Chess World Cup 2013: The Offbeat Approach

Chess World Cup 2013: The Offbeat Approach

| 19 | Strategy

The World Cup continues and it’s simply one of the most exciting Chess events of the past two years.

Before I delve into the article I want to define some terms just so that we’re on the same page.

Skill: the ability to play good moves or better moves than one’s opponent. A 2800 is more skilled than a 2600 because he plays better moves on average. It can also be called quality of play.

Attrition: the act of imposing one’s skill on his opponent over a number of moves. If the game is equal, a more skilled opponent can win by simply making many moves because his less skilled opponent will make consistently worse moves, thereby damaging his position even if very slightly. (You can see my first article on the World Cup for examples.)

Stamina: the ability to maintain one’s skill. If player A is a 2600 that gets really tired towards the end of games and sometimes blunders then I would say he is a skilled player with weak stamina. If player B is a 1300 that plays with just as much energy at the end of a game as he did at the beginning then I would say he has perfect stamina but isn’t that skilled (as least not nearly as much as an expert or a master).

In this article I want to talk about a kind of approach I’ve seen some players use effectively albeit in sometimes very different circumstances. I’m on the wall about what to call it so since it’s based on playing an offbeat opening, I’ll call it the offbeat approach.

I do have to mention first that skill is required. If you try the offbeat approach and you have no skill then you're going to lose even faster. 

The Offbeat approach in a nutshell:

1) Get the opponent out of book. Play a sideline, play trash, or play your own made-up opening. It doesn’t matter, just get him out of book (or in some cases into your territory).

2) The opponent will be on his own which “lowers” his rating. A 2400 could be a 2550 in the mainline of the Caro-Kann but only a 2300 in the two knights’ variation.

3) The opponent will have to spend more time to compensate for his lack of knowledge.

4) This causes the opponent to make mistakes and/or to get into severe time trouble which in turn causes the opponent to blunder.

Let's see some examples in action:

Nakamura takes Deysi Cori out of book early with an opening that gives White excellent chances to get an advantage. However, because of its offbeat nature, I assume Deysi was on her own pretty early and thus had to use a large portion of her time figuring everything out by herself. This paid off when the critical moment was reached. With only minutes left on her clock, there was no way Deysi was going to find the right moves (21.Rd7 or 22.Rd3). Nakamura won quickly thereafter.

Mamedyarov takes Shoker completely out of book (with 5.h4 and 6.Bf4) and into totally unknown waters with his opening. Shoker, a talented player from Egypt is simply outclassed. He makes a mistake that he otherwise wouldn’t have made if he had been playing in position he was familiar with.

Svidler gives Anna Ushenina full equality on move 8 but at the same time takes her out of book. Svidler outclasses her in the resulting middlegame through precise attrition.

My astute readers will have noticed by now that all these games come from round 1. Indeed, I use them because they help me illustrate my point. I shall address round 2 developments in just a bit.

So why do players do this?

I can think of two main reasons why. The #1 reason can best be described by Lev Aronian when asked what his favorite kind of Chess was.


#1 These guys want to “play chess.” That means they want to play original positions where both players are simply on their own and neither side has anything prepared. In other words, they want a setting where the player with the stronger ideas will prevail.

#2 Another reason is that they don’t want to waste a novelty on a lesser opponent. The top players invest time, energy and resources to discover theoretical novelties and sometimes they feel like using a novelty they’ve spent months developing only on a “worthy” opponent. I don't know how much this reason plays into the equation but it's probably not nearly as important as reason #1.

But it has its risks. By playing an offbeat opening you often take on a worse position. You bascially dig yourself into a hole. As a White, it's much easier to pull off than as Black. Above we saw an example where Nakamura used it to a T but below I am going to show you two games where the strategy didn't quite work out. Black tried the offbeat approach and it was a little too offbeat.

The slower the game, the riskier the approach becomes. The above games were classical games (that means they were played at a slow time control). And in the second game, it was against another super GM so it was doubly risky. A gross generalization that illustrates the danger.


So players want original play but they have to be willing to take on some risk. The risk decreases with faster time controls because in a classical game an opponent might be able to find a way out of the complications whereas in a blitz game, refuting something at sight is absurdly difficult.

Case in point: Ruslan Ponomariov and Daniil Dubov drew 6 games from their match. No one really tried anything until the very last game (an Armageddon game). It would have been a risky opening to try in a classical game but with the faster time control in the Armageddon, it was an excellent shot.

Kramnik even said that Alexander Grischuk's strategy in such tournaments was to conserve energy and not waste his stamina on trying to press in the classical but just to get to the rapid where his strength could be felt. In the end, you still need godly blitz to make it work and that's what Grischuk has.

I should mention that Mamedyarov followed this exact strategy in the second round. He didn't exert himself in the classical at all. In his game as White, he only played 13 moves and then offered a draw. He was saving his stamina and banking on the rapid where he outplayed his opponent with his skill without having to damage his stamina too much.

Mamedyarov's classical game with White against Matlakov:

Mamedyarov's rapid game with White against Matlakov:

Mamedyarov goes for the rapid in this case because with less time, he feels his opponent will have more of a chance of going wrong than in the classical. Plus, he can afford to take the offbeat route without as much risk. This saves his stamina and because he is such a good rapid player, it's actually a safer route (for Mamedyarov).

Nakamura did not have to resort to an offbeat approach in his game as White because his opponent, Safarli, did it for him. Naka played brilliantly and won.

And in need of only a draw as Black, he played traditionally and solidly. And he got a valuable day off.

Svidler didn't press too hard against Bologan in the classical games and instead took it to the rapids and won there. It's much smarter to press for two hours than a total of 8 hours.

I want to see what approach players use for the upcoming rounds. Kramnik seems to be trying his hardest in the classical games and it will be interesting to see if it works out for him. Now that all the matches are between Super-GMs, we'll all be paying attention to their approach to winning.

Attrition is going to be difficult. Everyone is so good that we might not see many squeezes. Also, attrition could affect your stamina greatly in a negative way. Still, I think that there will be a few players trying to win this way; it's my favorite kind of game to witness.

The offbeat approach is going to be risky in the classical games but very acceptable in the rapid and blitz games. I expect lots of players to draw their classical games easily and then fight during the tiebreak. It saves stamina and in the end the stronger player usually wins.

Another way of winning (which I haven't written about at all) is overwhelming. Hopefully, we'll see some players win like this and we just might since we only have super-GMs in the tournament playing for big money. It's the perfect time to bust out a TN.

Every match is going to be sublimely educational. And with fewer games, the commentators will be able to go more in depth. Now for my favorite matches!

Naka vs. Adhiban. Will Naka go Offbeat? If so, will Adhiban be game?


I'll be honest, I had no idea who Adhiban was before this tournament. Not only is he a good player, he is a cool dude. Check out the following interview where analyzes a bit and talks about who he is.

Vachier-Lagrave vs. Dominguez. Dominguez will be the favorite but I like the way Vachier has been playing. I think Vachier is going to find a chink in Dominguez’s armor by overwhelming him as White in the opening.


Mamedyarov vs. Wei Yi. I still want to see how good this Wei Yi kid is. And I want to see how the headstrong Mamedyarov approaches him. I think Mamedyarov is too much for Wei Yi at the moment. I should mention that Wei Yi is a world class player at an age when I was just starting to play so he's got a really bright future. Great match-up.


Morozevich vs. Vitiugov. Vitiugov has been soaring upwards while Morozevich is an established legend that has declined from his previous glory years, though he's still one of the classiest Super GMs in the world. Morozevich usually plays poorly at these World Cups but this time he's simply outplaying his opponents cleanly.


Giri vs. Granda. I correctly predicted Granda to beat Léko in the last round but here I think Giri is just too strong. Giri is encyclopedic in his opening preparation and relentless in the middlegame. He’s made a few mistakes in the tournament but it’s pretty scary when you can count someone’s mistakes in a tournament of this magnitude on ONE HAND. Giri’s going to beat Granda, then he’s going to beat Caruana to meet Vachier-Lagrave in the elite 8. How awesome would that be?


Click here for the bracket so that you can see the pairing for yourself.

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