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I am a 1400-rated player currently working on my theory and understanding of openings.

I am good at learning lines, much more so than others at my rating. But I'm less sure on where/how to learn the theory behind my preferred openings (I prefer the London System as White, and the Taimanov Sicilian as Black). Therefore, I don't know how to capitalize when my opponent doesn't know the lines themselves.

For example, I know the main line of the Taimanov Sicilian to the 18th move, as well as how to transpose into several variations along the way depending on White's move. However, what I struggle with is knowing what to do when my opponent plays a move that is not part of any studied line.

To display this, in the Taimanov Sicilian, the standard line is 14. Ne4 O-O 15. Bc5 Bb7; if white played a move other than 15. Bc5 (that wasn't an obvious blunder or mistake), I would struggle to know how to continue.

I guess what I'm essentially asking is how and/or where I can learn the theory behind the openings. Every video I've found simply walks through the main lines and standard variations, and Wikipedia articles generally only give one-sentence summaries of the theory behind certain openings (for example, their section on the Taimanov Sicilian reads simply "Black develops the knight to a natural square and keeps his options open regarding the placement of his other pieces. One of the ideas of this system is to develop the king's bishop to b4 or c5."

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    Well, that's partly why learning openings this deeply at your level won't be useful. Your opponents will deviate before you get to the positions you expect and you won't have the skills needed to punish them for it. – Qudit Jul 11 at 3:21
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    Agree with @Qudit . I'm at 1700 Elo and play the Taimanov myself... and I haven't yet encountered even only the 9th mainline move (Na4) in all my OTB games. Going twice as deep is absolutely wasted time at a 1400 level. – Annatar Jul 11 at 6:08
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    I am sorry to tell you this, but you've basically wasted your time. I am a 2000+ (FIDE, obviously) rated player and I don't even know what line you are talking about (nor 18 moves of any other line). Most people won't play the mainline theory unless they know it very well themselves (why would they, rather than play any other probably equivalen move?) You are right about not using Wikipedia as a source for opening knowledge. My advice would be to follow what's already been said in many comments, and learn openings more form a strategical point of view, rather than a theoretical one – David Jul 11 at 8:14
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    The fact that you do not know how to respond to a deviation, means you don't actually know the theory. Opening theory is more than just rote memory of lines, strong players even consider such knowledge to extend well into the resulting middlegame and even endgames. – prusswan Jul 11 at 13:16
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    Don't take this the wrong way, but your time is much more useful on other things, such as studying the endgame, practicing tactics, improving your strategy and positional play etc.. When you get your rating to 2000-2200 then you can go back to improving your openings. At 1400 you can win most games without knowing a single opening move. – Isac Jul 15 at 13:46
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I think your problem comes from the difference between memorizing the opening theory, and understanding it. I suggest you focus more on understanding, why this move is played (both yours and theirs). This way, you can think during the game, why this move could be not optimal and play accordingly. Even if you do not know, how to take advantage of it, you can it least follow the theme of your opening.

To understand the theme of an opening, you can (most of the times) read books about it. The introduction will contain the goals of the opening most of the times. You can also just take a chess board and look for yourself, what the lines of the openings are about.

To understand the reasons behind the moves, just play out different moves, which look natural to you. I recommand not to use an engine at first, and only check afterwards, if you missed something. Do not memorize every line, but rather look for common motives, which appear, e.g. they do not defend a field, so now you can put your knight there which puts pressure on a crucial field. Or they trade DSB, so now they have a weakness on dark squares (if pawns are on light squares), so you can try to capitalize on that.

My personal experience however is, that at your level (and some levels above) gaining minimal advantages through the opening is not so important. A lot of games will be decided by tactics, so remember to constantly look out for them!

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Ahh, this is the difference between studying openings, and really learning to play chess. Openings are really fundamentally different pawn structures, so what you are asking to learn are opening pawn structures. Here are the books I recommend to players seeking my advice.

a. “Complete Chess Strategy” volumes 1,2 and 3 by Ludek Pachman. (This teaches about many basic plans, and what you are striving for with your pieces and pawns, especially. To this day, I still credit THIS SERIES with making me a master.) b. “Pawn Structure Chess” by Andy Soltis. (This extends the above to specific opening structures.) c. “Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide” by Mauricio Flores Rios (This is an extension of “Pawn Structure Chess”, and is deeper, and covers more structures. It is outstanding especially if you have already covered “Complete Chess Strategy”.)

P.S. I peaked at 2298 USCF, and I never studied any openings, just how to play structures.

  • Also, if you take this approach, when an opponent deviates from book, which is often for weaker players, you will still know how to play a particular opening, assuming there is not an immediate winning tactic. – PhishMaster Sep 8 at 19:55
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It's a simple answer. You've done all you can to avoid understanding how to play in the opening and now you're stuck. With white you play a system opening and with black you memorize lines.

The solution is to get back to basics and understand your opening principles of center, development and king safety. Stop trying to avoid theory and actually learn why you're making these moves.

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