Typical mistake: studying the opening wrong (and too much!)

NM linlaoda
May 10, 2015, 11:16 PM |

When we play a game and we find ourselves lost for plans, we often try to solve this problem by studying the opening of that game.


This is not the best way to study this!


By "study", see if you can relate to any of the following:

  1. You study grandmaster games (maybe Chessbase?) in hopes of "subconsciously" grasping the concepts

    I've tried this, and it did not work for me. I should first note that for some really smart people with photographic memory, this strategy works very well - we'll exclude these people from the discussion! For everyone else, we can not hope to learn sufficiently fast this way - while it is true that we will pick up bits and pieces here and there, it will only be bits and pieces, after all it will take grandmaster understanding to understand some of the moves. "Passive" learning sometimes yields positive results, but definitely in no comparison to "active" learning, so why spend so much time doing it?

  2. You study annotated games endlessly, trying to memorize all the lines.

    This is a step better than the previous scenario, as the grandmaster ideas are pointed out (hopefully!) by the annotator. However here I want to bring up a bigger point in this idea of memorization - why memorization really is not a practical way to study. First of all:

    You can't memorize the entire game of chess.

    This statement is simple but important. Have you heard the saying "give a man a fish, he'll live for a day, but teach him how to fish and he'll live for a lifetime?" Similarly, we should be learning and refining our thought process to enable us to reason our way to the best next move.

    Second of all, it's just plain hard. The next time you are "studying" the openings, try this: close your computer or book or whatever you're using to study (although I'd imagine it'd only be those two sources!) and try to play out the entire line (including variations!) or what you just studied on an actual chess set. Hard? How far did you get? I know for me I used to study opening moves up to move 20-25, but after doing this test I only made it to move 12!

What should we learn from this? NOT that we should get better at memorization.. but rather that the time we just spent "studying" the opening (for me it was often 3 hours per day!!) could be better spent on something else, or with different methods with higher retention.


So what do I recommend to do if you were unable to find a plan in one of your games?


  1. Study the plans of similar positions. By similar, I mean pawn structure, piece configuration, etc. The best way to do this is to study positional chess, which you will find to be more general than a study of openings.
  2. Ask a stronger player for their thoughts on the position. Assuming they are familiar with the position, they would be able to explain the typical plans and the "right path forward."

There are definitely times when you do in fact need to study the openings "by the book", for example in variations with sharp tactical variations and "grandmaster" inventions, but these are few and not to be overstated. May I even suggest to change your opening repertoire if it requires such opening study?

I hope this post helped the reader in creating their study plan, as this was one of the big obstacles in my own path to chess improvement. Leave your comments below!