I'm still going through My System, among other things. I think I've finally achieved one breakthrough -- a better appreciation of the center.
Everybody reading this blog has probably heard this drum beaten again and again: control the center. Yet how many readers are constantly thinking about the center during their games? When you play a "book" move out of an opening repertoire that doesn't address central control, do you understand why it's good? Central control always seemed like a mundane, pedestrian topic that I didn't need to dwell on too much.
However, I had been noticing some common themes in my games. I didn't often think about central control directly, except with respect to tactics (dropping the e4 pawn in a Sicilian, for example) or general positional considerations (e.g. space advantage). It was also staggering to see in my Blitz games how often the best move that I missed was a simple push of a central pawn. This year, in order to improve my understanding, I finally put the French aside, and started playing 1...e5 as Black. I also abandoned the Spanish Exchange for something more main-line. This was a big deal...I played those lines exclusively for the last 13 years.
At some point, I am going to write a major blog entry about some of my discoveries, but I'll pass this along for now: it is surprising how much "opening theory" you can figure out yourself by just thinking about the center. Starting to play 1...e5 was uncomfortable because, if your opponent plays older stuff like the Four Knights, Vienna or Giuoco Piannisimo, transpositions abound and the maze of variations can get confusing. However, beginner's rules can guide you through the morass. For example, in the 1.e4 e5 openings:
- if White gets to push a pawn to d4 without concessions, they typically will have at least the slight edge White is "supposed" to get with correct play.
- if Black can get away with ...d5, they probably equalize or get the advantage.
- both sides try to retain their e-pawns
Similarly, a lot of 1.d4 theory boils down to: White tries to push a pawn to e4, and Black tries to prevent it. Black often tries to maintain a pawn at d5 as a strong point, in which case White often tries to assail it.
Further, if White attains a classic d4/e4 (or d5/e5, for Black) center, its mobility should be considered. Another weakness I've found in my games is a reluctance to push pawns because it changes the pawn structure. Sometimes the most powerful moves on the board involve throwing mobile pawns forward. My System's chapter on the Center was a great refresher, and really drove in the points of occupation of the center, and using a mobile center as a weapon.
Instinctively, I rebelled against the notion that the four central squares are more magical than other squares like c5 or f6, and thought "oh yeah, that's all well and good, but you always have to consider other factors like tactics and development". Which is true. But I was finding in my own games that I was too often passing over moves such as P-Q4 as candidates. I've already seen in my Blitz games that my handling of unfamiliar openings has improved because of this.(I may, at some point, provide specific examples). For example, as Black I'll ask: "White's last move seemed weak. Can I push my pawn to d5 safely? Do I like the looks of the resulting position? OK, I'll play it!" Later, I'll check with Fritz and, sure enough, it was Fritz's favorite move by a good margin.
I've also found such thinking helpful in choosing between possible repertoire moves...if it's a natural move that addresses the center, play it. That also fits in with my philosophy that it's better to play a move you're happy with than some move recommended by theory but mysterious to you. If the bulk of your repertoire moves are natural to you and follow basic principles of development and central control, you avoid both the chore and the trap of memorization. Concentrate on the exceptions, where the best move in a position is unnatural to you, and try to understand why the counter-intuitive move is best.
A few additional points:
1. You need to be aware of the Center Fork Trick, which is essentially a mechanism to force an advantageous d4 or ...d5. Currently I'm finding that I still miss these too often...they're often the key to finding the best move in some of these Old School openings. If you're not familiar with it, an example is here.
2. A lot of other features of these "old school" openings are covered in older books like My System and Pawn Power in Chess. Many instructors recommend that beginners start out playing 1.e4 e5 to get practice with basic chess knowledge, and my experience so far is that this is very, very good advice.
3. This post may seem to fly in the face of my advice not to dwell on studying openings. What I'm trying to show here is that studying general principles will greatly reduce the need to study opening theory. In other words, a grasp of chess basics allows you to be the master of your openings, and not a slave. I am not intentionally studying theory that is helping me play 1.e4 e5 better. I have chosen to play 1.e4 e5 because the games that result will be guided by general chess principles and will help me to understand basic chess concepts.