Opening Repertoire

I said in my last weekly progress report that I’d say something about the general opening work I’m doing at the moment.  I’m trying to decide on an opening repertoire which will serve me all the way up to 2500, and there are a number of decisions I’m having difficulty with.  If you’re an opponent looking to see what I play, then by all means read on – you won’t find too much information that won’t soon be in databases anyway. 🙂

Let’s start with my white repertoire.  1. e4 is ‘best by test’ and I’ve played it all my life, so I see no reason to change that.  My first dilemma comes on move 3, after the common moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6.  I’ve almost always played 3. Bc4, the Giuoco Piano, in the past, but I’m considering switching to the Ruy Lopez with 3. Bb5.  A friend recently offered the opinion that learning all the extra theory associated with this move really isn’t worth it at my level, as the positions I get are unlikely to be significantly better than after 3. Bc4.  I think he’s absolutely right, but what I’m not sure about is whether or not a switch to 3. Bb5 will be desirable/necessary at some point in the future, when I’m higher-rated.  If so, then it would seem to make sense to take it up now, and start getting experience in the positions.  A quick search in MegaBase showed that 3. Bb5 is played almost ten times as often as 3. Bc4 at GM level, presumably for a reason!  Furthermore, I’m not aware of any Grandmasters who play 3. Bc4 exclusively or nearly so.  Rodriguez Vila, Movsesian, Tiviakov, Bologan, and plenty more play it frequently, but all have the Ruy Lopez as either their main or a major secondary weapon.  Thoughts?

A second area of indecision comes as black after 1. e4.  Taking up some sort of Sicilian is a serious possibility, but for now let’s assume I stick with 1…e5, which is of course a perfectly good option all the way up to the highest level.  For the last few years I’ve been meeting the Ruy Lopez with the Arkhangelsk Variation (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O b5 6. Bb3 Bb7), but this has been played so little at high levels that I’m not sure if it’s a ‘serious’ enough approach to use all the way to GM.  I’m also not a huge fan of the positions after 7. d3, which have become popular and seem to be causing difficulties.  For these reasons I’m thinking about taking up a different defence to the Ruy Lopez; the Marshall appeals in some ways, but it’s very theoretical and I’d probably have to face an anti-Marshall about as often, so the main lines of the Closed Defence (Chigorin, Breyer, Zaitsev, Smyslov etc.) come into consideration.

Finally, my approaches as white against the French and Caro-Kann Defences may be due a rethink.  Against the French I play the Tarrasch variation, with 3. Nd2, and whilst I’m happy enough with the resulting positions it’s not as ambitious as the main lines after 3. Nc3.  Against the Caro-Kann I play the rather rare (though recently quite fashionable) Fantasy Variation with 3. f3; again I’m not really dissatisfied with it, but it is very much a sideline and I feel I should be playing mostly main lines.

I’d be very interested to hear your opinions on the questions raised in this post, but I may not share my conclusions or decisions here in order to keep some things secret from future opponents!

21 thoughts on “Opening Repertoire

  1. Are you good on tactics? Are you good on strategy? Do you know the basic endgames? Are you good in open positions? Closed positions? Do you say “Wow!” also after a nice endgame win by Capablanca, Karpov, Ulf Andersson? Or is that only what you say after a brilliant tactic win by guys like Alekhine, Keres, Tal? Do you have patience enough for the long endgames, where the masters will try to kill you slowly if you have survived the opening and the middlegame? (Tal didn’t like endgames so much in his young days.) Choose openings from that.
    I read in a book written by Reti, “Modern Ideas in Chess”, that Morphy was good in open positions, but not that good in closed positions. So closed positions was the way to go against Morphy.

    If you have not read “The Amateur’s Mind” by Jeremy Silman I would suggest you to read the book as soon as possible. For me it’s one of the basic books to start with. And why not continue with his “How to Reassess Your Chess”. Also the book “Chess Training Pocket Book” by Lev Alburt. And it’s never wrong to read something from John Nunn, like “Secrets of Practical Chess”. Nigel Davies writes also very good. I like his “The Rules of Winning Chess”. And when you are ready for the heavy guy you have to read Mark Dvoretsky. Say also hello to his friend Artur Yusupov. Have you already studied endgame books/dvd? I only say: Karsten Müller… Well, after those books you have an impressive chess understanding! And you will find out GM moves in the opening, the middlegame and the endgame!

    Good luck!

  2. Presuming you have one opening for white (1.e4),why not have only one as black?
    I believe (not sure though)there are books on 1…g6,b6,c6,Nc6& maybe Nf6. Just a thought.

    Ultimately you have to play what you feel you know best. Good luck.

    1. Hi Steven,

      I think that kind of ‘universal system’ can be useful for people who don’t want to spend a lot of time studying chess, but I don’t think it’s a good way to try for an opening advantage at higher levels, so it’s probably not the best approach for me.


  3. About playing main lines instead of sidelines, Khalifman stated that it was the best choice, because you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. On the other hand, the spanish can lead to more various types of positions than what you can get with the Two knights or Giuco Piano or Scotch. Playing against Marshall/Open/Schliemann is very different from Berlin/Breyer/Zaitsev, and if you want to learn them all then you’ll have to reconsider the time devoted to openings, as opposed to general knowledge, tactics, endings and so on. You also have to consider what kind of middlegame you’re comfortable with. Closed center with attacks on the wings? Open play with many pawns exchanged? Balanced play? Attack/counterattack play? Then you can try and choose openings that lead to this kind of position. With black pieced you also have to know what you aim for. Active but risky? Safe and unambitious?

    Tough decisions, and you’re right to take the time to think about it. Maybe if you have some coach that knows you well and also knows what is chess at GM level (weren’t you taking privates with a Damian Lemos guy?), it would be a good idea to ask him.

  4. I would say main lines, for sure. Going for sidelines works great until you start playing guys that are not scared of your Fantasy Variation(s). Eventually you will have to switch to main lines, and to be honest the only reason I can imagine to avoid them are fear of losing rating points and having to put extra time studying. I think both are things you should be able to deal with in this journey of yours 🙂

    Oh, and a personal suggestion: keep your repertoire flexible. Different kinds of positions (closed ones, open ones, kings on opposite sides, etc) will mean having a wider knowledge of the middlegame, and give you the chance to adapt your style depending on who are you facing, your mood or any other random reason. I spent months studying the Dragon and even if my performance with it was remarkably good, sometimes I just didn’t feel like mating or getting mated.

    I find the Breyer suprisingly pleasing from an aesthetic point of view, by the way 😛

  5. I would suggest that playing the Spanish as white fits in with playing the Marshall as black. Precise statistics may vary with the level of player, but when you play 7 .. 0-0, you will see 8 a4, 8 d4, 8 d3 and particularly 8 h3 more often than 8 c3. It depends how you play it from there, but slow positional play is often the order of the day. The nice thing about playing Spanish positions with white is that you can retain an edge without appearing to do very much.

  6. Bobby Fischer played the spanish! btw today’s his birthday!

    Will perhaps there’s a current player you could model yourself after or something like that. Just a thought.

  7. I think you need a little bit more options into your repertoire.

    Opening all your games with e4.
    Only one line against e5, one sideline against c6 and so on…

    Only one defence against e4.

    That seems too narrow to me when aiming to the GM title.

  8. Hi Will, an interesting post especially considering the stiff challenge you’ve taken on. In general, I agree with the sentiments that following main line positions makes more sense. They are main lines for a reason. However, particularly with your university workload some realism has to come into play. Kaufmann wrote Chess Advantage in Black and White advocating Michael Adams’s approach. That is, playing good sound opening but maybe the second or third choice from an absolute best or most popular point of view. He justified this by comparing results with e.g. Nf3 / d4 against the Sicilian versus Bb5, then comparing the amount of work necessary to play each. often there are only one or two percentage points difference in the results obtained but a factor of 5 or 10 in the amount of work to do.
    Sticking to 1.e4 as White can’t be wrong, building on your experience so far. The Ruy Lopez is very popular with top class players but the theory is vast. Would the Scotch be more manageable ? It is still theoretically approved, has more bite than 3.Bc4 and may be more economical in terms of up-keep.
    Answering 1.e4 with e5 is very sound. Probably at least some period playing this is essential for all players. I played the Archangel for a number of years. I shouldn’t worry about it not being played at the very top. I think these things are often fashion. The advantage is that sidelines are already known to you. You could an an alternate line, the Marshall, Chigorin or even the Open. Building incrementally on your current knowledge is important. While the Marshall is popular with the stars at present, something like the Open is out of favour and may be a fertile ground where your opponents are less familiar. Unfortunately, there is not a recent high quality book on which to base your exploration.
    Ultimately you will need a second choice. However, quality of knowledge should override the breadth. Options after 1.e4 e5 soundly understood will serve better than three different answers to 1.e4 only partially grasped. If possible maintain 1.e4 e5 when you choose another choice. My preference is for the Caro Kann, the choice is mostly personal. My only proviso would be to avoid the most theoretical choices like the Najdorf or Sveshnikov. I don’t know how anybody can feel comfortable with the rate of advances in these lines.
    The Tarrasch French is one of my favourite lines, especially now that I play lines based on Ngf3 (Korchnoi Gambit etc.), rather than ed. These score very well. One indication is considering playing the French as Black, I cannot think of a line I could face playing against the Tarrasch !
    White against the Caro, the Fantasy is okay. Smyslov played it so it can’t be positionally bad. In the end maybe a switch to the Short Advance will be necessary. In the Nc3 lines, Bf5 is very tough to get much against.
    Good luck in your quest !

  9. If the issue is maintaining a balance between learning theory and winning games now, then maybe you could find a couple temporary repertoire adjustments that would let you migrate gradually in a Lopez direction. Learn and play the main lines against the Berlin/Steintz/Schliemann/whatever else you get after 3.Bb5 (I heard there was a Kaissiber article on 3…a5) but after 3…a6, chop the knight. No need to learn the Open*, Closed, Archangelsk or anything else, yet. Once you’re happy with your responses to all the above, take another couple steps down the line: 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O, leaving yourself open to the, uh, Open, and the Archangelsk and …Bc5, but meet …Be7 with 6.Bxc6 to eliminate all the Closed lines until you’re ready for them.

    *OK, there is …Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 a6 6.Ba4 b5. But no-one knows that.

  10. Paradoxically, if you want to play 1.e4 but aren’t too fussed about learning theory, the Ruy Lopez is arguably the way to go. Why? Because it’s relatively resistant to error: make a bad move in a Ruy Lopez and you’ve given black a slight advantage, make a bad move in a 4…Nf6 Scotch and you’ve given black a win by move 20.

  11. Why not try Correspondence Chess to improve your game? Forget all the rubbish talked about with computers in CC – there are more draws now but the better players still win the games. If you approach CC properly your opening knowledge will certainly improve as will your endgame play. You will be playing chess every day, entirely by Server if you wish. When Boris Spassky was asked how players could improve, his immediate answer was “play CC!”. One last thing – all the ICCF Titles are recognised by FIDE so you will have another route to becoming a GM!

    1. Interesting point made by Neil…would a ICCF GM title be recognised by William Hill?
      If it is…..WILL !…you need to join BCCA now !

  12. After reading this post, i thought of a good opening for you…Namely, The BongCloud opening (Or Bongo cloud opening, as some Rastas call it).

    Botvinnik, Alekhine,Tal, the 3 K’s…Even Fischer took it on, though he gave up on chess before playing it at top level.

    Mind you, no refutation is known against it.

    So, i just thought you would improve your chess knowledge at least by reading this Article and getting to hear about it, even if it is not to your liking, in the end.

    Here is a theoretical article on it…

    Hope you enjoy reading it as much as i did…
    Bless and the best for you
    Ras B

  13. Did u like the funny bit? Sorry, but had to let you know about it~9 in case you didnt) the same way i found out about it…Because thats what makes it funny !! At least i thought it so !
    Hope all is well your way !

  14. After 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. c3 Nf6 5. d3 d6 6. Bb3——I have found this opening to contain more poison than its’ first impression reveals. GM Sergei Tiviakov plays this line; Kramnik played it on occasion and Kasparov plays it in simuls from time to time. You’re playing chess and not memorizing hundreds of variations. The line can also be entered with 2. Bc4 to avoid the Petroff.

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