The Psychology of Opening Choices

The Psychology of Opening Choices

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The opening phase of the game can be particularly influenced by the psychology of the players. Whereas in the middlegame and endgame you are usually simply looking for a good move – or the best move – in the opening you have many choices. Since we cannot really say with certainty which of the openings are best, the players’ choices early on in the game are dictated by their own tastes, their mood, and their assessments of their and their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.

In a way, this makes the opening particularly difficult. Not only do you have to try to play good moves, but you also have to try to play good moves to reach a position that suits your style, or that does not suit the style of your opponent. Additionally, you need to take into account your opponent’s possible knowledge. Picking the wrong variation could cause you to be playing not just against your opponent, but against Kasparov, Karpov, etc… or Rybka. You have to take into consideration previous games you have played against your opponent (even blitz games – there are many stories of blitz “theoretical battles” being carried over to a tournament game), as well as his other games, if you have access to them.

Because of all these complexities, the opening is a part of the game where there is some danger of “psyching yourself out”. My advice is to – first of all – play good moves. If you play good moves, this should insure yourself against a lot. Second of all, be true to yourself. Do not change your play out of fear or to avoid some of your opponents’ strengths. When I was younger, I used to occasionally open with 1.Nf3 or 1.c4 when I felt that my opponent was a “sharp, attacking player”. I normally play 1.e4, but the idea was that by playing a quiet opening I would avoid their strengths and focus on their weaknesses. It sounds like a good idea, but it a way it was kind of naïve. I may have tried to avoid their strengths, but I also avoided my own, since I myself am an attacking player! By playing an opening I don’t usually use, I put myself out of my element. In most of those games I lost.

There are also players who are famous for specializing in a particular opening. You might be tempted to avoid that opening, even if playing against it is normally part of your repertoire. I don’t think you should do that, unless you really feel uncomfortable playing against it. Being a “specialist” in a particular opening is not a magic spell. GM Loek Van Wely is considered to be one of the world’s top experts in the Najdorf, yet when he plays with the elite, they rarely shy away from the battle. Quite frequently during my research I have seen experts losing in “their” openings, even to lower rated players. And at lower levels, I have seen that there are some club players who are addicted to certain cheesy gambits, like the Latvian gambit, and don’t hide the fact. If you play one of these guys you might be tempted to avoid their area of expertise, but don’t! That’s a bad opening, why avoid it? Just be happy he played bad moves, play logically and calculate, and you will be fine.

It is of course a good idea if possible to try to exploit imbalances in a player’s style to reach a position that does not suit him. But it must be done very carefully. In a recent tournament I played against the young Serbian player Alexander Indjic who is rated slightly less than 2400 and is clearly a talented player. But in his game with me he made a big mistake in choice of opening. I can only imagine that he played 8.dxe5, which surely he knows is not objectively a strong move, to exploit perceived imbalances in my play. The idea would be that I am a sharp player, so playing an exchange variation would make me uncomfortable. But actually this particular exchange variation gives White nothing and makes the game easy for Black to play, without taking any of the life out of the black position.

In another game of the same tournament I also made a rather poor attempt to exploit my opponent’s weaknesses. In the sixth round I played against the other American player, FM Erik Kislik (which, by the way, might be the first time in decades – if ever – that two American players have played each other in Serbia!). I knew that Kislik was a real openings expert who works on chess an enormous amount; at least, far more than I do. From some times I have looked at chess with him I realized that he was very up on current theory and also appeared to study a lot with computers. This posed some unique problems.

It would be quite a different game from, for example, a game against some old guy who has never seen Chessbase but just understands chess fairly well. I would have to navigate some dangers in the opening, and there would be some chance I could fall into a line he had studied in depth. On the other hand, if his theoretical knowledge is on the level of a 2700 (in some way) but he is nevertheless rated 2330, he should have some defects in his play as well that compensate for that. 

Trying to avoid theory and reach “real chess” where I could hopefully outplay my opponent, I ended up playing a strategically dubious variation of the King’s Indian with an early …exd4. This left me with a position that was not only not particularly great, but also inimical to my style. With a pleasant space advantage it was easy for White to play, as long as he knew of the idea of playing b2-b4, which he did.

As you can see, it is a tricky matter to try to exploit your opponent’s downsides, or minimize his strengths. My advice would be to stay true to yourself and look to reach a position that you like, first of all, rather than avoid one your opponent likes.

There are additional factors that could influence the players’ choice of openings. The tournament situation is one of them. If you think your opponent badly wants a draw (and you don’t) you have to take that into consideration. On the other hand, trying in outrageous ways to “avoid a draw” or anything remotely drawish is another way to lead yourself astray. Remember that most chess positions can be won if you play well enough – especially on lower levels. So you still should concentrate on playing good moves; your chances will come eventually. Nevertheless, choosing a sharper opening, if it is normally part of your repertoire, would be a good idea.

The famous Lasker-Capablanca encounter from St. Petersburg 1914 is often given as an example of a brilliant psychological choice of opening by Emanuel Lasker. Lasker had to win that game – yet he chose the exchange variation of the Spanish. He understood that this variation was not truly drawish, and in fact by creating a long term advantage of superior pawn structure, Lasker was forcing Capablanca to fight actively, something the latter did not really want to do in the tournament situation. Lasker won a classic game. But I should point out that this “psychological” choice of openings worked well for Lasker because the resulting positions were in his style. For someone like Alekhine it might not have worked as well.

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