Friday, June 17, 2016

5 Tips for Developing Your Opening Repertoire with IM Greg Shahade

IM Greg Shahade
IM Greg Shahade


Developing an opening repertoire is one of the most important tasks of a chess player.

It is also one of the most confusing for beginning and intermediate players. 

A couple years ago, I read several articles by International Master Greg Shahade revolving around developing an opening repertoire. His articles were logical and made a lot of sense to me, so I asked him if he would give answer a few questions about the topic and he generously agreed.

Although Greg and I cover a lot in this article, I recommend you read his original articles to get the full context of our discussion.

There's a lot of back and forth between Greg and I in this article, so I'll try really hard to indicate who's writing what.

Tip #1: Select Openings Based on Your Chess Goals

In Greg's article Greg on Developing an Opening Repertoire, he discussed basing your opening choices on your future ambitions in chess. Basically, the higher up the chess ladder you want to climb, the more you will have to learn main line openings. In the article, he has some specific suggestions, and I asked a few questions to expand on these points.

BRYAN: You mention that players with high ambitions should stick with main line openings. 

Is part of the reason for this is because those openings are more complex and therefore players will learn more? Or mainly because those openings are the most competitive (as demonstrated by being played the most at the highest levels)? 

GREG: That's basically it. 

1. You will get the best positions with the main line openings 
2. You'll learn more   
3. You won't have to constantly relearn new openings and structures when you get stronger (because it's just so hard to get an advantage with a substandard opening against a top player). 
There's a reason all the top players play a few agreed upon decent openings, and if you try to get away without that, you're going to eventually run into a roadblock where your openings will hurt you. 
A good example are people who play the Benoni exclusively. I believe at some point...maybe the 2400-2500 FIDE level, it becomes a real problem, and so it's better to eliminate it as soon as possible. Maybe keep it as a surprise weapon but it can't be your go to opening, and least not with the current state of theory.
BRYAN: What do you think of an approach that limits one’s openings to specific structures? For example, openings like the London or King's Indian Attack or repertoires that focus on elements like Isolated Queen's Pawn (IQP).
GREG: I think it's fine if you don't have many huge ambitions in chess, but if you want to go really far it's not a great idea.  
However for most people, many of whom have jobs and limited time they can spend on studying the game, I think it can be a decent practical decision, as long as the openings are good.  I don't think it's so easy to force or aim for IQP positions for either color though.
The London is a better example and for white I think it's fine to play this way if you don't have any grand ambitions.
Oh, also playing KID and KIA structures are probably the easiest way to get similar positions all the time. Only main issue is against 1.e4. 
BRYAN: Do amateur players need to worry about their "style" or does playing the "right" openings for their ambitions and goals matter more?

GREG: I don't think that amateur players have to worry about their style, but they should just play whatever makes them happy, as long as it doesn't suck. If you have no great ambitions in chess, you can literally play anything, because you're just having fun with the game.  
But if you want to be much stronger one day, weird openings like the Center Game, Kings Gambit or something like 1.e4 c5 2. Nf3 a6, should not be one's main opening. (although if you want to play it every now and then as a suprise weapon its fine).

Tip #2: Use Good Sources for Your Opening Knowledge

In Greg on Chess: Opening Books, he discusses some of the flaws of many opening books.
  • They are too long (without being instructive).
  • They are not objective - White can't always have a big edge and Black can't always get equality!
  • They are quickly outdated.
BRYAN: In your article about opening books, you discuss the flaws in opening books as well as some recommendations on how they can be improved. If this is the case, how would you recommend players learn openings (assuming no knowledge)? 
GREG: My blog was mainly written for talented kids/players who are already about 2000. I actually think that for players U1600, and definitely for total beginners, opening books are useful.  
However I would stay away from the books that are encyclopedic in nature and just give an endless number of lines and variations and instead focus on books that demonstrate key ideas. However once you are 2000+, most of these books aren't too useful. 
I do think there are some opening books that are good even for master level players, and some books that when used in combination with a proper ChessBase database, could be useful for even 2400+, but these are the exception rather than the rule. 
BRYAN: In addition to good books, I would also recommend coaches are a good source of opening knowledge. The idea is that when you are still developing your overall chess knowledge, you need sources that will explain the ideas and not just give a ton of variations with no explanations. As Greg stated, as you get stronger, your study will evolve into using chess databases to look up the current theory.

Tip #3: Balance Rote Memorization with Understanding

When you are learning new openings, it is important to understand the reasons behind every move you make. In a lot of openings, specific moves can be interchanged as long as one understands the general reasoning behind the moves. However, there are some openings where the specific move order is extremely important.

GREG: Some openings rely more on rote memorization and some are more ideas. There are plenty of lines where even I barely know the exact moves but they aren't so urgent (for instance playing against something like the London Attack). Whereas with white in the main line against the Dragon ideas still matter but you have to know more exact lines than in a normal variation.
BRYAN: This is where good opening books (or coaches) come in handy, because they can point out where strict memorization (and understanding) is needed in specific lines.

Tip #4: Understand the Ideas and Plans for the Middlegame (and Endgame)

A big mistake I see beginning and intermediate players make - and I was guilty of this as well - is to simply focus on the opening sequence of moves. They will memorize the first 10-12 moves of their openings (quite well in many cases) and figure on "playing chess" with a decent position after they get out of book. The problem comes when they are out of book and have no idea of the plans and ideas that arise out of that opening.

In Greg on Chess: The Value of Studying Openings, Greg says that the best reason to study the openings - when done properly - is that you will gain many strategic and tactical ideas. I recommend reading this article in its entirety because he gives a couple good examples of this. 

Besides having good sources for your opening knowledge, here are some ideas to help you apply this tip to your chess training.
  • Study complete master games within your opening repertoire - annotated if possible, especially if you are a beginner.
  • Catalog games and positions that illustrate the key ideas in your openings. Chess databases like Chessbase are great for this purpose.
  • Try to figure out why (or find out) how the opening moves lead set you up for the middlegame. This will also help you remember the move order and understand what you should be doing when your opponent deviates from your main lines.

Tip #5: Don't Rely on Chess Engine Analysis in Opening Study

In one of the comments to Greg's articles, the person commenting using one of Greg's examples showed that it was not the top choice of the chess engine - apparently refuting Greg's example. Of course, I thought this illustrates a big problem with amateur players - over-reliance of chess engine analysis. This is problematic particularly in the opening.

BRYAN: What do you think of chess engine analysis in opening study – particularly for players rated below 2000 (and how does it differ for higher rated players)?

GREG: For U2000 players an engine is definitely not necessary for opening study. As you get higher rated it becomes more important. 
The worst annotated games I see are often when players rated around 1900-2100 are clearly parroting engine lines without any understanding of the reasons behind the lines. 
Also lower rated players don't have a good feeling for when an engine line is "irrelevant" (basically a line that no human will see in a game so there's no point even paying attention to it in postgame analysis). The lower rated player will then call their move a "blunder", despite the fact that almost all master level players would play it. The student simply doesn't understand this because their chess understanding isn't high enough and Stockfish says one line is .4 better. This type of stuff leads to so much confusion. 
I could easily write a whole article about this subject, but most U2000 are just horrible at using a computer engine in all aspects of chess.
BRYAN: The chess engines can be very useful in helping us find tactical mistakes in our games. However, they cannot explain why or how we can avoid these blunders.

As Greg notes, as you get stronger the chess engines can be useful, but I agree with Greg that amateurs need to focus on improving their chess understanding before using the chess engines too much.


Developing an opening repertoire is a long term project. There is no "perfect repertoire" and your own repertoire will evolve as you experience different openings and increase in your chess knowledge and skill. Our hope is that these tips will help you maximize the benefits you receive from your opening study.

I want to thank Greg for his generosity and time as well as his insightful answers. I encourage you to check out Greg's blog at You can also follow him on Twitter @GregShahade.


Your Turn

If you liked this article, please share it with others. 

Also, I hope to have Greg back for an interview where we can get to know more about him, his chess and other interests. Is there a question you'd like to ask him? Put it in the comments below!

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