How to Learn an Opening in 2023
The clock starts on your tournament game and you play a few familiar opening moves, but soon enough though, your opponent plays a move that surprises you. You have a vague memory of having seen it in a book or course and try to follow the line you learned. Only, you’re not quite sure what the moves were, or even if you’re in the same line you’re thinking of. After a few more moves you reach the end of your preparation (or is it?) and you realize you have no clue what’s going on in the resulting position. You start to drift and, with your attention occupied with trying to find a plan, make a tactical blunder and go down quickly.
This story is all too familiar for most chess players, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Over years of trial and error, I’ve worked out a system for preparing openings that allows me to consistently remember my preparation, continuously improve it over time, and most of all, feel confident going into the game. For the next two weeks I’ll be going over all the details of this system.
Choosing an Opening
I think of my opening repertoire like a suit of armor. I want to be covered from all directions, so my opponent can’t easily exploit me by hitting me in a weak spot. So if my suit of armor currently consists of an elbow joint, before adding an additional plate onto the elbow, I want to cover some additional areas.
In chess, this means you want to be covered against all the major options your opponent can throw at you. When you’re just starting out, you should have a White opening, a Black opening vs. 1. e4, and a Black opening vs. 1. d4. Of course, the more advanced you get, the more nuanced this will become. For example, if you play 1. e4 as White, you’ll want something against 1… e5, the Sicilian, the French, and the Caro Kann. And as you get more advanced still, the Sicilian might branch into the Najdorf, the Sveshnikov, the Dragon, etc.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The main point is to prioritize coverage over variety. If you already play the French vs. 1. e4 and are reasonably happy with it, you gain very little by also learning the Sicilian. If your opponent plays 1. e4, you can only play one of your options anyway. If you have a repeat opponent you might surprise them by springing a new opening you haven’t played before, but the value of this is miniscule compared to shoring up an area where you had little to no coverage.
To put it simply, think of the openings that make you go, “Oh crap, I have no idea what to do here.” That’s what you need to cover.
Once you’ve identified a weak point you want to address, you have to choose which opening you’ll learn. As a starting point, I’d suggest avoiding bad openings. By a “bad opening” I mean one where your opponent has a clear path to a big advantage. For example, no offense to Eric Rosen, but the Stafford Gambit is a bad opening. Just put the starting moves on the board and turn on the engine and you can see that White has many paths to a big advantage. Actually, the Stafford scores well in the online data, so you can probably get away with some pretty bad openings. But personally I wouldn’t want to show up for an OTB game knowing that if my opponent has bothered to look up a few lines they can get a huge advantage against me.
Fortunately, modern engines have shown that almost every opening is fine, so you have a wide choice. Even something like the much-maligned Benoni is within the realm of playable. Within those playable openings, look for something that leads to the kind of games you like. For example, the King’s Indian Defense leads to highly imbalanced positions with a lot of chances for both sides. You’ll sometimes get crushed when your opponent hits you with a line you weren’t prepared for, but you’ll also win some games with glorious kingside attacks. For some players that tradeoff is worth it. On the other side of the spectrum, the Queen’s Gambit Declined is a more solid opening that leads to positions with less pronounced imbalances. You’re less likely to be crushed quickly and you have more leeway to forget your preparation, but you’ll also have to work harder to create an advantage. Many of your wins will be long grinds extending into the endgame. For most people, one or the other of these situations is immediately much more appealing. Essentially, you’re looking for an opening that you vibe with.
A couple of common mistakes to avoid:
You do not need to do anything special to avoid draws. According to the stats, draws are very rare below the professional level in any opening. When choosing an opening, draws are not something you need to worry about at all.
You don’t need to play bizarre or outrageous openings to have fun playing chess. Chess is an incredibly deep game with hidden resources in the most simple-looking positions. If an opening seems boring to you, it’s a near certainty that you don’t understand it. Work on cultivating your curiosity. There are no boring openings, only boring players.
Pick a resource
In theory, it’s possible to prepare an opening from scratch on your own using the database and engine. In practice, unless you’re already a very strong player and skilled researcher, this is very difficult. It’s hard to jump into an opening with no knowledge and orient yourself to the main lines and ideas. It’s much faster and easier to learn the major ideas from someone who already knows the opening, has practical experience, and can explain the most important points. Even Jan Gustafsson, Magnus Carlsen’s head openings coach for many years, has said that when learning a new opening he likes to start by reading a book on it.
The ideal is to have a coach or friend with deep practical experience in the opening who can teach it to you. Of course, in many cases you won’t have access to such a person. In that case you should look for a book, course, or video that can teach you the main ideas. Look for a resource that has detailed explanations that make sense to you. The traditional route here is to get a book on the opening, which can still work very well. Recently, Chessable has become very popular for opening preparation. I created a Chessable course on a repertoire for White starting with 1. Nf3. I’ve also gotten good mileage out of courses by Christof Sielecki and Surya Ganguly, to name two. You can also search for YouTube videos by great coaches like John Bartholomew or Andras Toth. For this step, any of the above would work well. Just pick a single source with a good track record whose explanations make sense to you.
The big trap to avoid here is spending too much time on this step. You’re looking to spend a few hours, maximum, getting your bearings in the opening. One problem I have with a lot of openings books and courses is that they’re far too long. Fortunately, most Chessable courses now have a quickstarter chapter, and many opening books start with a quick overview. If you’re using a large resource, start with the quickstarter/intro only. Whatever you do, don’t spend dozens of hours memorizing lines before you ever play the opening.
Create your file
Once you’ve spent a couple hours getting up to speed with the basics of your new opening, you’re ready to create your opening file. An opening file is simply a document that contains your preparation in an opening. This is important to have because it means when you forget some of your preparation, which you inevitably will, you still have it written down somewhere that you can return to. Later on, we’ll also use the file as the backbone of a process of continuous improvement. Without a file, much of the work you do on an opening will be forgotten and lost.
In theory, you could use any medium for your opening file: a spreadsheet, notecards, even a pad of paper. But in 2023 you’re best served using a chess-specific medium to make your life easier. The main two choices are Chessbase and Lichess Studies. Chessbase has long been the choice of professionals, but it’s expensive and difficult to use, so unless you already use Chessbase or are aiming to pursue chess at a professional level I wouldn’t recommend it. Fortunately there’s a great alternative in Lichess Studies, which are free, available online, and easy to use. This would be my recommendation for most players.
There’s a great exercise that allows you to reinforce your memory of the lines you just learned at the same time you’re creating your file. Create a new Lichess Study or Chessbase file and enter everything you can remember without using any outside resources. For this exercise, don’t look at your book/course, the engine, or database. Just do as much as you can purely from memory. In addition to the moves, add annotations, arrows, and notes about what is going on in the position.
This is a form of retrieval practice, which as detailed by Nick Vasquez in a recent post, has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to build long-term memory. For most people, the first time they do this exercise, they are surprised by how much they struggle to remember the material they just learned. That’s fine. Just do as much as you can from memory and note areas where you’re confused. Once you’ve done as much as you can on memory alone, use your opening resource to fill in the areas you were confused on. You now have the beginning of your opening file.
To be continued
With an opening file and a solid base of knowledge, you’re now ready to start practicing your opening in blitz games. Next week we’ll cover how to continuously improve your repertoire with the “one move rule” and how to use spaced repetition technology to ensure you never forget your lines.
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