No more memorizing openings!

No more memorizing openings!

Aug 22, 2012, 5:18 PM |

Hello chess students,


This is the very first topic I want to cover, which is one of the first topics I cover with my students. At least in my view of understanding chess, it's absolutly fundemental for every player's development.

Coaching chess up to expert level, very frequently I come across a very bad approach to study openings, especially by beginners. Being bombarded with popular openings the masters play, its only natural you would like to play the openings they play, I call it "playing pretend".

What it really means is remembering the first X number of moves in some variations of an opening and recreating it game after game. Most of the time, doing that without understanding the deep positional and strategic ideas and principles of these openings.

Then, when confronted with an off-beat (and probably dubious) move by their opponent, they simply collapse.

Lets kick off with an example- we all love the sicilian defence right?


Well.. you most certainly didn't study the continuation to that when you saw that game of your favorite master. Of course, the reason for that is that its a horrible move, just a scare tactic, designed for you to falter upon.

So, having encountered this surprise already in the 2nd move, most beginner players will stress a bit, knowing that gambits always have some "sting" in them. Should you take the pawn? Should you defend the c5 pawn instead? Yeh, you should'nt have played without memorizing all variations right? 

Nah, of course, considering yourself as a clever person- at least in some degree, you have the answer in you. But what tools do you have to make a decision on your own in a never-before seen position, and on the second move?

Well, memorizing other more popular opening gambits, you know that accepting the "Queen's Gambit" is ok, refusing is also ok- plenty of theory on both decisions. Same for the "King's Gambit".

 So... guess both answers are ok here as well, right?

Before continuing, I want to mention a general rule, which is true in all openings. Off-beat moves or obscure gambits are a wrong way to play, as they are practically all dubious and break opening principles.  When confronted with a move like that, that you have never seen before in a deeply analyzed opening such as the sicilian, it should smell fishy to you and lighten a bulb in your mind, saying your opponent is overly ambitious in expense of his game position. This generally means that as black, you are at least equal now, assuming you played only logical moves. as white- you now have a considerable advantage.

Back to our dilema- actually, our assumption that it's ok both ways is almost correct. In this position, hanging on to the pawn with moves like b6, d6, Qc7, or any move with the e pawn trying to recapture with the f8 bishop doesnt get you in trouble. However, your opponent gets away with his crime against chess.

Though not every crime carries serious punishment, breaking opening principals does.

Being the judge, you remember and understand all opening principals, and know that weakening the queenside on move 2 can't be right, not even mentioning that he loses a tempo playing it.

So you must understand that black has to bite the bullet and capture, not worrying about losing a tempo doing it, as white just wasted a tempo himself.

Taking the pawn, black already has a considerable advantage. Lets see why:

It's whites turn to move. Will he get a development advantage? no, he has the move-ahead advantage anyway from being white, so no gains there. He will develop a piece first, but thats the usual order of things. Does the option to develop the c1 bishop without having to move any pawn again gives him a development advantage? Maybe only a slightly unfelt one, because fianchettoing or placing it on a3 isnt better then the usual development of this bishop in the sicilian kind of positions, along the c1-h6 diagonal, as the blocking d2 pawn will advance anyway.

Does white have a positional compensation? again, no, because though he removed one of our pawns from fighting for central control, d5 by black should follow, possibly on the very next move, keeping tension and still fighting for the center.

How about space advantage? well, by taking on b4 and intending to counter in the center with d5, we let go of our conrol of the dark squares in the center d4-e5 . However, switching to the d5 push plan, rather then the normal sicilian move d6, now fight for the e4 square. So no serious harm done.

Last, the material- we gained a pawn, which he will have to waste more tempos to regain.

So overall, we conclude that black has a comfortable advantage.

That being correct, lets have a look at the following turn of events:

What do you think about this position? how would you evaluate it?

First, it looks exactly like a normal sicilian position should look like for black. What can be wrong with that? that's the position you strived to achieve in the first place, right?

Well, dear students, here comes the point of this lesson, if not yet made clear. Your play, especially in the opening, should be very principled, and basic understanding of chess will get you from every opening, even those you have never seen before, with the upper hand as white and at least equal with black.No need of memorization whatsoever.

But all moves look logical, all were normal developing moves right?

Wrong. your moves are just a copy of the image you have in your mind about this opening. Closer look at every move, analysing the position according to opening principles and concrete calculation will reveal you what went wrong.

Lets first see why now white is better:

1) White has clear space advantage in the center due to the pawn on e4.

2) White leads in development by 3 tempoes now, having already castled, all minor pieces developed, and the rook on a1 is also in the game fully developed without even moving.

3) Tactically speaking, e5 gives black a difficult game, for example, in this variation where black plays only best moves:

And here its not losing for black, but surely not what he hoped for.

4) Material- white is down a pawn. However, the compensation outweighs the loss of this pawn by enabling white to play with some super initiative, or just grabbing it back, where the first option is preferrable.


Ok, so now that we have established our evaluation of the position, you ask me- what was black's mistake?

To answer this question, we have to go move by move and see what was the purpose of that move, and check whether there was a move instead of it that served a higher purpose.

Lets begin:

1) bxa- not a serious mistake, just an inaccuracy: you went on grabing a full pawn now, wasting another tempo instead of development. That breaks an opening principal.

2) Nc6- perfectly normal developing move.

3) d6- again, not a mistake, just an inaccuracy: this move doesn't help you develop and castle fast, in a position where you already down a few tempos. It also doesnt really fight for the center. You should have played g6 or Nf6 right away not fearing the e5 push at this point.

4,5) g6, Bg7- good moves, fianchettoing the dark bishop. nothing wrong with that.


Let us pause here, we have reached the following position:

Having played only 2 inaccuracies, black has allowed white to fully equalise the position. Now, black has to complete his development. but in which way?

Here, black remembered that in this setup for black, the knight goes on the f6 square, normal sicilian development, right?

Absolutely right. only this position isn't the normal sicilian.

Playing Nf6, because he's used to play this position and other positions by knowing the moves, not understanding them and evaluate the need for them in every particular position, he allowes a simple tactic for white, which is e5 and the variation above that follows. 

He didn't allow it because he is stupid, but because he doesn't play with the correct order of thought. It happens very frequently, and it happened to all of us. Playing Nf6 in this position is just one of the symptoms of not following rational strategic and positional ideas in every opening you play, regardless of you being familiar with it.

Just to conclude the variation, here black should have played Nh6 completing development of the kingside and getting ready to castle. after Nh6, the game is roughly even, and black still carries a tiny bit of the advantage he had.


Some final words:

Memorizing opening positions and variations can only help if you understand the positional and strategic ideas of every move, and in case of deviation from the path you are familiar with, you must apply the same method of thinking that you use to evaluate every position- what squares do I try to fight for? then, after evaluating the position in terms of opponent threats, quality of pieces, development, space, and material, you plan your strategy with positional ideas, which you will use to achieve your goals. Of course, if your opponent allowed you to play a tactical idea and have a greater gain then by positional play- go for it! but only after evaluating the final position in every option and comparing which is better, with the evaluation tools given above.


Playing this way, you will barely need to study openings at all, and concentrate your efforts on improving your understanding of the game itself, which in turn will give you all the tools you need to handle correctly any opening position.

You can watch a sample of this way of thinking in the following video recording of one of my free introduction lessons:


Try to think about this position- evaluation, plan, and recommended move:


In this position, one move stands above others and gives white a considerable advantege. Use strategic and positional ideas to discover it.

Please, share your thoughts with me, either by commenting here or by sending me a message.


Thanks for your time, I hope you will make use of what you have learned to improve your chess fast!


-Philip Ochman, chess coach.


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