Monthly Archives: Jul 2019

Opening Cycles

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!


Total Domination

Carlsen is winning everything.

I have to admit that I like that. I enjoyed watching Kasparov win everything in the 90s. Perhaps I feel that chess is a game of kings and it needs a proper king to rule and show his strength.

In 1959 the third round (from rounds 15-21) of the Candidates Tournament was held in Zagreb. It was in Zagreb that Tal overtook Keres and established a point and a half lead over his main competitor.

It is exactly 60 years later (thanks to efforts of the world-famous Croat Garry Kasparov) that an event comprised of only elite players returned to Zagreb. In 1959 there were 8 candidates, in 2019 11 players from the top of the rating list.

The results of both tournaments were identical. One player showed absolute superiority. If Tal brought dynamism and creating a mess to the fore, Carlsen’s current domination is a result of a successful reinvention of himself.

There are several factors that Carlsen changed that made him the irresistible force that he is right now. Here I would like to take a look at one of them. His Opening Preparation.

Ever since the match with Caruana the Sveshnikov Sicilian has been Carlsen’s main opening against 1 e4. The Sveshnikov offers rich dynamic possibilities in many lines and coupled with the thorough preparation made before the World Championship match, which included practice games and serious memorisation of all the prepared lines, it has been a fantastic choice for Carlsen.

However, there are a few lines in the Sveshnikov where Black’s counterplay is stymied and I’m surprised why they haven’t been tried against him more often. For example:

Carlsen’s choice of the Sveshnikov shows his changed approach towards his Black games. Fischer once said that a dramatic change in his career happened when he realised he could play for a win with Black too. Now Carlsen is doing the same.

An illustration of this is that even in the rare cases when he’s not playing the Sveshnikov, this aggressive and counter-attacking approach is shown in the other lines he’s choosing. Here’s what he played against Caruana in Zagreb:

When playing White Carlsen mostly varies between 1 c4 and 1 d4, in both cases with clear preference for closed games. In Zagreb he played 1 d4 in all but one game (in which he played 1 Nf3) and here again he is showing a lot of new ideas in the openings. Quite a fertile ground for his new ideas has been the Vienna (perhaps understandably so as it has been one of Caruana’s main openings prior to the match):

Carlsen has also shown his approach in the Grunfeld, preferring the line both Karpov and Kramnik successfully used in their matches against Kasparov, the line with Be3. His last round win in Zagreb against Vachier was deceptively smooth.

I find it difficult to understand what Vachier’s preparation consisted of here, as he immediately ended up in a worse position, but that doesn’t diminish Carlsen’s own.

As you can see, Carlsen is playing the main lines now! Not only that, he’s also introducing new ideas in these main lines and this gives him even bigger practical advantage than the previous Carlsen-style of avoiding theory and going for offbeat lines.

I see this shift towards playing the main lines as the single biggest evolution of Carlsen’s general approach to chess this year. As the positions he’s getting after the opening and his current results suggest, he has hit the bullseye. The players will of course adapt to the new Carlsen, but for now he’s flying as high as ever. Personally, I hope it continues for a long time.