11 January 2018

Book completed: Mastering Opening Strategy

I recently completed Mastering Opening Strategy by GM Johan Hellsten (Everyman Chess, 2012).  The book took a beastly long time to complete - more on that below - but I think it was worth it, in the end.

Instead of a detailed theory of opening concepts, a la Ideas Behind the Chess Openings, GM Hellsten's book has four core chapters that center around a number of annotated games and long quiz sections, along with a short fifth one on opening preparation.  The chapters are:

1 - The Nature of Development
2 - Crime and Punishment
3 - The Battle for the Centre
4 - Restriction
5 - A Few Words on Opening Preparation

My comments:
  • Chapters 1 and 2 overlap a great deal, in the sense that pretty much all of the examples show how the less developed side is punished for neglecting opening principles regarding the value of rapid piece development.  A lot of them revolve around king-in-the-center positions, which you learn must be cracked open as soon as possible, otherwise the slower side can consolidate.  Piece activity (via development) and looking for opportunities to initiate attacks with early sacrifices, done to open lines in the position (especially towards the enemy king), are key elements that are illustrated repeatedly.
  • Chapter 3 is interesting, as in a number of cases the importance of the center is underlined by efforts on the wings to undermine it.  There are plenty of examples of seizing central territory with pieces and/or pawns and using that to dominate the opponent, though.
  • Chapter 4 is primarily about prophylaxis, with the focus being on limiting (sometimes severely) your opponent's piece development.  This is probably the most sophisticated chapter and underlines the importance of understanding your opponent's plans as much as your own opportunities.  A number of positional crushes are presented at the top levels of professional chess, showing that this really is an effective and important concept.
  • Chapter 5 contains some useful principles on building an opening repertoire, although does not try to be comprehensive.  Hellsten's observations on the opening being the most apropos area of the game for exploring your personal taste/style were quite interesting, especially in light of previous insights shared here on the concept of style in chess.  Basically the idea is that you should look at openings with structural and style similarities when building a repertoire, with a number of different types of factors highlighted.  This is not necessarily a new idea, but Hellsten explicitly focuses on the opening as most suitable for the expression of "style" choices and largely discounts it for middlegame play.
  • Be prepared for a long time factor in working through this book.  Each of the chapters has a number of example annotated games, which works well, then a large number of games (long fragments, sometimes complete games) as quizzes where you are supposed to identify the next move.  For example, Chapter 3 has 34 example games and 37 quiz games.  If you take them seriously and don't blitz through them, even going through relatively rapidly (say 5 minutes per example game and 10 minutes per quiz game), that means a typical chapter will take you around 540 minutes = 9 hours.  So that means around 36 hours total for the whole book.  So if you go hard at it for an hour a day, every day without a break, it will still take you over a month to complete.  I typically did study sessions in 15-30 minute daily chunks, not sequentially and with substantial breaks sometimes, so that meant it ended up taking well over a year to work through it.
  • If you're expecting a detailed, systemic exposition of opening theory and principles, this really isn't the book for it.  If you're looking for a number of well-annotated illustrative games with connecting and recurring themes related to the opening phase, then that better fits the description of this book.  Repetition of the themes has ingrained the basic principles in my chess thinking and should help me take better advantages of these types of opportunities in the future, even without retention of all the details.


  1. I haven't finished Mastering Opening Strategy, but Mastering Chess Strategy and Mastering Endgame Strategy are both outstanding, and I think they played a big part of my improvement from 1800 to 2000. I definitely found myself identifying fruitful ideas earlier in my thinking process during tournament games and wasting less time spinning my wheels.

  2. Thank you for this excellent and very personal review.

    I bought the book some time ago, but left it aside as I relaized that it would take a lot of time to read it properly (as you confirm) and I had other chess priorities, but it sounds like it's another original and deep effort by Hellsten.