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Some relevant information: I've been playing chess for 4 years, and for 3 in tournaments, although I've only played in about 10 tournaments so far (3 big ones, like the Pan Ams and Chicago Open). My current rating is 1650 UCSF, and my chesstempo rating is 2100, if that is relevant. I'm fairly strong at tactics (and getting away with unsound sacrifices), and decent at positional play (I can recognize the value of controlling dark/light squares, using/creating outposts, securing open files, removing defenders, playing with a space advantage etc).

The Problem: Theory. Although I play the King's Gambit as white, and the Alekhine's Defence/Grunfeld as black, all highly theoretical openings, I don't actually know theory beyond, say 5-8 moves at best. I'm a highly tactical player, so I just seek to create complications from the opening, and end up having a decisive game in the middlegame due to the ensuing fireworks. I've reached the endgame exactly twice so far (out of ~70 games, in tournaments), and hence have very little experience in them. But recently, I've been getting outplayed in the openings, and have decided that its time to man up and learn opening/endgame theory. Since its an arduous task, I request to you, wiser, more experienced players to give me advice on how to fight this monster. Where should I start? Is learning theory just rote memorization? How much is enough (certainly, 8 moves of theory won't do in the King's Gambit or Grunfeld, but may suffice in the Alekhine)?

I've tried to read two books on chess so far: Silman's "Reassess Your Chess", and Taylor's "Alekhine Alert!". While both are highly interesting, I lose patience when they spit out a 50-move continuation after showing an interesting position, and due to not having a board around, I slam the book shut. Do you guys know of any books that don't do that/other resources to help learn theory in an entertaining way?

P.S. I'm very scared of the French and the English because they are highly theoretical, and score very badly against them because I keep trying odd responses (I play the KIA against the French to avoid having my d4 pawn targeted, but get crushed on the queenside anyway, and try the Dutch defence against the English to not lose due to boredom, but lose due to inferior pawn structure (mainly) anyway).

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    You say only 2 out of your 70 or so tournament games have made it to endgames. That's quite a low number, so I'm curious, do you deliberately try to make sure that matters are always settled in the middlegame (say, out of trepidation about the endgame phase)? It's clear you're an aggressive player; do you basically live or die by direct attacking play in most every game? Also out of curiosity, how many drawn tournament games have you had? – ETD Dec 27 '12 at 10:35
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    Playing crazy games and solving tactics is fun, but perhaps you should consider spending time on strengthening the "boring" part of your game. If you are 1650USCF and your tactics are 2100 (OK, chesstempo might be inflated, but my point still holds), how bad must your positional play be? Just think how much stronger you would be if your positional play was where your tactics are. – Akavall Dec 28 '12 at 3:23
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    Yeah, I've used chessmentor on chess.com for a while, and have been averaging 21-2200 on it as well, so I think I can do fine positionally as well, and I have before. Let me explain my rating a bit more. In my first year of tournament play, I was rated 1000 or so - a complete amateur. Then I made top 5 in chicago open in the U1200 section, getting me to about 1300. A few small local tournaments made that 1400 ish. And THEN I started studying chess (i.e. doing tactics via chesstempo and watching kingscrusher videos on youtube). This got me 2nd place in chicago open last year, and 1650 rating. – chubbycantorset Dec 28 '12 at 5:37
  • @EdDean Also, my draw percentage is less than 5, and I've drawn only 1 game in the past 2 years. Yes, I pretty much create situations where the game is decided pretty quickly. I've actually scored pretty well against people of my rating. My recent score (last year) against <1900 players is about 80% (=>1900 is 0%). So I haven't plateaued or anything; I just want to keep making good progress. And judging by the bashing I get in openings in online blitz, I think its about time to start doing my homework. – chubbycantorset Dec 28 '12 at 5:44
  • Don't worry about the English opening, prety much any line is OK for Black. The French has a lot of theory, but you can easily avoid it. My advice would be to learn the basic endgames, build a solid opening repertoire and then move to improving your strategy – David Apr 2 at 7:02
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I will preface this by saying that I'm a 2150 USCF player who has had the same issues that you are struggling with in the past. What I'm about to tell you comes straight from my own experiences playing chess all these years.

Don't study or memorize any theory straight up. I find it difficult to retain information like that and the potential for it to be used is minimal. The best way to learn theory is to first forget about it, and instead play games with that opening. Then after the game, when you are at home look up the theory for whatever variation you are playing and learn the theory AFTER you've played a tournament game with it. This usually consists of finding books related to the opening you've played, poring quickly through some GM games in the same line, and annotating the game you just played.

The amount of theory you need to know is enough that you
1) won't fall into any opening traps and
2) that you have a general sense of how to play your position once you are out of book.

There isn't a set number of moves you need to memorize, but these two criteria are questions you should ask yourself if you think the amount of theory you know in the opening is insufficient.

You might say that you are scared that if you don't know the theory, you might lose straight out of the opening. From my experience, you will win if you are the better player no matter what opening you play, and you will lose if you are the worse player even if you are armed with loads of theory. You say yourself that you feel that these other players outplay you out of the opening, but honestly, I have a feeling that they would've outplayed you no matter what the opening choice. Upping your entire game, and analyzing what you could have done better in the resultant opening and middlegame positions is far more important than a few temporary setbacks in tournament play.

  • I agree with the first four paragraphs of this answer. However the purpose of studying the endgame is not to mecanically manouver the pieces but to develop your overall analytical skills. – retrodanny Dec 27 '12 at 16:15
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    These positions aren't going to just "show up" in your games, a good endgame player will create them from positions that look very different. To quote Capblanca: "...whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle game and end game must be studied in relation to the end game." – retrodanny Dec 28 '12 at 23:50
  • most of my games actually do reach the endgame... So I suppose this is why endgame skills are more useful for me than you – retrodanny May 28 '15 at 0:10
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    Studying endgames makes your entire game more consistent, as you don't have to think about whether you should strive to achieve certain endgames that you know. You will just know the evaluations sometimes, which saves you a huge amount of work during a game. It also gives you chances to save bad positions, by steering them into inferior - but theoretically drawn - endgames, like bishop and rook pawn of the wrong colour vs. a lone king. Figuring it out OTB in time trouble can be difficult, but knowing it by heart isn't. So endgames shouldn't be ignored. – Scounged Aug 15 '16 at 17:35
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As an ex-player, I draw on a wider range of experiences, like go and scrabble. Most folk do not sit down and learn the tournament wordlist by rote starting AA and working to ZYZZYVA. You learn words with 'hooks', anagrams and high-probability pickups (the letters RETAIN combine with any letter except ABQVXYZ to make a bonus word). In the opening moves of go, you learn to apply general principles in specific situations. In chess, I guess one of the important factors is the way one opening line can transpose into another. MCO would be even bigger (and more inpenetrable) if it simply documented a hierarchy.

Have fun

  • Oww, very nice cross-games answer =) – Nikana Reklawyks Jan 10 '13 at 14:53
  • Basically, study what is most likely to be used most. – Jossie Calderon Jul 3 '17 at 13:15
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Your profile reminds me of that of a master named David Janowski. His nemesis was a world champion (and a personal friend) name Jose Raul Capablanca. Capablanca published a book called "Chess Fundamentals" which details a number of games he won against Janowski (and others). I would study this book from "Janowski's" point of view. The book is one of the few in the public domain, and can therefore be viewed online.

Capablanca was not a particularly good opening player. But he was the best endgame player of his time. So his book will show you how he won endgames, and "finessed" unfamiliar openings.

5

With respect to learning more positional theory, I can't recommend Nimzowitch's My System highly enough. If you haven't already read it, it is really wonderful. He gives plenty of examples but accompanies them with great exposition. My entire style of play has been modeled after the Nimzo hypermodern school.

My repertoire:

As white: I play your dreaded English. I tend to play it as a Reverse Dragon.

As black: Against 1. e4 I play the sicilian, aiming for the Dragon. Against 1. d4 I play the Nimzo-Indian. Against 1. c4 I go for a hyper-symmetrical english shooting for something like the pawn structure of the dragon.

What you'll notice about this choice of repertoire is that the pawn structure (excepting the Nimzo-Indian) is identical (or nearly so) in all of my games. I find that this is key to having a good positional strategy. By keeping the pawn structure the same, I am able to utilize similar tactics and positional strategy in all of my games. I know that I am going for a semi-open game that will focus my attack on the queenside. Following Nimzowitch, I am a fan of indirect control of the center--- every opening I play involves a fianchetto for one of my bishops (usually kingside, except the Nimzo, where it is a queenside fianchetto).

Another thing that is good to learn is how to transpose openings into your preferred opening, or at least something relevantly similar.

One good reason to play the Sicilian Dragon: it is such a bookish opening that at any level below the master level, you will be in a position to exploit your superior knowledge of the opening. It is also a SUPER sharp opening, which should mesh well with your aggressive style of play. I tend to not like sharp openings (hence my preference for the English, which tends to be intermediate between the super positional and super tactical openings), but the Dragon is so bookish that you can utilize a nice stock of tactics.

All of this being said, my weak-point is tactics, my strong-point is positional play. I attribute this to my study of Nimzowitch, which really helped me understand position.

As for endgame play: I have to disagree with flicflac. I tend to think it is crucial, although admittedly it is less crucial at lower levels. The best resource for endgame study is Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual. Why do I think endgames are so good to learn? Well, I've seen Silman say that you can get to master level with only study of tactics and endgames. From what I've seen of very strong players, these aspects of their game tend to be very well honed.

A great resource for positional strategy is also Keres and Kotov's The Art of the Middlegame. It is the only book I know of that focuses on a detailed and comprehensive study of midgame strategy.

I hope this is of some use. No doubt a good portion of it is idiosyncratic, and may very well not be for everyone, but it has served me well.

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    That being said, I agree with flicflac that you don't need to know everything about opening theory. Part of the reason I constructed my repertoire as I did is to minimize what I needed to know about the opening phase and (with the exception of the Dragon) to play it relatively safe and arrive at a roughly even midgame where I can exploit my knowledge of positional strategy more. – Dennis Jan 5 '13 at 6:13
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Openings:

Problem: You reported being dissatisfied with learning from books, if they have long variations between diagrams, since you study without a board.

Recommendation: Study with a board, or use DVD-based material or at least digital books that offer replay (search elsewhere on chess.stackexchange for tips on these).

Problem: You find that you're getting outplayed in the opening.

Recommendation: If you don't know many book moves of either the KG or Alekhine's Defence, then you may not lose much by switching. Keep in mind that they are highly idiosyncratic openings; few others transpose into and out of them (Vienna Gambit to KG in some lines is all I can thin of), so this knowledge and understanding of opening sequences may be largely untransferable. So, keep them fresh and use them as surprise weapons, say in blitz games.

Decide which type of opening you like to play, and try to keep your return on investment of time spent learning it. That means try to find pairs of openings for Black&White that share ideas (as Dennis recommends), like the English Dragon Reversed and the Sicilian Dragon, the KIA and the KID, the Dutch and Bird's, etc. Play through some games from each to see how well you intuitively understand what's going on, and whether you feel at home with them.

You don't have to follow this philosophy, but it's one way to save time learning theory. You'll learn the moves faster in the reversed color.

Or, you can learn theory-sparse openings, like the London System, the Two Knights' Tango, and so on. They won't offer you the rate of decisive middlegames you're used to, so you'll need to boost your endgame play substantially.

Endgames

Problem: You don't know much about them, and don't play them often enough to learn more.

Recommendation: Endgames are often considered dull, because the same pieces seem to be going to and fro, there are long sequences of maneuvering, the pace seems to be slower because it's mostly about creating and pushing a passed pawn, the queens are gone, there are few mating opportunities, etc., etc.

But that doesn't have to be your take on them (it's not mine). Endgames are where the pieces come into their own, where their smooth cooperation is most important, and where tactics and tricks hide in the most unlikely places.

Take a look at this study from Troitsky. Yeah, I know it's not from an actual game, but look at what the knights are doing. The starting position offers no hint of what's about to happen:

[FEN "8/2N3K1/8/5k1q/4pPpP/8/4PPN1/8 w - - 0 1"]
[Date "1935"]
[White "Troitzky, A."]
[Black " "]
[Result "1-0"]

1. Ne3+ Kxf4 2. Ncd5+ Ke5 3. Nf6 Qxh4 4. Nd7+ Ke6! (4... Kd4 5. Nf5+) (4...Kf4 5. Ng2+) 5. Nf8+ Ke7 6. Ng6+ 1-0

So, two knights beat a queen in the right circumstances, and although they don't seem to be cooperating, they shepherd the king inevitably into a fork that wins the queen, even with so little material left on the board.

By replaying this (and other positions like it ) a few times and trying to visualize which squares the knights controlled directly, and which were the tips of knight forks, I got much better at knight handling in every part of the game.

That's the secret of endgame study; few players do it well, but if you do it, you'll be better than most of your opponents at handling the pieces both in the endgame and in the middlegame too.

A fun book to learn about endgames from is Van Perlo's Endgame Tactics. There's none of the usual "this is what you have to know" stuff; it's all about practical games, mistakes players made when they could have saved the draw or won the game if they'd known the theory, and amazing ways the pieces cooperate to accomplish things they could never do alone, including some pretty wacky checkmates.

Eventually, you should be able to recognize which endgames are better than others, so you can steer your middlegame in that direction. "Should I swap my bishop for his knight?" and "Should I exchange off a pair of rooks, or all of them?" are the kinds of questions you can't answer if you don't have any knowledge. For that, you will need to hit a book or two about theory. I don't recommend Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual for this (although I own it and occasionally use it); that book is for Masters. Instead, find something light and easy; there are lots of choices. A quick and ready choice is Jesus de la Villa's 100 Endgames You Must Know: Vital Lessons for Every Chess Player.

2

What is the main idea of the opening I am playing?

In many chess openings there is a main idea of the opening which should guide you to the middlegame. And for every chess opening you should know what white/black tries to achieve. Once you know it for the openings you play often, you should learn what other plans are available. I give you a few examples here.

King's Gambit

White: they want to mate the black king as soon as possible. White does not care about material (they sacrifice the f-pawn to open the f-file, in some variants they sacrifice knight in f3, bishop on f7, etc.), the primary goal is a fast checkmate. Black: you grab white material and try to avoid to be checkmated. You hope to survive the opening/middlegame, and win in the endgame, because you will have material advantage.

Alekhine's Defence

Black: you give up the idea to control the center, and start to attack it immediately. White will control the center, but your play is to attack it and white figures which support the center. White: you will have space advantage, you try to use it for fast development, you try to control the center and prevent black from finishing the development.

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Regarding the endgame, there are a few ways you could approach it.

If you want to systematically shore up your endgame knowledge, you could start by studying the piece-only endings, then pawn-only, then mixed piece-pawn. Piece-only endings you can get through rather quickly, say, 2-3 months of deliberate study/practice and would include up to, but not beyond, BBvK, BNvK, and Philidor positions for RBvR and QvR. Pawn-only are more complicated but you can do it in a year. Mixed piece and pawn can take you from simple rook vs pawn, all the way up to middlegame-type positions, and I'd do that last.

Another approach would be study the endgames based on their statistical likelihood of occurring OTB, and there are plenty of resources around to determine that (Mueller's fundamental endings, or De La Villa's book both have lists).

The most practical approach would be to study adjourned endgames from the openings you actually play the most, so you'll get to identify the most common themes you're likely to encounter (eg, pawn majorities, major/minor piece combinations). Play the positions out against your computer where you take the losing side, and see how it should be played.

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First, learn the game backwards. This was an idea popularized by Capablanca and is the heart of the "Soviet system". Learn endgames first. Then learn middle games to reach winning endgames. Then pick your openings to reach favorable middle-games.

As far as openings, use the one move a game technique. Create a skeleton opening (I would say 8 moves deep and top three variations each line). After that, play what you think is the best move. If the move you choose is bad, look up what the main lines are and make a better choice. This way you are learning and not memorizing and the fact that you are using your own ideas will lead to a lot of original play.

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