After thirty-five years playing and teaching chess, I have opinions on good beginner openings. I want to share the opening for white that I started with at 10 years old. At a local bookstore, I purchased How to Think Ahead in Chess by Horowitz and Reinfeld. They suggested using the Stonewall attack.
The Stonewall attack is a simple, straightforward plan to use your pawns and knights to attack the kingside. When you study openings, you should not worry about moves, but learn how to play the typical position arrived at from the opening. See below:
The Stonewall Chess Opening
Above, notice the white pawns. They are all on dark squares holding the center and the pawn on d4 and f5 are attacking diagonally the square e5. The essence of the stonewall chess opening is to use your pawns, knights and the white-squared bishop to control the center and pry open the kingside. A typical continuation will look like the below:
Above, the stonewall opening plants a white knight on the square e5. If black exchanges, then you take with the f-pawn, attacking the black knight on f6. This is the beauty of the stonewall. White has all the play and black needs to defend.
So why do top players not play the stonewall system? Because of the white bishop on dark-squares. The bishop is buried behind pawns. In some positions, you end up moving it like a checker piece and in others, you will find yourself breaking the game open by moving the pawn on e3 to e4.
The stonewall is simply a solid opening. Minor drawbacks, but for a beginner, it is the perfect opening. You will develop your pieces consistently and reach a position where planning and strategy, the key to a fun chess game, is reached.
Beginner Chess Openings for Black
In the beginner book I found the stonewall suggestion, they suggested playing the Sicilian defense and the Queen's gambit declined. I disagree. Against e4, a good beginner opening is the French defense with a minor gotcha. The French defense is (1) a solid opening defense that is a different game than the usual responses to e4; (2) combined with the stonewall, you will quickly gain experience with thematic pawn breaks. Let's look at a thematic pawn break in a typical French opening:
The position above is the Advanced variation of the French defense and White has set a trap for Black. Black is to move, and can seemingly take the pawn on d4. If you calculate, the pawn takes d4, then the black knight takes d4 and finally, the black Queen will end up on d4.
To play the French defense well, you first need to be aware of this trap. I lost my first chess game right here and refused to play the French defense for years after. This is the one trap you need to know in the French defense, the rest of the opening lines are thematically similar.
The trap is now the white bishop can check the black king, allowing the white queen to threaten and with the next move, take the black queen.
The simple response is to prevent the check by playing the black bishop to d7, back in the position we were before:
This is a thematic French defense position and one where you can see the pawn break. Black is offering the pawn on c5 and wants to undermine the advanced center pawns White has pushed far away from protection. This is the quintessential idea, Black invites White to overextend by pushing pawns that will become targets to undermine. And, in particular, the move Black will use at some point is the lowly pawn on f7. Here, black can move to f6 and if white takes, black takes back with the knight, developing a piece and opening the game nicely for Black.
You can hopefully see the theme with the suggested chess openings for beginners. The opening position is closed, with lots of pawns pushed and the center locked. As a beginner, each chess game will have the same shape, the pieces will develop consistently, so patterns can quickly be formed.
When I was trained by a famous Russian chess trainer, he did not want us to memorize the opening moves. Rather, he wanted us to know the thematic opening position and understand the ideas. He translated the idea as the taiga, but the idiom is really to see the forest from the trees. As a beginner, you should want to get the feel for how to play. Avoid the rote memorization till later.
This is why, the final opening I would suggest for beginners against 1. d4, 1. c4 or 1. Nf3 is to use the Dutch defense. I feel less opinionated about this than the Stonewall or French defense, but my reasoning is that you can quickly reach positions that are very similar to the Stonewall opening, just with the position as Black.
Here is the Dutch defense thematic position I am thinking about:
The above has many of the same thematic principles of the Stonewall opening for white. In fact this is called the Stonewall variation of the Dutch defense.
The first move to any of 1. c4, 1. d4 or 1. f3 is the pawn move to 1. .. f5.
Play continues by moving the Black knight to f6, the black pawn to e6, and the bishop to e7.
Next steps to learn a chess opening
The first thing to do is explore the opening using an online database. My preferred opening database online is the freely available and excellent Shredder opening database. Play the beginning move of each opening, and you will see the historical responses, the frequencies and results. Explore a few opening lines deeper, past the initial development of pieces and look for patterns of attack and defense. Especially with the French defense 1. e4 e6, you will see the pawn breaks on f6 and with the Stonewall system, look for how the Queen and other pieces connect with the knights.
The next thing to learn a chess opening is to play the opening online. Do not worry about winning or losing, rather, you want to gain a feel for the game. Find where the opportunities to attack and the keys to defense arise. And remember the one trap with the French defense!
Paul Rohwer is a U.S. Life Chess Master and rated above 2500 on chess24. He enjoys playing card games, sudoku, programming, and solving puzzles. Kings in the corner, chess, and chinese checkers were his favorite games growing up. Euchre in college and nowadays, the nytimes spelling bee keeps him busy looking for the elusive pangram.