Openings. How do you play them? Which one is best? Are some openings better for amateurs than GMs, and vice versa? How do you know if you have a good opening? How much should you study? These questions and dozens more populate amateur chess discussion. I will offer my thoughts on it here.
I will go in depth during this article, but here’s the tl;dr version: don’t worry too much about openings, definitely don’t spend much time memorizing openings, play through whole games and not just the first few moves, obey basic opening principles, reach a playable middlegame. That’s it. Now let’s go in depth.
1. Is there a difference between amateur and master-level openings?
Yes. At the master’s level, every detail matters. If you make an inaccuracy on move 7 against Magnus Carlsen, he’ll put you under intense pressure for the next 70 moves. A GM can’t afford to let that happen. For amateurs, it is much more forgiving.
Many amateur players will mindlessly copy a GMs opening moves. In a way, this isn’t bad, because playing GM approved moves can’t be bad, but it’s completely possible for it not to be good. There are many opening variations that GMs can play that amateurs have little chance. Take the following.
This is the mainline Slav, a popular opening at all levels. White has a strong centre, easy development and he can play just about anywhere: the Kingside with Nh5 and f4, the centre with e5 or d5, or even the Queenside if he can get in b4-b5. White has complete freedom. Black, by contrast, has a much less obvious plan. His pieces are passive, he has less space, his plan is not clear and he can get in trouble quickly.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the Slav is a bad opening. It is sound … at the GM level. At the amateur level, it is far easier for Black to make a mistake than for White, and this is the type of opening I would avoid at all possible costs.
2. What is the goal of the opening?
If you read chess opening material, you will see a constant reference to White’s opening advantage and Black’s fight for equality. At master level, this is important, but it’s much less so at amateur level. In fact, below 1800 elo or so, I’d say the following are the crucial ingredients our openings need to have.
For amateurs, openings need to:
- Reach a playable position;
- Reach an enjoyable position;
- Have clear plans; and,
- Ideally, create problems for your opponent.
Let me now explain.
First, reach a playable position. Basically, your opening moves can’t lose by force. This shouldn’t be controversial, but some people like playing weird things like the Latvian Gambit or play for traps with the Englund Gambit. To those people, I ask, “Why do you play chess?”
- Is it to just have fun? Do you just like wild and crazy positions, damn the consequences? That’s okay, and it’s your perogative. Play whatever openings you want, but don’t complain later that you aren’t improving.
- Is it to improve and get better? If you wish to improve, then by definition that means doing something different. Play sound openings instead. They don’t have to be 100% mainline theory, but they can’t be unsound.
You know an opening is sound if it follows general opening principles: develops minor pieces first, castles quickly, few pawn moves, fights for the centre, etc. If your opening does the above, then it’s sound. First condition complete.
Second, your opening needs to reach an enjoyable position. This is just as important as the above. There are literally hundreds of people that copy opening theory because ‘it says White is better’ only to reach a position they don’t understand.
The above is the mainline Closed Spanish, ostensibly the most logical way for White to play after 1.e4. It’s GM approved, and apparently the only way to fight for an opening advantage against 1…e5. Many amateurs play this with White … and don’t know the first thing about it, or even like it. They play it because they think it’s the best.
I used to do this. I played the Spanish becomes that’s what you are supposed to do, even though I sucked at it and thought the positions were dull. I later switched to the Scotch, and my results skyrocketed. I got ‘less good’ positions according to theory, but I was far more comfortable with them, and most importantly, I enjoyed them.
The verdict is clear: if you find an opening that regularly gives you positions you enjoy, and the opening is sound, then stick with that opening. End of story. Ignore what theory or other well-meaning amateurs try to tell you, including me. Play your opening, enjoy the game, have fun, keep getting better.
Third, and this is related to the above, you want your openings to have a clear plan. For example, in Alekhine’s Defence, your plan is to lure White’s pawns forward to attack them later. This means you know exactly what to do, and you know where to focus your thoughts. In general, if you understand the plan, then you play the positions better, and if you play them better you likely enjoy them more as well. Conversely, few people like positions where they don’t know what to do at all.
This is where chess books come in. VIrtually all chess opening books will tell you the latest theory, the GM approved moves. Not all of them explain the plans, though, and few do it well. If you can find such a book, consider yourself blessed, and study those plans more than the side-variations. If you know the plans, you can play any position, regardless if your opponent plays book moves or not.
Finally, in a perfect world, you want your opening to make problems for your opponent. At amateur level, blunders decide most games, and people blunder far more often when under pressure. If your opening is completely passive, then it greatly reduces your opponent’s chance to go wrong.
For instance, I’ve seen several people recommend and play the following variation as Black:
The reasoning is similar to what I’ve listed above: Black just needs to follow his well-known play. He plays the same moves almost regardless of what White does (Nf6, e6, Be7, 0-0, b6, Bb7, Nbd7, and eventually c5) and reaches a playable position. That seems great, and it would be, but it puts absolutely no pressure on White at all.
White can respond anyway he wants. He can castle Kingside or Queenside, attack in the centre or on the wings, go for the King or play more positionally. White can do whatever he wants. White gets to play his preferred position. Black doesn’t create any threats, he doesn’t create a single problem, and White has an easy time.
Ideally, we want to create as many problems for our opponent to solve as we can, and that starts from move 1. This doesn’t necessarily have to be sharp. You can play the French defence and ask White how he is going to protect his vulnerable d-pawn, or you can play the Benko Gambit and pressure White on the Queenside. The Sicilian, of course, is the prime example, as it dares White to enter an opposite-side castle mess, with both sides attacking and sacrificing, creating problems for both sides.
If you play openings that cause problems, you are far more likely to win. If you play super passive from move three, like the example above, then you need to work much harder to win in my experience.
Those are the four main pillars of amateur opening. Find an opening system that obeys these four precepts and you’ll do fine. Virtually all mainline openings hit all four, so if you like a certain main system, you’re in luck, and you’ll have an opening for life.
3. How To Study
This section will be much smaller. Consider these recommendations.
- Find a GM / famous player whose playing style you like and copy his or her openings.
- If necessary, grab a book or DVD that explains the plans behind the opening.
- Ignore most sidelines. Heck, ignore most mainlines. In my database, I have played 107 games on chess.com, and only 32 of those games followed theory past move 10. I literally just checked. This is with an average rating of just under 1800. Knowing 10 moves is fine. Knowing general plans is even better.
- That said, study full games. It’s far more beneficial and important to see entire games than just memorizing variations. Games give you context and ideas which you’ll remember long after you’ve forgotten side-variation c.
- If in doubt, study less openings and more other things.
I’ve written over a thousand words that basically says 1) don’t worry too much about openings, and 2) play openings you like over ones you don’t. At an even more fundamental level, just obey basic opening principles.
I’m rated 2100 online, and I do not have dozens of openings memorized. I know a few lines in depth, but most of my opening knowledge fits perfectly into what I wrote above. It’s all you need, in my experience.