Deciding to tackle weaknesses in various chess areas is a matter of determining what they are, how important they are, and what specifically needs to be improved within those areas.
As I transitioned to playing stronger competition, it became more and more clear that openings were definitely a problem for me. I was advised of this somewhat bluntly by a certain training partner of mine, whose coach initially advised him to go for endings against me before realizing my openings were also rather weak. It also became increasingly common for me to get into:
- System-like openings (Torre, Hedgehog, etc.) in which I was surprisingly clueless with plans in the resulting middlegames
- More theoretical lines of openings I had decided to play regularly but hadn’t studied sufficiently
- Games in which I would get outplayed in the opening, but miraculously unwind in the middlegame
While I did score some quick wins in some special lines (e.g. Closed Sicilian traps), I eventually realized my overall opening knowledge lacked a lot of depth compared to players at my level and above. The next question was whether this was actually a big deal, as I had nonetheless been improving rapidly (to just under 2200) and often got myself out of early jams.
Given the trend of my results this year and my proximity to 2200, it is conceivable that I could make National Master without any major changes. However, for me satisfaction comes from not merely being able to finish games, but understanding what I’m playing. To maximize, it would be helpful to improve both consistency (more reliably applying my primary openings) and versatility (developing several reasonable choices for different situations) in openings.
I’ve recently been experimenting with a more incremental approach than most players are used to. In the past, I have proven to be notoriously bad at acquiring opening knowledge in bulk (due to my unremarkable memory, lack of patience, and lack of discipline in setting goals on what I want to learn). And although I don’t know this compares to other players, I suspect that I play online bullet slightly more than I should.
When bad habits arise in chess, two ways to improve are to 1) get rid of them, and 2) channel them into something good. As an attempt at #2, my numerous bullet games are a part (not the only one – for later discussion!) of a means to choose openings to learn about: going through an arbitrary selection of games (ignoring ridiculous ones such as the ones that begin with 1. e4 g5), using opening databases, other resources on hand, and perhaps a sample game or two to learn a little bit about particular lines each time. The process is relatively simple, but also:
- (very) incremental: This is obviously not a formula for producing quick results. Just being able to apply knowledge is already a long-term endeavor.
- memory-based: Bullet can also serve as validation of earlier knowledge as later games provide many quick opportunities to test memory of earlier learned lines and basic plans. Of course, blindly memorizing opening lines is a bit of a taboo in the chess improvement establishment. However, this is not really intended as a standalone process, as it is also…
- meant to be used in conjunction with OTB games: I’ve generally learned effectively from simply playing and analyzing tournament games. However, given how long games can run and how little control I have over the opening choices, it’s not reliable to use only these games in the same way I’ve described.
Hopefully though, one day I’ll be able to gauge the results of this exercise!
What methods do you use to study openings?