Discovering Chess Openings, by John Emms

I recently read through this book on chess openings for beginner chess players who are aiming to improve their chess fundamentals. The idea of the book – an idea supported by many chess teachers and online streamers – is that you shouldn’t be spending all of your time on memorizing chess opening theory. You should focus your time on understanding the broad concepts of what the opening is trying to accomplish. When you understand these idea, and make meaningful and purposeful moves towards achieving those aims, you end up reconstructing opening theory. Here is an overview of the lessons in this book.


Control the Center

  • Typically center is middle 4 squares, but you should also consider the two squares on each side of this area.
  • Control the center, calculate which squares you control either through being on those spaces or attacking those spaces. Owning these squares allows your pieces to quickly move to other parts of the board and be effective faster.
  • Give your pieces mobility. Get your knights in the center. But you can put knights on the edge if they immediately go back to the center.


Develop your pieces

  • Develop minor pieces rapidly, calculate who’s ahead in development by counting how many central pawns you have as well as minor pieces developed. Castling can also be a point.
  • Knights usually have clearer best spots, which is why they are usually developed first. Figure out which spots for bishops are best.



  • Castle quickly.
  • If the center is closed, you can delay castling, and figure out which side is best (they don’t know which side to attack yet).
  • Don’t castle too early if it’s possible to have a pawn storm.


Additional Opening Principles

  • Never move the f pawn. Very weak pawn.
  • Don’t move pawns for no reason. Don’t do preventative pawn moves if you can develop a minor piece and defend later. 
  • Don’t move a piece twice.
  • Worry about free pawns: Is this a trick? Does this expose my king? Will I fall behind on development?
  • Use threats to develop if you can. They have to deal with the threats while you gain tempo and develop faster.
  • Don’t bring your queen out too early, where it can be attacked. If less attack possibilities exist later, it is safe to come out.
  • Restrict other players pieces to gain control over squares. Take away their escape squares.
  • Pin pieces to gain influence on center squares.
  • Employ gambits if you want. For successful gambits, focus on: clear development lead, control of center, creating weaknesses in other’s camp.
  • Use checks when you can. They are the biggest threats. But don’t just check to check, especially if they can get out of it and attack you back.


Pawns in Opening

  • Attempt to control center and use pawn breaks to force this when possible (but time it well). c3-d4 happens a lot in e4 games. Use f pawn break after castling.
  • If pawns get traded in the middle of the board, it’s open and you should get King to safety. If it gets locked up, you can delay castling and fast develops is not always what’s needed.
  • Hard to get classical center with d4, which is where queen’s gambit comes from.
  • Hypermodern school – attack and control center from afar, and strike out later
  • Doubled pawns can be ok if help control the center and are hard to attack. Bonus if open up lanes for development.
  • Pawn islands – the fewer the better, so capture in the direction that leads to fewer islands.


Some solid openings for improving players to know

  • e4 openings
    • Giuoco Piano
    • Two Knights Defense
    • Ruy Lopez
    • Petroff Defense
    • Sicilian Dragon
    • Sicilian Sveshnikov
    • French
    • Caro-Kann
    • Scandinavian
  • d4 openings
    • Queen’s Gambit Declined
    • Slav
    • Dutch
    • King’s Indian Defense
    • Grünfeld
  • c4 opening
    • English