Choosing and Learning an Opening

Once the beginner has learned the opening principles and has a solid grasp of basic opening mechanics, it is time to choose a specific opening to study and apply to their games (both for Black and White). This sounds easy enough. However, many novice players pick the wrong openings to study. While the underlying principles are the same for all chess openings, some openings are far more complex from a positional viewpoint than others, requiring a greater technical understanding for the player employing those openings. This means that an inexperienced chess player can become lost and frustrated if the wrong opening is chosen. There’s also the personality factor which must be considered. Let’s look at the “personality factor” first.

The opening you chose should compliment your personality. If you’re a person who tends to be cautious, you’re not one to take chances. Therefore, an aggressive opening might not be for you. Conversely, if you’re an aggressive personality, you might not want to play a defensive opening. Decide what type of personality you are and only then consider an opening that suits your style!

Another mistake many beginners make is choosing an opening that is too complex for their basic skill set. If you’re new to chess, avoid openings that require the study of a large number of variations or require the understanding of subtle positional play. While the opening principles can be used as a guide to decipher specific moves within an opening, some moves can only be understood after the beginner has gained some experience. When looking for an opening to study, look for openings in which the opening principles are applied in the least complex way. An example of such an opening for White would be the Italian Opening. This opening’s first three moves apply the opening principles in ways that are obvious to the beginner. 1.e4 puts a pawn on a central square. 2.Nf3 develops a minor piece to a very active square that controls the board’s center. 3.Bc4 develops a second Kingside minor piece to a square that allows the Bishop to control a large number of squares and attack the weak f7 pawn. White can now castle on the next move (although further pawn or piece development makes for a better position). This opening can clearly demonstrate the use of opening principles to a beginner and has the added advantage of being converted into the Evan’s Gambit or the ever popular (with junior players) Fried Liver Attack. It’s a flexible opening that is well suited for less experienced players. The beginner should avoid more complex openings that require a large amount of theoretical understanding. We’ll look at simple openings for both Black and White in future articles.

Once an opening has been selected, the beginner has to roll up their sleeves and get to work. One point I cannot stress enough is not to simply memorize opening moves. Most of the openings the beginner will play through are from master level games. This means that your only hope of being able to win with memorized moves is if your opponent plays the exact same moves the master level player played. The chances of your chess partner, also probably a beginner, playing the same moves during the opening that you memorized are slim to none at best. More likely, your opponent will make a move a master level player would never make and you’ll be hard pressed to find the correct response. However, if you let the opening principles guide you you’ll make sound developmental moves no matter what your opponent plays. You must understand the underlying principles that guide each move in an opening rather than memorizing clusters of moves.

Most beginners become lost when trying to study chess openings, wasting time because of poor study technique. Here is a simple way to go about studying an opening:

After you’ve chosen your openings for both Black and White, it’s time to find games that employ these openings. I highly recommend investing in a database. While I use a commercial database, there are free database programs available. A database is a collection of games that can be easily accessed through a software program. However, you can go online and search for the opening you’ve chosen or purchase a book about that opening (both will give you a smattering of good games to study). Once you have access to a game collection, pick fifteen to twenty games for each opening. This is your “studies database.” You’re now going to play through each of these games. Play through each game two to three times to start. During the first run through of each game, you’re going to play them just to get a feel for the opening. The second run through of the games, you’re going to look at each move in the opening and note its use of opening principles. During the third run through the games, you’re going to look at the opposition’s counter play. While you’re only concentrating on the opening you still have to play through the entire game because the consequences of good opening play will be seen both in the middle and endgame. Playing through the entire game allows you to see just how important some moves, those whose purpose may not be clear to the beginner, really are.

Once you have a rough idea of your opening’s underlying mechanics, it’s time to test your opening out. Do not test this new opening out at a rated tournament. Rather, test it out during friendly games. We all make mistakes when testing out a new idea on the chessboard. Better to make a mistake during a casual game than during your local chess club’s beginner’s championship! Carefully play through any games you lose as well as those you win. I recommend testing out your new opening in at least 20 casual or friendly games.

After playing 20 practice games, it’s time to hit the database again! Some of my students have asked me why they have to go back and play through those games again. While I’m tempted to tell them: “it’s because I’m an evil middle aged man with no joy in his life other than tormenting his students,” I explain that having tested out their openings in friendly games, they will now have greater insight regarding their openings. When students have tested their opening out on the chessboard, moves that didn’t initially make sense now do. Replay the database games another ten to fifteen times. The insight gained from applying these openings to friendly games tends to be very noticeable! The student should again use the underlying mechanics of opening principles to analyze each move. Now we move on to serious games.

Once the student has gotten to this point, it’s time to use their opening in serious tournament games. After each game, students should play through that game noting where things went wrong or right! The student needs to study the opposition’s responses to each of their moves. You will learn a lot more about sound opening play by seriously studying your opponent’s side of the game. Search databases for specific positions in which you had problems. More often than not, you’ll find someone else who came up with a marvelous response to the opposition’s move. The more work you put into your studies the greater the reward!

Lastly, after you are comfortable with the mainline and general variations of your opening, study the lesser known variations. Often, a lesser known variation can throw your opponent off early in the game. How well should you know your opening? As well as the back of your hand! However, take your time during your opening studies. You cannot hope to master an opening after a few hours of study. You need to put in a lot of time but it doesn’t have to be all at once. Spend a good 20 to 30 minutes a day, five days a week to start. Follow the above guidelines and before too long you’ll start to really grasp your chosen openings. Here’s game to enjoy until next week. See of each player exercises sound opening principles.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).