"Understand your openings, not just memorize lines" is a common advice given to a club level player. However, most opening books are still organized around lines, amended with some explanations that may or may not yield "understanding".

I wonder if there are books on opening theory organized around tactical or strategic motives that are shared between many openings. Rather than having chapters such as "Rubinstein French" or "Ruy Lopez", this book might have, for example, sections named "Pinning Nf6 with Bg5", "To exchange or not to exchange a bishop for a knight to double opponent's pawns", "f7/f2 weakness", etc., that would explore how a similar strategic or tactical motive arises and compares across the openings.

5 Answers 5


You might be looking for two separate, but related types of books.

First, and I have an extensive library, I could find no books that do not organize the openings somewhat by sub-variation. The problem is that the ideas between various sub-variations of a specific opening, like the French, are just too different to lump into one chapter, so the answer to your basic question is "no".

The books that come to mind for learning opening pawn structures, and that is what you want, include the following books. These are the strategic ideas.

  1. "Chess Opening Essentials: The Complete Series (Volumes 1 - 4)" (by various GM authors, it is fairly basic, but it covers virtually all openings and the basic ideas)
  2. "The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings: Algebraic Notation" (by GM Rueben Fine, it is old, but still covers many openings, and the basic ideas have not changed)
  3. "Pawn Structure Chess" (by Andrew Soltis, it contains many errors, but the basic ideas are sound)
  4. "Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide" (by GM Mauricio Flores Rios, this is the best of them all, but it is more advanced, and should be read after one, or more, of the above books. It does not cover as wide a variety as some of the books above)

The other type of books you might find helpful are books that are in the "Tactics in the X-opening" type books. These obviously cover the common tactics ideas of your question (f2/f7, as well as other soft spots, etc.). Some of these include:

  1. "Tactics in the Grunfeld" by GM Genady Nesis
  2. "Tactics in the King's Indian" by GM Genady Nesis
  3. "Tactics in the Sicilian" by GM Genady Nesis
  4. "Tactics in the French" by GM Genady Nesis
  5. There is a whole 9-volume series called "Catastrophes & Tactics in the Chess Opening", which are grouped by opening, by GM Carsten Hansen
  6. "Tactics In the chess Opening", a 6-volume series by GMs A. C. van der Tak, Friso Nijboer, and Geert van der Stricht.

Probably dated by now, but the first (and perhaps only) book along those lines that I read was Bent Larsen's & Steffen Zeuthen's ZOOM 001 (1979), based on the Gruenfeld Indian structure, and how you get to it either as White or as Black.

I hoped there would be a ZOOM 002, but ... no, disappointed.


You're rare. (Like me, as it happens; I would judge whether an opening book was worth purchasing by the ratio of text to moves -- the more text, the more likely I was to buy it.) Unfortunately for you, and me, most players would rather be spoon-fed lines to memorize than work on understanding, so that's where the money goes when it comes to opening books. You'll probably need to look in used sites like bookfinder.com for most of what I reference here.

Shaun Talbot's How To Play the Ruy Lopez is the poster-child for what you're after. It splits the Ruy up according to position, and then starts to cover ideas from those positions.

Gligoric wrote a book on the Nimzo-Indian with a smattering of that approach as well, focusing more on a typical position of the opening and plans and variations from there.

Jonathan Rowson wrote Understanding The Grunfeld for Gambit Publications; while it definitely has a lot of explanatory text about positions and plans, it's also more variation-focused than the ones above. Still, you might find what you're looking for there.

I forget which publisher now, but there was one that ran a series of opening books "Mastering xxx with the read and play method" which tended towards that approach as well. It had a stronger emphasis on variations than the previous books, but still covers typical formations and plans.

Bronstein On The King's Indian is another approach: he covers each piece individually, what squares it typically goes to in the KID and what its purpose is in going there. Lots of plans and ideas, almost no variations.

Most of those were never as commercially successful as the ones with variations, so they may be hard to find. A more successful line would be the "Starting Out ..." series from Everyman. They're still heavily focused on variations, but they include typical plans from the resulting positions.

A dark horse in all this might be the two-volume Mastering the Endgame from Shereshevky and Slutsky, wich covers typical endgames arising from some openings and how to play them.

It's hard to begin understanding openings on your own when you're a club player, mainly because you're not sure where/how to start, so you doubt what you build on that. Hopefully, this can get you started out, so you can start building your own understanding without worrying about the foundation.


One way is to play through many, many games in your openings and see the ideas. Some opening books include many complete games. I do this on the rare occasion that I want to start using a new opening system as my primary opening.


Mastering the Spanish , Mastering the Kings Indian , Mastering the Modern Benoni and Benko gambit are the kind of books you are looking for . It is fairly old but still useful. They are published by Batsford chess publishing in the 1990s under the mastering series. Another book is winning with the Dragon

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