The Road Less Travelled

The Road Less Travelled

GM Illingworth

When it comes to choosing our opening moves, should we choose the main moves, or 'take the road less travelled'

This phrase 'road less travelled' is quite well known in Western culture, but for those who don't understand it, here is the original poem, The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Much like with other literature, I believe there are several different, and viable meanings of a text. The standard understanding is that the poem recommends "following your own path". However, you could also say that the poem talks about the regret of someone who, whichever decision he/she made, will wonder 'what if I had gone the other way?'. You could say that both interpretations are valid.

You are probably wondering, how does this relate to chess?

I have noticed that there are many different opinions when it comes to chess openings. The Berlin is boring; the King's Gambit is refuted; the Wing Gambit is at least equal for White; everything draws anyway; the Grunfeld is the best defence to 1.d4; the London is so annoying; 1.e4 is too hard to learn; The Classical Dutch is the most underestimated opening in the world; play main lines; play shortcuts. 

Ultimately, it is a personal choice, and if you hold any of the views above, I think I would be very hard-pressed to convince you otherwise. No matter how many variations I showed that offered a different perspective, you would probably come back with an 'improvement' over my lines. 

As I mentioned in my post on How to Find the Best Opening Moves, we have a lot of resources available, that we can use to make objectively smarter choices. It is always good to ask questions, and make sure that we understand what is going on in a position. However, always rejecting the main lines is no less a bias than assuming the most commonly played move is always the best. 

For example, let's say that you like the look of the Sveshnikov (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5) for Black, having seen some of Carlsen's nice recent wins with it. However, you can't stand the idea of learning the theory after 6.Ndb5 - which, of course, is only increasing, now that the World Champion has played the Sveshnikov in several recent games

Therefore, you look for an early shortcut - which is not in itself a bad thing.

The problem is, after 6.Ndb5, there simply isn't an objectively good alternative to 6...d6, preventing White from exploiting the hole on d6 with Nd6.

I used to play 6...h6 a bit in blitz about 13-14 years ago, but my results were pretty bad against players who didn't try to refute it outright, and took the free endgame advantage on offer. I did some analysis recently to demonstrate these points.

Now for Black's trickiest alternative, 6...Bc5:

It's true that this was a rather detailed analysis of some rare moves. However, it shows the typical problem with inferior moves. Sure, they may have tricks that catch a few people out. However, not only do these sidelines usually have a quite strong and principled counter, but even when the opponent plays natural moves, one ends up with a worse position than if they had just played the best moves from the start.

To give another example, what about the gambits? There are many players who love gambit openings, and will defend and vouch for them no matter what. To be fair, many opening gambits are very much playable, though they generally lose their sting if the opponent is well prepared. Let's take the Sicilian Wing Gambit (1.e4 c5 2.b4), for example:

This is the main reason you won't see gambits much at Grandmaster level. Most GMs have studied them already, and learned some setup, such as the one above, that is easy to execute, and neutralises the opponent's early initiative. Perhaps White can still equalise with best play, but it is White who has to be accurate. 

Of course, at lower levels of play, your opponents are a lot less likely to be prepared, and openings that take the initiative early can bring very good results. However, if you continue improving, you will eventually reach a stage where such approaches will no longer be so effective, and new systems will be required.

However, there is a solution, if you want to be able to play good openings, without having to learn a large amount of theory. In fact, we already saw an example of it in Black's play in the previous game.

The best type of 'shortcuts' for time-poor club players, in my opinion, is an opening scheme, or system opening of development. One of the more fashionable examples in modern chess is the London System, and after playing through the moves below, you may understand why:

You can see that, in this opening, White's pieces generally develop to the same squares, making it quite easy to enter the middlegame with a solid and healthy position, while still exerting a little pressure on the opponent.

Of course, there are still nuances - Black could have played 7...Nh5! to trade White's strong London bishop and equalise, which is why White usually prefers 7.h3 or 7.Ne5 to stop this threat. But that can be learned as one gains experience in the variation.

Admittedly, it is harder to play to an 'opening scheme' as Black, because of White's first move initiative, but it is still possible. For instance, the setup we saw Black play in the above game can be used against almost any White opening that doesn't start with 1.e4. Granted, it is not necessarily the best option each time, but it is a setup that is quite easy to remember and apply. 

Here is another example of how an opening scheme can help us navigate unfamiliar territory:

In short, there isn't a clearly 'best' way to approach the opening - it will depend on your own preferences as well as the statistics. So, don't get hung up on whether you are playing the 'best' lines.

If you like your opening, great - analyse your games and continue learning more about it. And if you don't like your opening, then there are plenty of other good ones to choose from

Let me know: What openings do you like to play, and why?

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I'll see you in the next post!