Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Openings for Improving Players: Part 1

Although I'm encouraging a minimalist approach to studying openings, I want to spend some time on how to choose an opening repertoire. This is because I believe that a right or wrong choice here can have a significant impact on how well you progress as a chess player. When the time comes for a player to settle upon an opening repertoire, I think that some of the common suggestions for beginners, in the long run, are traps that will hinder your improvement. I'm still conflicted about some of the advice that follows, so I'd be interested in what some trainers think about these suggestions. Overall, however, I think my advice is sound.

One common philosophy is: "The purpose of the opening is to reach a playable middle game". Often this is coupled with the idea of selecting openings with similar piece deployments or pawn structures....sort of "universal systems" for handling whatever your opponent throws at you. Another common recommendation is to suggest sets of openings with similar pawn structures. For example, the orthodox Queen's Gambit Declined is similar to the French defense; the Caro-Kann to the Slav; and the King's Indian Attack to the King's Indian Defense.

The problem I now have with this is that you limit your exposure to different pawn structures and to different middlegames. To improve as a chess player, you need to be able to play any type of position, and you just don't get enough variety with these systems. The worst openings to choose, in my opinion, are those with fixed, predictable pawn structures.

I say this with great reluctance, because I am a great fan of the French defense. Shortly after I began playing at a club, I was having trouble with all the tricky tactics in the 1.e4 e5 openings as Black. After reading Nimzowitsch's My System, I took to the French Defense because the explanation of how pawn chains work made so much sense to me. I have been faithful to that defense for about 13 years, without ever waiving. Against 1.d4 I have at various times played the QGD, Slav, and semi-Slav defenses, all placing pawns on c6, d5 and/or e6.

The problem I have now is this: if I play Black, and my center pawns aren't on light squares, I'm really, really uncomfortable. A pawn on e5 instead of e6 makes me vaguely queasy. In a sense, I'm afraid to leave the womb.

Similarly, a player of the KID expects a pawn chain pointing at White's kingside, and will typically "burn the boats" to checkmate White at all costs. A player of the Sicilian Dragon similarly is exposed to a more narrow range of middlegame plans, in my opinion. That's not to say that these openings are tactically simple (quite the opposite in the last two cases), just that the player is exposed to fewer positional ideas.

When choosing a repertoire, these are the key things I'd consider:

1. Main lines are strongly recommended. They're main lines for a reason. Plus, as I've said before, at club level your opponents most likely don't know the theory. A great example of this is the Ruy Lopez (a.k.a. "Spanish"). Although theory goes very, very, deep, and the main lines of the closed Ruy Lopez don't start until move 9 or so, a lot of your amateur games won't get that far. Actually, a huge branch point is at the third move, where Black has a lot of reasonable alternatives to 3...a6 (my earlier post here shows what my opponents most commonly play at this point). My philosophy is that you only need to know theory as deeply as your typical opponent. As you improve, and your opponents improve as well, you'll pick up theory deeper and deeper into the main lines as you master the earlier deviations your weaker opponents tend to throw at you.

An added bonus of choosing the most popular openings is that, as you study master games, you'll come across more examples of strong players using your opening.

2. Openings that lead to a large variety of pawn structures, and thus middle games, are best. This gives you greater experience in handling different types of position, and helps you to think "outside the box". Contrast this to my experience as a French/QGD player. To help give you some perspective, I strongly recommend reading a book such as Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess (my favorite, despite the odd terminology the author uses), or Soltis' Pawn Structure Chess. You want to pick openings that will expose you to as many of those kinds of structures as possible.

3. Open and semi-open games are best. These lead to crazy tactics and force you to practice your kung-fu. If I had stuck to ...e5 thirteen years ago, and faced openings such as the King's Gambit, Two Knight's Defense, Max Lange attack and a host of crazy gambits, I'm sure I'd be a stronger player today.

I am genuinely conflicted over whether it's better to play an opening that is tactically complicated, but slightly suspect, or a more mainstream opening with more limited tactics. It may boil down to deciding what is your greater weakness: not playing "real chess" because of a sloppy thought process, or tactical ability. If the former, a calmer line with fewer tactics may be helpful.

4. Avoid lines that violate opening principle and/or don't make sense to you. Just because grandmasters charge early with g2-g4 against certain openings (such as the Sicilian Scheveningen or Caro-Kann advance) doesn't mean that you should emulate them. Many of these lines are highly tactical and non-intuitive.

I have gone through Watson's Mastering the Chess Openings (Volume 1), in which he gives a survey of 1.e4 openings while explaining typical opening strategies. Multiple times, Watson says essentially "you can play {such-and-such crazy move} here, but it's really tactical, counterintuitive, and doesn't really demonstrate the typical plans for this opening, so I'm not going to talk about it." Those are the types of opening lines to avoid.

OK, so what openings do I think the improving player should choose? Stay tuned for Part 2....


Mark said...


Mark said...

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Emmly said...

Great work.