How to Quickly Understand an Opening

How to Quickly Understand an Opening

GM Illingworth

Many strong players, coaches and writers talk about the importance of 'understanding' the opening...but how exactly how we build a good understanding of our openings?

In the thumbnail, you can see the 'Five Ws', which you probably learned in school as a way to get the full story on a topic. I will use it here, in an adapted form for chess, to show how we can quickly get the full story on an opening variation.

What opening will we learn?

Our example today will be the Advance Caro-Kann, with an emphasis on the main line, the Short Variation: 

Why is this opening relevant?

For many years, the main trend at the Grandmaster level has been to meet the Caro-Kann with 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5. From there, the Short System with Nf3/Be2 is White's main line by a significant margin. Therefore, it is very important for Caro-Kann players to be ready for it. 

GM Nigel Short

On a personal level, the Advance Variation was always the line that gave me the most headaches as Black, and I often changed my mind about what variation I wanted to play against the Short Variation.

From White's perspective, I have had pretty good results, despite not knowing the theory as well as I could. 

Why were these moves played?

Learn from my explanations below: 

Naturally, this question is a logical one to ask throughout one's chess study and practice, not just in the early opening. Also, being able to explain something clearly to someone else shows that we understand it ourselves.

Where do our pieces belong?

I would recommend that you try to answer this question yourself, with regard to Black's piece placement, before studying Bronstein's model win below:

From this game, we can conclude that:

- The c8-bishop often moves to g6 or, even better, h7, to clear the way for the e7-knight to move to f5.

- The queen's knight typically develops to d7.

- The king's knight moves to e7, and from there, usually f5, although c6 is a good option if Black already played ...c5.

- The f8-bishop will move to e7, preparing kingside castling.

Now for the puzzle I mentioned in the notes, which shows what White's 'dream position' is: 

Here is a model game showing why this type of position is so promising for White:

Those with Mega Database can find this game deeply annotated by GM Evgeny Postny.

What 'dream position' is Black aiming for?

We may already appreciate, from the previous game, that Black is essentially aiming for an 'improved French' with the light-squared bishop outside the pawn chain. The following game by Capablanca demonstrates why the endgames are often good for Black in this opening:

What is White's main plan?

Typically, White wants to play for the c4 break, especially as a way to blow up the centre for his better-developed pieces after Black's ...c5 break. The following game is a very simple and brutal demonstration:

If Black plays the immediate 3...c5, then White may be inspired by the following model attacking game by GM Ian Nepomniachtchi:

You can find this game fully annotated in Mega Database, by GM Josh Friedel. 

When should we play our pawn breaks?

If Black doesn't play ...c5 for some time, we can prepare the c4 break by placing our knight on b3, followed by either a4-a5 or Bd2(Ba5) to cover the b6-square. The significance of this is seen after White's 12th move in the following game:

Notice how, after 12.Bxc4, Black can't easily reach the d5-outpost with his knights. The d7-knight is stuck, unable to move to either f6 or b6, whereas the f5-knight would have to move back to e7 to get to d5, which would be quite time-consuming. Therefore, White's extra space gives him a serious advantage in this position.

Meanwhile, if c4 is not so effective, an alternative plan is to play g4 followed by f4-f5. g4 is typically more effective after Black plays ...Be7, so that after g4 Nh4 Nxh4, Black has to recapture with the bishop, rather than the queen. Here is a model example for White:

You can find this game fully annotated by GM Andrey Sumets in Mega Database 2019.

Who are the experts?

From White's perspective, the early expert was GM Nigel Short, after whom this variation is named. Subsequently, this system has been played several times by many of the world's top players. I consider GM Fabiano Caruana the leading expert from White's perspective, but there are also lots of instructive White games by Vachier Lagrave, Anand, Grischuk, Karjakin and many others. 

GM Fabiano Caruana

From Black's perspective, I consider Anand, Karpov and Mamedyarov the main experts, but there are many others as well. Of the 2700+ GMs, GM David Navara seems to play the Caro-Kann as Black most frequently. 

GM David Navara (front)

How should I play as Black?

There are many playable options for Black against the Short Variation. However, I would suggest one of the following two options:

How does the opening work in practice?

We have already seen some examples above. Here are some model wins from Black's perspective.

First, this game shows how to take the advantage on the queenside if White develops quietly:

Our next game is a model example of how to make the ...f6 break work when White plays unusual moves: 

Our next game shows that Black is not limited to playing on the queenside, either. Often an ...f6 break, at the right time, can eliminate White's central space advantage and turn the tables. Also, doubled h-pawns are not always a bad thing: 

If you are not sure how to play on the queenside in the French-like structures after White meets ...c5 with c3, then this game will show you the way, with some nice Karpovian manoeuvres:

The next game, also by Karpov, demonstrates an important quality for winning as Black in the Caro-Kann: good endgame skills! After all, with the closed pawn structure at the start of the game, the games tend to go on for a while:

Finally, we see some very enterprising play by Peter Svidler, who manages to turn White's strong centre into a weakness: 

What are the next steps from here?

To be truly comfortable with an opening, you can't rely on study alone - you also have to practice the opening, playing it out in games until you feel comfortable with it, and understand, from your own experience, what is going on in the typical positions. 

So, don't just read and nod - try out this opening! 

Although this post provides a thorough outline of the main ideas and plans, ambitious players will want to go deeper. That includes learning the theory of a proper system against 5.Be2 - at a depth suitable for their level. 

I have created some nice opening files on this system - both for White and for Black. If you liked this post and learned a lot from it, then I think you will love my opening files, which are based on the principles I cover in my previous blog post on openings, as well as the questions here.

Please let me know if you would like to have such files! If there is enough interest, I will offer them for sale at some point.

In the meantime, you can enjoy more of my free chess and life improvement content, each day, at:

I also have an application process, for those who want to have private chess coaching with me. To make your application, go to:

Congratulations for making it to the end of the post! Now for some questions for you:

What is the main thing you learned from this post?

How were your games in this variation?

Is there a move, idea or position in this variation that isn't clear to you?

What is something you can do to become an expert in this line?