This one is from my newsletter. Enjoy it!
Nowadays chess theory develops by the minute. New ideas appear constantly and it is difficult to follow every single one of them. But sometimes it is not necessary to do so.
The openings in chess have their cycles. A characteristic cycle of an opening is that it becomes popular as a lot of new ideas and plans appear in it; people start to play it a lot and it is analysed in great depth; in these stages it is vitally important to follow all the latest developments and novelties; after a period of this process, which depends on the complexity of the opening, the main directions and variations are crystallised and it becomes easy to determine which are the most critical lines; here already the impact of the novelties is not as strong; then the main directions are explored and if the ideas are getting exhausted the opening is slowly abandoned or other, new directions appear, usually at an earlier stage.
To be aware where a certain opening is in this cycle is very important from a practical aspect. It is not very practical to start playing an opening when it is in its first stages, when it’s not clear what the main lines are and which plans are the most promising – though it is in exactly this phase that the elite players are thriving. A typical example for this is the Giuoco Piano – there are many plans and move-orders for both players: White has plans based on Bg5, Be3, the queenside expansion, the knight-transfer to f1 and then g3 or e3, the central d4-push, while Black can play with …a6 or …a5 (favoured by Ding Liren), go for …d5 or not (depending on White’s move-orders), go for …Ne7-g6 or/and …Be6. While this leaves scope for surprises and new developments for the elite, it is very confusing for the rest.
A different example is the Najdorf. This ever-green opening can never be abandoned, and is in the stage of new ideas appearing, as early as move 6, with White players trying out moves like 6 h4, 6 a3 or 6 Nb3. The reason for this is that in the traditional main lines the variations have crystallised and Black usually has a choice of a couple of reliable and straight-forward lines to choose from. For example, in the 6 Bg5 line he can either go for 6…Nbd7 or the delayed Poisoned Pawn 6…e6 7 f4 h6 8 Bh4 Qb6, championed by Vachier-Lagrave. Or in the English Attack, he can choose the lines with …h5, which are all the rage now, the sharp variations with 10…a5 (after 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cd 4 Nd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 6 Be3 e5 7 Nb3 Be7 8 f3 Be6 9 Qd2 0-0 10 0-0-0 a5) or even the complex lines after 10…Nbd7 11 g4 b5 12 g5 Nh5.
Therefore it is practical to take up an opening in these later stages, when one only needs to study the current theory, which has narrowed down thanks to the decades of “distillation.” In these stages the effect of novelties is diminished because normally they cannot drastically impact the variations, so they are mostly of a “local” character.
A similar case is the Sveshnikov Sicilian. As the last World Championship match implied, and Carlsen’s later games showed, Black is perfectly fine in the main lines after 7 Bg5, so White players are looking for alternative ideas, Caruana’s attempt of 7 Nd5 being such a case.
I understand that in order to be able to recognise these cycles a certain opening erudition is required. This however shouldn’t discourage the opening student. Speaking from personal experience, if you dedicate your efforts to a study of an opening, meaning you go back in time to the opening’s beginnings and then analyse its development over the years, you will start to recognise these changes that all openings experience.
As an additional advantage, having studied an opening in such a way will often enable you to be ahead of the curve and even foresee the changes that still haven’t occurred! That is one of the rare superpowers in chess!