I'm going to argue in a future post that the best way to improve is for players to build their own opening repertoires, based on the moves that they feel are best. However, if you want to decide on a "proper" opening system for tournament play, or if you are new to the game and want to play book lines to get a feel for what "proper" opening play looks like, my suggestions should help.
Some of my recommendations are quite general. For those that are looking for a "one-book" opening repertoire, you could check out such books as Kaufman's The Chess Advantage in Black and White, or Chess Openings for White, Explained by Lev Alburt et al. However, I would treat these books as a framework only. If you like the lines in them, use them, but if you don't then find your own.
I can't comment on the latter book much because I don't own it (yet), but I own the corresponding Black repertoire book. My experience was that there were some good suggestions, but a lot of the suggested moves were just given without explaining their purpose. When checking over one of my games, I frequently found instances where my opponent played a reasonable move but the book only covered one. Spotting transpositions were also a bit of a headache. However, this could actually be a strength of the book. I advocate determining for yourself what you like to play in a certain circumstance, so such a repertoire book provides a starting point but leaves you with plenty of homework to do. I believe this book for White suggests the Scotch gambit instead of the Ruy Lopez, and an early f4 against the Sicilian, and these should fit in with my philosophy of choosing openings that lead to open positions and tactical play.
Kaufman's book is a pretty good deal pricewise, and his theme of choosing "second-best but serious" lines for his repertoire makes sense. I've used it for quite a while. However, for most of the main openings I would now disagree with most of his choices for the improving club player. He advocates the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez and the Short system for the Caro-Kann, and I discuss this below. Some of his suggestions strike me as "unnatural" or non-intuitive, such as the weird pawn structures that result in his response to the Petroff. Finally, he dodges the open Sicilian (also discussed below). Nonetheless there's useful stuff in here, such as for the French Tarrasch, Pirc, Modern and Philidor.
Repertoire as White
I think that 1.e4 gives you more open, tactical games than 1.d4 or others, and thus will contribute more to your development as a player. You can argue "yes, but I want to learn more strategy", but I counter:
- unless you are quite a good player, your games are being lost through tactics and not gaps in opening or middlegame strategy. One National Master I took group lessons from argued that you can become a master with tactics and a smidgen of endgame theory alone. (This guy also played the Philidor Defense as Black religiously, which is a great recommendation but about as uncool as main openings get. Further evidence that you don't have to play the hot, topical lines of today's grandmasters.)
- these openings will lead to a large variety of pawn structures, which will give you experience in strategic play.
- although a lot of the side lines are tactical, this repertoire aims at playing the Ruy Lopez, which should please anyone that enjoys chess strategy.
I recommend that after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 that White play the Ruy Lopez (Spanish) with 3.Bb5. However: there is an excellent argument for playing 3.Bc4, which leads to the Giuoco Piano (3...Bc5) or Two Knights' Defense (3...Nf6). Actually, the lines with 3.Bc4 are even more tactical from my experience. So what are the reasons for my choice?
- The tactics involved in these lines encourages rote memorization to weak people such as myself. Actually, if you worked through all the tactics of lines like the Moller attack, the Two Knights' with 4.Ng5, or the Max Lange attack by yourself, you would be in great shape. Not many of your opponents will play these openings perfectly, and if they did they probably memorized the "solution" and don't know what they're doing out of book. So, if you can avoid the "memorization trap" and have the discipline to immerse yourself in the tactics of these openings, I say go for it.
- There are lots of books on the Ruy, but I can't recall seeing a good book for playing 3.Bc4 as White. Yes, I've been arguing a "burn the books!" approach to opening theory, but it's still nice to be able to find one book in your main opening.
- It's not as common at the grandmaster level, so you come across fewer modern games as examples.
However, I found that I rarely got one of the typical Exchange Variation endgames. I also found the piece play to be not-so-intuitive after all, especially trying to get my minor pieces coordinated. Most importantly, I was not seeing a wide variety of pawn structures and middlegame plans. I was playing a system that limited my exposure to new positions and ideas.
Until a few weeks ago I'd suggest playing straight into the main lines of the Ruy Lopez, and that's still a great suggestion. There's plenty of books out there to guide you if you want (I'll just mention that Mastering the Spanish (With the Read and Play Method) by Daniel King and Pietro Ponzetto is a classic, although out of print). However, the Worrall System (3...a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.Qe2) featured in the new book Play the Ruy Lopez by Andrew Greet looks like a perfect answer. The book covers all the 3rd- and 4th-move alternatives to the main line, which is very important at amateur level (see my post here where I show that 3rd-move alternatives are extremely common in my games). However, here White gets to deviate at move 5 and thus avoid the Open Ruy Lopez (5.0-0 Nxe4) as well as the main lines. Players of these lines will see a variety of pawn structures (as in the main lines of the Ruy) and yet they get to "call the shots" by deviating from the Main line relatively early. I like this approach a lot, and I've started to play these lines in my online blitz games. I think Greet's book is going to be very popular.
The Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 with 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4)
I'm just starting to play the Open Sicilian, so I have no specific recommendations against each line Black can throw at you. I'm recommending this purely for ideological reasons. The Open Sicilian is considered the main test of 1...c5, it leads to a large variety of pawn structures, and it's loaded with tactics.
I understand why we amateurs avoid it. Black gets a lot of choice in what line is chosen, so we tend to play into their pet lines. Also, because of the tactics I find time and again that I make some dumb mistake early on (my e4 pawn is a frequent victim of some removal-of-the-guard tactic). But that's the point...I'm not losing because of opening theory, but because of weak tactics.
There are a large number of cop-outs that can be played here, and I've played my fair share. I've at various times played the Smith-Morra gambit, the Alapin with 2.c3 or 3.c3, and the Moscow/Rossolimo variations with 3.Bb5(+). If you have to choose something besides the open, I like the suggestions by Kaufman in his one-book repertoire, which features the 3.Bb5 variants.
However, I think that this is one place where the approach of building your own repertoire is best. Try to stick to opening principles, and keep track of the moves you like to play. Try to check your choices with those in a book like Nunn's Chess Openings (NCO) or Modern Chess Openings (MCO), or with a reference database like Chessbase, or the opening and game databases that come with your chess engine. An added bonus to playing "your" move rather than some repertoire book's move is that it cuts down on memorization....you're playing what you yourself feel is best, not what someone else likes.
Two book recommendations I have are Best Lessons of a Chess Coach (mentioned in an earlier post) and Mastering the Sicilian by Danny Kopec. Best Lessons only features a few Sicilian games, but the authors' descriptions about how they were played are very enlightening (e.g. the concept of two pawns at e4 and f4 acting as a "shield" to develop your pieces behind). The latter I have not yet read cover-to-cover, but it describes the "flow" of several games in several opening systems, so you get the feel for common positional themes and tactical threats. For example, one common theme is where Black expands on the queenside, and then "sweeps" over to the kingside for a mating attack.
The French Defense: Tarrasch (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2)
From my experience playing the French as black, I think that the Tarrasch is best choice for white, and I have started to play it myself. The overriding reasons for my choice are:
- there's more variety in pawn structures with this opening, because Black may choose to play 3...c5 here. Watson's book Play the French (3rd edition) is the French player's bible, and he recommends this approach for Black. This means that a fair number of your French games won't feature the typical pawn chains at d4-e5. 3...Nf6 is still quite common, so you'll still get practice at playing against pawn chains.
- my experience at the lower levels is that the Tarrasch is exceedingly rare (as also mentioned in my earlier post). On ICC, as Black, I get the exchange variation, the advance variation, and 3.Nc3. That means your typical black player at club level has far less experience with the Tarrasch than any other white response. Now, at higher levels the Tarrasch is exceedingly popular, and I don't have a feel for at what level you tend to see the switchover. As a class C player both over the board and on ICC, however, I can say that it is indeed uncommon.
Other openings, in my experience, are uncommon enough that they don't warrant a lot of study.
The Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6) would be one of the more common Black alternatives. I would suggest looking into the lines with 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4. These would lead to open games with lots of piece play. I have so far been playing the Short system (3.e5 Bf5 4.Nf3 with 5.Be2 and early castling) but this is another example of a closed center with a French-like pawn chain. At some point I may look into the more routine, open variations, but it's not common enough for me to change my ways.
Another relatively common opening is the Petroff (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6). The most common move is 3.Nxe5, with tricks involving the open e-file, but I like the next-most-common 3.d4. It's respectable, and Black only has two main choices at that point (3...exd4 or 3...Nxe4).
The Philidor (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6) is fairly common among beginners, and you may be seeing more of it soon. I've thumbed through The Philidor Files by Christian Bauer (note: this book and Greet's book on the Ruy Lopez are reviewed at ChessCafe.com here) at the book store, and it looks like it could be a popular repertoire book for Black. Worse, the author recommends entering the Philidor through a sneaky move order. Nonetheless, I've so far done well just playing according to general principles, and I don't think you need to prepare against it that much. That's also my advice against fianchetto openings such as the Pirc/Modern. Although these are trickier, I just don't face them enough to spend much time studying them. I do get annoyed by these "amateur" openings where they fianchetto both bishops and target my center, but I just try to think my way through them and play sensibly.
I also play by first principles again the Scandinavian (1.e4 d5). After the typical 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 you're gaining time on the queen, and I just play from there.
For a lot of these minor openings, and for deviations from the main openings, my attitude at the point my opponent or I leave theory is: "well, now it's a chess game" and I just play chess. After the game, I check and see who left theory where, what the best response was, and leave the opening study at that unless there's something interesting going on.
Coming soon: A repertoire for Black....