How realistic is it for me to set a goal of achieving a master chess rating?
To help you out, I’ll give a little info on my background. In my younger days I played myself to a 1900+ USCF rating without ever putting serious study into the openings or endings.
However, I haven’t played tournament chess in a number of years and now am 45 years old and raising 6 children. So, there won’t be a lot of time for playing or studying. Still, I feel I have unfinished business in chess and would be willing to carve out an hour or two each week (hopefully more as the kids get older), if there was reason to hope of achieving a 2200 rating some day.
I’ve actually discussed this kind of thing in several articles – they can be found in my chess.com archive. My general reply is this: everyone has the potential to make master (2200), but that potential can only be realized through patience, a good study program (I address this in past articles too), and hard work. It might take years of effort, but what worthwhile goal doesn’t take a long time (plus blood, sweat, and tears) to achieve? In your case the process is already further along than with most since you reached a fairly high level in the past. If you feel that the process will be enjoyable, and if you understand that it will take you a few years, then by all means go for it.
I won my school’s championship by learning some basic Nimzovich Defense theory to deviate from the usual French Defense lines that I play against my friend (these usually end up as draws and I need a win). I found it useful to take a 1.e4 player out of their comfort zone, yet it is still highly transpositional if that’s your thing. However, I love its similarities to a French but with the developed white Bishop; and also the Scandinavian variation, with the knights developed, is a lot safer for Black in my very humble opinion.
What do you think of the Nimzovich?
I guess you’re referring to 1.e4 Nc6 2.d4 d5 when you get Scandinavian-like positions after 3.exd5 Qxd5, and French-type positions after 3.e5. This opening is still relatively unexplored, and most players take it for granted that it’s just bad. However, this misconception of its worth can only help you, since few players are actually prepared for 1.e4 Nc6.
Probably the best book on the subject is Play 1…Nc6! by Christoph Wisnewski (Everyman Chess, 2007), which gives you 268 pages of pro-Nimzovich analysis showing why it’s a great opening – in other words, the author plays this for Black and clearly loves it. One nice thing about this book is that he covers …Nc6 vs. every white first move, thus he looks at 1.e4 Nc6, 1.d4 d5 2.c4 (or 2.Nf3) 2…Nc6, 1.c4 Nc6, and 1.Nf3 Nc6.
Generally, most strong players answer 1.e4 Nc6 with 2.Nf3 when Black usually responds with 2…e5, transposing into classic double king-pawn openings. However, Wisnewski doesn’t like being herded in sheep-like fashion into other’s openings, so he recommends 1.e4 Nc6 2.Nf3 Nf6 when 3.e5 Ng4 4.d4 d6 (first seen in Rellstab - Bogoljubov, Berlin 1940) 5.h3 Nh6, which is a pet line of Spanish grandmaster Marc Narciso Dublan, who (according to Wisnewski) calls it, “El Columpio” (translation: The Swing). The book gives games and analysis to support their view that black’s doing fine (keep in mind that this is not my point of view!).
Here’s a game that shows how bizarre the play can be in “The Swing”:
J.Sprenger - H.Keilhack, correspondence 1996
1.e4 Nc6 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e5 Ng4 4.d4 d6 5.h3 Nh6 6.Bxh6 gxh6 7.Bb5 a6 8.Bxc6+ bxc6 9.Qe2 Rg8 10.Nc3 Rxg2 11.Ne4 Be6 12.0–0–0 Qb8 13.c4 Qb4 14.Nh4 Bxc4 15.Qe3 Rg7 16.Nf5 Rg6 17.b3 Bd5 18.Nh4 dxe5 19.Nxg6 hxg6 20.Rhe1 a5 21.dxe5 Qa3+ 22.Kb1 a4 23.Qf3 axb3 24.Nf6+ exf6 25.exf6+ Be7, 0-1.
Against 1.e4 Nc6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 Qxd5 4.Nf3 Wisnewski analyzes 4…Bg4 5.Be2 0-0-0 6.Be3 (he also explores 6.Nc3, 6.c3, and 6.c4) 6…Nf6 7.0-0 Qh5 in detail and walks away chuckling in glee about black’s chances.
After this, he takes the space gaining 1.e4 Nc6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 to task and recommends the odd 3…f6 (he feels that 3…Bf5 4.Ne2 leaves black’s light-squared Bishop exposed) when 4.Bd3 g6 and 4.f4 Nh6 5.Nf3 Bf5 is given serious coverage. Here’s a game from the book that shows black’s chances after 3.e5:
L.Myagmarsuren - D.Van Geet, Varna 1958
1.e4 Nc6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 f6 4.Bd3 g6 5.Nf3 Bg4 6.exf6 Nxf6 7.c3 Bg7 8.h3 Bxf3 9.Qxf3 0–0 10.Qe2 e5 11.dxe5 Nxe5 12.0–0 Nh5 13.Be3 Qh4 14.Nd2 Rad8 15.Kh2 Nf4 16.Bxf4 Qxf4+ 17.g3?? (Better was 17.Kg1 but it’s clear that Black stands much better after 17…Rde8) 17…Qxd2 18.Qxd2 Nf3+ 19.Kg2 Nxd2 20.Rfd1 Ne4 21.f3 Nc5 22.Bf1 c6, 0-1.
One of white’s best lines against the Nimzovich is 1.e4 Nc6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 when 3…dxe4 4.d5 is very dangerous for Black. Wisnewski avoids all that with 3…e6 when we get an “inferior” French defense where Black has blocked his c-pawn. However, is it really inferior? Wisnewski believes that Black can get adequate play. A lot of lines are looked at, but the most critical one is 3.Nc3 e6 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.e5 Ne4 6.Bd3 and now 6…f5!? 7.exf6 Nxf6 8.0-0 Bd6 9.Bg5 (9.Ne2 e5 10.dxe5 Nxe5 11.Nxe5 Bxe5 12.Bf4 Bxf4 13.Nxf4 0–0 gave White nothing in the game F.Lopez Gracia - A.Ansola Marquinez, Zaragoza 1998) 9…0-0 10.Re1 Nb4 hits the d3-Bishop and prepares the thematic …c7-c5 advance.
Do I believe that things are as comfortable for Black as IM Wisnewski would have us believe? Not for a minute! But I will admit that this opening should work perfectly well in non-professional circles. Of course, you’ll have to have a taste for slightly unusual positions, but “unusual” doesn’t necessarily equal “bad.”