Openings

14 Tips to Remember Chess Opening Variations

14 Tips to Remember Chess Opening Variations

1: Copy The Lines From Your Book To Your Chess Software

Copy The Lines From Your Book To Your Chess Software

This is a training tip that I got from many IMs and FMs. Wonder whether GMs do it too!

Here the main point is that you must repeat sequence of moves into your working memory (that’s your brain, basically) a few times and from different points of view. Only then, the concept will become stable and move into your long-term memory.

Speaking about Chess Openings, and how to remember opening variations, this is what you can do when you take on a new opening. It also applies if you simply decide to study again a Opening that you already know.

Work with two main tools. One’s got to be the main source of information about that Opening. It can be a book, a video, a blog, or even a database.

The other tool is your favorite chess software. As you should already know, I do recommend LiChess, but ChessBase and SCID are fine alternatives. Whatever your choice, the software is going to be your notebook.

So, this tip is about manually copying the variations that you want to memorize, from your book/video/blog, into your personal software, which will later become your own Opening Repertoire.

What is the point, you may ask. In fact, this is going to be very much like the days back in school when you used to write with a pen on a piece of paper the most important sentences your teacher said. Human brain is a magic machine, but we do know something about it. The act of transforming concepts seen by our eyes, or listened by our hears, into written ideas is very beneficial towards the memorization process.

In this case, it means to transform what you read on the book/blog, or what you see in a video, into something that you’ve written yourself, like your own Opening Repertoire. Keep doing it!

2: Rehearse Variations During Your “Time-Waste”

Rehearse Variations During Your

This will be the classic tip that empower your day. Remember, you can create time for things you like to do.

So, what is it about? Simply, everybody likes to feel busy. Telling someone “I am very busy today” sounds right and make us feeling important, does it? I coined the term “the busy chess player” thinking about it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe that you are busy. I also am: I work full-time as a software developer with a multi-billionaire US company, and I am also training for the triathlon. Still, you know what? I do have time to work on my chess.

Let’s get rid together of the psychological impasse that makes us believing we don’t have time for anything during the day. So untrue!

You HAVE time to practice chess. You HAVE time to follow your chess training plan. Because you can MAKE time.

Each training session for a busy chess player should not take longer than half an hour. What counts is not its length, but how focused are you during those 30 minutes, and how consistent are you over weeks and months. Good results need some time to arrive, and you must be confident that they will.

Need some examples?

How long is your train-ride to the office in the morning? Rehearse your Repertoire in the meantime.

Do you reserve time for your breakfast in the morning? With the other hand, rehearse your Opening Variations, while eating. You just need your eyes to do so.

Having a lunch break? Do the same you did during breakfast.

Going to the gym in the evening? Your brain is a powerful machine. You can rehearse the chess variations in your head while running on the treadmill or even while swimming.

You may think that these are inefficient methods and silly advice. Truth is, when your brain gets into the habit of something, you will also improve your performance at that something. Try it for 8 weeks!

3: Play Blitz Games Online

Play Blitz Games Online

Who said online blitz is bad? Whoever was, he was plain wrong! Playing fast-control chess games online can actually be beneficial to remembering opening variations.

First, you should NOT play bullet games. Bullet games are actually worthless for your memory, unless you really master a certain opening. The point is that bullet games is almost unconscious thinking, therefore your brain is not doing any actual effort to remember variations.

If you are in the stage where you are learning how to remember more efficiently chess opening variations, then you must get your brain under some pressure. That’s the same principle as lifting weights. At the beginning, even a few Kg seems too much, until your muscle get used to that weight. Then, lifting the same weight becomes natural.

You should already have your own Opening Repertoire. With that, you can practice the opening stage by playing 5’ games (or 5’+2”, if you like increment). With such a fast paced time control, you will be able to play a lot of games.

In each of these games, go through the effort to focus seriously and try to remember what your repertoire says. Actually, I think that at the beginning it can be very useful to have your repertoire on the screen next to the game. It may seem a bit like cheating, but in my opinion this is a fair practice that you should use simply to improve your chess skills.

4: Solve Quiz On The Opening

Solve Quiz On The Opening

There are two main ways to practice in order to memorize sequence of chess moves. One, which we’ve already seen, is to rehearse the entire lines over and over.

The other is to test yourself with sudden quizzes. By doing this, you will train your brain in a different situation. Then, if you keep training on and on in both fashions you will eventually improve your memorization skill by a great margin.

How to test yourself with a quiz about a certain chess opening? Basically, you should be able to reproduce a chess position from one of the openings that you are currently studying and then challenge yourself to guess the next move.

You can do this in a lot of ways, even manually — just setting up the position on a real board and hiding the next move with your hand. But if you can use a chess software that would be much better.

There are a few alternatives here. One that I already suggested in my Recommended Resources is to use SCID. This is a free chess software that comes with a lot (really) of features. One, in particular, is very useful to remember chess opening variations. It’s called The Opening Trainer.

This feature in SCID does exactly what I was looking for when I wanted to improve my memorization skill. It will open up a random position from a game inside your Repertoire and will test your memory, challenging you to remember the next move.

5: Play a Thematic Tournament

Play a Thematic Tournament

This is probably one of the funniest way you have to improve your memorization and better remember chess opening variations. Just choose one Opening from your own Repertoire and play a Thematic Tournament!

What is a Thematic Tournament? It’s a normal chess tournament, except that all games are played with the same Opening. Therefore, it is very useful to practice that line.

Repetition helps your memorization, I will never be tired to repeat this. Like with kids, repeating a text, or repeating words, will eventually lead them to learn that text or that language. This is how human memory works, after all.

If you are looking for ways to play a Thematic Chess Tournament, then don’t worry: it could not be easier. LiChess runs Thematic Tournament very often (multiple times a day) and you can even create your own. As you certainly know by now, LiChess is an entirely free chess website where you can play and learn chess. It’s my favorite chess software tool these days.

In addition to a whole bunch of features, LiChess also hosts Thematic Tournament for free, which I really recommend as a further way to practice and remember chess opening variations.

6: Use The Week In Chess (TWIC)

Use The Week In Chess (TWIC)

The Week In Chess is a periodic that I also suggested in my Recommended Resources Page. As the name says, it’s a weekly digest of information about chess. I do recommend to visit their website.

The Week In Chess is a collection of the games played in important tournaments all over the world. The collection comes directly in database format (PGN, for example). In my opinion this an incredibly useful resource for chess players, and one that can also help you to memorize better your opening variations.

What I personally do is to open The Week In Chess in LiChess, then filter games with the Opening that I am trying to memorize.

Let’s say I am currently studying the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. Then I would filter all games of the past week to select only those where the Queen’s Gambit Accepted was played. Then, I would go through the Opening phase of each of these games, move by move (using the keyboard arrows) and at each move I would stop for a bit trying to guess the next move.

This is a fairly quick and easy training tip to remember chess opening variation that you can work on in your spare time. I really recommend it!

7: Check Your Repertoire Against Games of The Day

Check Your Repertoire Against Games of The Day

Similarly to what I do with The Week In Chess, I also do my best to check my own Opening Repertoire against important games that may have been played each day.

Especially during the weeks where an important tournament is undergoing, I find useful to go through each game of the tournament and compare the Opening played therein with my Repertoire.

This is a bit more passive than the other training tips I told you so far. Nonetheless, I think it can also bring benefits to your memory. Especially highlighting the differences between your chosen move-order, and what a strong GM has played, can enhance your memorization skill for that particular chess variation.

8: Focus on Positional Understanding

Focus on Positional Understanding

This is tip number 8, and you know, the higher the number the more advanced is the tip!

My Tip #8 to help you remembering chess opening variations is actually quite an easy one… to say. But it’s not so easy to put into practice. It will require you to re-think again your study method.

The main idea is to go back to the days (or weeks) when you first started studying this Opening Variation. It’s very likely that you focused a lot on memorizing the sequence of moves. That’s good, but it could be better.

If you have followed my other articles in this blog then chances are that you already are a little bit more advanced. You might have focused on tactical and positional patterns, in addition to pure sequence of moves. This is by far a more effective approach, because our brain is better at remembering concepts, than mechanical things.

However, now I want to give you yet a more advanced suggestion. You can do this right when you are in the process of building your repertoire, or even afterwards, revisiting what you’ve done (which is always a good thing to do).

So, how does it work? The main idea is that you have to stress into your mind the positional concepts, while adding moves into the file.

Let me say it again: Fix into your memory the positional idea behind a certain sequence of moves.

If you do that, your brain will be able to recollect your thoughts much more quickly and clearly. From there, it will be able to reconstruct the sequence of move that makes sense, under the logical patterns you have memorized.

As a result, you will feel like you have memorized the opening variation much more deeply than usual. This is because the logical thinking has very deep roots into your long-term memory. Logical thinking is much more powerful than bare memory.

9: Focus on Tactical Patterns

Focus on Tactical Patterns

This chess training tip is going to be quite similar to the previous one, but it’s all about tactics.

GM and former World Champion Challenger Nigel Short used to say “chess is all about tactics”. I disagree, honestly, but you can make the best usage of Short’s point of view also to improve your memorization skills when it’s about Opening Variations.

In the previous paragraph I told you how you should underline the strategical patterns in your head, when studying of rehearsing a Opening Variation. This will, without any doubt, improve your knowledge and your long-term memory of the Variation.

You should do something similar by also looking at the tactical ideas typical of that Opening. To make things more concrete, lets’ go with a real example. This is something I did when I studied the King’s Indian Defense.

One of the main line of the King’s Indian Defense arises when Black opens up the center with exd4. This is actually the best option for Black, as I showed in a previous post: it’s the soundest approach from positional point of view.

When Black does that, the next question is where should his Knight go from d7. There are two main options, that is e5 and c5. The c5-square seems very attractive, because from there Black’s Knight will also increase pressure on the e4 pawn.

However, if Black tries to go such a greedy approach, White has a very nice tactical resource. He can sacrifice the e4-pawn and get total control over the dark-squares in return for it. I showed the entire line in my post on how to play the King’s Indian. What I want to underline now, is that to remember this tactical idea helps also to remember the precise move order in this variation, and where the Knight should go: to e5.

Basically, tactics and strategy blend in one unique concept, as it often (beautifully) happens in chess.

The training tip I am giving away here is to let you know where to focus your training effort in the short time you can dedicate to chess.

Try to fix in your memory the tactical patterns that you discover when you study a Opening Variation for the first time. Repeat the tactical sequence on the chessboard, as well as in you head. This will make it easier to permanently store this memory in your brain.

And eventually, having this tactical pattern solidly memorized will help you also to remember the correct move-order for the same Opening Variation. Try it!

10: Use a Chess Software for Mobile

Use a Chess Software for Mobile

If you don’t already do this, then you should really start now. I am not a hyper-fan of cellphones, and I don’t use them all the time, nor for “social stuff”. But when it comes to chess training they can be very useful.

The point is that you can simply turn on you favorite chess app in any moment, and those few minutes that you dedicate to it can be very valuable if used the right way.

For me the main advantage of having a chess app in my phone is that it helps me saving time that could otherwise be lost. And I mean really everything, even when using the bathroom!

There are two apps that I would recommend to you. No surprises here, they are the apps related to my two favorite chess software: LiChess and Chessbase. These days I am using especially LiChess, which is entirely free, but both of them are worth considering.

In LiChess I really enjoy the training feature that challenges you with puzzles. But for this article, I want to suggest you the Study feature. In LiChess you can browse “Studies” by other people and discover Opening Repertoires that other chess players have compiled.

This is a invaluable source of knowledge that you should really take advantage of! LiChess Studies can be very useful in a lot of the training tips that I told you so far. You can use them to rehearse Opening Variation, to discover new tactical patterns as well new strategic ideas.

I am in the process of compiling a set of Studies in LiChess that are companions to some of the articles that I wrote in this blog. You can access all these studies for free by visiting my LiChess personal Study page.

11: (Pro-Tip) Compare Different Moves Order

Compare Different Moves Order

This and the next three training tips are “Pro-Tips”. I am totally not a chess professional, actually I am a PhD in software engineering and have a full-time job. In fact this entire blog is based on the idea that improving at chess is possible even with a full-time job and a very busy life!

So, these 5 last tips are named “pro” not because they are for professional chess players, rather because they are a bit more involved and will require more focus on your part. NOT more time, but more quality-time.

One that I really found powerful for remembering chess variation is to think about move-orders and compare them. Why so? Let me explain, with a practical example about a well-known Opening Variation.

Let’s consider the famous Sicilian Dragon Variation. In fact, I even wrote an very detailed article about this Opening that can serve you as a good start if you want to become an expert: How to play the Sicilian Dragon Defense.

There’s one very interesting moment in the Classic Dragon, after Black plays 9 … Bd7, preparing Rc8 with a potential discover attack on the Bc4, which is undefended. So, how should White react?

If you memorized this Variation then you know that White should play 10. O-O-O. However, by researching in the database I discovered that many players mechanically plays 10. Bb3. You can verify this by searching too in the LiChess database.

Now, 10. Bb3 is not a bad move, but it definitely is imprecise. Yet, it feels very natural because it anticipates Rc8. And in fact, even after 10. O-O-O White will surely play Bb3 on the next move. So what is the problem with it at the 10th move?

The key here is to look at the difference in the two move orders (10. Bb3 11. O-O-O against 10. O-O-O 11. Bb3). The difference is that when the Bishop retreats onto b3 it no longer controls b5! Quite subtle, but obvious after I say it.

So, Black can take advantage of 10. Bb3 by playing 10 … Nxd4 11. Bxd4 b5! This last move would not be possible with the Bishop still on c4. And now that Black has already started advancing its Queenside pawns, 12. O-O-O?! is very dangerous for White after 12 … a5! I recommend you to take a look also at my LiChess Study about the Sicilan Dragon.

This is a great example of how remembering a small difference in the move orders can help you to memorize long Opening Variations. Here, if you know the details I said above, you will always remember that O-O-O must come before Bb3!

12: (Pro-Tip) Associate Variations to Famous Games

Associate Variations to Famous Games

Here we go with the second pro-tip on how to remember chess opening variations. I’ve always told you that great players have a very important role in your own chess preparation: they must inspire you and be a solid reference.

When it comes down to memorization of Opening Variation, I find very useful to stick in my mind famous games that are associated with the Opening Line I am studying.

Let’s take a practical example. When I studied how to play the Sicilian Dragon with White, I used a very famous game by Karpov, former World Champion, where he beat Korchnoi in impressive fashion.

That game, introduced a few concepts and makes it much easier to remember them. First of all, the idea of over-protecting c3 before going all-in on the Kingside. Secondly, the idea to sacrifice the pawn in h5, before pushing g4.

I am sure you agree that these are not tiny details. Actually, are very important strategic ideas in the Dragon Opening.

Sure, you could learn them, and remember them even if you don’t know that Karpov game. But human brain works just much better when it has some anchor to fix memories to.

In my case, knowing such game, and understanding its themes, allows me to recall these ideas quickly into mind. This enormously helps my decision-making process during a real game.

In my opinion, it’s a powerful training strategy, that I really recommend you to try out.

13: (Pro-Tip) Focus on Wrong Strategical Plans

Focus on Wrong Strategical Plans

I got this tip by listening to a discussion between two FM at the Benidorm Chess Festival. This is a very nice tournament in Eastern Spain that I warmly recommend, also as a destination to go with your family.

The two FMs (two friends) were discussing their own games, and one of them mentioned a tactic that he uses during his own Opening Training. I find it really interesting, so I want to share it with you too.

The idea is to work “by contradiction”. Every now and again, we are particularly good at remembering things because they do NOT work. I find it funny, but it’s definitely true.

For example, in my work, I definitely remember what piece of software is not working, so I can quickly avoid it when building something larger! And I am sure you have plenty of examples in your own practice.

So, the chess training idea in this case is to study the Opening from a different point of view. That is, to look at what does not work in that Opening. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Let me explain better.

Let’s say you are studying the French Defense. This is a very popular Chess Opening, at all levels. A common decision point in the French, for Black, is if and when to capture c5xd4. This is a major strategical decision, therefore you should really master the concepts behind it.

Now, one training idea that you can use is to focus on when c5xd4 does NOT work, during your studying. By contradiction, this will make you figure out automatically when it does work indeed!

For example, and even though I am not a French player, I know that such capture cannot be delayed too much, otherwise White will come up with a3-b4 with a firm control on the Queenside. This simple fact would make me stay alert when White plays a3, to be sure that I have the positional threat b4 under control.

Among all Tips I am giving away to remember Opening Variation, this is without doubts the most original. It’s also something that I definitely want to try in my next training session.

14: (Pro-Tip) Calculate, Not Remember

Calculate, Not Remember

We’ve arrived at the last Pro-Tip, and also the final suggestion of mines about enhancing your Opening Lines memorization.

This suggestion is a favorite of mine. It’s a bit demanding, in the sense that will require some effort from you, in particular because it will force you to leave your comfort zone. On the other hand, improvement starts at the end of your comfort zone (cit. GM Jacob Aagaard).

Okay, so hopefully you are ready for a final challenge. My suggestion for you is to… forget everything you have memorized! 🙂

The best in my opinion is to do this during a blitz game, for example in LiChess. Start a new blitz game (NOT bullet), and pretend you don’t remember your own Opening Variations. I know you do, but let’s pretend you don’t!

The challenge now is to calculate at every move a few candidate moves, starting very early on in the game (like at move 4 or 5). So early on, you are surely still in your home preparation, but my idea is that you should practice to calculate those move over and over again.

This will certainly help your memorization skills, and it will also empower your understanding of the Opening itself. It’s impressive how many things we can discover when calculating variations move by move, rather than playing mechanically.


Hope you can find these suggestions useful. Have fun!!