How to develop an opening repertoire

| 23 | Opening Theory

As players progress beyond the initial stage of their chess education it becomes necessary to develop an opening repertoire. An opening repertoire is a collection of the openings at you use on a regular basis. There are several stages to developing an opening repertoire.


Choosing your openings


You need to choose openings that are appropriate to your level of chess play. Some players like to emulate their chess heroes but that is usually a poor choice because you don't yet have the skills necessary to play those openings competently. Great players such as Gary Kasparov and Bobby Fischer chose openings that require tremendous skill in decision-making. If you don't have those skills then using these openings will usually result in failure. 


Nevertheless, you'll advance more quickly if you play openings that have been used by world champions. These openings have withstood the test of time and if they had any major flaws than a top players would not have selected them. I usually recommend that players should follow the historical development of openings used by world champions, starting with those used by Paul Morphy and the classical champions while putting off study of hypermodern openings and more radical approaches.


I do not dictate to my students which openings they need to play. I present a number of options that I think will work for their particular stage of development. I do insist that what ever openings they play conform to the four basic opening rules:


1. Control the center

2. Castle

3. Connect the Rooks

4. Aim at least one Rook


Beginners should try openings that develop the pieces in the same order as the four rules but as you acquire more skill you can muck about with the order of the rules. I realize that many strong grandmasters play openings that do not conform to these rules but such openings require a deeper positional understanding than is usually found in non-masters.


You should select your openings by playing through games by the classical masters and just deciding which openings appeal to you. You should not use statistics to inform your decision. Opening statistics are very misleading. A particular variation may have a 99% success rate but the one exception may be an outright reputation of the entire approach. Openings that are full of traps might score you some points against ignorant opponents, but they are not a good foundation for a strong middle game.


Beginners and intermediate players should include a number of gambits in their repertoire. In amateur play, being on the attack is often worth at least a pawn. This is because attack is much simpler to play than defense. Defending players are under pressure and often make mistakes that lead to catastrophe. An attacker can afford a few imprecise moves as the vulnerabilities in the enemy position still remain. On the other side, if offered again that it is usually wise to accept the first pawn but not additional poems and don't try to hang onto the pawn. It is more important to follow the opening rules than to maintain a small material advantage, especially in amateur play.


The proper use of statistical information


If you possess a chess processor such as Chess Assistant or Chessbase or have access to online opening explorers at sites such as or then you will want to use the statistics to advise you which variations demand your attention. It is not necessary to memorize thousands of moves unless you are playing in professional competition. Look up the most common replies to your moves and make sure you are familiar with a plan appropriate to those occasions. You can safely ignore rarely used approaches, and if you meet them in a game you will just have to carefully consider your moves. 


Also ignore statistical information about the winning percentage. In most chess games the stronger player will win. It has nothing to do with the opening move. Computer of valuations of opening positions can be helpful, but they are unreliable. Computer programs are notoriously poor at selecting opening moves. That is why computer programs cheat by using human prepared opening books. A human evaluation of an opening is almost always superior to a computer evaluation, except where the position depends on a lot of tactics. This is especially true of openings that involve permanent structural weaknesses.


The bottom line is that the opening position must be comfortable for you regardless of its success rate or what computers think about it. Many terrible openings are regarded by computers as only slightly inferior. This, in my opinion, has given rise to the resurrection of so many dubious openings. As Tartakower informed us, if an opening is not refuted totally it is playable.


Remember, the computer does not understand psychological pressure and therefore cannot take into account the fact that defense is harder than attack. In the rare cases where I am playing against the computer I do not feel inclined to use gambits because computers are fantastic defenders and will not fall for the tricks and traps that human players will step into.


Having selected the openings that you want to base your repertoire on, you must then turn to the task of studying and acquiring sufficient knowledge to play them correctly. That will be the subject of the next article in this series.

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