Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Opening Study: Some Diverse Opinions, Part III

(Part I, Part II)

And so, taking advantage of my sage advice you have selected a handful of unbeatable opening lines...

Just a moment.

I need to say a little more about that selection process first. Since this post is aimed at people above the beginner level (roughly 1200 USCF) I’m assuming that you already have some favorite lines that you’ve tried out against various opponents at various time controls. My opinions are meant to apply to the study of any opening but I want to emphasize that my approach is not geared toward winning the game in the opening. My experience is that while this does happen occasionally, the psychology of this approach is lousy. You play the King’s Gambit as White, or the Budapest Defense as Black let’s say, and you know a few ways for your opponent to get killed in the first ten moves—then when he doesn’t fall for any of them and you have to play a hard, long, real game of chess you get depressed, play poorly and you end up being the one on the losing end of a miniature.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the King’s Gambit or Budapest Defense or other highly tactical lines, by the way. The only thing wrong, in my view, is trying to win the game in the opening.

So here’s the money quote, and if you take nothing else away from this piece or just choose to skip the rest I hope you’ll remember this part:

The purpose of studying the opening is to, as often as possible, reach a good middlegame position without using a lot of clock time and mental effort, thus reserving your time and energy for improving that good middlegame position.

The definition of a “good middlegame position” is a position where you have at least equality, have possibilities to gain an advantage or increase the one you have, and have some understanding of those possibilities.

Okay, having gotten all of the explanations and caveats out of the way, what do we actually do increase our chances of experiencing this desirable state of affairs?

First, make a decision! A decision before you ever sit down at the board that you’re going to stick to your chosen repertoire and not get “creative” on move 3 of the Sicilian when you have already planned to play 3. d4. Remember, we want to reach a good position quickly and easily, saving our time and energy for the middlegame.

Next, get a book! There’s always a good reason to get a new chess book, right? (It could be a video or DVD, actually). Seriously, maybe you already have the one you need in your library. I’m talking about a repertoire book, not a specialist tome about one opening. I’m going to really go out on a limb here and argue that it doesn’t matter exactly which repertoire book you have or obtain, as long as you make it your own, stick to it for awhile and really get to know the lines in it. After one to two years you may decide that certain lines don’t appeal to you and replace them with different ones—but get one of these and really use it for awhile.

Early I my career, after about a year of serious tournament play, I was fortunate enough to obtain Raymond Keene and Byron Jacobs' Opening Repertoire for White, which is based on 1. d4 and provides lines against almost all the major and minor responses to that move. It gave me a base to expand from, and through experience I found out what lines I liked and what I wanted to change or update. I eventually found other ways to fight the Gruenfeld, King’s Indian and Slav for example, but I still use some of the material given there on the Nimzoindian and Queen’s Gambit today, 25 years later.

Even if we stick to one book for White and one or two for Black, most of us will not be able to memorize everything in them, especially given the limited time that we’re spending on the opening compared to learning tactics and calculation (if you're following the 80/20 Principle that I borrowed/inferred from BDK, Heisman, de la Maza etc.).

My recommendation based on a lot of experience, successes and failures, is to streamline the study of these books: First, select the openings and defenses you’re most likely to face, play over the main games or text repeatedly and fairly rapidly until you can remember them clearly for at least the first 6-10 moves (you probably know some of them already), use them in your games and then go back after each game, see where the deviation from your preparation was and if you responded well, and figure out what you’d do next time if you saw the move again. When you have time, go over the secondary lines (of course reviewing these if you see them in a game) and do the same. Over the course of a few months, even if you don’t have hours per week to study openings, this should begin to get you to decent middlegame positions in an increasing percentage of games. And if you’ll just resist the urge to change your openings for awhile you’ll increasingly get positions you understand and are comfortable with farther and farther into the game.

Let’s see a theoretical (and hopefully, amusing and entertaining) example of how this is supposed to work:

Starting from scratch, you’ve decided that 1. d4 is going to be your move for at least the next couple of years. For $1.99 on the Internet you obtain a used copy of GM Huestmena-Zeffarelovich’s Winning with 1. d4 for the Crazed Attacking Player. Your next club tournament game is in a week, so you’re not going to be memorizing the whole thing by then. Since you’re rated 1376 USCF (up from 1245 one year ago) you’re not completely unaware that the main responses to 1. d4 are d5 and Nf6, the latter move leading to the King’s Indian, Nimzoindian etc. You know you’re going to be seeing 1. … d5 plenty of times in the next few years—start there. GM H-Z gives 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. cxd exd 5. Bg5 Be7 6. e3 0-0 7. Bd3 and now discusses various alternatives for Black and plans for White, saying that in his opinion White should seek to dominate the center and then KILL, KILL, KILL the Black king…

And in my opinion this is enough for a first pass! You don’t need to try and memorize all of Black’s 7th moves and so on; the branches quickly number in the thousands. The point is, you now have 7 opening moves that occur a lot in practice, a dangerous idea of how to follow up, and you get it all done during the game without taking very much time off your clock or straining to find good moves, leaving a lot more time and energy for the middlegame. Now do the same for the King’s Indian, Nimzoindian and Slav and you’re covered for perhaps 70-80 percent of your games as White.

You go into the club Wednesday and the game goes 1. d4 f5 (Hehe). You figure it out as you go and then after the game it’s back to the book, where you discover what the GM recommends. It’s an ongoing process, but I believe if you play the openings from your repertoire book for at least two years you’ll find that in 80 percent of your tournament games you can play 6-10 moves quickly and easily and reach a playable middlegame that you have some knowledge of, feeling fresh, confident and ready to go.

This post has gone on long enough—I gotta go play my tournament game at the Reno Chess Club soon! I’ll let you know how it went tomorrow. Meanwhile, the same basic principles apply for your Black repertoire, but there are some special problems there, so I’ll think about doing a Part IV from the Black point of view.


Temposchlucker said...

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the King’s Gambit or Budapest Defense or other highly tactical lines, by the way. The only thing wrong, in my view, is trying to win the game in the opening.

I think you are making a popular mistake here. There are different kinds of gambits. Tactical or positional gambits. I play only positional gambits. I play the kings gambit for 7 years now and I consider it to be a positional gambit. You sacrifice a meager f-pawn for a fat center pawn, leaving you with the center. That is a quite positional advantage.

Only when black makes a wrong dicision, the lines can become highly tactical. But that is not due to the pawn sacrifice but to blacks decision. For instance if black tries to hang on to the pawn he has to rupture his kingside. Thus inviting white to an assault.

Or he forgets to develop his queenside in an attempt to keep his extra pawn. Again inviting white on the party.

Or even worse, black underestimates the resilience of the center because he is deceived by the vulnerable-looking white king and he starts an attack by himself.

Only then arise the lines that are tactical. Usually bad for black, logically.

But if black make healthy decisions, doesn't forget to develop, doesn't attack early, doesn't wreck his kingside, he still has a positional problem to solve: that white has the majority in the center and he not.

So the real power of a good gambit you start to feel after move 15. But there are other non-positional gambits of course and for these your advise remains valid.

wang said...

Excellent post, with a lot of good advice! Good luck on your tournament. I look forward to hearing of your numerous successes.

I would like to say that The Chess Advantage in Black and White is an excellent all around repertoire book. I don't care for his response to e4 but the white side and the black responses to d4 are excellent.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you that this is the way to go for learning chess openings. I am trying to do this since a couple of months to learn a 1.d4 repertoire and even though I am not sure if I win more games it is definitely fun.

Also, looking at attack ideas instead of memorizing moves helps to form plans during my own games. Even if I should lose because my skills are not good enough to pull it through I still have a lot of fun with planning the attack. And for my part, I'd rather have fun and lose than win a boring game.

Robert Pearson said...

Tempo, I'm with you and what you're saying 100 percent. Your successes in the King's Gambit are partly because you're not trying to win the game in the opening, but have ideas about advantages and building on them. I was just warning against the attitude that opening study is about getting a winning position early in the game through knowing some traps.