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Aug 12, 2014, 12:00 AM 18 Other

I have just completed part 1 of your Test Your Chess Understanding articles, and I wasn’t completely satisfied by one aspect of your solutions. In your solution to puzzle 2, you say the following: ‘11.b4 was a poor move that weakens White’s queenside and leaves a hole on c4. Don’t attack a piece unless there’s a good reason to do so.’

I came to a rather different conclusion about 11.b4. I thought it was a good move for a couple of reasons:

1. It fights for control of the c5-square, which is a nice outpost for the c3-knight (who is only two moves away from occupying c5). It also aids in keeping Black’s c8-bishop hemmed in.

2. It prevents Black (at least in the short-term) from playing …Ba6 to trade his bad bishop.

I agree that is a weakening move, but I don’t see how Black is going to make good use of the c4 outpost, particularly if White’s bishop will be occupying that diagonal.

All this is not to say I don't believe you when you say b4 is a poor move, I just require some more convincing.

Thanks, and keep up the good work!

and now 11.b4 was played.

First off I would like to thank you for your question. Though you didn’t agree with me, you were polite, which is always appreciated.

Having said that, I’m sorry to say that 11.b4 is indeed a bad move. It doesn’t just weaken c4, but also c3 while leaving the c2-pawn backwards (if the c-file opens up after ...c6-c5 the c2-pawn will be very weak).

Also note that it weakens the g1-a7 diagonal. Though it “fights for control over c5,” there really is no fight for c5 (unless Black plays properly) since Black easily achieves ...c6-c5 (not to mention that Black’s knight is guarding that square).

On a deeper level, the weakness of b4 (which will have to be defended) also creates dynamic/tactical problems since White’s king is still in the middle. In other words, (after 11...Nd7), while White is trying to solidify b4 Black can castle and hit e5 with ...f7-f6 (not to mention ...c6-c5, which as I said will be easy for Black to achieve, and/or ...a7-a5) when White’s center is cracking and the central White king can easily find itself in trouble.

Another way of putting this is that White is overextended. He has loose pawns on b4 and f4, a central king, and weak dark-squares (g1-a7). More importantl, Black has too many “triggers” that crack away at White’s pawn structure: ...a7-a5, ...c6-c5, ...f7-f6, and even ...g7-g5.

After 11...Nd7 (Getting ready for ...c5 and also hitting e5 in anticipation of ...f7-f6) White is already in a bit of trouble (he’s fighting for equality). Here are two possibilities:

PLAYING LOTS OF GAMES

IM Silman, could you confirm my theory that the reason you are good at chess is pure practice games, playing chess games every day? That is how I improved, and is this how you did it?

Though playing lots of games was very useful (and fun!), most of my knowledge came from going over a zillion master games very, very quickly. I’ve discussed this many times, pointing out that as each game flowed by I would absorb countless patterns (opening, pawn structure, tactics, endgames, positional weaknesses, etc.), and the more I saw a particular pattern, the more I understood it.

As for improving by playing, I found that playing opponents a class or two better than me was best. Playing equal or inferior opponents doesn’t do much, and can leave you with bad habits and misunderstandings about many positions. To repeat myself for the 1,000th time, I would play blitz with much better players than I was and get wiped out, but in my mind I was stealing their knowledge and skills.

PICKING AN OPENING REPERTOIRE

I am a Portuguese national master and I am close to the Fide Master title. In recent days, I have been really working on my repertoire and as I’ve played the Najdorf for a long time, I am seeking an alternative (it is not fun to play against a weaker player with something very nasty and forcing in preparation). I am considering to add 1...e5 to my repertoire or 1...e6.

I had classes with GM Kevin Spraggett and IM Zoran Petronijevic, and both said I play like Korchnoi. I also read your article on the Hubner (a variation I was considering to add to my Nimzo repertoire a few weeks ago, but I still have to see something against those Nge2 lines) and I liked it very much. I seek something against 1.e4 that is like that: strategically imbalanced, very solid and reliable and with clear play by Black. Can you help me in choosing something else against 1.e4?

Victor Korchnoi via Wikipedia

Choosing an opening repertoire is a very personal thing. Lower-rated players who are after fun and wild rides might pick gambits. People also pick gambits to improve their tactical vision and attacking skills. Others pick openings that avoid theory since they just don’t have the time to memorize all that crazy stuff.

As a player gets stronger, it’s not a bad idea to create a repertoire that has nothing to do with your style or strengths. This forces you to fix areas of your game that you’re bad at (though a certain amount of pain might be involved since your initial results could easily be “unfortunate”).

As one reaches the master level, openings that suit your strengths and stylistically feel good are the way to go since you and those openings might be intimate for a long, long time (perhaps for a lifetime!). Over the years you can hone your beloved systems and, ideally, completely master them.

You mentioned that you’re considering the French Defense and the Ruy Lopez as Black. The French is a great fighting opening, but it’s not for everyone. I’ve found that some people can play it very well while others botch it completely.

My friend John Watson (one of the world’s experts on the French Defense) and I (a Caro-Kann fan) have an ongoing French vs. Caro-Kann argument that will likely never end. Personally, I think the French Defense is a wonderful opening, but I have shown that I have no feel whatsoever for it (unless it’s the Burn Variation, which I’m quite comfortable with -– 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4 5.Nxe4 Be7 6.Bxf6 gxf6). Remember, an opening can be 100 percent sound and extremely attractive, but if it doesn’t mesh with your style and skillset, you shouldn’t play it.

To me, meeting 1.e4 with 1...e5 is a must at some point in one’s career. It’s instructive, leads to rich positions, and is as sound as they come. You can play the Petroff (a bit dull but dependable) or the Ruy Lopez (Black’s holding his own in several lines).

Though Lopez lines like the Marshall Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 c6) and the Berlin Wall (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 –- Kasparov considers this to be a rich queenless middlegame) have taken a lot of White’s fun out of the Ruy Lopez, several of Black’s older main lines after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 are also holding their own.

One of the nice things about the Black side of the Ruy Lopez is that you don’t have to stick with comfortable main lines (last paragraph) but can drag your opponent into lines that he might not be ready for. The Open Defense, for example:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Nxe4 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6, which Nakamura has successfully used (along with other big names like Ivanchuk, Kamsky, and Caruana).

And the final word has yet to be said concerning the Schliemann/Jaenisch Gambit: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 f5!?, which has been used by Radjabov (many times!), Aronian, Ivanchuk, and even Carlsen (in 2014!). One main line is: 4.Nc3 fxe4 5.Nxe4 d5 (Radjabov always plays 5...Nf6) 6.Nxe5 dxe4 7.Nxc6 Qg5 8.Qe2 Nf6 9.f4 Qxf4 10.Ne5+ c6 11.d4 Qh4+ 12.g3 Qh3 13.Bc4 Be6.

Rare lines like 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nge7 and 3...g6 are also making a comeback, with Nakamura using both 3...Nge7 and 3...g6 to good effect.

Of course, if you intend to play 1.e4 e5 you have to be ready to deal with all the other non-Lopez systems White can throw at you: the King’s Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.f4), the Giuoco Piano (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5, including the dangerous Evans Gambit -– 4.b4), the Vienna Game (1.e4 e5 2.Nc3), the Ponziani (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3), the Danish Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Bc4 cxb2 5.Bxb2), the popular Scotch Opening (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4), and all sorts of other systems.

However, none of these lines are a real threat to Black if you carefully prepare your replies beforehand.

As you can see, Black has a wonderful choice of lines to choose from –- quick queen trades (the Berlin), gambits (the Marshall and the Schliemann), a buffet of main lines, the complex Open Defense, and some experimental systems (3...Nge7, 3...g6, etc.) that are proving themselves far better than their reputations.

Here’s a nice win by Nakamura in the 3...g6 Lopez:

Here’s a rare line (created by Smyslov) that I fell in love with in my youth:

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