Friday, July 6, 2007

How to Prepare an Opening, Part Two

Here we're going to hack our way through the jungle and eventually arrive at the main line of the Closed Spanish. I've tried to come up with phrases that describes what we're about to do:

  • spelunking
  • going on an Opening Safari
  • dumpster diving
  • mining for gold
  • antiquing (when using old games and analysis to guide your thoughts)

The bottom line is we're going to be trying to understand the reason behind the main move order, question it, and see if we can find other sequences we like better.

Even if you're using a repertoire book for guidance, follow this thought process so that, at the very least, you've justified their move choice. If you think about the move for a bit, you're helping to transfer this move from short-term to long-term memory. I strongly recommend using an actual chess board, because I think it assists with this transfer.

We'll first go over the main line and see what each side is thinking. If these reasons for the moves aren't clear already, you can refer back to this sequence as we discuss alternatives. The ideas are superficial but they'll do. This is my own interpretation of the opening sequence. I may revise this if Marin's upcoming book on the Spanish turns more light bulbs on. Before I undertook this exercise, it wasn't clear to me why certain key moves for both sides (0-0, c3, and h3 for white; ...Be7, ...b5, ...0-0 and a possible ...Bg4 by Black) were played in a certain sequence. By going through this exercise, the picture is now a lot clearer. I recommend this technique of using an "internal Socratic dialogue (monologue?)" for any opening you work on....ask questions and try to answer them.

After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6:

5.0-0 ("I know my e4 pawn is attacked, but I've figured out how to deal with it")
5...Be7 ("I could take the e4 pawn, but I've figured out it can't really be kept, so I choose to develop.")
6.Re1 ("Ok, now I should protect e4. This also will clear f1 for a N manoeuvre I have planned.")
6...b5 ("I want to kick-start my queenside play before White can make an escape square at b2 for his bishop")
7.Bb3 d6 ("I want to play ...Na5 to chop the B off, but e5 is weak. This shores up my center and opens a diagonal for the queen's bishop.")
8.c3 ("I want to keep my bishop in case of ...Na5")
8...0-0 ("castling is good")
9.h3 ("I want to play d4, but if he pins me with Bg4 that's annoying.")
9...Bb7 ("develops the bishop on the long diagonal and hits e4"). Black has several options at this point. I've chosen this move because it completes Black's development (except for queen deployment), which is a good enough stopping point for this tutorial. If I were white, I would look at the main lines enough to get an idea for how my development will be completed (e.g. the standard Spanish N manoeuvre of Nb1-d2-f1-g3 or e3); as Black, I would choose my system starting at move 9 and extend the main line from there a short distance, in order to get a feel for the types of middlegames that ensue.

At lower levels of play, it's not that likely that your opponent makes it all the way through even the "mainest" of main lines without diverging at some point. In that case, studying the opening out further than the end of development won't pay direct dividends in your own games (although indirectly this may increase your understanding of typical play). You're better off, in my opinion, studying master games than worrying about exact move sequences here. When your opposition starts playing these lines through, then you can worry about extending your horizon.

I'm now going to cross-examine the main Spanish move sequence, see if I agree with it, and see if I can find alternatives for either side.

The first, obvious, question about 5.0-0 is: why doesn't White have to protect the e4 pawn? If you're castling here because it's the book move, but don't have an answer for this question, you're asking for trouble. 5...Nxe4 (the Open Spanish) is a reputable opening choice:

The standard move here is 6.d4. 6.Re1 is playable but should cost White the bishop pair. Now, the books say "it's too risky to play 6...exd4 in this position". This should trigger your intellectual curiosity. It turns out that this is called the Riga variation, and the main reason for that assessment is the endgame after 7.Re1 d5 8.Nxd4 Bd6! 9.Nxc6 Bxh2+!

Here, 10.Kh2 allows perpetual check by 10...Qh4+ 22.Kg1 Qxf2+. So, if a draw is an acceptable result for you, this is fine. The main continuation for White is 10.Kh1! Qh4 11.Rxe4+! dxe4 12.Qd8+! Qxd8 13.Nxd8+ Kxd8 14.Kxh2+/= (see next position):

Emms, for example, says that this endgame "has been known for many years to favour White" and leaves it at that. In my database, White scores 68%, which certainly backs this up. However:

1. This is a fairly forcing variation (although some homework on your part will be required). White has to find some good moves. If you're ok with a draw, this can be a good practical chance at club level.

2. If this were just a trappy, tactical line I probably wouldn't be attracted to it. However, ask yourself if the endgame (more like a queenless middlegame, in my opinion) is that bad for black.

Here's what I see:
  • material is unbalanced but roughly equal. Two minor pieces + bishop pair = 3.25x2 + 0.5 = 7 pawns, balancing a rook plus two pawns. I'm using the Kaufman values for the pieces...see this Heisman article for an elaboration.
  • black nominally has a lead in development, but at a glance I don't think Black will be able to keep it because he has to untangle a bit.
  • Black has action for his rooks on the center files, and a 4:2 pawn majority on the king side. White's N has no outpost, but the open position is good for the two bishops.

This is some shallow analysis, and perhaps the best thing is to play the position from both sides against the computer to see how you really feel about Black's position. My suspicion is that Grandmaster technique makes this easier for white, but at club level familiarity with the position will triumph. I think that this would be an interesting line to try out in actual play.

Even if you don't go for the Riga Variation, the Open Spanish with 5...Nxe4 is a real option for Black's repertoire.

So, it turns out that White can get away with 5.0-0. It also turns out that White can play 5.d4 here. Remember a rule of thumb for White in these openings is "if you can get away with d2-d4, it's probably a good move." It turns out that 5.d4 (or 6.d4 after 5.0-0 Be7) is fully playable. Johnsen and Johannessen call this the "Central Attack Ruy Lopez (CARL)". The authors say that it's drawish but that Black has to walk a narrow path. If this is the GM assessment, that means that this would be perfectly acceptable for club players. Your opponents aren't likely to have figured out an antidote to this variation; I have never faced it myself. J&J give a fair bit of analysis in this line; Davies' repertoire book for Black only considers the 6.d4 move order. I played through much of J&J's analysis, and my gut feeling was that White was making a lot of pawn moves and falling behind in development, but had nicer pawns at the end.

{NEW: 9/22/07} When I initially prepared this I glossed over 5.d3. In Marin's A Spanish Repertoire for White, he devotes an entire chapter to this move (which can be played "anywhere between the 5th and 10th moves). I'll just point out that it logically protects the e4 pawn, and that it's respectable. It's a bit timid for my taste, but it would be a good compromise for those wanting to play a "grownup" opening yet also deviate early to throw off your opponent.

Black has a few other 5th-move options after 5.0-0. Both 5...Bc5 and 5...b5 with 6...Bc5 (the Moller variation) opt to place the king's bishop on its other viable posting (Bd6 blocks the d-pawn, Bb4 allows c2-c3 with tempo). 5...b5 with 6.Bb7, the Arkhangelsk, develops the queen's bishop to the long diagonal. I will leave it up to someone with more experience from the White side as to how common it is to see these in club play; I'll just say that the moves make sense and are respectable.

For the most part I'm glossing over variations where White captures on c6. I'll just point out that some black players are annoyed enough by the Delayed Exchange Ruy Lopez Deferred (what a name!) with 6.Bxc6 that they play 5...b5 as above and only then 6....Be7.

Referring back to the main line now: after 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 the moves 6...b5 7.Bb3 are almost always seen. If Black delays, White plays c2-c3, and his bishop will reach c2 in one move instead of two.

Now, 7...0-0 is possible instead of 7...d6. The main difference here is that, if you castle on move 7 instead of move 8, your opponent may think you're going to play the Marshall Gambit (8.c3 d5!?). If you're perfectly happy with your opponent freaking out and avoiding a main-line Spanish by playing an "anti-Marshall" move like 8.a4, 8.h3, 8.d4 or 8.d3, go for it. If you were hoping to reach a main-line Spanish, then you're more likely to get it by playing 7...d6 here.

At this point, White normally plays 8.c3 here so that 8...Na5 doesn't lose the bishop. This move also helps prepare d2-d4, so it seems like the most natural choice. If you ask yourself, "Can I play d4 here?" the answer is "not really". The main point is that after 8...Nxd4 9.Nxd4 exd4, White can't play 10.Qxe4? because of the "Noah's Ark Trap": 10...c5 11.Qe3 c4 -+. I won't go into moves such as 8.a4 and 8.d3 except to say they're playable and may transpose to other lines.

White will probably play 9.h3 to avoid the ...Bg4 pin next move, so 8...Bg4 seems like a sensible alternative for Black here. I have not fully determined why it's not normally played. The "antidote" seems to be d2-d3, h2-h3, and Nb1-d2-f1-g3 for White, but that's not clearly bad for Black, and 8...Bg4 was actually played by Karpov against Short. This may be another opportunity for Black to do some homework and play an offbeat line.

If white omits h2-h3 and plays 9.d4 instead, 9...Bg4 is now supposed to be uncomfortable for White to play against. However, this is still a respectable option for White. Black is threatening to win the d4 pawn, so White has to be prepared to deal with this (e.g. 10.Be3 or 10.d5). 9.d3 here, or at many points in the Spanish, is playable but feels timid to me.

So, we can see that, compared to many openings, the Spanish has a very clear and logical main line. However, as I also showed here, even this classic opening sequence has lots of opportunity for both sides to deviate before Black's move 9. There's plenty of opportunity for a player to diverge and fight your opponent on your own turf. However, I would only diverge from the main line because you genuinely prefer your moves, rather than just diverging for the sake of "getting your opponent out of book".

To summarize the last two posts:

1. Become familiar with basic opening rules of thumb. Then, choose the opening moves that you want to play based on basic principles and guided by theory. When you don't have an overwhelming preference for one move, steer towards "respectable" openings that offer a variety of pawn structures and piece deployments.

2. Map out a "main line" where you decide what you would play against your opponent's "best" response. Chessbase's opening statistics makes it easy to determine what these "best" lines are, but use whatever resources you have (Nunn's Chess Openings, Modern Chess Openings, Fritz's opening book). If you're not sure which is "best", just choose one. Map this main line out until the approximate end of the opening phase (ideally, where all your pieces are developed and you've castled). This is generally about 9-12 moves.

I think the more clearly you understand the main line of your openings, the better equipped you are at dealing with your opponents' deviations. For example, White omitting c2-c3 when its called for may be a sign to seize the bishop pair with ...Na5.

The hardest, most time-consuming part is determining what your main lines will be. After that, your focus will be on analyzing your own games and determining how you'll deal with other lines as you encounter them. I think this is one area where internet blitz can be can get a large number of examples of how players of your level treat the opening. You may find that "inferior" lines such as the Steinitz or Cozio variations of the Spanish are actually the "main lines" at your level.

So, what if your opponent plays something odd? The next post will will show an example of opening preparation triggered by my opponent's novelty. It will also show the limitations of opening repertoire books compared to general familiarity with the opening.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your blog, keep the posts coming!!