Picking an Opening by Style

Picking an Opening by Style

IM Silman
Oct 5, 2009, 12:00 AM |
52 | Opening Theory

Chronotis asks:

One bit of common advice for selecting openings is to choose those that match your style of play. I have three questions about this. Do players under master class really have a style other than patzer style? Supposing we do, how would you recommend discovering what one’s style is? Finally, is there a source that describes all of the openings according to what style they are?

Dear Mr. Chronotis,

Excellent questions! First, let’s forget about all talk of style and instead concentrate on taste and what makes a player comfortable or happy. This way you don’t have to “discover” what your style is or isn’t. Instead, simply ask, “What kinds of positions do I excel in, and what kinds of positions make me feel comfortable and/or happy?”


For the Mad Dog:

For example, if you are a good attacking player but can’t play a positional game if your life depended on it, you might want to choose openings that lead to sharp, attacking situations. Thus you would create a whole opening repertoire based on this affinity to attack, which allows you to stress your good points and avoid your weaknesses. In fact, why not play gambits for both sides, forcing your opponent into positions that suit your brutal, caveman tastes? Of course, you’ll go down in flames from time to time, but if it’s raw fun you’re after and not chess improvement or balance, then this might well be the path for you. Openings like 1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Bc4 and 1.e4 c5 2.d4 (2.b4!?) 2…cxd4 3.c3 might prove appealing for White, while your Black repertoire could look something like this: 1.e4 e5 (1…d5 2.exd5 Nf6 is also fun) 2.Nf3 f5 and 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e5 3.dxe5 d4. Players like this would have a lot of fun if they picked up (and read – keeping it under your pillow and praying for literary photosynthesis won’t do you much good) The Art of Sacrifice in Chess by Rudolf Spielmann and Marshall’s Best Games of Chess by Frank Marshall – both can be found in any used bookshop or online for very low prices. Those that would have you study Kasparov’s games (Garry is one of the greatest attackers of all time) are leading you badly astray since any amateur that claims to understand Kasparov’s hyper-complex and multidimensional battles is either lying or delusional.

Here’s an old Marshall classic from his book:



For the Player Who Strives for Sanity:

The same holds true for positional players. If your tactical ability is stillborn (or if high blood pressure precludes too many tactical slugfests), but you’ve read How to Reassess Your Chess and know how to build up a strategically powerful game based on a solid understanding of the imbalances, then you would pick sound systems that promise safety, space, and good structure, allowing you to make full use of your positional strengths. In this case go for openings like 1.c4, 1.Nf3, or 1.d4 (1.e4 is also possible, using lines like 1…c5 2.c3 or 1…c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5). The nice thing about taking up 1.c4 is that it’s not only sound and deep, but is relatively easy to learn while also taking away most players’ preparation (they study replies to 1.e4 and 1.d4 all day, but have no idea how to meet 1.c4). A wonderful repertoire book for White is The Dynamic English by Tony Kosten. As Black, 1.e4 c6 is a good way to defang white’s intentions, while something like 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.Nf3 h6 6.Bh4 0-0 7.e3 b6 (the Tartakower) has faithfully served almost every World Champion since its invention. Two great game collections that can be found in used bookstores or online for low prices are: Capablanca’s Hundred Best Games of Chess by Fred Reinfeld, and Rubinstein’s Chess Masterpieces by Hans Kmoch.

And here’s Capablanca wiping out some poor slob. Note that his attack was created by first building up a sound position with extra space and well placed pieces:



If you love playing lots of blitz or simply enjoy lording it over neighborhood players or fellow club members, then you might be perfectly happy with your present playing strength. Believe it or not, sometimes getting too good actually leaves you without a competitive opponent! I play golf every week with a guy that’s god-awful at the game. However, I’m a tad worse than he is so, year after year, we battle it out for the title of “worst golfer on Earth.” This is tremendous fun and I would never take a golf lesson and ruin the balance!

But, if you want to improve, then catering to your strengths while doing your best to “see no evil” in relation to your weaknesses is simply the wrong thing to do! Sadly, the cure calls for a bit (or a lot!) of pain since you will need to leap head first into your weakest areas and suffer many horrific defeats in an effort to remove the chain around your neck. One good way to accomplish this (as far as openings are concerned, since that’s the subject of this article) is to completely reverse the previous advice: If you are a good attacking player but don’t have any idea what strategy means, join the Petrosian fan club and create a positional opening repertoire that will force you to delve deep into areas you previously feared to tread (this is kind of like an obese person joining the tofu fan club in an effort to change his diet and lose weight). Your tactical acumen will help you here, since you’ll see incoming tactics and be ready to unleash some attacks of your own after you build up a position that’s based on sound strategic ideas.

Conversely, if you are a good positional player but need to work on tactics and attack, create a tactical or dynamic opening repertoire which will force you to improve in that area. You might suffer for a while, but once you’ve gone through this “initiation by fire” you’ll find that you’ve suddenly become a balanced, well-rounded chess player who can do everything reasonably well.

So it comes down to minimal work and instant fun, or lots of work (and pain!) and balance (leading to eventual fun). Both philosophies are perfectly valid, and are completely dependent on what you want from chess.

Mr. Chronotis also asked if there was a source that describes all of the openings according to style. There are books that discuss a particular opening’s “soul” so you can understand it on a philosophical basis (the Starting Out opening series by Everyman Chess is excellent), but I’m not aware of any one-source exposition on this topic.

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