How to Prepare an Opening

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how to prepare a chess opening
Table of Contents

I would like to describe here the process of preparing an opening using an opening book.

A lot of people do not have a coach to verbally explain all the subtleties of a variation and answer the questions that may arise in the process of learning. Speaking of openings, using books in precomputer times was straight-forward: you get one, sit behind a board and play over the variations. The questions you would ask yourself had to be answered by analysis, in absence of a partner, it was done on your own. Then the results of the analysis together with the variations from the book that stood up to scrutiny would be written down in a notebook to be taken when travelling to tournaments.

While I still advocate using a chessboard to get a better feeling for a variation or an opening, it is understandable that nowadays it is the computer that is the main object of attention.

Today’s authors do not permit themselves liberties when writing an opening book. The books are thoroughly checked by strong computers and the quality is mostly pretty good. So finding a good book on an opening that interests you shouldn’t be a problem. What is more difficult is how to combine the work with a book and a computer at the same time.

Here is a detailed account of how I use books when preparing openings for myself.

First, I would scan the book to get a feeling for the lines the author is suggesting. I usually have good knowledge of what the main lines are (and what the current fashion is) in most of the openings, so I first satiate my curiosity by checking the author’s suggestions on the main lines. Then I compare them to the analysis I had previously done on the opening in question to see if, how and why the author’s opinion differs from mine.

Then comes the hard work. Chapter by chapter, I look at the moves in the book and insert them in a file on my computer. [A technical note: I have a database dedicated only to my openings, so when I work on a new one I would open a “new game” in that database and name it according to the opening, for ex. “QGA” for a Queen’s Gambit Accepted. In case the opening in question is theoretically heavy, then I could divide the lines, for ex. “QGA Main Line 7 dc5”, “QGA Main Line 7 Bb3” etc.]

While inserting the moves from the book, I have the engines running and I also have my main reference database open (usually the latest version of MegaDatabase). Like this, I can see the latest games played after the publication of the book and also what the latest version of the engines (usually Stockfish and Lc0) are suggesting. In case there is a new game played by strong players that isn’t included in the book, it is immediately “copied to notation” and analysed with the aid of the engine. Also, if the engine suggests a move that isn’t in the book or in the database, it is also analysed and explored. Naturally, my own ideas are also carefully checked.

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This is a long process. Usually, an opening book would have a lot of lines and even more sub-lines. Sometimes I decide that something isn’t worth noting down, or only a few moves are noted, and then a textual explanation is added for better understanding. The converse is also true – some line may have only a few moves in the book, but if I feel that it should be explored in more depth, I do it conscientiously. Both decisions, to subtract or add, are based on my understanding and feeling of the position and the opening.

I usually advise my students to add more textual explanations. These not only help in understanding the position, they also help in memorisation. It is easier to recall a verbal explanation that will prompt the following move(s) than a dry computer-generated line. Perhaps the most important aspect of the process is to keep asking yourself questions. Why does the author suggest this move and not another? Why can’t I play this? If the author doesn’t provide an explanation himself, it is up to the student to discover the answer.

This is done by analysing with the engine. Simply make the move you’re curious about and see what the engine says. Sometimes it will refute it, sometimes you will uncover an interesting novelty. This type of analysis is invaluable – by doing this you will internalise the opening, you will sift it through your own filter and make it personal. You can only truly know an opening after doing this type of work on it. The more you do this, the better you will start feeling the opening and the better you will become at it.

Ideally, you should do this kind of work on every single chapter of the book. It will take a while before you finish the book, but by the end of it, you will own the opening. It will be yours and you will have it neatly organised in your opening database. Periodical revision of your lines and analysis is a good habit to have, as it will aid the memorisation both generally and before the game when preparing against an opponent.

During the process of studying the book, it can be useful to practice the opening in online games. Practicing the variations adds another aspect to the internalisation – the feeling for the opening deepens because nothing advances your understanding better than playing the opening yourself.

This is how I work with opening books nowadays. Opening work has always been demanding, but a good book can narrow down the necessary information considerably and help avoid the “too much information” problem. Use them well!

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