Ten ways to improve in chess

Clearly this blog is not brilliantly planned out and not intended to give a clear course in chess improvement. It is simply about topics I have considered along the way, which for some reason are in the forefront of my mind.

But this week I am trying to write a disciplined blog entry; one that I feel I should write. It is a bit like going for a swim in the ocean, rather than lying on the beach watching the girls walk by. It is good for you and you might even enjoy it once you get going, but it is not your preferred choice.

So here come ten possible ways for you to improve your chess. No matter who you are, if you are seeking my advice on anything, you will find at least a few strategies here that will help you along the way.

1. Analyse your own games deeply (and the games of others).

2. Solve puzzles regularly (my advice is six times a week x 20-30 minutes).

3. Understand what type of player you are and adjust your style accordingly.

4. Push your levels of concentration upwards and become a fighter.

5. Play real openings. Throw away the London, c3-Sicilian or whatever rubbish you are playing. If you want to develop as a player, playing main lines is important.

6. Learn by heart all the 222 obligatory positions from Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual.

7. Play through game collections with good comments.

This might vary from player to play; for some the Move by Move stuff from Everyman might be reasonable. But for most readers of this blog, I recommend books written either by great players, or books with a great reputation. For example, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Kasparov, Nunn, Anand, Karpov (the old books), San Luis 2005 and so on.

8. Use your body to the best effect for the game (stop poisoning it, for example).

9. Analyse your openings deeply and find your own systems with your own ideas.

10. Understand the basic principles of dynamics, statics and strategic play. These can be studied indefinitely of course, but you can always improve your understanding.

There are always a lot of ways to do anything. Anyone who wants to sell “the only way” is either selling chess studies or tablebase printouts. In the same way, it is possible to reach the same conclusion by many different thinking processes.

The only real danger here is that you fall in love with one system and become fixed to it. You can be the openings guy, or the endings guy, or the expert in solving studies. My closest-sitting colleague in the office, GM Colin McNab, is the last two. I am not sure if it has given his over-the-board play any great advantage, compared to if he had spread out his studies. On the other hand, he just regained the British Championship in solving (yes, Nunn and two other World Champions were competing)…

If you have to pick only one strategy (could be ‘Number 11’ for all I care), I would recommend to either do the one that excites you or the one you know you have been delaying forever.

132 thoughts on “Ten ways to improve in chess”

  1. The c3-Sicilian is rubbish? Then how do you define the Budapest gambit or the Chigorin defense? Didn’t you publish a book on the…ehm…Morra Gambit? Isn’t that rubbish?

  2. I agree with most of your points but I think point 5 is clashing against point 9. “Play real opening” but “find your own systems with your own ideas”

  3. Jacob Aagaard

    I meant no insult. There are people who play the c3-Sicilian as a real opening, but they are few and far between. If you do that, then you are right, this does not relate to you. But if you just dodgy the opening battle entirely, it does.

  4. Great tips. Will you elaborte on them in your book ‘Thinking inside the box’? E.g., I was wondering how best to understand what type of player one is, without asking a coach :-)?

  5. How do I find out what kind of player I am?

    And might my type of player not clash with number 5? Maybe I’m the Ulf Andersen type of player?
    (Ok, my problem would rather be that for some reason I’m always rewarded for playing dodgy gambits.)

  6. I think we all have a sense of what type of player we are to some extent. What kind of positions do you feel most comfortable in? I for one feel most comfortable when I have the initiative and therefore I value it highly. The positions you like to play the most show your playing style.

  7. Agree with points made, even if don’t practice them. Number 8 important, particularly for evening games after work. Youtube stuff (like GM Daniel King) valuable too.

  8. Hi, interesting post. I wonder about those 222 obligatory positions from Dvoretsky´s manual that you mention. I have both the 1st and 2nd edition here with me and I am sorry but I cant find such roster anywhere. Must be my fault tough. Wont you be kind to give us either the list, the related contents (if they are linked to chapters,numbers or something) or barely the page (s) of the book itself where this is referred?
    By the way, you never said this explicitly but I very much agree on the fact that the endgame must be constantly trained with topical exercises, and this is rather an activity of repetition. Is your planned GM prep. Endgame gonna be of such kind?
    Best regards.

  9. The 222 obligatory positions are the positions highlighted in blue throughout the book (at least in the 2nd edition, no idea about the 1st).

  10. Sure, LOL, duh. I didn’t wanna believe those were the ones, and I was looking for some kind of notation that would take me from 1st to 222nd. Thanks!

  11. Jacob Aagaard

    If you think the Sicilian is not a real opening, I am sure that Ulf did not play real openings. Sure, as he grew older he went more and more for dead drawn positions and then tried to win them :-).

  12. Jacob Aagaard

    Actually I am not sure it is 222. Maybe it is 220. I counted once and then forgot the exact number and cannot be arsed to check it again.

    Endgame play will indeed be an exercise book like all the others in the series. No great news there, though 1-2 sections might be somewhat refreshing and slightly “not seen before”. All the positions are of course new or new discoveries.

  13. Gilchrist is a Legend

    Point number vijf is one of the most important I think. When I was a junior player I was taught to play main lines always and I almost always played main lines, up to now as well. A serious player that is 1800 I think does not need to to play a Colle or Torre but can instead simply play 1. d4/2. c4 main lines like grandmasters. If one wants to strive to be a grandmaster, I think one must try to play in the style of one.

    A simple rule when I think of playing certain openings in certain tournaments is to ask myself before the tournament, “If I play this opening/defence, will this increase my chances of achieving a norm?”. I think those trying for the IM or GM qualifications probably already usually play main lines, but those untitled striving for norms could ask themselves that question.

  14. “Main lines” doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to follow them for 20 moves. 😉

    Many main lines have playable side exits.

  15. I try to explain point 5, Jacob correct me if I’m wrong. Main lines are main not always because they are the “best” (otherwise they would remain main forever) but because they are the most logical, direct, forcing continuation. Studying these lines you can study the state of art of the work of the best players in the world. The concept you learn can be used to apply point 9 of Jacob’s advice, i.e. study your own openings. Let me do an example. Take the Dragon. It’s a main line not because it’s the best (for sure it’s not the best for black side) but because both colors follow a crystal clear logic, opposite side castling and direct attack at any cost. Once you master the Dragon plans, you can adapt them to your own opening if it requires opposite side castling. The analogy is one of the strongest weapon in chess. So I’d add – study main lines even if you don’t play them regularly. They are the university of chess and you can’t become a GM if you are not proficient in all openings schemes.

  16. @Andre
    If you take one of the side exits, you lose the meaning of the main line. If you play the Spanish but deviate on move 5 or 6 it’s useless. Play the Chigorin, play the Zaitsev, play even the Smyslov or the Breyer, then you can appreciate the REAL Spanish and learn from the best players in the world.

  17. Jacob Aagaard

    Certainly a lot of this is inaccurate. Sure, you can be a GM if you have only limited understanding of the opening. The dragon is certainly a decent opening. And when I say main lines, I mean good openings :-).

    There is no contradiction to developing your own systems. Sure, if the Trompowsky, c3-Sicilian or similar gives you good positions after the opening and you have your own ideas; then this strategy is working for you. I do not think it is a long term strategy for many, but a few use it with success. But jumping from one poor system to another all the time is not recommendable. Why not learn something decent instead?

    But these are all strategies; not a to do list. Few GMs have done all of this. The idea is to take ONE of these and run with it. You can always get another one later on.

  18. @Jacob

    Don’t worry, it was a attempt to be funny. On a more serious note, of course #6 will be very beneficial, but I doubt it will be possible to know all the positions on the top of one’s head. On the other hand, the benefit of just studying these positions will be large as well.

  19. I guess the big question is where does one draw the line between “real” openings and “fakes” in number 5. The argument about the c3-Sicilian seems similar to what I see a lot in amateur play in the English. There are 2 ways to play the English, as least as I see it. As a true opening (like Marin advertises), or as a “System” (like what Kosten recommends, basically saying “I don’t care what Black does, your first 4 moves are c4, g3, Bg2, and Nc3).

    So where is the line drawn? Are the openings I play deemed “fakes”?

    – 7.Qc2 instead of 7.Rc1 or else just outright playing the Catalan against the Orthodox
    – 3.Nc3 and 4.e3 OR 3.Nf3 and 4.Qc2 (Former if I open 1.d4, latter if I open 1.Nf3) against the Slav instead of 3.Nf3 and 4.Nc3
    – Gligoric OR Fianchetto against the KID instead of the Mar Del Plata
    – Russian or Fianchetto against the Grunfeld instead of the Exchange
    – The Modern or Pribyl/Wade/Philidor instead of Sicilian/1…e5/Caro/French/QGD/Nimzo/KID as Black

  20. Jacob Aagaard

    Indeed. I am sure we all have our own ideas about what is real openings. But the main point is to play BIG chess rather than duck and dive. And as said, this i a possible way to improve, not a rule or requirement.

  21. A little warning:

    If you can understand German, definitely buy the German version (4th Ed. now, I think) of D’s Endgame Manual. The production values are so much higher that it’s not even funny. It’s as if you compare an early Gambit paperback to a new QC hardcover.

  22. One problem with playing mainlines that I see, is that whenever I play a mainline against a IM/GM we will end up in a position that he has studied more deeply and played more often than I did. Maybe, if the line is long enough, the rest of the game will from time to time not be long enough for me to be outplayed. But I will definitely never be able to apply any pressure.

    By the way, is the Schara-Hennig gambit a real opening for you, Jacob?

  23. @jacob, nice, because I order books only via new in chess. And there is a sign, temp. out of stock. Perharps I should find my self another dealer :).

  24. I must say on my expirience first thing that an amaetur player should do, after learning some basic endings (pawn endings, basic rook endings) should find an chess heroe/s and to find good books on them, good books are those which have more text than variations.

    That means that the moves are more or less explained.

    After 3 years of searching, I found some great boooks that helped me to found out which style suits me.

    Mathew Sadler wrote in Study chess with Mathew Sadler that there are three ways of thinking during chess game:
    1. active thinking,
    2. reactive thinking
    3. prophylactic thinking.

    Because Im 35, started playing chess 4 years ago I found out, that because of nature of my work I dont have nervse to play complicated positions, that prophylactic thinking is the right way of thinking in chess.

    Made some researche and found out, that I should start studying games of Karpov, Nimcovič, Petrosjan, Capablanca and Kramnik.

    First thing that I did, was studying Karpovs book of my best games (80 games), than started to study Tibors Karpov strategic wins 1 and 2 combining it with McDonald Chess giants of strategy.

    I cannt afford, because of nature of my job, to play as many tournaments as I would like in year but my rating in 1 1/2 year jumped to 2100 and something.

    I feel that it can go even higher if I would play more games or started to study openings more “proffesionally”.

    Prophylactic way of thinking is great even in openings, there are several openings that I finished well, because in the opening I was giving myself only two questions, what is my opponent intenting to do and how can I prevent it.

    The biggest problem of this, is that I spend a lot of time on first 10-15 moves, but in my level of opponents thats even a good thing, because they are not used to spend so many time on openings and I finish the opening stage with a nice plan.

    Now Im planning to study Jacobs serie of books (Positional play, Stretegic play), Dvoretsky endgame manual and positional play combining it with studying Capa and Karpov.

    The only problem that i found out working this way is that i play more or less static positions.

    Hope that quality chess will publish some good books on them basic dynamic positions or something like this :).

  25. Gilchrist is a Legend

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I think a main line I would only define for the player who wishes to improve to titled and beyond as perhaps as such: It must be 1. d4 with 2. c4 (no systems as you previously mentioned as Torre, Colle, London, etc.). For 1. e4, no systems, but main lines as always 100%, Open Sicilian against the Sicilian, a main move as such 3. Nc3/3.Nd2/3. e5 against French and Caro-Kann equally (with no King’s Indian Attack system). For 1. e4 e5, Main Line Spanish at all times.

    As Black, a main opening I would think would be the principal system of either 1…c5, 1…e5, 1…e6, 1…c6. For example, if you play 1…c5, no 2…Nf6 (Nimzowitsch Sicilian), but a stable, often played line such as Najdorf, Taimanov, Kan. 1…e5 a prinicipal line as the Petroff or Spanish Main Lines (Marshall, Breyer, Chigorin, etc.). 1…e6 and 1…c6 are self-explanatory.

    But I think also an extra prerequisite would be that the openings must be played by the top 100, and importantly, with regularity, as in they play it as their main opening and not as a surprise. Also they must play it regularly in the FIDE time control (90 min./40 moves + 30 min. + 30 sec. increment), and not count random outlier games in rapid, blitz, or blindfold.

    I am basically trying to see the view of someone trying to follow a grandmaster repertoire for both White and Black to be at least IM level, but I think they must start to have good habits, even at 1800 or so. But I would like to know your opinion of my classification.

  26. I forgot to mention, that my first rating performance was 2000 and that it was a starting point from which I got to 2100 after studying above mentioned books.

  27. Hard to argue with these ten.

    No. 3 is a bit ambigious though. Quite a few players will use a dictum like “Understand what type of player you are and adjust your style accordingly” as an excuse to just keep doing what they’ve always done to the exclusion of developing new skills. I.e. continuing to play for wild, unsound attacks in all their games, studying opening theory to the exclusion of everything else, or more rarely swapping as many pieces as possible and always relying on endgame skills.

    I know Dvoretsky has written something similar, but maybe this is more true for really strong players who have already done a lot to weed out obvious weak points in their play and develop well-rounded skills?

    4. Developing concentration and fighting spirit would be great of course, if only we amateurs knew how! Consult a sport psychologist maybe, or pick up good old “Excelling at Chess” or “Chess for Zebras”, which both had interesting discussions of these issues IIRC.

  28. P.S. I did notice the ‘adjust’ in point 3. But someone with a stereotyped “narrative” of himself as a player may not see much need for adjustment, or even become even more extreme in his chosen style.

    I’ve known players who saw themselves as brave “do or die” attackers, but could play quite strong positional chess if they would only allow themselves to do it more often. But it’s hard to recognize these biases in ourselves; we often need someone to point them out from the outside…

  29. @Jacob

    Just read the intro last night to Strategic Play…This looks very impressive. I know the material is very difficult but you have a great way of making these concepts accessible in a way other trainers do not. Looks like your best yet. Looking forward to the rest of this series.

    Thanks for all the hard work.

  30. @Jacob Aagaard

    I think there is some misunderstanding on the meaning of “main line”. Let’s do an example…the “giuoco piano” is a main line? Certainly it’s not a “good opening” in the sense it’s clear it gives white no edge…but in my opinion it’s a main line in the sense both sides plans have been refined through decades and both sides follows logic plans. I think studying the giuoco piano is very useful even if you don’t play it.

    Of course you can become a GM even with a limited repertoire of openings but not with a limited understanding of openings. For example you can play only the grunfeld but it’s very unlikely you will become a GM if you don’t understand – for example – the queen’s gambit structures.

    I’d add another insight. Often it’s not the system itself that is poor but the reasons behind that choice. For example the London system is not that bad and certainly white can’t be worse after 3 or 4 moves just because they are slightly illogical…it becomes bad when it’s chosen to avoid theory and therefore to avoid the teachings of the greatest players.

  31. Regarding point #8, which I find very relevant, being a slightly “old” player (41). Do you have any book/author recommendation on this topic – there’s so much out there…

  32. @Stigma
    Good point! I am hoping Jacob will give us some tools do such an assessment for ourselves in his book Thinking inside the Box. In the meantime, doing the tests in the Yusupov series will already give you at least a good idea on your current strengths and weaknesses. If you consistently score high on the tactical tests and low on the positional tests chances are you are more of a tactical player. On the other hand, it could just be that your positional skills are underdeveloped and your potential on that area is higher…

  33. Jacob Aagaard

    haha. No, it is not :-). I found that playing good positions even against stronger opposition was always preferable. And I never really had problems of disposing of the SH gambit and similar.

  34. Jacob Aagaard

    No, just don’t be afraid to order somewhere else when they don’t have what you need. We use the London Chess Centre, but if they don’t have what we need, we are not afraid to use Chess Direct, New in Chess or others.

  35. Jacob Aagaard

    Thank you. However, I am sure that Positional Play is the best book in the series so far (and might be until I know if Thinking Inside the Box will be any good :-).

  36. Jacob Aagaard

    The London is a clear system that is “rubbery”. You do not try to put pressure on the opponent from the beginning, but just hope he plays something bad. The Italian you can play with ideas of making life hard for him. No advantage exists in any opening, once Black plays well. But some put no pressure on him.

    Again, this is a strategy; if you are focusing on endings and tactics, continue with the London for now. But know that there will come a time where exchanging it with more optimistic openings will be a good strategy for improvement.

  37. I precise I don’t play the London system and I don’t like these kind of openings…but I don’t agree with your definition of pressure. There can be various way to pressurize the opponent and choosing a chameleonic opening with no clear path to an edge but many ways for the opponent to go astray is in my opinion a respectable way to play the white side (it’s not the way I like, you know, but a respectable way). On the contrary I don’t see any pressure you can apply with the italian opening (at least in the giuoco piano, c3 followed by d4) because the defensive resources are so well refined that no strong player can be surprised (well…Anand was surprised by my Evans gambit…but that was another story!).

  38. @Jacob Aagaard
    Jacob, I think implicitely you say by point 5 that the advice is for players near master level. You see, in an earlier post you said only to deeply study openings after getting an IM-norm. As an amateur, not even in the distant neighbourhood of getting such a norm I always believed it was better to study endgames, tactices etc, first. That’s also why Jussupow advices “rubbish” (not my words) like the Colle etc., I thought. What is your opinion about this? Would it be wise to play openings he proposes (Colle, Scottish 4-knights, QGA) while studying his books, and only after finishing them (an hopefully nearer getting a norm) to switch to “real”openings? Thanks in advance.

  39. @Ray
    Actually, I feel I have a fairly accurate and honest view of my own strengths and weaknesses. This comes from analyzing my own games in something like the way Jacob recommends (though lately I’ve been very pushed for time and only done this with losses and games against strong opponents, 2300+). And also from working through Khmelnitsky’s interesting self-assessment book.

    But the question is: What do we do with that knowledge? Do we work hard on our weakest areas, or instead adjust our openings and style to fit our strengths and minimize the impact of our weaknesses? The answer might be some combination of both, but the right “mix” depend on lots of factors: Our current level, ambitions, what kind of training work we’ve already done. It will be interesting to see further posts by Jacob on this topic.

  40. Jacob Aagaard

    I am ok with you disagreeing with me. It would be more odd if everyone agreed on everything (or worse, had to pretend to do so!).

  41. Jacob Aagaard

    To be honest, I do not think studying openings to a great extent is the fastest way to 2400. But it does not mean that it does not benefit to some extent.

    The list is mainly meant as a: if you are stuck, here are some ideas. No u2600 GM has all of this covered. John estimated he had 2/10 covered :-). They are ten strategies – not ten requirements.

    So, really, if this is what you feel like doing, then it is a good idea. If somehow reading openng books fascinate you as much as they do me, then you have a good option there!

  42. Well, the reason why I ask is that the engines seem to like the Schara-Hennig better than, say …, the Tarrasch. So contrary to the Tarrasch, the S-H might be totally sound.
    Of course you are a pawn down with no weaknesses in the opponent’s camp, but that just makes it hard to play and rather ambitious. And it certainly puts pressure on white …

    But ok, I’m one of those guys waiting anxiously for the King’s Gambit book.

    And of course improvement (of your rating) isn’t everything. As a chess fan I like to dabble in every opening a little bit. This certainly makes me a better player, but probably not a more successful player.

  43. Jacob Aagaard

    Nice to see that my good friend (and future GM) Sam Collins has surpassed 2500 with the c3-Sicilian (“despite your hate-campaign on the blog” – John Shaw)!

  44. Jacob Aagaard

    I personally could not care less than what my rating is :-).

    I am sure that the healthies gambit starts with 2.c4 – sadly 🙁

  45. @jmws
    Yusupov recommends the Colle-Zuckertort. This is actually an opening which puts pressure on black. Certainly not the most promising one, but white does have active ideas.

  46. What is the right distrubution of work on several themes (opening, middlegame, chess classics, tactics)? Is it better to finish what is started first ( example: tactisc) and than moving on next subject (strategy or edngame or working on desired opening) or making a mixture?

    1. Jacob Aagaard

      In general probably ok. It really depends on how you play it I guess. But it does not fall under no. 5.

  47. One more thought re strengths/weaknesses: Some of our weaknesses may depend so much on other weaknesses that this should dictate in which order we take them on.

    For example, I have clear scope for improvement in both attacking and defensive play. Of those, I should work on attacking play first, since good defense is so dependent on accurately recognizing the opponent’s attacking potential.

    Example 2: An outside observer would surely point to time trouble as my biggest weakness. But two other areas I need to work on are calculation and understanding the typical middlegames I reach from my openings better, and both of these should have quite some effect on clock handling. So it’s not clear to me that training that directly targets time trouble would be better (or even possible).

  48. Interesting discussion about « real openings ». I decided recently to abandon my usual rubbishes, no pressure openings and play again an ambitious e4 repertoire. But I was a bit disappointed to see all these d3 Ruy Lopez played by the 2700+ lately. Why play e4 if you don’t want (or can’t) to put more pressure than that on your opponent? I‘m currently working a bit on the scotch, a more “real opening” in my view and I put great hopes on your forthcoming e4 repertoire. Last time I heard about it, it was the scotch and something really “real” (but secret) against the petroff. No changes? No news?

  49. Master McGrath

    @Jacob Aagaard

    When did he pass 2500? The highest he’s been on any monthly list is 2483 (the June list will probably show a drop). I understand the point that he can pass 2500 at any time, not just on a monthly list, but hadn’t heard that he had accomplished this (and don’t see where it’s listed).

  50. A subject I can’t remember reading much about is “How to work with an opening book”. Let’s say I’m an ambitious player somewhere in the 2000-2200 range, I’ve just bought a good repertoire book on an opening I want to play and I don’t have a trainer. I suspect “just start at chapter 1 and try to memorize everything” is the wrong way. Playing through everything with board and pieces while questioning every line and trying to reach my own conclusions sounds better but will take me years, and that isn’t realistic and probably not the best way to spend my time.

    I need some method to prioritize the information in openings books, and a way to study them that goes further than memorization.

    So if you have some ideas about that, maybe that’s an idea for some future blog post?

  51. @Remco G
    Your request is spot on. Played two games against a GM in the weekend in rapid chess and I was basically killed in the opening as he played very sharply, probably due to the huge rating difference.

  52. @Master McGrath

    I am the source of the “Sam over 2500” info, and I got it direct from Sam. He is (or was) playing in an event somewhere in Hungary that had no on-line coverage. Now we just have to hope Sam’s arithmetic is correct.

  53. @Remco G
    A simple suggestion is to look only at the main lines (usually printed in bold) in an opening book. To me the notes are only for reference after I played a game since as you noted it´s simply impossible to look at everything in a reasonable amount of time.

  54. It would be enough to be over 2500 in the middle of a tournament and not necessarily at the end, right?

  55. @Tom Tidom
    I think it depends a bit on the type of opening. If it’s a very sharp opening like the French Winawer Posioned Pawn, concrete knowledge is essential – otherwise you run a quite high risk to run into home preparation. In my experience you can go through your reportoire rather quickly (including the sidelines) if you have entered everything into a database. It’s just a matter of pushing your arrow keys while wathcing closely your computer screen :-). But of course it takes some time – if you don’t have enough time for opening study maybe it is not such a good idea to play very sharp openings?

  56. Gilchrist is a Legend

    It also depends on rating. A 1800 probably needs to know less theory than a 2450 with two GM norms. As said in the post above, also the opening; knowing basic principles and only several details of the memorised moves in the Botvinnik Semi-Slav or Najdorf Poisoned Pawn (delayed or not nowadays) will very likely result in a loss for the player. However I think due to rating in such situations it is less risky for the 1800 than 2400 since if both players do not know the position/theory well then it might compensate. But it is still risky nevertheless.

  57. @Ray
    I don´t believe in memorizing opening lines. If an opening contains so many forced lines I really have to know just to survive than I don´t play it. The Najdorf Poisened Pawn certainly certainly fits into this category.

    While the French Winawer equivalent certainly is quite a sharp opening to me it´s not on the same level as the Najdorf. But honestly I don´t know if there are many lines where you have to play “only moves” to stay in the game.

    To conclude I think it makes no sense to play an opening where you have to know many long forced lines. I very much believe it´s more important to understand what you are doing on the board. For this approach it´s enough to follow the advice I gave above.

  58. Gilchrist is a Legend

    I used to play the Najdorf Poisoned Pawn, and it is almost impossible to play it with basic principles, because many times the moves are not obivous and/or do not make sense, for example the line with 10. f5, 15. Ne4 Qxa2, followed by 18…Ra7 followed by a 25-move sequence that must be memorised that leads to perpetual check. What can seem very minor mistakes in that line can lead to a loss after forgetting one move. This happened to me three times, and I had to resign before move 30 each time.

  59. @Gilchrist is a Legend
    I think that’s exactly why TomTidom doesn’t play these lines – as I said in my post it’s probably not such a good idea to play very sharp openings if you’re not inclined to do at least some memorisation. Of course it’s a bit a matter of taste, but in my opinion, if you have a good memory (I’m lucky to have one :-)), why not memorise some forcing / critical lines? Especially in this computer age it’s not that difficult if you put some time into it. I played a game in my national club league this season, where I played 23 moves theory (from Schandorff’s white reportoire), and ended up with a pleasant position which I subsequently won. Honestly, it didn’t take me that much time to memorise it, since I knew beforehand the opening lines my oponent had played in the past. On theother hand, I played some Kings’s Indian and Modern Benoni games with black in the past, in which I was poorly prepared, and I quickly lost because in these openings the weight of each move is quite large and therefore it’s not always useful to go by ‘general principles’ (which is exactly what I did in these games).

  60. @Gilchrist is a Legend
    PS: indeed it’s different if both players don’t know their theory, but in these cases it will even more pay off to invest some time in memorising critical / forcing lines, since you can then beat your ‘ignorant’ opponents more easily… Try for instance playing the King’s Indian Four Pawns or Saemisch Panno without concrete knowledge – it’s a bit like gambling i.m.o.

  61. Gilchrist is a Legend

    When younger, I used to memorise 30+ moves of 7…Qb6 Najdorf theory with the 10. f5 Nc6 11. fxe6 fxe6 12. Nxc6 bxc6 13. e5 dxe5 14. Bxg6 gxf6 15. Ne4 lines with 15…Be7, where it felt as if every slight mistake was automatic 1-0, and I suppose those who do not wish to memorise should not choose such lines of course. Many times however I forgot the theory or did not practise it enough, yet I played it. So in that manner it was similar to a gamble, except playing such lines and forgetting theory is like asking for more cards when one has two 10’s in blackjack..

    Fortunately there are calmer lines, for example I think GM6 2nd Edition has two lines that are not the 7…Qb6 lines. However I would not say that it validates using the Torre Attack to avoid theory. I avoid the Botvinnik Semi-Slav by playing Avrukh’d 5. b3 line, for example, which is slightly more atuned towards knowledge of ideas than the former. Regarding the Winawer Poisoned Pawn, I think some lines one mistake can cost the game, but that is expected when White can play h7 before move 20. I do not play that variation not as much for the memorisation, which is tedious also, but more because Black is a pawn down against two bishops and a passed h-pawn by move 12, but that has been discussed before already.

  62. Gilchrist is a Legend

    Also I suppose if one plays those lines, one must review them periodically. When I lost before move 30 in the Najdorf Poisoned Pawn, I forgot the move at around move 28 or so, and it is embarassing when my game is over in about 40 minutes or even less (sometimes even first in the tournament hall).

  63. Jacob Aagaard

    Surely playing memory-intensive openings is not for everyone. Personally I am not terribly interested in these preparation-competitions, but it does allow one to get into really unclear positions as well, which is where I find chess most entertaining.

  64. Gilchrist is a Legend

    Personally one opening that I feel is good that has much theory, but not so bad that one mistake will not usually end in an automatic loss is the Grünfeld. AFter studying Avrukh’s GM8/GM9 forgetting theory even in the main lines, perhaps usually the worst is a worse position, but not like the Botvinnik Semi-Slav or Najdorf Poisoned Pawn.

    I also used to prepare 6…Qc7 an 6…Qa5 in the Winawer as much as for the more theoretical openings. Preparing for any opening does lead to interesting positions usually.

  65. I think choosing one’s openings is extremely important. Three years ago I had about 1800, I always played openings such as Trompowsky, Sicilian with 2.Na3, French with 2.f4 etc. as White and 1…b6 as Black. I then started training with someone who has worked as a second for a 2750+ player, and since I’ve been playing pretty much every theoretical opening, Najdorf, Dragon, Ruy Lopez, French etc. as Black, and 1.d4 main lines.
    I’ve clearly improved opening wise, although to a level today I do not myself consider healthy. What I mean is that for a certain game, I could easily spend up to 7-8 hours preparing a certain line in, let’s say a Dragon variation, which would result in about 1-2 hours of sleep. But I would easily think it’s worth it if I know the ins and outs of the variation ( which would pretty much win me the game).

    Now to what I’ve learned. I’m a very active player, who likes to play with the initiative and not so much with positional stuff. An approach I will try this summer however, is to keep playing very active openings, but those who are less DEMANDING. Playing fun gambits can be fun, especially if they’re sound, but it kind of feels like fighting windmills when you don’t have a clear plan of getting the required compensation. The Marshall Ruy Lopez is a typical example of such an opening.

    I’m just a teenager, but even though me and my friends are relatively young, we cannot possibly remember all the complications in the Poisoned Pawn Najdorf etc. I mentally vomit when I see this line, and it’s simply not worth studying the ins and out of it, I wouldn’t recommend it to a single human being. You could just as easily find some playable albeit not World Championship Level-sound opening that has a great surprise effect, apply it for 5-10 games (which for most players should take about 6-12 months or even more).

    To sum up, I find it more useful to apply semi-sound, little-known main lines with a refutation very difficult to find over the board for a few times. When you’ve played it enough times to suspect a prepared refutation the next time, you could simply change surprise opening, it doesn’t take more than 1-2 hours if you’re efficient. Never mind studying deep into some line, such as Poisoned Pawn, it’s better to know a little about what to do against different 6th moves from White, rather than excelling against one of them.

  66. @Jacob Aagaard
    I agree, for me the goal is not to win with a final position I already had reached in my home preparation, but rather to reach exciting positions, giving my opponent as little chance as possible to chicken out. I think this is also in the spirit of the reportoire Schandorff is recommending, which contains some pretty critical memory-heavy lines such as the Botvinnik, anti-Moscow gambit and King’s Indian Saemisch. And even his recommendations against the Queen’s Gambit Accepted and Chebanenko Slav require some rmemorisation. Indeed, it’s not for everyone, but I love it :-). I consider it more or less a fact of life that modern chess is rather concrete and it is getting harder to survive the opening on general principles against a well-prepared opponent. Being 46 years of age myself, I find myself increasingly often playing against ‘booked up’ kids like Marvel (used to be), so why not join the club :-).

  67. @Ray

    Precisely! For myself, I’ve always found it very hard to play against a not-so-concrete opening. For example the King’s Indian Attack if I’m Black. From what I’ve seen, this is a problem for most young guys (although there clearly are exceptions). We’re also easily bored to death, I would have to confess. I’ve never performed well against these London-positions, and imagine my suffering if I would try to steer the game into a Botvinnik Semi-slav and suddenly face 3.cxd5, which of course is a very serious line nowadays. It would be very easy to see in a database what type of openings I try to steer the game into

  68. Jacob Aagaard

    I wrote a very good article for Meeting 1.d4 more than a decade ago on how to play against the KID attack. It still stands up.

  69. I think something is being overlooked here. Marvel is close to the subject which is very important, the style of a player. Say for a reflector (See GM Lars Bo Hansens books on strategic endgames) it does not make sense to study the black side of af kings indian, as this is a very sharp and tactical opening. A reflector will need a more “attack from the distance” opening like the nimzo. My point is, that one can easily send lots of hours and money on openings that will never fit your style or temp. This should be considered as well in the learning of an opening.

    Another idea to a book, which I have not seen in other books, is what Andrew Soltis describes in his book “What is takes to become a chessmaster” on page 180, Priyomes. This is the essence of and standard plan for how to play and destroy various pawn structure.
    If any knows about such a book I am very interst in hearing about it.

  70. Gilchrist is a Legend

    If you want to play the Botvinnik Semi-Slav, or any Semi-Slav, perhaps the Slav move-order is interesting as well. The Slav Exchange is not the most exciting, but it feels more pleasant than Exchange QGD to me.

  71. Gilchrist is a Legend

    If you have a good memory, you should consider the Najdorf. I play it and I still struggle with some lines, especially in 6. Bg5, because of memorisation. Openings such as those that utilise memorisation I think are those in which players like you would succeed, because if you memorise your theory, you often get good positions. Although of course the negative point is that forgetting theory can end up in bad positions, sometimes very bad..

  72. @Jacob Aagaard
    Thank you for the advice, I’ll check it out tomorrow when I’m at my local chess shop.
    And also, thanks for writing the Grandmaster Preparation series, the books are truly some of the best books I’ve ever seen, and as soon as I get some self-discipline, I’ll give a serious go at them.

    @Gilchrist is a Legend

    I’m not sure. The Slav Exchange is certainly booming theory-wise, and certainly I’m not too inclined at trying to silence White’s very slight initiative in order to reach an equal position.
    The Exchange QGD however, I still do not trust gives an advantage for White, even the lines with Nge2 a lá Botvinnik, but I must say that I seem to be the only one in the world right now who thinks so. Admittedly, I’ve played it myself with with over the years with great results.

  73. @Marvel
    Luckily we have Avrukh’s book now to deal with the London and the like. I play the Slav myself, but I’m bored to death by all these opponents who play cxd5. I’ve played the SLav for about 6 years now and have only once face the main line with 6.Ne5.

  74. @Gilchrist is a Legend
    Actually I have played the Najdorf, but the sharp French lines are more to my taste, since I like semi-open positions with pawn chains which I can tear apart. I am especially fond of the Winawer / McCutcheon type pawn structure in which my knights can dominate white’s bishop pair :-). I am considering to switch from the Slav to the King’s Indian Defence though.

  75. Gilchrist is a Legend

    The problem with the Poisoned Pawn if you want pawn structure imbalances is that Black sacrifices not only the entire kingside pawn formation, but sometimes even the c- and d-pawns, so I think 7…0-0 has the pawn structure plan compared to the former. However, I also play the Winawer sometimes, and Classical; both offer that pawn structure tension to which you were referring. The recent number of French repertoire books inspired me to switch steadily from my former Sicilian 85%/French 15% to about Sicilian 30%/French 70% now. I think Playing the French and Berg’s GM14 will increase the French percentage. But when GM6 2nd Edition is published, perhaps that will compensate..

    Avrukh’s GM11 is one of my most practically useful books; neither playing nor studying how to play against the Torre/Colle/London/Veresov/Barry/Blackmar-Deimer is quite enjoyable, but the high amount of times for 1. d4 games in which those openings arise is surprising. In 2008 I remember I played a few tournaments, and even at my level back then, which was around 2280, I think I only played against 1. d4/2.c4 two times in the entire year.

  76. Gilchrist is a Legend

    If I had to say the opening most which I play against 1. d4, it would be the Torre, followed by the Colle. At least the Trompowsky is interesting for both colours.

    Concerning the Slav, I never had the problem of playing against 6. Ne5, since when I played the Slav people still played the Torre/Colle/London against me as well.

  77. Gilchrist is a Legend

    6…Qa5 is good, but sometimes I am concerned since it is not a main line in the true sense, but somewhat a sideline. I am not sure of the scale of its analysis, but people usually consider 6…Ne7 as the absolute main line. I have played it before and like it, and I cannot find any line where Black has a serious theoretical problem. I usually like two lines for the Winawer. I think this is where GM14 will help.

  78. Gilchrist is a Legend

    Many will play 4. e3, and 3. cxd5. There is also 3. Nc3 in conjunction with 4. e3, which I think was addressed in a QC newsletter. I am lucky to get 2. c4 anyway, the anti-1. d4 openings are anything but lekker.

  79. Regarding Avrukh’s latest book, I must admit that when holding that heavy piece of analys is, I as tempted to start playing those systems myself as White, because if Black would have to know THAT much, it truly can’t be that easy for Black to play. And yes, I plan to use then Colle & Torre (against 2…g6) this summer.

    @Gilchrist is a Legend

    The Glasgow Kiss isn’t fullt sound though :/ Would be excellent if it was but White can repel Blacks initiative rather easily, it seems

  80. Nikos Ntlirlis

    I’d like to learn how in fact! I may have found a line where the situation is maybe in White’s favour but still with very unclear play. I’d like to know if there is something simpler.

  81. Jacob Aagaard

    Sounds like a match coming up :-). Boris’ approach is to make it lively; obviously you can play rather dull against the Colle and be fine too. But this was not the point of the book…


    Tubbygold :
    …the subject which is very important, the style of a player. Say for a reflector (See GM Lars Bo Hansens books on strategic endgames) it does not make sense to study the black side of af kings indian, as this is a very sharp and tactical opening. A reflector will need a more “attack from the distance” opening like the nimzo. My point is, that one can easily send lots of hours and money on openings that will never fit your style or temp. This should be considered as well in the learning of an opening.

    Jacob, can you give us some guidance how to find out what kind of players we are? Can this be done by opening, memorization capacity, calculation capacity, love for endgames, or what?


    PS Nobody tackled this issue in literature quite well. Why?

  83. Jacob Aagaard

    They have. Dvoretsky created a basic grid. You have four types of players, based on two factors:

    a) Intuitive or concrete

    b) active or technical

    Lars Bo Hansen used the same system in his first book, which describes the idea pretty well (but does not recognise the source of the grid). It is the one which claims to use his business skills as a part of the explanations. Personally I was pleased when I got past those :-). But the rest of the book is decent.

    It is definitely a future post, btw. I cannot write more than one a week, so be patient.

  84. @Nikos Ntlirlis

    Well, the key game Melkumyan-Ragger, Bundesliga 2012/13, and then 12.f4!N (I think in your annotations to the QC Newsletter you only mentioned 12.Nf3, and 11.f4. Here Black’s bishop is already placed on d6, even though it would rather stand on c5 and I haven’t found a decent enough waiting move after 11.Be2. Unfortunately, my analysis file crashed a few months ago so I only remember this much, with the idea of Ng1-f3-d4, O-O and maybe Be2-f3.
    I assume you’ve analyzed the move already though. If you’re very serious about trying to make the line work for Black, I would be more than happy to help you find some attempts at refutations etc., although I personally would prefer not to give too many details publicly on a blog, no matter how great the blog is.


    I guess it’s different from person to person. If you have a great memory, then go for it! I don’t however :/ Somehow I tend to remember completely unuseful things instead.

  85. @Jacob Aagaard

    Looks like a good article, I’ve played that setup a couple of times and I like the c6+d5+e5 structure a lot. However, I can’t see any coverage of the move order 1.Nf3 d5 2.g3 Bg4 3.Bg2 Nd7 (your recommended move order, if I got it right) 4.c4!
    4…e6 looks more natural than 4…c6 to me now, but then a quick 5.cxd5 exd5 won’t allow Black to capture with his c-pawn as he did in the game Adams-Bacrot, which you annotated. If 4…c6 though I was always thought that 5.cxd5 cxd5 was favourable for White since the knight is already on d7 (can’t go to c6 in one go). Here 6.O-O e6 7.Nc3 Ngf6 does look like a normal position but White has scored incredibly well after 8.Qb3 at top level. I guess the bishop pair does count for something after the unavoidable …Bxf3 sooner or later.
    Please forgive me if I’ve missed something, my head wasn’t built for handling move orders.

  86. Hi Jacob

    What´s the tilte of this Dvoretsky book describing the four types?

    “They have. Dvoretsky created a basic grid. You have four types of players, based on two factors:

    a) Intuitive or concrete

    b) active or technical”

    Best regards

  87. Marvel :
    To sum up, I find it more useful to apply semi-sound, little-known main lines with a refutation very difficult to find over the board for a few times. When you’ve played it enough times to suspect a prepared refutation the next time, you could simply change surprise opening, it doesn’t take more than 1-2 hours if you’re efficient. Never mind studying deep into some line, such as Poisoned Pawn, it’s better to know a little about what to do against different 6th moves from White, rather than excelling against one of them.

    I can sympathize with that. Lately I like to play reasonably correct side lines against players up to my own level, for example some lesser known lines of the FR Millner-Barry, the Kortchnoi gambit in the FR Tarrasch or that FR Tarrasch stuff propagated in a Chess Stars book where white gets an IQP. If the opponent knows it well, which happens rarely, I still get a playable position and it’s a game.
    It’s also possible to play ultra-sharp openings in a similar way against amateur players. I have played the Botvinnik a couple of times against players slightly weaker than me over the last few years. Last time I briefly looked at the theory was after Vigorito’s book came out. It’s a semi-bluff. If an opponent says ‘call’, I’ll play some totally unknown side line and hope for the best. But if he does what ca. 90% of all amateur players over 25 do – avoid early conflict unless they really know the theory – I get exactly what I want. Slow answers to something like the Botvinnik simply don’t cut it.
    I’m fully aware though that sooner or later I’ll run into somebody who knows it better and my game will be over in an hour. That’s a price I’m willing to pay.

  88. @Andre

    Interesting, I must say that most of my opponents actually walk straight into the main lines until the don’t know any more theory. Unfortunately, basically all players in my country know who I am and what type of player I am, so they’re starting to avoid sharp lines. Playing those sharp lines and knowing them reasonably well is a good way of collecting points, although the surprise effect starts to wear off by now. I guess it depends a lot on the different circumstances.

  89. Gilchrist is a Legend

    What to do when players from 2000-2450 continue to play the London/Colle/Torre against you? It is fine to say one must concentrate on winning the game rather than the annoying openings, but the problem then is that one does not achieve sufficient practise in the main lines, especially for norm tournaments or tournaments of a higher level. A main line used to be a rarity when I used to play in the club that when I played internationally I had little experience in the main lines, having played against either the TLC complex or every line and deviation that was not the Open Sicilian.

  90. @Tubbygold

    I think the book is:
    Mark Dvoretsky
    Tactical Play
    School of Chess Excellence 2
    page 75
    Chapter titled “Logic or Intuition?” the chapter is only a little over 4 pages.

  91. @MSC
    Stilll, one could ask what a ‘real’ opening is. Are the King’s Gambit or the Morra Gambit real openings e.g.? I think they are if you play them ‘seriously’, with the right intentions. Still, numerous author’s maintain that once you’ve grow up chess-wise you should abandon gambit openings like these. I think up to a rating of 2400 or even higher it’s perfectly fine to play these openings. I they give you satisfaction and you have no ambition to become a GM, why not? Esserman writes some funny and in my opinion wise things about this issue in his book on the Morra.

  92. I’ve started moving my chess forward after years of stagnation. I really like Jacob Aagaard’s latest exercise books even if I disagree with some of the text (lesson brilliant learning material is essential, we all understand chess differently). On openings, I would say don’t play openings above your ability. Mine I think has gone up so I can play more difficult openings. But playing main lines such as the Botvinnik Semi-Slav I think is pointless at almost any level below GM tonnes of learning and hardly any understanding involved. I think up until pro-level adding variety rather than being a mono-maniac might be the way to go. We’ll see how that works out for me but life’s too short for playing openings where you’re just learning lines and really no fun. Best play in most known openings leads to small advantage for white, which is why we’re seeing lines formally seen as lacking bite played. Finding openings where you ask your opponent serious questions of their ability and your own is the real goal.

  93. Scott Hogfoss

    I came to your site from a blog post on The Chess Mind by Dennis Monokroussos where he said your blog was very good.

    Since coming here I noticed that the Yusupov books are frequently recommended. I had never heard of them but did a little research and found that his series is 9 books, divided into 3 levels of skill. I was wondering what book a player of my level, 1917 USCF, should start with in the series.

    Also I have your chessbase cd Right Decisions but haven’t had time to get around to it yet. I hope to start it soon, it sounds like a good training cd!

  94. @Scott Hogfoss
    Welcome to the blog Scott. Your question gets asked a lot here. The answer Jacob Aagaard gives is, “start with the three orange books.”

  95. Please forgive me any radio-silence. I have a lot on; including making up the variation-index of a 720 page book…

  96. Jacob Aagaard

    John will answer some things over the next three weeks; where I will also go on a well-deserved holiday in Spain with a childhood buddy.

  97. @Jesse
    @ Scott Hogfoss: I’d like to add that you shouldn’t mind the rating level recommended in the book. I have a FIDE rating of 2200 and started with the orange books (these are the ‘lowest’ level). Some chapters were very easy, but others rather difficult. In this way you get a good picture of your strengths and weaknesses.

  98. @Jacob Aagaard
    Sorry for getting back to a 2013 post but I have a question for you regarding 7:
    Must the study be based on structures and openings of our repertoire?i.eBotvinik’s book is fine but I am a e4 player and I am not going to face the majority of the positions covered in the book.
    Since my time is limited, in order to study games based on my repertoire, I use games from a DB that I constructed from twic downloads.I select games from specific players (i.e adams 1.e4 gam
    es against Pirc and French) and I am going through them move by move using SF. Rios’ book on structures is a must reference in this procedure. What do you think of this approach?

  99. @Vassilis
    You have two questions.

    1. If you are stuck in an opening paradigm, you will never develop much as a chess player. Learn from all players and all structures and you will expand your mind.

    2. This is useful too; as another way to learn, not as a substitute for following the thinking of really strong guys.

  100. Hi Jacob,

    I would like to ask an additional question to “1.” from your last post.
    Do you recommend a broad opening repertoire or a small but “deeply” analyzed repertoire.
    E.g. I play Kings Indian and Modern/Pirc, but I have no clue about 1.d4 d5, so I have the feeling I missed something.
    Anyway I have both Nikos 1.e4 e5 and 1.d4 d5 book and I am thinking about to broaden my repertoire with 1.d4 d5.

  101. @Patzerking
    Being exposed to a lot of openings through seeing games is different than actually playing them. Some players thrive on a narrow repertoire; others get bored and lose faith in themselves. It is entirely individual, I think.

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