Openings: Theory and Practice
The opening is a very important stage of the game. It often determines the course of events for the whole encounter. Underestimating (as well as overestimating) the opening’s role often leads to poor performances. To be successful, a strong chess player should have a few well-studied openings at his disposal for each side. Generally, there are two main types of openings: solid (when playing for a draw) and aimed at a fight (when you want the whole point pretty badly). It’s essential to know the main ideas of the opening and the key plans. Some modern and fashionable openings (e.g. the Dragon or Gruenfeld Defense) require extensive knowledge of move-by-move variations, while in others you may get away with improvising. It is sensible to review the positions that occur in this or that opening (following masters’ games) and make sure you like and understand them.
A few recommendations on how to study openings:
1. Read good chess books. They have the main ideas, nuances, variations and illustrative games included.
2. Review masters’ games. What plans they have been trying to implement, how they responded to their opponents’ activity. Once one has reached master level, one should update his/her chess database regularly to stay up-to-date with the latest trends and novelties.
3. Research the position yourself. It is a critical step towards understanding its essence. Many interesting continuations remain behind the scene. Let’s say you want to sacrifice a piece, win an exchange or trade a knight, but no one ever played that way. Build your own tree of variations and see whether you have found a useful idea (write it down). If not, you will learn from your mistakes without losing rating and game points at a real event. A chess engine, a strong chess friend or a coach will be of assistance here.
4. To get a feeling for what the opening is about, play training games (rapid or even blitz). Analyze them thoroughly and pinpoint all the critical moments to avoid making the same mistakes in tournament games.
When a chess player has a broad chess repertoire, it’s harder to prepare for a game with him. Let’s say you play 1.e4, and he may opt for 1…c5, 1…e5, 1…d5, 1…Nf6 depending on his mood. Pretty tough to foresee what to prepare against, right? However, one shouldn’t get obsessed with studying lots of openings simultaneously. This will lead to superficial knowledge of all of them. As my coach likes to say, a person who employs a few openings for each side is either a grandmaster, or a patzer. It is also vital to stay updated on the state of affairs in “your” openings and refresh your openings trees.
A few days before the tournament it makes sense to review your main openings, refresh them in your memory. If you are playing in a round robin or a chess match, it is possible to study the repertoire of your opponent(s) and prepare in advance.
One's opening choice before a game may be influenced by lots of factors:
1. Tournament situation. Are you ok with a draw or do you need a win only? For example, it hardly makes sense to play a very drawish system if you need to win to get prize money, a title norm, etc.
2. Your opponent. Choose the opening he doesn’t like, or where he is currently experiencing problems.
3. Your shape. If you are in high spirits and ready to fight, you may choose the most demanding schemes. Otherwise, settle for something quiet and positional to save energy on calculation of variations.
4. Opening problems. If someone finds a flaw in your opening preparation during the tournament, it is often useful to abstain from playing it since chances are high you won’t be able to fix it on the go. Otherwise, your partners will be exploiting this and aiming for your Achilles’ heel over and over again. Especially in round-robins, where all the games are available to the participants.
Smart opening choice is the first step towards overall success.
In the following game against WGM Olga Ilyushina (actually, a friend of mine, we live in the same city) at the Russian Club Cup in Dagomys, opening choice played an important role. Olga likes the Catalan, while I always tried to deviate from its main lines. Nonetheless, before this tournament I had studied the variations in detail. Having faced the Catalan for the first time, I managed to surprise my opponent by the sole fact of choosing it. A tricky move order caught her off-guard. Having won the opening duel, I went on to outplay my opponent and earn an important win.
P.S. This article offers insight on how pros work on chess openings. I am not as naïve as to try to persuade you into analyzing for hours with chess engines, downloading the latest TWICs, playing lots of trainings games, gaining sound knowledge and understanding of 20-30 move-long variations, etc. However, the less tips you ignore, the higher the chance of becoming a better player. Depending on how much time you have, your chess goals and other factors, you may come up with a way of studying openings that suits you best.