How to learn a new chess opening

 I will hazard a try at a few practical recommendations. Feel free to disagree.

– Don’t be afraid of “main lines”. I spent 20+ years avoiding them because I was afraid of being out-booked. Then I saw a great quote on the Boylston Chess Club blog from Ubermaster David Vigorito, speaking to another expert: “I think you over-rate both your opponents’ preparation and the value of surprise.” 

To David’s point, I have been playing the incredibly sharp, unbalanced, unsafe, bookish Alekhine’s defense for about three years now and I have never been busted in the opening. (It’s inevitable, yes, but the point is that it’s so rare as to not merit concern. Why not learn a real opening if that’s the case?)

– Get a good book. The Starting Out series is really quite excellent. I am told that Kaufman’s book is great and that Rizzitano is very good at providing clear explanations (and having seen a couple of his lectures, I am sure it’s true.) If you are, like me, a part-timer, you are going to live in this book for several years.

– But don’t memorize anything! Memorization is drudgery. What you are doing is learning about a set of positions that arise in probably four to seven major variations available to your opponent. You are learning common tactics. Common strategic ideas. Memorization is largely a by-product of this learning process. Where are the weak or strong squares for each side? Which pieces might you want to trade off, and why? You will eventually find a few lines where memorization is key. This is true in the Vorohnez line of the Exchange Alekhine. Eventually Greg K killed me and I had to finish learning theory until around move 18 to hope for equality. Not the first priority.

– Play through annotated GM and IM games in your opening. It doesn’t matter if they’re playing exactly your variation. Stop and ask a million questions. It doesn’t matter if you get all the answers right.

– Play it. You will never be completely ready. After maybe five or six months of playing a “sharp” and unusual opening online, I ventured it against a lower-rated player OTB. I won because I got a decent position from the opening and then out-played him (19 moves). After about a year, I played it against Denys Shmelov (2300 at the time). I got a decent position from the opening and the he out-played me.

Do you see what you’re doing? You can’t sit for two evenings and learn everything about the Panov Attack or the Schliemann Defense or whatever. You have to stew in it for a long time to learn anything. But you have to go ahead and play it and take your lumps.

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10 thoughts on “How to learn a new chess opening

  1. Outstanding. Much of good sense. Thank you heartily. Warmest, dk

    PS I continue on ‘your essay’ but had the flu, then tiredness or tiredness AND flu. but a new word came up today: ‘Promethian”. this is a word you’ll like! i am revising my …

  2. Excellent post. Not much to disagree with here. To your last point, I think it was Yermolinsky who once said that the only way he learns new openings is by playing them otb.

  3. some has to play the devil’s advocate here… so, if by chance you DO have a photographic memory.. perhaps memorization would be of benefit.

    Since, that’s not my case, rather i have a memory like a cheese grator, I find this method most suitable. I have a hard time with this method though,since the first few moves tend to be memorization. Tools like Bookup or other database in training mode etc… tends to promote this. For instance, as i play teh Slav defense, move order is crucial depending on white’s play. Rarely i fall into the mainline variation because my opponent will attempt to do a move order variation ( like bring hte bishop out first). If I play what i think are similar thematic moves, sometimes I find its the wrong thing ( like bringing my bishop out to F5 in some instances just weakens the queen side).

    I agree about the mainlines are not to be feared. I think that’s what confused me for too long. I would always try the most obscure to “throw my oponent out of the book” but not really understanding the main theme of the opening.

    There are no short cuts… unless there really is a matrix and Morpheus can download the opening directly to my brain.

  4. DK – I’m sure the essay is going to be quite a bit more interesting than the actual subject matter. :)

    Greg – Good quote. Of course Yermo is less likely to completely embarass himself.

    George – Right, but I’m with you on the cheese grater. If I had a different brain I would have posted “What’s the problem with you ignoramuses? Why don’t you just zip through the lines once and commit them to memory?”

  5. I think choosing an opening with a clear, generic plan you can live with is important too. e.g. The Exchange Ruy Lopez; trade exerything off, then win with the kingside pawn majority. Or the English Attack agains (almost) any Sicilian; Be3, f3, Qd2, O-O-O then throw everything at the tall piece with the little cross on top.

    Stuff like that.

    -Matt

  6. Matt — Good point. Of course, every opening has variations that require you to deviate from the clear plan that may have attracted you to the opening in the first place. For example, I have learned the hard way that White can get mated very quickly in the 5…Bg4 line of the Spanish Exchange if he is not careful. So back to Derek’s point that once you have absorbed the basic principles of the opening, you will eventually discover that some lines inevitably require some memorization.

  7. First, I really like the post.

    The Kaufman book is an amazing place to start for someone who wants to play 1.e4. About 4 years ago I decided I wanted to build a strong repertoire, I had MCO but this was no help. So I bought the Kaufman book cause it caught my eye. I didn’t need a response to 1.e4 but I started playing every other line he recommended and I did well.

    Now I have pretty much substituted the main lines for his recommendations for White and they have served me very well, the point is that if I had tried to start learning all the lines I know now from the beginning I would have been overwhelmed. Instead I got to learn the Open Sicilian separately from the Main Line French and Main Line Ruy Lopez because I had his less theory intensive alternatives to fall back on during the transition. Once I got more comfortable I could drop his opening and start playing my own.

    On the memorization topic. I have a very strong memory and know many lines past 15 or 20 moves. The problem with the memorization strategy is that even if you memorize all the lines this will not help you in the ensuing middlegame. If I had a superstrong photographic memory I guess I would memorize 30-50 games in each of my openings and then I would know the middlegame and endgame themes. But this is what important, what do you do when your theory runs out? Like Matt said, if you know the plans and standard important squares you will be golden.

    Also, there is still the topic of what to play. What happens when you’re learning the main line Ruy and you get to move 8 of this variation:

    1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0

    If you play 8.c3, the most common move (played by Anand in Morelia), then you have to reckon with 8…d5 9.ed5 Nd5 10.Ne5 Ne5 11.Re5 c6, the dreaded Marshall Attack, and you still have to know all the mainlines that come out of 8…d6 9.h3 Na5 10.Bc2 c5 11.d4. So to avoid this a lot of people have turned to 8.a4 (so called anti-Marshall) or 8.d4 (played by Ivanchuk in Morelia) or even 8.a3 (played by Carlsen in Morelia). This is a little long-winded but my point is that simply memorizing variations will not help you choose what game to play. You still have to do that. And the only way to choose what game you want to play is to look at the ensuing middlegames and endgames and try to figure out which game you would feel most comfortable in. So it all comes back to going over as many games as you can in as many variations as you can and finding what you think works for you. And of course testing them out (I like blitz or 15-minute online games for this) to get a feeling for the opening.

    Also, for those of you who have trouble keeping your lines organized and want some help memorizing them I would highly recommend Chess Position Trainer which helped me immensely when I was just starting to build my repertoire and I did not have my own ways of storing and recalling the moves.

  8. Good thoughts all. Kevin, I’m particularly a fan of this approach of having a sort of generic opening (or set) which you can dismantle & replace as you learn more specific ones. It’s not a good example to emulate, but I had the infamous Blackmar-Diemer Gambit as a reply (by transposition) to the Center Counter, Alekhine and Caro-Kann when I first got serious about building a repertoire. Gradually I have swapped that out.

    The Ruy and the Open Sicilian are good examples of very strong openings for White that present a tremendous practical challenge for amateurs to learn. But in some respects I think that to study the Ruy is to study chess itself. That’s where I’ll be if I survive the current work crush.

  9. dear resembler you must be a member of the MCC metrowerst chess club.IS ed Lafferty o.k i heard he has some form of cancer.so can you ask MR>phelps if he knows any thing just wondering.if ed laferty is o.k thxs.

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