Learn beneficial openings to improve in chess

  • FM NFork
  • | Aug 12, 2013

Chessplayers have different values and tastes about different openings. One likes to play solid Caro Kann, the other one rather plays crazy gambits or sharp Najdorf. There are also different ways to play the openings phase: play what you like or follow common theory. Nevertheless I think it's important to see the difference what someone likes in chess with what is beneficial for him and improves his skills. Often people like to defend their pet opening. I have studied openings around 20 years because I have enjoyed it. Whether you like or not studying opening theory there are anyway few things that
opening phase can teach you. The most important thing is NOT are you able to remember 30 moves of certain Najdorf line but openings, beneficial openings, teach positional things for you. They improve your skills. All this asks that you have to be active. Simply remembering lines without understand the basic ideas behind of them leads nowhere.

Opening phase and opening theory is different for titled players and nontitled

First of all, let's mention the most important difference. We can't imitate playing style of Carlsen, he is top level player and we are not. We neither are able to imitate his opening play. Yes we can choose the same opening and variation, line, but the rest is just someting very different.

Top level players have to work a lot with openings and find out the new lines that are played. This is because top level players don't make many mistakes in the game. If Kramnik gives slight advantage for Anand and they are equally prepared on the position it's very difficult for Kramnik to win the game. Top players are often able to use that slight advantage they have got from opening and give a lot of pressure with it and convert the advantage to victory.

There is practical choice for us to make: whether we want to follow and try the lines Kramnik plays and use a lot of our time or do we want to improve our skills on chess. If you are a player for example under 1800 there is no need to study many openings. For example 1800 rated players do more mistakes than 2000 players and that's why practically it is minor problem whether 1800 player gets even position out of opening as black or gives slight advantage for his opponent who is playing white. It is beneficial for player
to know theory as much as average same level opponent does. Naturally average 1800 player knows less theory than does 2800. For 1800 it is more difficult than 2000 to use the bad untheoretical move opponent has done and convert it to win. Please don't get me wrong: I don't mean to mock 1800 rated players or anyone. I am mostly talking about practical consequences. 1800 is already experienced player and he is able to win many his opponents
and is of course likely to use blunder of his opponent.

These are only some examples that makes opening theory different for let's say 2800 rated and 1800 players. The further you are from 2800 level the bigger difference there is.

Speaking about myself, I am around 2300 rated player,  also far from being top 2800. Still players around 2300 don't make many mistakes and that is the reason I have to focus on openings clearly more when I was 2000 rated.

Another quite totally different aspect about opening theory is that some openings seem to be even on top level or at least give a lot of draws for black while the same thing doesn't happen for rest of us mortals. One example is Petrov defence. It is drawing opening for top level and it seems to be quite equal. Nevertheless on my level players doesn't seem to have the right technique to force white to take draw and also Petrov seems to offer slight advantage for white.

The openings you should try as black

There are many beneficial openings for you to choose from. I call them beneficial openings because there is no need to criticize anyone playing e.g. some wild gambit Kramnik or Carlsen would never play. Everyone have right to play chess how he likes to and that makes this game even more fun and interesting!

Here is some list of openings that are beneficial:
-French =
-Queen's gambit Accepted =
-Caro Kann =
-Najdorf = (and many other sicilians as well)
-Ryu =
-Old Indian
-Queen's gambit Decline

First mentioned openings with = mark are very even openings that offer very equal chances for both sides. The rest 4 openings are also practically good but people have to be more careful using them the more nearer they get on titled level. For example for other FM I would mostly suggest using even openings as black. They are good tools for him use when he occasionally plays against strong opponents like GMs.

One opening is very good with great statistics but practically bit problematic on tournament play: Grunfeld defence. It consists lot of theory and it is also one of the difficult openings I know. I used to play it for awhile but stop it because of huge amount of theory black needs to know.

Unbeneficial openings:
-Budapest gambit
-Benkö/Volga gambit
-Benoni Defence

Openings for white

Naturally there is more freedom on opening phase for white to maintain at least even position. I myself sometimes just throw 1.b3 as white to tease my opponent with boring opening. I think white should maintain at least even position on opening phase and not play too strange lines. Mostly I recommend following similar principles I have mentioned above also playing as white. There is at least good opportunity to learn many things about your own opening if you choose more common openings and lines also as white. You
have a chance not just read strategical points and analysis by GMs but also follow their games.

Why these certain openings are beneficial?

I start from unbeneficial openings. Yes you have right to play them if you want. Nevertheless if you want to improve in chess they block your improvement and even make harm on your playing style. It's not only about matter of taste what opening you play because you learn different things on different openings. Many gambits teach harmful things about neglecting material due to short-term tactical possibilities. Nevertheless the higher you get on rating the more you see that you opponents master the defence better than you expect. This means that the tactical possibilities are reduces after some moves and then you are left nothing but material disadvantage which unfortunately lead in lost position.

Here are 2 different openings:

-Budapest gambit

-English opening

If you compare these 2 positions you see that they are quite similar with only tiny differences! One important difference is that on english black has even material but on Budapest white is pawn up. English is even while logically Budapest with about similar position but pawn less on black's side can't be even.

Lot of players are fascinated by sharp attacks but the sad story is that if you
concentrate a lot in sacrifices and attacks you don't see all the other things player need to learn. Beneficial openings teach a lot of crucial things about positional things and different pawn structures. Here are some to just name a few:

-French: teaches about pawn chains and proper wing attacks. Both players often attack on the root of pawn chain and mobilize the pieces on the side with space advantage. Black often has space advantage on queen side, white has on king side. Black often attacks on white's d4 square for example Nb8-Nc6, Ng8-Ne7-Nf5, Qd8-Qb6, Bc8-Bg4 (to trade bishop to Nf3 that defends d4 pawn.).

-Najdorf: teaches the value of weak squares (d5 for black), blockades (d6-d5 can't be moved easily) and tactical skills. White's piece mobility is maybe slightly tiny than black has. As compensation for white he has strong control of d5 square and black has weak backward pawn on d6 that is luckily well defended early. Anyway these kind of weaknesses black has on this opening are sometimes problematic for black side if the game goes to endgame. Often also on endgame, not just on middlegame, black has enough play on
c-line, queen side and pressuring e4 pawn.

How many openings it's necessary to study and learn?

The more further you are from top level the less openings you need to study and master.

This is based on few things:
-You do more mistakes so naturally it doesn't matter so much is the starting point - after opening is over - slight advantage for your opponent or equal position.
-Your opponents on average haven't studied many openings
-There is no point to use thousands of hours on opening theory simply because there are lot of other things to learn as well! Endgame techniques, positional things (pawn chains, wing attacks, minority attacks...etc)

As for example 1500 rated player it's ok if you always play french as black against 1.e4. As 2000 it would be good to probably have that same French as part of main opening repertoire but also sometimes play something else against 1.e4 let's say Caro.

As a hint on studying new openings: many openings form a family with at least bit similar set ups and strategics. Caro, Scandinavian and Alekhine all has solid pawn formations on black side with often strategy to challenge white's pawn center with c5 or e5 advance. On these openings black mostly focuses on piece play and less on pawn advances. Black doesn't have many pawn structure weaknesses but he rather uses weaknesses of white side. This is of course typical when opponent has space advantage. New opening from same family is easier to learn: If you are used to Caro you may understand and learn Scandinavian incredible well compared if you start to study something completely different like Najdorf.

How the opening study should be done practically

The good way to start studying opening or deepen your understanding the opening you have already played is of course buy proper opening book that consists many strategical expalanation about at least mainvariations and the ideas. Opening book that consists only strings of moves is not enough good because you need to learn the ideas behind the moves.

Video lectures by titled players are also very good to at least scratch the surface.

Be precise to try the ideas you have learned on games. Generally one of the hardest things on chess is the problem of how to convert the raw theoretical knowledge as better skill that helps you to win games! This is especially important on opening and endgame, but also on middlegame. After you have played few games of French but somehow lost without idea why this have happened get back on the source where you studied some french
and check and compare what mistakes you did.

Study some classical or other top level games of the opening you use. On what kind of middlegames they go? How they handle different kinds of weaknesses and strategics when moving from opening to middlegame and endgame?

If you have database of master games please use it to consider whether some line is playable or not.

Use the engine to check the tactics of positions after opening phase and also check engine evaluations if some odd and uncommon position occurs. Just remember that weaker engines don't understand openings very well and always the theory should be primarily and not engine's ideas. Nevertheless I have seen that Houdini 1.5 and newer versions already
understand openings quite well they very rarely make mistakes.

Focus on beneficial openings, but those with less theory

I think it's important to start focus on beneficial openings but choose variations and lines, even openings, based on the fact "The less theory, the better"-principle. This may sound absurd because often the best variations and lines from black's perspective consists tons of theory. I think some cross point should be searched for.

There is one example. I used to play Grunfeld as black with bit bad results and I also had problems with the huge amoint of theory it consists. And all that theory, well, there is a lot of it! Then I just decided to try QGA as black with very good results and less theory knowledge. I even managed to win IM as black although some friends of mine warned that you can't win higher rated opponents with it as black! They are maybe partly right, but at least once I did win. Still now I feel and think that QGA is much practical opening than Grunfeld, but this is mostly my own taste.


  • 8 months ago


    very very thanks for this article I read many article but this is very expensive one can any one help me I want some strategical points and I don't know what to select for my style so I want to know which openings has more trap lines so may my opponent fall into it can any one help me pleaseee...

  • 12 months ago


    I am just now over 1600. I never studied openings more than 5 -6 deep. I just started studying The French this last few months. It has given me understanding about pawn chains and positional play I never understood before. I recently started studying QGD and have noticed some similarity in pawn structure and piece placement. So, I think studying certain openings can be very beneficial!

  • 23 months ago


    GM "Igor Smirnov" have different list of beneficial openings in his "Opening Laboratory" Instructional.

    As White he suggests open game 1.e4.

    As Black against 1.e4 he suggests Ruy Lopez(marshall) and Sicilian Khan

    As Black against 1.d4 he suggests Nimzo/Queens Indians and he highly praised and recommended Benko!!

  • 2 years ago


    Good advide lots of info thanks so much

  • 2 years ago


    So you should study more tactics than opening if your under 2000?

  • 3 years ago


    Though some here don't really emphasized studying openings, this is still a great article for the new beginners. Great stuff!

  • 3 years ago


    This is a pretty interesting article. I would actually like to say that, from my playing experience, that in-depth opening knowledge is not necessary for any player under 2000, or maybe even higher. I've just got back into chess after many months of inactivity. I played some slow OTB games vs players rated class A -Expert level recently, and I can say that the opening had almost nothing  to do with the result of the game. After the opening, one side was better, then that player made a mistake(s) and the advantage shifted or the game became equal etc. (and this happens more than once usually), and finally the game result occured. Avoiding those mistakes that shift the evaluation of the position is much more important than trying to study a lot of openings.

  • 3 years ago


    I've never studied opening in depth. I was just wondering which Variation you were talking about because I googled it and four variations came up. 

  • 3 years ago


    Rather than a single variation, I'll recommend a great book on the Taimanov. 

    But before I do, I want to emphasize a point made by NFork and others: Below ~1800 strength USCF/FIDE, you really do not need to study openings in depth. Study them as part of complete games, but focus on tactics, development and endgames. 

    This book, by Grandmaster John Emms, helps you to focus on thematic tactics and positional ideas in the Taimanov:

  • 3 years ago


    SmyslovFan, which Taimanov variation do you refer to? 

  • 3 years ago


    Ryu was a typo. He meant the Ruy Lopez (Spanish). 

  • 3 years ago


    Hey, I'm not sure what you meant by the Ryu?

  • 3 years ago



    "Please" speak english so others can understand you. If you want to speak portuguese, it would be more "helpful" and "nice" for everybody if you send a private message to me.

  • 3 years ago


    I suggest NM Fork to write an small analyses, saying the good and bad points, to amatuers, of all openings.Perhaps this article could become a serie...

  • 3 years ago


  • 3 years ago


    Por favor seja relevante, útil e agradável!

  • 3 years ago


    One more question, though: we can play the Najdorf Sicilian against 1.e4 players and have exciting games. But what can we play against 1.d4 that's aggressive and a "beneficial opening". The defenses FM NFork call beneficial against 1.d4 seems to lead to quiet opening play.


    *(I will say that whether or not I have the "credentials" to back up my view and comment on a space open to commentaries).

  • 3 years ago


    Good article.And came in my direct objetive.To have one good opening for e4, c4, and d4, to begin in OTB tournments.

  • 3 years ago


    I would like to add to his article that buying a book about an opening you are interested in should ALWAYS INCLUDE FULL GAMES! Not just fragments. Because in all opening, studying the middlegame positionis that result from the opening lead to truly undertanding the opening...and when using games from a database, also play through the entire game. This is practical because if your opponent makes a move that you haven't seen before, your knowledge of typical middlegames arising from your oppening can be invaluable in leading you in the right direction. Don't memorize reams of variations without UNDERSTANDING what these variations are leading you into. This though process proceeds directly to the endgame as well. Many openings have a "tendency" toward certain types of endgames. The french for example is infamous for N vs B. So if you are studying the french, STUDY N VS B ENDGAMES TOO! This may seem like common sense, but you will b surprised how many people dont do it. The advantage you gain from the extra work will b priceless and score you many points you would otherwise not have gotten. hope this advice helps!

    Current Rating: 2270

    in case you were wondering if i'm strong enough player to give advice...

  • 3 years ago


    Thanks for the article. I am only a class B player but I hate studying openings with the mindset of memorising moves. I have a narrow opering repertoire based on 1. Nf3 2.d4 3. c4 4.e3 or the occasional 4.g3 and as black always play the Sicilian, Najdorf sometimes switching towards the Kan, or against 1.d4 I will play the semi slav or sometimes the semi-tarrasch.

    I rather spend my time improving other parts of my game, so that, I don't lose my games with too many inaccurate moves or blunders. The only downside with having a narrow repertoire is that some players that I play against realise this and can prepare against me. But I usually don't just abandon the opening but rather spend time working out where I should deviate in that particular variation.

Back to Top

Post your reply: