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I'm currently 1700 ELO-rated on Chess.com and I'm interested in looking to learning some advanced opening theory to make my games more interesting.

I've been looking at theory tables, specifically, those in Modern Chess Openings by Nick De Firmian, however, from what I've seen and read, theory tables seem like a slow and slightly outdated method to learning openings, at least at the non-professional level.

Is it worth taking the time to learn new openings from theory tables? Should I look for other opening books, or, what other methods could I use to learn new openings?

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    I'll let a stronger player answer properly (I'm a bit over 1900), but IMO theory tables are at best of marginal use for my level - and I'm a fairly "booked up" player for my level, but that means I know a small number of very sharp lines where the tactics are hard to find, and concentrate on the ideas rather than the specific moves elsewhere. Instead find a resource which concentrates on illustrative games for the openings you are interested so you see how the strategies they develop work through a whole game. A good book, or one of the better chessable courses, is what I would recommend.
    – Ian Bush
    Jan 27, 2023 at 7:24

3 Answers 3

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Don't learn openings using theory tables. It's painful and ineffective. Also, it is very helpful to read the analysis and explanations of strong chess players. This will help to understand the positions and therefore to remember the moves. This means, that you should have a book (printed or in a digital pgn format that you get from e.g. Everyman Chess) or a video course (e.g. from ChessMood, but there are many others).

The most modern (and probably best) way of learning chess openings is to use a combination of instruction (e.g. book, video or pgn annotation) and spaced repetition training (scientific state-of-the-art to learn something by heart). Spaced repetition in a nutshell: you repeat positions, that you get wrong, more frequently than positions that you get right. The more often you get something right, the further the next repetition of that position is scheduled into the future. This leads to more effective use of your time and better memory retention. The most basic (and likely already sufficient) type is the Leitner system, but with the help of computers much more complex algorithms called SuperMemo are possible, the newest being SM-18.

The leading platform is Chessable, where you can read chess books with explanations from strong players in a digital format (with optional video instruction). After learning the variation, the software lets you train the moves by giving you a position from the book and asking for the correct continuation. The positions will be scheduled according to their implementation of a spaced repetition algorithm. The (only real) disadvantage is, that you cannot get the variations out of Chessable, e.g. to analyze them in your ChessBase, everything will be online. You also cannot modify courses, but you can upload and create your own (with the modified variations). Also, you will need to buy the books again, even if you already have the hard copy. There are many free courses called Short&Sweet where you have a selection of important variations from a paid course, often enabling you to try the opening in your online games before buying the full opening course. I have learnt a lot from Chessable and they have many great courses and authors.

The main alternatives to using ready-made repertoires on Chessable are to

  1. analyze openings yourself / create your own opening repertoire in a pgn (helpful tools are an engine (obviously), as well as the ChessBase Mega DataBase or the free lichess opening explorer to see how well certain moves perform at what level)
  2. transfer the variations from a book or a video into a digital pgn format

and subsequently putting them into a spaced repetition chess position trainer. As an online solution that works very similarly to Chessable, I recommend (and use) the ChessTempo opening trainer. An alternative is LiStudy. You can also use Chessable for own repertoires, but the number of self-created courses is limited if you do not get the paid Pro-Membership.

As an offline solution, there is the Chess Position Trainer. The drawback is, that their mobile apps are still in development and you can currently only use it on your (Windows) PC.

If you have your opening repertoire in a pgn format, you can also use the opening trainer of ChessBase (or alternatives such as SCID), but to my knowledge, they lack a spaced repetition feature at this moment (even though I'm confident ChessBase plans something in that regard).

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  • Strong disagree on the spaced repetition thing. It may be the most efficient way to learn a laundry list of items, but opening theory is a very different thing
    – David
    Feb 5, 2023 at 22:48
  • @David what do you think is wrong with it if one has read and understood the move explanations?
    – Hauptideal
    Feb 6, 2023 at 3:16
  • There are better uses of your time than parroting the lines you've already studied. Use that time to analyze more games!
    – David
    Feb 6, 2023 at 12:57
  • @David have you actually trained using spaced repetition? It doesn't sound like it. The whole point of it is that you don't parrot lines you already know, but target exactly those lines that you don't know (anymore) or are about to forget. Due to spaced repetition you have more time to analyse your games than when learning the opening in any other more traditional way and at the same time are less likely to forget the lines. My review sessions on Chessable are pretty quick ;) If you can't find the repertoire moves on Chessable, then you would also fail in a game.
    – Hauptideal
    Feb 6, 2023 at 18:41
  • "Someone disagrees with me therefore they don't know what they're talking about" is a bad atittude to have in life. I've built repertoires with thousands for the Nimzo and the Taimanov of moves on ChessTempo. I wouldn't say I've wasted all my time but in hindsight there are definitely better things I could have done.
    – David
    Feb 6, 2023 at 19:19
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Opening theory tables are an outdated, more cumbersome way to find the information you can get on an opening explorer. Don't use them except maybe for historical purposes.

Learning a new opening involves much more than learning a set of lines, so your best option is probably to get a book covering them while also providing illustrative games that can teach you the most common middlegame themes arising from that opening.

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Against the advice given up to now, Opening Theory Tables, are a good reference work. But you have to use your criteria.

  1. A database tree of moves, does not substitute a Theory Table.
  2. A theory table rarely show transpositions that went to the table you are seeing. But, you will find notes of transpositions to lines within same table or to other tables.
  3. Usually, the exposed lines reflects the criteria at the epoch in which were written. That's does not mean that are antique theory. The Sicilian had existed since four centuries ago. But it is not unusual to read that some player reused old lines to get a surprise weapon.
  4. A curated tree based on first order games, of course that take account of transpositions. It must be consulted if you can, specially if playing postal chess.
  5. If you want to learn an opening, a theory table is the last place you should place your eyes. Look for a general monograph.

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