Openings for the Practical Player
Kasparov’s blitz comeback prompted me to think about how chess openings have changed since he retired 11 years ago. I grew up with Kasparov as my idol in the 1980s and 1990s and I adopted his general game strategy – with white obtain an advantage thanks to superior opening preparation in the main lines and then proceed to win (actually the same strategy was employed by Fischer, my other idol); with black go for sharp openings and try to take over the initiative thanks to superior opening preparation in the main lines (of Najdorf and King’s Indian mainly). Obviously the “proceed to win” was the more problematic issue for me, as generally I managed to fullfil the first part of the plan.
This general opening strategy worked until Kasparov lost to Kramnik in 2000. The reason was the emergence of the Berlin endgame – all the hard work into the (semi-)forced main lines was made irrelevant in the mud of the Berlin endgame. The beginning of the new millenium also saw the incredible rise of the chess engines – they became so strong that soon enough it was useless to try and play against them (the last human-computer match on equal terms was Kramnik’s 4-2 loss to Fritz in 2006). This levelled the field, now everyone could have deep and profound analysis in the opening and Kasparov’s opening advantage over his opponents was gone. The new generation was coming, Kasparov wasn’t getting any younger, the game required even more energy and there were other interests in his life – all this culminated in 2005 when he officially said his goodbye.
The powerful hardware and software changed opening theory. If before some lines could be evaluated as “unclear” on move 20, now they were analysed to a definite assessment until move 40 or beyond. The Najdorf is now filled with immesurable number of drawing lines and endless computer games that end in forced (!) draws on move 30, 40 or 50. The once popular Sveshnikov Sicilian, offering fantastic counter-attacking chances to black, is nowadays rarely played because most main lines lead to a draw and white discovered that playing 11 c4 (after 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 cd 4 Nd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 e5 6 Ndb5 d6 7 Bg5 a6 8 Na3 b5 9 Nd5 Be7 10 Bf6 Bf6) he can obtain a solid and risk-free position with a tiny edge – definitely not what the Sveshnikov players want. And these are only two examples from the many drastic changes in various lines. This set a new problems for the chess professionals – how to memorise all that theory? But they are chess professionals, they have the best hardware and software available, they can hire coaches and seconds to work for them, they can have sparring partners to practice and try to remember all those lines, they have all the time in the world to devote to this. And what about the practical player, the one who, apart from the software, which is widely available, doesn’t have all those resources?
I happen to be that kind of practical player with such practical problems. I play less nowadays, mostly because of the ongoing trend of worsening conditions in the open tournaments, but this gives me more time to think about these issues, the main one being the memorisation of my analysis. I have always been very well prepared and whomever I played (including guys rated 2650+) I rarely had opening problems. I played main lines, Najdorf and all, with ideas and analysis of my own and I fared well. With time my files were expanding and lack of practice makes it more difficult to remember all that’s inside (when you play often during your preparations you revise all those lines, which makes it easier to remember, repetitio est mater studiorum!).
One night as I was lying in bed I started to think what to do about this problem. I started thinking for black. I realised that the main problem is the choice we give to our opponent: if he has a choice of many main lines, then that’s not so practical (if the choice is of secondary lines, then it’s not a problem as they can be dealt with more easily). So, for example the Najdorf Sicilian is not very practical: white can play 3 Bb5 (made popular by Carlsen and nowadays no less a main line than the traditional ones), he can take 4 Qd4, and then he has more or less all the 6th moves at his disposal as they have all become main lines! The other Sicilians are not much better, there is the Rossolimo again on the way to the main lines, plus the main lines. Perhaps there is some merit in 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 (3 Bb5 needs to be studied as well) cd 4 Nd4 Qb6 as it cuts down white’s options. Against 1 e4 the French doesn’t seem practical, all three main lines, 3 e5, 3 Nd2 and 3 Nc3 are critical. The Caro-Kann, 3 e5 is huge today, while also 3 Nc3 (or 3 Nd2) is doing fine, while 2 Nc3 d5 3 Nf3 has also become popular. The Spanish is better from a practical perspective, especially if 3…Nf6 is played – there are many side-lines leading to it (Vienna, King’s Gambit…), plus the Italian Giuoco Piano (pretty popular lately) and the Scotch (Kasparov’s choice in the blitz), but these can be dealt with. Going for the main lines with 3…a6 gives white too much choice of opening plans, hence it’s not very practical. Playing 3…Nf6 you scare white with the notorious Berlin, so white has only 2 main options – to play 4 d3 and avoid it, or play 4 0-0 and enter it. That’s already an achievement, white’s options have been heavily restricted. The Petroff can also be an interesting choice (mind you, I speak here of practicality, not of “playing for a win” or other issues) as white is lured immediately on black’s territory, with the main line nowadays being the not forcing 3 Ne5 d6 4 Nf3 Ne4 5 Nc3. The Pirc/Modern is not really an option, white has way too many plans at his disposal, while the Alekhine is somewhat dubious in the main lines with 4 Nf3. The conclusion is that it’s important to bring white to our territory as early as possible.
Against 1 d4 there are some openings, like the Grunfeld and King’s Indian, that aren’t very practical – they allow white way too much choice, even though the Grunfeld is at the moment perhaps the best opening for black against 1 d4. But the lines there are so complex and forcing, it’s a maze! The Nimzo-Indian also allows too much choice, but lines are less forcing there than in the Grunfeld, so that’s a plus. The various Slavs used to be good, but lately white added sacrificial lines with g3 in their arsenal, making it more difficult to remember. The Queen’s Gambit seems a good choice, especially the Accepted. White has 3 main options after it, 3 e4, 3 Nf3 and 3 e3, but against all of them black is the one that chooses the system he prefers to play. Another interesting idea is Mamedyarov’s 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c5, which looks dubious, but is probably impossible to refute.
Thinking about white the problems are somewhat different. I have always strived to put pressure with white, to try to achieve an advantage, but that is elusive nowadays, especially against a well-prepared opponent. I believe that the main lines should still be played, the chance to put pressure are higher there. But then there’s the memorisation problem… Luckily, new main lines emerged, especially in the Sicilian. Here we have the Rossolimo after 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5, the check on b5 if black wants to play the Najdorf or Dragon, or the quirky 3 g3 (or 3 b3, as Kasparov played in the blitz against So) after 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 e6. All these were made popular mainly by Carlsen, the man who epitomizes the practical approach to the openings today. The other openings are easier to cover as it is mostly white who gets to choose which line to play: any main line in the French, Caro-Kann, Pirc/Modern and for example lines with d3 in the Spanish and there you go – your repertoire is set. No forcing main lines yet still main lines that with sufficient work can pose problems in the opening. I mainly discussed 1 e4 for white here, but it is possible to do the same after 1 d4 – white gets to choose which lines to play in the Grunfeld, King’s Indian, Nimzo or Queen’s Indian. The third option, 1 c4 or 1 Nf3 has become popular today (a lot of 1 c4 in the Candidates) but there it is black who chooses the system, so more work is required. And of course white can play Nf3, g3, Bg2, 0-0, d3 and then depending on circumstances, but this doesn’t fit in with my understanding of how the opening should be played. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid opening strategy!
It actually took me several nights to figure all these things out, but once I did it I was content. It is still possible to play the opening with an advantage in mind, you only need to adjust the means a bit. If in Kasparov’s era we tried to bust black in the opening, in Carlsen’s era putting even a small pressure is considered an achivement. How chess evolved!