Many chess players consider the opening to be the most important phase of chess. It bears very significant consequences to the game, determining the kind of middle game and even end game we head into.
Most of us give utmost importance to opening training, and despite the advice of strong players never to give the opening more than the due attention it deserves, we persist.
There is something about studying openings that gives us a sense of satisfaction and security, and we feel we train the right way when we do. After all, knowing our openings well allows us to play in our attacking or positional style, or to punish opponents for early mistakes. Elite players, too, nowadays, win by thorough opening preparation.
Personally, I have devoted more study time to the opening than to any part or phase of chess, but I also believe that all-important skills such as calculation, positional judgement and technical proficiency mustn’t be neglected. Strong players are always well-rounded.
With that said, let me share eight opening books that have helped me significantly with my opening play.
This should be everyone’s first opening book. In fact, it should be one of the very first chess books for everyone, and the only requisite to enjoying and making the most out of it is a good grasp of tactics, the nuts and bolts of chess. I might add that it should be studied about two to three years after learning chess, when the beginner has been left long enough on his own to mishandle openings as to understand the correct play that this book teaches.
What this book is terrifically good at is in laying the foundations of good opening play. It starts with a full chapter on general opening principles, then lays down the objectives and the typical plans each side must aim and prepare for in the various openings. It does so not only clearly but comprehensively as well, covering the classical openings (double King’s Pawn and Queen’s Pawn openings), Indian Defenses, Flank, and even Irregular openings.
The most valuable lesson I learned from this book is that memorizing opening moves never works by itself. Memorization should be coupled with thorough understanding of the opening objectives and standard plans that this book explains so very well. In the Sicilian Defense, for instance, white gains space advantage out of the opening, which he must convert to a Kingside attack before Black comes through with his Queenside play. In the King’s Indian Defense, on the other hand, the locked center obliges Black to attack in the Kingside, while white must necessarily counter in the Queenside. After the opening, there is generally no other plan for White and Black in these two defenses than to proceed with their respective attacks forcefully and land the first fatal blow.
By learning the openings in this objective and plan-oriented way, anyone can play whatever opening correctly even if his memory fails him, if he is taken off the book, or if his memorized lines have ended. It’s this book’s most lasting impact that those who study it will always be able to tie myriads of concretes lines with the guiding motifs and themes of their chosen opening.
Just as valuable, this book teaches the importance of “breaking moves.” Breaking moves are like levers that free the position of a particular side, or unleash its forces that could well lead to a significant advantage. The most common ones are c5 for Black in the double Queen’s Pawn openings, and f5 in the King’s Indian.
Openings are played with a view to executing or preventing the opponent’s timely breaking move, and good players are always vigilant over them either way.
My only caveat for this book is that it is pretty dated, having been first published in 1943 by the great Reuben Fine. Some of its concrete lines do not stand to rigorous computer analysis, and care must be taken to consult modern opening books and databases. As far as opening objectives, plans, and breaking moves are concerned, however, this book is as universal and as fresh as ever.
2. The Slav and Queen’s Gambit Declined by Matthew Sadler
These are two separate opening books written in the same style by the same author, Matthew Sadler, which I treat as one. Unlike the first book, they are about specific openings, namely the Slav and the Queen’s Gambit Declined.
Opening books like these must be considered only after thorough study of general opening tomes has been made, and after one has much playing experience to know that openings are generally are either of the solid, aggressive, or counter-attacking kind. These two books are for players looking for solid openings as Black.
The Slav and the Queen’s Gambit declined are two of the most solid and classical openings that Black can play against 1. d4, and these books stand out for the clear and instructive way that they teach these openings.
As most opening books do, these books’ chapters are arranged by variations, but unlike those of conventional books their chapters are presented in the unique form of a dialogue between a teacher and a student. The student asks questions, which the teacher dutifully answers.
The value of this dialogue form is that the student sees the chapter’s lessons from the point of someone very new to the opening, and thus asks the questions what anyone just learning the Slav or Queen’s Gambit should naturally ask. And quite very commendably, the teacher answers the questions directly and completely.
The result is that the most important features of the Slav and the Queen’s Gambit – their overall objectives and plans for the middlegame – are brought to the fore and to the understanding of the reader in as clear and effective a manner as The Basic Ideas Behind the Chess Openings does. This gives great foundation for playing these openings well.
These books are heavy on words and explanations but a bit light on concrete lines and variations. As such, they are best paired with an opening encyclopedia or reference books on the Slav and Queen’s Gambit. Anyone diligent enough to do so will get to stock their opening arsenal with two solid and time-tested systems.
3. Play The King’s Indian by Joe Gallagher
If the Slav and the Queen’s Gambit Declined are for solid, positional players then the King’s Indian is for the risk-taking, dynamic ones, and Joe’s Gallagher’s Play the King’s Indian is just about one of the best books you can find on this opening.
I probably have a bias for books that are prose heavy because like the two books of Sadler, Gallagher’s book also explains the ideas, plans, and strategies of his subject opening very well, only in quite a different way. There are no questions and answers here, but just plain complete games exceptionally explained.
With the complete game format Gallagher goes deep into the middle game to illustrate how the ideas and strategies he recommends in the many variations of the King’s Indian work, and how early crucial decisions could have far-reaching effects. What really makes Gallagher’s approach tick is that he has been a lifetime devotee of the opening, allowing him to draw upon model games he has kept in his arsenal for so many years. That, along with the clarity of his thought and writing, gives you a firm framework for a complicated and theoretical opening like the King’s Indian and allows you to treat its many variations on an “idea” or systems basis.
What’s more, Gallagher gives a good summary of every chapter, allowing you a quick recall of his ideas and strategies if they have escaped you or if you haven’t used them for a while.
The most enjoyable line I have ever learned in any opening as White or Black is Gallagher’s treatment of the King’s Indian Fianchetto Variation. It’s a line he originally developed that now bears his name. His response against the Fianchetto Variation is so anti-positional that positional players who resort to the Fianchetto would scoff at it until Black unleashes his potent idea. Every time I turned to the King’s Indian I always had my fingers crossed the opponent would play the Fianchetto.
The King’s Indian is one of the best counter-attacking and dynamic openings for Black, and those who wish to take this up cannot go wrong with Gallagher’s book.
4. Nunn’s Chess Openings by John Nunn
This book by the venerable John Nunn is a reference material, quite unlike but very much complementary to instructional manuals.
No matter how good opening instructional manuals are, they can only be as extensive or as thorough as their authors wish them to be. Somewhere along, there will be lines and interesting continuations they will fail cover.
This is where opening reference materials come in. They are a compendium of lines not only from high level games, but of those that are just about worth playing in all the openings. They are very thick, their pages flowing with endless notations, and clear of any prose or annotations except the introductions to the openings.
The best way to use these reference materials is to lay them side by side with instructional manuals. When the manual fails to cover what should be an interesting move, check the opening reference and follow the analysis. At the end of the line an assessment appears whether the whole of it is good for White or Black.
Be warned, however, never to follow the analysis and the lines blindly. Think hard on your own, cover the reference book, come up with your own reply, and compare it with the book’s succeeding replies. This will give good training for analysis and for finding moves worthy to be considered by the reference material.
There used to be a time when opening reference material were very essential, but with the advancements in technology they could be replaced by databases and opening explorers.
Personally, I prefer to use mine together with all these modern offerings, and while my copy of Nunn’s book is about twenty years old, its lines are high-quality enough that their assessments are close to those of the very recent chess programs. For the amateur that I am, that makes this book as essential as ever.
5. Play the Alekhine by Valentin Bogdanov
I decided to take up the Alekhine’s Defense to round up my style. I had been raised on classical opening principles that surely, I thought, I had been missing out on the great Hypermodern ideas of Reti and Nimzovitsch.
With the Alekhine, I wouldn’t only widen my repertoire but also assimilate the counter-attacking skills that would help my game as a whole. Lucky that I thought this way, because I discovered this excellent book on the Alekhine’s Defense by Valentin Bogdanov.
Some opening books are plain instructional manuals, others are references like Nunn’s Chess Openings, but Bogdanov’s book is an instructional manual that is closest to a reference material.
Bogdanov’s offering not only fits my bill of a good book explaining an opening’s underlying themes, but it also uncannily throws in just the right amount of analysis to make it an extremely useful book.
I used it as my primary instructional manual to learn the Alekhine and, as I progressed, winning some games and losing some, I always went back to it to check my treatment of a variation. I would always find a good explanation not only of the line I chose but also of some other lines that I could well have well played, all of them analyzed at a depth that never left me overwhelmed. With the book as clear as that on the main lines, and just as clear with the alternatives it offered, there was never any need for a reference material. If you don’t feel any need to look beyond the main and the sub-lines it gives, it’s quite possibly the only book on the Alekhine you will need.
This book has turned the Alekhine into a dangerous weapon for me, what with 1.e4 players hardly giving it respect and fearing the Ruy Lopezes and the Sicilians a lot more. Winning with it and with the Hypermodern strategy almost always comes by landing the timely counterblow against an opponent who has been punching carelessly, and that’s always fun and exhilarating.
6. Strategic Chess: Mastering the Closed Game by Edmar Mednis
This Edmar Mednis offering sounds like a middle game book, and for the way it discusses strategy it could well pass off as a middle game book. For discussing strategy, however, only from openings arising from 1. d4 followed by 2. c4, I treat it both as an opening and a middle game book, and somewhere in between.
It’s one thing for a chess player to see himself to be of a certain playing type, and entirely another to choose and build a repertoire of style-matching openings. If you are of the strategic type, then this book is a boon for you.
Strategic Chess: Mastering the Closed Game is a manual on how to play 1. d4 strategically, and also how to respond to it strategically. It covers the broad range of Double Queen’s Pawn openings and Indian Defenses, including those not quite a part of these groupings but still related to 1. d4 such as the English, the Dutch, and the Torre Attack.
Mednis presents the above openings in a complete game format where either White or Black successfully builds and creates a decisive advantage based on the various strategic elements of chess such as material, space, pawn structure, open files, development, and King safety. Consequently, you will not only see and remember these openings for their strategic motifs, but will also get a heavy dose of training in assessing positions and planning according to their strategic features.
As it is partly a middle game book, it does not treat the openings very thoroughly. In fact, every game presents only a certain variation of a given opening, and not a whole much of alternative variations are given. Yet, when you play these openings you become confident that whatever path your game takes you will be able to manage because of your familiarity with that opening’s underlying strategies.
In all, the main value of the book is that it has taught me not only to treat the opening in terms of ideas in the same vein that The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings does, but also to give primary importance to the strategic features of a position whatever the phase of the game.
7. The Nimzo-Indian by Reinaldo Vera
Talking about strategy, the Nimzo-Indian is probably the most strategic opening not only against 1. d4, but in the whole of chess. Black can pick many ways to win strategically with this opening; he can exploit his superior pawn structure, play to capture White’s weak pawn on c4, attack with his lead in development, block the dark squares and exploit the resulting outposts, block the center and outplay White on the flanks, or simplify and head for a good Knight versus bad Bishop ending.
Vera presents at most two illustrative games to meet White’s different variations and systems, but these games are very clear in their choice and application of the above strategies. Perhaps Vera could have presented more illustrative games and offered multiple strategies for every variation, but in his book’s case, more would not be necessarily better.
His strategic approaches are that lucid and easy to remember that I thought I would be more successful with the Nimzo following his singular rather than multiple strategic approach to its many variations.
Perhaps, I am again showing my bias for the general over the concrete when it comes opening books, but I will always believe that you do not have to know too many lines and memorize variations in great detail for as long as you master the strategic outlines of the openings in your repertoire. They say that there are many ways of skinning a cat, but I think you do not have to skin it in a thousand and one ways if you can do so in one highly effective way.
The Nimzo-Indian is one of the best openings in chess. You can beat strong players with it by sheer familiarity of a variation’s strategic motif, and likewise beat weak ones with it by giving them strategically complex positions. The only problem with it is that opponents can easily avoid it with 3. Nf3, which would compel you to keep another opening in your stable such as The Queen’s Gambit Declined, The Queen’s Indian, The Benoni, or the Bogo-Indian. If you are prepared to work on two full openings, then Vera’s book is an excellent one to have either as a stand-alone or preliminary material for other great books on the Nimzo indian.
8. The Agile London System by Alfonso Romero and Oscar de Prado
The London System is a tame opening that is preferred by players who either dislike losing their way in complicated positions, or who wish to defeat their opponents by sheer patience and determination. It fits players who are supremely confident they could outplay their opponents however quiet the position, Magnus Carlsen being the most prominent one who comes to mind. If you are any of these players, or if you share some stylistic semblance to Magnus, then this book should be up on your shelf.
The London is such an unforcing system and foregoes putting the least pressure on Black, that he could pretty much choose the kind of opening formation he could confront it with. Romero and Prado thus structure their book according to how Black meets the London as he would the regular 1. d4 2. c4 openings, such as with the Queen’s Gambit, the Slav, the King’s Indian, the Gruenfeld, the Queen’s Indian, the Benoni, and the Dutch formations.
Romero and Prado go about by recommending ways for White to grab the initiative in these various formations. These recommendations are all very clear, and are given a good summary after every chapter. As do the other books I recommend with their subject openings, this book allows you to win with the London through better familiarity with many of the resulting positions, although you do so by grabbing the advantage in tactical rather than strategic ways. Winning here is not strategically based, but in concrete ways that have been found and proven in previous games.
Winning with the London in the way Romero and Prado advocate, then, is through diligent study of their model games to the point that you will have to come close to memorizing their recommended move orders. If it happens that the game veers into channels neither you nor the book sufficiently covered, then you will have to beat your opponent in not so very complicated positions by maneuvering, laying traps, or pushing them with the sheer weight of chess knowledge that you have gained over the years. If all that do not come to bear, then a draw should be a fair result.
An opening that gives the likely result of a draw or a win for White if played to a good level is good one, and will come in handy in situations where you only need a draw and will have to play safely. Romero and Prado’s book is an excellent one and is worth investing time for.
These, then, are my eight best chess opening books, but I must admit that eight is a short list for anyone to do justice to the great literature of opening books. Surely, there are other books just as good or even better that I haven’t been fortunate enough to discover yet. In any case, I hope these books I’ve shared will be as helpful and useful to everyone as they have been to me.