How to conquer the colossal obstacles of learning openings


Hello. My name is Daniel and I am officially suffering from COD (Chess Opening Depression). I am currently seeking group therapy and a solution here on's "Chess Openings" Forum.

My rating is currently 1750ish-1820ish. I am ashamed to admit that I have been at this rating for almost two years now; my interest has peaked and waned (after becoming burned out), but ever since a few months ago, I've reestablished my relationship with chess and have once again become a full-time chess addict.

I am intensely determined to improve my game and rating - but there is one major obstacle... OPENINGS. I have never been "good" or even "adequate" in my openings - my theory stops on move 5 or so and I just play "whatever looks good". My excuse / defense mechanism was "I don't need to learn openings until I'm 2000", but I have finally realized that I always come into the middlegame with a worse position and that in order for me to improve, I NEED to learn / memorize openings.

I currently play the London System; my coach who is an FM recommended it to me. After two years playing it, it's awfully boring and dry and I don't know the main ideas or plans behind it. I quit taking lessons about six months ago because I wasn't learning much, so I'm on my own in this task. I want to play Queen's gambit as White; I have already bought John Cox's book on it. I used to play 1. e4 when I first started, but I'm more of a positional player. I play 1... e5 and Slav as Black. 

As I've already said, I have John Cox's d4 book; I thought it would be a cure to all of my problems, but.... There are a TON of variations and lines to MEMORIZE. Everybody tells me not to memorize lines because that never works, so I'm at a complete loss right now - WHAT DO I DO? The Queen's gambit has a lot of variations as does 1... e5 to 1. e4.

I'm also not so sure that I'm even on the right path. I have other problems besides openings like psychological problems and playing too passively. Maybe my openings aren't so screwed up after all. I really don't know - I'm 1800, not 2200; should I even focus on openings?

And if I DO focus on openings, it seems impossible - I don't know where to start. I don't want to just wing a new opening in an OTB rated game and end up losing because of it.

My questions, in a nutshell, are: 1) Should I, an 1800 rated OTB player, even focus on openings? Do openings even matter at my rating? 2) How do I learn the openings? Please don't tell me to memorize them.

Thank you. Very much. Smile


1)yes 2) im sorry.....but....MEMORISE THEM


You are strong enough that you should be memorizing openings! Stop treating yourself like a 1400 player! Don't worry about every single line, but try to have the main lines of each opening you play down cold. So, if you are getting your lines from an opening book, which is my preferred method, than just try to remember the bold text as far as you think it is necessary (10-20 moves is fine for most openings), as that is usually the main line of that opening. Also, make sure you learn the ideas and plans behind an opening first, because when you get out of book you don't want to be without a plan. I know learning a complete repertoire is a lot of work, but just work on one opening at a time. Once you have a good grasp on the main lines of your repertoire (don't try to memorize everything!) try your lines out in online blitz, rapid, or turn based games before bringing them to the next tournament. After every game get your opening book or database out and look over the line to see how far you and your opponent followed theory, and how you could improve. It may take a couple years, but stick to the mainlines of 1.d4 and eventually you will have a great repertoire! Whatever you do, don't go back to the london system!


Yeah you don't need to know every line, just 5 or 6 moves of a few and just the ideas. That's where databases come in. You should be watching master games of the variations you play just like you do in the books. The author picks some good examples but there are tons more out there.

At least then when you forget the moves you'll know what you're supposed to be doing.


Learning the mainlines and one or two sidelines for most of the sensible replies is the work of like one evening.  It's a lot more work than one would usually put into a game, but it's not a lot of work compared to practically anything else in life.  It's like studying for a single, very easy quiz.

The hard part is knowing what to do when your opening prep runs out.


I had the same problem with openings (I am hovering around 1900ish USCF rating). You need to figure out what suits your style. If your coach has recommended you to play London System then I guess you are positional type of player. Select opening for white and black you want to play. You can try playing some blitz games and try out different lines. Once you figure out what you want to play with White and Black buy an opening book. For example, I decided to play Sicilian - Accelerated Dragon against e4 and Nimzo against d4. So I get a repertoire book on those openings. You may also whant to get a book on how to counter sidelines. (In my case I had to get "Fighting the Anti-Sicilians" opening book) Now you can follow the advice of LaskerFan and use variations in the book to fill out your opening tree. I use ChessBase for that. I am little skeptical of databases. The book might provide some hints and typical plans in the positions that arise after opening  - very helpful to amateur player. If you want to save a buck, go with the database, but it will require more input on your part. Also great tool for studying openings is to play correspondence chess here on the site. Just follow the book variations when playing. 

I also disagree on BigTy on that you should study one opening at a time. I have tried that, did not work for me. First of all, it's hard to determine when to move from one opening to the other. (Some openings variation go 15-20 moves, while others 6-7). I think you should slowly start working on all your openings. Just get the books fill out different variations and play some correspondence chess using them. Playing through the openings is the best way to memorize them.

Vlad_ wrote:

I also disagree on BigTy on that you should study one opening at a time. I have tried that, did not work for me. First of all, it's hard to determine when to move from one opening to the other. (Some openings variation go 15-20 moves, while others 6-7). I think you should slowly start working on all your openings. Just get the books fill out different variations and play some correspondence chess using them. Playing through the openings is the best way to memorize them.

I guess I should have been more clear. What I meant was that if you are going to do indepth study, then one at a time is probably best. If you are just going to learn the first 10-15 moves and then play blitz and learn a bit more each time, then yeah, you will be working on them a little bit all at once. That is a very good method for learning because study and practice go hand in hand. For me, it is ineffective to switch my attention from one opening to the next when studying them indepth (actually reading through all the variations in a book, for example, and figuring out some stuff on my own). Switching from one book to the next every few days seems to leave me with less retention. I think it is best to really get your lines down in one opening before putting hours of study into the next, but it could be different for everyone. Maybe others can relate to this.


I recommend actually finding a chess teacher who will help you to learn them, because if you have spent all of this time at the same rating level without increasing your understanding, it's no wonder you haven't improved.

I could help you out a bit with learning Queen's Gambit stuff, but I would recommend a line that is little-used at your level and as a result your opponents probably won't follow the theory, so learning the ideas would be  much more important than learning the lines. (The line I refer to is the Catalan Opening...a favorite of mine and of many top-level players, but rarely seen under 2000)


a teacher is better but don't worry about openings so much, find your best opening that has multiple variations, pick your favorite and develop responses to your opponenents response to your variation ... also practice your opening as / for  black


Certainly a 1800 player should have some basic understanding of some opening systems beyond knowing the general opening principles; especially if you aim to progress further. In general opening study should still probably only take minor part of training schedule in this rating range but if you feel this is your weakest area then it may not be a bad idea to spend more time on it.

Unlike some others above I think that memorized opening theory is mostly useless. Instead you really must try to understand the ideas and if you succeed the moves will usually be easy to remember. What's more, even if you don't remember the exact book line the understanding of the basic ideas of your openings usually allows you to still play decent enough moves. If one of your moves turns out to be different from book recomendations then those of your opponents that are just relying on memorized lines will be on their own in a position they don't understand at all (i.e. you have enough practical compensationWink).

If you buy books buy the ones that explain the general ideas instead of the more advanced variation heavy works. And most importantly try to think for yourself. See, if you can understand why some move is preferred over others. If a move seems good to you but is not mentioned by the books try to find a refutation - often you learn more from the inferior lines than from "best play". Let's use the Queensgambit as an example. Do you understand why white plays 2. c4? Black's main responses are 2... dxc4,e6,c6. What are the pros and cons of each of these moves? What about move like 2... Nf6 - why it's not very popular? In the position arising after 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 what's the difference between 3. Nf3 and 3. Nc3? In the position arising after 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 black usually chooses 4... dxc4/e6/a6 - does this mean there's something wrong with the natural looking 4... Bf5? These are the kind of questions I ask myself when learning a new opening.

Correspondence chess can be a quite good way to learn openings if you make good use of the databases and books. The important thing when using databases is that you don't just look at the database statistics but also look at the actual games and see if you can understand what's going on. Vote chess might also prove usefull. Find a team that has some stronger players and discusses actively before voting. There you can follow how other players approach the opening and get feedback of your own suggestions.


Another way to learn, if you dislike rote memorisation, is to do so against the computer. Fritz 12 in rated games plays the same line against me until I beat it (there may be a setting to stop it doing so but I actually like it). After the game you can compare to the opening tree if you like. It's a good way of learning the opening ideas by trial and error. With Fritz set to 1500 I have recently refuted its Four Pawns Attack against my Kings Indian Defence!


My confidence increased after doing a few Chess Mentor lessons here at In particular, Silman's Now What? Chess Mentor lessons showed me how to think of the transition from opening to middlegame play.


c4 is a good choice to avoid theory and you get positional play. Or you can play something like the colle system which you can play almost no matter how your opponent respond.


Hello Daniel,

First, congratulations for reaching 1800 OTB rating (which is quite good, especially for a young player) without feeling confident with your openings : it shows you have a good overall ability for chess and it will help you a lot in the future Smile

To answer your questions :

  1. yes, it's okay to work on your openings, if you don't feel confident when playing them, as you must work on any weak spot in your game to make progress
  2. how to do it ? the process is slightly longer, but here are my recommendations :

The easiest way is to do the work with a chess coach, but assuming you want to work by yourself then :

  • first pick some opening you're interested in : it doesn't matter if the opening is trendy or not, complicated or not, but you must be interested in it, because this interest will give you energy to research it Smile
  • learn the basic moves (introductory moves) of the opening, and learn the very basic ideas associated with it - for example, for French defence : 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 - black wants to fight for the center by trading or displacing the e4 pawn, but if white doesn't trade on d5, the c8 bishop is shut in, and it's a problem piece,
  • now, look for some annotated games in the opening (easier is to find them in a textbook) and go through them on a real board or on a computer screen, focusing your attention on the general verbal comments and where the pieces belong - better still if you can try to guess your side's moves, but you don't need to spend a long time on it at this stage - ask yourself questions : "what if ?" and try to answer them by yourself (as was rightly suggested by another poster), or with people's help (here), or with a computer
  • now, try to play the opening in offhand rapid games, and compare your play with what the book says - look when you deviate from the book - try to understand why the book move is for, and if it's better than your move (sometimes it's not, or only marginally) - if you don't understand the book move, ask here, or try to play around it with the computer,
  • repeat the process Smile till the OTB tourney
  • learn some variations by heart, especially the more tactical ones
  • play your opening in OTB and analyze the game

And that's it - when you're above 2000, there are a few extras you can add, but this is already a good enough process



Take all the games that you have played with d4, and compare them with well annotated master games. Find out the ideas of each variation, study them and play them. Repeat this process with every game, white and black until you understand the variations. Once you understand the ideas, the memorization will make much more sense and become much easier.


One word: Catalan.


Here's how I get better at openings: After each game, run through the opening moves with a master database and find the first move that deviates from the popular lines.

If your opponent is the first to deviate, try to figure out why masters wouldn't play that move. Try plugging the move into an engine and see if there's an easy way to refute it. Memorizing all the theory in the world won't help much if you don't know how to deal with unexpected moves.

If you're the first person to deviate, look at the more popular moves and try to figure out why they're more popular. Pick the move that you like best, memorize it, and then you're good to go.

If you continue to do this, your understanding of an opening should get better over time. I used to know only the first two moves of the French Defence (1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5), but after consistently applying these strategies, I can now go a few moves deeper in most of the main lines, plus I have a better understanding of Black's plans.

But then again, I'm at the same level as you, so maybe my training method isn't very effective. Still, it couldn't hurt!


Recently, I have started reading the book 'How to Build Your Chess Opening Repertoire' by Steve Giddins. Published by Gambit Publications Ltd (2003).

ISBN 1901983897.

It has been a revelation reading this book; when I finish it I will read it again. Find a copy and enjoy. I am thinking about Chess Openings in a new way.

Good luck.


I remeber when I first really got into chess (probably 18 months ago or so), I wanted to know everything that there was to know about Ruy Lopez!  I just thought it would be as simple as picking up a book and repeating everything over and over and over again.  I didn't know at the time that there are a gazillion lines to it and a lot of them go upwards of 20 moves!  So, I had to change strategy... I started looking at the ones that I really liked as black and as white. 

Some I discarded as too slow, some as being too cramped or over-extended, and picked and chose one line at a time, and in time I couldn't tell you every line that there was or blurt out every move of that line but I had the IDEAS down for almost every play.  I knew about how to counter on the queenside as white with a4, and how to manouvre the b1 knight to g3, and why white plays c3 (for d4 usually, not for Bc2... that was a revelation at the time!).  I got frustrated as black with only playing the Archangel and New Archangel, and I discovered the Marshall attack as a nice, extremely active change of pace, and learned about how devastating the pin on the f3 knight can be for white.  Slowly but surely, I learned the basic goals of the variations as white and black, and when to recognize that these goals existed, even if I couldn't tell you the name of the line.  This same strategy worked for some King's Gambit lines I wanted to know (Muzio, in particular).

Now I'm going to try and learn everything I possibly can about Chirgorin's in QGD.  And you know what? I bet that if I use the same idea, I'll get the same results.  And you probably can too.

Good Luck, and just enjoy it!


Good idea. Just start with your favorite opening and take it one step at a time. I'm working on the King's Gambit like you did the Ruy Lopez.