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Often times, when I find myself going through the lines of a new opening, one that I would like to start using in my games I hit the concrete wall after a couple of days of studying it.

Due to the fact that this is new to me, I simply don't understand every strategic line behind it, and since I've never played it I don't know what to expect in a real game. So my question is:

During the first stage of leaning a new opening, just memorize the different possible variations?


Deep dive in the theory behind each move until you acquire a thorough comprehension of the tactical and strategical motifs?

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Neither dive deep, nor memorize everything, but rather try to understand what you're doing. If the question is only between these two possibilities, you can already discard my answer :P –  Nikana Reklawyks Nov 30 '12 at 0:38
Same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice –  user76 Dec 4 '12 at 20:58
Just buy a book (Starting Out for example) on your opening you want to learn, read it and play the opening during 3 years. After that, you can say you know the opening. –  Zistoloen Dec 7 '12 at 8:40
@Zistoloen, totally agree, after 3 years of playing the same opening you "should" certainly know it... the starting out series are not my favorite, they do have some books that are really good, but there are certainly better options IMO –  Helio Dec 8 '12 at 0:54
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5 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The following suggestions will work for players in the 1600-2000 elo range. If you are above 2000, you probably already have better techniques than these. And if you are 1600 or below, tactics is arguably a lot more useful to learn.

Here's an assortment of things I used to try when I wanted to learn a opening. Note: I had access to Fritz and Chessbase and that helped.

  1. Get a book (or a chess video) on the major ideas in the opening or variation that you are interested in. This is fundamental. Watch it, or read it multiple times to absorb the themes.

  2. Get hold of a bunch of games with your opening of interest. (Chessbase or Fritz makes this really easy). Sort them in different ways into smaller databases for your own reference.

  3. Play through the games in various speeds. Click the steps fast, every few seconds, or very slow to absorb what's going on. (Ideally, you want to focus on the games where your color of choice wins. That way you'll know the winning themes.)

  4. I often learned by playing through games of players who were a 100-200 points above me, rather than from GM's. The reason was that my opponents would deviate from theory very early on, and I could see how players of strength comparable to me handled the positions.

  5. Pay attention to the minor pieces and see which squares they usually occupy. Chessbase has a cool feature that plots the probability of a piece occupying each square in your opening of choice. I found that very useful.

  6. Play through the games paying attention mainly to the pawn structure.

  7. For me, it was usually enough to learn the first 10-12 moves and then the ideas. If you play the same opening enough, you can increase that to a few more moves.

  8. I learned this technique from Silman's book. I'd print out a position (from the opening I was trying to get familiar with) and then stare at it and try to write down a very detailed evaluation of it. This was surprisingly difficult for me. I could come with a few basic points, and then I 'd go over someone's annotations and see that they could look much much deeper into the position. Doing this often can be quite beneficial.

  9. I'd run my games through Fritz's analysis and watch in horror at the things both me and my opponent had missed. But I also learned not to miss those things the next time.

  10. Keeping your own annotations is extremely useful. I'd write notes and keep adding to it as I learned more. Reading my own notes was often more helpful than reading the IM's and GM's who had much deeper knowledge.

Hope that helps.

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+1 for 4, 5, 8, and 10, even though that's a bit sparse. Your understanding of it is of more value for you than any theoretical status, that's the only part that'll show in your games. Of course, theory can feed that understanding, but retaining something is more important than overlooking a lot. –  Nikana Reklawyks Dec 3 '12 at 22:38
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The way I learned the few openings I now know is basically :

  • Playing them a lot.
  • In the (soon few) games where your natural play gives you a crappy position out of the opening, go ask theory™ where you screwed up.

Learning lines as you make mistakes in them helps a lot for remembering them, since you have to confront what you thought to be correct to what actually is.

I this the most important part of “learning openings”, far from being memory, is getting comfortable with the positions that are most likely to arise, and to know where you're going (i.e. have a plan to fall back onto when you're out of your book).

Eventually, you'll learn about the tricks and traps that lie around as you fall into them, or your opponent overplays and you fail to punish. But most importantly, you'll learn the positions you get to play often first.

Last but not least : always play the same openings you're trying to learn, and don't learn many at once (for obvious memory overflow reasons).

Note that I don't hold a very high opinion of opening theory, and tend to advise¹ most people to care a lot less about it, and rather improve their actual thinking and play. If you get a decent enough position out of your opening, then the fun begins (and that's where it incredibly helps to understand what theory got you into, what you're playing for, and what you should keep an eye on, etc.)

As to what I applied this to, as a 2000, I premove 1... Nf6 with black (hence Alekhine and Grunfeld defenses, sometimes falling into semi-Indian pseudo-systems), and vary between 1. c4, 1. b4 and 1. Nf3 with white.

¹ Of course, this is only meant to hold for people my advice is worth something for. I'm sure it doesn't apply anymore past some level, but then, people tend to ask these questions less, unsurprisingly.

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Playing them over and over and over again is definitely the way too go. I also recommend some good opening books or videos. NM Dereque Kelley does an excellent job explaining openings on chessopenings.com –  xaisoft Nov 30 '12 at 6:40
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Memorization by itself is not the most effective way to learn a new opening. Yes, you'll end up knowing every move and the corresponding (or possible) response to it, you'll memorize a set of positions that are commonly considered as the end of the opening or that have granted mobilization and development to your pieces but you will not know what to do next.

First, get a good book about the opening you want to learn, one that has clear explanations about the tactical positions you may reach and explains how to get through with your plan.

Play through annotated games in which the key elements of the opening are clearly identified. It doesn't matter if the game is 200 years old, it will provide you with a clear idea of what is the desired objective.

Don't try to learn every variation at once, start with the main line and implement it in your games, if during a game you do not know when exactly you moved away from the “book” analyze your game in an attempt to determine when did that happen and whether your move was good or bad according to “book” theory.

It is recommended that you learn the common traps of the opening as early as possible, to avoid unpleasant surprises and to take advantage of your newly acquired knowledge.

Once you have gained a better understanding of the “theory” you'll realize that you have actually memorized a lot of moves, and you are ready to further enhance your knowledge about the opening. This would be the time to go through the latest games played by GM's at tournaments and analyze those games searching for new discoveries. GM's are not known for sharing their secrets, so dig in.

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I'd like to add that an "incremental learning" approach is key to not burning out on opening study.

It's astonishing so many players choose to drink from a fire hydrant rather than sip ... and then forget/confuse their move orders. Then get angry at their pet line and rationalize that as a perfect time to switch openings. Again ... and again.

I suffered from this "learn, forget, get mad and try something else " loop until a few years back.

  • Step 1. Play tons of games the way you want to play it. Blitz works as well ...
  • Step 2. If you've saved those games (I hope you did!), take those games one by one and ... review the opening moves with books/software.
  • Step 3. If you deviated from book at say move N, learn what "move" (just one move) is considered best play. If given a style/fashionable choice, pick one move that the big boys consider to be sound. Make sure you understand why this move and not the one you played was better. If in doubt, seek help. You need to convince yourself why this move fits ... this is key.
  • Step 4. Massage this "one new move I learned" experience into your brain ... I's suggest writing it down and reviewing it a few days later to confirm that it has transitioned from short-term to long-term memory.
  • Step 5. Don't worry about what happens "next" in that opening line you looked up. You'll get to it when you deviate from it the next time.

The goal of this exercise is to "grow" your repertoire by JUST ONE MOVE. Rinse and repeat steps 1-5 over several of your games, each day. Over time, you will organically grow your repertoire and be able to play it accurately with much less fumbling than if you try to learn an entire tabiya in one sitting. What's more useful is that you'll be focusing on lines your current opposition (online opponents, club players, tournament regulars) thrives on ... in other words you are NOT wasting time studying lines that your frequent opposition HARDLY plays.

I'd like to add that this method requires patience and constant review. The good news is that for some opening systems that feel really comfortable for you, you may be playing "in book" for several moves just by good opening principles ... so your repertoire may grow faster than you think.

As I mentioned earlier, doing this with blitz helps as well as you get to grow a few more "leaves" to your opening tree per sitting than with 1-2 slow games per day.

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Books, grandmaster games and using the opening in your games whenever you get the chance. One option is to look at games played by grandmasters. Try to notice positions that suit your style and scribble down what openings were used. Start learning one of those systems (e.g. Sicilian, French, Spanish, Caro-Kann, King's Indian, etc.). Pick a variation (e.g. Najdorf). Find games with this variation and learn the key ideas. Start using them in your games. For instance, in the Sicilian defense, a typical idea for black is to sacrifice the exchange with Rc8xNc3. The more ideas you collect, the more at home you will be in the system of your choice.

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