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How to Improve at Chess – Part 5

Today we come to the tip that quite a few people won’t want to hear (and I’m sure a few will argue vehemently against)…

I was a pretty “hot and heavy” tournament player for about six years (before “real life” concerns, such as fatherhood, caused me to cut back on my chess tournament participation); during that time I had quite a few strange experiences both at and away from the board. Here’s the abridged version of one of them.

I played in a weekend tournament in 1993 in which the Saturday night round paired me against a teenager, a youngster who had succeeded in annoying a fair number of tournament participants with his rude behavior; I won’t embarass the guy by giving his name here. The game started in the following manner (with yours truly playing White):

1.e4 e6 (A French Defense, nothing strange here) 2.d4 c5 3.Nf3

Position after 3.Nf3

We’ll end the narrative here (there’s a lot more to the story, but I said this would be the abridged version) other than to  mention that I went on to win. But take a close look at the position; it should look familiar to many tournament chessplayers.

In the game’s post mortem, the kid looked at me and said in all seriousness, “When you played 3.Nf3 it took me out of ‘book'” (for readers who don’t know, this is “chess talk” for “You played an opening move I didn’t recognize”).

I was flabbergasted. “Whaaaaaaaaat?”

He pulled out a battered, cheaply-printed booklet, titled something like Winning with the… followed by the name of some obscure variation of which I’d never heard. “That weird Knight move isn’t covered in this book.”

“‘Weird knight move’? Kid, that’s the Sicilian Defense — we just ‘backed into it’ by a different move order.”

“Yeah, whatever — it wasn’t in my book so I didn’t know what to play.”

It’s been seventeen years and I’m still blown away by this. What tournament chessplayer doesn’t know the Sicilian? But this youngster was so concerned with learning everything there was to know about his “pet” oddball variation that he had no idea what to play when faced with a very standard chess opening (statistically about 25% of tournament games which start with 1.e4 are answered by 1…c5, the Sicilian Defense).

Chessplayers, by and large, are just wild about the opening. Books, videos, and DVDs about the chess opening outsell works about all other facets of chess combined.

But the strange part is that very few games are “won in the opening”. I’ve been playing chess since early childhood (which means I’m approaching a half-century’s worth of chess experience) and, aside from correspondence games (which are a different animal), I can count on two hands the number of casual and tournament games I’ve won due to outplaying an opponent in the opening — and I’ll still have fingers left over.

Thus we come to Tip #5:

5. Don’t devote many, many long hours to studying chess openings

A lot of players don’t want to hear that. It seems to be a lot easier for people to memorize lots of opening variations than it is for people to learn, understand, and apply the basic principles behind their preferred openings — in other words, they memorize the “what” and “when” (or, more precisely, the “what and in which order”) and neglect the “why”. In such cases it’s easy to end up like my opponent in the aforementioned game. I don’t know how many hours he spent memorizing the variations in that cheap mimeographed opening monograph he showed me, but if he’d spent a mere fraction of that time learning just the basic ideas behind the French, the Sicilian, the Caro-Kann, and the Alekhine (for example), he could easily have steered the game into an opening he wanted to play and, furthermore, had an understanding of the opening’s principles so he’d know what to do in the event someone like me chose to play “something weird”.

The sad fact of the matter is that most amateur games don’t last more than eight or so moves into “book”, meaning that somewhere around eight or nine moves into the game one player will make a move which isn’t an established part of opening theory (i.e. a move which isn’t “in the books” and thus hasn’t been memorized by the opponent). When that happens it’s much more useful to have a grasp of the basic ideas behind the opening you’re playing than to have lots of variations memorized with no real understanding of their purpose. Why does Black play 1…c6 to start the Caro-Kann Defense? What’s he trying to accomplish? When Black plays the Queen’s Gambit, what are the differences between White accepting the gambit or declining it? What kind of middlegame strategy does White hope to follow if he takes the offered pawn? The answers to questions such as these are, in the long haul, much more useful to you than gobs of poorly-understood variations which are just memorized by rote.

Mind you, I’m not advocating that you totally avoid studying openings. You absolutely should understand the general principles which apply to all openings (rapid development, King safety, etc.). And you should likewise understand the basic underlying principles behind the openings you prefer — for example, if you always play 1…e6 in response to 1.e4, you absolutely should know what Black is trying to achieve in the opening when he plays the French Defense, and what kinds of pawn structures and middlegames arise from it. It doesn’t hurt to have a small number of basic, common variations committed to memory in the openings you play — for example, if you play the Caro-Kann Defense you should know at least one basic variation each in the Classical, Advance, Panov, etc. variations. But it’s always more important to understand the “why” of each variation; if your opponent deviates and plays “something weird” you’ve not seen before, you’ll understand why it’s a strange (or even a weak) move and be able to easily meet and counter it based on your opening’s principles.

Otherwise you’ll end up shooting in the dark and not only fail to properly meet such a deviation, but possibly fail to even recognize a common opening position (as my opponent did in the above example).

5. Don’t devote many, many long hours to studying chess openings

It’s OK to study opening principles and ideas, even to memorize a few variations in your favorite openings. But for the average club-level player, tactics and endgames are the areas which deserve hours of study. You won’t need to spend hours and hours memorizing and analyzing specific opening lines until you become a Class A (1800 Elo USCF) or Expert (2000 Elo USCF) player, most likely the latter.

For the average player, ChessCentral recommends a general overview of the chess openings. In print form, we recommend Discovering Chess Openings by John Emms. For an electronic (computer) book, we suggest ABC of Chess Openings by Gary Gauthier.

Have fun! — Steve

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2 Responses

  1. you say:

    ‘I’ve been playing chess since early childhood (which means I’m approaching a half-century’s worth of chess experience) and, aside from correspondence games (which are a different animal), I can count on two hands the number of casual and tournament games I’ve won due to outplaying an opponent in the opening — and I’ll still have fingers left over.’

    ok. my question is: will you write a series for players of the different animal – which i believe that you, as a ‘normal person’, like most of your readers, now principally play yourself?

  2. But to your major point: mechanically, brainlessly [like a computer ! ? ] memorizing sequences of moves, most, if not none of which will be played, surely misses the heart of chess.
    But if you stretch that point, as Emms does in his excellent book on the principles and meaning of ‘opening moves’ and such as do such series as ‘ Surprising Openings . . .’ and ‘Tactics in the Openings . . .’, you not only avoid throwing the baby out with the bath, you make the opening moves instructional and useful tactically [and perhaps positionally as well] and extend their reach towards the middle game.
    Obviously, as well, players are fantasizing ‘magic bullets’ which might bring victory [or at least a draw . . . or even only minimal embarrassment] or a glorious and purely luck-determined victory before the possibilities in front of them them on the sixty-four square field have expanded exponentially beyond the very number of stars in our ken!

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