Studying Openings Made Simple

Many people ask themselves how to study openings in chess.

They may try to learn chess openings by memorizing them. They play through the opening line they like to learn and try to memorize the various moves in the same order. The line they memorize this way, will probably be based on the chess opening theory. They hope to be able to play the line in an over the board game, giving them some advantage (in using less time or by getting a better position).

This route to opening knowledge is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Most people will probably even stop studying openings, as they find they can't memorize all the different variations. And even if they succeed in playing some memorized openingline in a real game, they see themselves wasting the advantage as soon as they reach the end of their line. The evaluation of most of the variations in opening theory are "just a little better" or "just a little worse". This is almost the same as saying "just about equal". So if a player doesn't understand what's going on in the position he has reached by his opening play, he may give the advantage away very easily. All it takes is playing a move which seems reasonable enough, but which doesn't meet the needs of the position it was played in.

Have you ever tried this way of studying openings? And how did it work out for you? By now you know I'm not a fan of this kind of tedious, time-consuming and non-rewarding work. I'd rather propose a very different approach.

A Simple System

The way I would recommend you to learn the openings is by playing them! Playing chess is what it's all about, so you might as well have fun learning the openings. Playing the opening you like to study has several advantages. First you get some hands on experience. Your brain will work to solve opening problems, while playing over the board. Then, when the game has finished, you will want to analyze the opening (probably the whole game, but here we talk about improving on openings). What went wrong and why? This is the only studying you have to do.

So how do you find the answers to what went wrong and why? What info are you searching for?

You'll have to find some really good books on the opening you're studying. Really good books not only tell you what the main line and the different variations of your opening are. A really good book will point out the different ideas, concepts and strategies as well. It will point out the type of positions arising from the opening and how to play them. It will help you become familiar with the different kind of plans you may encounter. It will also help you understand the kind of advantages and disadvantages the opening line will bring you. And finally it explains how the different moves contribute to all of the above.

So, after playing a game, you turn to your book. You play the line of your game up to the point you deviated from "theory". Now this will be your starting point of study.

The Easy Way

You've found the position where you deviated from chess theory. Find out what move your book recommends and why.

Now burn this information in your brain. At the first possible moment, play this move. Now you're one step further down the theoretical path.

A Little More Work

First, figure out why your move wasn't as great as you thought it would be. If you can't find this out by yourself, you might want to ask an experienced player or hire a coach.

Then study some more moves ahead, say two or three. And become familiar with the underlying plans, strategies and tactics. This way you'll study more of your opening in a shorter period of time. You'll also have to remember more in this shorter period of time. So this method is only for those who have a fairly good memory. If you tried the easy way and found it too slow, you can give this more challenging way a try.

The Result

In both cases you'll gain a lot of understanding (as opposed to mere memorization) of the opening. You'll know what's going on and you'll be able to come up with plans that meet the demands of the position. You'll know the ideas behind the moves you play and what tactics to watch out for. If you study chess openings this way, you'll soon have more opening knowledge than the average chess player.

Improving Faster

If you want to improve your openings faster, this may be for you.

Buy a dvd on your favorite opening. Watch the different commented games, showing you the ideas and plans.

Play (online) rapid games with your opening system.

Evaluate your games (with the help of books and dvd).

A Totally Different Approach

A different approach on how to study openings in chess is possible as well.

If you'd like to prepare an opening line in a relative short period of time, this might be right for you.

You first have to find some annotated games of top-players, playing the opening you like to study. Preferably the games are annotated by the players themselves. This way you'll learn what they where thinking during the game and how they were planning their moves.

Then you cover the moves that are played.

Now you start playing through the game at a real board (not your computer).

You uncover the first move and play it on your board.

Now you have a position in your opening line.

Study this position and ask yourself questions. What are the strengths and weaknesses in this position (for both sides)? What are the possible tactical motifs? Which pieces have a position you would like to improve? What imbalances exist or can be created?

After studying the position in depth, decide on a move you would play in this position.

Now write down your analysis together with the move you want to play and why you want to play it (its objectives).

Now uncover the next move of the game you're studying and repeat the process.

Do this until you've finished the whole game.

You'll be making plans for both sides and play through the game like it was your own. You'll end up with your own written analysis of the whole game (this is very important!).

As soon as you're done, it's time to play through the game once more. This time you'll play through the game, using the players analysis. This way, you'll discover the ideas and plans of the grandmaster. And because you can compare them to the plans you made, you're likely to wipe out some of your erroneous ideas in the process.

You'll be surprised how deep your insights to the opening line and the resulting middlegame positions will become if you use this system.

Training Exercises

If you want to practice some more, or in an even different way, the following exercise may help you speed up a bit.

Play partial games against a computer program with an opening book. I use Fritz for this purpose, but there are lots of good engines these days. Just make sure the program has an excellent opening book with all the openings and lines you like to play. Then set the opening you like to play and play against the program. As soon as you reach an unfamiliar position, stop and analyze the position by yourself. Figure out the possible plans, strengths an weaknesses of the position. Then decide on the next move to play. Play this move and see how the computer reacts. Then turn to your books. Find the position and see what the book is telling you about it. Whether you found the right move or not, is not so very important. Be sure to find out if you asessed your plans, tactics, strengths and weaknesses correct. And once you're done, be sure to remember why the book recommends a certain move.

Now you're ready to play another partial game to your computer.

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