Too Much Opening Theory

How much opening theory does the average chess player really need to know? Certainly nowhere near the amount book publishers tell us we need to know. Before you opening theory purists start screaming “what does some aged, long in the tooth guitar player who spent most of his career in a Bacchus induced stupor know about opening theory,” let me remind you that I teach and train young players and specialize in their opening preparation. It’s primarily how I keep a roof over my family’s head. I have club level players who seek me out for opening preparation as well. Why? Because I know a fair amount regarding numerous openings and their variations. However, I only know as much as I know because I teach it. I certainly don’t need to know as much as I do to play decently and neither do my students.

The quest for opening knowledge has become a quest for some insane holy grail. I suspect if you actually knew all there was to know about openings and theory, it would be like the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the bad guys open the Ark of the Covenant and subsequently melt. My advice? Don’t stare at the text or you’ll melt as well. I wish I had a rating point for every time someone trying to sell a book said “this is the opening that will change your game.” My rating would be over 3000. I was at a chess shop the other day, listening to a conversation between two chess players. “I’m buying that book because it covers everything on opening theory.” I struck up a conversation with the purchaser of the the book (close to 1,000 pages) and discover his rating is around 1300. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with his rating, only his choice of reading material. At a 1300 level, his book choice was above his skill set and mine, for that matter. Books that give you endless opening moves with little explanation don’t work unless you’re willing to figure out why the moves were made which is beyond the grasp of beginning players.

Too many players breeze through the underlying mechanics of opening play and get right into complex theory. They can recite the opening principles verbatim so they consider their studies of basic opening mechanics finished. This way of thinking is like being able to make a decent paper airplane and then deciding doing do gives you the ability to fly a jet fighter. You really need spend a lot of time working through the opening principles exhaustively and only then start to explore the more complex aspects of opening theory via specific openings. Here’s what I have my students:

Before learning a specific opening and some of it’s variations, my students do nothing but work on making moves that adhere to the opening principles. The moves don’t have to be “book” moves, simply moves that follow one of the principles. Of course, some of these principled moves lead to failure. When they do, my students have to figure out why. If a move is principled, why did it lead to a weakening of the position? I have my students play seemingly non principled moves which sometimes work. Why did they work? Were they actually principled moves that didn’t appear to be so? My students have to answer that question as well. The point of this is to explore the opening’s underlying mechanics and really learn why some principled moves work better than others. This means experimentation. When a beginning student naturally discovers the Italian Opening by making principled moves, I don’t tell them that’s the opening they’re playing.

Rather than refer to a book on opening theory, my students try a variety of moves during the opening. Everything should be considered, move-wise. The only rule to choosing a move is it must adhere to an opening principle. We work on this for months until students can consider a move and then opt for another because they know exactly why their first choice won’t work. They know it won’t work because they’ve tried it rather than being dissuaded by a book. They can determine the worth of a move based on principled play. This exercise also keeps them from playing too mechanically. Now we look at specific openings.

One benefit to the system I have my students use is that they start to get a feel for opening positions that work for them. When they crack open a general book on openings, they can more easily find an opening that they feel comfortable with, one that suits they developing style of play. I have them start by learning the mainline only. When the student sits down to play their opening choice in a friendly game against another student, they’re in for a rude awakening. I’ve provided their opponent, another student, with a series of moves to throw in that were not part of the mainline the student learned. Remember, all that business of trying out principled moves, etc? This is where that comes in handy. The student is suddenly forced into unfamiliar territory and must use principles to guide them. There’s a good reason for teaching opening theory this way.

By being hit with moves that are not in line with the mainline, the student has to come up with sound, principled moves on their own. More often than not, the student will come up with a move that is part of a variation. When they do learn the variation, later on, they’ll understand why the move was made as opposed to memorizing variation lines. It’s too easy to memorize openings and variations without understanding the real reasoning behind each move. Sure, you can say “hey, that move follows the opening principles, so that’s why it was made.” However, thinking like this is similar to memorizing all the parts of a car engine and not knowing how they work together to make the car move. If you know how all the parts work, you might just be able to determine why you car doesn’t start one cold rainy morning! Eventually, my students learn openings and variations using a book for reference, but only after they are comfortable with the underlying mechanics.

As for all those endless variations and books that tell you “you need to know these 12,375 moves to play the Ruy Lopez successfully.” Hogwash. If you’re an average player you can determine how much theory you need to know regarding a specific opening by talking to fellow chess players who play your opening. Ask them what variations they encounter. Go online and research the games of average players who play the same opening. Play through their games and see what they’ve had to deal with. In short, narrow it down to real life chess. By this, I mean games played by players just like you and a little stronger. I’m sure you play a great game of chess but do you really need the theoretical knowledge of Magnus Carlsen? Ah, no. At least not yet! Chess is supposed to be fun and it’s a game you’re supposed to be playing. Of course you should study some theory but if all you do is study, with little real play, you won’t get very far. Try moves out and when they fail, feel blessed because we learn most from our mistakes.

As a rule of thumb, any book on opening theory that is large enough to knock you out should it land on your head is probably a bit much for most players. Look for books that give written explanations. Lastly, don’t be a slave to your computer’s opening choices. Explore the uncharted waters of “out of book” moves during the opening. Of course, the majority of your choices will lead to disaster but you’ll learn a great deal about recovering from a bad opening position by doing so. You might even find an odd opening move that does some good. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Author: 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).