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Saturday, July 2, 2016

Can Chessable Help You Learn Openings?

Chessable.com Review

In this article, I will be reviewing the training tool Chessable at chessable.com. Chessable is a tool that helps you to remember your chess opening sequences using spaced repetition learning. Besides learning about Chessable, I will also be discussing the usefulness of memorizing openings and memory and chess in general, as well as how Chessable takes advantage of other aspects of science to help us learn chess.

In general, I like Chessable and I think it does what it does well. The question we will discuss here is whether or not that is beneficial for chess players and various levels. I will give my recommendations on how you might most benefit from Chessable if you choose to include it as part of your training program.

How Chessable Works

With Chessable, you follow this process to memorize (and learn) openings:
  1. You enter (or upload a pgn) your opening moves into Chessable.
  2. You then "learn" the moves as Chessable presents them to you. 
  3. Over time, depending on whether you remember the moves or not, it will present you specific positions based on their spaced repetition learning algorhthm. 
Theoretically, by studying the opening moves in this fashion, you only have to learn the opening moves once, and the rest of your time on Chessable is spent reviewing positions over time in the most efficient manner possible. Then you can spend the time you save (because you do not have to review openings as much) on other aspects of chess and life.

Chessable testing my Two Knights Defense

What I Like About Chessable

There are a few things I really enjoy and I think are useful about Chessable. These include the following:
  • The user experience is enjoyable and fun. Chessable uses concepts of gamification, such as a streak meter, experience points, and "rubles" (the currency of Chessable) to make the process of studying and training enjoyable. This is not to be underestimated as consistency and persistence are two aspects that are both necessary for long-term memory retention as well as two things that are often lacking in player's training programs. There are many reasons gamification works (check out this article on gamification on Inc.com if you are interested).

Keep your streak going, earn Rubles, and level up!
  • Spaced Repetition Learning works. I have long been a fan and proponent of this type of learning. I write a little more about it in my article on 4D learning. Chessable does this well. As you repeat the moves in certain openings, the program will present positions you know well less often and review those positions you "fail" on more frequently. This presents certain implications that I will discuss later in terms of your choice of openings to include but the point here is that Spaced Repetition Learning is both supported both by scientific research and by logic and common sense. I personally have been using this type of system to retain knowledge for chess as well as other pursuits (such as language learning and business).
  • The Developers. I corresponded with the developers of the program over a couple e-mails. I was impressed with their dedication to improving Chessable as well as the general pleasant interactions. In perusing their forums, the developers seem very responsive to issues as well. Software will more often than not have problems along the way, and if you are going to invest your time and money into something for your long-term chess improvement, you want developers who are going to keep the software up and running. 
  • The "Difficult Moves" Feature. Chessable notifies you about the moves you don't know as well. You can then use the "Overstudy" this particular line to see it in context with the rest of the moves in the line. I also think in general it lets you know that perhaps you need to try to understand this move a little more. This feature is available in the Pro (premium) version only.
  • The "Overstudy" Function. The Overstudy Function allows you to quiz yourself from the beginning of a line to the end in order. Although you will be looking at individual positions from your openings - e.g. not always starting from the beginning of the line - there are times when you will want to study a line from the beginning. Such times would include perhaps when preparing for a known opponent. During my evaluation of Chessable, I found another user who used it to memorize favorite or key games and used the Overstudy function to go through each game.

Things that Made Me Go "Hmmmm."

  • Tree of Variations Not Visible. Unlike chess database programs like Chessbase, Chesable doesn't allow you to view a game score where you can see all of the variations. This can be useful if you're trying to scan for a specific position or line. Each "variation" is a separate line for Chessable, which doesn't really matter for the positional review using Spaced Repetition Learning, but for general study and viewing, not being able to view an opening with a game score style tree is a disadvantage.
  • Does Not Handle Transpositions Automatically. Since Chessable handles each opening line as an individual entry as opposed to a positional database (like a program like Chess Opening Wizard), the program does not deal with transpositions. This is not necessarily a huge problem, as the problem can be mitigated by careful entry of variations into the program as well as good indexing. Part of this criticism is based on the fact that I was a long-time Bookup user and this was a key benefit of Bookup. Also, I maintain a fairly narrow opening repertoire in that for each position I only play one (maybe two) variations, so transpositions are important in my openings, while someone who plays a broader repertoire may not worry about it so much because they may have several responses they play.
A view of my Black Repertoire (part of it, at least)

  • Software is web-based. Chessable is a web-based subscription software. I know there is a move towards this as it gives developers a steady income while providing users with automatic updates and quick fixes to their software. Call me old-fashioned, but I like being able to pay one price, download the software and choosing if I want future updates. Also, I like to keep all of my chess data on my hard drive and be able to back it up. There is always the risk (albeit a small one) that the software company either has problems with their servers or with their business and all of the work I put into entering and refining my opening repertoire goes away. 

The Benefits of Memorizing Opening Lines

About 15 years ago, I purchased Bookup, which I enjoy quite a bit. The main purpose of that software was to memorize your openings as well. I knew my opening lines quite well, but my general playing strength did not improve just by memorizing openings.

I realized a couple things about learning opening lines:

  • Memorizing lines that you do not understand is almost useless.
  • Thoughtful and active repetition and memorization of opening lines can lead to deeper understanding.
These two discoveries may seem at odds with each other, but learning openings works in both directions. I definitely believe you should try to understand the reasons behind every move you play in the opening - at least to some extent. Failing to do so will just lead you to problems later in the game when you do not understand how the move you made on move 5 affects the decision you make on move 20. Until you are a fairly strong player, it is important to use good books or chess coaches that can explain the reasons behind the moves. I discuss this in another article with IM Greg Shahade.

However, if you understand the basic reasons behind each move, repeating and memorizing the moves will help lead to deeper understanding. As you study more games within your opening lines and connect the plans and strategies to the moves you made in the opening, your efforts to memorize your openings will increase your understanding. This will happen if you ask yourself a few questions when you make your moves. Here are a few examples:

  • Why is this move the best here (as opposed to other reasonable moves)? The answer lies in the future plans of the position.
  • What can my opponent do if I don't make this move that he otherwise can't make? The move may prevent or discourage a specific move that your opponent wants to make in the position. 
  • What tactical or strategic aim does this move serve? Some moves are simple reactions to your opponent's previous move - e.g. avoiding a piece being taken - while some moves have more future implications - e.g. trading a bishop for a knight due to the structure favoring one over the other.
Besides this, there are certain openings that do not require specific move orders to reach their key positions. For example, openings such as the London System, Colle, or King's Indian Attack are focused on more of a piece and pawn set-up as opposed to specific move orders. These types of systems do not need memorization of their opening moves because they play very similar moves no matter what the opponent plays. With these types of openings, I still think Chessable can be helpful, if one uses it to memorize key themes by using model games instead of many variations.

However, some openings, such as the Dragon or Najdorf Sicilian, require a little more specific move orders, and thus can benefit much from memorization. In these types of openings, different choices in move orders will require different responses, and you will need to enter many variations to cover the critical lines.

Using software like Chessable can be very useful because memorizing openings can help you learn chess overall if you do it right.

Recommendations for Using Chessable

Overall, I think Chessable is a neat tool for learning and remembering chess openings. Here are a few recommendations on how to best benefit from Chessable:
  • Selection of the right opening material is important. Using good books, videos, or coaches to provide instruction before you start memorizing is recommended. There are places to enter notes into Chessable for each position and you should use these if Chessable is your main tool for storing your opening lines.
Add comments to your positions
  • I store my opening repertoires and model games in a database like SCID or Chessbase and only enter the lines that I feel I need to memorize. For example, some of the lines of the Ruy Lopez as Black I feel are a little sharper and the moves need to be very precise, so I enter those into Chessable. Other lines I feel are better studied by understanding the key ideas, and I do not enter these into Chessable. If I did, I would enter the specific game and set Chessable only to study certain moves of the game (which is another feature of Chessable - the key moves feature).
  • Over time, you will need to continually maintain your repertoire - this is true no matter what tool you use. Some lines you will choose not to play anymore. With these, you can stop studying them and Chessable will take them out of the repetition rotation without deleting them from your data (just in case you pick the line up again).
  • If you are a Pro (premium) subscriber, you can use Chessable to memorize key games (since free members can only study up to the 10th move in a variation). I think this is a great feature in memorizing model games to remember key strategies in your opening repertoire.

Conclusion - A Final Warning

In general, my opinion of Chessable is positive. I think if you follow my recommendations and use the software every day, you will remember the opening lines that you enter into Chessable. I only caution you to not overdo it. This software is fun to use, and I think like other types of fun chess software - CT-ART comes to mind for tactics training - it can get overused to the detriment of studying other critical parts of chess. That being said, it is great for what it does and overall I encourage you to give Chessable a try.

Your Turn

Have you used Chessable? What do you think of it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Disclosure: I have no financial interest or affiliation with Chessable.com. They did provide me with limited-time access to the Pro (premium) version of the software for the purposes of writing this review. However, I have no incentive to write a positive article, and my opinions and recommendations are my own.


  1. I think this is a very balanced review, and my limited experience of Chessable and other related software (CPT) is consistent with what you write.

    It would be interesting to add some elements of comparison between Chessable and CPT or Bookup. For example, I find Chessable quite pricey compared with CPT (9,90€/year for CPT vs. 60$/year for Chessable without lasting guarantee of service). What exactly does one get for this extra price. Functionnally, this is unclear, as it looks like CPT offers more options than Chessable does.

  2. Hi! Thank you for your comment. I think eventually I would do some type of comparison between CPT, Chessable, and Bookup, as these three seem to be the main tools for memorizing openings. I think Chessable is a little different than the other two as it schedules your training according to its spaced repetition algorthym, while the other two seem (I've only used Bookup) to allow you to quiz yourself, but you do it on your own schedule. What I want to do is use Chessable for an extended period of time and see if it actually cuts down on my opening review time - e.g. Do I need to review my openings more this way vs. the "old way" - using Bookup.

  3. CPT uses a spaced repetition algorithm too, which is similar to Chessable's I believe.

    1. I was just notified of that. I haven't used CPT, but I think I might have to give it a try. Thanks!

  4. I have CPT and also have used Chessable.

    I can't see Chessable have any advantage over CTP.

    The problem I have with CPT is it's complexity. Even with a thick manual, I sometimes have problems using the CPT.

    Besides this, I'm not sure CPT will survive in the future. The author seems to have problem with or lack of interest, to update the software regularly.

    1. I have been using CPT and I like it a lot as well. It is a bit more complex, but has a lot of powerful features. I'm hoping it will stick around. That being said, that is also the reason for some people to prefer something like Chessable. Right now I'm using both as I already had part of my repertoire in Chessable and in a way evaluating CPT perhaps for a future review. Thank you for writing!