How to Really Learn an Opening – Review: First Steps The French

first-steps-the-french-cover

At last year’s U.S. Open, I had an eye-opening conversation about studying the opening with two friends. Between the three of us, we represented an interesting cross-section of chessplayers: an 1800-rated player, a National Master, and a Grandmaster.

As the three of us browse through the tournament’s chess bookstore, the 1800-player says, “Whenever I try to study opening variations out of a book, I always forget them.” Row after row of opening books for every variation in every color by every publisher are laid out on three large tables.

I reply, “Me too,” revisiting memories of my own opening variation frustration: I’d pick up a new opening book from a local chess club bookstore. For weeks, I’d toil through page after page of the book, careful not to miss any significant chapters or variations.

After I’d studied the opening to a certain point, I’d decide I’m ready to try it out in over-the-board play. And then, like a twisted magic trick, any opportunity to play the variation would suddenly vanish from my games. If I had learned a new open Sicilian line, my games would feature a slew of 1. d4. Or the Smith-Morra Gambit. Or the Grand Prix. I’d prepare for those, too, and then the Rossolimo and the c3 Sicilian would flood my tournaments.

A year and a half later, someone would finally play into the main line of the original opening I’d studied. Finally, I get my chance! And, seven moves into the game, since I’ve gotten no real over-the-board practice, I’d realize that I’ve forgotten nearly… everything.

I’m about to describe this unfortunate phenomenon to my friends when, to my surprise, I hear the grandmaster also say, “Me too.”

That moment was a wake up call for me. How is it possible that players ranging as vastly as 1800 to 2600 all have the same struggle with opening books?

I realized that, no matter how strong of a player you are and how great your memory is, sitting down with a typical opening book and going through masses of variations just isn’t an effective way to learn an opening.

It isn’t that titled players necessarily have better memories — they approach studying the opening entirely differently.

An unfortunate majority of opening books offer too much information and don’t highlight what a player actually needs to know in practice:

“I think most opening books are laid out in an ineffective way. The layout of these books may be okay for a 2400+ player who is already very experienced in playing the opening, but not as digestible for a sub 2200 player, obviously the main customers.

I’ve looked at some books on the Caro-Kann, Semi Slav, Najdorf and etc. recently and seen so many absurd aspects to these books. First off, there will be a chapter on a relative sideline that you aren’t so likely to see. Then there will be some variation on move 6 where the book will break it into 6 alternatives for your opponent. So it’ll be 6A, 6B, 6C etc. Now if you are a 1900 player and you want to learn an opening, do you need to know any of this stuff? Of course not.”

-IM Greg Shahade, “Greg on Chess: Opening Books”

So, what is the best way to study an opening?

According to GM David Smerdon in his recent book, Smerdon’s Scandinavian, this is the step-by-step process for mastering an opening:

1. Read the chapter introductions [of an opening book] and illustrative games.

2. Start to play the opening in less serious outings, either online, in blitz games, or with friends.

3. Go back and check the theory for the lines that caused you problems.

4. Start to play the opening in ‘real’ games.

5. Learn the theory in more depth.

The key to Smerdon’s advice is alternating between studying and practice games. Practice games, especially forgetting and misplaying a variation and then looking it up after, give you real life experience in an opening, making it easier to remember.

This is where the First Steps series comes in: It offers readers a basis for Step 1 of the opening learning process. Using lightly annotated games, the series aims to give readers a good sense of the main ideas and plans of an opening—without bogging them down with masses of variations that won’t be remembered at first anyway.

In fact, in First Steps: The French, author IM Cyrus Lakdawala addresses the common issue of remembering opening variations directly:

“The minds of club players I know are dumpsters for partially remembered opening lines. Our goal in this book is to simply introduce key ideas and positions of the French Defence to the beginning and intermediate club player, just so you can get a feel for the lines, as Black or White.”

First Steps: The French presents the study material in a meaningful and manageable way so that readers can get a decent sense of the opening and then focus on using their newfound knowledge in over-the-board practice, which I believe is the only real way to fully learn (and remember) an opening.

Gaining Understanding to an Opening

“An alternative way to approach a new opening is to scan a book devoted to it… Glance through a few pages. See what it says about the opening’s general characteristics. Focus on the words, not the moves. Edmar Mednis, a splendid teacher, said you should first get a ‘clear verbal description’ of what the opening is all about. That’s what good books can do and databases can’t.”

-GM Andy Soltis, Studying Chess Made Easy, “The right way to study an opening”

In First Steps: The French, each chapter focuses on one major branch of the French Defense (Main Line Winawer, Classical, Tarrasch, Advanced, etc.). The chapter begins with a verbal description of the variation’s defining characteristics and a clear list of the main ideas for each side.

For example, Lakdawala introduces the Main Line Winawer, one of the most complex major variations of the French, with a list of imbalances:

1. Black traded the precious dark-squared bishop, which is a bit like a Seinfeld episode without George Costanza. On top of this, Black’s remaining bishop is hemmed in by a surplus of pawns on its own colour, leading to an inability to protect the dark squares. Now the reason we swapped away such a precious piece is told in number two on the list.

2. White’s queenside pawn structure took on serious damage, with c3 and also White’s a-pawn as potential chronic pawn weakness, if an ending were to occur. So often in life we are prepared to sacrifice our present happiness (Black’s weakened dark squares and the imminent threat of attack), to our future happiness (Black’s potential for a favourable ending), like a student who studies long, gruelling hours and voluntarily goes into debt, so that one day she graduates and lands a good job.

3. White’s e5-pawn gives his or her side a central/kingside territorial advantage which means two things:

a) Keeping our king safe operates as our baseline goal in many versions of the French. In this case, Black’s king may come under fire if he castles short, since White’s e5-pawn is a natural launching pad for an attack.

b) White’s centre may be chipped away with a future …f6.

After reading just one page of the chapter, a reader can already answer three crucial questions about playing the Winawer:

1. What is Black’s plan?

2. What is White’s plan?

3. What possible pawn break should Black keep in mind?

Then, Lakdawala annotates one or more instructive games for each significant variation. His analysis is again mostly verbal, demonstrating the key ideas in action. This style makes the games easy to understand and fun to read through.

For instance, “Chapter Three: The Classical Variation” begins with a verbal explanation of a key theme in the annotated game, Steinitz vs. Sellman (Baltimore 1885):

‘Please do not be disappointed by the relative weakness of Black’s play — to some extent it helped Steinitz to demonstrate the essence of his plan in the purest form,’ writes Garry Kasparov. A copy is rarely clearer than the original. This game is one of the earliest of this variation in the database. When I first played this game over at the age of nine, I swooned in an epiphanic moment when I discovered the secret of weak squares of a single color…

This game, a strategic masterpiece, left such a deep impression on the chess world, that the line is to this day called the Steinitz Variation.”

This game introduction gives the reader a clear idea of which theme to look out for while observing the game: how to take advantage of weak squares of one color. Additionally, viewing the game that started the variation allows the reader to clearly see White’s ideas and ideal piece placement.

When a game does have a variation, it is usually a simple, easy to follow line, ending with a clear evaluation.

One excellent example of this is the conclusion of an alternate variation in the game, Nimzowitsch-Hakansson (Kristianstad 1922):

Tip: Remember the following manoeuvre which secures Black the bishop-pair and rids White of a promising attacking piece.

Lakdawala’s tip gives the reader a useful pattern to remember (the …Nd4 maneuver) and makes it easy to understand why the exchange of Black’s knight for White’s light-squared bishop is favorable for Black.

Main Lines vs. Sidelines

The book begins in the very heart of the French Defense, the Main Line Winawer. Contrastingly, rare lines are discussed in the last chapter of the book with the clear explanation that “pretty much every line covered is slightly offbeat, so that means our opponent isn’t eager to challenge us theoretically…” This is a vital insight to a player new to the opening, giving them a realistic idea of how often they’ll face these variations. This will allow players to base their study time accordingly, spending more time on the variations they are more likely to encounter.

What Not to Expect

  • An analysis of every option in a variation. While Lakdawala does annotate at least one game for most of the significant variations and sidelines, the book can’t serve as your one source for a complete French Defense repertoire. It is meant to help with practical use of the opening when you’re learning it from scratch.
  • Victories for both sides. There are both White and Black victories in the book (as well as some draws). However, since Lakdawala usually shows only one game for each variation, you may not see an example of how to win from your side of the board in that specific line.

For example, for the Steinitz Variation of the Classical French, there are actually two annotated games, but both are White wins. The game, Caruana-Nakamura (2015), shows very interesting ideas for Black, and Lakdawala notes that Nakamura had good chances to hold the game. However, after move 16, Lakdawala comments that “Now d4 is firmly in White’s grip, and he holds a minimal endgame edge.” Although a minimal edge for White may be inevitable in many openings, an alternative way of playing is not offered, which may be discouraging to those taking up the Black side of the Classical.

To compensate for this, though, Lakdawala does spend a fair amount of time discussing Black’s ideas and possible maneuvers in the chapter’s introduction. For example, he offers two in-depth ideas for activating just one of Black’s pieces, the classic French “bad” bishop:

“The bishop can be activated in two ways:

1. By playing …a6, …b5, …a5, and then the bishop suddenly infused with significance, emerges on a6 to swap itself away for White’s dangerous light-squared bishop.

2. Black can play …f6 and if exf6, then …Nxf6, when we take on a backward e6-pawn. In this case the undeveloped bishop slithers to relevance via d7, e8 and then finally on to an active diagonal with …Bg6 or …Bh5, where it issues an imperious challenge to the white pieces.”

So, while First Steps: The French may not always offer an exact opening variation that will suit each player, it does offer a wealth of ideas for piece improvement and plans that will be useful all the way through the middlegame.

Conclusion

First Steps: The French is an excellent tool when learning a new opening for the first time, giving a reader a quick, useful understanding.

It is intended for beginning to intermediate players, but I would even recommend it as a starting ground for players up to expert-level that are completely new to an opening.

Over time, it works best when accompanied by either a database or traditional opening book as reference tools for the complete theory.

First Steps: The French author, IM Cyrus Lakdawala

First Steps: The French author, IM Cyrus Lakdawala

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  1. […] I came to terms with studying theory. And I learned more engaging and effective ways to do so. Over time, I realized that openings can enhance creative opportunities by providing fascinating […]

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