Building Your Repertoire (A "How-To" Guide)

  • FM Cats4Sale
  • | Aug 10, 2013

There is an old tale that goes something like this: The great Botvinnik (the pioneer of modern opening preparation) was once consulted about opening advice by one of his pupils. "Look at Fischer," the master began, "Fischer plays the same systems over and over again. He knows all the nuances quite thoroughly and has good results with them." "But," the student retorted, "Isn't it better to know more than one system well, to be able to surprise your opponent?" Now Botvinnik turned to Smyslov, who was seated besides him, and said, "Look at this guy. He knows and plays a lot of systems. He is a true artist. But he is a good analyst, not really a player. You see, this is the difference between him and Fischer; better to play one system and know it well than play many and know it haphazardly."

Botvinnik was expressing an ancient truth, which was discovered long before modern chess and had nothing to do with the royal game but rather with human nature in general, namely the idea of "jack of all trades, master of none!"

Indeed, in our modern age especially, it is important to have a well-thought out and developed repertoire. In fact, a psychological study was done in the last twenty years in which particpants, ranging from beginner to Grandmaster, were given chess problems to solve. When confronted with a position that had arisen out of the participants repertoire, the researchers found that, on average, the subjects performed one "level" above their strength. Thus, a master who played the Sicilian Scheveningen, when given problems coming out from this opening, performed just as well as the Grandmasters on average (who did not specialize in this particular opening). A master could play like a Grandmaster when in his specific system!

It seems incredible but it is really true (I should know, I did a whole term paper about this in high school). I have a friend who plays the same systems over and over again - but he knows them like an encyclopedia. And he has admitted to me that he mainly exclusively works on this part of the game, always trying to treak and improve his repertory (and I have seen it myself!) Oh, and by the way, he is already a Grandmaster and one of the strongest American-born players ever - you may know him as a famous personality.

Ok, enough jibber-jabber about the importance of building a narrow repertoire; I suspect you may be getting slightly anxious already. The real question is now, "how do I go about building my repertoire?" There is a two-part answer to this one-part question. The first part adresses preciesly how to, or, in other words, the method of going about building a repertoire. Nowadays every chess player has access to a database containing millions of games, from the olden times to games played in the last year! Incredible! Just imagine, fifty years ago, when modern preparation was in its infancy, Soviet players would keep index cards (or notebooks) with their analysis of the variations! Just think, hundreds of notecards filled with moves and moves! Well, I guess we should say, hooray for modern technology!

But all the access to the databases won't help without the aiding of a good coach, or, if you don't have one, yourself (but be willing to put in the effort!) I'd like to quote Mickey Adams here when he says that "all openings are playable but they are not all playable for you." What he meant by that is the fact that humans are all different by nature; we have different personalities, different tendencies, different predilections, different likes and dislikes; in short, we have different strengths and weaknesses, and what may suit Ali may not be right for Baba (and vice versa). Karpov would never play a Najdorf consistently; Kasparov would never opt for the Caro-Kann (although he played this in his youth, then was told by Geller to stop, and, as they say, the rest is history).

Obviously, I would like to take you through the process of building a repertoire using a real example - but I cannot elaborate on every variation, else this article would be way too long. After some thought I chose the Scheveningen variation of the Sicilian (in positional rather than combinative style). I think you will like my choice. I had the pleasure of talking with GM De Firmian (the writer of MCO) a few years back and he mentioned that in most openings one could get by with a basic knowledge and common sense. However, the Sicilian is one opening which one should know thrououghly and have a good experience, a good feel, for. 

As I mentioned, we should all have access to databases nowadays, and I would encourage you (for any opening) to compile not more than ten games (preferably with notes) study them thoroughly, and practice your variant in a few casual games to get them in your bloodstream. What I would like to do is to start this process, to analyze with you a "root" game of the Sicilian Schevingen - perhaps the most famous Scheveningen game in the last fifty years.

The following game was the final game in the 1985 Karpov-Kasparov match. Karpov held the title for ten years. He was White, and if he had won this game, he would have retained his title further, and chess history might have been completely different. Karpov had an advantage, and at the critical moment, became timid and erred. Let's get to the game. Before we go though, I would like to remind you that many of us are busy, and we have no time to learn the main lines. Many sidelines are perfectly playable, but the stronger the opponent, the less of a chance one may have using a sideline. So pick your priorities and enjoy!

A complicated game, a valiant fight! And a lot of unanswered questions. A more detailed study of this game and a few other modern games will get one ready to play this variation in time.
So, if you are so inclined, get to work! Otherwise, relax, learn some side-opening lines; you'll be fine too - just, if you are playing Kasparov, you may be in trouble!


  • 3 years ago



    No, the article is pretty clear that Botvinnik was talking about Smyslov and not about one of the students.  Why would he compare one of his students to Fischer? He was talking about Smyslov's playing many different opennings. I think Botvinnik was obsessive compulsive about playing opennings.

    I think there are too many GM's today who play 1. d4 or 1. e4 or who will switch defenses based on their opponent's known likes or dislikes to take his comments seriously. 

    Capablance played 1. e4 and 1. d4 about equally over the course of his life.  Fischer famously switched his openning repertoire during his world championship conquest. Lasker was famous for psychological play of switching opennings to frustrate his oponent's style.  If they are a Spielmann playing wild gambits then Lasker might close the position and cramp it even if it might be an objectively worse position himself.  If he's playing against a strategic player he might open the position again at the cost of an objectively inferior position but putting his opponent on uncomfortable ground.

    That is a true "player" in my mind (to use Botvinnik's word) as opposed to an "analyst".

  • 3 years ago


    My chess teacher said: Creative?? Chess960 will help you! Is that right??

  • 3 years ago


    I find that knowing one or two openings well is really beneficial. For instance, my repetroire consists of the King's Gambit and the Classical Caro-Kann. I know these openings well and can counter almost everything you can throw at me in them. If you play let's say 1.d4, I'll just look for the best move.

  • 3 years ago


    awesome stuff

  • 3 years ago


    Honestly I'd like to get more context to this becuase Botvinnik had to mean that for certain contexts.  Capablanca played 1 e4 and 1 d4 almost equally through out his career.  I'm sure Botvinnik wouldn't throw him in the basket of players who are great analysts but not really great players.  If he did it would really be a dumb comment.

    Kasparov played a number of different opennings during his life.  At his peak he played a variety of opennings on the white and black side.

    It is like being switch hitter in American baseball.  You can bat from the side of the plate that is opposite of the strength of the pitcher. 

    In the context of chess it means if your opponent plays the French, for example, and you do well against the French you may play 1 e4 even though you normally prefer 1 d4.  Perhaps your opponent plays the Nimzo extremely well and you simply don't want to walk into it.

  • 3 years ago


    As a novice player, I learned from this article. It is also good to pick one thing (opening system) and do it well. Thanks!

  • 3 years ago


    "I do not fear the man who practices 1000 kicks one time. But I do fear the man who practices one kick 1000 times." Bruce Lee

  • 3 years ago


    I think Ne3+ is worst after Kf3! if Nxc4? Rxe8+ Bf8 Rxf8 and it is not clearly

  • 3 years ago


    Mr. Gilmore17,

    After taking the Q, black is checkmated on the back rank when R takes R on e8.

  • 3 years ago


    I see that 42. ... Nd4+ wins the rook.  However, couldn't 42. ... Ne3+ have won the queen outright?  That's double check between the check from the knight and the discovered check from the rook.  The only defense to a double check is to move the king, and so the queen's peril is inescapable, I would think.

  • 3 years ago


    Moses2792796 & RanxOrOx, I believe Botvinnik was talking about the STUDENT'S skill, not Smyslov's.

  • 3 years ago


    Thats why I decided to concentrate on chess960!

    Anyway I dont think a good opening for a GM and an 1800 player is the same at all. For the GM:s the refutation of blacks lines may lie on move 14-20 where amateurs will never get still playing by book. A good opening for an amateur I think (assuming you are white) a line which plays rather naturally for white but poses tactical problems for black - even if following the main book line it ends = or even with black a little better.

  • 3 years ago


    While I agree with studying games with notes I think the notes are kind of cheating somewhat.  Best to go through every move played looking from one side of the board, note imbalances, think of plans typical with such imbalances, and if the position is too unfamiliar recall principles such as least active piece and get more into the game.  Then one should say who stands better and why, and after that come up with candidate moves based off listed plans.

      An example phrase could be: "It's almost the endgame and the Queen is a large part of my advantage, if they left the board now white/black's plans are far more achievable and will likely obtain a winning/drawn position.  What is the best way to avoid a queen exchange here?  Over there she hits many of white's weak squares." then calculate, and assess the position after the lines.  The deeper the calculation the hazier things get and maximizes the chances for a retained image error so be careful too. 

    Then compare what you said to what the master said. 

  • 3 years ago


    Don't think being class players gives us more leeway.  Maybe practically, but objectively it's better to foster good habbits.  If Carlson could easily beat a certain line then assume your opponent can too.

    1.d4,e5 is objectively bad, period.  Sure you may fool a 1200 or below into 1.d4,e5 2.dxe5,Nc6 3.Nf3,Qe7 4.Bf4,Qb4+ 5.Bd2,Qxb2?? 6.Bc3??,Bb4 but it doesn't change the fact that it's unsound.  May as well be safe and play what we understand. Play to build up your position and not for cheap tactical tricks out of the opening, the tactics will take care of themselves later. 

    Anyway, that's what I love about Botvinnik!  He has that wit and isn't afraid to be blunt or honest.  It goes with the valuing objective reality territory and was a true scientist. 

  • 3 years ago


    I think this has merit for up to a level. If the top grandmasters only played one opening then it would be extremly easy to prepare for, as is Botvinnks example fischer was easy to prepare for but hard to play against. I also dont think opening knowledge tells everything. Kasparov knew more openings when he retired and his play was considerabley lesser than his prime. To me openings act as a shield rather than actual strenght.

  • 3 years ago


    Nice article.  I like the suggestion of studying complete games "preferably with notes" in order to understand an opening.

    However, I think the opening is the part of chess where typical non-titled players like myself get mislead by too often comparing what the top players like Fischer chose to do.  Their goals and abilities are/were far different from mine.

    The biggest danger is that class level players get too distracted with opening concerns while the rest of their game (tactics, calculation, endgame technique, etc) is full of gaping holes.  If more class players improved their chess in general then their opening play will also benefit.  The problem is that after an hour of practising e.g. calculation it's not readily visible if you've improved or not.  Whereas, being able to say "I now plan to respond to 7..Nf6 with 8.Re1 in some opening" gives us some feeling of "progress".  But the reality is that the calculation practice will apply to most positions and not just that rare occassion.

    Of course, opening study should not involve rote learning of lines but rather understanding of the typical middlegames and ideas involved.  But even here some class players justify their understanding with overly vague things like "that develops a piece therefore I see its idea".  They think they understand when they don't really.  A good chess coach can help here.

  • 3 years ago


    Very well written; I think I learned something wise today.

  • 3 years ago


    Sweet article. This is something I was only recently told by my coach/instructor, as I was playing many different openings to replace my game of the French (too passive for my tastes), which I had played for the last four years. Finally settled on the Sicilian and KID (for black). Love the Karpov/Kasparov game. 

    Cheers for the sage advice. 

  • 3 years ago


    "Look at this guy. He knows and plays a lot of systems. He is a true artist. But he is a good analyst, not really a player. You see, this is the difference between him and Fischer; better to play one system and know it well than play many and know it haphazardly."

    Wow. I hope he didn't really make such a nasty comment. I think there are great players who would disagree with his point of view. Lasker was well known for featuring and playing openings that were to his opponents disliking. The pscyhology of it was such that it ensured he took his opponents in areas that they didn't like and probably didn't know well either.

    Even Fischer changed his repertoire for his world championship match against Spassky!

  • 3 years ago


    Great article. Something I already discovered by myself. I tried various openings recently because I had (and still have) the feeling it's my main weakness. It's impossible to memorize all of them, espescially having a full-time job. Not to mention having a girlfriend.

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