How to develop an opening repertoire

  • FM FM_Eric_Schiller
  • | Nov 23, 2009

As players progress beyond the initial stage of their chess education it becomes necessary to develop an opening repertoire. An opening repertoire is a collection of the openings at you use on a regular basis. There are several stages to developing an opening repertoire.


Choosing your openings


You need to choose openings that are appropriate to your level of chess play. Some players like to emulate their chess heroes but that is usually a poor choice because you don't yet have the skills necessary to play those openings competently. Great players such as Gary Kasparov and Bobby Fischer chose openings that require tremendous skill in decision-making. If you don't have those skills then using these openings will usually result in failure. 


Nevertheless, you'll advance more quickly if you play openings that have been used by world champions. These openings have withstood the test of time and if they had any major flaws than a top players would not have selected them. I usually recommend that players should follow the historical development of openings used by world champions, starting with those used by Paul Morphy and the classical champions while putting off study of hypermodern openings and more radical approaches.


I do not dictate to my students which openings they need to play. I present a number of options that I think will work for their particular stage of development. I do insist that what ever openings they play conform to the four basic opening rules:


1. Control the center

2. Castle

3. Connect the Rooks

4. Aim at least one Rook


Beginners should try openings that develop the pieces in the same order as the four rules but as you acquire more skill you can muck about with the order of the rules. I realize that many strong grandmasters play openings that do not conform to these rules but such openings require a deeper positional understanding than is usually found in non-masters.


You should select your openings by playing through games by the classical masters and just deciding which openings appeal to you. You should not use statistics to inform your decision. Opening statistics are very misleading. A particular variation may have a 99% success rate but the one exception may be an outright reputation of the entire approach. Openings that are full of traps might score you some points against ignorant opponents, but they are not a good foundation for a strong middle game.


Beginners and intermediate players should include a number of gambits in their repertoire. In amateur play, being on the attack is often worth at least a pawn. This is because attack is much simpler to play than defense. Defending players are under pressure and often make mistakes that lead to catastrophe. An attacker can afford a few imprecise moves as the vulnerabilities in the enemy position still remain. On the other side, if offered again that it is usually wise to accept the first pawn but not additional poems and don't try to hang onto the pawn. It is more important to follow the opening rules than to maintain a small material advantage, especially in amateur play.


The proper use of statistical information


If you possess a chess processor such as Chess Assistant or Chessbase or have access to online opening explorers at sites such as or then you will want to use the statistics to advise you which variations demand your attention. It is not necessary to memorize thousands of moves unless you are playing in professional competition. Look up the most common replies to your moves and make sure you are familiar with a plan appropriate to those occasions. You can safely ignore rarely used approaches, and if you meet them in a game you will just have to carefully consider your moves. 


Also ignore statistical information about the winning percentage. In most chess games the stronger player will win. It has nothing to do with the opening move. Computer of valuations of opening positions can be helpful, but they are unreliable. Computer programs are notoriously poor at selecting opening moves. That is why computer programs cheat by using human prepared opening books. A human evaluation of an opening is almost always superior to a computer evaluation, except where the position depends on a lot of tactics. This is especially true of openings that involve permanent structural weaknesses.


The bottom line is that the opening position must be comfortable for you regardless of its success rate or what computers think about it. Many terrible openings are regarded by computers as only slightly inferior. This, in my opinion, has given rise to the resurrection of so many dubious openings. As Tartakower informed us, if an opening is not refuted totally it is playable.


Remember, the computer does not understand psychological pressure and therefore cannot take into account the fact that defense is harder than attack. In the rare cases where I am playing against the computer I do not feel inclined to use gambits because computers are fantastic defenders and will not fall for the tricks and traps that human players will step into.


Having selected the openings that you want to base your repertoire on, you must then turn to the task of studying and acquiring sufficient knowledge to play them correctly. That will be the subject of the next article in this series.


  • 7 years ago


    excellent ! but enough for win.

    I recent discover a secret to play better. very simple. Applied in all oppenings.

    If you want to know it, send me a message.

    The secret was inspired in a mosquito.

  • 7 years ago


    i am attracted to the notion of opponent stopping to write me  a poem 

  • 7 years ago


    Eric is spot on with what he is saying when I 1st started playing chess my mentor would say after 10 moves "not good enough william" simply because it has become hard in the posistion to create a concrete advantage so you should not only memorize lines but also know the ideas and concepts behind it for instance the bird opening is all about the control of the e5 square so basically knowing the critical theme for an opening and the plans to go with is essential!!remember that chess is a fight from beggining to end you would be a fool to dismiss opening theory.

  • 7 years ago


    This is a lovely expansion to your section in your Encyclopedia of Chess Wisdom. Well done.

  • 7 years ago


    Very useful, thanks.

  • 7 years ago


  • 7 years ago


    That is why computer programs cheat by using human prepared opening books.

    Good one ! Smile

  • 7 years ago


    As a amateur I likt to vacillate between the Italian game (whether it's an Evan's Gambit, Lolli, Fried Liver, or other 2 knight variation) and then the Stonewall.  I prefer the Stonewall right now because in the e4/e5 open games black can easily generate counterattacks that can be difficult to deal with over the board especially.  But it is also easier to get black to make an error due to the instant pressure.  As black the Budapest or the Stonewall Dutch, while against e4 I stick with e5 since with the sharper lines I can put pressure on white.


    I definitely agree that an opening should make sense.  I've played with the Pirc a bit and it's just too hard for me when white plays correctly.  Too many variations and once black misstep means he's toast.  I'm also interested in the KIA and KID, or maybe a white square stonewall c4/e4?  But right now the two different appraches are enough.  Hopefully over time other related systems will also start to make some sense like black in the King's Gambit Accepted.

  • 7 years ago


    Dear Mr.Schiller,

    I am a regular chess player playing at the  local club for the past 12 years.I have never been coached and I have not made any effort to develop an opening repertoire.Whatever opening I played was from whatever I recollected from observing the best local player rated around 2100(and very talented)coaching my daughter for three and a half years-till January 2005 and she developed into a good player and gave up chess to focus on studies.

    For the past few months I have started taking chess seriously studying some of the best books and recently told my daughter's coach that he was wrong to choose the Dragon as my daughter's response to e4 since it was too complex.Closed Sicilian which he chose against Sicilian was a good choice.I also feel that he should have but did not each my daughter Two Knights,Four Knights,King's Gambit,Evan's Gambit and Guico Piano .In any case I am ever grateful that he emphasized understanding of principles in the opening and gave her a solid knowledge of middlegame and emdgame .

  • 7 years ago


    I see that some members disagree with Eric. But what he is saying is not that you should not have an openning repertoire when you are a novice but rather that you might not get too far with complicated openings agains strong players.  I quite agree.

  • 7 years ago


    a good article although I disagree with the part where we are advised to ignore the rarely used variations.  Most of these variations are 'rarely used' simply because they are out of fashion and not for a more fundamantal reason. Hardly anyone played the Scotch 15-20 years and look at it now. I bet that if I played the 4 pawn attack in the KID I would beat a 'normally prepared' player simply because to come to the point where black is better, he has to jump through several hoops.  Such variations are always an essential part of one's repertoire.

  • 7 years ago


    I usually like closed, strategic positions so I usually go with openings such as the Nimzo, Caro Kann and the Zukertort.

  • 7 years ago


    i have to disagree and i do not mean to be rude to eric sheller, i have played one of your students, he has very sloppy play, and his opening systems were pretty bad. I know my openings by studying how i play. Do u wanna tell me that cuz i am not 2300 i can not have an opening reporteir, because thats a very big understatement

  • 7 years ago


    Good article! (Though it would have benefited from a more thorough proof-reading).

    Finally, someone who knows what they're talking about putting into perspective the significance of openings for the amateur.

    Here's my 2 cents (that of someone who was initially caught up in the opening theory obsession, but who has since changed tack):

    Many novices or amateurs, including many players on this site, attempt to learn and use openings (or variations of them) that should only really be played by Masters, as these openings can only really be understood by Masters. Just because Carlsen plays it successfully, doesn't mean you should/can.

    They spend huge amounts of time memorizing lines and variations, when that time could almost certainly be better spent on other areas of chess. (Not to mention that studying opening lines is usually fairly dull.)

    I remember reading recently some comments on another site by a strong player, who pointed out that the trend these days seems to be for even weak players to try to learn complex openings and opening theory, even before they have mastered basic tactics and mates, thinking that this will give them an advantage over their opponents, when in reality they are largely wasting their time.

    As the present article notes, the best player will typically win, no matter what opening moves are played. So all the obsession with winning percentages etc. is misleading. It's more useful to strive for opening play that focuses on sound opening principles, for example: contest the centre, develop as rapidly as possible, develop minor pieces first, use as few pawn moves as possible, get the king safe early, connect the rooks and put the queen on an active but safe square.

    Openings that follow these principles, are easy to learn, and which have stood the test of time, are good ones for the amateur to play, e.g. Giuoco Piano, Four Knights' Game, Two Knights' Defense, Queen's Gambit Declined.

    FM Schiller advises that beginners or even more advanced players first learn the openings played by the classical masters (which tend to stress the above priniciples and are typically simpler than many modern openings used today), and I've seen this advice given in several other reliable places.

    The (excellent) book How to Open a Chess Game (by Evans et al., RHM Press, 1974; reprinted this year) contains a number of chapters, each written by top GMs, on how to play in the opening. Lajos Portisch, in his chapter "Developing an Opening Repertoire" makes several good points. First he corroborates what FM Schiller said about not playing openings just because your idols play them:

    "The crowd mimics its heroes. This is a natural tendency, but there is no need for such mimicry. It is illogical for one who has not earned his master title to ape the complicated opening variations played by, say, a world champion...Your only task in the opening is to reach a playable middlegame." (p. 85)

    Then, to help amateurs in choosing how to play the opening, he advises: " all players I can recommend the following: simplicity and economy. These are the characteristics of the opening systems of many great masters." (p. 85)

  • 7 years ago


    i disagree when i was low rated i knew my playing style and knew how to find openings that suited myself, u do not need to be 2300 to have an opening style

  • 7 years ago


    Interesting article and good comments!


    "Style" and "Weaknesses" might go hand-in-hand for us patzers but I am willing to interpret Style as "what I enjoy playing". So, I think it is important to find openings you enjoy playing.

    I think Eric's "First Chess Openings" is a great book to read for the e4-player starting to build a repertoire. The section on the closed game is also good but much too short.

  • 7 years ago

    FM FM_Eric_Schiller

    jemptymethod: I don't think players under 2300 have styles. Just weaknesses they try to avoid. Amateurs should address those weaknesses by playing openings that are not in their "style" to learn how to play them.

  • 7 years ago


    i think it all depends on how u learn. The way i choose openings is first i study extensively, but how i choose is only from a test run, just because u have one style doesnt mean u cant like another

  • 7 years ago


    i enjoyed your article but found myself disagreeing at some parts but you are the grandmaster

  • 7 years ago


    Great article

    (oncore Standard Chess Openings 2!) lol

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