One of the most common questions we get when it comes to chess improvement is how much time to dedicate to opening study. Thankfully, our survey results paint a picture that gives us real-world insight into how much players improved based on how much they study the opening.
The answer to this question highly depends on your rating. Generally, the lower your rating is the less time you should dedicate to the opening. Our study plans give specific recommendations for how to study the opening as well as how much time to allocate.
We will be using your USCF rating (or equivalent) as our guide.
Novice Players (Rated <800)
Novice players should spend almost no time on opening preparation. We recommend learning basic opening principles (we recommend the chess.com lesson on opening principles) and spending the rest of your time playing games and doing tactics. Our novice study plans says to spend just 5% of your total time learning chess strategy.
That 5% means studying general strategy, as well as endgames, youtube videos and, you guessed it, openings. At this stage of your chess career you should not be deep diving into opening theory. Why not?
Studying the opening isn’t necessarily bad but it comes with a serious opportunity cost. You may spend hours upon hours memorizing and reviewing opening lines that you will never see in real games. You should instead spend that time playing real games or doing common tactics that arise in every game.
You will get a much bigger bang for your buck spending your time at the novice level playing games and doing tactics.
Beginner Players (Rated 800-1099)
Our recommendation for opening study for beginning players is the same as for novice players above. We recommend spending just 5% of your chess time on chess strategy. A part of that chess strategy will be your opening preparation.
We do, however, recommend spending more time reviewing your games at this level. Part of that game review will be going over the opening and making sure you aren’t blundering early on in games.
At this level we like the chess.com opening videos. If you prefer books you can pick up the opening that interests you in the move by move series. This book series is great because it annotates games in particular openings to give you a feel for how games go in each opening rather than just rote memorization.
Intermediate Players (Rated 1100-1699)
This is a big range of players but amazingly, our data shows there isn’t much of a change in chess improvement as it relates to opening study.
At this level we recommend spending 5% of your total chess time on openings. We’re going to stick with recommending the move-by-move series and we will recommend four books in particular.
- The Kings Indian Attack: Move By Move
- The Ruy Lopez: Move by Move
- The Classical French: Move by Move
- The Pirc: Move by Move
Each of these books give real annotated games as examples for each opening and the many varieties and spices in each. You should have a good idea of common plans at the end of your study of these books.
Advanced Players (Rated 1700-1999)
As you get above the intermediate level, opening preparation becomes increasingly important. Even so, few games are decided for good out of the opening so you do not want to go overboard. Once you hit 1700 we recommend spending 10% of your total chess time on openings.
You should have a pretty good idea of what openings suit you and what type of game you want to play. You can cater your openings to your style (do you like slower, strategic games or sharp tactical bloodbaths?) and make your opponent play to your strengths.
It is increasingly important to know how to handle the positions you get out of the opening. What are the resulting imbalances in the position, what are your strong pieces, where are your opponents weaknesses, how do you attack them, and the questions go on and on.
ChessGoals is working on a Caro-Kann repertoire that would be extremely helpful for this rating range. The repertoire is going to be 100 lines total and will be very digestible in a few hours of study. More importantly, we leave you at the end of each and every line with a plan of attack moving forward. You’ll almost certainly be more prepared in every resulting line.
Expert Players (2000+)
When you’re in the final push for master openings become much more important. You also need to know more than just the moves. You need to know the ideas behind the moves and the associated middle game plans much more thoroughly than at other levels.
At this level we still only recommend spending 10% of your chess time on openings. The opportunity cost is just too high. It is too vitally important to play, analyze and study tactics to round out your journey to chess master.
At this level you will lose games due to a lack of opening preparation. You will certainly also lose games due to tactics and may lose drawn endgames, or draw won endgames with a lack of endgame study. All aspects of the game are important but the opening is more heavily weighted in the higher rating range.
We are all very likely spending far too much time in opening prep. I know I am.
You should aim to spend 5% of less of your time on opening preparation until you are rated 1700. Once you are rated 1700 and beyond, spending 10% of your time on openings, we have found, is about where you want to be for maximum improvement.
If you’re looking to utilize your chess time in the most efficient way, consider our premium 12-week study plans that will walk you through every step of the way.