get to the middlegame or endgame, and in fact many chess games end in the opening phase simply because the other two phases don’t exist if you lose the game in ten moves.
There is a second practical advantage to studying the opening before the middlegame and endgame. Openings are easier to remember, since the starting position is always the same. Middlegame and endgame positions, to the contrary, almost never crystallize exactly the way you’ve seen them before in a book.
Of course, since most openings can go from ten to fifteen or more moves, even the same variation can change considerably from game to game. Nevertheless, any player may see the first moves of an opening play out many times, especially when he is playing White and exerts greater influence over the course of play.
By repeating the same openings for White and the same defenses for Black over and over, you come to a deeper understanding of the effects of these moves. Soon you gain greater familiarity with your opponent’s reasonable responses, thereby achieving the mastery to exploit erroneous play in actual chess games, as opposed to what happens in books. You don’t have to be a psychologist to realize that winning encourages more participation, more reading, and further development. The process is generally self-rewarding.
One might conclude that the opening is the easiest phase in which to develop prowess. Alas, this is not so! Too many players study the opening almost religiously, by rote, and misuse the versatile and adaptable tools it puts at their disposal. Too often, the only reference material available consists of a certain type of opening manual that charts numerous moves, with little or no commentary. This approach is useful for experienced players because it provides notes on who played a variation in what tournament or match, and which side stood better in the final position. What typically it doesn’t supply is analysis of the moves—why some are recommended, while others aren’t even considered. Nor does this approach explain how to proceed with the game once the variation is completed. Such information may be needed to move ahead.
Some opening books offer analysis but still leave you hanging if your opponent doesn’t play according to Hoyle. Suppose he or she tries an offbeat line or blunders? What do you do then? Since amateurs don’t always play the best moves, isn’t it more sensible to review the mistakes that tend to occur repeatedly in their own games? Learning to recognize illogical play, and to pounce on it is accomplished through systematic study of inconsistent moves and how to counter them.
Mistakes like these are often the results of violating opening principles. One such arch sin probably familiar to most average players is that of bringing out the Queen early to grab an unimportant enemy pawn, and in return neglecting the development of other pieces and the castling of the King. Learn how to exploit such foolishness in an opponent and watch your success ratio go up.
The purpose of the opening is to mobilize your entire army rapidly by activating a different piece on each turn, gaining moves by attacks and threats and forcing your opponent to waste time defending himself. You should also castle quickly to safeguard your King from potential danger and to clear the path for the Rooks and Queen shifting along the front rank.
As you bring out your pieces in the opening, you should try to set problems for your opponent on each turn. The goal is to prevent him from completing his own development and from safely castling his King. If you’re lucky, he may not even survive an opening against your mounting threats. Don’t let him get away. Hound his King until real concessions are made or you win material or you get the big prize: checkmate. This strategy is bound to work against an opponent who flagrantly violates opening principles that he either doesn’t know or brushes aside if he does.
To develop a general understanding of what the opening should accomplish, you need numerous examples showing how your opponent’s violation of principles can ruin his game. The material must demonstrate corresponding cause-and-effect relationships. The side making the error shows what to avoid, while the side exploiting the mistake shows how to play well. This is better than reviewing errorless chess games between two masters who seldom make the mistakes that are instructive to a casual player. At the same time, examples portraying one player’s taking advantage of another’s errors are more useful to the student than games between amateurs where neither side capitalizes on the enemy’s missteps.
The “Traps and Zaps” Approach, and How to Use this Book
This “crime and punishment” approach to learning the openings has been very effective. In Chess Openings: Traps and Zaps, I offer a collection of 202 short openers where proper play in the beginning phase is violated. The winning player, often in fewer than ten moves, must punish his opponent’s mistakes or simple failure to abide by sound opening principles.
I have arranged the games according to groups of openings. Every example is introduced by the name of the overriding tactic used to get a winning position, such as “In-Between Move” in example 1. This is followed by the name of the opening, which in example 1 is “Center Game.” In all these examples, both sides begin by moving their King-pawn two squares. The moves leading to the key position of the diagram, where a winning shot is to be found, are given in algebraic notation.
In example 1 the opening moves are: 1. e4 e5 2. d4 exd4 3. Qxd4 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5. After the diagram is a cue indicating who moves first, given in example 1 as “Black to move.” I recommend learning these opening moves by playing them on a real chessboard and sitting on the side of the board for the player whose turn it is, indicated by the cue under the diagram. For example 1, therefore, turn the board so that you have Black.
If you don’t have a ready chessboard, look at the diagram and imagine you’re playing an actual game. However you reach the diagrammed position—by playing out the moves or simply by pretending you’re sitting at a real chessboard according to the diagram—spend a couple of minutes in that situation, seeking a strong move. Try to analyze what’s wrong with your opponent’s last play. Look for ways to threaten his King, especially by combining such a threat with an attack against another unit. In other words, look for double attacks, the golden key to a winning advantage. This exercise will sensitize you to find similar tactics in your own games.
After engaging in this task, whether you’ve solved the problem or not, turn to the “Scenario.” It sets the theme, gives the winning continuation, and presents the reasoning behind the moves. Following the Scenario is the “Interpretation.” It explains why the loser went wrong, how he could have avoided the trap, and what he should have done instead. Important principles and useful guidelines are included to reinforce the lesson of each opening example.
Such themes as the failure to develop rapidly and effectively or neglecting King safety occur in numerous examples. These repetitions are important in order to see how only a few principles really determine the course of most openings. Understand them in their various guises, and you will actually start to play better chess and reach a viable middlegame against virtually anyone. By carefully digesting and evaluating the book’s examples, you will also be arming yourself to fend off any foe. No one will be able to trounce you in the opening ever again.
All the examples in this book are short games drawn from the vast pool of double King-pawn openings. They are often less than ten moves and easy to remember. Later, with more experience, you will be in a better situation to expand your opening repertoire. By understanding very well some of the principles of double King-pawn openings, eventually you will master the principles of all openings with greater ease and success.
The material is arranged in seven chapters, each constituting a block of openings. A discussion of that section’s openings introduces each chapter, explaining their differences and similarities. The chapters are related, yet stand as individual entities. You can read from page one, chapter after chapter, or you can focus on just the openings or group of openings that interests you. Arranged in logical sequence, the organization mainly follows historical development and moves from simpler positions to more complicated ones.
For those wishing to bone up on tactics, an alternative approach is to play over situations of similar attacking ideas, which are listed in the Tactical Index at the back of this book under categories such as pins, forks, discoveries, skewers, and so on. And should you find an unfamilar technical term, or one you may have forgotten, you can review its definition in the Glossary. Finally, another back-of-the-book listing, Opening Name Index, includes most known double King-pawn openings and the textbook moves characterizing them. Check this if you want to see the “textbook” versions of the more common scenarios this book covers.
Some Important General Comments
As you read along, you may wonder why this book contains such emphasis on double King-pawn openings. In other words, why do all the examples in this book begin with White playing his King-pawn from e2 to e4, and with Black ritually responding with his King-pawn from e7 to e5?
The reason is quite simple. Double King-pawn openings stress the principles of open games. Open games, open positions, and open centers facilitate piece activity, King safety, and central movement.
A game, position, or center is generally open if at least two pawns—one for White and one for Black—are exchanged off the board, so that the pieces can move freely and quickly through the center. Double King-pawn openings either lead to an exchange of central pawns (usually White’s d-pawn for Black’s e-pawn) or retain the possibility of such an exchange right into the middle game. The opposite of an open game is a closed game, where the center is typically blocked and immobilized by four interlocked pawns, two of White’s and two of Black’s. In such a game, an exchange of central pawns is unlikely.
Open games are direct and immediate, and much easier to understand than closed games. Closed games are subtler and slower, and therefore harder to understand and play. Open games bristle with attacks, threats, and traps. Closed games demand long-term plans and deliberate maneuvers, and they often intimidate beginners. Closed games cannot really be comprehended without considerable experience, whereas open games require much less preparation. So openings that generally produce open positions obviously have more practical value to the student than those of any other kind.
Because double King-pawn openings tend to produce open positions—direct, clear, and easy to understand—it is fairly standard thinking that the study of openings should start with them. What you must know to play better chess is illustrated powerfully in double King-pawn openings.
Unless you have unlimited study time, I do not recommend that you try to learn all openings at once. There are just too many, and at a general level the principles that predominate in one group seem to contradict the principles emphasized in another. (This is not always so at a higher level.)
So if different opening systems are studied simultaneously, it’s easy to become confused. It takes time to employ new concepts that appear antithetical to those already learned.
Quick victories are a lot of fun and usually remembered, especially when you are on the winning side. I am reminded of the succinct description of learning given by the Czech educator Jan Amos Komensky (1592–1670): “Through play, knowledge.” Can there be a more cogent chess lesson than refuting your opponent’s illogical error and winning a game in ten moves? You will find 202 ways to do just that in this book. So win away—and be brilliant.