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How to Learn a Chess Opening Properly

Studying chess is certainly time-consuming. In addition to studying strategic concepts and practicing your tactical skills, there are some positions and sequences that you simply have to memorize, such as certain checkmate patterns and endgame techniques. But nowhere is this more relevant than the opening.

Why memorize openings? Well, I am not advocating for wrote memorization per se – it is much more important to understand the concepts of the opening – but it is important to remember that we “stand on the shoulders of giants”, to borrow Isaac Newton’s words.

That is to say, numerous grandmasters and other strong players have spent countless hours figuring out the best moves to play in the opening, and we would be wise to at least take note of what they’ve found. And not only that, but memorization can save you a lot of time trouble in a real game. Don’t try to come up with Sicilian mainline theory by yourself over the board!

But there’s a lot to know, so what is the best way to maximize our time? Here are four tips to learn openings:

#1 – Find the Right Openings

This is a very important caveat before we get to the main advice. As I mentioned in the beginning, studying openings is time-consuming, so don’t waste your precious time on the wrong opening! In fact, it’s a topic so important, it will be the subject of its own blog post. But in the meantime, I offer some quick, practical advice.

For one thing, if you’re a beginner or lower-intermediate player, I would not recommend hypermodern openings. This is anything that starts with 1.Nf3, or other openings where you give up direct control of the center at first (the Pirc, Modern and Indian games are all good examples). The reason is that these openings are very complex and require high precision, and often have the potential to transpose to other openings.

It’s also important to find an opening you like and stick with it. It’s not wise to constantly change openings, at least not until you’re a very high level. Therefore, you should find an opening that appeals to you and perfect it. While there is some benefit from being well-rounded, in this case, consistency is much more important, at least in the beginner and intermediate levels.

Until the next blog post about choosing the right opening, I highly recommend Stjepan Tomic’s advice in his 10-minute interview with Ben Johnson about the topic on the How To Chess Podcast here.

#2 – Learn the Pawn Structures Associated with That Opening

As stated, memorization is important, but knowing the logic behind the moves and overall plan is even more important. It is impossible to remember moves from every possible variation wrote. No opening course or book will prepare you for every possible variation anyway, so you need some master plan that will be your guiding light when you don’t know what to do.

This guiding light is the pawn structure. Pawn structure is extremely important because it carves out the “skeleton” of the position, generating strong and weak squares for both sides, which become targets of plans.

A great example is the Minority Attack found in the Orthodox Exchange pawn structure – a common pawn structure in the Queen’s Gambit Declined and other openings. You may not encounter it in every QGD you play, but more often than not, this is the ‘go-to’ plan for White. To get you seeing things in terms of pawn structure, here a Queen’s Gambit Declined – Exchange Variation with and without the pieces.

Orthodox Exchange Structure

                   QGD Exchange Variation

In this pawn structure, White often pushes his b-pawn up the board attacking Black’s c-pawn, like so.

Minority Attack

If Black captures, he isolates his d-pawn and doubles his b-pawn, which will probably be swallowed up by a White rook or other piece. The remaining b-pawn also becomes somewhat weak.

But if he does nothing, White will capture on c6 and Black will have a backward pawn, which is also a target for attack. And if Black decides to advance his pawn to c5, White can capture creating another weakness on d5.

So, much of the Queen’s Gambit Declined revolves around White trying to implement this plan and Black trying to stop it. White might throw his a-rook on the b-file to support the pawn. There could be knight outpost ideas at c4 and c5 for both sides. Having most of his pawns on light squares, Black’s light-squared bishop will be weak, and he’ll try to trade it off for White’s strong light-squared bishop all game.

In this way, the pawn structure dictates where the pieces should go. If you study your pawn structures, you’ll know what to do in the opening and the middlegame. Fortunately, a lot of Chessable opening courses talk about these themes, so pay attention to what they say!

#3 – Repetition in Study and Repetition in Games

This might sound like two different points, but it’s a symbiosis! You should practice your openings over and over both when you’re studying and in your games. As the Russian saying goes, “repetition is the mother of learning.”

Chessable is actually the perfect tool for studying openings, and that’s in part why it was created (but it’s great for all parts of the game!) You can not only learn the logic behind the moves, but you can also quiz your understanding of them through spaced repetition.

But it’s also important to put your knowledge into practice, because practice will deviate from the theory at some point. I tend to agree with former world chess champion Mikhail Botvinnik in that blitz chess is not very conducive to learning, but it is very useful in studying openings, because you get to repeat the opening a lot. I recommend a 5 minute time control with a 3 increment – it’s fast enough to get several games in a day but also gives you some time to think.

But when you play, don’t just go on a blitz frenzy. Stop after every game and analyze how the opening went. Is it what your Chessable instructor or coach recommended? Did you mix up some sequence? Is it something that was even covered in the course? Take the time to get it right so you don’t build bad habits. It pays huge dividends in the long run.

#4 – Check Out Master Games with Descriptive Annotation

The last piece of advice I have is to find some master games with that opening and go through them. See how the pros approach that opening and what their strategy is. It is even useful to memorize some – by doing so, you can build a library of positions and strategies in your brain that you can call upon when you play over the board.

Make sure they have descriptive annotations that explain what it is going on. Many great Chessable opening repertoire courses have a section that shows model games with such annotations, but you can also find plenty of books that do the same, as well as great YouTube streamers that walk you through the game. Remember, we stand on the shoulders of giants!

Concluding Thoughts

Repetition, repetition, repetition – that’s the theme. But it’s an active repetition, not a mindless one. Take time to stop, think, and tweak what you have to in order to perfect your openings. There are a lot of good openings out there, and if you spend time mastering your craft, you’ll be tournament ready in no time.

And also, be sure to check out the multitude of Chessable opening courses that can help you out. Nowadays, there are tons of quality courses by the world’s top instructors – and a lot of it’s free! Some of them are quite large but don’t be discouraged – with Quickstarter chapters and Short & Sweet versions, you can play the opening reasonably well with relatively little study.

Keep studying your openings – I hope to hear of your successes soon!

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