The following is an adaptation of the book 'Othello: A minute to learn a life time to master' by Brian Rose. Which can be found found in the Resources section. Some positions and explanations may differ slightly from the original source due to impossible or unidentifiable positions used, however we tried to remain consistent to the source as much as possible. Many thanks to Brian for allowing us to develop this material.
Chapter 4: An introduction to openings
This chapter provides a brief introduction to the wonderful world of openings. I want to draw a clear distinction between the opening phase of the game, which is what I will discuss in this chapter, and book openings, i.e., moves that are prepared and memorized before the game begins (see chapter 11).
There is really no standard definition of where the opening ends and the midgame begins. Often it is defined as the first 10, 15, or at most 20 moves of the game. However, I prefer to think of the opening as being over as soon as any of the edge squares are taken. The introduction of strong computer programs in the 1990’s has had a dramatic effect on opening theory. For experts, looking to grab an advantage wherever they can, this has usually meant devoting a greater percentage of their practice time to researching and memorizing book openings. There have even been cases of people playing the entire game using memorized moves! However, for novices, all of this opening theory leads to the opposite conclusion, suggesting that they should spend little or no time memorizing.
It turns out that, contrary to the beliefs of 20 or 30 years ago, there are many different ways to play the opening, all of which lead to reasonably balanced positions. Even a lot of the moves which look terrible turn out to give only a slight advantage to the opponent, certainly not enough to worry about in a game between novices. For novice players, I feel that there is little to be gained by memorizing openings. It would be far more useful, and presumably a lot more enjoyable, to spend time playing games instead.
One other result from computer analysis is worth mentioning here. At the time of this writing, it appears that a perfectly played game of Othello would end in a draw. Thus, you need not worry too much about which color you play in any particular game; neither side starts with an advantage. I would recommend that you play roughly half of your games with each color. Having a “favorite” color that you insist on playing all the time is a bad habit to get into. Let us begin our discussion of openings from the first move of the game.
Black has four options to choose from, but from a theoretical point of view they are all the same, because the board is symmetric. From a practical point of view, however, it does make some difference where you play. Most experts always play the first move in the same place, and I would recommend that you do this as well, because positions that you have seen before are easier to recognize that way. Personally, I have always played move one at f5, and most of the diagrams in this book reflect this.
At move two, White has three choices, which are named perpendicular, diagonal, and parallel, reflecting the direction flipped relative to move one. These are pictured in Diagrams 4-1, 4-2, and 4-3 respectively. While both the perpendicular and diagonal are commonly seen in expert play, the parallel is considered to be inferior. The only time I can remember using the parallel was in a game played against Jonathan Cerf, the 1980 World Champion, with black and white cupcakes instead of regular pieces! I got into so much trouble that in desperation, I started to eat the pieces! While it certainly would not hurt to practice playing the parallel, in games where you really want to win, the perpendicular or diagonal would be a better choice.
Diagram 4-1: Perpendicular
Diagram 4-2: Diagonal
Diagram 4-3: Parallel
Suppose that you are Black and your opponent has chosen the perpendicular. At move three you have five choices: c3, c4, c5, c6 and c7. How is Black to choose among them? While some experts might disagree with me on this point, I believe that the strategy for the early part of the game really is not all that different than the midgame.
Chapter 3 stressed the benefits of quiet moves and the drawbacks of loud moves, and we will normally look for quiet moves in the opening phase of the game as well. In this case, the definition for quiet moves I gave in Chapter 3 is not all that useful, since all 5 of Black’s choices flip exactly one disc, and both the disc played and the disc flipped will be frontier discs. Perhaps we could refine that definition and say that the quietest move would be c5, since the piece flipped (d5) is surrounded in five directions, and the c5 disc itself would be adjacent to three occupied squares. The loudest move is c7, jutting out away from the other pieces. Indeed, when I first started playing Othello in 1980, c5 was by far the most common choice for Black. It just seemed natural to cut the three white discs in the middle. Meanwhile, c7 was, and still is, the least popular choice. For the diagonal and parallel as well, the obvious choice is to play quietly in the middle, i.e., e6 in Diagram 4-2 and e3 in Diagram 4-3.
Other than loudness, what other criteria could we use to choose a move? Perhaps the biggest difference between the opening and the rest of the game is that with fewer pieces on the board, and no edge squares occupied, it becomes more important to maintain discs in the center. If one player is able to cluster his discs in the middle, that player is said to control the center, and many of the openings played in expert games involve battles over the center. In the opening, it is often worth making a louder move in order to capture central discs and set up quiet moves in the future. For example, Diagram 4-4 shows one of the most common openings used in expert play after move 9, Here it might appear that a quiet move such as d1 is in order, but this does nothing to combat Black’s control of the center. In fact, White often plows through the middle as shown with move 10, establishing a presence in the center.
Compare Diagrams 4-5 and 4-7. The positions are identical except for the color of the disc on f5. Think for a moment about which of these two positions is more favorable for Black.
From what we have discussed so far, it might seem that the position in Diagram 4-6 should be more favorable for Black. After all, in this position White has an extra frontier disc, and frontier discs are usually bad. However, in Diagram 4-5, the f5 disc is very valuable for Black, since it allows him to move to f3, leaving Black with a very compact position (see Diagram 4-5, move 7), and forcing White to play to the outside on his next turn. Black has a considerable advantage.
In Diagram 4-6, White has a lot of frontier discs, but Black has a bit of an awkward position. There are many reasonably quiet moves, but none of them really establishes a presence in the center. The obvious move is probably for Black to just come through the middle as shown in Diagram 4-7, but this would leave White with quiet moves at d3, f3, d7 and f7. Despite the large number of white frontier discs, the position in Diagram 4-6 is considered to be even.
Diagrams 4-8, 4-9, and 4-10 show some common opening errors to avoid. In Diagram 4-8, White’s move jutting out away from the center is bad. It is far better to play move 4, f4, taking two discs in the middle. Diagram 4-9 shows another bad choice for White. This move needlessly allows Black to grab an excellent spot at e6.
In Diagram 4-10, White plays toward the outside at f6. It is better is to play move 6, f4, which looks similar, but is more toward the center. While openings can seem difficult, if you play in the center and keep your moves quiet, you will usually have a reasonable position going into the midgame. The game becomes a lot more difficult when play reaches the edges, which is the subject of Chapter 5.