Opening Surprises

  • WGM Natalia_Pogonina
  • | Feb 22, 2011

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.


  • 7 months ago



  • 3 years ago

    WGM Natalia_Pogonina

    Let’s stay in touch on social networks! Here are my official accounts:

    Account 1, Account 2, Account 3

  • 6 years ago


    He beat the crap out of you but you are so sexy in that chess dress .its maybe better to wear this against your male opposition

  • 6 years ago


    Bueno tiene talento para explicar las jugadas mejor que otros

    grandez maestros


  • 6 years ago


    So given the same opening, how does black avoid the transpo problem to the Catalan (assuming don't want to play ..Be7 closed Catalan).
    Think 4..dxc4 has a good reputation against the Reti. Is this as reasonable as 4..Be7?

  • 6 years ago


    "hey you are a good looking,smart,talented player i ever seen.great will be great if you as a grand master reply me for free!"

    Comments like that always make me laugh! No, actually annoyed is a better description...

  • 6 years ago


    hey you are a good looking,smart,talented player i ever seen.great will be great if you as a grand master reply me for free!

  • 6 years ago


    Great article!!! Great game!!! Chess is candy for the mind!!!Cool

  • 6 years ago


    Hi, Natalia.

    You writes many interesting articles ("Typical Chess Mistakes", and many others).

    . And this article too. Non-typical open 1.Kf3, and strong White's attack.

    I wish you good luck in promoting chess! It's great game.

  • 6 years ago

    WGM Natalia_Pogonina

    @Vaaelenko Yes

    @ magnus75 Thanks a lot!

    @ paul211 One should analyze without an engine before using it. As to what software I'm using? It's Rybka, Houdini and occasionally other programs. Yes, your suggestions could serve as a template for a future article, thanks.

    @tooManyHands True, although there's so much info on the Internet these days that it's sometimes hard to find it.

  • 6 years ago


    hmmm good game and good article

    but I have a question is that you in the picture ?

  • 6 years ago


    I think it is better to be prepared in all of your openings than to study before each game , as i find it extremely risky to focus 4or 3 hours before to a single pening that your opponent might play...

    Best is to play with a wide and clear mind if you know what i mean ??!!

  • 6 years ago


    1.Nf3? -1....f5! .Opening surprise! He wants 1....d5-then2.d4! if 1....c5-1.c4! and now where is f2-f4!-may be good only 2.e4!?-with interesting game!

  • 6 years ago


    good game !!! and good analysis

  • 6 years ago


    play with open mindSmile.

  • 6 years ago


    "Just imagine how surprised I was when he played 1.Nf3!" lol

  • 6 years ago


    Was this a move order problem because d4 was delayed - preventing ..Bb4+.

    Maybe a lot of people would have that problem when facing Reti, so this seems to mean we need 2 lines versus Catalan (not ideal) or something unique to keep within Reti position.

  • 6 years ago


    Natalia I understand your reasons and you are a GM I'm just a "street player" so to speak........ but let me say a couple of things about your article.

    Bobby Fischer invented chess 960 also called random chess because he was personally fed up with people only relying on knowledge, chess database and so on...

    The thing is that you can study chess for your entire life but you will never get a complete overall knowledge.....why?

    Because what is great about chess is that you can never fully grasp it exactly like life's just too vast.... to infinite so you must deal chess and life with knowledge coming from the past (nobody denies that) but also you must be able to respond on the spot to every new situation that occurs, and to me the real chess player it's that kind of player.

    I like Capablanca also because they say it never really studied too much.....I like that kind of spontaneity wich unfortunately is now lost forever I guess (and this is also a reflection of the world we are living I guess) that kind of  on the spot intelligence to respond to a new surprising situation which never occurs to you......this is definitely the real ability you must demonstrate in chess and life moreover. How do you respond to something unknown? see?

    This is chess to me, in a way you must thrown all your knowledge and just rely on yourself, your intelligence, your intuition...and this is exactly where chess start to make sense in my opinion. This should be the truly spirit of chess maybe forever lost now (at least at GM levels, I'm happy not to be a GM that's why I still enjoy playing chess-:) and that's why I simphatize with bobby and truly understand his point (even if I don't play chess 960, as I have already lots of trouble playing standard chess :-)

  • 6 years ago


    I thought 22..., Rb7 attacking the queen and the rook, however 23. Rxc6 is better for white, however after the exchange white has doubled pawns and the b3 pawn should be easy to take, then maybe the bishop and rook can take the b and d pawns by harrassing the knight

  • 6 years ago


           At times opening preparation is not enough. The custom of being mentally prepared must be well adequately balance by "spiritual"/or psychological sense. I happen to have notice it along Emmanuel Lasker's taste that's is why he was referred to as indomitable player. 

           Reading the article on "The art of war", one must surely know oneself than only knowing his opponent. Chess is really a great struggle synonymous to the struggle of life. I admire the game and is still learning how can I 1.) Predict, 2.)Plan, 3.) Prepare & last 4.) practice them all. As one of the asian principle speaks rule number one martial art is for self defense only and the second rule is to follow rule number one.

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