Kostya's Blueprint: Learning Structures - Part 2
In Part 1 I explained why learning the ins and outs of a given pawn structure is a great way to improve your understanding of our beloved game, and laid out an approach to developing a grasp of any position by asking key questions. Today I'd like to expand on how to specifically go about learning a structure, and why this is way more beneficial to your chess than simply studying opening theory. Here is what I suggest you should do:
Find Model Games
The point of studying an opening is to be able to reach a middlegame that you feel comfortable with. A middlegame where you can find a good plan and play strong moves to put pressure on your opponent. Studying model games is crucial to your development here, so that you can become familiar with common motifs in your opening. The more ideas you're aware of, the easier it'll be to spot them in your games. The idea is not to regurgitate anything in the middlegame, but rather increase your comprehension of a position (and its ideas) so that during your games your intuition will guide you towards finding the correct plan/idea.
Here's a few examples of such model games, taken from my first love, the French Defense:
The game Pruess - Perelshteyn appealed to me because of its simplicity. White did not make any egregious mistakes but was simply slowly outplayed positionally. The second game, Kasparov - Radjabov, was both shocking and inspirational, and gave me confidence to play aggressively with Black, even in such a "dull" opening as the French! After studying the above two games in detail, as well as many others, I was able to put my knowledge to good use and win many games with the French, including the following game against a strong master, where I successfully utilized several common 'French' ideas:
Find a champion
Borrowing from Russian chess culture, a "champion" is someone who plays a particular opening/line frequently and with success. Famous examples include Fischer and Kasparov playing the Najdorf defense, Kramnik playing the Petroff & Berlin defenses, Svidler playing the Grunfeld, etc. There are many benefits to this. Studying the games of one player in a specific set of structures will greatly develop your intuition, as you become "in tune" with how that player handles an opening (what plans does he often go for in the early middlegame?). Simply put, if a strong player repeats a specific line multiple times, you can be sure that the line is both sound and reliable, as opposed to a one-game "experiment", where a player tries to surprise his opponent in the opening that day with no intentions of repeating that risky line ever again.
Having a "hero" will likely increase your retention of what you study, as you develop an emotional connection with a particular player, following their games closely. If they are still active, you can follow their games live to seek out the latest trends in your favorite opening. If you notice a player starts preferring one line over another, you can be sure he's done his homework and follow his recommendations yourself. Of course the value of games annotated by the player in his/her pet opening cannot be overestimated.
The logic here is easy to follow. Svidler plays the Grunfeld in most of his games against 1.d4. Every top player facing Svidler knows this, and prepares for the Grunfeld (a lot). Svidler, meanwhile, knows his opponents will prepare something and plays the Grunfeld anyways, with generally solid results. Why is this? Because he trusts his opening, and more specifically, trusts his understanding of the opening, so that even if he gets caught in some home preparation, he will be able to figure out a successful plan over the board based on his years of experience. This is exactly why aiming to understand a structure is so much more valuable than learning opening theory (though of course, eventually you'll need to learn a bit of specific opening theory too if you want to advance to higher levels).
Purchase a book/DVD
Obviously, purchasing a book or DVD about a specific opening will teach you a large amount about the opening in question. How I judge the quality of opening books/DVDs is how much the author focuses on explaining the common motifs in addition to laying out the opening theory. Varying levels of players require a different ratio, let's call it, between opening theory vs. ideas/motifs/plans. The stronger you are, the more likely you are to be familiar with an opening's common ideas and will instead need in-depth coverage of the theory. If you're still in that 1400-2200 range, or lower, however, I think focusing on structures will prove to be much more beneficial for your chess long term.
Back when I was about 1800-2200, and even today, I often watched hours of commentary as a means of studying and learning more about chess. The benefit is that good commentators will often take time to explain a few basic things about the middlegame in every game they're following, so on a given day you could be introduced to 5-6 different openings and learn a bit about the common ideas in each structure.
Play training games
Yes, you need to try out your stuff in practice before trying it in a tournament! Find a buddy of similar strength and practice against them. The first time you play an opening, your intution will most likely fail you, suggesting plans that are unnatural, or don't match the requirements of the position (this phrase and all it entails deserves a seperate blog post, which I'll eventually write!). Of course the main advantage of training games (played with a time control of a minimum of 15 minutes per side, so that you have time to actually think), is that you are in a safe place to make mistakes and learn from them (safe from the fear of a bad tournament result, that is).
Make no mistake, the above tips are all time-consuming. As per usual, I'd like to take any and every opportunity to remind readers that chess improvement is a long-term process! Real growth comes with time and conscious effort/intention.
Do leave your questions/comments/criticisms/concerns below, I'll try to respond to as many as I can