Openings are one of those theoretical knowledge in chess that require some memorization. It obviously is a huge investment both in time and energy, we want to only learn the amount that matters.
I’ve done some preliminary google searches and there aren’t that many discussing this, so I want to provide a resource.
As a chess player here is what I know:
A beginner should learn 1 opening for white and 3 replies for black, while an advanced player requires some 4 white openings and 8 replies as black.
I really have to sit on this one and think hard, and I feel like I’ve landed on some reasonable conclusions. I don’t want to keep you waiting, let’s immediately head into the meat of this topic.
Does a player’s skill correspond to the number of openings they should learn?
Some people don’t know this but your ability as a player should be consistent with the number of learned openings. What you don’t want is to focus extensively on studying lines that you’ll eventually forget (since you can’t really relate to it).
Someone who is new to chess should not spend any time with the openings or just within a minimal amount as the player is not equipped to digest the concepts in it yet.
If you are a total beginner (you’ve barely known how the pieces move) I suggest studying the endgame first before any openings. Ideas in the endgame are easily transferable unlike the lackluster memorization push of the opening study.
The endgame after all contains the essence of chess in its purity, which openings rarely express. You won’t get to see how the pieces work (with each other) or the importance of position over material by studying openings.
Your level of chess understanding after all will dictate how many openings can be appropriately learned. There’s no real improvement you can see if you can’t even properly understand one opening line.
It is just impractical to know many openings until you have the capability to understand them. So if you are really a total novice I suggest staying away from this one and learning other things first.
How many chess openings should a beginner study?
Ok let’s say you are already a beginner with experience, how many openings should you actually learn? We don’t want to go too far at this point but should be enough to suffice our still novice approach in the game.
A beginner should study 1 opening with white and at least 1 reply for black on each of the most popular moves by White (e4, d4, c4, and Nf3), a total of 4.
I still believe a beginner should not prioritize openings in the first place, though I cannot deny that it is helpful at some point. If you want to adequately identify when you should learn openings just read this article (will open in a new tab) for perspective.
As for my recommendation, a beginner should familiarize themself with only 1 opening with white, and four opening replies when playing black. You only ever need one opening line for white since it has the first move (therefore you’ll be the one choosing the line instead of replying to a move).
As for openings with black, a beginner should learn one reply against 4 popular moves by white (e4, d4, c4, and Nf3). This is so you will have enough repertoire to deal with the common theoretical lines that players regularly encounter.
When learning openings for black it’s better to start with e4, then d4, c4, and Nf3 in that order, since those are from the most important to the least important. It is the most common to the least common too, further improving the chance that you’ll get to use the opening in question.
Some suggest learning openings that can make you lose instantly, the idea being that those are the things that would make you lose faster.
Although I say you should get that one down with experience, such are things that don’t really appear in competitive games. They are the sidelines that you can easily deal with by having enough chess knowledge, unlike the important theories.
How many chess openings should an advanced player study?
An advanced player should study 2 openings in the four most popular moves by white totaling 8, with 2 or more replies with black totaling 8 or more.
Once you’re fully confident that you’ve mastered the initial openings it’s time to learn more. You don’t want to be stuck in the beginner stage where you only know very few lines.
I’ve found that two openings for the 4 most popular moves for white should be the target of an advanced player. This amount should account for the variety of options an advanced player needs in their games.
Such an individual after all plays against opponents who have extensive knowledge in theories themselves. The extra diversity in playing white would help the player’s game significantly.
Similarly, an advanced player should familiarize himself with at least two black openings for four popular moves with white (e4, d4, c4, Nf3). You will realize this literally after spending time playing chess (that you need more lines with black).
After all it is the side that would be putting a response against white meaning it has more variations. Only mastering two should be fine, although you can actually go for more (if you are advanced enough).
Is there a balance to the number of openings you should learn with White and Black?
Responding to white’s move means that black does not have control on the initial branches the game will take, therefore a player should have slightly more opening knowledge playing black than white.
Just as I had said earlier you always will be learning more openings with black than white. Not only because of the extended variations but because white is naturally better (therefore you need a stable position with black).
Learning a limited amount of openings with white is acceptable since you’ll only be using one of them (when playing the said color). I’ve really just increased the number since you need some choices when playing competitive players.
Unless you are planning to play chess professionally I don’t see the point of learning more than four black replies for the four popular moves from White. That should be the limit, any more than that is better time spent keeping things you know rather than studying new ones.
Is it better to learn fewer openings but with more depth?
A targeted opening knowledge works better than general surface level expertise, the skillset of the player will dictate the number of openings they should study along with the depth.
If you are early in the process it’s better to have more depth than width. It is likely that you haven’t nailed down your processes yet and will be unable to apply different concepts, so it’s better to focus on fewer counts.
Though beware that you shouldn’t excessively focus on one line where there’s already another you could already play. This is why I suggest learning a few openings with White since knowing one of them means you can use it every time.
Once you’ve become more sophisticated and have a lot of hands-on experience then you could go for higher numbers. You have a decent amount of knowledge on one opening once you’ve learned at least 10 variations (branches) including the main line.
To make your effort really count, it’s really useful to study around the four most popular moves for white since those are the most common. If somebody plays outside of that (e4, d4, c4, and Nf3) then it is likely that you don’t need openings to do well.
Professionals could easily have more than five openings for white and black, though I doubt that it applies to regular players. The guidelines I have provided are just what I believed to work for the majority, including me.
What’s the limit of openings one should learn if they are not playing professionally?
A player who is not playing professionally should have at max 8 openings for white (from e4, d4, c4, Nf3 line) and 16 replies for black.
A maximum of only two lines (from one of the four popular moves with white) should be your cap to stop learning openings from white. There is really no reason to specialize further at that point since that will meet all your needs.
Diminishing returns will take over and you are better off keeping things you already know trying not to lose them.
I recommend not moving on to learn more openings if you’ve still not mastered those that are within your repertoire. Depth after all has more value than width when it comes to chess repertoire.
Once you’ve accomplished all the numbers that I’ve set, just focus on the things that you already know. Maybe there is that one surprise branch that you could include in your game or that fancy trap you can do.
But really, there are no guidelines that you can follow at any stage, these just are practices that have worked for most people. You don’t want to learn too much that you don’t get anything out of it, yet at the same time just enough to not get beaten by the competition.
I think implementing this can get you ahead in the game if done correctly.
How many openings do you think you need to learn?
I’ve really included numbers here that are actionable and reasonable for most people. I think this should be sufficient to make you learn the proper amount depending on your skillset.
But people really are different and what works for you may not even be included in here. Maybe a little fewer than what I’ve recommended should work for you just fine.
Just use this as a guide that you can use to test the appropriate number, something that would give you a gist of the right amount. Anyway, hope I’ve helped, sleep well and play chess.