Now, don’t get me wrong, chess is not about rote memorization. It is, however, about preparation. And preparation is another way to say “reflex”. Knowing how to analyze an arbitrary position is paramount. Understanding tactical themes and having a sound theoretical grounding in positional play can push your game to new levels. But chess is a game of sequential moves. I move. My opponent moves. Then I move. And so on. Because of this, what happens on move 5 impacts how the game will look on move 13.
So if you’re a beginner, advanced beginner, or finding yourself maturing in chess play, you are faced with an onslaught of opening theory. What should you play? What should you avoid? What about all those variations?
I’m not a master level player. My USCF rating peaked probably around a Class C player. At one point, I probably had an over-the-board strength of about a Class A player, but I never played in enough tournament games to crank up the official scoring.
In any case, if you want to get out of all this opening line preparation madness, take a look at my repertoire. My general philosophy when I play chess is that if I’m going to be in a mess, then I’m dragging my opponent with me as quickly as possible. And what better way to do this than in the first few moves?
Here’s what I tend to play.
For White? Screw It. 1. b4
As White, I play 1. b4 — also known as The Sokolosky, The Polish, or The Orangutan. This opening looks bizarre. And it is! But that’s not why I play it [that’s an added bonus]. I play 1. b4 because of at least the following
- It gets many players out of their comfort zone; this is great because I want the theoretical advantage early on.
- I prefer if neither of us know what is going on. This way we can kill each other like civilized people. No tricks, no weapons, skill against skill alone. Though in truth, with 1. b4, I have tricks and weapons just in case skill vs skill is not in my favor.
- The games get really crazy and really fun! No boring 14 moves of memorized play.
- Because we’re both out of book pretty early (my opponent usually out of book earlier), it gets me thinking tactics, strategy, and planning much earlier.
- Time pressure for my opponent.
- I only have to study 1. b4!
Here’s a recent game of mine. I lost mostly because I blundered on move 19 and then again on 26 or so. But the point is that my opponent was out of their comfort zone fairly early and I was able to hold my own for a while against a stronger player.
And soon, I am going to spend a little time learning 1. b3, the Nimzo-Larsen Attack.
For Black, hoobooy, this is where we can have some fun. Want to find a counter against 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 ? Try the Latvian Gambit with 2 … f5.
Theoretically considered unsound, but your opponent has to prove that. A large percentage of my games that begin with 1. e4 e5 have White playing 2. Nf3. Every now and again, I might see a 2. Bc4 or 2. d4 and for those deviations, there are transposition lines in the Latvian (that effectively convert to a Philidor) that you can play. The point though is, as black you’re controlling things a lot more this way than going down the maze of Ruy Lopez or Sicilian (1 … c5) variations.
The Latvian Gambit will throw many players for a loop. There are a ton of traps for Black to set for White (and if Black isn’t careful, a ton he can set on himself). Check out this this game.
The Dutch Defense
What about playing Black against 1. d4 ? Want to sidestep all the Queen’s Gambit nonsense or the highly specialized King’s Indian Defense? Then try the Dutch with 1 … f5. Again, theoretically inferior, but put the test to your opponent rather than resigning on theoretical analysis that your opponent likely doesn’t know.
Notice that in either case, you’ve got … f5 being played as Black. This at least keeps in you in similar thematic territory (admittedly King’s-pawn games are different from Queen’s-pawn games, but you’ll find that weaknesses on the f7 square will be present in both games).
I haven’t really gotten too far into the Benko Gambit yet, but check out this recent game of mine. It looks fun and promising, but will require more opening theory preparation.
Forget the Ruy Lopez
Here’s a typical example of how your preparation might be going. You’ve read some chess blogs, or followed grandmaster games, or play at the local club and are watching what the top players are playing. You’ve learned about developing your pieces and about controlling the center, even the hypermodern way. You’ve heard about a bunch of openings and eager to find something sound, you settle on playing the Ruy Lopez because as White you like to play 1. e4 and more often than not, you are met with 1 … e5, to which you prefer the response 2. Nf3 and you will almost always get 2 … Nf6 as a counter. And after these two “standard” moves, you know that the Ruy Lopez is tried and true. What could go wrong?
Maybe nothing goes wrong. But I can tell you this from having gone down this route: there are a gazillion little variations! See the board below for a sampling of just a few. The “Main Line” is already 9 moves in!
What happens ultimately is that you end up drowning in all the little details that quite frankly your current level of training doesn’t prepare you for. Black can force you down a bunch of paths and if you’re not versed in the theory, all the effort in “learning” a bunch of opening moves backfire.
Consider the difference between the Modern Archangelsk and the Archangelsk. It is a difference in the choice that Black makes on move 6 — Bc5 vs Bb7. And what makes the Main Line so different from the Archangelsk variations? Well, it’s what Black does on move 5 — play 5 … Be7 instead of 5 … b5.
But then you may argue (and we’re getting into the weeds here) that you can short circuit all this by getting into the exchange variation with 4. Bxc6. True, however, this line is not without its move orderings (does Black capture with the d-pawn or the b-pawn? and you have to be prepared for both ways …).
However, and finally to my point, the crux of the matter is this: almost all D-class and C-class players have some positional familiarity with a common opening like the Ruy Lopez. And while you may be able to muddle through the first several moves with close to GM level of play, so has your opponent. Neither of you have really netted an advantage and what’s generally true is that neither of you really has a deep positional understanding of this opening.
The same goes if you are playing as Black and your opponent goes with 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3. And after 2 … Nf6 odds are you’ll get the Ruy Lopez or the Giuco Piano with 3. Bc4.
And now, finally, really … as if all of this weren’t bad enough, suppose White plays 1. d4. Bleh. This can quickly become a nightmare with the maze of Queen’s Gambit games, among other things. You know all too well that queen pawn games are a different beast from king pawn games.
There are too many lines!! Too many variations!! Get out of this entire mess.
As you get better, then a natural exploration of the highly researched lines makes sense. In the meanwhile, playing some of the off-beat openings helps level the playing field (maybe even puts it in your favor) against the “book prepared” player and gives you the opportunity to play chess rather than a script.
What are your thoughts? What’s your repertoire?
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