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Greg on Chess: Opening Books Print E-mail
By IM Greg Shahade   
February 9, 2012
Greg200.jpgGreg on Chess is a new series of CLO editorials by IM Greg Shahade, founder of the US Chess League and the US Chess School. Greg's opinions do not reflect any official USCF views and we encourage discussion in the comment thread or on CLO's twitter, twitter.com/uschess and facebook fan page, facebook.com/uschess.

I think most opening books are not especially good, and laid out in an ineffective way. The layout of these books may be okay for a 2400+ player who is already very experienced in playing the opening, but not as digestible for a sub 2200 player, obviously the main customers. Let me explain the flaws I see in the majority of opening books on the market:

1.    They are way too long.

For the most part, the main body of an opening book for a sub 2200 player should be no longer than 50 pages long (and even this is stretching it).  Of course many people won’t want to buy such a small book so these types of works won’t do great business, but I suspect they would be far more effective at teaching players Under 2000.

I’ve looked at some books on the Caro-Kann, Semi Slav, Najdorf and etc recently and seen so many absurd aspects to these books. First off, there will be a chapter on a relative sideline that you aren’t so likely to see. Then there will be some variation on move 6 where the book will break it into 6 alternatives for your opponent. So it’ll be 6A, 6B, 6C etc. Now if you are a 1900 player and you want to learn an opening, do you need to know any of this stuff? Of course not.

I do think it's possible for an opening to book to be 200-300 pages long while still being useful. Here's how: Opening books should not be laid out in order of variations. For example if you are talking about the Caro-Kann, Chapter 1 shouldn’t be the Advance, Chapter 2 Main Line etc.

The chapters should be laid out in order of rating. For instance if you want to play an opening at a 1400 level, the 1400 chapter should teach you everything you need to know in order to play the opening at that level. The 1600 level chapter should expand on this, and teach you in a little more depth. The 1800 level should go further, 2000 further and etc, or at least they must use this format within the chapter on each variation. A great example of a book that was laid out in this fashion is Silman’s Endgame Course. I believe the format of the book is a wonderful idea, and all opening books that aren’t aimed solely at 2400+ players should adopt this format if they wish to increase the practical learning affects of their books.

Let me give a recent example from my own study. I’ve been studying the Najdorf a bit, and I have a book on the Najdorf from a few years ago.  I was looking up a line of the Sozin for black, and since everyone with white generally plays the same thing against the Sozin these days, it was only really one thing I was looking for. Imagine my surprise when I open the chapter on the Sozin and there are all these pages devoted to pretty much every single possible move that white can play. It’s just pointless….if you are likely to see one line 90% of the time, and another line 10% of the time, the line you are going to face 90% of the time should comprise approximately 90% of the material, or at least 75-80. I am an IM, so fortunately I understand that 90% of the chapter is completely useless and a total waste of my time to study, while the 10% may be very valuable (although it still should be studied in conjunction with ChessBase and a strong engine). However how in the world do we expect a random 1800 who is just trying to learn a new opening to understand this? It’s impossible.

I have not seen a single book that does a good job of directing new players as to what they actually have to know, and what is miscellaneous stuff that you can get by your entire career without ever looking at. If a book is filled with these lines, it needs to find a way to make it extremely clear that the player doesn’t need to know this stuff, while it needs to at the same time make it very clear which lines are absolutely mandatory to know.

One last example is that I have heard that these Avrukh books on 1. D4 are good, or these books by Marin on the English. For me personally, it’s just so much easier for me to mess around on ChessBase and come up with ideas. I suppose they are decent as reference works or to figure out what your book-prepped young non ChessBase using opponents are likely to play.

On the other hand there are definitely people that like these books, even some very strong players I’ve spoken to. My problem is that they just don’t seem to have any realistic understanding of what someone rated 2000 actually needs to know about the opening. The answer is not very much, and therefore the books should be directed towards making sure that every level of player knows exactly what they must know. To be a useful opening book, it should instruct them to memorize and learn the ideas in those lines, and then add extra material in the back. Most opening books function more as reference books than learning tools. 

2.    Every opening book lies: I have never seen an objective opening book in my life. If it’s a book on Winning with the French, in every single line black is either completely equal or slightly better. If you open up some repertoire book for white, it’s at least slightly better for white in nearly every line. It’s completely ridiculous. In the majority of  respectable openings black can get pretty close to equality, and any white opening book that throws around the phrase “slightly better” all over the place, is basically just lying to you, or intentionally omitting or burying black’s best defensive tries. I understand that it’s nice to have confidence in one’s opening, but as chess players we should have more intelligence and self-respect than to constantly pay people to pretend that an opening/system is better than it actually is. Obviously there are a few exceptions to these rules, and probably a lot of the lying is somewhat unconscious, but it’s going on in almost every opening book, even the most reputable ones. The fact is this….if you are white you are happy to achieve a playable position in most main lines these days, not a slightly better position. You may achieve a slight edge/ or even a better/winning position sometimes, but it’s a complete fantasy to believe that you can simply count on this right out of the opening.

3.   Many Books Are Outdated Quickly: Let me give an example from a recent U.S. Chess School session, with a group of 2200-2450 players. This is obviously a strong group of players, who should really know a lot about the modern state of theory. Unfortunately they are a little too focused on using opening books and not on proper usage of ChessBase. So we were looking at the Sveshnikov 1. E4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. D4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e5 6. Ndb5 d6 7.Bg5 a6 8. Na3 b5 9. Nd5 Be7 10. Bxf6 Bxf6 and I asked the players who played the Sveshnikov with Black “What’s the main line here?”.


Every single one that I asked said 11. c3, which is completely absurd. Strong chessplayers know that 11. c4 is the main line now. The only way you can find this out is by using ChessBase, making a database of some sort that covers only the last 2-3 years of games of strong players, and checking the stats under reference. In the last three years, c4 has been played about 200 times in high-level games while c3 has been played about 100. Over all of time 11. c3 is still much more common, but if these kids are going to be facing 2400+ players and holding their own, they need to focus just as much energy on combating 11. c4 as 11. c3. Meanwhile 10 years ago an opening book on the Sveshnikov will probably just devote a minor footnote to the move that is currently the main line! The only way you can find out what openings are actually being played now and are in reality the main line, is to have an up to date database, and find a way to cull the games that are played by lower rated players and that are over a few years old.

So these are just a few reasons why I think that opening books can be ineffective, and some suggestions to fix them. Many opening books are good as references, but keeping your chessbase updated and signing up for a yearly subscription to ChessPublishing (and ChessVibes) is key in today's game. Now I'll list a few opening books that I like, although do note that I think it would be a folly if you are a serious chessplayer and you try to learn any opening solely using a book:

1.    I enjoy Jonathan Hilton and IM Dean Ippolito’s books on “Wojo's Weapons”. I think the authors make it pretty clear that black can gain equality in the majority of lines presented in the book, and they explain why this is okay. It’s still a bit long and also not quite as specific as I’d like (Four volumes on a single opening repertoire is unrealistic for anyone sub 2200), but I still enjoy the style.
2.    I think that Roman/Perelshteyn/Alburt’s book on a complete Black opening repertoire is quite good as well. I definitely take issue with a few of the line choices, but if you are sub 2000 and learn everything in this book, you will have an opening repertoire well above your rating level. (Once you hit 2200-2300 though you will definitely need to tinker with some of the lines in this book.)

I look forward to your feedback, but please stop letting authors pretend that White is better in all variations of an opening! Thanks!

Look for Greg's next piece on developing an Opening Repertoire later in February. You can find several of the aforementioned products on USCF Sales, including Silman's Complete Endgame Course and the latest ChessBase products.