Peter Zhdanov
4 August 2021

Why are Chess Players Obsessed with Openings?

It is no secret that most of the best-selling products released in the chess industry are dedicated to openings.Magnus Traineris no exception when it comes to user preferences. Today, we have the following categories of lessons in the app: Foundation, Tactics, Strategy, Calculation, Opening, Endgame, Highlights. Still, even though the legendary World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca and many other chess titans argued that one should study chess from the endgame, very few people follow that advice. In fact, I don't recall a single message from our users requesting to cover some instructive endgame topic. What we do get in bulk numbers, though, are suggestions to add new openings to the mix or to expand on the already existing series. Don't get me wrong: there is nothing shameful about wanting to know more about the opening stage! Still, I wish the other categories were duly appreciated and respected as well.

"In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else, for whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle game and the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame."

Jose Raul Capablanca

Let's try to ponder this situation and come up with some ideas on why chess players are obsessed with opening knowledge.

First of all, some of them are mimicking the world's best. However, the top players have walked a long road before arriving at where they are. In their games, there are few mistakes, so obtaining an edge from the beginning of the game is important. On the contrary, in amateur confrontations, both opponents tend to blunder a few times per game. Having half a pawn advantage (+0.5) out of the opening is a significant achievement for a Grandmaster, but amateur's duels are typically decided by blundering pieces or even checkmate. Therefore, why not focus on middlegame/endgame instead of going all-out on the opening? And, of course, never forget about tactics!

Being booked up goes in and out of fashion. For instance, for my generation, the ultimate role model in chess was Garry Kasparov. At his prime, he, being an excellent analyst himself and aided by a strong team of seconds and a computer lab that his competitors simply couldn't afford, was often able to achieve winning positions right out of the opening. Some of the lines that later happened on the board were analyzed in his home lab till mate. Some colleagues were so envious/pissed about it that they started claiming that Garry's main strengths were preparation and memorization!

In the 2010s, however, chess opening fashion has somewhat changed. Chess players picked up the narrative of Magnus Carlsen being a fantastic positional player and an endgame virtuous who could dispatch super GMs left and right without getting any opening advantage whatsoever. Back in the day, opening knowledge was indeed probably not his strongest suit. However, nowadays, in my opinion, most people don't give enough credit to how well-prepared, versatile and skilled at picking the right weapon against a particular opponent Magnus is, even though the revolution in computer chess has largely changed the way people prepare and the positions that are considered promising. It is more about the surprise factor nowadays than getting a position with a high engine evaluation.

Secondly, we associate our openings with ourselves. No one says "my middlegame", "my endgame", but you can hear about "my Slav" or "my King's Gambit". Also, building upon the idea of mimicking the world's best, some players feel happy about copying the repertoire of their chess heroes. Even if the skill level is vastly different, they still feel like openings form a connection between the role model and themselves. In fact, when you ask someone why he started playing a certain opening, you often hear something like: "My coach, whom I deeply respect, taught me that" or "The best player from my country, whom I admire a lot, used to play it, so I decided to pick it up as well".

Thirdly, many novice chess players search for a magic pill in chess that will help them achieve great results with minimal effort. This has already been mentioned in the column about studying the main lines. It is tempting to think that you can quickly master an obscure line and bamboozle a much stronger opponent due to the surprise factor. In reality, this approach does not work particularly well, but one can always hope!

I recall a funny story that goes back to the time when I was attending a chess club in London, Canada, back in 1999. One of the guys, a cheerful lad with long hair, was sipping one soft drink after another and loudly advertising that he was ready to challenge anyone for a small stake since he knows a chess opening that can't be countered. I smiled and asked if he would play me. Knowing that I, despite my young age, was the chess champion of the college, he laughed and shook his head, saying, "No, anyone but you!". In case you are wondering what his weapon of choice was, he was a big fan of Scholar's Mate and actually managed to beat some fellow rookies using it! Ah, the joys of discovering the game of chess…We have all been there.

Fourthly, quite a few chess players approach the game as science and, quoting Sir Francis Bacon, live by the "knowledge is power" motto. Being diligent, responsible, and striving for perfection, they feel more comfortable if they "do their homework" and play a more or less model game for at least a dozen opening moves. Even when things go downhill for them in the middlegame, they claim that next time they will prepare better and know what to do.

Fifthly, there is a "gotta catch them all" approach. It is common for some chess players to be interested in experimenting with openings to get new exciting chess positions and feel like they have become more well-rounded in the game. These guys usually like to think of themselves as "opening experts" and take pride in maintaining huge opening files full of analysis borrowed from external sources and obtained by doing some intense research on their own.

Sixthly, studying openings seems to be a leisurely pastime if you do it the wrong way. Chess players opt for the path of least resistance: they grab a book and keep flipping pages, mechanically going through the lines and not giving the variations much thought. This study method is less demanding than, for example, working on one's technique of converting winning positions or learning how to avoid time trouble. How should one study the opening? That is a different question of paramount importance that deserves its own blog post.

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