Opening study for children
My son’s coach at the chess club told me he was not happy about us doing opening study at home and that it was only harming the kid’s play. I asked him a simple question – did my son’s results improve? He nodded. Then added: “But it will hurt him in the long run”. I asked – “How?” His response was “Children should focus on tactics and endgames”. I said: “I understand that. But you did not answer my question…”
One reason why we started opening study at home is that there was no such thing in the club. Another reason is that when looking at my son’s performance in the last competition he participated in (he is 3rd category (equal to category C), I noticed that he played quite well in positions he was familiar with, while in positions he had no experience with, his play was of substantially lower quality. I noticed that this was only so in tournament play, he was comfortable playing against family or friends who used all kinds of strange openings. We discussed this and agreed that it was mainly a psychological issue.
Based on his past experiences (we did look at few lines here and there, but never did systematic work before), my son summarized the benefits of opening study quite well, I believe:
- He plays more confidently when he thinks (regardless of whether it is true or false) that his preparation is superior to the opponent.
- He manages his time better and avoids time trouble.
- He does a much better job in the middlegame – as he is familiar with typical plans and motives of the opening.
- He is better prepared for the typical endgames arising out of his openings.
Now, let me add here that the opening study is perhaps only 10-15% of my son’s chess study time. The bulk of his time is spent solving tactical exercises or playing slow games.
Phase 1 – Choice of openings
In preparation for the next tournament (for category B) we decided to look at openings more closely. After a lot of thinking, I made few suggestions; we discussed them and concluded to look into the following:
- For white – against 1…e5 (which is something 99% of children seem to play here), Scotch Game.
- For black – against 1.e4, Petrov Defence
- For black – against 1.d4, Queen’s Gambit Declined – Tartakower Defence
The choice was based on specific criteria – the openings had to limit the opponent’s opening options and not lead to cramped positions (which my son does not “feel” very well). My son also did not mind quick transition into endgame – quite rare among young players.
Thus, the choice of Scotch Game over Ruy Lopez, Italian Game or King’s Gambit was because we both thought the positions were somewhat more comfortable to play (now this is a matter of taste, I for one, prefer King's Gambit). From a practical point of view, it also seemed a good choice because the majority of local players go for Ruy Lopez, Italian Game or Four Knights – so very few would have any idea how to play against the Scotch. Of course, we had to be ready to face Petrov Defence as white – we are still undecided between 3.d4 (Steinitz variation) and 5.Nc3 in the main line.
The choice of Petrov Defence for black is easy to explain. It avoids Ruy Lopez, Italian, Three Knights, Four Knights and the Scotch altogether. We had to be ready for the King’s Gambit though. But as I noted earlier, almost no one plays it among children here (which is pretty sad…).
Finally, the choice of an opening against 1.d4 went through few stages – first, we discarded the 1…Nf6 openings, particularly Gruenfeld, Benko and King’s Indian. My son thought the Nimzo-Indian and Queen’s Indian package was something he would be interested in in the long run. He also did not like the Dutch. So we arrived at 1…d5. We discarded the Moscow, Anti-Moscow and Botvinnik system, Meran and Slav. He became interested in Queen’s Gambit Accepted, but only till he saw the Tartakower defence (referred to as Tartakower-Makogonov-Bondarevsky system in Russian chess literature). The elegant solution to the problem of the light-squared bishop and a solid structure overall sealed the deal.
At this stage, we decided to stop here – given our experiences in the local competitions, these three openings would cover perhaps 80-90% of all games. So we thought it was unwise to spend time on Bird’s or English Opening for example, when chances of facing those in the competition were slim.
Phase 2 – Collection of materials
For the Scotch, I got two books – one, an excellent book by the Russian author Barsky and a book in English by Emms. The authors did not exactly agree on everything, but it was great to compare their opinions on different lines and make up our own mind. For sample games, I looked first at games by Kasparov, Morozevich and Radjabov (someone that is super-popular back home of course). I also got a book by GM Rublevsky, he regularly plays Scotch and his book – collection of games, is just generally well-written. I also found a couple of very interesting games in Scotch in Beim’s Chess Dynamics.
For Petrov, it was unexpectedly difficult to find what we needed. I settled on three volumes by Karpov and Kalinichenko. Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors (vol 4 and 5) had some fantastic annotations to games played in Petrov, so that was very useful.
For the Tartakower Defence, I thought McDonald’s Queen’s Gambit Declined was simply excellent. Presentation of the historical development of the typical ideas makes it very easy to take up this opening. Rizzitano’s book on Queen’s Gambit Declined had few very interesting games, so did Watson’s Chess Strategy in Action and Beim’s Chess Dynamics.
Finally, we looked into de Firmian’s Modern Chess Openings just to get a feel of different lines and evaluations.
Phase 3 – The actual study of the openings
We did several different things here:
1. Play (always over the board) through the different variations to get a feel of the arising positions. Memorizing is not the objective. The main idea is to get a feel for the typical manouvers, positions for the pieces, pawn structures.
2. For each line studied (at this stage, we’ve decided not to go beyond move 10) identify a typical idea or ideas. This helps understand the sequence of moves and memorizing is no longer an issue.
3. Play through the selected sample games that demonstrate the typical middlegame and, sometimes endgame plans for the openings selected.
4. Practice games – mainly with 15 min. or less . These are not full games, we reach a middlegame position, try to evaluate it. We then evaluate the performance and see if and how it could be improved. We also played several slow practice games.
Phase 4 – The practical results
This phase will be written soon – the competition is next week. Wish us luck!
We worked closely together in phases 1 and 3, whereas I took care of phase 2. This required a lot of time and effort (I'm currently on an extended leave, which was handy). I want to emphasize that the key principle of work for me was not to take decisions for my son. I discussed everything with him - and he was the one deciding, without his "buy-in" the whole exercise would be pointless.
The process we went through together with my son was quite educational. We thought describing it could be useful. We also hope to get feedback on our work, so opinions are welcome!