Saturday, 10 November 2012

Improvement in chess - The Openings, Part one

The articles about chess openings are something that are the most common sort of articles on the Internet especially if there is a very specific subject (some variation or opening).
What I would try to do is to write an article which will explain the openings from different point of view.
I will try to point out the most important factors in process of learning the openings, improving our play in the openings, building a repertoire and preparing for the tournaments and games.
What needs to be clarified in the very beginning is that we need to notice a difference between the level of knowledge of openings theory and the level of play in the openings.
What I mean with this is that is very common thing to see that some player has an extraordinary knowledge of opening´s variations but constantly gets bad positions around move 15 or 20.
How is that possible?
Well, Chess is the game in which we are making our moves from the beginning, and we who play and study chess divided a chess game in some logical parts which are the opening, the middlegame and the endgame.
It means that the opening has the rules which has to be followed and considered.
To get playable position (from which the better player should win the game) around move 15, you don´t need the knowledge of opening theory.
A common sense and a good level of the opening (and not just the opening) play should be enough.
The theory is just a usefull tool.
So why are we constantly learning the new openings and trying to memorise all this theory?
Well, to get playable position is not enough in tournament chess.
When playing with White pieces, we are trying to put as much pressure on our opponent as possible.
There are different approaches to this.
For some players to put as much pressure as possible means to play very forcing lines in which you need to memorise everything in order to not lose immediately.
Some players are satisfied with a small, but long-term advantage hoping that their opponents would eventually crack under the continuous pressure.
When playing black, we have in principle, three approaches.

The first is to get complicated, unclear (it can be objectively even little worse) position in which we can try to outplay our opponent (many variations in The Sicilian Defence).

The second approach is to try to play solidly and play for equality.
If we are trying to explain this approach with practical example than The Brayer variation in Spanish (Ruy Lopez) or some variations in Queens Gambit Declined can be the best example.

The third approach can be considered as a variation of second approach, but because of the great practical value I consider it like independent approach.
It is the approach when we are taking the slightly worse position on purpose, counting on wide drawing margin of chess.
It is very common in the openings like Berlin Wall, or The Russian Defence (Petroff).
Kramnik described Berlin Wall as "White is slightly better, a bit more better later on, than clearly better and eventually game is a draw" (something like that).

So, we have to decide on our approach and try to build the opening repertoire.
This is a point when almost every amateur fails.
If we considered that the opening theory is in the big part inflicted by the right concepts in opening play, which can result that even a player who´s level of play is not so good can play equally good moves in the beginning of chess game, then knowledge of opening theory can neutralise the difference between two players in the opening phase of the game.
Still, there are a rare cases when an amateur gets equality with black around move 20, or advantage with white around move 15-20.
Why is that?
Despite the knowledge of opening theory, their repertoires were not made equally good as the repertoires of title players.
We can use a statistic to prove the point on one example.
Let´s imagine a player who plays Sicilian Najdorf against 1.e4.
If he plays around 50 games in one year (which is quite a big number for amateur player) than we know that he will play around 25 games with white and the same number games with black pieces.
Out of his 25 black games, he will play 13 (or 12) games against 1.e4 (we can consider here that 1.d4 , 1.Nf3 , 1.c4 and others are all together equally played as 1.e4 on the level under 2300) and in all of these 13 games he will play 1...c5.
Now, if we look at the main inroductory position of his repertoire after 1.e4, which is:

1. e4,c5
2. Nf3,d6
3. d4,cxd4
4. Nxd4,Nf6
5. Nc3,a6

we will find out that he will not play 13 games in this position.
Not even 10, the most probably just 5 games will reach this position.
If we consider that our imaginary player will play only 30 games per year, than he will play just two or three games in his pet variation.
Even these games that will reach the mentioned position, will not follow the theory that our player can expect.
Many players would play The Closed Sicilian with 2. Nc3 and some of them would play 2. c3 Alapin variation.
Some of them could play King´s Indian Attack, and some of them could go for 3. Bb5+.
That means that the lines which are not considered the main lines are equally important.
Of course, it is delusional to think that it is possible to predict everything in every single game up to move 20, but we should know what to do conceptually on every opening system.
During the 2010 and 2011 I had very successful period against lower rated opponents (and some higher rated as well) playing the combination of KIA, The Closed Sicilian and The Clamp against 1...c5.
Of course, these inferior lines are not called inferior without reason, but we have to know the reason!
The other thing is the structure of the opening repertoire.
I have seen the players which have very good opening knowledge of some lines, but there are no clear plan when and how they will get these lines in their games.
There are the big holes on the way to the main line, and there are many not analysed alternatives.
It is very common that a player can blitz out many main lines from different openings, while there are no knowledge on sub-variations.
I will not disccus about that how good is understanding behind every played move, as it is reflected in the middlegame and while both players can actually make the same move (based on knowledge, not understanding) there is no practical difference from the point of view of chess openings.
In the second part of this article I will explain on practical examples some concepts of building the opening repertoire and the ideas behind the good opening preparation.
Before I finish the first part of this article I shall tell you a story that is already five years old (and is not a fairytale).
When I moved to Sweden in August 2007, I played some tournaments in Scania.
One of them was Mragel Open, which I won with 4,5 out of 5.
In the first round I played against one Swedish player rated about 1700-1800 in local rating (which is usually 100 points overrated compared to Elo).
I played The Scotch and we reached this position:

I was amazed how player that is rated so low can play so many theoretical moves. If his answer against 1.e4 is 1...e5 than he needs to build the repertoire mainly in Spanish opening, but of course he needs to know details in many gambits and openings like Scotch.
All right, here I played:

18. f4

which is not as common as 18. Nc3, but this never confused him and he played according to theory.
What happened next  is very typical. He just exchanged one rook which is the right strategy when playing with a rook against two pieces (he knew this because he read it in a book or article where he found explanation on this endgame), but his pawns were fixed and after improving a position of my king I won easily. He knows the right concept (exchange the pair of rooks) but he does not understand it.
The same autumn I won LASK Open with 7,5 out of 9, and after the tournament we played the blitz tournament where the players from all four groups took participation.
I played against the same opponent.
Against my 1.e4 he answered 1...c5.
All right, The Sicilian.
He played The Najdorf variation and I played my favorite variation against it, Fischer-Sozin.
He played very long theoretical variation which I could not remember and he got winning position, just to blunder something couple of moves later.
Well, Sozin is not the common weapon against Najdorf, and if he knew the details of Sozin he should know almost everything in the main lines.
And, we played The Sicilian!
His opening knowledge is outstanding (considered his level of play) but instead of building two big, separate repertoires against 1.e4 he should spend some time of improving his level of play in the all phases of a game.
I never got a chance to test him in the odd openings like The Clamp and so on just to test if his opening´s knowledge is big only in the main lines or everywhere.

To be continued....

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