Understand your opening using tabiyas, pawn structures, model games and typical tactics
IM Herman Grooten explains / Photo: Hans Hoornstra

Understand your opening using tabiyas, pawn structures, model games and typical tactics

NM HanSchut

For many club players studying openings means learning variations. Variations that sometimes seem to be a collection of moves without a collective meaning. At the end of a variation the player often asks himself: ‘And where do I go from here?”.

In his book series ‘Understanding before Moving’ IM Herman Grooten explains the typical plans and ideas behind the openings.  The books focus on the use the of tabiyas, pawn structures  and model games in studying openings.
A tabiya is an opening position reached after typically 10 to 20 standard moves, and which is the starting point for various alternative moves or serious investigation. One of the most important elements is the pawn structure and its typical features. Based on this pawn formation we can derive plans and concepts that are typical for this structure.

Let’s look at a tabiya from the Scotch Gambit – Modern Attack (position after 9... Bc5):

In his books Grooten puts a special emphasis on evaluating the pawn skeleton of the position and deriving plans from the characteristics of the pawn structure.
The pawn structure of the Scotch-Gambit Modern Attack:
White has traded his light-squared bishop for a black knight on c6. He has been able create an advanced pawn on e5. What are now the plans for both colors?
For White:
• White has a pawn majority on the king side and will aim for an attack or the creation of a passed pawn on e6 through the advance of the f-pawn
• Occupy the strong square c5 with a knight, preferably after trading the dark squared bishops. After a trade of the dark squared bishops the white knight on c5 will be dominating the light squared bishop of Black.
For Black:
• Kings attack by leveraging his bishop pair and advancing his center pawn. A typical set-up would be Bc6, Qd5, Bb6, c5, d4
• Undermine the White pawn chain by a timely f6, followed by an exchange of the pawns and the control of the f-file.
Model games are games by grand-masters that show the execution of the plans of the tabiyas and underlying pawn structures. Grooten gives the following guidelines for using model games:
• Look for a game between a top grand-master and a relatively weaker player (Elo difference of at least 100-150 points).
• The strategic concept needs to be clearly accentuated.
• The game needs to be annotated, preferably in the player’s mother tongue, with as much text and explanation as possible; variations are there to support the story, but cannot be too overwhelming.
• Review the game yourself first (analyze it to improve it) and explain in your own words what you have learned from it. The self-verbalizing of a plan ensures that you understand the position well when you get it later on the board yourself.
The following game between is one of the 2 Scotch Gambit/Two Knights defence model games that is in the Grooten's book (annotation by Grooten):
Herman Grooten published 2 books. Part 1 covers the Ruy Lopez and Italian Structures and Part 2 Queen’s Gambit Structures. The author indicated that the target audience are players rated between 1500-1900. My estimate is that these books are best suited for players in the 1200-1800 range.
The plans and ideas are visualized using arrows that show where pieces would like to move and highlighting essential squares. This makes it easier to understand the plans and remember them. After all, a picture says more than a 1000 words!
If you want to better understand the plans behind the openings that you play, then please have a look at these 2 books. They offer a different way to learn openings.

A related book is the excellent Chess Structures, A Grandmaster Guide by Mauricio Flores Rios. His book of almost 500 pages covers 28 important pawn structures, explains the typical plans and ideas for these pawn structures, presents model games and also includes 50 exercises. Ben Johnson, of the Perpetual Chess Podcast interviewed him recently: Perpetual Chess Podcast - Mauricio Flores. In the podcast Mauricio Flores describes why he wrote the book: we know which elements (like open lines, strong squares etc) to use to evaluate a position. But for the relative importance of each of the elements we need context. The pawn structure provides the context for the right assessment of the position and for finding a plan. A great interview, so please check it out. The book Chess Structures is currently available through book sellers and ForwardChess. It is scheduled to be released on Chessable in March.
To conclude, evaluate your opening study using the following questions:
- Do you know the tabiyas of your opening and the associated plans?
- Do you understand how the underlying pawn structures fit into those plans?
- Do you have model games that teach you how to execute these plans?
And finally, I would like to add 'one more thing':
- Do you have a collection of tactical positions that occur often in games played from your opening tabiya?
Grooten’s books are published by Thinkers Publishing in Belgium are available through book sellers (Amazon etc), in electronic format on ForwardChess and in the Chessable learning environment.
International Master and renowned trainer Herman Grooten is also the author of the award-winning classics Chess Strategy for Club Players and Attacking Chess for Club Players.  His best-known students include grandmasters Loek van Wely, Robin Swinkels, Wouter Spoelman, Jan Werle and Benjamin Bok. Loek van Wely is an 8-time Dutch champion and achieved a peak rating of 2714. Wouter Spoelman is studying medicine but continues to play for the Amsterdam Mosquitoes. He defeated both Magnus Carlsen and Maxime Vachier Lagrave in the Pro Chess League.