How I Learned My 1st Chess Openings
When I began playing chess, I had no idea how to begin a game.
I would stare at the row of pawns, wondering which one I should order forward, without an idea of why. Or I’d hop a knight into the open board and hope for the best. There are 20 possible first moves in chess, and after each player has moved once, that number soars to 400. I knew that calculation and strategy were the keys to winning, but how could I possibly plan what was going to happen or what I should do, when all I could see of my opponent’s intentions was a little thrust of g3?
So I was relieved to learn that there are common openings, lines that I could learn. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. I would not have to guess at a good move. I would know it. I could come in with purpose, and (even better!) the plan would not have to be crafted by me. I could follow the moves of the greatest players in history, relying on their superior experience, analysis, and insight. I had only just started playing chess, but they had worked out gambits and refutations over centuries.
It was like learning to play basketball and realizing that there was a way to replicate, exactly, Michael Jordan’s fadeaway.
Think about it. If only for a few moves, I could be just like Magnus Carlsen, Garry Kasparov, Karpov, Fischer, Capablanca, or Lasker (not to mention Ruy Lopez, a Spanish bishop who lived in the 16th century). No one, looking at only our scoresheets, would be able to tell the difference! I could set myself up for brilliance, even if, in the middlegame, I would inevitably make inaccuracies and blunders and watch it all slip away.
There was only one problem, I quickly realized. In order to execute the theory behind the different openings, I had to remember it. And that, for me, was hard. Any single move can change the entire dynamics of a game. When I played English openings, I occasionally had the delightful chance to shoot my bishop along the long diagonal to nab an unsuspecting rook, but more often, I’d let my opponent close the center. I’d play, for most of the game, almost a bishop down. I tried the Accelerated Dragon but was always surprised by the dreaded Maroczy Bind. I played the Grünfeld, but could never remember when to play d5. I’d try a French and be surprised, when the game was over, to be told I’d played a Slav. I helplessly watched my Dutch get blasted open by a marauding h-pawn. My King’s Indian always seemed to give me an isolated queen’s pawn.
I had no idea which moves were theory, which moves were refutations, which moves were dumb. With unnerving regularity, I was in a full state of panic by move six (if not three!). I tried to be like Magnus, but I always ended up like me.
My fiance would look at my games when they were over and sigh. He’d see a blunder in the first five moves, or note that it took me a minute and 46 seconds to play the standard thrust c5.
“You know this,” he’d say gently, encouragingly, wearily. “This is theory.” Ah yes, Theory, I’d think. The commentators on ChessTV were forever appealing to theory to confirm or reject a move. Theory started to seem like some magical, singular, disembodied entity. But theory was a bane to me. It was the muse that refused to speak.
A big part of the problem is that I have a terrible memory. A sieve. Well, maybe it’s not exactly terrible; maybe it’s just already full. How can I remember the refutation of the Trompowsky attack, when I am too busy remembering all my frequent flier numbers? How can I memorize the opening of the Catalan, when all the available space in my brain is devoted to the opening of the Canterbury Tales?
I could never remember what the opening had been in a game only a few minutes after I was done playing it. And I certainly could not remember several different lines of an opening -- often not even the main one.
One day several months ago, I had a genius idea for White: the London System! 1. d4, 2. Bf4, build a pyramid, develop the minor pieces, game on. I wouldn’t have to remember all the various lines! It didn’t matter what the other person did! That, I knew, was something that I should never, ever say out loud, or even silently to myself. Of course I was paying attention to my opponent’s moves, I would tell myself. Of course it mattered whether they were playing a Queen’s Indian or preparing for e5, and that my own play should respond accordingly. But the truth was that I never truly considered changing my plans as my opponent shifted the energy right or left, up or back, during the opening. I might make a few superficial alterations -- if only to tell myself I was paying attention -- but mostly I would just wait for my clock to start ticking and make my move as if there were no black pieces on the board at all.
Sometimes, this worked very well for me. I pinned pawns to rooks. I launched a few stunning kingside attacks. I thought I’d found the answer, a style of play that suited my strengths and minimized my weaknesses (and in particular my dreadful memory). But there were as many troubling games as there were thrilling ones. A knight would break into my pyramid and raid its treasure. A single little pawn, making an obvious but unforeseen move, proved capable of bringing the whole thing down.
The problem, as anyone could see but me, was that I was playing the London System like a system instead of an opening. Instead of exploiting what made the opening so strong, its flexibility, I was following a list of rules with rigidity.
I did because I thought I could only remember the order of three or four moves. I still think that might be true. There are indeed openings that I should never try, because they have so much nuance and theory (ah, theory!) behind them. But what I’d really forgotten was the point of the openings themselves. If you’re trying to control the center and they let you play e5, play e5. What side will they castle on? What squares are they controlling? Where do their bishops aim? All very obvious questions, but ones are easy for me to forget as I struggled to remember the sixth move of the French Winawer, searching my brain instead of the board, because I thought I should just be able to memorize it.
So I stopped playing the London System all the time and started playing different things, and when I played it I tried it as an opening. Or at least, I trying. I am trying to mix it up, play different openings, remember the key is to pay attention, that the right move is the best move, not the rote one.
I’m trying to remember a different list of rules:
- Don’t needlessly complicate the game.
- Figure out their best moves and your best responses.
- Make their lives harder and your life easier.
Sometimes, truth be told, I forget these rules too. In fact, often I despair of whether I’m making any progress at all. I don’t know. But I hope.
My fiancé and I were watching Titled Tuesday recently when Carlsen opened with a London System.
“Oh look,” my fiancé teased me. “He didn’t build his pyramid. Magnus Carlsen must not know the system.”
“Shame on him,” I replied.
Louisa Thomas is an American writer, author of two books (including Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams), a regular contributor to NewYorker.com, former writer and editor at Grantland.com, and "obsessed" with tennis and chess. You can follow her on Twitter.