Creating an Opening Graph

Creating an Opening Graph

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Gambiteeer asked:

I am having trouble learning the Queens Gambit. Recently my opponents have gotten stronger and I am not sure how to handle the different positions which arise from the Queens Gambit. I am also having trouble learning the different plans and moves in all the variations of the Queens Gambit, because in one variation, after I start to study it, I find that there are 5-10 subvariations. And also in those 5-10 subvarations, I discover that there are 10-15 different moves you have to know/memorize and every other move in those 10-15 moves has at least 1 more variation which branching out from it. Can you help me find a way to remember the moves as well as the different ideas in different positions?

Dear Gambiteeer:

I think a very poetic handle would be Gambit-Tear. On the one hand, it leaves an image of a lover of gambits shedding a lonely tear of joy over a perfectly executed attack, or shedding a tear of pain over his favorite gambit opening being refuted. On the other hand, if we use “tear” as something being ripped apart or shredded up, then we can come up with all sorts of interesting imagery too (I love the fact that one interpretation of Gambit-Tear makes you an artist, while the other makes you a killer). 

Hmmm … where was I? I think I was supposed to answer a question. Oh yes, I remember! Subvariations!

You say your opponents have gotten stronger and, as a result, they drag you into variations that feature one tier (I couldn’t resist) of endless variations after another. You have two options:

1) Play weaker opponents.

2) Switch to gambit openings where play is forcing, violent, and more straightforward.

3) Create an opening graph, and then whittle that graph down until it’s within your memory’s grasp. 

Come to think of it, why is a guy named Gambiteeer (care to tell us why you tossed in an extra “e” or two?) playing the Queen’s Gambit?

The sad truth about real openings is that their analysis goes on forever. For example, one could easily write a 2,000-page book on the Caro-Kann. Does that mean a player has to memorize all 2,000 pages? Hell no! Instead, you need to isolate all the main lines, then pick one or two replies that suit you vs. each one.

Here’s an example of a possible repertoire for a guy that plays the Caro-Kann:

1.e4 c6


       2.d4 d5 Classical Main lines – 3.Nc3 or 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6+ exf6

       2.d4 d5 Advance Variation – 3.e5

       2.d4 d5 Panov-Botvinnik Attack – 3.exd5 cxd5 4.c4

       2.d4 d5 Fantasy Variation – 3.f3


       2.c4 d5 2.cxd5 cxd5 3.exd5 Nf6

        2.d3 d5 3.Nd2 e5

        Two Knights – 2.Nc3 d5 3.Nf3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6

When you list things like this, it takes the mystery (and fear) out of a seemingly nightmarish opening grind. Note how Black has tried to simplify a couple of things. First off, he avoided a lot of main lines and instead is meeting 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 with 4…Nf6 5.Nxf6+ exf6 (5…gxf6, which is more dynamic, is also a good choice). Other than 6.Bc4 Qe7+! 7.Qe2 (7.Be3?? Qb4+ wins a piece) 7…Be6 (=) and 6.c3 Bd6 7.Bd3 (the most threatening line), there isn’t a lot of memorization to deal with here.

Also note that Black has further curtailed his memory obligations by avoiding main line Two Knights theory via steering play back into the aforementioned mainline (2.Nc3 d5 3.Nf3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6+ exf6).

Of course, you do have to learn some lines in every opening, and the same goes here. One repertoire might have:

Advance Variation: 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5!? – Black refuses to enter main lines and instead strives to call the shots himself. This will call for a bit of work on your part.

Panov-Botvinnik Attack: 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.c4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 6.Nf3 Bb4 (once you learn how to play against the isolated d-pawn, which White usually ends up with, then you’ll be able to handle most lines in an intelligent manner)

Fantasy Variation: 2.d4 d5 3.f3 e5!? when BLACK is the one trying to attack! Not much theory here – just look at a few games and then swing for the fences!

Putting together a repertoire like this (works for every opening, Black or White, including the Queen’s Gambit) really eases one’s pain. Then play your lines in online blitz and make sure you go over every game to see where you misplayed the opening. After a while, you’ll have honed (through practice and agony and more practice) some serious opening skills.

Finally, some players will find one “every opening that exists under one cover” opening book enough for their purposes. MCO comes to mind. Others will want tomes that offer the detailed plans of all the openings -- a book like FCO (Fundamental Chess Openings by van der Sterren) is a great choice for those under 2000, while Watson's wonderful MASTERING THE CHESS OPENINGS series (in 4 volumes) is ideal for players 1800 on up. Keep in mind that even the most exhaustive, complex opening book can (and should!) be made manageable by the use of the personal opening graph.


Andrew Christ asked:

I’ve enjoyed your Complete Endgame Course. The public library here in Midland, MI bought a copy on my recommendation.

I’ve also enjoyed Bruce Pandolfini’s column in Chess Life and his book Solitaire Chess. I’m sure you are familiar with them. The library here bought that as well when I recommended they do so.

My question for you is if you know whether anyone has begun working to prepare a Solitaire Chess book that would feature endgames. It seems that in your Complete Endgame Course you already have at least 20 games that would serve the purpose. 

Dear Mr. Christ:

I’ve never seen a solitaire-type book that features endgames. Perhaps one exists since it’s clearly a good idea. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Pandolfini is working on one right now.

Happy to hear that you’re getting the local library to pick up some chess books! Libraries actually appreciate their customer’s input, so hopefully readers will give their local library a list of must-read chess books.


I used the Caro-Kann for simplicity. The idea was to show how to cut down your opening workload, and I felt the Caro-Kann painted a simple picture. However, the idea should be used for every opening.

One guy said: "To be fair, Silman DID NOT give any tips for memorizing ideas for different positions.  He's kind of flaky though."

I'm flaky? As in a fine pastry? Are cannibals reading this column? Anyway, I DID give a tip for memorizing stuff by helping you NOT have to memorize too much stuff. The point is that it's impossible (for most people) to memorize all lines in an opening. By creating this kind of graph (with or without software), you hone things down to key lines and all key ideas, thus avoiding the need for an eidetic memory (and the brain transplant that it would take to obtain one).

Mr. Karapiperis said, "The Caro-Kann sucks!"

OMG! I didn't know that! I must write to Mr. Topalov and Mr. Anand and tell them both to stop playing the Caro-Kann immediately! Thank you Mr. Karapiperios for setting us straight!

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