Monster Opening Preparation

Monster Opening Preparation

| 21 | Opening Theory

Serious opening preparation is a must for all chess professionals. At times, the preparation is mundane:


1) You decide to play a new opening that had attracted you for years, or you saw something new and exciting, or you just felt the need to try something different.

2) You look at the opening’s latest results to see if it’s still viable.

3) You learn and memorize all the main lines, and make sure you fully comprehend the system’s nuts and bolts (all the opening’s tactical and positional patterns).

4) If it’s a complicated opening with dynamic potential oozing from the board, you sit down and look for something new and explosive. (Sometimes weeks or months of effort go into this!) 

5) If it’s an opening that’s rarely played, you try and grasp why it went out of favor. Then, once you figure that out, you see if you can find some new subtleties (with the help of the computer), which will unearth new tactical or strategic possibilities.


A great example of looking for something new and explosive (see points 4 and 5 above) can be found in the 2008 World Championship Match between Kramnik and Anand. I used one of these games in my article, Classic Pawn Structure Part 3b.

In that column, commentor b2b2 innocently wrote: “I couldn’t help but wonder about 18.Nd2 in the Kramnik vs. Anand game, with the idea of Nc4. Notwithstanding any long term strategic factors White seems on top.”

Here’s the position in question:

White played 18.Bf4 instead of member b2b2’s recommendation, and Black went on to win:

I said “innocently” since b2b2 was unaware of the incredible amount of work these guys put into their opening analysis. And, in the case of something as sharp as the above variation, and in an event as important as the World Championship, it’s a no-brainer that Black had analyzed all key lines over 30 moves deep (some lines a bit less, other lines quite a bit more).

In this match (game 1), Anand first surprised Kramnik with his choice of the Semi-Slav, which prompted White to avoid major theory with the fairly placid Exchange Variation (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 cxd5 5.Bf4 Nc6), which led to an easy draw for Anand.

"IMG_4627" by Paul Engler | CC

Giving easy draws as White isn’t the way you keep your title, so Kramnik decided that if he was going to play 1.d4, he would have to step into his opponent’s preparation. This led to game 3 (given above), which was clearly a disaster for Kramnik. Anand’s choice of 14...Bb7 (extremely rare. 14...b4 and 14...Ba6 were more common), followed by the (almost) new 15...Bd6 placed the Russian in an extremely difficult situation.

If Kramnik decided to enter this variation again, his preparation would be a couple days old. This did not compare favorably to Anand, whose preparation was months old and also benefitted from several computers and other grandmasters. 

Nevertheless, in game 5 Kramnik decided to challenge Anand’s work head on. Unfortunately, Anand stepped away from 15...Bd6 and played the never-before-seen 15...Rg8, hoping to leave Kramnik unprepared vs. Anand’s super-prep.

It seems that Kramnik had actually taken a look at that move, but it couldn’t match Anand’s mega-deep knowledge. After a close fight, Kramnik lost again, in effect winning the match for Anand.

Returning to b2b2’s query, for Anand the position after 15...Bd6 16.Rd1 Rg8 17.g3 Rg4 was just the starting position, and there was no way he would enter it without having worked out everything for many, many more moves.

And so (finally!) we will take a look at 18.Nd2 which seems very strong indeed. Anand, of course, had everything under control in this position long before the game started:

It’s clear that Anand is a true master of this kind of complex, super-deep preparation, which is why Carlsen made a point of avoiding such sharp mega-theory lines in his World Championship Match against Anand. By doing so, most of Anand’s opening preparation became useless, Carlsen managed to get positions that were to his taste, and the rest is history.


So far we’ve looked at “normal” opening preparation. However, in other instances, opening study is all about saving the opening you’re already playing from being “refuted.” In general, solid openings (Queen’s Gambit Declined, a solid main line in the Caro-Kann, etc.) are fairly easy to repair. In other instances, though, bringing something back to life after it’s been hit hard in a game or games demands faith in your system. (“There MUST be a way to make this acceptable!”) 

This “your opening is busted” situation has occurred in many different systems. The Dragon Sicilian, for instance, has been refuted and left for dead many times, only to rise from its grave (resurrected by the diligent work of its devoted followers!) and mate lots and lots of White kings.

So now we’ll look at a very different kind of monster preparation, which is all about saving a favorite line after someone comes up with a new idea and wipes you off the board, leaving the loser with a dilemma: “There MUST be a way to make this acceptable!”

This happened to me in my favorite Bronstein-Larsen Caro-Kann after I had gone 10-0 using that opening.

An embarrassing and traumatic defeat! Still, I couldn’t believe that this line was any good for White. I glanced at it at home and quickly decided that it was garbage due to the 14...Ne5 improvement. In any case, IM John Grefe assured me that I’d never see this line again, so there really wasn’t any need to spend much time on it.

Fate had something different in store, though, and several months later and I found myself facing the same basic idea.

Having dodged a bullet, I realized that everyone might play this line against me unless I took it seriously and killed the thing once and for all. In my mind, the very life of the Bronstein-Larsen was at stake, and it was my responsibility to save it!

Keep in mind that there weren’t any computers in those days, so tricky lines that a chess engine would easily refute were real threats in 1981, and only serious work could dispel the gloom. Due to this, I called my chess analysis posse (IM John Grefe and the super-strong Steve Brandwein) together, and we chewed on this line until we finally found something we really liked.

Here’s a very short version of our analysis:

The story has a happy ending. Shortly after the game with Arne, I found myself facing off against Subramaniam again. This time I was fully armed and ready for vengeance.

After this game, the Subramaniam variation vanished from the face of the Earth.

Heavy opening preparation is surely easier with the help of chess engines! But with or without chess computers, I have to say that searching for new opening ideas -- and spending days, weeks, or even months exploring a promising variation -- was one of my favorite things about chess. I still enjoy doing it (for students or friends) to this day.


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