by Steve Lopez

Last summer's Electronic T-Notes series on learning a new opening is still generating a lot of e-mail. The latest letter comes from my friend David Schreiber, who wonders how one separates the proverbial "wheat from the chaff" when tackling a new opening.

David is trying to add a new opening to his repertoire. He writes:

Unfortunately, I am running into a problem during the first step of generating the initial tree. The opening goes in many different directions and I am having the most difficult time trying to decide what moves to put in the tree and which to leave out for now. My tree has many variations -- probably too many.

I noticed in both of your examples (the Scotch in the original article and the Smith-Morra in last week's) that you were able to put forth a fairly clear first 10-12 moves without too many side variations. Is there a best way to do this? I would have thought that the opening book I am using would suggest a main line, but it doesn't. It appears that any opening I choose will have this problem. Can you give me any advice on how to choose a main line?

David raises some crucial questions on the subject of developing a repertoire. Just how does an amateur player (e.g. a player that doesn't have several hours a day to devote to chess) pick and choose which openings and variations to learn?

Much as it hurts our pride to admit it, we have to start by facing a simple fact: nobody ever became an expert on anything overnight. When it comes to learning a new skill we're all veritable infants. One can't become a brain surgeon in ten easy lessons. Nuclear physicists aren't churned out by correspondence schools. Even comparatively easy tasks like learning a chess opening have to be undertaken a step at a time.

First of all, remember that most of your work in opening preparation is simply wasted time. Grandmaster Larry Evans recommends that players rated under 2000 not even worry about the opening. I have to admit that GM Evans has a point; the vast majority of games I've played against class-level opposition go "out of book" before move eight.

So why study the opening at all? The main purpose of learning an opening in-depth at the class level is to understand the ideas behind moves. What are the plans and goals for both sides in a given opening? What does each player hope to accomplish? Knowing the answers to these questions is infinitely more important than being able to rattle off the first fifteen moves in any given opening variation. If you understand the "why" behind an opening you'll find it much easier to punish your opponent when he plays that doofy non-book move.

Basic opening theory is more complicated than it sounds. I learned early in my own chess development the value of control of the center, development, and King safety. But I'd been playing chess for almost 30 years (and serious chess for four) before I learned that the object in the opening for both sides is to establish a pawn pair at K4 and Q4 while preventing the opponent from doing the same. Sad but true; I read chess books voraciously for four years before I stumbled across one that imparted this little pearl of wisdom. Suddenly a whole world opened before me. I finally understood openings that heretofore had been a mystery. The Hypermoderns even made sense to me!

The lesson is that you can't take anything for granted. Nothing beats some good old plain-language explanation when you're trying to learn something new.

Your first task in learning an opening is to understand the main ideas and objectives for both players. There are several excellent books that will provide you with this information. I've mentioned them all in previous issues of Electronic T-Notes, but it's certainly worthwhile to repeat the list:

The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings by Reuben Fine (McKay Chess Library, 1989, ISBN 0-8129-1756-1). This is the granddaddy of "opening idea" books. A copy of this belongs in every chessplayer's library. The book has come under recent fire for containing "outdated variations". People who voice this criticism are missing the entire point. The specific variations take a backseat to the ideas expressed in this book. Fine states clearly and succinctly the plans for both players in all of the major openings. This is a remarkable book that may someday be equalled, but will never be surpassed.

Chess Openings: Theory and Practice by I.A. Horowitz (Simon and Schuster, 1964, ISBN 0-671-20553-6). This book was an attempt to create a single-volume opening reference for the club player. It succeeds admirably. Each opening's section begins with a short basic line, a few branch variations, and copious notes on what's happening. Horowitz then fleshes out these skeletons with "Idea Variations" (showing the ideas at work) and "Practical Variations" (illustrating what was actually being played in top level chess at the time the book appeared in 1964). He also provides a complete game or two for each opening he covers. I have a friend who's a Class A player and this is the only book on openings that he owns. Time has passed by many of the specific variations, but the general ideas are valid and the book' presentation is excellent. This is why the book has remained in print for over 30 years.

Basic Chess Openings (Cadogan Books, 1997, ISBN 1-85744-113-3) and More Basic Chess Openings (Cadogan Books, 1997, ISBN 1-85744-206-7) by Gabor Kallai. A wonderful pair of books. The first volume covers the 1.e4 openings, the second volume covers everything else. Kallai cuts right to the heart of the matter, presenting a main line (with a few critical branch variations) for each opening. When his main line ends, there is a section called "Plans and Counterplans" in which he describes just that: what each player will now try to do. These books are pricey ($18-$21 each, depending on where you buy them) but I've found them to be the best repertoire books in my collection.

My advice is to get all four books if your wallet can withstand the hit; otherwise just get Fine's book. If you're a class-level player, you'll find these books infinitely more valuable than ECO. Trust me; I have a complete set of ECO (and more than one edition of some of the volumes) and I use them strictly for reference as a writer. ECO's practical value to me in anything but postal chess is virtually nil.

But I still haven't directly addressed David's core question. How does one select a line to concentrate on?

That's easy: you cheat. You let somebody else select it for you.

Let's face it -- most of us are lazy chessplayers. If you're anything like me, you'd rather be spending time with a pretty girl or kicking a soccer ball around with your kids than putting in countless hours trying to develop an encyclopedic knowledge of the openings. Most of us don't learn an opening until we're absolutely forced into it.

Here's an example. One of my myriad chess programs has a level in which it prefers the Latvian Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5). I've played thousands of chess games and faced the Latvian a grand total of three times (all against John Maddox, who is an acknowledged fiend for the Latvian). So a couple of weeks ago, I decide to try a new level in this program and BOOM! -- I'm looking at a Latvian.

So I break out my copy of Kallai's first volume and I start following along as I play against the computer:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5 3.Nxe5 Qf6 4.Nc4 fxe4 5.Nc3 Qf5

Whoops! The computer has played something unique. 5...Qf5 isn't even given in Kallai's book. What do I do? I muddled through the rest of the game, trying to follow the ideas as best as I could, but eventually lost. I reset the board and took White again. Another Latvian -- another loss.

Here's where I decided to get serious. I cracked open all four books I mentioned earlier in the article and started furiously clicking in moves and typing in comments using ChessBase (I could also have used Fritz for this). Once I was finished, I went over the main lines and variations, reading and rereading the notes, until I felt I had a pretty good basic grasp of what the Latvian was all about.

There are our first baby steps, complete in five paragraphs. I would never have bothered to learn anything about the Latvian if I hadn't been forced into it by an annoying computer program. I open a repertoire book and follow the suggested main line. It doesn't matter if the main line is "good" or "sound" or "trendy" or "fashionable" according to the dictates of what they're playing at Linares this year; all I need is a basic starting point. I'll worry about the "soundness" of the line later. Right now, I need to learn some basic ideas.

Another means of deriving a starting variation for learning an opening is to do a straight statistical search. Use ChessBase or Fritz to gather all the games you can find for the opening you want to learn, then use CBTree or Fritz5 to create a tree from these games. Just step through the tree and follow the most popular (frequently played) variation for twelve to fifteen moves for each side. Voila! Instant basic variation.

Good sources for basic opening lines are chess periodicals. Chess Life and Inside Chess frequently run theoretical articles on openings. Edmar Mednis' column on openings in Chess Life is an especially good source for class-level players who are looking for an introductory variation on which to base their study of a new opening.

By using these methods, you allowed other people to do the "grunt work" for you in determining a basic variation for your chosen opening. You just input this variation into ChessBase, Fritz, or Bookup, adding explanatory notes at appropriate places.

However, you'll notice that my computer opponent went "out of book" on move five of my example game. How do we handle situations like this? One variation does not a repertoire make! We'll look at the process of adding variations to our repertoire tree in next week's Electronic T-Notes. Until then, have fun!

You can reach me by e-mail with your ideas and suggestions.