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I'm very new to regularly playing chess while actively trying to improve (only ever played here and there casually before).

I'm ~600 rated on chess.com and many times I feel like I'm making mistakes/un-ideal moves in the openings that leads to my opponent having more opportunities for attacks, more mobility for their pieces, and more center control.

It's hard to see where I'm making mistakes in the opening, since to a beginner like me, many (erroneous) opening moves seem natural, and analyzing doesn't seem to help because the engine moves and lines are too complicated for me to really learn from. The issue with memorizing openings and their variations is that at this level, there is a lot of variance in the responses from opponents that I haven't prepared for.

Should I spend time memorizing some openings anyway?

If yes, what is the ideal way to learn an opening? Is it a good idea to only play games as white when trying to learn a white-pieces opening?

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  • I always look at the masters database after every game. Normally the masters moves seem more intuitive to me than the engines, and I find myself slowing remembering them in future games without dedicating time to memorize them.
    – yesennes
    Jul 1 at 20:44
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    Do not look at openings, but opening traps, so you do not fall for them, or can use them yourself. The first thing to learn in chess is what chess really is. Many beginners think like this: When I do this, my opponent does this. But in reality you have to always assume that when you know something, your opponent knows the same as you. So you do not play against your opponent, but actually yourself, always trying to find the "most unlikely move" to bring you in a bad position. The first thing to learn is to focus on the game, keeping track about the moves, and do not make serious blunders.
    – Cornman
    Jul 2 at 15:08
  • This is achieved at a rating of 1400-1600 I would say. After that you can benefit from learning openings. Also do not play bliz chess at the beginning. A time controll of 15 minutes is best, I would say.
    – Cornman
    Jul 2 at 15:08
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    My general advice, considering starting part of the game, is to learn mostly opening principles instead of openings themselves. At this stage it is better to look at the chess game as whole, rather than diving in specific opening, that later could become out of fasion or not represent your interests. Jul 5 at 7:05

7 Answers 7

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My suggestion for new or lower rated players follows from advice from GM Benjamin Finegold: "Stop giving away your pieces."

Learning openings is fine, but at lower levels games are usually decided by who made the last serious blunder or who made more of them. So, learn openings if you're excited by them. Reviewing opening principles such as quick development, central control, castling, etc., are probably more much important than specific lines at this point.

Concept: To improve, make fewer mistakes. Don't hang your pieces. Make sure you always take free pieces when your opponent gives a piece away. Don't blunder and allow simple tactics. Always spot and capitalize on tactics your opponent allows.

Practical Tips: I suggest drilling basic tactics to oblivion to increase your board vision, along with analyzing your own games without an engine (w/ stronger player, or use engine after you've made your own attempt first). Play lots of games. Find one mistake in each game to consider where you went wrong and fix that.

The general consensus from my research into this question is that it is better for lower rated players to drill easier tactics to perfection than spending to much time on tactics/puzzles that take you more than ~5 minutes to figure out. Beyond that is still valuable, and will improve your calculation, but it isn't as efficient for improvement.

Consider working through

The Perpetual Chess Podcast has some additional recommendations for those under 1000 rating.

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    Find one mistake in each game to consider where you went wrong and fix that. Great advice, finding 5 or so mistakes in every game seems like too much to take in and work on. Thanks.
    – AVS
    Jun 30 at 20:40
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    @AVS That's the idea. If you can handle 2, find 2, etc. But starting with 1 is accessible. I often find a position where I went wrong and try to determine what was it I didn't understand or see that led me astray. Jun 30 at 20:58
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    This is good advice. Regarding the opening, I'd add that it will be useful to learn and understand the opening principles (quick development, central control, castling).
    – Hauptideal
    Jul 1 at 8:08
  • @Hauptideal Agreed re: principles. Updated to answer to include that nuance. Jul 1 at 12:30
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    @DavidWaterworth should be fixed now, though original link works fine too. A search engine will work otherwise. Jul 5 at 11:51
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I'm ~600 rated on chess.com and many times I feel like I'm making mistakes/un-ideal moves in the openings that leads to my opponent having more opportunities for attacks, more mobility for their pieces, and more center control.

The thing is, you're probably doing this during the whole game, not just in the opening.

Yes, you can prevent it in the opening by memorizing moves, but that only works as long as the opponent has memorized them too, and inevitably a few moves in you'll be on your own again.

It's better to work on this in a way that works in the whole game.

You already know what to do -- control the center, use all your pieces, make them as mobile as possible, prevent the opponent doing the same. So do that, and after each game, see how it went and how you could have done better.

I like the osmosis method -- play through lots of games to get a feel for the game. There are lots of ways, not everyone likes the same -- get game collection books and play through all the games, or just download the latest TWIC PGN file and quickly click through lots of games in it, or watch Youtube videos or whatever. Whenever you notice something interesting, slow down and try to work out what's happening.

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As a beginner, you certainly do not need to learn opening theory. On one hand, you will not be able to profit from subtle strategical nuances in the position. On the other hand, your opponents are extremely unlikely to know any theory at all at this level and will play moves that you haven't studied, thus rendering all your efforts useless. The time you would spend on learning opening theory would take away precious study time from learning the fundamental concepts and tactics that you need to get better quickly.

At the beginner level, the opening is not what decides the outcome of a game. What you must know are the opening principles, i.e. that you should strive to control the center, quickly develop your pieces and castle your king and what these concepts imply. For example, you should not make too many pawn moves or move already developed pieces twice, as this delays the development of your undeveloped pieces. Good opening moves (i.e. those that do as much w.r.t. these principles as possible) are usually theory moves.

Every beginner's first opening should be 1. e4 e5:

  • The open games are the most logical openings of all, and this is the reason for them also being the oldest. Both sides get central control and open diagonals for their bishops so that they can develop and make way for the king to castle quickly.
  • Play is often tactical. Tactics are crucial for beginners to learn and easier to grasp than subtle strategical play (e.g. that often emerges in d4 openings).
  • There are almost no move-order and transposition issues. The way you choose to play against e5 does not influence what you can play against the Sicilian (1. ..c5). This is very different from d4/c4/Nf3/g3 openings.

In the very beginning, you don't need to learn the theory. Put a pawn in the center (e4/e5), get the minor pieces out, and castle. If you're Black and and White opens with anything but 1. e4 or 1. c4 (when you play e5), put your d-pawn in the center (1. ..d5).

If you follow the opening principles, it will be easier for you to play. You will make less mistakes, as you'll have a strategically sound position and can react to the opponents ideas. Be aware that already in the opening you have to perform the blunder check in order to avoid mistakes, i.e. checking you did not hang any pieces or pawns and that your opponent has no meaningful threats after you make your move. The blunder check alone will easily get you from 600 to over 1000 Elo.

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You should have a plan of development. This should be specific but flexible. It may be a pattern that you have seen in books (this is a Queens Gambit Declined-my QB usually goes to g5) but, especially if your opponent does not play by the book, you may need to make it up. In well-planned development each piece stands on a good square and has at least one other good square to go to. It does not stand on a square where a different piece would be more useful. You have no weak Pawns, but you will need to gain an understanding of why Pawns are weak. Has the Pawn position become stabilised? If not, what changes would you like to see? Does this move commit you to some future play and if so do you feel comfortable with that? Can you see areas of the board where you might be aggressive? Which pieces would you like to trade?

You write of experiencing confusion because "many erroneous moves feel natural" and this is because you still have to develop an accurate sense of what is "natural". The questions above are ones that will help. Mathematically, the number of possible moves may be twenty or so, but the number of natural moves may be very small. Your opponent will try to prevent them, but there may be a tactical reason why they can still be played.

At your level, your opponents will often play unnatural moves. Sometimes this is just leaving a piece to be captured. Sometimes they are not following any good plan, and sometimes they are following a bad plan. When this happens, beginner books often show the unnatural move being "punished" by some decisive refutation. You should always look for such a move, at least briefly, but it may well not be there. Ignoring it and keeping to your own good plans is often the best response.

Just overlooking a threat is a very common cause of loss, as others have noted. Care and attention will fix this, but then you may still fall to a double threat. Your opponent plays a move that attacks two pieces at the same time. Although you see both threats, you cannot prevent both. We speak of undefended pieces as "loose" because they are vulnerable to being one half of a double threat. At all stages of the game you need to be cautious about leaving pieces loose.

I think that you are going through a very typical stage of normal chess develoment. If you can, play against live opponents and discuss your games with them. If you posted one or two, it might help us to zero in on your problems

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After many in depth recommandations, I want to recommand to you to not look at openings, but at miniatures.

The youtube channel by Mato Jelic has a nice series about these type of games. The older videos are very short. About 3 minutes, and always have a general theme.

So you can follow many games in a short time, get an idea of how openings play out and how to attack or spot tactics. Also you learn what might go wrong.

I think I benefited a big deal of these types of videos. Also I can recommand chess lectures by Ben Finegold. He is funny, and also uploads videos which are suitable for beginners.

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As a beginner, you need to learn and study openings. At higher levels like advanced player, opening has no value cause all initial moves are basic book moves and no opening is bad enough to lose (of course except Fool's mate) because chess is most likely a draw (which would be proved in future). Best is to use YouTube to learn few openings and then keep playing them and and you will get the rhythm and then improvement will be only further requirement. All the best!

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Most improvement at amateur/beginner level comes from playing long games (1-2 hours per game) and doing tactics. So, it seems that no time should be wasted on openings. However, that's not exactly accurate, as you shouldn't do much thinking on the first 4-5 moves. Besides, no knowledge at all about openings may lead to bad positions too early, e.g., in the Danish Gambit, King's Gambit, Petroff Defense, and some others. It's okay at beginner level to think on the first 4-5 moves but having no idea about the plans behind specific opening moves and trying to rediscover them is wasting time. Therefore learning some basics won't hurt, and there are good textbooks on openings for casual and beginner players, e.g. Openings by Seirawan, Chess Openings: Traps and Zaps by Pandolfini. You don't need most of the openings there - just some basic ideas and moves you run into or that appeal to you. You shouldn't study more than 10-20% in said books. You definitely don't need long move sequences at beginner level and these books won't provide them teaching you mainly ideas and plans. However, 80-90% of your time should be spent on doing tactics and playing long games - you should prioritize that if you want to improve fast. Only the remainder 10-20% you can spend on openings and some fun with blitz but the latter is a very bad idea to improve. Nobody became a grandmaster by playing bullet/blitz games - they did it by playing long classical time controls.

There are a lot of good books on tactics for beginners , e.g., Chess Tactics for Champions by Susan Polgar, Tactics by Seirawan, etc. (said books are for beginner but not for total beginners!) These should be your priority, not fast games. And you should be able to solve at least 2/3 of problems, otherwise you are just guessing and not calculating lines properly. Spend 40-50% of your time on tactics. Do them carefully and calculate lines properly. In the beginning, it should be just 2-3 move tactics and several minutes of thinking but you still have to mentally picture possible counterplay to your solutions. Make sure to check your solutions at the back of your textbook. Then take another book on tactics. Later on you can re-solve the textbook you solved, say, a year ago. It will help too. Eventually, you should increase the depth of calculations to 3-4 moves ahead and beyond and start doing more difficult puzzles. They will take longer to solve, say, 10 minutes per puzzle and that's when real progress kicks in. However don't try to leapfrog simple 2-3 moves puzzles. Make sure you meticulously solved (not guessed through) at least a thousand of them (not online puzzles!).

You should also play a lot of classical games (1-2 hours per game) in parallel with solving tactics if you want to improve fast. Doing puzzles alone is not enough. Invest at least 40-50% of time into long games. You can play them vs a computer, e.g. inexpensive phone/tablet app: Shredder. Just set the level (your Elo) and off you go. Play without time controls so that Shredder replies instantly. Do not rush. It's dozens of long classical games before you improve significantly. Don't spend less than 1-2 hours per game, otherwise you are not playing classical control games and not improving much. It must be mentioned that chess programs, especially at low levels calculate Elo too roughly. They tend to show higher Elo (by 100-300 points at low levels). What's more, chess programs usually don't adjust Elo for fast time controls. Whereas human quality of blitz is 600-700 below that of a classical game, most programs play even a bullet game with the same precision and with the same simulated errors as if it were a two hour game! There's also a free beginner's program called Chess Titans for PC/laptop with no openings which won't trick you even on the very first 4-5 moves. At its highest level, Chess Titans is still weak at around Elo 1500 FIDE and you might reach that level of strength in a few months of proper training.

If you don't play long games and don't do serious tactics from textbooks and (and instead you play fast and do quick puzzles online), your improvement will be perhaps ten times slower versus practicing chess seriously. When and if you reach the strength of FIDE 1600-1700 Elo (that's not difficult to reach), openings become slightly more important. Advice: if you are a casual player, don't waste more than 10% of time on openings but it doesn't mean you have to think on your first moves or you don't need specific ideas and plans behind them. Far more important is not to waste a lot of time on blitz, i.e., openings are the lesser evil to fast improvement. Many amateurs play dozens of thousands of blitz and bullet games online, sometimes it's more games than professionals ever played. The upshot is such amateurs invested too much time; yet the level for the time invested is ridiculously low. All right, they are having fun but they learned almost zilch despite a gargantuan amount of games played and quick online puzzles solved (often guessed through, and not really properly solved as online puzzles don't ask for variations - you just need to make move after move). Many such players might be tempted to resort to cheating to achieve some improvement perhaps out of desperation or lack of progress. You don't want such temptations to happen to you in the long run. Also note that most online rapid time controls are actually blitz games. The standard FIDE rapid time control is 15 mins + 10 second increment (that's around 25 minutes per 60 moves, and actually in the past before the digital clocks, it was just 25 minutes). Once again, you should play much longer controls if you want to see improvement.

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