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Chess Openings : Count the Developing Moves
Chess Tutorial on Opening Play


How many developing moves are needed to complete the opening?

One question new chess players often ask is when does the opening end and the middle game begin. There are no hard and fast rules for this and even strong players will disagree whether a specific position is in the opening or the middle game. It's not important to agree. The terms for the three phases of a game are for convenience. They are like historical ages. We may not agree on exactly which year the Bronze Age began, but it is a useful concept for talking about human history.

There is an extremely useful method for knowing when you are still in the opening. Count the developing moves. Some moves develop your game, some moves don't.

What is a developing move? It's a move that brings at least one of your pieces into action. For example, your Bishops are blocked by their own Pawns at the beginning of the game. To develop a Bishop you need to push at least one Pawn. To develop the Kingside Bishop, you need to push the e- or g-Pawn. That's a developing move. Moving the Bishop itself is another developing move.

What aren't developing moves? Capturing or recapturing your opponent's pieces usually develop nothing, so these don't count as developing moves, even though they are essential.

The real value of counting developing moves is that it gives us an idea about who is leading in development. It also gives us a clue about what moves to consider next.

[See also the Initial Position.]

Developing moves

Starting from the initial position, the minimum moves you need to develop your game completely are:-

  • 2 Pawn moves to let the Bishops out
  • 4 Minor piece moves
  • 1 Queen move
  • 2 Rook moves, developed to a center file
  • 1 King move, usually by castling, more often by O-O than by O-O-O

That makes a total of 10 developing moves. This holds for both sides, whether you're playing White or Black. Looking at it another way, you start the game with eight pieces. On their original squares the pieces are undeveloped. You need to make at least one move with each piece plus two Pawn moves for the Bishops. That makes ten moves.

See the diagram below for an example. Both players have made four moves : 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Nc6 4.d3 Bb4. White has developed two pieces, while Black has developed three. Does this mean that Black is leading in development? No, White has made two Pawn moves to let the Bishops out, Black has made only one.

White has used the first four moves to make the two required Pawn moves and two piece moves. Black has made one Pawn and three piece moves. The two players are neck and neck in the race to develop their pieces.

[The position in the diagram is from an opening called the Vienna Game.]

Danish Gambit

You know that each piece has a material value. A minor piece (Knight or Bishop) is worth three Pawns, a Queen is worth three minor pieces, and so on.

You may also know that, along with the well known material counts, chess masters use intangibles like time and space to evaluate a position. We're not going to discuss the value of space here, but now that we know about developing moves, we can talk about time.

Count the developing moves for each side in the diagram above. White has developed two Bishops plus the two Pawns required to let those Bishops out. That makes four developing moves for White. Black has made only one developing move: the e-Pawn has moved to let a Bishop out. If you just count developing moves, White has a big lead early in the game : four developing moves for White versus one for Black. What's going on?

Developing moves don't tell the full story. If you count Pawns, you will see that White has five Pawns while Black has seven Pawns. White has sacrificed two Pawns to achieve a lead in development. This is the principle behind an opening gambit.

The diagram shows a typical position -- 1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Bc4 cxb2 5.Bxb2 -- from the Danish Gambit. Black has used three of the first four moves to capture Pawns. It is now Black's move, and Black would be well advised to play a developing move.

Sicilian Defense

The diagram shows a position from the Sicilian Defense. It's called the Scheveningen Variation : 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6. The same position can be reached by switching Black's second and fifth moves : 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6. Chess opening are full of transpositions like this. While the move order is important for steering into openings you like and away from openings you don't like, the position on the board can be evaluated without knowing its history.

Let's count the developing moves. White has moved two Pawns to let the Bishops out and has moved two Knights. That makes four developing moves. We know that White has made five moves. The other move was 4.Nxd4, which was necessary to recapture the Pawn. Some players would say that 4.Nxd4 was also a developing move, because it brought the Knight to the center. We're not going to count that here. We're only interested that the Knight has moved once.

For Black, we count two Pawn moves and one Knight move. Black has played three developing moves out of the first five moves. The two non-developing moves were 1...c5 and 3...cxd4. This doesn't mean they were bad moves. They were among the best moves on the board when they were played. If you're not convinced, just take our word for now. White is ahead in development and has the next move.

[See also Sicilian Defense - 2...d6 Variations.]

Pirc Defense

This diagram shows the position after the moves 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7. Both sides have made four developing moves : two Pawns and two minor pieces. Although both sides have made the same number of developing moves, the positions are not at all the same.

White has moved the two center Pawns (both two ranks forward) to their best squares and the two Knights to their best squares. Many players consider this an optimal development for White after four moves.

Black has moved two Pawns (both one rank forward), a Knight to its best square, and has fianchettoed a Bishop. Black is now ready to castle.

Are you surprised that we consider castling a developing move? After all, castling doesn't develop the King. It moves the King into safety. Of course that's right, but in another sense the castling move develops your game, if not your pieces. It develops your game because at some point you need to get your King out of the center and into the corner. You also need to move your Rooks into action on a center file. Castling clears the center files so you can place a Rook there.

Why don't we count castling as a developing move for the Rook? You still need to move the castled Rook to a center file, so we count an additional move for the Rook.

[See also Pirc Defense.]

Queen's Gambit

All of our examples have used positions from games that start 1.e4. This doesn't mean that developing moves are only important in games that start with the King's Pawn.

The sequence 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 is a typical Queen's Pawn opening. The position after those four moves is shown in the diagram.

Counting developing moves, White has played one Pawn move and two minor piece moves. Black has played two Pawn moves and two minor piece moves. White appears to be behind in developing moves : three to four. Does this mean that White has lost a move somewhere? No, it doesn't.

In almost all games that open 1.d4, both players are obliged to push the c-Pawn early in the game. This is because it is so hard for either side to play e4 (...e5), that both sides push the c-Pawn to gain space on the Queenside.

In the diagram White has played 2.c4, while Black has not yet decided what to do with the c-Pawn. Note that Black has not blocked the c-Pawn with ...Nc6, which is often a dubious move in Queen's Pawn openings.

[See also Queen's Gambit Declined.]

Albin Counter Gambit

The position in the diagram occurs after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e5 3.dxe5 d4 4.Nf3 Nc6 5.g3 Bg4. It's a wilder position than any we've seen in this tutorial.

After five moves, White has played two developing Pawn moves (the d- and g-Pawns) plus a Knight move. Black has also played two developing Pawn moves (the d- and e-Pawns), plus Knight and Bishop moves. White has played three developing moves, Black has played four. How did Black get ahead in development?

If we count material, we see that White still has all eight Pawns, while Black has only seven. Black's move 2...e5 initiated a gambit that sacrificed a Pawn.

A counting trick sometimes used in the opening is that a Pawn is worth three tempi. That means if you can sacrifice a Pawn for three developing moves, you have good compensation. Here Black has only one extra tempo for the sacrificed Pawn, which is not enough. The compensation is that the Pawn on e5 is not easily protected. Black will use the slight advance in development to attack that Pawn, trying to win it back.

[See also Albin Counter Gambit.]

King's Indian Defense

The position in this diagram occurs after five moves -- 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.Nf3 d6 5.g3 O-O -- have been played. Using our familiar counting method, we calculate that White has played four developing moves, while Black has played five.

Note that instead of counting development moves, we can also use our method to count developing moves which have not yet been played. In step 1 of this tutorial we calculated that from the starting position each side has ten developing moves to make : two Pawns plus eight pieces.

Since White has played four developing moves in the diagram, that means there should be six developing moves still to be played. Indeed we see that White still has to

  • develop the two Bishops and the Queen,
  • castle the King, and
  • move the two Rooks toward the center.

The six developing moves to be played plus the four moves already played equals our count of ten moves total. We could have calculated the same by noting that White has six pieces on the back rank. All of these pieces are still to be developed.

Looking at Black's position, we count five pieces not yet developed on the back rank. We don't count the King, because Black has already castled. Five developing moves played plus five moves still to be played again total ten developing moves.

[See also King's Indian Defense.]

Reti System

Our last example shows that a count of developing moves can be used for openings other than 1.e4 and 1.d4. It can be used for all openings. The position in the diagram arises after 1.Nf3 d5 2.g3 c5 3.Bg2 Nc6 4.O-O e6 5.d3 Nf6.

White has made five developing moves. Black has made four. Counting the White pieces on the back rank, but excluding the castled King, we see that White has five developing moves still to be made. Counting the Black pieces on the back rank, we see that Black has six developing moves still to be made. This adds up to ten developing moves for each side.

Now we have another tool to understand why moves like 1.a3 and 1.h3 are considered to be inferior first moves. They do nothing to aid development. After 1.h3, White still has ten developing moves to be played. The same is true for Black after 1.e4 h6. Any developing move would have been better.

[See also Reti System.]


Our method of counting developing moves is only a rough guide to measure progress in the opening. There are many positions where positional factors like space and Pawn structure are more important than rapid piece development.

The method has some real advantages. First, counting developing moves for both sides gives us an idea who is leading in development. Second, it tells us what moves to consider next. Third, it lets us recognize and evaluate tradeoffs for less tangible positional factors. If a move does nothing for development, but it gives an advantage elsewhere, it's up to us to decide which advantage is more important.

The method also confirms some well known opening principles like 'don't move the same piece twice' -or- 'don't develop the Queen too early'. Moving the same piece twice slows down our own development. Developing the Queen too early can leave it on a square where the enemy pieces can develop and attack at the same time.

If you've understood the principles here, you might be wondering about castling Queenside (O-O-O). It seems to violate our principle of exactly ten developing moves. It moves the King into safety while moving a Rook to a central file. Doesn't it save a move? We discuss this topic in another article: Middle game - King safety.

Finally, don't forget that developing a piece is only the first consideration. The choice of which target square is just as important. We'll cover that in a related tutorial.