So, it was inevitable. I am making progress in the middle-game. I understand positions better and my tactics continue to improve. My end games are still solid/superior for my skill level so I generally get better as the game goes on.

However, now my opening play is suffering. I just get trounced on many openings. Many of the gambit openings just blow me away, particularly the King's Gambit, but others as well.

If I can survive the first 10 moves, I usually win, but there are so many traps in those first 10 moves. I have a good understanding (went through all the chessmaster lessons) of opening principles. I also understand a lot of the basic tactics in the openings.

But it's time to buckle down and study the chess openings and understand them. However, I am not an expert/master by any means (class C/B player), so I just want a more broad understanding.

In addition to my tactics/endgame and positional studies, what should I be studying in the openings to get a good understanding?

Thank you!

To get some ideas of what I currently play:

  • As black, against new players I will play Petrov's Defence. This is one I know well. I only like to play this for longer games, as for blitz games the lines get too complicated to play well.
  • I enjoy the Ruy Lopez from both sides. Most of the standard lines work out well.

  • Against the King's Gambit, I always accept and then struggle mightily to get my king to safety.

  • As white, I like to sometimes play the London System and sometimes go for the Ruy Lopez lines myself.
  • I am not a big fan of the Indian openings, although they generally don't cause me much trouble, they just aren't as fun. The fianchettoed bishops take too much of the action
  • I sometimes will play the Italian game instead of the Ruy Lopez, but it tends to lead to less exciting games.

In general, I like balanced games that can shift between open and closed, as being able to find the right plan is where it gets really exciting. I want to maintain as many options for as long as possible and not be locked down into any particular plan too early in the game.

Most of the time, my problem isn't when things follow normal theory; it's when some trick is played. Or even when the normal line goes wildly against intuition (I've seen some openings books where the standard line is random-looking pawn moves).

  • 2
    Jeff, could you perhaps edit in some information about what openings you typically play right now? E.g. you mention the King's Gambit, so how do you respond to 2. f4? Do you accept with 2. ... exf4? If so, I might recommend instead declining with something quieter like 2. ... Bc5, for instance, that could tend toward positions you like more. Basically, the more info you can provide about what you play, and where you usually get into trouble, the more specific and focused the feedback you'll get. Otherwise, you're apt to get a lot of generic advice that may be too general to be of use.
    – ETD
    Commented Aug 21, 2012 at 20:50
  • 1
    If your openings theory is not good, then it does not matter how good your middle or end game is because you'll never get there :) I found my rating started to improve when I learned more openings. Most games at club level are lost or won in the opening stage, since most do not know opening theory well at that level, you'd have a huge advantage if you do. You can win the game in the opening simply by knowing before hand which is the best move to make and you would also know that the opponent did not make the best move there since it is not in the book ;)
    – Nasser
    Commented Feb 16, 2013 at 18:14
  • What are the "chessmaster lessons"? Is this a standard reference or website?
    – Michael A
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 3:09
  • @MA Chessmaster is a chess playing program. It has a lot of training videos. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chessmaster
    – Jeff Davis
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 12:59
  • @ETD The question includes the information you asked for: "Against the King's Gambit, I always accept and then struggle mightily to get my king to safety."
    – jaxter
    Commented Oct 2, 2016 at 17:06

9 Answers 9


One book that I think you might find useful, both at your current playing strength and as you improve, is Mihail Marin's Beating the Open Games. It is a repertoire book for Black based on 1. e4 e5, and it covers all book openings White can use in reply except for the Ruy Lopez. (So for a complete repertoire, you would want to pair this with something on the Ruy Lopez. Not coincidentally, Marin has one of these as well.)

One particular from the book that touches on an opening you mention in your question: it recommends, as I did in an earlier comment, declining the King's Gambit with the fairly quiet 2. ... Bc5, ignoring the free pawn, calmly developing a minor piece, and not insignificantly covering the a7-g1 diagonal that White's first moves have opened up, potentially causing some development headaches for White. Thanks to the fact that Marin's book is based on his own playing repertoire, it offers a pretty consistent and coherent approach to facing the various non-Ruy Lopez openings - e.g. this 2. ... Bc5 response to the King's Gambit fits in well with his recommendation against a "deferred" King's Gambit via the Vienna Game, 1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. f4 Bc5 - and it is an approach that generally steers clear of the wild and crazy.

One nice feature of the book - and this is mainly why I think it could be of use to you at your current playing strength and as you develop - is that it very cleanly separates a discussion of typical strategic ideas and considerations for each opening from an MCO-style table of theory for each, the latter of which you can choose to use to whatever level of detail you like (or ignore almost entirely) for the nitty gritty study of opening lines. The more idea-centric prose section on each opening alone can give you plenty to chew on.

Bottom line, it's a very well-executed book that, from how you've described your chess self, might be right up your alley in terms of its 1. e4 e5 recommendations. If you search around a bit, you'll find that Marin's chess writings are quite highly thought-of, and I think that reputation is well-deserved. Since I know you're familiar with Silman, here's what he had to say about this book:

Beating the Open Games, joined with A Spanish Repertoire for Black, is the greatest repertoire book(s) ever written for players 1800 right to grandmaster. Marin's legend as a serious chess writer seems to grow every time he puts his fingers on a keyboard.

Lest the mention of 1800 give you pause, given that you describe yourself as a C/B player, note that others just as easily give a lower floor for it, e.g. Carsten Hansen writes, "This book provides something for every level of player, from around 1500 to even strong grandmasters."

  • I appreciate the specific advice. It sounds like a fun way to go.
    – Jeff Davis
    Commented Aug 28, 2012 at 14:28

A simple suggestion: learn the lines your opponents play.

When you finish a game, check the "book" moves for the variation that showed up on the board. Figure precisely how you should have played that game and remember it. Then, the next time you feel lost in an opening, repeat the process.

Nothing can be more discouraging than spending weeks memorizing book lines, just to have no one play them against you. But by using the choices your opponents make to set the priority for the lines you study, you're preparing yourself for the style of the players you play most often. As you do this, you'll discover, either on the board or in the books, links between the variation you're playing now and the one you played last month, and you'll start putting together variations, even complete openings, to play.

As you do this, look for ways to transpose what you're playing into another position you're more comfortable with. For example, as an e4 player, you can almost force Black into taking the Black side of a Blackmar-Diemer gambit in every circumstance except after e5 or c5, so if you look at some of those lines and feel comfortable with them, go for it. Many Pirc positions easily transpose into Sicilian lines if you'd rather play them that way. Closed Sicilian lines can end up as Nimzo-Indians. Transpositions, when you find them, can be fun for you, while puzzling to your opponent. (Hey! How'd I end up in a Queen's Gambit?)

The success of a trick opening is dependent upon surprise. Don't be surprised, and when faced with one, don't overreach. Remember, the object of the opening is merely to reach a playable middle game. Play reasonable moves and wait for the middlegame to win.


At the amateur level, openings fall into two varieties: standard (book) openings, and "trick" openings used on other amateurs.

My guess is that you are falling for "trick" openings. One way to fight this is to learn the book openings, and when your opponent deviates from the book, figure out why his move is bad, and punish him.

For instance, in the Two Knights Defense, after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ng5 d5 5. exd5 Nxd5 White then plays aggressively: 6. Nxf7 (Fried Liver Attack). But the sacrifice 5 ...Na5! poses White many problems, by driving back his Bishop. Black then gets a considerable lead in development due to White's (doubled) d pawn.

  • Right. This fits with what I am seeing. But how do I "learn the book openings"? Do I need to get a book on each one? It seems like there should be a good way to learn all the general book openings rather than having to do a month long study on each one.
    – Jeff Davis
    Commented Aug 21, 2012 at 21:08
  • The "book openings" concept seems to imply that there is a book of some sort. I wonder if that book is something I should be reading? :)
    – Jeff Davis
    Commented Aug 21, 2012 at 21:12
  • There are some books around on multiple openings, and others on the more common ones, such as the Ruy Lopez, French, Sicilian, etc. I'd go to the local Barnes & Noble.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Aug 21, 2012 at 21:21
  • 1
    I love the way my comments get deleted and my question gets closed, but the completely incorrect part about White's doubled d-pawn being an issue in the Two Knights Defense gets left in. Way to go mods: now you too are contributing to rampant mis-information about chess.
    – user76
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 1:54
  • 4
    @GeorgeJempty, the best way to deal with incorrect information is to downvote and/or leave a civil comment about the incorrect information. In our capacity as mods we don't worry about the factual correctness of a post. You can also edit any post on the site if you want to try to improve it yourself.
    – Andrew
    Commented Feb 19, 2013 at 2:18

In the title of the question are asking about obtaining understanding of chess openings, but in the main body of your post you are stating that you have a problem of falling into traps. I don't think you are falling into those traps due to lack of understanding of opening principles. Most traps are counter-intuitive, that's why they are traps; hence, they are set up for people who follow the principles.

To reduce the number of times you fall into traps, you can probably find videos about traps on youtube, to get you started. You could learn about specifics of the arising positions (which might be at odds with general principles) studying GM games might be a good way to do this, and of course play a lot, and learn from your mistakes.

Don't try to create a bullet proof opening repertoire, though, it is impossible, even best GMs fall into traps. But the time can be better spent studying middle game or tactics than trying to memorize loads of theory.

You seem to be on the right track, just learn the most common traps, and keep track of your mistakes.


Most of the answers address the specific issue of playing 1.e4 e5 and the usual problems that come with symmetrical king-pawn openings, but a very obvious answer that none has mentioned and will indeed pave the way to a "well-rounded understanding", would be to pick up a copy of the ECO MCO (it doesn't have to be the newest and is relatively inexpensive) and work through it methodically (play through the main lines once so you can roughly know everything that's out there from A00 to E99, but don't bother with memorising the tables, unless you are really thinking of tackling the 5-volume mammoth).

Another would be to invest in a repertoire book as Ed Dean has mentioned and gradually build your actual repertoire around it. John Cox's Dealing with d4 Deviations would be the d4 equivalent of Beating the Open Games. Personally I like the structure in Larry Kaufman's The Chess Advantage in Black and White. It is really one of the most complete repertoire book that has been ever published. Usage of chess database software will also assist greatly.

If you really want to know the way around a specific trap and the usual tactical refutations associated with one, then there's nothing better than a direct engine check.

Btw, the Italian Game is highly exciting for your level if you are willing to include the Evans Gambit as part of the repertoire. Also, my personal favorite against the King's Gambit is the Falkbeer Countergambit, as it opens up the position and offers excellent attacking chances for Black as well. 2. ...exf4 is actually favoured by computers, but not so human-friendly. As you will no doubt find out, studying of the King's Gambit can be a whole endeavour by itself if you intend to specialize in 1. ...e5

  • I really like those gambit suggestions. I will definitely add those to my repertoire.
    – Jeff Davis
    Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 13:50
  • 1
    I have no experience with it or its predecessor, but I want to point out that there is a more recent update of Kaufman's repertoire book: amazon.com/Kaufman-Repertoire-Black-White-User-friendly/dp/…
    – ETD
    Commented Aug 29, 2012 at 16:55
  • +1 for Kaufman. It has been presented to me as one of the best books on opening repertoire. I haven't read it myself but people whom I hold in high esteem speak highly of it and that's good enough for me.
    – Dennis
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 6:33

A book series to buy is Mastering the Chess Openings Volumes 1-3 by John Watson. Anything written by John Watson is worth reading.

  • 2
    There are 4 volumes in Watson's series. Commented Nov 14, 2015 at 3:14

I agree with the last answer above - the trick openings are deviations from the "book" responses, which are the top responses to each move in an opening. A chess engine like Stockfish (open source) will give you the "Book" openings, by percentage, for example after 1. e4 e5 2 f4 (Kings Gambit) the black responses are exf4(47%) d5 (23%) Bc5(6%) Nc6 (5%) Qh4+(5%) and a few others. You can download an app on your smartphone with Stockfish and set it to show the book moves.

Another cool way, using a chess engine is to put it on Analysis mode and just see what the engine would recommend to each move by White. Going over your losses in the KGA (King's Gambit Accepted) you can see what "tricks" your opponent used and what is the Engine response. The Engine response will always see these "tricks" because computers are tactical monsters that can see the combinations being set up several moves down the line.

In any case, it is invaluable to save the history of your games (so easy to do these days with much play being online) and then go over the games. I believe, but it hasn't been proven, that although it is good to play many games, at an early level it may be more worthwhile to play ten games and then spend some time analyzing them afterwards.



I study openings by using a database and looking at the most played moves in the opening I want to learn. Don't look too much at the computer evaluation (as long as it stays below +- 1), look mainly at win percentages, since they show you which side of the board is easier to play. If I come across a position I don't understand (can't find a good plan), I usually look at the highest rated win for the color im playing myself (so often a carlsen game or a game from an other top GM) and look at the way they played the game.

Whenever you play an on the board game, try to analyse the game without an engine afterwards (often with your opponent). After you have done this, check whether your assessment of the game (opening) was good with a database and engine. You can even analyse the first 10 moves of online blitz games to quickly check if you went wrong in the opening, and try to improve next game.

I have opening books at home and some videos, but I mainly learn my opening theory this way.


Based on your description of your problem you need to study tactics a lot more.

Also master ONE opening for white and black and if KG causes you problems then play sicilian or e6 or d6 instead of pe5

  • 1
    I've since learned several responses to the KG that work out very well for me. I don't think I would have learned them if I "just studied tactics" though. There is a place for learning specific responses to each opening and for learning the openings you have trouble with. Studying opening books has helped me be more well-rounded since writing this. Prior to this I studied/practiced tactics constantly. Probably too much.
    – Jeff Davis
    Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 0:20

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