When should I start learning opening theory? Do I even need to? These are questions that every chess player asks at some point. The internet is full of people asking this, but no one is sure of the answer. Fortunately, recently I was reading some cognitive psychology journals, and I came across a study that can help us clarify the matter once and for all. The answer is now, no matter what your level. Now! Read on to find out why.
Researchers from Oxford University and Brunel University set out to discover what made chess experts, well, experts. Often it is said that expert’s calculating skill differs the higher their chess skill is. This may be why every chess player at some point has been asked how many moves deep they ‘see.’ Research shows that this is surprisingly NOT the most important thing in chess. So what else can we gather from this study?
Reason #1: Calculating ability will only help you so much!
Once you reach a certain level of calculating ability it peaks. After this, improvements are very slight whether you are a chess master or not. There may be differences between one master and the next, but in general, the study suggests that based on experiments calculating ability is about equal for Class A and up to Master level. Compare this to playing an opening you are familiar with, every time you play it, you gather more experience, and this will help way beyond a rating of 1,800 (Class A). Once you get above master level things are different, but that’s above 2,400 in rating!
Reason #2: Getting a familiar opening saves you time
The researchers found that when master chess players had familiar opening positions, they were able to invest their time and energy calculating deeper instead of wider. Instead of looking at five different moves, you look at two, the two best ones because you know what goes on in this opening and pawn structure. With a good opening repertoire, this could mean finding the killer move you need, rather than losing half your time looking at all reasonable moves.
Reason #3: Playing openings you know increases your rating by a few hundred points
The researchers found that when chess masters played an unfamiliar opening (for instance, a Sicilian defense when the player is a French defense player), their skill was reduced by up to two standard deviations. In other words, their study showed that the chess master’s skill was reduced by a few hundred chess rating points! Potentially, this means a master would play like a club level player.
Reason #4: Do as chess masters do, even Grandmasters stick to openings they know
Aside from a few super-Grandmasters that seem to be able to mix it up and know it all, the researchers confirm that all other chess players, even at master level, play their opening repertoire and stick to it. In the research, an analysis of the Sicilian masters showed they stuck to their opening 81% of the time, playing the French only 6% of the time! The sooner you implement the study of openings, the sooner you will be able to start acquiring expert knowledge. Did you lose in that Spanish Game? Look up why or ask why, using our opening variation comments tool. You won’t make the same mistake next time.
Reason #5: Well, as White I have to face all these openings anyway, right? WRONG!
Pet lines also exist for white players, for instance, I play the Rossolimo Sicilian to black’s 1…c5. This means I never see the Sicilian Najdorf and avoid a ton of complications. Yes, the Najdorf might be objectively better, but until you reach Grandmaster level, those differences often don’t matter. What matters is that you get an opening you’ve got experience in and one that you are familiar with.
Reason #6: It’s one of the surest ways to improve your chess
Obtaining specialised knowledge of openings is something a chess player will have to do at some point in their career. Why not do it now? If you begin now, you begin accumulating those small nuggets of expertise in the openings early on. It all adds up.
Reason #7: Avoid opening blunders
We’ve all been there. Your opponent takes you out of the opening book. You know your stuff, so you think long and hard. You lose a lot of time on your clock but make an excellent logical developing move. As it turns out, shortly after, this move leads to a super sharp variation that your opponent is familiar with. With the time advantage, their dream position can’t get any better, but of course, the pressure mounts and you blunder. Game over.
Reason #8: There are opening repertoires for all levels.
You can find something that suits your play. For instance, the Short & Sweet series are easy to remember and learn, and they give you a stable place to start from. Take this a step further, if you are an intermediate player you can find repertoires seven moves deep. Advanced? You can find opening repertoires that are ten moves deep and more. There is no excuse, and once you master one opening, feel free to pick a new one and move on.
Chessable can help you learn chess openings in the most efficient way, and you can browse a lot of repertoires, free and paid online. However, you don’t even have to use our awesomely social website. As long as we’ve convinced you that you should put more work into your chess openings, then we are happy.
*The research study analysed to prepare this blog post is titled “Specialization Effect and Its Influence on Memory and Problem Solving in Expert Chess Players” published in Cognitive Science by Bilalic, McLeod and Gobet (2009).