First-Time Openings

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Looking at my opponent for last night's USCL match, I thought that he was at his best in dynamic positions; certainly positions with a clear imbalance and plan, but in particular those with a somewhat faster pace. [for masters preparing] It's a big mistake to just check if an opponent plays e4 or d4 and then if they play e4 assume they are dynamic and tactical and if they play d4 assume they like a slow positional game. I checked my opponent's black games as well and saw that he plays almost without exception sicilian and gruenfeld (with some king's indian defenses when the opponent avoids the Gruenfeld). As white his best games also seemed to be against Indian/Benoni more provocative openings by black, where white needs to react dynamically to punish. His choice of variations against the Semi Slav I also noticed was 5.Bg5-- the most aggressive and dynamic, the Botvinnik variation.

So I thought it would make sense to play a more solid queen's gambit style game against him. Of course there are many dynamic possibilities from the queen's gambit: an isolated queen's pawn the most likely. But although it's dynamic, it's also often a slower game with protracted maneuvering, where both sides must be comfortable with not making much progress for a while. And so my mind drifted to three opening options: the Slav Defense, the Orthodox Queen's Gambit (which I have never played), and the Queen's Gambit Accepted (which I have also never played).

Although I have only played the Slav about half a dozen times over the past two years, I have already started to know too much about it. What I mean is, that once you start to know an opening a bit deeper, you start to see less possibilities in it. Your opponent can do this or they can do that, and there appears nowhere for them to go wrong any more, no questions for them to answer. Despite my short experience with the Slav, it has included being instructed by Sam Shankland, so I already have that sense like there is no way to win for black.

Now, it's true, my initial plan for this game was to hold the draw. To be willing, even, to accept a somewhat worse position, since I'm black, but to keep my position pretty active and healthy, and hold the game. It is true that I was higher rated than my opponent, but 1) I had confidence that on the other boards, with two whites, we'd be slight favorites, so the rest of my team could win the match and 2) that attitude when playing black tends to be pretty good, and does not preclude winning.

And thus I arrived at the notion that I would once again forge a path into the unknown-- the choice was between the QGD Orthodox and the QGA. I have done this many times in my life (as you'll see later in this blog), playing an opening in a tournament game that I have never studied or prepared. It's a very special and pleasant feeling: everything is fresh, every move you consider is pregnant with possibility, and you do not assume that you know what your opponent will do. Now, it's wrong to imagine that my baseline knowledge of any opening is 0. Having played through gobs of chess games in my life, I have of course seen some examples of every single opening. So when I play an opening for the first time, I have an idea of some themes from that opening, and remember the general shape of a bunch of GM games in that opening. In my selection for today, the Queen's Gambit Accepted, I was also helped by the fact that I have played the following Semi Slav line plenty of times:

I did about 10 minutes of preparation before the game, just playing through a few dozen QGA games at super-high speed. And then I went into battle:

A refreshing game, right! Both the "satisfied to draw" attitude and the "playing new openings is refreshing" attitude worked out in this particular game, but I'm not trying to conclude too much about the whole approach from this. For one thing, it may be that I am a stronger player than my opponent (I'm not saying that, but people will notice the ratings, and wonder); for another, you should never conclude too much from one game!

I will discuss the "Satisfied to Draw" attitude further in many blog posts, for today, I am focusing on "playing new openings." Is this good for me? Bad for me? I wracked my brain for other instances where I had played an opening for the first time, with no real preparation, and here is what I came up with:

I think the opening in that game went just fine for me; and that my failure here was mostly due to a typical psychological falling apart. Things were going so well from the opening, that I was encouraged to already start feeling that the game would be a win for me. When my opponent suddenly started playing well and put up unexpected defenses, I felt disappointed and frustrated, and then completely collapsed. It was a really good showing by Daniel, one of my shortest losses, and an interesting psychological example.

This game is an example of "clear execution of classic strategy." The whole game shaped itself to some strategic ideas I knew. I of course was not very sure of them during the game, or the details of executing them. But the fact that I had to think very hard improved the quality of the game.

It seems the decision to try a new opening often comes from my feelings, as a lot of these "first-time openings" come in pairs from the same events! Here is another pair:

This is a classic example of the worst thing that can happen to you when you play a new opening-- "ooops, I did not know that idea." I had never seen this idea for white to play g4 in the KID and just did not know how black was supposed to play at all. This game was utterly hopeless for me, all the way through.

That's another game for the good play due to freshness category. After this game, I had several other 1.c4 e5 games where I just easily got a great game, either by occupying d5 or by pushing b4, or both. The games tended to have a very simpe and clear strategic nature; this first one was actually quite complicated, and a lot of the later ones I played were much easier.

I also played 1.d4 for the first time in a tournament with no preparation. I had just gone through a school year without playing chess, and finished final exams a few days ago. Afraid that I would play 1.e4 badly because I would half-remember my ideas, and not wanting to disgrace my pets by playing them badly, I decided that I should just play 1.d4 and think fresh from the first move. Here was my first experience:

An encouraging start; and in fact something I noticed recently in the database is that with 1.d4 I perform 100 points better than with 1.e4. This could possibly be because I don't know as much d4 opening theory and am thus playing in this "fresh" state of mind more frequently. Here is my second most recent excursion with a new opening:

Obviously this one I was burning time, and missing some ideas. You could partially ascribe the loss to the new opening, lack of familiarity, shortage of time, etc.; you could also partly ascribe it to being too ambitious and confident-- g5 is an atrocious move, and also comes partly from my bad attitude!

And most recently, in my very last tournament, we have my first use of the fianchettoe variation as white against the King's Indian Defense: a decision taken 10 minutes before the game. The result was the better side of a draw vs. GM; if you want to see the game it's here. Obviously this was a very successful opening, and a game where I had every hope of winning.

Then, sadly missing from my game scores, is the one time I played the Budapest. To give a sense of how great a game it was, it should be sufficient to tell you that I am crying that I can't paste the score here. It definitely falls into the category of "clear execution of classic strategy" and also "playing with energy because of freshness."

It is time to try to draw some conclusions! My overall score from this sample: 4.5-3.5 before yesterday and now 5.5-3.5. With only 3 whites v. 6 blacks, and a mix of opponent strengths and ratings, this is a pretty good result. There were a couple bad games in there, certainly, but also some very good ones. However, I'm now pretty much out of new openings to test out, so the conclusion is pretty useless :-P

In any case, if you have some new openings left to try out in tournaments, save them for a day when you want to feel fresh, and be reminded of the vast possibilities the chessboard holds. You will have a great time. But warning: this is only for people who have played through tens of thousands of chess games; if you haven't the odds of one of the "oops, didn't see that idea" type of games is very high.

IM David Pruess


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