25 September 2011

Openings Selection: Initial Considerations

Having recently started studying a new opening, I think it's worth spending some time looking at what factors go into selecting and then learning openings.  I discuss the evolution of an openings repertoire for experienced players in a companion post, which I think is a rather different animal than the process faced in choosing one's initial opening weapons, so it deserves its own discussion.  Here I'd like to focus on the first steps faced by all of us as players, partly to provide a background on my own choices and also to help set the scene for how this affects opening system choices later on in our chess careers.

Although it's somewhat arbitrary, I'll define the initial process of openings selection as lasting until a player settles on the major system(s) as White for the first move, along with Black defenses to 1. e4 and 1. d4, that they will have in their permanent career repertoire.  The above definition I think is generally a practical one, since it covers the essential decisions and challenges that every tournament-level player must face on a regular basis in the opening phase of the game.  For me, this initial process lasted around a year.

When first learning chess in a systematic way, I tried out a number of different openings in informal games.  In general, this is a great way to gain practical experience with the different systems' ideas and key positions, while also developing a gut feeling about which openings best suit you as a player.  Now that good chess software is easily found, it is easy to test drive different openings with a willing silicon opponent, although I think the feedback you can get from a human opponent is very worthwhile, as long as you take their own biases into account.  With the internet, it's also easy to find basic surveys of the various openings, to know what to try out.  However, I think there's still something to be said for owning a comprehensive reference such as Modern Chess Openings (MCO) in order to be able to know what is out there and see the basic descriptions for all of the different openings, along with suggested variations.

As White, I initially opened with 1. e4 and after some experimentation chose suitable variations against the major Black defenses, playing the Exchange Ruy Lopez and Closed Sicilian in tournament play.  Before that I had informally tried out the main Ruy Lopez lines and the Open Sicilian, but the complexity was at that point beyond my capabilities and inclinations.  I recall being somewhat puzzled by the 1. d4 suite of openings and was never really attracted to them as White.  The Reti (1. Nf3) was neat to try, but at the time I didn't really understand what White was supposed to do in it.  (So that you have a frame of reference for my chess ability at the time, my first rating obtained in tournament play was in the low Class C range.)

As Black, I looked at a range of possibilities, especially for defenses to 1. e4.  Informally, I played the Sicilian Najdorf, Alekhine, Closed Ruy Lopez, and French a great deal.  After some time, however, I gravitated towards the Caro-Kann, after having a serious go at the French.  It seemed to be similarly solid but without the drawbacks of the shut-in light-squared bishop and occasionally bare kingside.  As far as defenses to 1. d4 went, although I dabbled some with the King's Indian, I settled on the Slav as another solid choice.  Although the b7-c6-d5 pawn chain is a shared feature with the Caro-Kann, the positions arising from the two openings really aren't very similar, so the pairing doesn't save you much study time, unlike what you can achieve by playing the Modern (1..g6) or other very flexible openings that can be used against both 1. e4 and 1. d4.  As a small bonus, however, the openings selection did mean that I never had to fear the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit (1. d4 d5 2. e4) since I could just transpose to a Caro-Kann with 2..c6.

While my openings selection as Black held up to the test of tournament play during my first year, I wasn't nearly as satisfied with my results with 1. e4.  Essentially, I had discovered as Black that I played best and was most comfortable in semi-open positions.  While the variations I had chosen as White also largely reflected this, I felt that I did not grasp their ideas at a fundamental level, plus my opponents were all obviously well-prepared (or at least better prepared) to meet 1. e4 as the most common opening choice.  At this point I discovered IM Nigel Povah's How to Play the English Opening - a 119-page book published in 1983 - and decided to try it out.  The opening concepts were explained in detail (or as much as a short book could contain), complete games were provided and the positions were new and interesting to me.  I chose variations that I liked and after a few months of preparation permanently switched to 1. c4 as White.

There's a good deal of free advice out there on what openings are "best" to play, but I think it really boils down to whatever works for you as a player.  (I have a similar view of approaches to chess training in general.)  There is both a practical and an aesthetic dimension to this.  The first one is easy to understand - if you regularly end up in losing or inferior positions out of the opening against players of comparable strength, then your openings are not doing the job of keeping you alive on the chessboard.  Regarding aesthetics, if you don't have a genuine liking of the opening positions, or find your openings dull or incomprehensible, regardless of your results with them, they probably won't be a good permanent match for you. 

Taking that a step further, I think it is ultimately preferable to buckle down and master an opening that you are genuinely attracted to, although you may be having sub-par results with it, rather than try to convince yourself that a boring opening with good practical results is in reality fun to play.  (People's definitions of boring will vary widely; I think my opening repertoire is fascinating, I'm sure others would fall asleep looking at it.) 

Finally, let's not forget that last part about fun, because unless you're a chess professional, fun has to be a component of the chess experience, otherwise it's just work.  Chess improvement by definition requires work, but it should be the kind that leaves you with a smile at the end of it.

5 comments:

  1. Regarding aesthetics, if you don't have a genuine liking of the opening positions, or find your openings dull or incomprehensible, regardless of your results with them, they probably won't be a good permanent match for you.

    Excellent point. I remember after a year or so of serious play I began playing the French on Portisch's recommendation in the book How to Open a Chess Game. After about six games I dropped it, because of aesthetic considerations. It took me some time to realize that was much happier in positions with some open lines.

    I think your point that there is no "best" opening(s) is a good one, finding what works for the individual is key. However, IMHO if you play something like 1. b4 every single game you may be stunting your growth as a player to a certain extent.

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  2. Fascinating view on your approach as your repertoire is very similar to mine. I play the Caro Kann, Dutch and e4. However, I have recently started experimenting with the English to have an alternative.
    Can you comment on whether you think a period of 1.e4 e5 as Black is essential ? I eventually resolved to play e5 and wished I had done earlier. I progressed to the Sicilian for five years, went back to e5 for four and on to the Caro Kann. I would now play e5 as an alternative.
    Against d4, I originally settled on the K.I.D. mainly due to its universality. While having enjoyed it for eight seasons, I switched to d5 again through feeling I needed the education of playing those types of positions. Is d4 d5 essential experience ? I now play the Dutch, again universal but would like to add either d5, or the N.I.D / Q.I.D. as an alternative.

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  3. @Warheit - Good point. I think it's interesting to see the different possible paths people can take with openings selection, especially the dilemma posed by learning offbeat (at best) openings that work at a certain level, but don't meet the test of stronger opposition. I plan to address that specifically in the next post on evolving a repertoire.

    @laramonet - I tend to think studying different types of positions and openings, especially through master games, is essential - especially the common e4/e5 and d4/d5 openings. I don't think actually having those openings in your personal repertoire is absolutely necessary, although it may be useful to do at least at some point. Over the years I've lost my bias of only looking at master and GM games in my particular openings and have learned a great deal more from them as a result. Fundamental position-types (isolated queen pawn, hanging pawns, fianchettoed bishops defending the king position) have a way of occurring across different openings and I think "classical" openings often showcase fundamental principles in a clearer way than others.

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  4. This is a good article containing some sound advice for beginners on selecting your opening repertoire. From personal experience I would like to offer two brief points I have found useful.

    First of all, when trying out a new opening I like to play it in blitz games on line to build up an appreciation of the tactics and strategic ideas before employing the opening over the board.

    Second of all, I've also found it really useful to play my openings in thematic tournaments on correspondence sites such as Redhotpawn or Chess.com. This has the advantage of guaranteeing games in the lines you want to play and will enable you to test yourself against a range of player strengths. In some openings your opening knowledge will be tested very deeply in these lines.

    For the record I play 1.e4 with White (very occasionally I play 1.d4) and with Black I began by playing the Sicilian Dragon against 1.e4 but nowadays I play 1...e5 more often than not although I've also ventured the Sicilian Sveshnikov. Against 1.d4 I've had great success with the Budapest Gambit and have also dabbled with the Semi-Slav.

    Top blogging Chess Admin! It's great to see some colleagues bashing out good quality posts on a frequent basis.

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  5. Thanks for the comment and for the tips on where to go to get some intensive experience on your chosen openings. I'm not a big fan of blitz personally, so it's good to see the mention of the thematic tournaments as a useful alternative.

    Having said that about blitz, I think setting up an intermediate-strength computer opponent and playing a bunch of relatively quick games with it with the same opening start position is probably a good learning device.

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