The Black Hole of Chess Opening Study and My Hiatus
A friend (1800-ish rated) of mine calls openings a "black hole," because of the massive content of opening ideas and move, and the complete time-suck that studying openings constitutes. Despite having never really entered into any openings study, I imagine this is an assessment that is completely on target: I look at the wine box of opening books, book bag of opening Fritz Trainers, scroll through chesslecture.com, the ChessBase database, and so forth, and I feel overcome with a slight dizziness. This is definitely one reason I haven't studied openings to this point. Being at the Pittsburgh Chess Club for the first time, back in 2008, I had all sorts of of names shouted at me, which were unfamiliar: the Queen's Exchange Declined, Roy's Buyer Lopez, the Chininging Sicilian, the Cairo Can't --all scribbled in a notebook from that first trip. Finally, someone had a bit of a laugh at my dizzied state, and told me, "you don't need to study openings until you are somewhere between 1800 and 2000, and you can probably get along just fine beyond that, up until you are titled." The advice was repeared by some Masters, so I took the advice.
Here I am, having eclipsed 1900, hitting 1922, swinging wildly up and down, partly because of the sharp opening moves I play and my lack of knowledge of openings. I hit a bump in last month's Monday night swiss that cost me 60 points, entirely due to opening issues. While it is quite gentlemanly to spot an opponent a piece or some pawns, doing so in a rated game is not really conducive of rating climbs; but that is, nonetheless, what my lack of opening knowledge is effectively giving me positions in which an engine would evaluate the position as if I had given my opponent 1.5-3 pawns, despite material being even. I've known for a while that some decent amount of time has to be spent on openings, in order to eliminate these devasting games in which I have no practical chance: hitting a tactic against a 2100+ to get a pawn in a tough position, in order to hold a draw, is really just a waste of skills that could have garnered a win from a more equal position. Being down so much in almost 70% of my games, yet scoring 44-ish% tells a tale, in itself. The question floating around has been, "how much could knowing some opening ideas, let alone moves played by strong players, improve outcomes?"
I can provide the answer to that last question in two images. The first is from a game I played against a young player, currently rated about 1750. He's probably legitimately a 1900, and I feel he's been booking up harder and harder. I suspect he has a coach. This position is from a game we played on a week night recently, black is on move, and I (white) went on to lose in a few more moves.
I sat down, spent a few hours, and I looked at books, databases, and talked to an Expert knowledgeable about openings. I found a bunch of theoretical comments about the opening, ideas that both sides are playing for, actual concrete plans, common tactics, etc. I don't have an eidetic memory, but I happened to memorize about 30 games and game stems in this opening from my analysis and research. Completely unknown to me, we would end up playing three nights later, in the first round of another tournament. I remembered all of the stuff I had looked up, even though I wasn't prepping to see this opening any time soon. We had the same colors, and black was far less happy about his position in the same opening.
Even at the board, I was considering all the moves analyzed by Ivanchuk and other commentators in the specific branches I could have opted for. It was an absolutely unreal experience to have an edge out of the opening, which is something that is only ever really the case for me in one opening (I won't say what that is), and that one exception often entails games so rich and complicated that it doesn't matter too, too much that the games are approximately even or give me an edge; though I did have a 2250+ performance rating over 18 games until a recent loss. That game, three days later, answered the question: given the skills I've acquired, if I'm not faced with misreable positions, what exactly am I capable of? Answer: An absolute and utter route, in short order. For the record, my opponent said he was frustrated in the second position, and it led to him playing an irrationally ambitious g5 on the next move. He was crushed, tout de suite.
So... Courses of action, subsequent to this. I once heard this story that Rubinstein went into a cave during the War, did nothing but study chess, and came out one of the world's strongest. Given the source of this story, a crazy post office employee who wore chess pajamas and had chess hand soaps in his house, I doubt its veracity. Then again, I read somewhere that Rubenstein was anthrophobic; so I don't know. But I have decided to put myself in a cave, likewise, and study openings, with the hope of coming out of the cave capable of getting some better games out of the openings. I'll be on a competitive chess hiatus for two to three weeks. I'll be doing little else, aside from opening study, research, and openings practice of some type or other.
Now, all I need to do is figure out how to do all this chess database and computer stuff.