Greg on Chess: The Value of Studying Openings
By IM Greg Shahade   
April 21, 2012
greglead.jpgI’m sure you’ve heard the cliché that “Studying the opening is not very important, you should study tactics/endgames/the middle game before worrying about the opening.” Though I agree that studying tactics, positional play, endgame ideas is very important, I think studying openings is very valuable and should be an important staple of every chess player’s study regimen.

Why do I think that? Well first of all, it’s exceptionally easy, especially if you are already a high rated player. With current tools like chessbase and TWIC, studying openings is more accessible than ever. Thus, it annoys me when a kid in one of my US Chess School programs doesn’t know a very basic opening line, or plays garbage openings.

The best reason to study openings is that when you do it right, you aren’t only studying an opening. You pick up many important strategical/tactical concepts in the process. When I study an opening, I almost always learn a few common themes that transcend just one opening. A few examples:
French Opening, Tarrasch Variation

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 Be7 4. Ngf3 Nf6 5. e5 Nfd7 6. c3 c5 7. Bd3 Nc6 8. O-O a5 9. a4 cxd4 10. cxd4 Nb4 11. Bb5 O-O

What is White's best move here? Well if you've never studied this opening before, and you are under 2000, the chances of you finding the move on your own are relatively small. However once you see the move 12. Nb1, you've learned an idea that could be valuable in many situations. The point is that the knight is simply much better placed on c3, eyeing the b5 square and freeing the c1-bishop.

Now admittedly I already knew about this idea and probably could have found it on my own, but imagine if you are rated about 1800 and are seeing this line for the first time. You'll see this move 12. Nb1 and start asking yourself questions "Whoa that's a weird move, why is White playing it?" and once you start to find answers, you now have a new motif that you can use in other positions. Let's see a few examples of it in action.

Saitek US Masters, Hawaii 1998

GM Joel Benjamin- Gregory Shahade
So I was chilling out in this position against Joel Benjamin about 14 years ago...I bet you can't guess what he played???
16. Nb1

When he played this move, I had no idea whatsoever about the concept and was quite impressed. It definitely seems to improve his position as the knight on c3 exerts much more influence than the knight on d2. Note that it's also Houdini's first choice. Computers are very good at finding moves like Nb1
nowadays. It was at this moment that I really learned this idea and was able to place it in my mental rolodex of chess ideas.

This combined with the French opening example, led me to the following game at the Saint Louis Invitational.

Saint Louis Invitational, 2011

Greg Shahade- Tatev Abrahamyan

1.    e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 Be7 4. Ngf3 Nf6 5. e5 Nfd7 6. c3 c5 7. Bd3 Nc6 8. O-O g5 9. Qe2 g4 10. Ne1 h5 11. Qe3 Qb6 12. Nc2 cxd4 13. cxd4 Rg8 14. Kh1 Nf8 15.f4 Ng6

Guess what move I played here?!?! I tricked you, so you probably guessed wrong. I'd love to play f5, but it turns out she can probably play 16...exf5 17. Bxf5 Be6 and the position seems playable for black. I wanted something more. So my mind wandered through my mental rolodex of ideas, and I thought about 16. Nb1. It was on the top of the list of moves, but I wasn't completely in love with it, so I started looking at other moves, namely 16. a3. The idea of 16. a3 would be to play b4, Nb3, with ideas of a big queenside clamp. The problem with 16. a3 would be that she could just reply 16....a5, stopping my plan. However light bulbs started to go off in my head as I saw this new position. The Nb1 plan suddenly makes a lot more sense when the black pawn is on a5, because now I own the b5 square, and a knight on c3 will be well primed to use that square. Hence I played 16. a3 a5 17. Nb1 (Houdini likes this move again...I'm telling you it's a Nb1 genius), with a better position for White.
16. a3 a5 17. Nb1
Notice how I was able to use an idea that I learned from one variation in the French, in a different French line. Also note that this could have been another opening entirely, as Joel used the idea against me in a Sicilian. I hope you are a Nb1 genius now too! Let’s move to another motif:

Caro-Kann Panov Botvinnik

1.    e4 c5 2. c3 g6 3. d4 cxd4 4. cxd4 d5 5. exd5 Nf6 6. Nc3 Nxd5 7. Bc4 Nb6 8.Bb3 Bg7 9. Nf3 O-O 10. O-O Nc6 11. h3 Na5 12. Be3 Nxb3 13. axb3

A normal developing move for black would be to play 13...Be6, but it looks annoying after 14. Ng5 because either the bishop retreats or after 14...Bd5 white can trade a knight for a bishop and eliminate our two bishops advantage.

Still a good move. The point is that after 14. Ng5 Bd5 is nothing to be worried about, as after 15. Nxd5 Nxd5 followed by something like ...e6, and we have a nice position as white's pawns are weak and we have great control over the d5 square. Now maybe for many of you this idea was obvious, but it made an impression on me. Let's see it in action in another opening.

1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e6 6. Nf3 Be7 7. cxd5 Nxd5 8.Bd3 O-O 9. O-O Nc6 10. Re1 Nf6 11. Bc2 b6 12. a3 Ba6 13. Bf4

This is a tricky position. The natural move is certainly 13....Rc8, but it runs into an annoying trick involving 14. d5! Nxd5 15. Nxd5 Qxd5 16. Qxd5 exd5 17. Bf5 Rcd8 18. Bc7 Ra8 19. Bd7 and white is starting to generate annoying threats. After analyzing this I decided I didn't really want to play into this position, and with the help of ChessPublishing, although I'm sure I'd have found it anyway, I decided black's best is 13...Bc4 with the idea that we don't really mind sticking the bishop on d5 in some positions, allowing white to capture.
14. b3
For instance if 14. b3 Bd5 looks quite playable for white, as if 15. Nxd5 Qxd5 black has good control over the d5 square and I consider the position to be fully playable.
So again we find an idea that would be easier to find if we already learned the idea in a different opening. Depending on your rating/experience level, this idea may be obvious, but the more ideas you have in your arsenal, the better.

I hope that these examples do convince you the enormous benefit of properly studying the opening. What should you do when you study an opening? Well you should look for as many ideas like this as possible. Whenever you see a move that strikes you as odd, or is something that you wouldn’t normally consider….you should focus on it, and try to really figure out what’s going on and whether it could be applicable in other situations. I have been doing a lot of opening study lately and am quite certain I’ve picked up many such ideas that it would be harder to grasp from middlegame study.

Another common yet annoying saying is “focus on learning the ideas of an opening, not exact variations.” That’s complete nonsense. Yes you should know the ideas in all openings you play, and in some openings the ideas may be more important than precise moves. The Carlsbad Structure of the Queen’s Gambit Declined, the Closed Sicilian or the Giuoco Pianissimo all come to mind. However in the majority of openings you should know exactly what to do in quite a few critical positions. You shouldn’t find yourself in a key position thinking “well I know these three ideas in the position, I wonder which one is best”.

The ideas over concrete lines is a stupid saying that is misinterpreted by coaches everywhere who constantly repeat it back to me without having any idea what it means, which basically gives kids to be lazy and not memorize anything. If you play the Dragon you better know the ideas, but you definitely ought to know exactly what moves to play against many of white’s sharp replies.

It’s quite hard to predict in which openings precise move memorization are important, and which ones it’s more important to know ideas. For instance, in some really sharp Najdorf positions, the precise move order is not known so deeply even by top players. An example of this would be the lines like 1. E4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. D4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be3 e5 7. Nb3 Be6 and the lines where white plays Qd2 and 0-0-0 immediately without committing to whether their f-pawn will go to f3 or f4. After studying these lines, I believe most top players may know a few specific ideas, but there are so many different move orders in play that they are also playing very much with a set of ideas and concepts.

By contrast, an opening that would  seems far quieter than a Najdorf, is the endgame after 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 dxc4 5. a4 Bf5 6. Ne5 Nbd7 7. Nxc4 Nb6 8. Ne5 a5 9. f3 Nfd7 10. e4 Nxe5 11. dxe5 Qxd1 12. Kxd1 Be6 13. Kc2


We have what seems like a pretty dry position but if black plays this line they should know exactly what they are supposed to do to achieve equality. A strong, aspiring player is irresponsible to come into this position armed only with ideas.

You have to figure out which positions require concrete memorization, and which ones you can get by with a few ideas. However it never hurts to learn precise moves, because these precise moves often contain key ideas within them.

As evidence, look at chessplayers all around you, players rated 100-200 points higher than another player. In the large majority of cases the stronger players have a much deeper and stronger opening knowledge than those rated 100-200 points lower. It’s not true in every case, but it’s true more often than not, which should show that openings do matter. If they didn’t matter why would anyone bother studying them at all, and why would all the stronger players know them much better than weaker players?

So study your opening, and do whatever you can to make sure that you learn the key ideas and look for ways to use them to increase your chess game as a whole. However don’t use that as an excuse to not know exactly what to do against every critical response by your opponent. Use your ideas when your opponent plays a new unexpected move, but if your opponent plays a move that has been played many times before, you should know what to play.

See Greg's previous CLO articles on Building an Opening Repertoire, Opening Books and watch him in the video, Chess Openings: A Crash Course from the Amateur Team.