Chess has three main stages: the opening, the middlegame and the ending. The middlegame is everyone’s favourite, because that’s where all the tactics, sacrifices and combinations come to the fore. If you have a favourite game, either a classic one or one you played yourself, it’s almost certainly the middlegame that made it stand out for you.
This is also why no one likes the endgame: there are virtually no tactics or sacrifices. Nothing really happens and then suddenly one side loses. Or, more often, it’s a draw. Yawn. Chess players like nothing more than to play the middlegame and ignore the endgame … but when it comes to studying, nothing supplants the opening.
There are likely more chess books published on the opening in any given year than on any other topic combined. There are likely two reasons for this. First, there is only so much you can say about the other stages. Endgames don’t suddenly get overturned. The Bishop pair doesn’t go in and out of fashion. These are fairly static assessments. We don’t need new books on these topics every year, or even every five years.
Openings are different. They do go in and out of fashion, sometimes for no concrete reason, other times because, yes, they have been refuted. New novelties are constantly introduced, and in the most popular openings one must always be up-to-date on the latest theory, at least at the higher levels. In the endgame, you can learn the King and Pawn endgame once and never need to touch it again. You can’t do the same with the King’s Indian Defence.
There are also simply more openings. How many different middlegame plans can you name? Kingside attack, minority attack, central pressure, attacking weak pawns, playing against a certain piece … there are certainly lots of ideas, but they start repeating themselves, and you can stuff most of these in a single book. Compare this to the Sicilian defence, where there are about six-thousand different variations for both sides, and any one of them could be its own book.
This is the first reason there are more opening books; namely, there are more openings, and they constantly change and need revision. The second reason, though, is simply demand: most chess players want to study the opening, because they think it is either their weakest link or the golden path to chess riches.
And, frankly, it’s more fun. When you study an opening, you are getting a specific set of knowledge that you can definitely use. You might spend months learning pure King and Pawn endgames and only play it once out of several dozen games, whereas if you study a Sicilian line, you will likely play it in 30% of your games at a minimum. That certainly seems like a much better return on investment.
The problem is that this can get addicting. You learn one opening deeply, and now you can play your first 10-15 moves on the level of a top GM, and some lines you’ve memorized until move 20+. If your opponent plays something different, though, then you’re stuck. You don’t get such nice opening positions, and it’s easy to blame your lack of opening preparation for your results.
You thus get more opening books, studying new systems, constantly learning the latest and greatest attempts at securing an opening advantage. You get better and better at the opening … and yet you don’t become a better and better chess player. You might play openings as good as any grandmaster, assuming you can remember all the variations, but the rest of your game remains stagnant.
Believe me, I know. I’ve lived through this.
I’ve recently cleaned up my room, and in the process I organized all my chess material into one neat spot. It looks quite nice, it’s colourful, it’s fairly organized … and more than half of it is devoted to opening systems.
It’s a nice collection, but then you realize that, at about $20 a pop, that’s roughly a thousand dollars of chess material sitting on my shelves. Some people have even more. I’ve heard of collectors that have over a thousand chess books. Like mine, most of them would be openings. And here’s the real kicker: I don’t even play most of these openings.
At one time, yes, I played everything in these books. Something would always happen. My opponents wouldn’t play the mainline, or they’d play powerful novelties, or the book was wrong and the other side had the advantage, or I didn’t like middlegame positions, or I simply got bored. Something happened, and along the way I eventually abandoned 90% of the openings I studied.
Some of these books I’ve never even played. I have two books on the French defence. I don’t play the French defence. I don’t like the French defence. I got these books partly to see if they had ideas to beat the system and partly to see why people played the French in the first place. Time and time again, I’d go through a line, see an evaluation of ‘Black stands well’ … and think that Black is cramped and terrible. Or even better, ‘this is the type of position every French player loves,’ and it shows some convoluted mess. That’s where I close the book and walk away slowly.
Other times I buy a book because I want to be that sort of player, but I never put the time in. For instance, the idea of being a Sicilian Najdorf player is amazing. To play the Najdorf requires a fantastic memory and nerves of steel. Playing that 5…a6 gives you instant credibility, as it is the mainline of mainlines. I wanted to be such a player, which is why I bought the book.
One problem: I needed to read nearly 300 pages, and then remember all those variations upon variations upon variations … and I needed to understand it all, too. That turned out to be hard, so hard that I abandoned the project. I never played the Najdorf.
When the Najdorf didn’t work, I tried something else. That lasted for maybe six months, and then I’d get either dissatisfied or bored and learn something new. I became addicted to learning new openings. I rarely played the same openings every three months. This was fun, certainly, but I never learned any opening in depth, and my play certainly never improved. Indeed, for years I was stuck at 1800 rating, and this exact time is when I invested all my training time into these openings.
I do think learning openings is important, at least to some degree. The problem is when we change our openings like we change our clothes. We get addicted to the thrill of learning new systems, when, as amateurs, we really should be learning about chess as a whole, not just the opening. That’s what I learned from GM Smirnov, and it’s when I took his advice that I finally overcame my opening addiction. I’ve played the same opening variations for over a year now, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon.