Monday, March 26, 2007

Openings for Improving Players: Part 3 (as Black)

Repertoire as Black

I have a lot more recommendations for books for the Black openings than for the White. Even though I'm telling you to not rely on books so much, there are a few nice ones here that will help. They'll be listed at the end of the article.

Flank Openings and other Riff-raff

Lets get these out of the way first. I held back on writing this article because I wasn't sure what to recommend for the flank openings (English, Reti) and other "odds and ends". Fortunately I snapped to my senses and realized that they don't matter.

Why? Well, if you've read this earlier blog entry on Blitz games you've seen how I've used ChessBase to see what openings I've faced in the past. Going back seven years, here's the occurrence of openings I've faced as black:

1.e4 64.6%
1.d4 20.2%
1.Nf3 3.8%
1.c4 2.6%
1.f4 0.8%
1.b4 0.8%

And the odds drop from there. Considering that many of the 1.Nf3 and 1.c4 openings would transpose into 1.e4 or 1.d4 lines, their occurrence in my games really don't justify a lot of study. For me, these openings fall into the "find the novelty, determine what you'd play in the future, and forget about it" category.

Granted, at higher levels the occurrence of 1.d4, 1.Nf3 and 1.c4 will go up, but at my level they simply aren't worth sweating over. My advice is to stick to general principles and try to steer the game into familiar territory.

See how a chess database can save you money? Now you don't have to go out and buy "Joe Blow's EZ Guide to the Reti/English/Larsen/Grob/Whatever". "But a database won't tell me what the ideas of the opening are!", I hear the book addicts cry. To which I counter: your opponent probably doesn't know either. If you must, consult a general book on openings such as Collins' Understanding the Chess Openings and leave it at that. You'd be better off spending time practicing tactics, or reading Kmoch's Pawn Power in Chess and playing by general principles.

B. 1.e4: 1...e5 or 1...c5

{Edit: 9/28/07: I want to make a strong recommendation for 1...e5, and for Marin's two repertoire books listed at the end of this post. I think they are the best opening repertoire books I've ever come across, and you can learn a lot about chess from them. I have been playing 1...e5 for the last 9 months now, and I feel as confident now playing 1...e5 as I do playing 1...e6 (which I played for 13 years).}

Alright, on to the main suggestions. Against 1.e4 I would recommend either 1...e5 or 1...c5. We are looking for popular openings, a variety of pawn structures, and tactics. I love the French (1...e6) to death, but as I said earlier I feel that the fixed pawn structure means less middlegame variety and less thinking "outside the box".

1...c5, the Sicilian, is obviously a great choice. It's tactical, it's asymmetric, and Black has a lot of control over the choice of opening (Najdorf, Scheveningen, Classical, Dragon, Taimanov....). However, there are a few detractions:

1. At my level of play at least, count on your White opponent chickening out and not playing the Open Sicilian. I know, because that's what I've done until recently as White. Bewildered by Black's variety of choices, and frequent victim of tactics (to the point where I wondered if I should just pretend I intended to gambit my e4 pawn all along), I tried the Smith-Morra, the c3-Sicilian, and lines with 3.Bb5(+) (Moscow and Rossolimo variations). The Grand Prix is also popular (I believe Alburt's recent repertoire book uses the Grand Prix). However, this can in the long run be a good thing. Most of the alternatives to 2.Nf3 and 3.d4 are considered less critical for Black (although that's meaningless at club level), and your games will be determined by tactics, not opening preparation. As you become a better player, you will have worked out your responses to these sidelines and will gradually get more and more experience in a "real" Sicilian line. If you are a book addict, though, the Sicilian will probably drive you nuts because you rarely get to play "your" opening.

2. The Dragon variations with ...g6 and ...Bg7 are very popular, but I would not recommend them because I feel there's not enough variation in middlegame plans and pawn structures. This may not be completely fair, and the Dragon definitely fits the bill as tactical. It just strikes me as being more stereotyped. Opposite side castling, mutual king hunts, Fischer's "sac...sac...mate!" approach with the White pieces.... Of course, the devil is in the details, but that's just it. It seems to be a very, very "book" opening. Alburt's black repertoire book uses an accelerated (hyper-accelerated, actually) version where Black plays 2.g3. This helps avoid some of White's standard anti-Sicilian measures, and I really can't say that it would be a bad choice as Black. I just think you'll increase your overall understanding of chess by playing another line. You'll still get your tactical vitamins in.

I'm most strongly attracted to the Scheveningen formation with pawns on d6 and e6. This allows for a variety of pawn thrusts in the center, so you'll get a large variety of middlegame plans. The standard Paulsen/Najdorf pawn structure with pawns on d6 and e5 may arise from the Scheveningen, or by playing an immediate e7-e5. This gives a backwards d-pawn and the "Boleslavsky hole" on d5, so it's not for the faint of heart, but it's a common feature of the Najdorf. For those wanting to take these structures up, I strongly recommend Soltis' Pawn Structure Chess, as well as Mastering the Sicilian by Danny Kopec, which emphasize general ideas over move orders. I've perused John Emms' Play the Najdorf: Scheveningen Style, and that style of play seems like a good choice for an improving player.

My suggestion is 1....e5, and I've started playing it myself. If you have avoided playing 1...e5 up until now, I understand why. You are telling White that they can pretty much choose whatever crazy 18th-century gambit or hot grandmaster line in the "Spanish Torture" they want, and you have to respond. The Two Knights' Defense/Max Lange lines, frankly, scare the crap out of me, even though when I first started chess I used the Max Lange as my first white opening (I've long since forgotten the theory). The King's Gambit, while not that common, is also quite annoying, and it doesn't help that my three repertoire books suggest three different responses. (Yes, I own three 1...e5 repertoire books. Yes, I'm telling you to not study theory. Yes, I'm a hypocrite. Did you not see the blog motto? Do as I say, not as I do....).

By switching to 1...e5, you are getting rid of the safety net, challenging White to do his worst, and unless they play something main-line you will probably be thinking on your feet for most of the opening. This is a good thing. I'm suggesting openings to help you improve as a player. I'm not suggesting openings to mollycoddle you and help you cling to your 1401 rating so you don't drop to the D category.

As for specifics, I would say prepare a main-line Spanish as Black, but be aware that a lot of the games won't go that far. One thing that strikes me about the main-line Spanish is that the move order is fairly logical, so as long as you understand why both White and Black play the moves they do for the first 9 moves, you're good. For example, if White omits 9.h3 (perfectly playable), you should know that it's because White generally regards the pin with 9...Bg4 to be annoying as hell, and that might be a good move to play if White omits pushing the h-pawn. One big diversion is if White plays the Exchange with 4.Bxc6. Black has many options here, but if you want to be devious you can try 4...dxc6 5.0-0 Bg4!?, with the point 6.h3 h5!, and the bishop is immune for now. This is a line you'd want to spend time on, though, because it'll get as hairy for Black as for White. Since I'm not advocating spending a lot of time on openings, you'd be better off playing more rational moves in my opinion.

I'm torn between the Giuoco Piano (3...Bc5) or the Two Knights' Defense (3...Nf6) against 3.Bc4. So far my experience is that the latter is way more tactical (the best line I believe amounts to Black gambiting a pawn), more transpositional (with a variety of Max Lange and Ng5 themes), and more risky. However, if you persevere I'm willing to bet that with your experience and your tactical chops you will be a better player. Myself, more often than not I've been chickening out with 3.Bc5. White still has some tactical options here, but a lot of the time (at my level) the games become these quieter, closed games with positional manoeuvrings and such....sort of "old school" chess like you'd see out of a Nimzovich book or something. 3.Bc5 is better for my nerves, worse for my chess. {Edit 9/28/07: Marin's repertoire book focuses on 3...Bc5, with some Two-Knights' theory to handle early transpositions.}

If your opponent isn't playing 3.Bb5 or 3.Bc4, I'd say just play chess and see what happens. There's a large variety of old-school gambits that can occur in these openings, but I'd say study them as they occur in your games and follow the standard "see what theory says and move on" approach. In a lot of these cases the games are probably decided by tactical prowess anyways.

C. 1.d4: Nimzo/Bogo/Queen's Indian

This is probably my most radical suggestion for an improving club player. I think most people would suggest a 1...d5 opening of some sort, playing an "old-school" QGD/QGA/Slav/Semi-Slav something-or-other. My problem with these openings is that they tend to be more closed in nature, with fewer pawn structures. Black tries to maintain a strong point at d5, starts out with pawns on light squares, and tries to engineer a pawn break such as ...c5 when the time is ripe, or at least avoid typical White plans such as the minority attack. For me, the double whammy of playing these light-squared defenses and playing the French to boot meant that I felt discombobulated whenever my pawns weren't on light squares. Some authors would recommend, for example "play the Caro-Kann and Slav" or "French and QGD" because of the similar pawn structures that arise. That is precisely why I say don't do it. It's too confining.

The Nimzo-Indian Talk about a mind-boggling array of pawn structures and transpositions. Perfect. Why? Because studying the theory is so daunting. You won't really know the theory, but neither will your opponent. A good read would be Tony Kosten's Mastering the Nimzo-Indian, which goes through the most common pawn structures that arise in this opening. From my experience so far, however, books aren't going to get you far in this opening at club levels because craziness will soon ensue.

Transpositions abound in these openings, but the Nimzo generally stems from 3.Nc3, and either the Bogo-Indian or Queen's Indian from 3.Nf3. So far I've been using Alburt's book and the Bogo- as guides, but the QID strikes me as something that can be played in a fairly Nimzo-like fashion. Pawn structures and tactics are more important than move orders as far as I can tell. The most important thing here is that both White and Black have a lot of input as to what middlegame plans and pawn structures will arise, and the games most likely will be determined by tactics or middlegame experience and not by "booking up".

{edit on 6/25/07: although I stand by my Nimzo recommendation, the QGD/Slav family is certainly appropriate. I mention this because, with my newfound appreciation of controlling the center, I find that the 1.e4 e5 and 1.d4 d5 openings most clearly demonstrate the importance of the center. Semi-open and Indian defences are a bit more mysterious about central control, or at least less blunt. My greatest concern is that a player chooses both the Caro-Kann and the Slav, for example, or French and QGD like I did. If your pawns are always on light squares, you're not getting exposed to enough variety of positions. I spent 13 years trapped in a light-squared prison. Don't let it happen to you. For the adventurous, I'll point out that after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 you could play ...d5 and choose a QGD system instead of the Queen's Indian or Bogo-Indian. That will give you experience in both a classical and a hypermodern response to 1.d4.}


Again, do as I say, not as I do. Try to limit your opening book expenditures and think for yourself in the opening. With that being said, the following books stand out.

Repertoire books:

Chess Openings for Black, Explained by Lev Alburt et al. The non-1.e4 section of the book can be used as a starting point for figuring out your own repertoire, even if you don't use the material on the Dragon.

NEW: Beating the Open Games and A Spanish Opening Repertoire for Black by Mihail Marin. Simply the best repertoire books I've ever seen (I also noticed, for what it's worth, that quotes Silman as saying "I can’t recall having seen a better book in the last two decades"). These are repertoire books you can actually read cover-to-cover for chess instruction.

This is Marin's actual tournament repertoire, and he seems to emphasize lines that follow sound opening principles. The first book covers the non-Spanish part of the repertoire, plus how to deal with the Spanish Exchange. The second focuses on the Chigorin variation of the main-line Spanish, plus earlier deviations by White.

Play 1.e4 e5! by Nigel Davies. Overall, a good one-volume choice for Black vs. 1.e4. Uses the Keres variation as its main-line Spanish suggestion.

Play the Open Games as Black by John Emms. Doesn't cover the Spanish, but has far more thorough coverage for all the non-Spanish alternatives than Davies' book. Probably the more useful of the two books for patzers like me because these "lesser" lines are common and annoying.

The Chess Advantage in Black and White by Larry Kaufman. A repertoire for both white and black packed into a small paperback. Not a bad starting point, and excellent value. This is more useful for White than Black in my recommended repertoire, but it does at least have Italian (3.Bc4 Bc5) lines for wimps like me (Davies and Emms use the Two Knights' Defense).

Specific openings:

The Ruy Lopez: A Guide for Black by Johnsen and Johannessen. This is actually a very good book, but has to compete with Marin's spanish repertoire now. However, it advocates the Zaitsev variation rather than the Chigorin. If you know you want to play the Zaitsev, or if you want further coverage of White's earlier deviations, this book is a good choice. I also found the lengthy preface and introduction to be enlightening.

Mastering the Sicilian by Danny Kopecr>Mastering the Nimzo-Indian by Tony Kostenr>These books have different formats but the same idea: showing typical middlegames for the openings in question with less focus on move orders. These two books would be more useful to people taking up these openings than any specific repertoire book. Highly recommended if you're going to play these openings.

Play the Najdorf: Scheveningen Style by John Emms.<br>Easy Guide to the Sicilian Scheveningena> by Steffen Pedersen.<br>If you're going to play the Sicilian, this seems like the best introductory way to do it in my opinion.

Play the Nimzo-Indian by Edward Dearing. The lines in this book grab me more than those in Alburt's. So far, Dearing has struck me as an excellent author of opening books (his book on the Sicilian Dragon strikes me as being the bible for that opening).

Easy Guide to the Nimzo-Indian by John Emms. Wow, the Emms trifecta is complete! This book and Pedersen's are from the same series and describe typical piece deployments in their openings.

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