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I'm a ~2100 Elo rated player at the moment, and lately I've been wondering about the best general way of learning openings, and eventually mastering them in some sense. Note that this question is not in the same spirit as the question What's a good way to learn opening theory?, already answered earlier.

My question is a general question about methods, in a few parts:

  1. What are some good methods to pick up an opening you've never played before? Are there any differences in approach if the opening is somewhat familiar, or completely new (think going from the French to the e6 Sicilian as Black vs. going from the French to the Pirc as Black)?

  2. If you've played an opening for a while, and you're not getting good results with the opening, how can you determine if the poor results depend on you not knowing enough theory/ideas or if it's more fundamental, like the opening not suiting your style?

  3. How do you determine if an opening book/DVD/[Whatever thing that costs money] will help your understanding of an opening before buying it? It's not very fun to buy something that won't be very useful in the long run.

  4. Is it even necessary to get books on openings to learn them? How much more difficult is it really to learn openings without books, and what are necessary things to consider if you're trying to learn an opening by studying games in a big database? How much does this depend on player level?

  5. How much time is it reasonable to assume that it takes to master an opening on average? How much does this depend on the type of opening? Take, for example, the London system as White vs. the King's Indian Defence as Black, where the first is a "system opening" that's not very sharp, and the latter is incredibly sharp and complicated.

I don't think that this is the type of question that can have only one good answer, and I would hope to see different people mentioning their methods of choice for learning openings. It's not easy to learn to play an opening well, if you don't know what's necessary to learn. I mean, otherwise every grandmaster would be as good on the Black side of the Najdorf Sicilian as MVL.

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  1. Try to understand the key idea behind the opening, and try to relate each of the main moves to it. If you can't do this, you don't understand the opening.

  2. First test the new opening by playing it against players weaker than you (in your case, <2000). If you are getting bad results, it means that the opening doesn't suit your style. Then test the new opening against players stronger than you (>2200). If you are winning more games that usual, the opening is "value added;" otherwise it's "back to the drawing board.

  3. If I buy a book or DVD, it's because something I've seen makes a "lightbulb" go off in my head. If I don't have this "aha" moment, I don't buy the item.

  4. The greater your strength, the less benefit you will receive from books, and the more benefit from your own study. If you are the "smartest kid in class," you won't benefit much from reading others' papers.

  5. Depending on the opening, mastery could take from a few months to years. Some GMs spend a lifetime trying to understand one opening.

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By part:

  1. If you're interested in learning a new opening, I recommend considering the following:
  • Know your preferred style of play: positional or tactical
  • Know your areas of strength: memorization, calculation, tactical vision, stamina, cool-headedness, etc.
  • Decide how much time you want to spend learning (and keeping up with) the opening

These factors will all influence the decision of which opening to study; don't do this by feel. For example, successfully using the London System is largely based on strategic concepts; there are very few traps and forcing lines. As a result, the established theory isn't very deep. The King's Indian Defense, on the other hand, is the complete opposite: it's full of traps and forcing lines, and the theory runs to 20 moves and more in some lines. Just look at Beating the King's Indian and Benoni, by Anatoli Vaisser, which is almost completely dedicated to the 4 Pawns Attack variation, and has an average of 7 games per page for 114 pages (that's nearly 800 games) as reference material.

Unfortunately, we can't assume that because a few of the same moves occur in two openings that they are similar in nature, either in the degree of complexity or the strategic / tactical balance. The "...e6 Sicilian" you refer to includes the Taimanov, Szen, Pin, Kan and Closed variations, as well as the Marshall. The French Defence has almost nothing in common with these, largely because in almost every French variation White plays either e5 at some point or exd5, while in the 195 distinct lines of the Sicilian Defense (by ECO code), White plays e5 in only 7 of them, and exd5 in only 1.

This makes the French a cramped, counterattacking defense where White holds d4 and even e5 as long as possible, while Black tries to liquidate the e5 pawn and open the f-file. By contrast, in the Sicilian White loses the d4 pawn immediately in all of the Open-related variations (Closed and Alapin are the main exceptions), and Black fights on the half-open c-file. Not much in common there.

However, there are some similarities between Black-and-White mirrors of the same opening, such as the KID and the King's Indian Attack, and the Sicilian Dragon and the English Sicilian Reversed or the English Bremen, Reversed Dragon. Similarly, the Dutch Defense and Bird's Opening have strong similarities.

  1. Cause of poor opening results: First, you have to determine that the opening was the problem. An analysis of the games should determine that:

    • You played the first out-of-book move, when book moves with good results were available in the position, and

    • An engine determines that the positional evaluation dropped by at least 0.30 pawns as a result of the novelty

If these are true, then you don't know the opening well enough. If, on the other hand, the evaluation didn't change much after you played your last book move, then the opening was fine (and not the problem).

  1. On value of books: Read the reviews. I find these extremely valuable. I was once interested in booking up on the Glek Variation of the KID as White, to prepare for an opponent. Several books I was considering claimed to address it, but the reviews revealed that the treatment was cursory, and I was able to eliminate them from consideration. But you need to be able to learn the opening from the book when you find it; read, practice, test, repeat.

  2. You can certainly learn an opening by playing master games in it. Pick some where the players are equally rated, and a few where the stronger player was playing your opening vs a weaker player. Start with the imbalanced games first. If you can determine that the positional evaluation shifted during the opening (in the first 12-15 moves), you're looking at a demonstration of how to use the opening to win. Then, play through the games between the equally-matched players. Because they foil each other's intentions, you won't see the themes unfold, but you should be able to spot how a strong player avoided the problems a weaker player ran into.

I don't recommend this approach over using an opening reference, though. If the latter's any good at all, you'll save hours of time distilling the key elements and themes of the opening. For learning a new opening, I can strongly recommend the "Starting Out" series by Everyman Publishing; they publish in both paperback and e-book versions. Go from there.

  1. This is very much a "your-mileage-may-vary" situation. You can learn to play the London passably in a weekend (say, 4-6 hours), but you won't be decent at the King's Indian for months (i.e. you'll have a decent chance to win if you get to carry out the general ideas, but good opposition will very likely kill you with tactics and traps repeatedly until you're familiar with them and how to avoid them). That said, the KID leads to fewer draws and more decisive games than the London System, and if you're a good tactician and weak on strategy, the KID's a pretty good weapon.
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  1. After you've learned all the theory, try to understand all the concepts and ideas of each of the moves in the opening, go through many games in that opening between strong players, and play MANY games vs human/computer in that opening and use an engine to find your mistakes.

  2. If you fully understand the ideas behind the opening, you should be able to find out what type of style the opening is, and by playing many games, you should be able to find out your own style. To find out what caused your poor results get an engine and see where you went wrong! Also check through the theory of the opening again/go through similar strong games to see if you went wrong in the theory.

  3. Before you buy a book/DVD, you normally get to preview the product, (e.g. reading the book, watching the provided first part of the series etc.) If this preview makes you feel, "hmm... This seems like it could potentially increase my knowledge of the opening!" then buy it! Also take in to consideration the author of the product.

  4. Books are just one of the many ways for you to Lear openings, (e.g. DVD, books, coach etc.) and I think these are all valid ways for you to learn an opening. However, unless your a gm I don't think just looking through games in a database is sufficient to learning the opening since it doesn't provide you with the ideas behind the opening like the other options, just plain moves. Sure, looking through games is a useful tool to learning openings but you can't solely rely on it.

  5. How long it takes depends on how complicated the opening is as you mentioned, your personal situation, and what you define as mastery. I think different openings do take different amounts of time to master, but generally it should take you at least a couple of months to master. Not learn, but master!

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I've done that kind of training to understand my opponent's openings better and also to switch from one form of my primary defense to another branch of the tree.

The learning is easier when you can relate it to what you already know. Study books, study it yourself alone, play blitz, talk to someone else who plays it or against it.

I found years ago that when I played 1. d4 2. c4 openings I was horrible. I couldn't face hyper-modern defenses well. Then I understood the advantages on the Black side better and I understood both sides well enough to eventually learn to play a passable White side. In that instance I didn't study books because I was playing a variety of White openings: Catalan, English Open variation, QGD, etc.

On a couple of other occasions I doubted my Black defense to 1. e4. I switched by reading a little blue booklet by a Russian I'd never heard of (Nikitin). It turns out he (GM Nikitin) was the personal trainer of child prodigy Garri Kasparov and that he and Kasparov later wrote a regular book on that defense. It was an eye-opener, but I learned a lot from that one little booklet and played that defense for years.

Many years later I switched again. I had studied Tal's great book and saw how he played the defense. I changed to his variation and began reading books about it. I really was terrible at it at first, but I played it whenever I could. Over time I got better and feel at home with it now. I also played it with the aid of Houdini against other computer programs of various strengths. That's an interesting study method.

Current USCF rating 21?? Peak 2212

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When I first learn an opening I work out the main lines in a sort of skeleton format. I generally go about 8 moves and then look at the key variations. I then write out the main ideas (actually type out but whatever works for you). Then I play a lot of blitz games adding to my analysis and knowledge as I go. After a certain point you'll realize you know the opening better than almost everyone you play. That's when I go in and fine tune things. Analyze your weaker lines, look at results etc.

To answer your other questions:

  1. I would approach everything as new to avoid getting locked into tunnel vision.

  2. Analyze your games. Break it down by end of theory, end of opening, middle-game and endgame. Evaluate the positions using engines and databases, books and any other resources you have. Ask yourself where you're struggling the most.

  3. The same way as anything else. You can look at reviews or whatever or maybe check them out at a library or read samples online. If I'm going to spend time on an opening I want several books and then I'll check their quality based on the other books, engines and databases. I'm more concerned with the openings themselves than the books.

  4. I like having books to explain ideas. You could probably learn everything without the books but it would take longer. Plus, it's nice to have Silman explain that specific position rather than guess at it yourself based on what you learned from his books.

  5. It depends entirely on the opening. I once studied Alekhine's defense and within roughly 3-4 hours I was scoring better than I ever had with any e4 defense. On the other hand something like the Dragon or Najdorf probably takes a lifetime commitment.

There's no such thing as a London vs a KID. Every position has one opening. A 2100 rated player should know that. I get what you're saying system vs system but still at your level you should understand each position is unique. Systems are only general ideas. I would be completely shocked if someone could reach your level and not understand how to handle transpositions.

At your level you really should be at the point where you start putting together a cohesive rep and deciding whether or not you want to "specialize" in a specific opening like the Najdorf or Dragon or whether it's a better use of your time to learn other openings. A lot of it depends on your goals.

  • Long time since I posted this question, but it's fun that it still gets some attention. However I have some trouble understanding what message you're trying to convey in the second to last paragraph. When I wrote KID vs. London I meant that the required in-depth knowledge of sharp lines differs quite a lot between these openings, since the London is quite a laid-back opening that allows for transpositions while as a contrast the KID requires long exact sequences of moves in a plethora of lines if one wishes to avoid immediate disaster. – Scounged Nov 1 at 16:58
  • @Scounged- Fair enough. I misread it. It seemed to me that you meant playing one opening against another which is a common misconception. – Savage47 Nov 6 at 8:48

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