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?

  • 3
    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 Nov 30, 2012 at 0:38
  • 4
    Same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice
    – user76
    Dec 4, 2012 at 20:58
  • 2
    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, 2012 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, 2012 at 0:54
  • For each opening there used to be a main reference book to look at before playing an opening. For example 'The Sveshnikov Reloaded' was THE book for the Sveshnikov. This is before the information explosion of chess books and now there are many many books for each opening. Try to find what used to be THE book for your opening and you won't lose much in up to date theory if you are just getting started.
    – magd
    Aug 7, 2015 at 16:10

6 Answers 6


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.

  • +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. Dec 3, 2012 at 22:38

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 think 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 advise 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.)

  • 2
    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, 2012 at 6:40

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.


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.


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.


Several factors determine how you go about this.

  1. Your style of play
  2. Your available resources
  3. How much time you are willing to invest

1. Your Style of Play

If you are more comfortable playing strategically/positionally than tactically, you will tend to prefer openings like the Colle System, London System, Queen's Indian Defense, French Defense and Hedgehog Defense. If you prefer tactical play, then the Sicilian, King's Gambit (or almost all gambits, for that matter), King's Indian Defense, Gruenfeld Defense, Scandinavian and Alekhine's Defense are good candidates.

Your choice of opening dictates whether or not you need to know a lot of theory. In the tactical openings, you need much more theory, because they abound with traps and frequently-occurring combinations that are known to theory (and therefore your opponents). This means that learning to play the Sicilian Defense, where theory goes nearly to move 30 in many of the lines, will be much more work and require more time practicing them.

2. Your Available Resources

If you can afford (or already have) both chess software and a ChessBase or Chess Assistant version of a database of games, that's a huge help (some would say indispensable). Then, you need a decent introductory book, preferably in digital format. I strongly recommend digital because it's an enormous time-saver when learning a line for the first time; you can review as many times as you want with no (board) setup effort, you can skip to hotspots easily, you can investigate quickly with a database search or an engine, etc.

The best methods involve finding the ideas in the opening. You can get this information a couple of ways, and I would recommend trying them in sequence:

  1. Read an overview of the opening that explains the ideas.

  2. Read and practice the lines in an introductory but more detailed theory book, such as one from the Everyman Publishing series "Starting Out: ...".

  3. Pick out some games (30-50) from a database where the player of your color was rated about 2100-2300 ELO. Try to find games they won, where their opponent was rated at least 50 ELO lower. These games will show you how the opening is handled when the opposition doesn't handle it well. Play through them quickly, and try to find recurring ideas. Tag these, as well as any others you find interesting ideas in. Then, play through the tagged games more slowly, and see if you can understand each move by your color. When you don't, switch on an engine, and try some ideas for alternative moves to see what happens. That should reveal why the move was correct in most cases. Mark any that are still unclear to explore later. Take notes in the games themselves.

  4. Once you understand the ideas, pick out more games, this time among players rated 2400+, and watch how the opposite color handles the problems faced by the weaker players in the first set of games.

  5. Finally, settle on your repertoire for this opening. Run through the opening with an opening book, or by using a large database as a reference, and find the most common lines in each position for the lines you want to study. Record the lines that are most common (don't study any move that occurs less than 10% of the time in a given position), indicating your choice at each position where your color has multiple options. Pick only one move to learn; put the others aside. If you can determine the win rate (an opening book or reference db will show this) for each move, this may be easy, but sometimes it's a matter of preference for the kinds of positions that arise, or an exchange that is arranged or avoided, etc.

  6. With your repertoire now both understood and recorded, figure out a way to train yourself in it. Many players use either Chess Position Trainer or Chess Openings Wizard. CPT accepts a PGN import of games in your repertoire, and will prompt you to find the repertoire move for each one of a set of positions that it presents you. It will schedule repetition of each exercise according to whether you recalled the move correctly or not; soon if not, after a few days if so. This makes training much more efficient than simply repeating all the moves in a line every time.

Also, CPT throws positions at you without replaying lines. Once you learn to respond to the position, you won't be surprised when your opponent transposes to a different line or even a completely different opening.

To learn to play the lines well, however, nothing can replace playing them in rated games. The closest you can come to it is moving the pieces for both sides on a board; don't try to jump straight from digital to a tournament game. The visualization and recall processes are not the same, and a familiar position on a screen often looks completely new on a board. So, learn it digitally, practice it on a board, then play it in games (online is convenient, but not a complete substitute for OTB play if that's your ultimate goal; do both).

3. How Much Time You Are Willing to Invest

If you can afford to study chess an hour a day, then you can afford about 2-3 hours a week on openings; you should spend the remaining time on other topics, including 1) playing, 2) tactics, 3) strategy, and 4) endgames. The average intermediate player (under 1850 or so) spends way too much time on openings for it to be beneficial to their rating/quality of play. I've played with a number of 2000+ players who don't know the names of some of the common variations, let alone how to play them. If they can get to 2000 without that kind of knowledge, then so can you.

If you can only spend 2-3 hours a week, then stick to some core openings: 1 for White, and 2 for Black (1.e4 and 1.d4). Choose a less tactical opening for each, for the reasons given above.

If you have a bit more time than that, I recommend starting to study a more tactical opening, but where the theory is fairly stable and not excessively deep. The Scotch Opening for White is a decent candidate, as is the Scandinavian for Black against 1.e4. Keep learning and practicing the new opening without playing it seriously until you're confident in your ability to follow all the main lines. Then, introduce it gradually. Many players use "extra openings time" to learn a different opening for blitz, or a surprise opening for opponents they expect to meet more than once in several tournaments.

If you have lots of time, by all means tackle one or more of the Big Ones, i.e. the Ruy Lopez, Sicilian, Two Knights Defense, Queen's Gambit, etc. You'll lose for awhile, but then you'll get enough experience to play them well. You should expect this to take at least 6 months against strong opposition, but it will pay dividends against weaker opponents.

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