You Can't Always Get What You Want

You Can't Always Get What You Want

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Chess_Enigma asked:

You and other authors recommend creating an opening repertoire according to likes, dislikes, study time, etc. You lay down some basic examples like 1.e4 and Sicilian defenses are for tactical games and demand more study time and memorization, 1.d4 and the French Defense is for more positional games and less critical lines and similar examples are dished out to the reader. When I didn’t know better I agreed with this god given information. Unfortunately, now with experience and knowledge I am very confused!

1.e4 has some sharp Sicilian attacking lines yes, but a lot of them like the Richter-Rauzer and the Bg5 Najdorf can lead to a situation where both sides castle queenside when a maneuvering game begins! Certainly not an anomaly to the “sharp 1.e4” as the main line Ruy Lopez is a closed positional battle! Even more absurd, the calm Caro-Kann, as you have shown in a previous article, can in fact be a razor sharp counter attacking line. Even defenses like the “solid” French have the Winawer variation with double-edged play.

As a lover of a double-edged struggle, I lost faith in 1.e4 and sought greener pastures. Unfortunately 1.d4 didn’t help me make any more sense of the matter as there is the insanely tactical Botvinnik Slav, the Saemisch KID and other assorted coldblooded attacking variations. Good grief! Of course there are other variations where things can be quiet, like the Dutch Stonewall or the QGD.

What is the point of playing 1.e4 in the hope of obtaining sharp lines if there are far more defenses to know and no promise of attack? How can we make sense of any opening lines?

Dear Chess_Enigma:

I really enjoyed this long letter, not only because nobody else had posed this exact, excellent question before, but also due to your confusion concerning the general nature of openings. What makes it priceless is that armies of chess loving amateurs will no doubt share that same confusion. So, thank you very much for bringing it up!

Okay, I’m actually excited about this! But … where to start? I’ll break this down into a few parts:


In general, a player wants to use an opening that gives him every chance (but NO GUARANTEE!) of reaching the kind of position that he enjoys playing. Thus, if he plays tactical attacks quite well but couldn’t beat a fetus in a positional struggle, he would strive to play systems that lead to his bread and butter tactical slugfests.

Did you note the “no guarantee” in the first sentence? An opening might be ripe with tactical possibilities, and it might be rife with quick knockouts in the databases, but there will always be games where some alternative sideline leads to an even battle and a “boring” result.

That’s why a player that can only attack or that can only play positional chess and lacks any tactical vision at all will fail badly. Balance is very important. Yes, you might excel in one phase, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to create some basic skills in the other areas.

Most people create a repertoire based on their strengths – a repertoire designed for maximum success. However, you can also create a repertoire based on a pure desire to improve in your weakest areas. Thus, if you hate positional chess you would create a repertoire where positional chess is the norm rather than the exception. And if you can’t calculate or attack, you would create a repertoire where those kinds of situations are commonly reached. You will do quite badly at first, but over time you overall game will vastly improve.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 is a great choice for those that want to turn the super theoretical, often violent Sicilian into a positional training ground. If you happen to be a tactical addict and wish to pick up some positional skills, this would be a good choice. It’s also a great choice for the positional player who wants to keep a free-swinging, mate or bust opponent at bay.

However, if you have no desire to do anything positional, preferring to punch until your position drops, then the tried and true 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 would be the more logical choice. BUT … even then, you might end up in a quiet maneuvering battle where tactics take a back seat to intelligent planning and positional niceties. Even worse, a forcing sequence in a well-known variation can kill the play before it even begins!

B.  Spassky – T. Petrosian [B36], Moscow 1969

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 5.c4 Nf6 6.Nc3 Nxd4 7.Qxd4 d6 8.Be3 Bg7 9.f3 0-0 10.Qd2 Be6 11.Rc1 Qa5 12.Be2 Rfc8 13.b3 a6 14.Nd5 Qxd2+ 15.Kxd2 Nxd5 16.cxd5 Bd7 17.Rxc8+ Rxc8 18.Rc1 Rxc1 19.Kxc1 Kf8 Thrilling, isn’t it? The game was drawn on move 43.

1.d4 vs. 1.e4

At some point you gained the impression that 1.e4 led to wild attacking chess and 1.d4 to calm positional bliss. The idea is that 1.e4 leads to more open positions, which often translates to sharper, more tactical play. However, the play can also be more forcing, and this can lead to some pretty boring moments if the opponent tosses a Petroff (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6) at you, or bashes out 20 moves of theory that ends in a barren position.

Conversely, 1.d4 is said to lead to slower, closed, more maneuvering kinds of positions. That’s often true, but this doesn’t mean that those same positions aren’t tactical minefields. One advantage of 1.d4 is that, in my opinion, the chess is a little richer thanks to the fact that those forcing lines are a bit less common.

PROMISES (of attack)

In chess, there aren’t any promises. If a book tells you that such and such an opening will always lead to wild play, the author is lying to you. Yes, there might well be chaos most of the time, but occasionally finding yourself in quiet waters is unavoidable in any opening.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to paint an opening as a death machine by offering up rosy examples:

Frank Marshall - C. Moreau [C37], Monte Carlo 1903

1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5 4.Bc4 g4 5.0-0

That same year (1903), Marshall tried a different move against the great Geza Maroczy (who was a stronger player than Marshall). Marshall roasted him: 5.Nc3 gxf3 6.Qxf3 d5 7.Nxd5 c6 8.Nxf4 Qf6 9.c3 Bh6 10.d4 Ne7 11.0-0 0-0 12.Nd5 Nxd5 13.Qxf6 Nxf6 14.Bxh6 Nbd7 15.Bxf8 Kxf8 16.e5, 1-0 since 16…Nd5 17.Bxd5 cxd5 18.e6 is crushing.

5…gxf3 6.Qxf3 Qf6 7.e5 Qxe5 8.Bxf7+ Kd8 9.d4 Qxd4+ 10.Kh1 Bh6 11.Bd2 Qg7 12.Bb3 Nc6 13.Bc3 Ne5 14.Qd5 d6 15.Rd1 Bd7 16.Ba4 Bc6 17.Bxc6 bxc6 18.Qxe5 Qg4 19.Na3 Kd7 20.Nc4 f3

Here White announced mate in 11 moves! (It didn’t matter if it was really mate in 11 or not, doing so was the ultimate macho display of male domination.)

21.Rxd6+ cxd6 22.Qxd6+ Kc8 23.Qxc6+ Kd8 24.Rd1+ Ke7 25.Qd6+ Ke8 26.Re1+ Kf7 27.Ne5+ Ke8 28.Ng6+ Kf7 29.Nxh8 mate!

Okay, this game doesn’t hold up to analysis, but that wasn’t the idea when Marshall chose this opening – it was an attempt to overwhelm the opponent and have a great time doing so!

However, what if your opponent doesn’t want to dance your dance, and instead wishes to change the game’s character in a way that suits him and not you?

M. Assem - J. Silman [C31], Seattle 1985

1.e4 e5 2.f4 d5 3.exd5 c6 4.Nc3 exf4 5.Nf3 Bd6 6.d4 Ne7 7.dxc6 Nbxc6 8.Bc4 0-0

There go the crazy attacks and blood red rain falling on the board. Black’s system avoids all that and instead forces the game into positional mode.

9.0-0 Ng6 10.Ne4 Bc7 11.c3 Bf5 12.Nc5 b6 13.Bd3 Nce7 14.Bxf5 Nxf5 15.Qd3 Nxd4 16.cxd4 bxc5 17.d5 Qd6 18.h4 Rfd8 19.Rd1 Rd7 20.Ng5 Rad8 21.Qh3 Qe5 22.Nf3 Qh5 23.Bd2 Rxd5 24.Re1 Nxh4 25.Kh1 Nxf3, 0-1. 

Here’s another example (this time the “death machine” is the Danish Gambit) of how bad play in an open game can lead to a bloody death:

Marshall - A. Schroeder, New York 1915

1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3 d5 4.exd5 Qxd5 5.cxd4 c5? 6.Nc3 Qxd4 7.Bb5+ Bd7 8.Qe2+ Be7 9.Nf3 Qg4 10.Nd5 Kd8 11.Bf4

Picturesque! One can see why tactical players covet wide open positions – the open files and diagonals lead to hyper-active pieces and offer many inroads into the enemy camp.

11…Bxb5 12.Qxb5 Qe6+ 13.Be5 Qc6

13...Qxd5 14.Rd1 picks up the black Queen.

14.Qxc6 bxc6

14...Nxc6 15.Bxg7

15.Nc7 Nf6 16.Nxa8 Na6 17.0-0-0+ Kc8 18.Rhe1 Nd5 19.Nc7 Naxc7 20.Bxc7 Kxc7 21.Rxd5 cxd5 22.Rxe7+, 1-0.

White had a lot of fun, but what if Black doesn’t want his opponent to have any fun?

I. Heppell (2135) - O. Korneev (2554) [C44], Guernsey Open 2009

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.c3 d5 5.exd5 Qxd5 6.cxd4 Bg4 7.Be2 Bb4+ 8.Nc3 Bxf3 9.Bxf3 Qc4 10.Bxc6+ bxc6 11.Qe2+ Qxe2+ 12.Kxe2 0-0-0 13.Be3 Ne7 14.Rhd1 Rhe8

The game is about equal, but is this what White had in mind when he played his “seek and destroy” gambit?

15.Rac1 Nf5 16.Kf3 Rd6 17.g3 Ba5 18.Na4 Bb6 19.Rc4 Red8 20.Ke4 Rf6 21.Kd3 Bxd4 22.Bxd4 Nxd4 23.Rdc1 and White resigned rather than face the crushing 23…Nb3+.

So much for promises of sparkling attacks and bloodthirsty eviscerations.


Okay, but how about 1.d4? Well, there’s a lot of choice here and one never really knows if the forces of chaos or order will appear on the board. One famous line that sets the board on fire is the Botvinnik System of the Semi-Slav: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.Bg5 dxc4 6.e4 b5 7.e5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nxg5 hxg5 10.Bxg5 Nbd7 11.exf6 Bb7 12.g3 c5 13.d5 Qb6 14.Bg2 0-0-0 15.0-0 b4 16.Na4 Qb5 17.a3. All book, and just the starting position for several possible black choices, and tons more theory!

Here’s a recent example. Minimal notes, but lots of chaos.

M. Carlsen (2810) - J. Smeets (2657) [D44], Wijk aan Zee 2010


Yes, this isn’t 1.d4, but it will soon transpose (so don’t freak out!).

1…c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.d4 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.Bg5

Players that don’t wish to devote their lives to the memorization of endless variations tend to play 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 (6.Qc2, a Karpov favorite, is another main line, which usually creates more positional middlegames) 6…dxc4 (6…Bd6 tones things down) 7.Bxc4 b5 and now 8.Bd3 leads to some really violent lines, while 8.Be2 usually (but not always!) takes the game down more docile roads.

5…dxc4 6.e4 b5 7.e5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nxg5 hxg5 10.Bxg5 Nbd7 11.exf6 Bb7 12.g3 c5 13.d5 Qb6

An alternative is 13…Nxf6. Here’s a game that shows how a player that lives by the sword (5.Bg5 rings in the sword of chaos) often dies by the sword: 13…Nxf6 14.Bg2 Be7 15.0-0 Nxd5 16.Bxe7 Kxe7 17.Nxb5 Qb6 18.Nc3 Nxc3 19.bxc3 Bxg2 20.Kxg2 Qb7+ 21.f3 Qb2+ 22.Rf2 Rxh2+, 0-1. F. Santos - Perez Rodriguez, Medellin 2009.

14.Bg2 0-0-0 15.0-0 b4 16.Na4 Qb5 17.a3 Nb8

H. Nakamura - J. Smeets [D44]
, Wijk aan Zee 2011 saw Black try 17...exd5. As usual, the resulting play was extremely complex, with Nakamura outplaying his opponent: 18.axb4 cxb4 19.Bf4 Bh6 20.Qd2 Bxf4 21.Qxf4 Bc6 22.Qd4 Kb8 23.Rfe1 Rhe8 24.Re7 Qa5 25.Rxf7 Bxa4 26.Bxd5 Qc5 27.Qf4+ Ne5 28.Be4 Rd7 29.Rg7 Bb5 30.Rxd7 Bxd7 31.Bg6 Rf8 32.Re1 Qd6 33.Qxe5 Rxf6 34.Qxd6+ Rxd6 35.Bf7 Rd2 36.Bxc4 Rxb2 37.h4 Bg4 38.Kg2 a5 39.Re5 Rc2 40.Rb5+ Kc7 41.Bd5 Rd2 42.Bf7 Bd7 43.Rxa5 Bc6+ 44.Kf1 Bf3 45.Ra1 Kd6 46.Bb3 Rd3 47.Rb1 Kc5 48.Ke1 Kb5 49.Bd1 Bxd1 50.Rxd1 Rc3 51.h5 b3 52.Kd2 Rc8 53.Rc1 Rf8 54.f4 Kb4 55.Rh1 Ka3 56.Ke3 b2 57.g4 Rc8 58.Rb1 Ka2 59.Rxb2+ Kxb2 60.h6 Kc3 61.g5, 1-0. Note that after all that attacking, the game ends up being decided in an endgame!

18.axb4 cxb4 19.Qd4 Nc6 20.Nb6+ axb6 21.dxc6 Bxc6 22.Bxc6 Qxc6 23.Qg4 Bc5 24.Ra7 Rd7 25.Rxd7 Kxd7 26.h4 Kc7 27.h5 e5 28.h6 Bd4 29.Qe2 b3 30.Be3 Qd5 31.Rd1 Kc6 32.Qg4 b5 33.Bxd4 exd4 34.Rxd4 Qe5 35.Qd7+ Kc5 36.Qa7+ Kc6 37.Qd7+ Kc5 38.Rf4 Qxb2 39.Rf5+ Kb4 40.Qxb5+ Kc3 41.Rf3+, 1-0.


As I have already said on a couple of occasions: there is no such a thing as a promise when it comes to openings! All you can do is pick systems that appeal to you (and/or are suitable for your level), work out their basic ideas and lines, and go with the flow. Over time (thanks to the kind of experience sticking with one opening brings) you’ll learn when the game is heading towards the tactics you desire, or veering off into positional lines that you might despise. If you have a full war chest of skills, you won’t mind this “mutation” from one kind of game to another. But if you’re a one trick pony, you’re pretty much screwed no matter what opening you decide on.

A positional system will usually offer positional play, just as a tactical system will usually offer a sharp clash. But, more often than one might imagine, all your best intentions will be turned on their head and you’ll get the opposite of what you were expecting (or you’ll get just what you wanted, and discover that your “dream” is hitting you in the face).

I’ll end this with an example of the “dream hitting you in the face” scenario, with me being the victim.

Silman – G. Kamsky (2640) [D03], New York 1991

1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.Bg5 Bg7 4.Nbd2 d5 5.e3 0-0 6.Bd3 Nbd7 7.0-0

I decided to play this quiet line, which I felt would allow me to avoid his superior theoretical knowledge and allow me to take him to places he had never been before. What I didn’t know was that one year earlier (in the game Kamsky – H.Olafsson, Reykjavik 1990) he had reached the same position as White but had tried to turn a quiet opening into an attacking weapon by 7.h4. However, instead of achieving the desired attack, his opponent blew open the center and wiped him off the board: 7…Qe8! 8.Bf4 c5 9.c3 Ng4 10.h5 e5 11.dxe5 Ndxe5 12.Be2 Bf5 13.hxg6 fxg6 14.Nh4 Bd3! 15.Ndf3 Bxe2 16.Qxe2 Rxf4! 17.exf4 Nd3+ 18.Kd2 Qxe2+ 19.Kxe2 Nxf4+ 20.Kd2 Nxf2 21.Rhf1 N4d3 22.g4 c4 23.g5 Re8 24.Rab1 b5 25.Ng2 Ne4+ 26.Kd1 Ng3 27.Rg1 Nf2+ 28.Kc1 Ne2+ 29.Kd2 Nxg1 30.Rxg1 b4 31.cxb4 Bxb2 32.Nf4 Rf8 33.Ke3 Rxf4 34.Kxf4 Nh3+ 35.Ke3 Nxg1 36.Nxg1 d4+ 37.Ke4 d3 38.Nh3 Ba3 39.Kd4 Bxb4 40.Kxc4 d2 41.Nf2 Be7 42.Kd3 Bxg5 43.Ke2 Bf4 44.Nd3 g5, 0-1.

As a result of this debacle, Kamsky entered this game very well prepared.

7…Re8 8.c4 c5 9.cxd5 Nxd5 10.Nc4 cxd4 11.Nxd4 Nc5 12.Be2 Ne6! 13.Nxe6 Bxe6 14.Qb3 Rb8 15.a4 a6 16.Rfd1 Qc7

Things have gone badly wrong and, after a mere 16 moves with the White pieces, I’m just worse. Like an animal hypnotized by an oncoming car’s headlights, I froze. I did get my wish for a positional game, but being positionally pushed off the board wasn’t what I had in mind.


I can’t understand this lemon. What was I thinking?

17…b5 18.axb5 axb5 19.Na5 Qe5 20.Bh4 Qxb2 21.Bg3 Qxb3 22.Nxb3 Bxa1 23.Bxb8 Bf6 and I gave up (24.Bg3 Nc3 wins on the spot)!

In this event I played a few masters (I won all those games), plus grandmasters Fedorowicz, D.Gurevich, A.Ivanov, and Gulko. But the only game I lost was this humiliation to Kamsky, which (of course) was on the demonstration board so everyone could see me getting kicked to the curb like an unloved, disease ridden dog.

My advice to you, Mr. Chess_Enigma, is to pick sound openings that you find attractive and stay with them through thick and thin. If you pick a repertoire based on aggressive, tactically based systems, you’ll get the kind of positions you’re looking for in the majority of cases, but you’ll also find that positional or even quiet situations will arise quite often. Thus, you won’t always get what you want but, to quote the Rolling Stones, you’ll get what you need. And that need is to develop both tactical and positional skills, which will allow you to intelligently (and happily!) play any kind of position that may appear.

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