Tuesday, November 28, 2006

How to Study an Opening - An Amateur's Perspective

For many players, the study of openings, besides the lengthy arguments for and against, is a difficult item in our study program to address. Before we get into this discussion, let's be sure we know at least one thing: what opening we want to study. This is not an article about opening repertoire selection. That is a personal choice and is highly stylistic. We simply want to try and articulate proven, efficient methods of how to study the opening of your choice. What that opening is will make virtually no difference here.

Part I

Phase 1: General Ideas/Specific Goals
I have always believed that when you decide to play a certain opening, it should correlate well with your personal ideas of how the fight should be conducted. Not everyone feels comfortable on the black side of the Sveshnikov Sicilian, or the White side of the King's Gambit. But what you do feel comfortable in is an understanding of the basic ideas for that particular opening. Here I am talking about opening-specific ideas, and not general opening concepts such as speedy development, castle early, etc., but more like 'Black will seek a quick c5-break in this variation of the Caro-Kann', or 'White strives to restrict black's development of his light-squared bishop'.
These General Ideas help guide and point the improving player to correct plan construction/selection and move choices in this particular variation of the opening of choice. Grasping these general ideas early in the study of an opening is beneficial to the player overall, and usually improves his consistency in move and plan selection during the opening.
All openings have specific goals they try to accomplish - this is what sets this opening apart from all other openings. For example, in the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian, a specific goal for Black is to advance his queenside pawns against white and opt for an exchange sacrifice on c3 as quickly as possible - it is a race against White's kingside pawnstorm.

It is FUNDAMENTAL to understanding an opening that you grasp these General Ideas and Specific Goals and keep them in the forefront of your mind.

My personally favorite books for this kind of information is the "Starting Out" series by Everyman Press. They generally do not overdo it with copious amounts of variations, instead focusing on the ideas behind the opening and what your goals are. For example, in "Starting Out: The Dutch Defense" one axiom for black is stated that 'if Black can put a pawn on e5 in the Classical or the Lenigrad Dutch without being punished then he almost certainly have a good game.'. this knowledge alone, if you play the Dutch Defense, gives you at least a usable amount of information from which to derive useful moves and plans from. It's my belief that the Starting Out series was designed for players like you and I!

Phase 2: Blitz Chess
Huh? Blitz? Isn't Blitz bad for our OTB play? Sure. Well, bad? Maybe not. But it certainly does not help you in OTB play. But here we are discussing strategies on opening study, and Blitz Chess, as a TOOL, is exactly what the Doctor ordered. You NEED blitz games to try out your new opening as well as get some miles underneath you in the transitions into the middlegame, and to see those middlegame positions and how the plans you choose work or fail. And by Blitz, I mean Classical Blitz - 5 minute games, no shorter, even better with a 3-second increment, which is my favorite, as the increment virtually eliminates time forfeits. If you have a chess-playing friend and you both have computers, play against each other online and agree to play the basic opening each game. You want to play online because the moves are automatically recorded and games saved for you, which is VERY IMPORTANT for the third phase of our opening training. Otherwise, really try hard to enlist an online friend. Be flexible - agree to play a certain opening against them for their benefit and share in your training exercises this way. You can even agree to use an opening book for his sake and yours when either of you are playing an opening you are unfamiliar with for the other players sake. And, you make new chess friends this way. Alternatively, some chess playing programs have opening training in them - use that as well.

I would say a minimum of 25-30 games are needed to get a decent feel for the opening you are studying at this phase, no less. An average 5'3" game takes about 10 minutes to play, so you might get in 6 an hour, so that is about 5 hours worth of playing. Try different variations within your opening as well. No matter, after each playing session of "Opening Blitz", it's time to review your opening play and fix the holes in your opening knowledge.

Phase 3: FORD
Not the Car - Fix Or Repair Daily, but Fix Openings, Replay Daily. In this phase, we want to pull out our opening sources and review our opening play in our last group of blitz games using those sources. We want to also have some idea what plans seemed to work well (I know it's only blitz but it is something) and which plans did not seem to work well. We are not trying to annotate these games - they are blitz. We are simply trying to identify opening mistakes, correct them, and identify plans that seemed to work and plans that seemed to fail, and, just as importantly, identify plans yet untried. In the meantime, we are gaining some invaluable experience in this new opening on how the game transitions into the middlegame and what plans are generally available to us. This you cannot get out of any opening book alone. You have to PLAY the opening and experience the middlegames for this knowledge.

Rinse and Repeat
Our next step is really simple: Do it again. Iteration is the cornerstone of active chess training.


Work this simple cycle of opening study and play until you feel at least comfortable when you play it in a Blitz game. Once you reach that stage (at least 25-30 games of blitz, however!), move on to Part II.

Part II
Phase 1: Annotated Games
As I have said many times in this blog, there is no better way to improve at chess than with well-anotated games from GM play. In our second part of opening training, we will use these games to full effect to fine tune our limited experience we gathered during Part I of our opening training.
Here, we want to gather about 25-30 well-annotated games of GM play in our opening. "Well-Annotated" does not mean Informant-Style annotations. We are seeking Alekhine and Botvinnik-style annotations that explain what the player was thinking, what plans he considered, why he liked certain moves, and what underlying strategies he considered in selecting his moves during the game, things only a GM can do. No symbology can replace this 'textual' annotation, so seek out GM games that are annotated in this manner. My favorites include "Alekhines Best Games" and Botvinnik's 100 Best Games" to name two. Also consider The Bronstein book about Zurich 1953 - excellent annotations.
Now we want to methodically and consistently review these GM games each evening on this opening, and review the games well. Don't simply scan over them, glancing at the notes. Play the game through on a board or on a computer. When you reach an annotation that has a variation, DO NOT MOVE THE PIECES but attempt to visualize the variation in your head on the board, then continue to the next note. Pay particular attention to plan development, ideas and goals the annotator talks about in the opening and in the middlegame.

Phase 2: Speed Chess
At this point you have managed to suffer through about 30 or so blitz games, and perhaps 30 or so annotated GM games. Are we ready to test ourselves in tournament play? Not quite yet...
At this point you could run out to your local tournament and jump into the fray and try your hand at your new opening, but what is the hurry? I firmly believe this phase is where you discover if you can actually play the opening or not: Speed Chess.
Speed chess is defined here as G30 - a game you can finish in an hour. Again, having a compliant partner will help you considerably. Try to get in at least 10 games of G30 before you venture into the tournament arena with your new opening. If you do not have a compliant partner, try to enlist someone online to help you out and reciprocate if you have to. Again, you'll make a new chess friend and be a better person for it!

Phase 3: FORD
Yes, you guessed it: Fix Openings, Replay Daily. After each playing session, actively annotate the G30 game and pay particular attention to the opening play and middlegame play. Fix any opening errors you made (consult you opening books/software!), and understand what plans worked or did not work in the middlegame, ans what plans should have been pursued but were not.

Rinse and Repeat.

I hope that this gives everyone a fun and efficient way to train in the opening phase of the game. It's a nice mix of Theory and Practice along with Assessment and Reevaluation techniques that are useful in patching up any holes in your new repertiore.

Good Luck!


Anonymous said...

The Language of Opening Preparation

For the purpose of communicating the concepts in this reply, I will have to define the following terms: game score, line of play, and signature move (SM). All the moves played in a chess game represent a game score. A sequence of moves at the beginning of a game score represents a line of play (commonly called a line). A line of play contains signature moves (SM). The signature move in a line of play represents a decision point in the line. At the SM one of the players decides the defense, or the variation, or the sub-variation of the line. Though Black controls the line for the defense, he will not always be able to determine the variation or sub-variation played. For example, here is a line from the Advance Variation of the Caro Kann Defense:

1.e4 c6 (SM1)
2.d4 d5
3. e5 (SM2) Bf5
4. Nf3 (SM3) e6

There were three decision points in this line:

(SM1) determined the defense that Black decided to use
(SM2) determined the variation within the chosen defense
(SM3) determined the sub-variation within the variation

There is also a repertoire concept called the main line (also called major line) and the side line (minor line). The main line represents the “well worn path” that most players will often take through the early portion of game scores. The side lines are the points along the main line where a player “gets off the well worn path” so to speak. For example, Black can deviate from the main line of the Advance variation into a sideline on his third move (SM3) using this sequence:
1.e4 c6 (SM1)
2.d4 d5
3. e5 (SM2) c5 (SM3)

Black uses the 3…c5 side line. Black main lines have a much better reputation than the Black side lines but side lines might represent less work in the process of repertoire creation. The White sidelines represent another dilemma for Black. In less tactical lines these side lines may not have to be studied with as much scrutiny as in sharper lines of play. In any case, I believe there can be a lively discussion based on reasons for a person’s choice of SMs for a given defense and I would really appreciate that type of discussion.

Mark said...

Thanks for the post.

I outlined what I feel are the compelling reasons for the choice of specific sub-variations in any opening in "Phase 1: General Ideas/Specific Goals", namely "...when you decide to play a certain opening, it should correlate well with your personal ideas of how the fight should be conducted."

That's an interesting concept you have there with SM's. I personally avoid placing labels on moves (outside of 'Candidate Move', for example) as it can sometimes distract from what you are trying to accomplish, but interesting noetheless.

Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

I believe the concept of a “candidate” move was put forward by GM Kotov in his classic chess book, Think Like a Grandmaster. One definition for “candidate” is “ A person who aspires or is put forward by others as an aspirant to an office or honor.” Maybe GM Kotov’s concept of a “candidate” move was a one that could be put forward by him, or others, and be received well or gain distinction in a line of play. So, what happens when it has been received well and is distinguished among the other moves? I would guess it gains acceptance. Surely, it is no longer a candidate at this point in time. It is a fact that certain moves not only gain acceptance but get honored or distinguished by a name. A name is a signature. The move must be a signature move. This term serves us well because it is self explanatory and it also represents significant decision points in a line of play. Players need this kind of information to stay on track in the meandering classification of openings. Candidate move simply does not “cut the mustard” here. In any case this is a moot point as the concept seems to have gained acceptance.

Mark said...

To clarify, candidate moves are not part of opening preparation or opening study. Candidate moves are moves to consider during a game where you have left the well-worn lines of opening play. They really have nothing to do with opening preparation. And further, known opening variations are not considered candidate moves at any point because you are not really evaluating the move on it's own merit. You 'trust' the previous generations of players and the experiences they had with that variation, or you are trusting existing literature and analysis.

Craig said...

i think the FORD idea is key, and something that a lot of people don't use. thanks for reinforcing my beliefs! :)