Opening Surprises

Opening Surprises‎

WGM Natalia_Pogonina
35 | Opening Theory

Profound opening preparation is one of the key ingredients of overall success in chess. Luring your opponent into a trap, inventing a powerful novelty, knowing your openings well – all this will boost your confidence and create problems for your opponent. However, sometimes we end up on the other side, i.e. our chess partner “surprises” us in the bad sense of this word. What should one do? How do we avoid being overwhelmed by top-notch home prep? Let’s consider two classical cases:

  1. Your opponent comes up with a novelty in a familiar variation. The caveat is that nowadays everyone is using engines and databases, so there is a fair chance of confronting a player who performs at 3100+ strength in a position he has analyzed at home. It is worth noting that a novelty is not necessarily the best move/continuation in a position. It may be a double-edged or even unsound idea aimed at exploiting one’s knowledge and understanding of the position’s features, as opposed to the opponent’s lack of those. Once you are faced with a novelty, you should calmly evaluate the position and understand how dangerous it is. If the move looks strong, and there is a high probability that your opponent has learnt all the critical lines by heart, you may want to avoid them and play something relatively offbeat. However, in some cases your calculations and positional sense will tell you that you have to go for it, even if the other guy may have an advantage in terms of knowledge. When choosing, you should rely not only on the variations and positional evaluation, but also on your intuition.
  2. Your opponent opts for a line which he has never played before. Three scenarios are common here: a) he has found a flaw in your opening prep b) he decided to add a new opening to his repertoire c) it is just a one-time (?) surprise weapon aimed at avoiding your preparation. In the first case it is likely that he has a novelty up his sleeve, or enjoys that kind of positions. Your action: either deviate from the main lines and head for the new type of positions or, if you are confident about your preparation, you may want to stick to your regular lines. In the second case you would probably want to stay loyal to your prep since you have more experience in the variations than your opponent. The same can be said about case c). Generally speaking, depending on how sure you are about the quality of your analysis and memory (!), the tournament situation, opponent’s profile and other factors, you may decide whether is sensible to deviate from your prep or not.


To sum it all up, there are a few main aims we are trying to achieve by opening surprises: obtain an advantage, confuse the opponent, get a familiar and nice position.



Kosteniuk-Salgado, Sjugirov-Pogonina: 2-0 for the boys in round 1 (photo by Evgeny Surov)

In the first round of Aeroflot Open (A) I had to confront one of the world’s best juniors, GM Sanan Sjugirov (2626). For instance, check out his game vs Magnus Carlsen at the last Chess Olympiad. Sanan is a 1.e4 player most of the time, so I spent most of my preparation time reviewing Ruy Lopez lines. Just imagine how surprised I was when he played 1.Nf3!


I got nervous and mixed up the move order, which led to an unfamiliar position for me. Having overlooked White’s threat of c5, I didn’t act adequately and ended up being worse. Nonetheless, I could have defended much more accurately than I did in the game.

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