Can You Still Specialize In An Opening?

Can You Still Specialize In An Opening?

| 35 | Opening Theory

In today's world of competitive chess, it is easy to imagine that you have to surprise your opponent every time. That you have to continually rotate your openings to avoid preparation. That you cannot develop a deep understanding of an opening without playing it for many years and analyzing its intricacies.

But I believe this is an illusion. It is quite reasonable to have a fairly limited, but very deep, opening repertoire, even in 2015.

A good example is the Croatian grandmaster Zdenko Kozul.

A hardened professional of the open tournament circuit in Europe since the 1980s, Kozul has been playing, almost exclusively, the same two defenses as Black: the King's Indian, featuring the old lines with ...Nbd7 against 1.d4, and a sharp variation of the Classical Sicilian where Black immediately prepares counterplay on the queenside against 1.e4.

photo by Frank Hoppe

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bg5 e6 7.Qd2 a6 8.0-0-0 Bd7

Neither this line nor the King's Indian are solid and safe openings where you can be sure that ultimate soundness will guard you against any surprises. In fact, these are two of the positionally sharpest openings that exist. Nevertheless, Kozul was playing them when grandmasters took card files to tournaments and continues to play them when they prepare for games with computer engines. And he continues to get good results.

This article is about the above variation of the Sicilian. In the early days of the Richter-Rauzer, Black had two basic approaches: to develop the bishop on e7 and castle kingside, or prepare quick counterplay on the queenside in various ways. This is the latter. Black prepares ...b5.

In the most critical line, White plays 9.f4, expanding his control of the center and perhaps planning a breakthrough with e4-e5 or f4-f5. Then comes 9...b5 10.Bxf6 gxf6.

This line is sometimes called the "Kozul Suicide Variation."

White most often captures on f6 because it is the best way to deal with the threat to the e4-pawn (...b4). Black must recapture with the g-pawn since if 10...Qxf6 11.e5 dxe5 12.Ndxb5, the bishop on d7 is attacked and White gets a big advantage.

The resulting extremely complex position is enough for lifetimes of study.

Here we see far more imbalances than the typical opening position. Black has the two bishops, of which the dark-squared bishop could become very powerful. Black also has a mass of center pawns, some attacking chances on the queenside, and the open g- and c- files.

White, on the other hand, places his hopes in the black king's shaky position and the doubled f-pawns. A key plan for White is to play f4-f5, either allowing him to capture on e6, exposing the black king, or induce ...e5, after which he could hope to directly attack the f- or h-pawns or use the d5-square. The resulting locked pawn structure, in those cases, is highly fascinating, with unusual positional ideas and many sacrifices.

To illustrate this, let us see a spectacular game between Kozul and the famous Latvian grandmaster Alexei Shirov. It was by no means a perfect game, but unusual and full of adventures.

It shows a lot that Kozul is able to play this quite risky opening line in practically every game against 1.e4, with high levels of success against other grandmasters. His opponents can have almost total certainty that they will have the position after 8...Bd7 on the board, but even with plenty of time and resources to prepare, you would have a hard time discovering the mysteries of this line and finding something which offers an advantage. And he plays it slightly differently each time, showing more and more lines that are playable, all while understanding the ideas very well.

It is still possible to specialize in a few openings, looking deeply to uncover their secrets, rather than just getting through the opening by some superficial knowledge and dodging your opponents' preparation. In fact, learning and uncovering the mysteries of an opening allows you to develop and reach "your" kind of position -- which is paramount in today's chess -- and gives you confidence and understanding of the resulting middlegame.

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