How to use opening books (and own analysis) for memorisation

I have been asked about writing this short article a number of times and have hesitated, because it is obvious that many will have other ideas and opinions, as well as be critical of what I will say. But to make it clear: I am just presenting my own system, which makes sense to me. I am not saying that this is how everyone should do it or that this necessarily fits most people. It is just how I have had positive experiences working.

I am basing this on the Grandmaster Repertoire books and on one experience I had with a student, rated about 2200 4-5 years ago.

Basically, I asked her to type in the moves in bold in the books; the main lines. Put them in simple ChessBase files. Obviously it is a good idea to read the notes, but the only thing you need to memorise is the moves in bold.

She did this and two weeks later we had a training session, which included some blitz games. She remembered the main lines and main ideas, meaning that when I deviated, she would have a good position and know more or less what she should do. I managed to trick her a few times, but essentially I was annihilated.

My recommendation is to go through the files from time to time (before tournaments make sense!) doing the following (with the program, in training mode of course!):


Slav Defence

Say the move you think is the next one out aloud, then press the forward arrow to reveal if you remembered it correctly.

If you are struggling with a line, return to it within half an hour and try again. Repeat until you remember it.

I used this strategy before a game in Tromso where Nikos had suggested some very deep theoretical prep for me. It seemed risky, but after an hour, I understood one of the most complicated variations we have in chess. Obviously I could still be surprised, but not by my own ignorance!

There is an obvious benefit to having a second with you and not everyone has this. But a bit of extra self-discipline would do it as well. I don’t have this, so I rely on hiring a second…

I am not sure how useful this is for others. I am not a big opening specialist. But this is the way I have been doing it, and it has worked well for me and those I have helped with openings.

64 thoughts on “How to use opening books (and own analysis) for memorisation”

  1. Hi Mr Aagaard,

    very interesting. I`m a mere 2200 player Γ­n his mid 50Β΄s and began this month for the first time ever studying openings seriously (to be ready for some tournaments after retirement from my job in 12-13 years) and building up a repertoire for both colours.
    At the moment i use the program “chess position trainer” to type in the openings including sidelines i chose and the program asks me every day to repeat the not already learned moves within days, the already lerned moves within weeks. Thanks to your hint i will now change that a bit to first learning the mainlines and later (after the overview is kind of comlete) adding sidelines. It sounds so clear and logic to do it this way, but first one has to read it in your blog ….

    Greetings and thanks for Your wonderful books


  2. I did the same thing. I got the modern benoni book, charted my special route of playing it and inserted every single line as individual games (only lines from my special route – no overlaps). And then I go into training and have fun for hours!


    I fully agree – that’s why I use the method advocated by Axel Smith in ‘ Pump up your rating’ : I enter the bold moves in several games (e.g. for Negi’s book I divided the French in several chapters, i.e., Winawer Poisoned Pawn, Winawer 7…0-0, Winawer Sidelines, Steinitz, and Rubinstein & minor variations), and I also enter the final evaluations + plans, and commentaries at ley moces and positions. Negos’ book is ideal in this respect, because it was ‘ just’ a matter of copying his outstanding comments. It’s a lot of work, but once it’s all entered in a database it’s very easy to study and add changes as theory progresses. I have entered the entire Negi book in this way, but is was worth the time I put into it, because I went through all the lines at least once :-). By the way, at positions which require more memorisation I enter ‘ memory marker’ so that I remember to make an extra effort to learn these cricital lines by heart.

    And of course I keep it for strictl personal use and won’t give it to anyone else πŸ™‚

  5. @GM Rob
    Yes, of course – it took me roughly 40 hours. I bought the book on monday 11 August and I finished entering it last Friday. Just a matter of grinding through πŸ™‚

  6. @Niall Doran
    1) I don’t have children
    2) I work 4 days per week (4×9 hours), so I have every friday totally for myself (so that’s already 16 hours)
    3) I was just back from holiday but had 3 days left before returning to work (that’s another roughly 12 hours)
    4) Most of he remaining 12 hours I spent in the weekend.

    But of course this was an exception for me, because I desperately wanted to fniish this before then start of the new chess season. Normally I take more time and mainly use my fridays and maybe up to 4 hours in the average weekend.

  7. @Niall Doran
    πŸ™‚ Me too – but I have to say I already have very good experience with this approach; I also entered my black reportoire in this way (e.g. Avrukh’s books on the Slav and 1.d4 d5 deviations) and it really saves a lot of work later on, preparing for specific opponents / occasions.

    By the way, I don’t see it as work, but as a hobby πŸ™‚

  8. @Ray

    How many games will you be playing next season ?

    Due to new job I have stagnated for a year, but with the upcoming chess season (national league ) I decided to go for it again. I identified my lack of calculation skills and vision in general as main blockader between me and 2200 strenght. So decided to go for it and spend 1h/day on the GMP Calculation book and occasionally diving into Psakhis tactics book. (Which I believe is the perfect follow up on Jacob’s calculation book).

    To keep motivated I decided to only buy chess books when reaching milestones in my training program. And with QC tempting books on the market, i finally found a working reward system ☺

  9. @Ray
    To me 40 hours seems a bit slow :-). This is only 15 pages per hour. I am sure I could do more like 30-40?! Also, I would do it while watching a TV show on Netflix, which I am always looking for an excuse to do…

    But in reality; for personal use, I will just go to the main drive and copy the author’s ChessBase files. But I do occasionally play things that are not published by QC and then have to do the work…

  10. I copy the entire Schandorff book and I’m in the middle of copying Ntirlis & Aagaard Tarrasch. I have the bold lines (w/o commentaries) of Marin’s.

    I find it very time consuming (I wish I could access the main drive too!) but it is really useful, because afterwards I can access the files from my computer, from my phone and from my tablet. Moreover, it is easier to expand the book with new analysis once some new idea has emerged.

    What I do is: each game (in the .pgn file) has a variation. For example, Chapter 05 (White) – Line B342 (Black). Afterwards, in the cell phone I use SCID on the Go in training mode to study the lines. Easy way to kill dead time in the subway.

    Will the Forward Chess application be able to do what SCID on the go let me do?

    1) Open the next variation (bold moves) in training mode so I have to guess the White’s (or Black’s move) while replying instantly with the other colour.
    2) Update the content of the book with new variations (storing it) and commentaries (for example, in Marin’s books it is sometimes necessary to update the variations because he proposes senseless moves for Black while the engine claims equality with many other moves).

    If it were possible, I would go so far as to pay more for the online book than for the phisical move! It will save me the effort of manually copying the entire book!!!!

  11. @rigao
    Great! The biggest change I made from earlier way of working (and based on the advice of Axel Smith) is to include comments on plans etc. It is also the most work, but it really pays off since it enables you to much better remember what you have to do in case you have forgotten the specific moves.

  12. I am playing in a correspondence (email) tournament. It is a theme tournament (King’s Indian) and am using the Kotro book, because I decided using the fianchetto would throw people off. I had entered chunks of the main line, and am very pleased with the familiar feel of the positions I get, and the results. My point is sometime a book that is dedicated to one side of a system is really useful from the other side of the board.

  13. Maybe QC can start selling books in ChessBase and PGN format like Everyman Chess does. It is much easier to dump a PGN file into ChessPositionTrainer then prune the branches you don’t want than to enter it by hand like Ray did. When you import the PGN file it also picks-up the authors comments as text, not just the moves.

  14. This is yet another example that shows you should get a big skip and set light to those old “instructional books”. Many books when I was young said learning openings by rote was a bad idea. Turns out that whilst you eventually need to understand the openings you play, you also need to learn how to remember them.

  15. Selling PGN is surely best for illegal copies to appear! What Ray did takes time but it is worth it. I did myself the same for Avrukh Slav and Nikos’ French. The starting point was to download the reference games and add the comments/variations up to the 15th move.

  16. Ray :
    Great! The biggest change I made from earlier way of working (and based on the advice of Axel Smith) is to include comments on plans etc. It is also the most work, but it really pays off since it enables you to much better remember what you have to do in case you have forgotten the specific moves.

    I would like to add another point by Smith: A key problem is *information overload*. So get rid of everything trivial. If the standard plan works against a move, cut out the details.

  17. Hi jacob/John

    Have you any had any thoughts on producing a book on a variation of the Closed Lopez for Black such as the Chigorin, Breyer or Zaitsev?

    Are these still in good shape at the top level?

  18. @Jay
    I often talk to people who have my Everyman books and do not even realise that the PGN copy someone gave them is actually something that should have been paid for.

    The Everyman model works like this:

    Cut out printing costs
    Cut out transport costs
    Sell limited amount of copies
    Pay low royalties, because fewer copies have been sold!

    After the Excelling series went to ebook, against my outspoken objection, my royalties have halved.

    If you want PGN books, buy from Everyman’s 2100-rated players. A few of them are great, like Tony, but you will find that actually, what Avrukh and Negi has to say is more important than getting it in PGN format.

  19. @rigao
    Can you please send a more detailed explanation of SCID to Forward Chess. They would love to hear suggestions. No promises on action; but suggestions is a good idea!

  20. I am pretty sternly against the PGN book formats of any kind. I know that when my book comes out, I’d like to be compensated fairly for the three and a half years of work and the thousands of hours that I spent on it.

    To me, Forward Chess has it right – keep everything proprietary and manage everything through a format that cannot be easily shared. The downside to this is placed solely on the publishers and the moneymakers – they have to provide the tool instead of using any PGN viewer, usually Chessbase. I even paid for QC books twice just to have them on my tablet!

  21. There are some great ironies in these various e-book business models. I agree with rigao that there’s a very real sense in which an e-book is MORE valuable for the customer than the printed book (doesn’t take up shelf space and suitcase weight, for one thing; and you might well spend time digitizing it anyway), and with the Everyman pgns it’s even easy to mix and match from different books and add one’s own analysis. Yet of course the cost to the publisher is less, so they sell them cheaper!

    I don’t know if Everyman’s model is sustainable, but personally I’m glad it exists. It’s even possible to jumpstart building a digitzed repertoire by starting from one of their e-books and adding lines from a superior QC book on the same opening!

    And en passant, the pgn e-books I have bought by, for example, Emms, Scherbakov and Greet are quite a bit above 2100 level in quality πŸ˜‰

  22. I’m also very happy with the QC books on Forward Chess so far, and hope it’s profitable enough to continue! So far I’ve bought Schandorff on the Queen’s Gambit, Avrukh on 1.d4 sidelines and Gormally’s Mating the Castled King as e-books.

    Especially opening books and tactics/endgame books that can be used as exercise collections “on the go” suit this format well IMO. Though maybe not the toughest exercises like in the GM Prep series, where I’d want to use a physical board and pieces anyway.

  23. @Stigma
    If you look at the authors they have, you can see a clear trend. Obviously it started early on with regular writers, but they got less and less of those.

  24. Most people seem to be a little bit lazy in my view – I really don’t see what’s wrong with making your own PGN-files!

  25. @Ray Well, although most books from QC are called GM-something, most of us aren’t grandmasters and will never be, and there are reasons for that. It takes some time and discipline to enter the moves by yourself – and it’s already part of the training. But of course it’s a lot easier to use a prefabricated file, click through some of the variations – with your engine running – and call it preparation. And I think that’s what most people prefer, wondering why it’s not working as expected.

  26. Thinking that a phisical book is harder to pirate than a pgn book makes no sense. I understand that this is Aagaard and Shaw’s decision, and as such I respect it, but you must leave in a parallel world to think QC books are not being pirated right now…

    For me, pgn is the best format because it works across all platforms, but when ForwardChess meets my needs, I for sure will go buy some book in that format, it will save me the time to input all the lines manually.

    Jacob, which is the e-mail direction to submit my ideas to Forward Chess?

  27. @Thomas
    I don’t find it difficult to input the lines. I do it on my cell phone when I’m in bed. Afterwards dropbox syncs it to my main computer, where I write the comments, but this is not necessary.

    Entering the bold moves of a book is a pretty straightforward job, it may be a matter of two weeks going 30 minutes to bed early to make the inputing, but as Jacob said, it is pretty easy to do it while watching TV or something, as normally it does not require anything creative for you. But w/o the commentaries and the sublines, I am normally left wondering why another move is not possible, or why is the reason to play this instead of that, and as I don’t carry the book with me, there is no way I can look it up. That’s why I try to copy the whole book, not only the bold moves. Afterwards, I only study the bold moves though. And that’s the tough part.

  28. At the moment Forward Chess seem to be moving well ahead of the competition. They have the only reader which has an engine incorporated, and there has been a steady stream of new releases. The Gambit reader hasn’t added any books in a while, and E-plus has only had a trickle of books over the last few months – I’m still waiting for the appearance of the new translation of My System on E-plus – reviewed by John Watson on TWIC in December! Personally, I don’t like the format of the Everyman reader.

    Quality Chess has definitely chosen the correct e-book publisher to work with IMHO.

  29. That is what I wrote to FC (in the contact form they have in their web). I paste it here to see if some1 has better ideas.


    I have some suggestions to improve the ForwardChess software. I don’t know if it would be feasible, but maybe it is, and it would improve the application a lot.

    Imagine we are talking about an opening book. It has many lines (chapter 3 – variation B231, for example), with comments, subvariations, etc. I’m sure all of this exists in a chessbase (or similar) database. It may have something extra, like a conclusion at the end of the chapter, an introduction at the beginning, etc, but the core of the book is lines from a chessbase database.

    The idea would be to have this database accessible with the application.

    The functionality I propose would be:

    1. View a game from the list. It should be clear which chapter and which line you are going to view. You would see it as you see any normal game in chessbase. A position and the moves with commentaries. Tapping on a move would jump as it is normally done in the FC application, nothing new here. The only thing to implement here would be to have a list of games to jump from one to another.

    2. Once viewing a game, jump to the next game, or to the last game. A random game move would be great for tactic books.

    3. Once viewing a game we should be able to start training mode. This mode will hide the moves (and commentaries). It will wait for us to make a move. We would try that move in the board, if this move is in the game, it will accept it and move the other ply (following the main line in case it finds various moves, as it would do if you click the next move button), and wait again for the user to input another move. If the move the user tries is not in the game (not in the commentaries either) it will show a warning that this move is not found and will return to the position.

    Once the whole line is shown, a message will apear telling the user no more moves are found.

    To change the side we are moving, we just click the next move button, so it moves this ply, and waits for us to enter the next ply.

    If the position is such that we have no idea what is the next move, we have two options, either click the next move, which will show the next move and let us move with the other color, or exit training mode and let us see the actual game.

    4. In the normal mode, while visualizing a game, it will let us create new lines and commentaries (maybe not commentaries if the application is not brought to a desktop enviroment). New lines will simply be added moving the pieces in the board. Long-tapping in a line by us will let us delete it, or make it the main line, etc). They may be saved in a different file from the book and be shown as a layer to the real book. That would be perfect as to save the real book untouched.

    What I’m proposing will indeed be like having the book in a chessbase format, and the FC application would have to be similar, but there is already open source like SCID on the Go that can do that, so I see no reason why this application cannot do that (if the technical difficulties in the format are not a show stopper).

    Thank you.”

  30. I completely understand those who talk about the pirating of their books if they appear in PGN. It’s a sad fact that whilst having them in PGN is convenient this format was designed to be open.

    I also like books in the Kindle format. Although not idea for chess it does mean I can read them on my phone or read them on my main computer depending on where I am. The price point for Gambit Books on Kindle makes it hard to resist them sometimes. And learning to visualise chess whilst reading is a skill in itself.

  31. @Ray and Thomas: A certain Dano-Scottish GM (among many others) has argued that while openings study is important, many people even up to the very top spend too much time on it to the detriment of everything else.

    So in an otherwise busy life, having openings stuff already digitized saves precious time for working on endings, calculation, tactics, attack and defence, strategy… all the stuff that actually decides most OTB games, you know? And after the e-books started coming, it’s getting easier and easier to stay within the luggage limits when I travel to international tournaments. I don’t see how any of this makes me “lazy”.

  32. @rigao
    It is a question of quantities. We have a lot of info. You cannot prevent crime, but you can reduce your exposure to it. and there must be a contact somewhere!?

  33. @Stigma
    Sorry, I have the feeling you misunderstood me – I wasn’t meaning to say that people who study less openings and more middlegame, endgame etc. lazy; I was calling people lazy who do want to put a lot of time (whether rightly or wrongly so) in opening study (why otherwise ask for a complete PGN file of an entire opening book?), but don’t want to take the time to enter the moves themselves in a database. I don’t understand this since as I said before this gives you the chance to go through all the moves at least once – which doesn’t sound like a mind-killing activity to me (at least not if tyou don’t watch TV at the same time). If you can’t even be bothered with going through all the moves at least once, why then ask for a PGN file of all these moves? If it is wise to put this much time in opening study is of course an entirely different question. I think there’s more than one road to Rome; personally I like studying openings, and I view it also as studying middlegame and tactics at the same time.

  34. @Stigma
    I do not find it lazy to have pgn ebooks. I personally have a favourable situation of course, as I have access to the original files.

    I do think putting in the lines make sense. I do not think it is wasted time; but there is of course a point of limited returns.

    The problem for us is entirely financial. We have joined Forward Chess to make our books available and to help with a lot of other publishers to get a common platform that can be continuously improved. I personally think it is nuts that a few publishers all rushed to make their own format. I like the joined up way much better. Hopefully everyone will be on Forward Chess one day. What is good for the user will be good for the publishers too.

  35. @Ray: Yes, I hear many people say that they benefit from inserting all the opening moves (or “merely” all the bolded moves in the QC case). Whenever I’ve tried to do this with an opening book, it’s just taken too much time. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, putting in all or most of the comments in particular takes forever… And for me, playing through an entire book “at least once” isn’t enough to remenber anything – repetition and practice is also needed.

    Anyway, most of my opening study these days happens in the hours just before a game, while preparing. So it becomes imperative that I have access to as much relevant material right there, in the city the tournament is played. All the big QC books sitting pretty on my shelf at home are pretty useless in that situation, but the ones I have on Forward Chess are not. πŸ™‚

    In an ideal world I would of course have files with my complete repertoire, collected from all kinds of sources and continually updated, but that’s always seemed like a utopia to me. I don’t know how people manage that and still have time to improve all the other parts of their play. And still, the opening phase is very rarely a major weakness in practice – even against titled players I’m usually OK out of the opening, and the problems appear later. Which makes me believe any extra time I manage to free up for chess should be spent more on endgames, calculation, strategy etc. etc. than on this utopic “complete” repertoire, at least for the time being.

  36. @Stigma
    I do understand your point, and what works best for one person may work less well for other persons. You rightly point out that repetition and practice is needed. But that was also more or less my point: the time needed for regular repetition is (in my experience at least) much more than the one-off effort needed to enter a complete book (including comments) in a database. Once you have done that one-off investment it takes relatively little effort to keep it updated. Especially if the basis is high-quality (as is the case with basically all QM Rep books), theory will only change at certtain point to the extent you have to choose anotther line entirely – that’s the advantage of going for the main lines. So indeed at the moment I don’t have much time left for studying other areas of the game, because I’m switching from 1.d4 to 1.e4, but once that’s done I will definitely have sufficient time again to continue with my study of GM Prep Positional Play and daily tactis exercises.

  37. @Stigma
    “@Ray and Thomas: A certain Dano-Scottish GM (among many others) has argued that while openings study is important, many people even up to the very top spend too much time on it to the detriment of everything else.”

    That’s one of the beautiful things about Negi’s book. Aside from the opening, it’s one of the best middlegame books ever written. πŸ™‚

  38. Jacob,

    Not bashing you, but do want to challenge your idea in the article and what your take is on the following:

    For simple openings that are more conceptual-based, like the Ruy Lopez, Queen’s Gambit Declined, Petroff, Sicilian Accelerated Dragon, etc, I fully agree 100% with your approach.

    However, certain other openings where a slight tweak in move order or a slight change in move, like doing a Rook lift one square versus two, can SIGNIFICANTLY alter the game because often the opening is highly dependent upon sacrifices, like the Botvinnik Semi-Slav, Flick Knife Attack (a.k.a. Taimanov Variation) variation of the Modern Benoni, or the Sicilian Dragadorf versus the Accelerated Dragadorf, there are too many particulars about the position that memorizing the main lines and skimming the side variations I don’t think is going to be sufficient at all for success. Openings like these you have to, in my humble opinion, be very particular and exact in all variations, not just the main lines, as they tend to be of the nature that one minute slip-up and you might as well resign, whereas if you compare it to say, the Orthdox Queen’s Gambit Declined, if you don’t play the opening ideally, you’re not completely wiped off the board in 20 moves or less.

    I’d be interested to see what you have to say about this.

  39. Obviously I am not recommending throwing the book away, but that you read it fro time to time. You can always add thongs tomyour files. Also you cnnot remember everything anyway. At some point you will have to think for yourself no ,tter what.

  40. Jacob Aagaard :
    It is a question of quantities. We have a lot of info. You cannot prevent crime, but you can reduce your exposure to it. and there must be a contact somewhere!?

    Actually there are only a contact form and the forum.
    The whole page is a disaster, transporting the message that it’s an amateur effort. At least in Germany, if not the whole EU, this *business* page would be plain illegal. Imprint? Address? Tax-ID? Business form, for example “Limited”? Name of the managing director? Name of the guy responsible for conformity with youth protection laws? All missing!
    Approximately half the QC books on the all books page don’t have pricing information.

    edit: A contact email is hidden on the forum page.

  41. There is also a chapter “How We Work in the Opening” in Tzermiadanos “how to beat the French defence” ( Study the classics, study the games played by the experts of that opening, Study the positions with the same pawn structure, even if they arise from a different variation, Study the typical endings that can arise, …)

  42. Hum, I understand and agree with many things from here (but the comments about pirating are funny, at least…) but personnally I’m too lazy for using many hours to enter moves in a computer and I prefer real books to digital books. Although I have some programs, I don’t really like using a PC for working chess.

    But it’s just me, maybe… πŸ™‚

  43. Phil Collins, there was an old book from the late 90s that took the exact approach you mentioned and I still think it is a viable resource as it is not an opening book, per se. While it acknowledges that the exchange QGD is the most common scenario, it points out that many other openings lead to the same pawn structure, most common being the Nimzo-Indian and Exchange Caro, leading to the position with colors reversed. Since it was published 7 years before Quality Chess even existed I can’t see the problem mentioning the title. It is “Middle game Strategy with the Carlsbad Pawn Structure”.

  44. On the pgn/pirating issue. It would be interesting to see a respected author do a crowdfunding for a openingbook. Firstly crowdfunding can help make clear which topic the funders prefer. Secondly, the author is assured of a certain income and thirdly the author can share the pgn with the funders without too much risk.
    The risk lies with the funders paying up front for a book still to be written. That’s why it will only work with an author that has a strong reputation.

  45. @JB
    While in Quality Chess we just print the stuff? You can get Sakaev’s two books on the Slav and see what happens when an author writes a book without a publisher. And the issues are not only with layout, though they are the most immediately apparent.

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