Chess Opening Theory for Beginners

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opening theory
Table of Contents

Quick overview:

  • Opening theory is one of the most studied and complex parts of chess improvement. Knowing how much to study is often a key concern of new players.
  • It is first best to know opening principles before diving into concrete theoretical study. Once you have a grasp on opening principles, you can dive into opening theory.
  • It is more important to understand why moves are made in chess openings than to simply know that one move is the “correct” move. Memorizing lines of theory without knowing why the moves are made can prove to be not very useful, especially if your opponent goes out of book.
  • Today, there are many resources to help beginners learn opening theory, with many of them being specifically tailored to beginners.

Highlighted course

Mastering Opening Strategy

Introduction to Chess Opening Theory

The opening is the first part of the three parts of a chess game, the other two being the middlegame, and the endgame.

The opening sets the tone from move one on how the game will develop. Beginners are often told to study openings last when learning chess.

While it is true that beginners should focus on tactics, endgames, and concepts such as attacking and prophylaxis, the opening cannot be ignored completely if you want to win at chess.

What is opening theory?

Opening theory refers to a position that has already been explored by chess theoreticians, Grandmasters, or computers. It refers to a set of established moves and explores why these moves are made.

Theory can go quite deep, and concepts of highly theoretical openings can often be lost on new players. This is why you should ask yourself why your opponent is making a move instead of being concerned with the theoretical move order.

For example, the Sicilian Najdorf is considered to be one of the best openings in chess, but it is often not recommended for beginners.

Let’s look at the move order:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6

If you know about chess opening principles, then you know that you should aim to control the center, develop your minor pieces, and develop with a threat when possible.

Up until move 5 by Black, we can see these opening principles at play. The first moves by each side help to control central squares, the second moves either directly develop a piece or prepare development of one (2…d6 prepares development of Black’s dark-squared bishop), etc.

5…a6 seems to employ none of these opening principles, however. It does not develop a piece, nor does it attack one of White’s and it does nothing for central control.

However, the theory of this opening has established that White, if given the chance, would like to move their knight into the crucial b5 square, and 5…a6 prevents this.

This is a high-level concept, and it may not be so important for beginners as low-rated players are likely to not play the theoretical moves. As such, beginners should spend more time employing chess opening principles, rather than memorization of concrete lines.

Opening theory novelties

A novelty in chess opening is a move that was previously unknown in chess theory, i.e. a move never played and/or studied before.

Novelties can be good and bad. In order to take their opponents out of preparation, Grandmasters often search for novelties to complicate the game. This can lead to new chess theory.

On the other hand, at the beginner levels, your opponent may play a novelty, also known as going out of book, and it may be a poor move, i.e. hanging a piece.

In this position, 2…Nh6 is a novelty. There is no established theory on this, chiefly, because it is a bad move. If you apply opening principles, you should see this without having to think about theory.

Opening theory vs. Setups

A setup or system is a set of moves that can be played against most anything. These require little study and are a way to avoid theory.

An example of a system-based opening is the London System. In this opening, White plays the same move order regardless of what Black plays.

The drawback to these systems is you may fail to learn why each move is being played. Thus, it is usually recommended to learn more traditional openings so you can learn the ideas and themes behind them.

What openings are best for beginners to study?

Most mainstream opening theory is divided into two camps, 1.e4 and 1.d4. There are other first moves possible in chess, but these are the two main ones.

1.e4, the King’s Pawn Game, is generally recommended for absolute beginners, as the ideas of piece interplay are easier to understand as are tactics and the themes that go along with this opening.

As a beginner, you should respond with 1…e5. The ideas are more clear-cut than they are with other responses to 1.e4 (such as the Sicilian Defense), and you will understand the ideas behind the openings better by starting with 1.e4 and 1…e5. General opening principles apply more with these first moves.

1.d4, the Queen’s Pawn Game, is considered more positional in nature. It is a completely valid opening, and beginners can even play it, but if you are just starting out with chess, you’ll probably be able to understand the ideas better of the theory of 1.e4.

Likewise, it is best to keep things symmetrical on the first move if your opponent begins with 1.d4 by playing 1…d5. Development is natural with this response and you fight for a direct claim of the center.

For more on beginner chess openings, check out our article on 10 Chess Openings for Beginners.

How to study opening theory

Databases

Databases are incredibly useful tools for learning opening theory. There are paid options, which offer the best and most complete lines of openings, such as Chessbase, as well as free databases on popular chess websites such as Lichess.

In these databases, you can sort by rating level. You should be looking at master-level games and see what the top moves are played by masters.

From there, try to understand why they make these moves. Memorizing that Black plays 5…a6 in the Najdorf without a clear understanding as to why will not help you to improve much.

Of course, these ideas can be quite complicated, and oftentimes some instruction can be beneficial.

Books, courses, and videos

There has never been a better time to learn how to play chess due to the vast amount of information out there.

Once you have played some openings and found a couple you like, you can delve deeper into the theory of your openings.

Whether you learn best by reading the old way, watching videos on Youtube, or taking online courses (Andras’ Toth’s Beginner’s 1.e4 Repertoire is an excellent starting point), there are many ways to learn opening theory.

Analyze your games

In general, analyzing your games is one of the best ways to improve your overall chess game. You can find out where things went wrong and apply what you learned to future games.

This also works with opening theory. Start out by first analyzing your openings with the masters’ database. Are you constantly going out of book in the first few moves? If so, chances are you have not discovered a revolutionary opening novelty to beat your opponents, rather the move is probably incorrect as far as opening theory goes.

When comparing your moves to the top moves of the database, try to come to your own conclusions. After that, you can confirm if your moves are good or bad by comparing your movies with those suggested by a chess engine, such as Stockfish.

Summary

Opening theory can be a daunting thing to think about. However, it is an important part of your chess development.

When you are studying opening theory, you should look at the common moves and try to understand why. Oftentimes, there is more than one “correct” move, and which one you choose will depend upon your style.

As your chess game progresses, you can delve deeper into theory and learn longer lines. Just remember, no matter how much opening theory you study, it does not matter unless you understand why the moves are made.

FAQs:

How do you learn opening theory in chess?

Opening theory can be learned many different ways. To start, the best way to learn opening theory is by looking at chess opening databases of master games. From there, there are courses, books, and videos on almost all openings.

What is the best opening move in chess?

The answer to this question is, “it depends”. Even engines will choose different moves depending on the depth given. However, generally, the best opening moves are regarded as those that control the center and allow for quick development, either 1.e4 or 1.d4.

Which chess opening has most theory?

The Ruy Lopez and the Sicilian Najdorf are often cited as two of the most heavy-theory openings.

Which chess opening has least theory?

System-based openings, such as the London System or King’s Indian Attack, are usually less theory-heavy than many other openings because the setups do not require concrete knowledge of your opponent’s moves. The Semi-Tarrasch is also another low-theory opening.

Highlighted course

Mastering Opening Strategy

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