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How To Learn Chess Openings – The Definitive Guide

This article is about how to learn chess openings.Nowadays, chess openings enjoy more and more attention. Many chess players exclusively focus on chess openings and almost forget about the rest of the game. New chess books and chess DVDs are published on the chess market in increasingly short intervals. There is an abundance of information as well as plenty of advertisement why you should include exactly this or that opening in your repertoire. As a result, most chess players face great difficulties navigating through this jungle of novelties, trendy lines and recommendations by opening experts. On top of all that, strong chess engines refute former main lines which are considered to be no longer playable.

Still, sitting at the chess board in a tournament game, many club players have problems with their openings. They either can’t remember their files which they saved on their computers, they aren’t sure what to play because their opponent deviated from the main theoretical suggestions, or they mix up variations and ideas because they simply tried to remember too many variations.

For this reason, this article is all about chess openings. How to learn chess openings? Which guidelines are to follow in the opening? Which chess openings should you play? All these questions will be discussed in the following.

Learning New Chess Openings

Although it might sound trivial, one of the most difficult parts of building an chess opening repertoire is to find positions which suit you and which you enjoy playing. Take your time before studying to make sure you really want to play this chess opening – it is a waste of time to make a quick decision on an opening you want to play for years as the main weapon in your repertoire and then throw it overboard after 3 months due to some painful losses.

On choosing a new chess opening you also need to make sure that the opening fits well with your playing style. If you’re an intuitive chess player, who makes decisions at the chess board mostly based on general and abstract concepts rather than concrete calculation and memorization of razor-sharp lines, you should probably stay away from playing the Sicilian Najdorf or the King Indian Defense and choose chess openings like the Caro-Kann or the Nimzo-Indian which require less memorization of concrete lines instead.

This image is about chess tips on opening preparation. What’s more, on searching for a chess opening which suits you, you should also make sure that you have a lot of fun playing this chess opening. Of course, it is important to play good chess openings, but you don’t need to play 1.e4 e5 with Black only because the large majority of chess games between the world’s best chess players starts with 1…e5 after 1.e4. You can also play other sound chess openings like the Caro Kann, the Sicilian Defense or the French. If you enjoy playing the positions arising from your opening, it will motivate you to work on your opening skills and to learn theory. Remember: The best chess openings are the ones which you enjoy playing!

In the following, we attached quick lists of chess openings for Black against 1.e4 and 1.d4. The first two lists contain sound chess openings which you can regularly play. The last two lists feature interesting, but slightly dubious openings, you should only use as surprise weapons, not as the main choice against 1.e4 and 1.d4:

  • Best Chess Openings against 1.e4: Ruy Lopez (Berlin Defense; Marshall Attack), Petroff Defense, Philidor Defense, Sicilian Defense (Najdorf Variation; Scheveningen Variation; Dragon Variation; Accelerated Dragon; Sveshnikov Variation; Kalashnikov Variation; Paulsen/Taimanov), French Defense, Caro-Kann Defense, Alekhine Defense, Pirc Defense
  • Best Chess Openings against 1.d4: Queen’s Gambit Declined, Tarrasch Defense, Slav Defense, Queen’s Gambit Accepted, Gruenfeld Defense, King’s Indian Defense, Nimzoindian Defene, Queen’s Indian Defense, Bogoindian Defense, Dutch Defense (Stonewall, Leningrad Variation), Benoni, Benko Gambit
  • Surprise Openings against 1.e4: Scandinavian Defense, Elephant Gambit
  • Surprise Openings against 1.d4: Albin Counter Gambit, Budapest Gambit, Chigorin Defense, Old Indian Defense

Once you’ve chosen an opening, you should aim for an overview of the relevant material on this chess opening. It is not advisable to start with a chess book written for strong titled chess players which contains an endless amount of theory and only little explanation of the basic concepts of your opening. It’s of paramount importance to start small.

Try to understand the key concepts and recurring themes of your chess opening first. If you start to learn the Sicilian Dragon, for instance, it makes little sense to learn long theoretical lines in the Yugoslav Attack by heart, if you haven’t been introduced to typical recurring patterns like the exchange sacrifice on c3. Learning to play a chess opening means learning to understand every move you make, not blindly copying moves from databases, strong players or chess engines.

Becoming An Chess Opening Expert

In order to become an expert on your openings, you need to devote a lot of time to study your lines thoroughly. Therefore, it is important not to play too many chess openings. It is a common occurrence that many chess players have more than one reply to certain opening moves, but in none of their opening, they are experts. These players fear and overestimate their opponent’s preparation and frequently switch between their lines.

That’s unnecessary! Super-GM Peter Svidler said the simple, but remarkable sentence: “I fear some player’s opening preparation more than others.” Sure, if you play against opening specialists like Vladimir Kramnik or Anish Giri, you might get into trouble if you’re playing a line you always play without sufficient theoretical knowledge.

However, as an average club player, you normally don’t get to play these big guys that often. If you play against opposition with a rating of around 2000 or less, you don’t need to rack your brain on your opponent refuting your favorite opening and play a line your opponent can’t prepare for instead. A much better approach is to try to become an expert in the one chess opening you play and to refrain from playing several different ones you only have some superficial knowledge about.

This is a position from the main line in the Caro Kann Defense.Many chess players forget that they can also vary within their opening systems. Instead of playing the Sicilian Najdorf, The Caro-Kann and the Scandinavian, for example, you could also focus only on the Caro-Kann and play different lines. Let’s pick the absolute main line of the Caro-Kann after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4. The most common move here is 4…Bf5, but you can also go for 4…Nd7 (a move which Karpov often played) or 4…Nf6 5.Nxf6 and now either 5…exf6 or 5…gxf6. It becomes obvious that even as soon as on move 4, you have more than one decent option to stay flexible within your opening. Even if you like to go for the absolute main line with 4…Bf5 5.Ng3 Bg6 6.h4 h6 7.Nf3, you don’t need to automatically play the main move 7…Nd7, but you can also play the fashionable 7…e6 (a move which Magnus Carlsen used against Vishy Anand in their first World Championship Match).

How To Master Your Chess Openings

This is a checklist to become an opening expert.You can’t become an chess opening expert on a new chess opening in one week. Of course, it is always a good idea to get an overview of all the variations that can arise from the chess opening you play. Do not just remember it, but also write down all the variations. This helps you to keep track on your progress. Once you’ve done this, you should start to investigate each line a lot deeper. However, you can’t dive into all lines at the same time. Hence, it is a good idea to make a priority list of the lines you want to analyze.

Some variations appear at the chess board more frequently than others. These are the lines you should tackle first. You can give yourself one or two weeks for each line – depending on the training time you spend on openings each week – and try to develop a deep understanding of what’s going on in this variation. Always remember to save your analysis in a database so that you can recheck it at a later point. Only if you feel confident about the variation you analyzed, you should turn your attention to the next line.

As the human brain is inherently forgetful, however, you need to repeat your opening lines from time to time. Memorization does not fly to you over night. It requires time and work, but it is important. In each chess opening, there are several critical lines which you need to be prepared for. If you choose to play very sharp lines, you need to be familiar with the theory – especially with Black. Check the critical lines, stay up to date, check the latest trends in your database and look for improvements yourself.

On top of that, it is a wise decision to regularly check the games of the world’s leading experts in this chess opening. You can watch their approaches against different opening setups and become familiar with the latest trends, fashionable move orders or opening novelties. If you choose to play the Gruenfeld Defense, for instance, your experts to follow are GM Svidler, GM Areshenko, GM Ftacnik or GM Vachier-Lagrave.

Last but not least, you need to test your openings in real games. Collect playing experience with your opening while sitting at the chess board, thinking for yourself without the help of chess books or chess engines. While doing this, many questions on your opening will come up in your head. You can check all of them after the game. In order to collect playing experience, you can also participate in an opening themed tournament on chess playing websites like chess24 or chess.com.

Additional Tips On Chess Openings

  • Work with a second if you can. It can be a good friend, a clubmate or a chess coach. It greatly enriches your chess opening knowledge if you have someone to talk with about new ideas, critical lines and chess opening preparation for tournaments. You can analyze lines together and play training games themed on a certain opening against each other. A second can also help you with your chess openings during a tournament. It can be exhausting to prepare against your opponents for hours when you have to play early at the next time.
  • Repair your lines – Don’t lose trust into your variation just in cause of a painful defeat. Repair your line and try again. Don’t switch your openings too often. Become an expert in your chess opening. This has several advantages. For example, in Blitz and Rapid Chess, your opponents can’t prepare for you. Here, expertise beats flexibility.
  • Get familiar with the most common chess opening traps in the lines you play. Knowing different opening traps helps to avoid being on the wrong side of a 10 move victory and perhaps even enables you to win some quick games!
  • Don’t trust chess books blindly. Always doublecheck the authors analysis. Nowadays, chess books can be quickly outdated. What’s more, think about the authors evaluation of different lines. If an author writes that White is slightly better in a position after 18 moves or Black has decent compensation for the sacrificed material, but you don’t understand why and how, you need to check the positions.
  • Watch Chess DVDs on the chess openings you play. Chess Opening DVD series have become increasingly attractive to the chess community. They are compact chess training sources which allow busy players to study training material within a fraction of time it takes others. Compared to a chess instruction hourly rate of an own chess teacher, chess DVD series offer an excellent price/performance ratio for Grandmaster level one-on-one chess instruction.

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