How to Study Chess Openings with the Computer

How to Study Chess Openings with the Computer

I had planned to write this post for very long! The study of chess openings is an extremely important topic when it comes down to the practical aspects of the game. Being familiar with a opening gives you a neat advantage at the board, because you can select your moves faster and with much more confidence.

So, how to study chess openings with the computer? I am going to share with you a few tips and more importantly a very easy memorization method that several GMs have said in public interviews to employ themselves. I have also had long discussions in person with a few FMs friends of mines, and got confirmation that this is a well known technique to learn chess openings with the help of the computer.

Why you should learn chess openings

Why you should learn chess openings

Before diving deep into the “how”, let’s briefly discuss the “why”. Hopefully there is no reason to discuss this with you: opening is part of the game, and therefore one should study it to improve. Period.

However, I have often heard comments such as “I don’t care too much about the opening”, or “My goal in the opening is to get a normal position and play the middle-game”, or similar stuff. I have a very firm opinion about these kinds of approach: they are wrong.

Maybe you have seen games of some exceptionally strong GM playing a random opening and thought “wow that’s cool, I don’t need to study anything!”. Wrong.

Maybe you have seen some Magnus Carlsen’s game (the current World Champion) playing quiet, semi-unknown, openings and thought “nice, I can do that too!”. Wrong. Are you the World Champion? 🙂

The truth is that behind any GM’s game there is a lot of work and a lot of hours spent studying, even if the opening system seems randomly chosen. I firmly believe that Carlsen has spent a good number of hours studying the Colle much more deeper than me, you, or his colleagues GMs think. And indeed, for those among you who don’t know, he has won quite a number of games with the Colle.

The point I am trying to make here is the following. If you study a chess opening:

  • you will almost instantly know what to do in the first, say, 10 moves.
  • you will be very familiar with the resulting positions, which means you are less likely to choose a wrong plan in the middle-game.
  • your opponent might do a mistake in the opening and you will be able to recognize it.
  • if that happens (previous point), you will know why that was a mistake, and how to take advantage of it.
  • even if that does not happen, you will enjoy a good advantage on the clock and a familiar position.

Whereas if you don’t study a chess opening:

  • you will have to choose how to develop your pieces in the initial stage, and there are so many possibilities that you are NOT likely to pick up the most effective.
  • you will burn a lot of time on the clock for the opening.
  • if your opponent knows the opening system, you are not going to have the better position.
  • you will have less time to play the middle-game.

What to expect after you studied a chess opening

What to expect after you studied a chess opening

In addition to the “why” I believe you will also want to set your expectations right. Knowing a chess opening does NOT mean you will win all games with it 🙂

These are the points that you can set as your targets for an opening system that you have studied:

  1. Always enter the middle-game with equal or better position (never worse).
  2. Always have time on the clock equal to or greater than your opponent’s clock.
  3. Never end up in a middle-game position where you don’t know what are the most common plans.
  4. Being capable to understand middle-game in GMs games.
  5. Being able to recognize when someone else’s game contains a novelty in this opening.

Let me start with the last point, number 5. As you advance in your chess studies, you will surely keep an eye on the biggest tournaments played in the World. And I mean Open tournaments, where there are lots of “unknown” GMs playing very interesting games.

When you have these games (I will tell you at the end how can you find them) you should filter them to select only the ones with your favorite opening. Once you’ve done that, you can go through each game and you should be able to understand at a glance if the game is “important” for the opening theory.

Important means either the game contains a novelty in the opening (a move that you’ve never seen before), or contains an entire new approach to that opening system (quite rare case, in fact). In this case, is your “duty” as expert of that system to catch up with this novelty, understand it deeply and decide if it’s worth including it into your database. Don’t let the result of the game influence your decision!

Point 4 in the list is similar. If you have spent time and effort studying, say, the Nimzo-Indian defense for weeks or months, then you should expect to have a knowledge broad enough to understand what is going on in the middle-game of GMs games. And I have mentioned in several posts already that studying GMs games is a must-do in order to improve.

Regarding points 1,2 and 3 in the list, I believe they are quite self-explanatory. A reasonable expectation you can have is to know the opening well enough to always get a normal/good position out of it, without consuming too much time, and ending up in a middle-game that is somewhat familiar with you.

If you happen to fail any of these targets, then don’t worry. It’s totally normal, and it simply means you have reiterate a little bit on your previous studies, to fill in the hole. It really is a common thing, especially when you will start knowing several openings: no-one can remember all details. GMs can’t either.

Software to use to learn chess openings

Software to use to learn chess openings

Let us now enter the core of the study. You will definitely need some help from the computer to study a chess opening. In particular you will need a Chess DataBase Management System.

There are several of them, and uncountable ways to use them. I will tell you about three of them, two online tools that you use in your internet browser, and one more that is a normal software you can have for free.

LiChess.org is a famous website to play chess. It actually is my favorite choice these days (and since quite some time), because it includes a huge number of tools to study chess!

When you over you mouse on the Tools tab in the top bar you can choose Analysis Board. Click on it and you will have a windows like this one:

LiChess Chessboard

I have highlighted in green, at the bottom right, the option that you have to click once there. When you click on that, you will be shown the list of the most commonly played moves, from the first one. And as you start playing one of those moves, you can then keep navigating the opening tree in a very intuitive fashion. A great tool!

Notice that you can also click on the wheel (mid-height, far right) and then you can choose whether using the database of lichess games, or a database containing official tournament games. I recommend the latter to practice openings.

The second online tool that I recommend is a product of ChessBase. It’s somehow not very well known (at the least, according to my surveys), but it’s very powerful and gives you a lot of options to play with when studying chess openings. Just open your favorite internet browser and go to the url openings.chessbase.com

Notice that this ChessBase tool is totally free, and you don’t even need to register to access it. A true gem that I advice exploring further. The interface contains so many options that might look a bit confusing at first sight, but should not take too long before you master it.

The third and final tool that I recommend is a pure software, so you will have to download and install it. It’s called SCID (link at the bottom of my post), and is a open source project started several years ago and that has now reached a complete maturity.

SCID, among many functionalities, include something called Opening Trainer that is just… fantastic! Basically you can transform any database of pure games in a opening database that your virtual trainer will help you learning and memorizing. This functionality is a bit complex, so I will let you explore the manual page by yourself (link at the bottom again!), and maybe talk about it more in detail in a later post!

Playing fast chess online to practice chess openings

Playing fast chess online to practice chess openings

This may come as a surprise to you, but I do think that playing blitz games online can be a very productive training, if done cleverly.

In particular, I believe that 5 minutes games suit very well to opening training. Here’s what I suggest to practice chess opening while playing blitz chess online:

  1. Have you personal opening repertoire database ready (more on this below!).
  2. Start playing a blitz game.
  3. When the opening is over, take a mental note about what has happened, like “okay I am better”, or “mmm I actually didn’t remember this variation, so had to improvise” , or similar.
  4. Keep playing the game to the best of your ability, and enjoy it!
  5. Revise the game (all online platforms allow this, certainly LiChess does), and while you go through the moves compare them with the ones in your repertoire database, making conclusions such as “Ah! I forgot this”, or “I should have continued with this classical development plan”, or anything that underlines errors you made in handling the opening.

My idea is that blitz games are fast enough to allow you to play a large number of them in the same opening. And when you repeat something over and over, again and again, then usually your brain is able to learn the right way of doing that thing.

Is very important though that you analyze the game after it has finished. Don’t just hit the button “new game”! If you analyze your game, even with a minimal effort, the errors you made in the opening will stick into your brain and over time you will improve the way you play that system.

How to use books to learn chess openings

How to use books to learn chess openings

Let’s move onto the next tip. This is actually the technique used by GMs, IMs, and FMs that I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

For the sake of argument let’s say that you decide to study the English Opening. This is how you would go on it:

  1. Pick up a top-notch book on that opening. For instance, for the English opening, an amazing resource is the 3-books collection written by Mihail Marin. Get it!
  2. Start your favorite Chess DataBase system. It can be your LiChess account (section “Study”), or your ChessBase account (section “Opening”) or a software like SCID or ChessBase itself.
  3. Now the funs starts. Go through the book (I mean the entire book!) and add every variation into your database system. You should add them as you read them on the page, simply by keeping the book next to the your computer.
  4. Keep doing it until you reach the last page of the book!

At the beginning you will see that this procedure slows down your reading quite a bit. But my claim is that, by entering the moves manually into your software, you help your brain memorizing the variations. Also, once you have them into the software chessboard, it’ll be very easy to navigate the variation, to “repeat” the move order in your mind, but also using your eyes!

When you’re finished with the book you will probably have a giant file with all variations memorized. That’s a very good thing! Now it’s time to get deeper into it:

  1. Go again through all variations. You can do this very quickly now that they are digitized into your software.
  2. Use a chess engine, like Stockfish, to make a conclusion about each variation’s evaluation. You probably already had evaluations copied from the book. Add the ones of the engine too, along with a written comment about them (specify which one is from the engine, and which one from the book’s author).
  3. Get rid of variation that do not make too much sense, for example silly traps or random mistakes. In general variations that are too short are not very useful.

And… you’re done! Notice that this process is quite “mechanical”, in the sense that I did NOT tell you to make a deep study on each position, analyzing possible plans and making conclusions about pawns structure. I did tell you to:

  • mechanically copy all variations into a chess software
  • mechanically copy the engine evaluation for each variation
  • get rid of non-sense variations

All in all, this is a very simple process that helps your brain learning and memorizing a chess opening thanks to its repetitive nature. I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand!

Free Advice

We’ve arrived to the last bit of advice that I would like to share with you. If you’ve made it this far in this post then this last step will be a piece of cake.

A personal chess opening database, often named Opening Repertoire, is nothing else than a set of files, each one for an opening that you studied and might play in a live game.

For example my Opening Repertoire is a directory with the following files:

  • e4e5.pgn
  • openSpanish.pgn
  • nimzoIndian.pgn

and so on for every opening that I studied in the past. The nice thing is that these files are more or less the results of the previous step, applied on different books (and other sources).

So in short, if you follow the recipe at the previous section you will end up with a quite good file for every opening, and then the collection of these files will be your initial opening repertoire. Easy, isn’t it?

I want to make clear one point though. Building a Opening Repertoire is a task that does NOT end. What do I mean?

When you collect a lot of information about one opening, for instance via a book or a video course, and save these bits of information in a file you are still going to miss a lot, no matter how large the file was.

It’s only through the experience that your repertoire becomes more mature. As you go and actually play those openings at the board you will see that there are holes in your files. It’s your task to stay diligent and fill the holes every time you find a new one. Here it comes the training technique I have explained to you: playing blitz games online.

If you stay motivated and keep checking your files after every blitz game, not only you will memorize that opening much more quickly, but you will also improve your repertoire step by step. Make sure to use the engine, especially at the beginning, and to compare your variations with examples taken from some GM games, which surely exist in the large databases I have recommended to you.

Conclusions and resources

In this post I shared with you a well tested, and highly respected recipe to learn chess openings with the computer. This method is based on repeating the variations over and over again, while annotating them into a chess software. All this without a real involvement of the reasoning process: the “mechanical” nature of this strategy makes it well suited for quickly building an entire chess opening repertoire.

A lot of work must be done anyway! Keep working and improving your repertoire and your openings will rock!