Should You Really Study Chess Openings?

The chess community has long been engaged in a debate over the importance of studying chess openings.

There is a variety of opinions; some players advocate for a deep dive into the intricacies of opening variations, while others argue that focusing on other aspects of the game usually leads to better results.

The aim of this article is to navigate this discussion and provide guidance to those grappling with the question of whether to invest time in studying chess openings.

We will talk about the pros and cons and see what the experts have to say on this matter.

By the end of the article, you will have a clear understanding of whether studying openings is the way to go for you.

Understanding Chess Openings

Let’s first establish a common understanding of chess openings.

In a game of chess, the opening phase begins with the first few moves played by each player. These sequences of moves are known as chess openings, and they set the stage for the entire game ahead.

The opening is the first of three phases in a chess game. The other two phases are the middlegame and the endgame.

I have written an article on the characteristics and key principles of the three phases, so have a look at it if you’re interested.

Chess boasts a vast array of well-known openings, each with its unique character and strategic objectives.

From the aggressive Vienna Gambit to the beginner-friendly Italian Game and the solid London System, understanding the purpose behind these openings is crucial for players looking to improve their game.

The Strategic Principles Behind Openings

Before memorizing any moves, it’s essential to have a concrete understanding of the strategic principles that underlie chess openings.

The key ideas in the opening are to establish central control, develop pieces harmoniously, and ensure the safety of the king.

By grasping these fundamentals, you can navigate the complexities of the opening phase with more confidence, regardless of whether or not you know any variations by heart.

With every move you play, you would have a clear idea in mind:

  • I’m pushing this pawn to control the center and open up lines for my queen and light-squared bishop.
  • I’m developing this knight to protect my pawn and challenge my opponent’s central presence.
  • I’m sliding this bishop one square to develop it and prepare to castle.
The Evolution of Opening Theory

Chess openings have not remained static over the centuries.

The evolution of opening theory, fueled by contributions from great players and advancements in analysis tools, has shaped the landscape of modern chess.

This dynamic nature of opening play makes many chess enthusiasts want to put in a lot of time and effort into diversifying their opening repertoire, familiarizing themselves with variation after variation in an attempt to expand their comfort zone early in the game.

Pros and Cons of Dedicating Time to Chess Openings

The main factor in favor of studying openings is the potential for gaining an early advantage.

If you’re well-prepared, you can surprise your opponents, seize the initiative, and dictate the course of the game from the very beginning. This advantage can be a powerful asset, especially in tournament play.

However, there is a fine line between preparation and overreliance.

Many chess beginners memorize openings without understanding the underlying ideas — they would watch a YouTube short on a nice opening trap, load up a game on, and immediately run into trouble when their opponent deviates from the expected line.

Relying too heavily on opening memorization can hinder your overall chess development. Sure, you will probably know the first few moves of a renowned opening by heart, but your objective should always be to understand why this opening is famous choice.

Ask yourself:

Why have these moves been played very frequently?

Why is this opening a good choice? Does it adhere to basic chess principles?

Not only does this improve your thinking process and overall chess game, but it also helps you memorize if you choose to do so — you’re much more likely to memorize something if you fully comprehend it.

Practical Alternatives to Intensive Opening Study

Chess is a multifaceted game, and opening study is just one component of improvement.

Balancing opening study with other essential aspects, such as tactics, positional understanding, and endgames, is crucial for a holistic chess education.

Focusing on Opening Principles

As discussed earlier, rather than delving deeply into specific variations, you should focus on understanding opening principles.

Emphasizing central control, efficient development, and king safety allows for flexibility in responding to various positions, helping you develop a deeper understanding of the game.

Integrating Tactics and Endgame Study

Tactics and endgame proficiency are indispensable components of chess mastery. Integrating these elements into your training regimen ensures a well-rounded skill set.

Tactics, in particular, can turn the tide of a game, regardless of the opening played.

The Importance of Playing Experience

No amount of theoretical knowledge can substitute for practical experience.

The more games you play, the more experience you gain, and the more exposure you get.

The importance of exposure cannot be overstated; actively playing games exposes you to diverse positions, helping you apply theoretical concepts and develop an intuitive understanding of the game.

Learning from both victories and defeats is vital for chess improvement.

Expert Opinions

There seems to be a consensus among experts that the average chess player spends too much time on studying opening theory.

Emanuel Lasker, who was the World Chess Champion from 1894 to 1921, suggested that an amateur player keen on improving shouldn’t spend more than 5% of their study time on openings.

Although Lasker is regarded as one of the strongest players in history, it’s been more than a century since his time, so things have changed quite a lot — especially with the advent of chess engines.

Let’s take a look at some more recent takes by chess masters.

Here’s what GM John Nunn had to say about studying openings:

I feel that the main reasons to buy an opening book are to give a good overview of the opening, and to explain general plans and ideas.

GM John Nunn (2006)

John Nunn, a famous chess writer and a mathematician, is one of the strongest English grandmasters.

He is a three-time world champion in chess problem solving and was once in the world’s top ten players. He won four gold medals in chess Olympiads and finished sixth overall in the 1989 World Cup.

He is an accomplished writer; his works have won Book of the Year awards in many different countries.

This goes hand in hand with the main point of this article; it’s not as much about memorization as it is about having a profound knowledge of the main ideas behind opening moves.

FM Steve Giddins said that the average player doesn’t need to know a lot:

The average player only needs to know a limited amount about the openings he plays. Providing he understands the main aims of the opening, a few typical plans and a handful of basic variations, that is enough.

FM Steve Giddins (2008)

Stephen Giddins is an English FIDE chess master and writer with a number of chess books to his name.

A very interesting book he coauthored is called Side-Stepping Mainline Theory, which suggests to cut down on opening study and instead focus on familiar middlegame positions.

Side-stepping Mainline Theory: Book by Gerard Welling & Steve Giddins

GM Patrick Wolff argues that the same cannot be said if we’re talking about competitive play at the upper levels:

If you want to play competitively, then you must develop an opening repertoire.

GM Patrick Wolff (1997)

Patrick Wolff is an American Grandmaster who won the United States Chess Championship in 1992 and 1995.

In 1998, Wolff beat Garry Kasparov, arguably the best chess player of all time, in a game they played during a simultaneous exhibition in New York City.

Making the Decision: Should You Study Chess Openings?

The decision to study chess openings depends on various factors, including your current skill level and chess goals.

Beginners may benefit from a basic understanding of openings, while advanced players might want to dive deeper into more complex variations.

Recommendations for Different Types of Players

Beginners: Focus on basic opening principles, such as controlling the center and developing pieces. Avoid overly complex variations.

Intermediate Players: Gradually expand your opening repertoire and understand key themes behind common openings. Balance opening study with tactics and positional play.

Advanced Players: Tailor your opening repertoire to your playing style and preferences. Continuously refine your opening knowledge to complement your ongoing improvement in other areas of chess.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, whether you want to study chess openings is a personal decision that should align with your individual goals and preferences.

To ensure a more enjoyable and rewarding chess journey, you should focus on finding a balanced approach, integrating opening principles with broader aspects of chess education.

If you have any questions or insights you’d like to share, please drop a comment down below. I’d be more than happy to have a chat with you.

In my Chess Openings section, you can learn the key ideas, common themes, and typical plans associated with many chess openings that you can add to your repertoire or learn to play against.

I highly recommend you have a look at it.

2 thoughts on “Should You Really Study Chess Openings?”

  1. My brother taught me to play chess when I was young, and I have retained a love for the strategy involved. 
    I am not a chess expert by any means, although I do enjoy playing a game once and a while. These days, I only play against my computer, and I think I have gotten pretty good. 
    I will be looking into studying openings to see if I can beat my computer with this strategy. I have not studied any strategies at all, I just started playing one day while I was bored. Do you have any good pointers on openings I should watch for playing against a computer?
    I enjoy challenging myself, and I think chess is a very good way to do so. And it keeps my brain working well.
    Thank you for bringing a new way to strategize against my Mac. Wish me luck.

    • Hi Stacie,

      Thank you for your comment!

      Playing against a computer is not a bad way to improve at chess, but I highly recommend you start playing some online games against real people — there’s nothing like the real deal.

      I have written a detailed article on this topic, explaining whether playing against bots is a good idea. Do check it out:

      Should You Play Against Bots or Humans?

      Regarding opening suggestions, check out my guide on the Italian Game opening. It’s a great opening that I always recommend to beginners.


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