How To Learn An Opening And More

How To Learn An Opening And More

IM Silman
Aug 11, 2015, 12:00 AM |
52 | Other member Mahilewetsll asked: “Hello. I’m almost 17 years old. What can I reach in chess? How long will I need to do it?”

Dear Mr. Mahilewetsll, I get this kind of question a lot (from people 10 to 60). Think about this in a logical manner. I don’t know your chess history. I don’t know whether you do or don’t have talent for the game. I don’t know if you can afford chess teachers or chess books. I don’t know if you’re someone who can devote himself to the game. And on and on it goes. In other words, it’s impossible for me to tell you (or even guess) what level you might reach.

Instead of dreaming up various flavors of pie in the sky, may I offer this: The average tournament rating (that’s over-the-board tournament play) is 1400 to 1500.

Since a tournament player will usually wipe out a non-tournament player, a 1400 or 1500 rating is pretty good! In fact, if you realize that around 800 to 900 million people play chess, holding a 1400 or 1500 rating means that you are a very strong player.

So, your first goal should be to reach that 1400 to 1500 level (and a bunch of blitz games don’t mean anything...I’m talking serious chess here). After that, the big “apple on the head” target is Class A (1800 to 1999).

Very few tournament players take up house in that rating class, so it’s an exciting and doable thing to reach for. Once you reach the “A Class,” it’s time to stare at the majestic Expert level (2000 to 2200). And after that...well, it’s a never-ending, step-by-step, climb up that ladder (doesn’t matter if you’re five years old or 80 years old).

Picking a realistic goal is definitely the way to go.

Do not take up chess by saying, “I will only play this game if I can become a master.” That’s completely wrong (everyone dreams of being a master -- 2200 -- but you shouldn’t even consider it until you reach those earlier goals).

Keep in mind that it’s not whether you’ll reach this level or that, but if you are enjoying the game. I’ve seen many players way under 1400 that adore chess and never tire of the creativity, battle-lust, ambience, history, and all the other things it offers.

In a nutshell, play chess because you love the game. That’s all you need. Your goals will or won’t happen, depending on the myriad factors I mentioned earlier. member lee_taylor8588 asked: “I have selected a group of masters to study, and I was wondering if you would give me your opinion. I have made a database of all games from the following players: Paul Morphy, Emanuel Lasker, Jose Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Bobby Fischer.”

Dear lee_taylor8588: That’s quite a group! You can look at games from any grandmaster and learn a lot. Doesn’t matter if they are 2500 or 2800. Creating a database on a chess hero can serve several purposes:

  • You like the openings that GM plays, so looking at his games will help you understand the ins and outs of his repertoire.
  • You like his style. If you want to study attacking chess, then create databases of Paul Morphy, Alexander Alekhine, Rudolf Spielmann, Efim Geller, Mikhail Tal, Gary Kasparov, etc. By the way, I also highly recommend that you look up the history of your chess hero in books and articles since it will make the grandmaster and his games far more human and, at times, emotional.

You can find my article on Spielmann here.

If you want to read about Alekhine, you might want to look at my seven-part series on Alekhine. Here’s the link to the final article (part seven), but you can find the links to the other six at the end of it.

If you want to study positional chess, then Jose Capablanca, Carl Schlechter, Vasily Smyslov, Akiba Rubinstein, Anatoly Karpov, Vladimir Kramnik, and even Magnus Carlsen come to mind.

Daniel Naroditsky wrote an excellent two-part article on Capablanca.

If your name is Tom Bombadil, you might want to study games of GMs whose last name also ended in “B": Igor Bondarevsky, Mikhail Botvinnik, David Bronstein, Ossip Bernstein, Georgy Borisenko, Isaac Boleslavsky, Efim Bogoljubov, Joseph Blackburne, Amos Burn, etc.

Creating a “chess hero database” is a great idea.

There is no bad choice, and the only opinion that matters (in regard to your favorite players) is your own. member diligent asked:

“Sir, I apply your ideas to every game but when I play or my opponent plays sharp and complicated openings like the Sicilian then I go blank. I find it very difficult to break the position into imbalances. It seems like most of the moves are pre-defined and I must have to play bookish moves. Could you please write an article where you clarify the positional ideas in the Sicilian Defense?”

Dear Mr. diligent:

You can’t think about imbalances from move one since both sides have the identical position. Also, you don’t want to just memorize a bunch of moves since your opponents will almost always step off the beaten path at some point and then you’ll be lost in the woods. So, what to do?

When studying an opening, you first look at a bunch of games and see if the opening (for whatever reason) attracts you. Then you look for a book that explains the IDEAS about that opening. The first thing is the pawn structure. You need to know what the pawn structure wants you, in general, to do.

Here is a common series of move (The Najdorf Sicilian): 

The ideas given in our illustrative board are things you should just know, or you can’t play that opening. You need to know WHY every move was played, and you need to see how the pawn structure usually dictates each side’s basic strategies.

Once again, the easiest way to do this is to get a book that gives you all this information. For example, FCO (Fundamental Chess Openings, by Paul Van Der Sterren) gives you simple explanations for all the openings. Another good choice if you’re going to play the Sicilian or face it, is Starting Out: The Sicilian by John Emms. It’s old (2002) but it teaches you the basic principles of the Sicilian and will prove very useful.

You can also look for the Move-by-Move opening series, which explains every move and all the ideas. Lorin D’Costa’s The Sicilian Scheveningen, Move by Move is a good example.

Once you know how to get out of the openings (by understanding the basic ideas, NOT by mindlessly memorizing moves that make no sense to you) the imbalances (since you will now understand how the pawn structure dictates future moves/ideas) will serve you well. However, these books can take things even further. Not only will they give you the right moves so you can obtain a good game, but they also teach you typical tactical patterns in that opening, discuss thematic exchange sacrifices against the White knight on c3, etc.

Summing up: After you’ve decided which lines to play, you pick up a book that explains the basics, you look at tons of games with that opening, which will burn typical positional and tactical patterns into your brain, and you memorize a few lines.

Keep in mind that your opponents (if you’re in the beginner-to-1300 group) won’t know much opening theory, so they will (most likely) step out of theory after a few moves. They will be clueless, but you won’t! Your guide will be your knowledge of the pawn structure, the basic ideas, and the patterns you’ve picked up.

I hope this helps!

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