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Monday, 07 May 2012

Learning Chess Openings: Thou shalt not memorize Chess Openings!?

Learning Chess Openings: Thou shalt not memorize Chess Openings!?

I have been reading chess forums, newsgroups or blogs for more than 10 years and this has been a common mantra whenever somebody asks in a forum about a good way to memorize openings or which software could support them on this task.

The two most popular replies by other chess players:

- It’s not about memorizing move orders, but about the ideas behind them
- You are not strong enough yet and should focus on other chess topics first

While there is of course some point behind these arguments, I believe the main reason for these statements is another one.

We chess players always considered chess to be a game of pure intelligence. Concepts, ideas and motifs for middle games and endgames or other chess theory perfectly fit into this picture. Now, if memorizing opening move orders is all it takes to win some games, our beloved game would get simplified and losing some of its appealing aspects.

How do you learn your openings today?

You read a chess opening book about your preferred opening. How do you try to remember the theory? Just by reading through or learning the ideas at best? Ever tried to learn a foreign language by remember just the ideas (=grammar)? Good luck!

If you search the internet on this top you will quickly get the impression that you just have to learn the ideas of the openings and then you are done.

In those cases where people even support memorizing concrete lines, their suggested methodology is mediocre at best:

“Memorize the different move orders and variations of your opening. The easiest way to do this is to set up a board and play through the moves for both sides by yourself.”

No! If that would be the only way how to memorize chess openings I would recommend focusing on the ideas instead!

Another example from an intensive discussion (interestingly, in the thread there is comparison with learning language to proof you should not memorize):

“But for what you want: read MCO-- not the text, just the columns. then close the book and write the moves down from memory. That's one way to memorize stuff.”

Do you agree with them? This is just one example of many hot discussions on this topic. Obviously many people are interested in this topic (after all the opening is the only part of the game you are guaranteed to play), but there is also a big controversy.

Are ideas for chess openings overrated?

I have read many chess opening books in the past about quite different systems. There have been some extremely complex Dragon books, but also readymade opening repertoire books. Now, if you ask me about the ideas of the specific openings, which were explained in each book - out of my mind I would say that at best 5 pages were about general ideas / motifs, but all books had more than 200 pages (or even >300)!

So, what is the rest about? Move orders! Showing you for certain position why an alternative move is bad – by showing you another move order and position evaluation! Yes, sometimes there are even comments like “don’t play this, because the pawn would become a permanent liability”. But the vast majority is just about move orders.

That does not mean that there is not a general concept or idea behind an opening. Of course there is. And you should first check, if the typical arising middle game positions (be prepared for the exceptions though!) fit your playing style, but I really question the importance of ideas in openings.

I would stress this point even more, if not “somebody” would have had the nerve to release the outstanding opening book series called Mastering the Chess Openings. IM John Watson indeed shows that there exists a broader picture behind openings. Nonetheless, I stick to my main point.


People are learning foreign languages in a much more efficient way than chess players’ openings

The Chess Position Trainer project started 2004 after I studied the Spanish language for some time and just happened to read a chess opening book. I was excited to play the opening which I was studying. However, with the experience I gained from studying a foreign language I wondered:

- How can I record which variations I want to play?
- How I can train these variations and remember them?

At school we all hated to learn vocabulary by heart. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that it is a must do, if you want to speak a language. Fortunately, if you study a foreign language today you can use a specialized program which let you recall grammar and vocabulary by applying a modern version of the good old flash-card methodology. This helps to focus and save time.

It puzzles me that so many chess players still defend the theory you don’t have to memorize openings, but just learn the ideas (or play through some reference games). Of course this fits better into our romantic image of chess where it is all about intelligence and such dull tasks like learning by heart is only necessary for those who just don’t get it, but think about this just for a second how this compares to learning a foreign language. I believe we all would be still native speakers only!

OK, I agree that learning openings is indeed not the top priority for absolute beginners. Learning the arising middle games is important and you should know some ideas of your preferred opening. Still it feels weird to study chess openings in such an unstructured way as many players do (s. the two recommendations above).

If you just read a chess book today and maybe even analyze a concrete position, how can you be supposed to remember this position and analysis in one month? I certainly won’t!

Study arising middle game positions!

Instead of spending too much time to understand an opening, I recommend to focus on the arising middle game positions. Look for reference games for inspiration how to continue after you run out of your theory. Learn (memorize) the opening theory in an efficient way and then spend your time on more complex topics.

Run your played games against your repertoire to find novelties – played by you or your opponent. Analyze these positions and make adjustments to your repertoire if necessary.

However, don’t underestimate the process of creating an opening repertoire. The process itself can turn into a learning curve and is far from a dull job. It requires some skills to create a repertoire as you want to ensure you only reach your preferred middle game positions no matter what your opponent replies. Anybody who has created his own repertoire knows actually quite well, why he made certain decisions and plays a specific move. So, even memorizing openings is not that simple as you have to create a proper repertoire first (actually for most of us a lifetime project)!

Managing your opening repertoire and training it without specialized software is a burden. On the other hand, if you use such a helpful tool, you can save a lot of time which can be used for studying middle game positions or endgames. More about this topic in another blog post.

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Comments (2)

  • deannie
    31 May 2012 at 04:15 |

    The connection between learning a foreign language and opening positions really struck a chord with me. Thanks for this blog post, it was really helpful.

  • Charles Wilson
    08 June 2012 at 18:03 |
    Charles Wilson

    Capablanca once said that playing chess was like carrying on a conversation. I think there's a great deal of truth in looking at chess as a language.

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