by Steve Lopez

We're (finally!) pretty close to the end of the line with this series. We've started with a basic opening line, learned the concepts, practiced it, built upon it by adding lines, contructed a database and tree on that opening, and examined ways to use these tools to increase our understanding of the chosen opening. What's left?

No matter how well you think you know an opening, you'll always be surprised by it. Nobody ever completely learns an opening. There are always new novelties being played or old lines being rehabilitated. And there are always weird side variations that show up once in a blue moon but which do show up. The simple fact is that learning an opening never stops. There are openings that have been in my repertoire for a decade that still surprise me occasionally, when a correspondence opponent launches into some odd variation or tries to slap me down with the latest novelty.

Playing an opening is an ongoing process that never ends.This week we'll turn our attention to that process.

First and foremost, keep up to date. Keep separate databases on the openings you play and keep them updated. You can get The Week in Chess off of the Interrant every Monday, search for the games of your openings, and add them to the individual databases. (ChessBase provides you with some tools for this: "Get New Games" in the Help menu, which grabs and downloads the latest few issues of The Week in Chess, and the Repertoire Database functions, which were described in ETN on October 4, 1998). A great source for annotated material is ChessBase Magazine. And don't forget print publications as well -- many of them offer annotated games and opening theoreticals. You can easily use the annotation tools in ChessBase and Fritz to add the variations and commentary from these games to your database. If you're really desperate for discussions on your chosen openings, there are tons of message boards online in which opening ideas are kicked around. Some of the analysis offered is completely bogus, but this is offset somewhat by the interactivity of the boards -- you can ask questions and get answers (or just get flamed; you never know). Of course, the best interactive opening study is to play them, and we'll come back to this in a minute.

It's easy enough to keep a database updated, but how do you update a tree? Man, that's simple. You just delete your old tree and create a new one from your updated database. Yes, there are various ways to add games to an existing tree, but for my money it's a whole lot less work to just trash the old tree and create a new one. You do lose any "learning" information that Fritz has put into the tree to help its play, but I'm not terribly concerned with how Fritz is learning the opening -- I'm more worried about how I'm doing with it. So I don't mind inconveniencing old Fritzie if it's something that's going to be easy and helpful to me. I don't care if Fritz thinks I'm selfish -- I turned off the talk feature, so I'll never hear about it anyway.

The best way to stay current on your new opening is to play the danged thing. Play it in casual face to face games. Play it in online games. Play it in correspondence games. Play it in tournament games. But play it! And your opponent will always be happy to show you what you don't know about your opening. At some point in your game, he's going to hit you with something you've never seen. You'll need to figure it out during the game, of course -- ChessBase and Fritz won't help you there -- but after the game you can dig into your electronic toolbox and figure out what you should have done in the game.

It's pretty easy to know where to start your post-game research. Just think back to the point in the opening where your brain flatlined and you went "Cazart! What is that?" Fire up ChessBase 8 and load your game. Go to the Window menu, select "Panes", and then "Book Window". You'll get your game notation and the opening book side by side on your screen:

The really cool part about this dual display is that as you step through the game notation, the book display updates to show the tree of "book" moves from that point. You just step through your game move by move and watch the theory unfold before your eyes. Then, when you get to the point in the game at which you were baffled by your opponent's move, you just look at the tree to see whether or not his choice was a "book" move.

If he played a "book" move, it's simple enough to look at the tree and see what your available choices were at that point (and to see whether or not you played "correctly" according to established theory). You can see if your choice is one of the options and how it rates statistically (keeping in mind the numerous caveats presented in last week's ETN). If you thought hard about your reply during the game and played a decent move, pat yourself on the back -- it shows that you are grasping the ideas behind your chosen opening. Even when your opponent plays something unexpected that you've not seen before, you're still playing according to the underlying principles of the opening. This is good.

But if your chosen move wasn't one that's a "book" move, or one that rates badly statistically (either due to a lousy success rate or because the average rating of players who chose that move is pretty low), look at the better choices and try to determine why they're better. Use your fundamental knowledge of the opening's principles (that you established way back in the first couple of installments of this series) to help you make this determination. Heck, just look at the board and try to see if there are any positional weaknesses created by your move. Look for tactical shots that your opponent might have played (or, hopefully, missed).

If you've set up your database on this individual opening as the reference database (right-click on its icon, choose "Properties", and put a check in the "Reference database" box) you can easily examine any of the "better" moves in closer detail. Make the move in the book pane (selecting "new variation" in the popup) and choose "Search games" from the popup menu. The search results pane will appear and show you the games in which this position appeared. If you want to look for annotated games, copy the games to the Clipboard (as discussed in a previous installment in this series) and look for the V and C abbreviations in the right-hand column of the list. Play through some of these games and see why the move works.

If your opponent's move (the one that baffled you) wasn't a book move, no problem. You just fire up a chess engine, set it to display multiple lines of play (using the plus key on the numeric keypad on the right side of your keyboard -- three or four lines of play is usually sufficient), let it reach a decent search depth (nine or eleven full plies [that is, when you see the search depth display "10" or "12"] depending on the speed of your computer), and see how your chosen move rates, both in its position on the display and in its numeric evaluation as assigned by the engine. You might even have more than one engine evaluate the position; engines with different styles of play might give you different answers (I like to use Fritz and Hiarcs for this, as they often will offer differing opinions). Keep in mind the limitations of chess computers -- they're not infallible oracles. But they will show you any tactical errors and can often be counted upon to show you the more glaring positional ones. If you want to put the analysis into the gamescore, you can easily do this in ChessBase 8 by right-clicking in the engine analysis pane and selecting "Copy all to notation" from the popup menu. And you can always "hand annotate" the variations afterwards, just as we did back in Part Two of this series, just to force yourself to seriously study and try to understand the ideas of these variations.

Don't forget your printed books, either. Back in Part One of this series, we looked at some good books that explain ideas behind the various openings. While the particular weirdo variation you're presently studying might not be in there, it doesn't hurt to double check. This point in the process is one of the rare cases in which a specific book on your opening ("Winning with the Weirdovich Attack") might be of some use to the average over the board player. Don't rush out to buy one of these (unless you're a diehard correspondence player), but if you already have one, check to see if the variation in question is in the book. The big opening compenduims (like ECO or NCO) can also be helpful here.

But don't lose sight of your goal. What you're trying to do here is determine why your opponent's move and your reply were good or bad. You're trying to gain some knowledge and understanding. Trying to merely memorize this schtuff won't do you a lick of good. Memorization without understanding is useless and, unless you're blessed with a photographic memory, five'll get you two that you won't remember it anyway. But if you take the time to try to understand what the heck went on, you'll have a much better chance of retaining the information for later use. Trust me on this. I'm not a great player, but I've been playing this game for nearly 37 years. The stuff I remember is the stuff I studied. You can show me a unique opening position from a tournament game I played in 1990 and, unless I spent time studying that position (and ones like it) afterwards, I won't even recognize it as being one of my own. But I can still remember clearly a few endgame positions I studied back in the Fischer days.

A portion of chess centers on pattern recognition, being able to recognize positions, position fragments, and intangible themes that crop up over and over. A number of people have said that every chess position you understand increases your chess knowledge; it gives you another little bit that you can apply when positions similar (if not identical) to ones you know occur in later games. I agree with this wholeheartedly. And that's been the hidden subtext of this whole series about learning a new opening. Some readers doubtless saw the title of this series and said, "Cool! A series about openings!" But they focused on the wrong word in the title. This series hasn't really been about openings at all -- it's been about learning. And while I've offered some tips on the specific tools in ChessBase and Fritz to help you in your opening study, I've also slipped a lot of information/suggestions/opinions on the subject of learning. And, for those who've missed it the first dozen or so times I've mentioned it, the key to learning is understanding.

That having been said, I'll hit two more subtopics before closing out this series. What do you do with your information once you've accumulated it, specifically the information gained by following the guidelines in this week's article? In my case, I've created a database called "Playbook". In this database, I've created a separate entry for each opening (or opening subsystem) I play (with the name and variation given in the "White" and "Black" header fields to aid me in picking them out from the game list). Whenever I encounter a strange line essayed by one of my opponents which I find to be worth further investigation, I add it to my playbook after I've studied it, with appropriate comments from myself, and maybe game citations from a database plus any useful chess engine analysis that I ran. Then I'll periodically go back to the variation to review it and make sure I understand (and remember) the ideas in case I get into a similar situation in a future game. If you decide to create a "playbook" of your own, the very first variation you studied (back in the first couple of installments of this series) is likely a good starting variation to put in your playbook so that you can build on it later.

Should you deeply analyze every game that you play? Sure -- if you have the time. Most of us don't. The best games to analyze and investigate are your losses. Nobody likes to dwell on their mistakes, but the best games to analyze are the ones you screwed up. And the most likely ones of these are the ones where you got confused early in the game and felt like a complete horse's patootie straight through to the final move. You can analyze and study your victories (and there are sometimes very valid reasons for doing so -- such as the occasions when you later realize you played like a complete moron and essentially lucked out at the end), but most of the time this analysis just amounts to useless ego-stroking ("Hey, look! Fritz agrees that I'm da man!"). Analyze your losses. Try on your own to pick out where and why you went wrong, then use the database tools and chess engine analysis to confirm or refute your reasoning. Little by little you'll become a better player. The more you think about what you see, the more you understand. The more you understand, the more you know.

And that, in a proverbial nutshell, is what the last nine weeks have been all about.

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes.