GM Joel on Quality vs. Quantity in Your Repertoire
By GM Joel Benjamin   
October 31, 2009

Due to the huge amount of opening theory available to today's players, is it advisable for a player to learn as many openings as possible? (Ranging from the very tactical to the very quiet positional ones.) Or would you advise a player to just stick to two or three openings and know them well? And what would you recommend a player do in order to find that balance between how many and how well to know an opening?
Irving from NY


While middlegames and endgames are terribly important, we cannot deny that the opening is sure to happen in every game, and offers the greatest amount of predictability.  So players on all levels are well advised to spend study time on the opening.  The question, of course, is how this can best be accomplished.

In your question, the phrase “learning openings” can be interpreted in different ways.  I think everyone should, to some degree, learn something about as many openings as they can.  If you follow a grandmaster tournament and play over the games, you are exposing yourself to a variety of different openings and opening strategies.  The accumulation of knowledge, even if it isn’t in depth, gives you more weapons to work with, and may suggest learning more about openings you haven’t played before but might be interested in.

But if you mean learning a great number of variations, being prepared to meet in some way anything plausible your opponent might try, than you don’t need to do that for a lot of openings.  You should definitely know a defense to 1.e4 and a defense to 1.d4 quite well.  With White, you need to know more openings (because Black usually dictates the opening by choosing a defense) but not as deeply.  You can also learn, to a lesser degree, backup defenses to 1.e4 and 1.d4, and perhaps experiment with 1.d4 if you normally play 1.e4.  I think it’s a good idea to work in new openings every two or three years to expand your knowledge and prevent your chess from getting stale and programmed.  But give yourself time to develop some proficiency in your openings before you move on to the next thing.

You always want to understand the concepts of your opening at whatever your playing level is, but the stronger you are, the greater the need for tighter opening preparation.  I think that when you get to around 2000, you definitely need to know a lot of specifics.  Master level and up players are better prepared to punish weak opening moves and not give away a big advantage once they get one.

If you are an experienced player, you should know your style by now.  Don’t force yourself to play openings that are against your nature.  There are plenty of choices that will fit your temperament that you don’t have to make things any harder on yourself.

Practical concerns are the biggest determinant of how many openings you should try to learn.  Don’t try to pull off a regimen that requires more time to study than you have.  And if you find you are trying to digest so much material you are getting confused, you definitely want to focus on fewer openings.

In the end, we work back to a line that may seem clichéd but is really the best advice I can offer.  You can try out different approaches, but you must choose the one that feels right for yourself.

Ask GM Joel Benjamin a question of your own at [email protected].