Classical Chess

Mar 20, 2016, 1:18 PM |

The topic "what openings should I choose as a developing player?" pops up so regularly in the forums you could actually tune your watch by it.

With the same redundance you will find answers of certain types:

  • Don't memorize openings, just go by the general principles of development, centre control and king safety!
  • Play classical openings, as your progress will run along similar lines as chess theory has developed through history.
  • Don't waste your time learning classical theory but play (insert system of your choice here, e.g. Colle, London, KIA) which will work against nearly everything your opponent comes up with.
  • Play this and that opening, the masters play it and it's good.
  • Play this and that opening, I play it and it's good.

While the last two statements clearly lack any helpfulness, the other three make sense to some degree.

  1. Concentrating on principles rather than lines makes a lot of sense for players in the first stages of development. Without doubt they should first master the other elements of the game, beginning with not hanging any pieces, but by a long way not stopping there.
  2. The interesting part occurs when it comes to choosing an opening for the next stages of development, because here I believe a lot can be said for playing 1.e4 e5 and 1.d4 d5 as Black and a central pawn's opening for White. Where else would it be more logical to apply all those precious principles about centre and development you have hopefully internalized by then?
  3. Playing system openings does admittedly save a lot of training time which you can invest in your middlegame or endgame. The significant downside is that you only get to play a very limited number of different positions, while a further disadvantage is that you usually acquire skills in a very specialized type of positions which may not be applicable elsewhere. For these reasons I think system openings significantly slow down your development as a player, and I don't recommend them to any of my students as a constant repertoire option.

Furthermore it is very funny how many intermediate players are afraid of draws or "boring play" as Black, just because they and their opponents repeat the same old moves ever and again.

Let me give a sample line: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bc4 Bc5 5.d3 d6 and so on. It is so etched into their minds that they believe they have to take up the Sicilian or some other highly asymmetrical defence to avoid this symmetrical position which can indeed be a bit tedious. Amazingly it never occurs to them that they can avoid it onnearly ever move: provided you play 1...e5, there are always 2...Nf6 and 2...d6 as fully sound alternatives, and you can also play something 2...f5 on sub-master level if you feel adventurous. The move order above is in fact imprecise from White's perspective as 4.Bc4 should be answered with 4...Nxe4 5.Nxe4 d5 with good play for Black. On the other hand, in the case of 3.Bc4 nobody forces you to play 3...Bc5 (which is of curse viable) but you can always go 3...Nf6 to avoid the symmetry. I haven't even started about White's possibilities to break the symmetry, also starting as early as move two including 2.f4, 3.Bb5 just to mention two of the world's most popular openings

I have given this lengthy paragraph to show which possibilities slumber in the seemingly simplest of positions, completely unheaded by many players who believe they need a completely different opening in order to be able to play interesting chess.

This is not to say classical openings are in any way superior to the hypermodern ones, it's just that you need to grasp the underlying concepts of the former ones first. Or to put it like Korchnoi: "You have got to know the rules to break them!"

Hypermodern openings don't ignore the centre, they just refrain from occupying it immediately. In order to play them successfully you need to have a feel when it is the right time to attack and destruct the enemy centre or to occupy the centre yourself at last and so on. Without having honed your feel for these things in classical positions, there is not much point in trying to achieve an understanding of modern concepts.

I had to learn this the hard way, I started off playing the English, the Sicilian and the Queen's Indian as my main openings thirty years ago. As I have mentioned elsewhere, switching to 1.e4 some ten years later gained me about 300 rating points in the course of one year. During the following years I dabbled with all kinds of openings and defences - not without some successes. Yet it was ony six years ago that I dared to take up 1.e4 e5 as Black, which gave me another boost. The transition ended last year, when I decided my beloved Modern Benoni would do only as my secondary defence with 1.d4 d5 the primary one. At the same time I took up a centre-oriented approach with 1.d4 as White, and for the first time in years gained the impression my serve actually had some punch.

The one thing which didn't happen was that the number of draws with either colour increased in a notable way, but generally I feel much more at home in the positions that arise. So I would like to encourage everyone reading this to embark on the fascinating journey of classical chess. If you are unsure how to go about it, feel free to message me or leave a nore here. I hope you enjoyed reading!

As my previous blog posts already contain plenty of classical-minded examples, I'd like to add a recent otb game against an FM which highlights another positive aspect of playing solid black openings: Drawing against a higher rated opponent may become a real possibility without too much pain.