I read a recent blog column by Hugh Patterson on the topic of learning an opening. He suggested learning them in units of three moves.
This made an immediate impression on my as reasonable. The more I’ve thought about it over the last couple of weeks, it seems a bit artificial to me.
I think a better learning principle might be to learn openings in small, digestible chunks. The basic tabiya of the Ruy Lopez is three moves: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5. That’s a natural first chunk and perfectly fits Hugh’s idea of learning in units of three. The basic tabiya of the Petroff (i.e., Petrov, Russian Defense) also fits the three move rule: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6.
Not all openings get to their fundamental tabiya in three moves. They might need a move or two more to get to that position. A few get there in less than three moves. The Sicilian Defense needs only one move, for example: 1.e4 c5.
Going from the basic tabiya for an opening to the next logical point, the tabiya for a particular opening variation, can take three additional moves in some cases, but others might need more or fewer moves to the to the next critical learning point.
I believe that tabiya are important for learning openings. They are built in logical chunks as we proceed deeper from openings to variations to subvariations to critical lines. Learning an opening like the French Advance Variation by first learning the tabiya for the French Defense (1.e4 e6) and then the tabiya for the Advance Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5) is a more reasonable way for me to learn an opening variation than a “three move rule.”
Let’s stay with the French Defense tabiya (1.e4 e6) for a little longer. A critical lesson for the improver is to stop at the basic tabiya and carefully consider some of the less frequently played second moves for White. Instead of 2.e5, White can chose 2.d6 (the King’s Indian Attack), 2.f4 (Labourdonnais Variation), 2.Qe2 (Chigorin Variation), etc. Why would White choose one of these? Why does White typically choose to avoid them altogether and play 2.d5? What is it about 2.d5 that makes it the “typical” reply for White to the French Defense?
To thoroughly master theory, we might need to memorize many moves for an opening. We improvers are not ready for that intense study of any particular opening(s). What we need to learn about openings already comes broken out into digestible pieces. These are the “tabiya.” We start with 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 for the French and learn the major variations gradually. Back to the Advance Variation, we press on with 3.e5 and memorize at the same time 3…c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 and this is our second digestible piece. At this point, we reach a critical decision. The major choices for the Advance Variation of the French Defense are 5…Qb6 and 5…d7. Each of those options becomes the beginning of another digestible piece. From there, we move along incrementally until we’re familiar with “typical” situations in the French Defense, Advance Variation.
I’m grateful for Hugh’s column. It gave me reason to pause and reflect. For some players, a mechanical “rule of three” might work well. If that’s the case, crack on. For me, I find logical units easier to understand and with understanding comes less memorization.
Click here to read Hugh Patterson’s column Learning an Opening.