How to Win Opens

Except for the elite, the rest of us are confined to playing in open tournaments. So it is natural to ask yourself the above question, especially if you have some healthy ambition to win and improve.

Many years ago, when starting my extensive participation in opens, I figured out a very useful rule of thumb: in a 9-round swiss, only 10% of the participants (or less) will score +4. For example, in a 100-player open tournament, a result of 6.5/9 practically guarantees you a place in the top 10. This is very useful when trying to figure out at the beginning of the tournament how many points you would need in order to get a prize.

Bearing in mind my rule of thumb, a mathematical answer to the question in the title would be +5 (7/9) or +6 (7.5/9), which in the vast majority of cases should give you the winner’s trophy. However, apart from good chess, which goes without saying, there are other factors that contribute to the overall victory.

In the mid-90s, when I started to play in open tournaments around Europe, the undisputed king of the circuit was the Russian GM Oleg Korneev. He dispatched me with ease when I played him for the first time in Sitges in Spain in 1996. He was a 1 e4 player, playing all the main lines against everything, and with black he played the Open Spanish against 1 e4 and the Semi-Slav against 1 d4. A very active player with excellent technique and great self-confidence, he would even go to tournaments two days late, starting with 0/2, then go on to win the rest of the games and win the tournament! In those days he didn’t have a permanent place to stay so he travelled from tournament to tournament and winning almost all of them! I was amazed at his ability to keep on playing without rest, practically throughout the whole year.

At the beginning of the 00s, I was in the migrating group of players travelling from one tournament to the other together with the Bulgarian GM Alexander Delchev. He had an amazing run of open victories in this period – having just met his current wife in the summer of 2000, he was playing with great enthusiasm and power. He played 1 c4 with white (basing his repertoire on Tony Kosten’s book on the English – The Dynamic English, published in 1999) and with black the Taimanov Sicilian against 1 e4 (basing it on the Burgess’s book with the same name from 2000). In 2001 he also qualified for the World Championship (which was a knock-out at that time) from the Individual European Championship in Ohrid and his rating went well beyond 2600.

In the late 00s and in the past few years there is another GM that’s quite successful in the open circuit and I played him in 2012 in Le Touquet, France, in the decisive game for the tournament victory – Ukranian GM Sergey Fedorchuk. In a Nimzo-Indian I put some pressure on him with a dubious move and to my surprise he didn’t manage to find the correct way. Unfortunately I erred a few moves later and even though he gave me another unexpected chance to escape, I didn’t find it in my time-trouble and lost. As a result of this he won the tournament alone, with 7/9, while I shared 2nd place half a point behind. Fedorchuk is a player with wider repertoire, but that is a demand of modern chess. He isn’t as theoretical as the above two, his main aim is to get a game (with both colours) and then outplay his opponents (which he does quite well).

At the recently finished Karposh Open, the surprising winner was the Bulgarian GM Kiril Georgiev. I don’t say surprising because he wasn’t among the favourites, but because of his poor start. In round 1 he drew with a 2194-player, and in round 3 with a FM with 2380, while in round 5 he drew with a player with 2416 – all of these are players which he would expect to beat on a regular basis, yet he failed to do so. Only his fantastic finish of 4/4 allowed him to finish sole first with 7.5/9. Georgiev has a very high class, being among the world elite since the mid-80s, having beaten Kasparov in blitz and Karpov in rapid. And yet he failed to beat such weak (for him) players.

I’ve presented here several players whom I know personally and who have been very successful in winning open tournaments and here are my thoughts why that has been the case.

If you see these players in person, you would notice that all of them have an enormous inner energy – you could see the deep calm in their eyes and if you’re attentive, maybe even you’ll feel the energetic field that emanates from them. The “type” of energy is different for every one of them, for example Korneev is more exuberant, while Delchev is more calm and introspective. But they all do have it and it’s one of the essential conditions for successful play in open tournaments: morning rounds, tough opponents, the stress of the shortened time-contols, not to mention the days with two rounds, all this accumulates during the tournament and the only way to maintain more or less equal quality of play is to have a high level of nervous energy.

The example of Georgiev in the recent Karposh Open highlights another characteristic of the present-day opens. If in the past a GM would expect to cruise to 3/3 or 4/4 almost blindfolded, today that is not the case. The general level of play has risen to new hights and today nobody can be sure that he or she will have an easy game, not even in round 1 – a player with 2100 can put up a very strong resistance to even such a strong GM like Georgiev and such cases are quite frequent and will become even more so. With the availability of computers, books and lessons with GMs the amateurs have become so much stronger that nobody is guaranteed an easy life. Georgiev might have been surprised by this, but he also showed the correct reaction in the second half of the tournament – every game should be considered a serious one and fought to the very end, irrespective if your opponent is a GM or an amateur with a low rating. Because you never know if the amateur won’t give you a harder time than the GM! And this is the second essential ingredient for successful play in open tournaments – fighting spirit, the willingness to sit there hour after hour and pose problems (or solve them) until your opponent yields and you win the game. Even a bad start can be compensated with an unwavering fighting spirit, as Georgiev showed. Do this on a daily basis 9 days in a row (and in order to do it you’ll need the essential ingredient number 1 – energy – you’ll need even more energy if there are two rounds per day) and you’re very likely that you will win the tournament.

I have played well over 300 open tournaments in my career and have won a few. In my case, the scenario was always the same – a good start, steady and solid play against the strongest players, normally drawing them, and then a good finish to clinch it. Of course, there are many scenarios and every tournament is a different one, but a successful tournament always has a good finish. I even say that it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the first 7 games, if you win (or at least score 1.5/2) in the last two games, you will have a good tournament. My play in Reykjavik was of this kind, I couldn’t win against players rated in the region of 2300 and was feeling frustrated because of that, but then I got two whites in the last two rounds and I won them both and finished shared 11th. Not to mention that it’s a very satisfying feeling to go home with a win in the last round, no matter how it all went before that.

To sum up, if you want to be successful in the open tournaments, you will need a great amount of energy, powerful fighting spirit and a special emphasis on the final two rounds. Knowing all this, now the only other thing you need is to play good chess!

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
You may also like
Why Larsen Lost
Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy
  • Olgun ÖZDEMİR
    Apr 1,2023 at 3:19 pm

    Thanks Alex for these great articles. Can you write a few key articles on detailed daily chess training, thanks.

    • Apr 5,2023 at 10:10 am

      I think I’ve written about it somewhere, but I cannot remember where. 🙂

      Detailed training is different for everybody and what’s good for one may not be good for another. That’s why detailed training is prepared in close cooperation with the student, first trying to understand the student’s character and preferences, then needs, then ways how to implement them. It’s a very personalised process, so it’s difficult to generalise, apart from the usual, “work on your endgames, tactics, openings, in that order.”

  • Apr 18,2014 at 6:22 pm

    Thanks for your kind words, I certainly hope to continue in the same vein!

  • Anonymous
    Apr 18,2014 at 2:16 pm

    I read your articles like Agatha Christie's novels. I thank you and wish you to continue to write about these interesting themes. It is obvious that you are full of them.

Leave Your Comment

Your Comment*

Your Name*
Your Website

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.