There are two ways a chess game can be decided in the opening. Someone might fall for a trap and lose instantly. That’s perhaps what most people think about when they consider winning in the opening. The other possibility is that one side gains some sort of advantage, perhaps material but usually positional, and then uses that to win the game.
This second possibility is much, much more common at the grandmaster level. There, the tiniest sliver of an advantage may be nursed into a won game. For us amateurs, that’s usually not the case. It’s not uncommon to have an advantage turn into a disadvantage within three moves, sometimes even less … something I know all too well…
However, in amateur games, sometimes you can gain such a huge positional advantage that the game really is over. Obviously this implies that your opponent has made some type of mistake. It will be most obvious if we look at some of my examples.
Example One: Cervejarj – Smithy, 2013
This game show an opening stranglehold in perhaps its purest form. By move seven I would have to work very hard to lose this game. Note that this was a training game against a much lower-rated opponent, but that’s okay: it shows how a stronger player can take advantage of weak opening moves, something you can do now!
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.a3?!
My opponent evidently hates having Bishops come to b4. This is a waste of time, and I tried to think of the best way to punish White. That was my exact thought process: White did something wrong, so how do I take advantage?
Perhaps you know of the Latvian Gambit, 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5!?. It’s tricky but probably not good for Black … but now imagine it with the moves a3 and Nc6 inserted. That must be better for Black, yes?
4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Bc4?
White plays a ‘normal’ move, but this is no normal opening! White no longer has the luxury of playing normally, and now, funnily enough, he is lost after five moves. Not because he loses material, but because his position collapses.
5… fxe4 6.Ng5 d5 7.Ba2 h6 8.Nh3 Bg4 9.Ne2
White’s position is beyond sad. Most of his pieces cannot move. He has completely lost the centre. Black has complete control and can whistle his way to whichever plan he desires. White just needs to wait for the executioner, which won’t take long.
My opponent essentially made a passive move, then an error … and now he is losing. I didn’t have to do anything special the rest of the game, for it was over. The rest is pretty but not relevant to this topic. You can see how I finished it off below if you are interested.
Example Two: Smithy – Hiurm, 2004
The previous game showed an overpowering structural advantage, as Black dominated the centre. This game shows the overwhelming power of development.
1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 d5 4.exd5 Qxd5
I’m always happy to see this position when I play the King’s Gambit. The centre is wide open, I have easy development and my opponent’s Queen is open for attack. We all know we shouldn’t bring the Queen out early because it can get chased around, but sometimes we forget … and games like this one then happen.
5.Nc3 Qe6+ 6.Kf2!
This is a common idea in the King’s Gambit: instead of making a meek move like Be2, I move my King, clearing the way for my Bishop and Rook to go to better squares.
You might object, isn’t my King vulnerable there? Certainly it would be safer if I could castle, but even here, how can Black attack it? He has no pieces out, and ideas like Bc5 simply run into d4.
6… Qb6+?! 7.d4 Bg4?!
My opponent develops, which is good, but he does it with the wrong piece. This pin isn’t very good, as I can easily play Qe1+ to get out of it at any time. If the Knight then jumps to e5, the Bishop is attacked, losing even more time.
He needed to play a move like Nf6, which both develops but also stops me from attacking. Now I gain even more time attacking his Queen, and things get bad.
8.Nd5 Qd6 9.Bc4 g5? 10.Qe1+ Be7 11.Nxg5!
My opponent tried to hang onto his extra pawn, but it didn’t work. Now he’s facing severe problems, as I am almost fully developed and creating threats, whereas he has done nothing but move his Queen around.
11… h6 12.Bxf4 Qd7 13.Nxf7! Rh7 14.Ne5
This diagram shows perfectly the power of development. If you could put White’s minor pieces on any squares you wanted, you’d pick these four squares. Look at the difference of the Knights in particular. This game is over.
Black could have resigned, but he thrashed about for a few moves before walking into a mating net.
14…. Qd8 15.Nxg4 Kd7 16.Nxc7 Bh4+ 17.g3 Rg7 18.Qe6# 1-0
This game showed Black get thrown for a loop in a completely different way, but the root cause was the same: he made some dubious opening moves. I saw them, I pounced on them and my advantage, in this case development, grew and grew until it consumed Black.
Game Three: Smithy – Barrett, 2002
The first game showed the power of a strong structure; the second game showed the power of greater development. This game shows what happens when both combine. It’s not pretty.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 h6?!
Look at that! It’s a little useless pawn move again! It’s moves like this that spread the germ of defeat in so many amateur games. I could have taken advantage by immediately playing d4 and c3, offering the Goring Gambit but with an extra tempo and excellent attacking chances, but I didn’t know about punishing opening mistakes when I was younger.
In a way, I guess it didn’t matter.
4.0-0 Nf6 5.c3 Bc5?? 6.d4 exd4 7.cxd4
Black must have forgotten that I had castled. In a normal Italian Game, Black has Bb4+ and can then play d5, securing an equal game. Here he doesn’t have that check, and that makes all the difference. He basically loses.
7… Bb6 8.e5 Nh5? 9.d5 Na5? 10.Bd3
The Knight on the rim is dim. We’ve all heard that, right? Here, Black has both Knights acting as dimmers. Somewhat oddly, Black’s best moves were to retreat his Knights back to their original squares, because they are actually trapped on the edge.
White is technically one move ahead in development, but Black’s forces are in such disarray that it’s effectively a gigantic advantage.
10… Bc5 11.g4
Black’s last move was meant to stop b4, trapping his Knight … but I could still play g4 and trap his other Knight. I wasn’t a very good player at the time, but I remember feeling really amused when I realized none of his pieces could move.
11… d6 12.gxh5 dxe5 13.a3
I now threaten b4 again, trapping his other Knight in the exact same way! It’s also threatening a fork, and because he has absolutely no control of the center, he can’t even safely retreat his forces.
He tries 13…Qxd5, but then he gave up after 14.Bb5+, winning his Queen.
I’m not going to pretend these games are pearls of chess beauty, but they do show it’s possible to win in the opening without using traps. Namely, one player grossly violates opening principles and the other takes full advantage.
That right there is the key. You have to take advantage. If you just play normal moves, your advantage could slip. Once you see something, you need to take it. I was fortunate in the third and final game, as normal moves were enough to punish Black, but that is the exception.
Also, did my opponent lose because of a lack of opening theory? No. They lost because they made useless pawn moves instead of developing and they moved their Queen around instead of developing. This really isn’t rocket science, but it’s the key to opening advantages.