Yes, Study Openings!

Yes, Study Openings!

Oct 17, 2012, 7:45 AM |

One of the frequent comments we hear from more advanced players is that those of us trying to improve below the master level should avoid studying openings. They comment that it is not a productive use of our time, that memorizing lines that never will appear on the board has a low rate of return, and that general chess skills, such as tactics, are probably more important. 


I want to take the controversial stance of disagreeing with that position as it is frequently expressed (but perhaps not as it is intended). 


Before everyone starts spouting off the same old arguments, here me out. 


I agree that memorizing lines is not the way to study an opening at the class level. Indeed, I don't think it can be of much use at any level. Does anyone really sit down and memorize stuff like this:

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6

3. ... g6

3. ... Bc5

3. ... Nd4

3. ... d6

3. .. f4 4. Nc3

4. ... d3

4. ... d4

4. ... fx34

4. ... Nf6

5. Nxe4 d5

5. ... Nf6

6. Nxe5 dxe4 7. Nxc6 Qg5

7. ... Qg5

4. 0-0

4. d3

4. ... Nxe4

4. Bc5 5. c3

5. Nxe5

5. d4

3. ... a6 4. Bxc6

4. Ba4 d6

4. ... b5

5. 0-0

5. Bxc6+

5. ... Bd7 6. c3 Nge7

6. ... g6


and on and on and on. Really people memorize that sort of stuff? Who hates chess and themselves enough to do that?


No one, that's who! And more importantly, memorizing lines doesn't really help that much. Dan Heisman, everyone's favorite chess coach, has commented that "I will go so far as to conjecture that if I could get aspirants to memorize MCO- 15, it would affect their rating very little"


But, and here's the important point, the book where that ludicrous list came from was one of the "Starting Out" opening series by Everyman Chess Books. That book also contains 70 complete games which are heavily annotated with instructive texts and variations aimed at the class player.


What does Dan Heisman  say about reading instructive game anthologies? He says:

Read many annotated games, master or otherwise – when you begin, the best source is instructive anthologies like Logical Chess Move by Move, The Art of Logical Chess Thinking, and Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur. Games annotated for instruction and improvement should be read before ones that are not (the latter are the vast majority). Read them fairly quickly or you will never have time to read enough to be meaningful. You can't learn too much from thirty or forty games, but you can learn a lot from 300-400 games and a ton from 3,000-4,000 games! If you occasionally want to read a game really slowly (or quickly) and guess each move and give it to the computer, that's very helpful, but to do it every game is just too slow. You shouldn't have to read all the side "lines" –understanding the author's text vs. the position and placing that information into your memory is the most important part. The goal is to create a chess "conscience" where you see a position and many authors' advice gets triggered (e.g., "after controlling this open file I want to penetrate to the seventh or eighth rank with my rooks"). Skip any side analysis that is not fun (see number seventeen below).


 Here is my point. Some of the best instructive anthologies out there are precisely openning books! Many class players will read through "Logical Chess," "The Art of Logical Thinking," and others fairly quickly. And with that they'll want to go on to study something else. Using opening books aimed at class players focused on specific openings is a great way to build up a "chess 'conscience'" around that particular opening line. Seeing the same ideas presented over and over again ins't bad. In fact, it's really a great idea, as Dan points out many times. 


"Oh," you compain, "you're not really talking about studying the opening, you're talking about studying the whole game using opening books. That's not fair." 

Maybe it's a bit slight of hand, but I want to go further than saying one should study the whole game using instructive anthologies to saying that for class players, the most "bang for the buck" in terms of their study time will be had studying instructive annotated games in the openings they play frequently, and in openings that reach related structures.

If I always play the French against 1. e4, it can help me to study some Sicilian games, as they are related pawn structures. But I'll get a lot less milage out of studying Petroff and Ruy Lopez games. The pawn structures, plans and ideas aren't related at all. 

The idea of using opening books that use complete annotated games as one's source for instructive annotations isn't just a way of finding more annotated games alone. It is precisely aimed at generating maximimum return on investment for the adult class player who has limited study time by focusing their study on material that will be most relevant to their games by focusing on the openings they are going to be using. It is, specifically, studying the whole game, starting with the opening, in the limited specific openings that make up the player's repertoire. 

Now, many people will say "but you're going to be missing many key ideas that will help make you better." They are right. That is a valid criticism. But let's face it, we all have to priortize. And what makes mroe sense, if you have limited time to study and your goal is to improve as an adult player with no illusions of being the next Kasparov, to study the game from teh perspective of the openings you play, or to study the game from the perspective of openings you don't play? To me the answer is obvious.

Further, I want to stress that I'm not saying to only study the openings in one's repertoir. I'm not saying to never change openings. Indeed, I make it a habit to change from 1. e4 to 1. d4 and back so that I get experience in many position. And that too comes with some risks. If you look at my rating history it's easy to see when I changed openings as I took a huge rating hit, giving up 200 rating points in one month! But I also know that I'll get those points back as I grow in familiarity with the positions I'm now seeing, and learn the ideas of the typical middlegames that arise from these openings. 

Ultimately, chess is a hobby and needs to be fun. So, if one is a hobbiest class player without realistic prospects of becoming a GM and making a living off the game, the first order of business is to do what you enjoy. But, if one's goals include improving, then following the advice of successful trainers makes a lot of sense. Part of that advice is to study instructive anthologies. Another is to not memorize opening lines, but to understand the ideas of the opening. Using opening books that give full annotated games serves both functions. How can that be bad?