How Far Can a Player Progress Without Learning Openings?

After Garry Kasparov’s defeat against Deep Blue, the era of chess engines officially began.

Nowadays, chess games are decided by preparation and memorization. If you want to be a strong player, then you have to work with an engine in one way or another.

But if we look deeper, what does this preparation entail? Well, these “preparations” mostly involve the openings.

Strong chess players look at uncharted opening lines and see if an engine has a surprise or two for them.

It seems that you can no longer become strong without learning any openings, or is this a fact?

Because in the past, engines were not as popular, openings had a lesser role in the result of the games.

This is what I will be answering today. How far can a chess player really progress without learning any openings?

I will be looking at the past and present in order to answer this. With all of that in mind, let’s get started.

What is an opening in chess?

An opening in chess is a series of moves that is made at the start of the game.

You can think of it as a set up that a lot of strong chess players use, they use it to ensure that they have a good position even from the start of the game.

When people refer to “studying openings”, it usually involves memorizing a series of moves and “variations” that can occur in a particular set up.

In the top level, all of the opening moves are prepared using a strong chess engine beforehand (which is why they are so accurate).

You see, in modern times, chess has been reviewed so much that we can identify the best moves from the starting position.

These different set ups are the openings , and they have their own names (Ruy Lopez, Berlin defense, King’s Indian defense, Sicilian defense, etc.). This is basically what openings are. 

Can a player become 1800 rated without ever learning openings?

Yes, you can definitely reach 1800 over the board even if you have never learned any openings. It will be difficult however to achieve this since you will always have to play with subpar middlegame.

Most of the games below 1800 are decided in the middlegame/endgame rather than the opening.

In this level, most of the moves that your opponents will play are not exactly accurate, they can also make a lot of mistakes after the opening.

Even if they play the opening perfectly and have a good middlegame position, it doesn’t really mean that they will perform well in the actual middlegame.

Unless they are a really strong chess player, a good middlegame game position is not enough to convert a win. This is why you can reach this level at least (1800 elo).

Just remember that it will be an uphill battle for you since you have a natural disadvantage.

Will learning openings help you? Yes.

But should you prioritize it? I don’t think so.

At this stage, learning the middlegame and the endgame is important. The only thing that you need to worry about openings are the traps, which can be easily identified once you have some experience.

I, for example, did not study a lot of openings, but I rarely fall for any trap since I have learned most of them through trial and error. It will be the same if you don’t study any openings.

Most of the traps in the opening are obvious anyways (only some are not), it is just much better to study the middlegame/endgame. 

What over the board rating can a chess player achieve without learning any openings?

I would say that the maximum over the board rating that you can achieve is definitely 2000. After 2000 elo, it is almost impossible to keep up with the competition without learning any openings.

At around 2000 the competition will be fierce, but not fierce enough that you cannot keep up without having an opening repertoire.

As long as you’re smart enough to choose openings that are quiet and positional, you would be fine. 

Beyond that though is a different story, at that 2000+ level, players are using engines in order to upgrade their opening repertoire.

Plus, choosing quiet openings is not enough beyond 2000 elo.

Players are tricky enough to find some amazing sideline that will shake your “play-safe” approach. I think that it is possible to go beyond this but you need to be extremely talented.

And if you are extremely talented in the first place, then there shouldn’t be any issue with learning any openings, it will take you into the next level.

But if we’re talking about the maximum rating that you can achieve without knowing any openings, it is definitely 2000 elo. It is still pretty hard to do this without learning any openings, but it is also realistic. 

Did the chess players of the past have to learn openings?

Some learned openings, some have not learned any for the majority of their career.

You see, openings have not always been a discipline, there is a time where chess players have to play the opening phase using their own head.

People of today like to clown on past chess players for having too much inconsistency in their games, this is without realizing they don’t have any openings and engine knowledge that we have now.

It was around the time of Emanuel Lasker that openings started to become more formalized, then people started playing the openings after studying them.

If we are talking about some of the most recent chess players like Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Vishwanathan Anand, etc.

They definitely have studied a lot of openings. If we are talking about some old chess players like Alexander Alekhine, Steinitz, Lasker, and Euwe, they definitely did not have much knowledge with the modern approach in the opening.

One extreme example is the case of Jose Raul Capablanca, a genius that has started beating the best chess players in the world even before knowing any openings.

Capablanca is a pure genius, he had mainly learned by playing and studying the middlegame/endgame.

They are some of the examples that you can get very far in chess even if you don’t know any openings.

In the modern era, openings are, of course, more important than ever, but it doesn’t mean that you cannot be strong without them. 

Is there a modern grandmaster/super grandmaster that never learned any opening?

No, there aren’t any modern grandmasters or super-grandmaster who haven’t learned any openings. In today’s world, the chess games are getting more accurate than ever.

A small disadvantage in the opening can lead to a win over the long run, players can take advantage of any small positional edge. Not only that, they also usually used engines in order to refine their openings.

This means that at the start of a professional chess game, you are not really playing against your opponent, you are playing against the engine that they have chosen that night.

Playing against a fallible opponent is fine, playing against a strong chess engine is just difficult.

Super grandmasters put so much emphasis on their openings that they even hire an entire team just to look at the potential openings to play.

They are called chess seconds, a team for a super grandmaster that is playing an important chess tournament.

With chess being overanalyzed, professionals have to keep up by learning (and preparing) the openings for their games. 

Are learning openings really that important?

The answer is obvious, if you want to become a professional then knowing your openings is extremely important. If you are not yearning to be a professional however, then it is not as important.

Chess is not only composed of the opening, there is still the middlegame and after that the endgame. In fact, it can even be argued that there is more value in learning the middlegame/endgame more than the opening.

At the lower tier, the majority of chess is decided in the middlegame/endgame. It makes sense if you prioritize your study to these phases.

If you are trying to be a professional however, then learning openings is necessary. The best chess players in the world take the opening seriously, it is important to their preparation.

If you want to reach the high level then you need any possible advantage that you can, and openings + engines offer a way to have that advantage.

This is the answer to this question. 

Conclusion

It is possible to reach around the ratings of 1800-2000 elo (over the board) even if you hadn’t learned any openings yet.

As long as you are wise in choosing quiet positional openings then you can reach that level just fine.

Just remember that it will still be difficult for you to do this, your opponent will already have an advantage if they know any openings.

It is not the end of the world though and you can still thrive at around that level, going beyond that is different though.

At 2000+ elo, things become quite different, your opponents can take advantage of any small advantage that they can have. If they have the advantage right out of the opening, it is possible that they can convert it to a win.

If you are going to go beyond 2000 elo, it might be best to at least learn some openings on the way.

This way, you’ll be able to keep up with the competition. There is a reason why the best chess players in the world even hire seconds just to prepare openings, it is that important at the high level.

If you do not wish to be a professional though then you are fine. That is all for this article, thank you for reading. 

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