Must-know: Openings

Must-know: Openings

| 50 | Opening Theory

Starting from today, I will dedicate my next three columns to studying the opening, middlegame and endgame and provide you with tips on how to work on all the three stages. Let’s start with the opening.

The opening defines the course of the game. There are lots of opening lines, so the first problem each player faces is “which ones should I choose”?

Opening choice

1. Let’s consider two options: a) for beginners b) for more advanced players

For those who are new to chess: you will need an opening book or, more modern and convenient, a chess database. I am using both Chess Assistant and ChessBase (they are the best ones available). also has its own online database which could prove to be quite helpful.

You had better start with one of the main moves, either 1.e4 or 1.d4. Check out the opening tree, review some top players’ games and see what type of positions you like. If you are a complete newcomer, it could prove to be tricky since you won’t be able to tell the difference between them. In this case you might have to resort to your friends’ or coach’s help.

For stronger players: some people are quite proficient in chess, but somehow they never paid attention to their opening, or decided to switch from one system to another. While a novice may not be aware of his style, an experienced player knows it. Choose an opening according to your playing manner. For example, a positional player would be in his element in a Slav Defense, while a tactical player might prefer the King’s Indian.

2. The next step after choosing an opening is reviewing the variations. Study the main lines using a computer opening tree on opening book, then pay attention to the popular deviations. Make notes of your choices (using a pgn file). The key to mastering an opening is knowing the main plans for both sides and main set-ups. You can find those either in books, or by looking at some typical games. It is very useful to pick a role model – a strong master who is loyal to a certain opening and whose games provide insight on how to play it. For example, Alexei Shirov often plays the Ruy Lopez with Bc5, so I have looked through many of his games to improve my understanding of this opening and the main plans.

Create your opening tree which will consist of the main variation and the subvariations. Some people prefer to have a file for each opening (Black against 1.e4, Black against 1.d4, etc.). Others like to keep all the info together (so as not to lose anything or have trouble searching for it). As long as your trees are small enough, one file is probably the best option.

3. After studying the main lines and learning the plans you have to memorize the ideas and play some training games. Of course, you may skip this part and head straight to a tournament. However, playing some training games beforehand will help you get a touch of the opening and avoid losing in a silly way (thus saving your rating and self-esteem). You may either challenge an anonymous player over the Internet, or train with a sparring partner (e.g. a friend of similar strength). The latter option is better since it allows you to agree in advance what you will be working on. A player on the Internet won’t be aware of your plans and may play something totally different. Playing otb is much better than online since it imitates the conditions you will be facing at a real tournament. Time control – standard or 1 hour per game. In the Internet forget about bullet or blitz, instead play some rapid games (15-25 min per game). 1 hour per game online is dull, bad for one’s eyes and also increases the risk of confronting a cheater (who will spoil all your pleasure). Btw, that’s another reason for playing “live”.

These 3 stages are pretty much all for the prevailing majority of chess players, but pros will need to go over 2 more.

4. Your proprietary analysis of the opening, searching for new plans and novelties

Chess has a myriad of variations, so even the extensive modern theory has spots where one can come up with something new. Nowadays chess engines offer a chance to players of any strength to find something worthy. Analyze your opening, widen and deepen the opening tree, watch out for interesting continuations. This will take your opening preparation to a new level and improve tournament results. Having a strong human partner next to you during the process can also be useful since chess engines are sometimes suggesting very inhuman lines, while a man can spot something completely different and promising.

5. Studying a back-up opening

To make opening preparation tougher for your opponents and to have some other line to fall back upon (when your main one needs to be fixed, when you need to play for a draw/win, choose something your opponent doesn’t like, etc.), you could study a back-up opening. Of course, this comes after becoming proficient in the first one, otherwise you will simply have two half-baked openings. A reminder: these final two stages are for master-level players. Others will benefit more from becoming well-rounded in chess and learning key middlegame and endgame principles.

Let’s take a look at another game of mine from the Mullhouse-2010 GM event and pay special attention to the opening:


My play in the opening was a critical ingredient in my overall success. Having prepared a new variation and found a new way of treating 15.Qd3, I managed to lure my opponent into a position which he wasn’t familiar with. Naturally, under such circumstances he quickly ended up being worse and eventually losing.

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