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How to Study Chess Openings

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One of the most popular areas of chess study is the opening. Many players of all levels devote a large percentage of their study time to learning and memorizing opening lines, hoping to gain an advantage right out of the gate in every game.

But is this really the best way to utilize your study time? For most players, the answer is probably no. Studying tactics should be the main priority for beginners and club players, with endgames and strategic knowledge also being more important for weaker players than pure opening study.

Depending on your level of play, the way you should study openings may vary tremendously. The needs of a beginner are certainly different from those of a grandmaster. Here's a quick rundown of one way various players might want to learn openings. The ratings provided are approximate at best; many strong players will have differing opinions as to when players should begin focusing more on openings.

Beginners (Ratings Under 800)

For beginners, opening theory should have the lowest priority - in fact, they should probably spend little or no time worrying about specific variations at all. Instead, these players should play games while making sure they follow some very general opening principals, such as the following:

  • Develop pieces
  • Control the center
  • Castle the king

Following basic opening guidelines will help ensure that beginners start the game out with few major errors, and can play reasonably long games that they can learn from.

Low-Rated Club Players (800-1400)

While players at this level still shouldn't make the opening a major focus of their study time, it's very helpful at this point to have a working knowledge of at least a few opening lines. Ideally, players should know the opening they want to play as White, as well as one opening for Black against both 1.e4 and 1.d4.

However, these players shouldn't go overboard in their study. At this level, it's important to learn a key main line or two, as well as any traps they should steer clear of (or ones their opponents might fall into). They should also learn the key strategic ideas of the positions that arise out of their chosen openings, so that they can confidently play the middlegame positions that they'll see again and again.

Higher-Rated Club Players (1400-1800)

At this point, most players will have begun putting a little more work into their openings - but it's probably still not time to go all-out in an attempt to memorize specific opening lines. Instead, players might wish to pick up a book or two on the openings they play, read through them, and try to grasp the general concepts without worrying about memorizing a large number of variations.

This is also a good point at which to allow your opening knowledge to grow organically. One great tip that I've seen repeated in many places is to look up the opening you played in an opening reference after every game you play. Find where you left the "book" moves, and which move you should have played instead. In this way, you'll build a base of opening knowledge that you're likely to use in future games (especially if you often play the same opponents again and again).

Strong Players (1800+)

Once you've reached the higher ends of "class" players, along with experts, masters and above, you'll likely feel confident about your own study habits. At this level, it's fine to spend a reasonable amount of your study time on openings, especially if you are trying to learn a new opening or feel you are generally getting bad positions out of the openings you currently play.

At this point, you may wish to start drilling openings so that you can feel as though you've memorized at least some of the lines you may run into during play. There are several computer programs that are great tools for doing this, including Chess Openings Wizard , that can greatly speed up the process of learning a new opening - or fully memorizing one you already play.

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