When I’m lying in bed and reach to the shelf next to me, where some (more or less) frequently used chess books are piled up, the probability of grabbing an opening book is quite high. There is a book on tactics (by Hort/Jansa), there is an endgame book (Dvoretsky of course) and since Christmas even books on strategy (Gelfand) and chess philosophy (Rowson). However the majority deals with the initial phase of the game, giving a repertoire for basically every reasonable response of your opponent.

And yes, the stack of books that want to be read is quite high (I’ve learned today that German hipsters even have a trendy abbreviation for that dishonorable pile: “SUB”). But let’s not go there, after all this post is supposed to deal with a player’s opening repertoire. More precisely – since there will be more on that topic – on its increasing importance relative to the players’ strength (Here, mathematicians want to add that we will assume a monotone increase in the players’ strength throughout this post; I beg your pardon) and hence its evolution over a player’s lifetime.

Methodic changes in your training usually occur gradually. You can’t really point a finger at a time when you alter the pattern of your training. But if you take a look from the far and recall how your chess career started and how you used to work on it at the beginning, it becomes obvious that a lot has changed since then. When I was young, I mainly consumed “Find the right plan” by Karpov/Mazukevich and an endgame book by Max Euwe. Take a look at my shelf now.

Trigger game

Subconsciously the topic flew around in my head for quite a while.  In last year’s Schachbundesliga season, I played a game with the White pieces against IM Thomas Fiebig. I didn’t expect him to play, so I wasn’t prepared at all. That is particularly unfortunate, since he tends to stick to the Tarrasch variation in the queen’s gambit, which would have been nice to prepare against. For stronger players it is unusual to have a limited opening repertoire, since the opponent’s specific opening preparation can be fearsome no matter how deep your knowledge is.

The Tarrasch Defence by itself is also not a frequent guest in the tournament scene. The last time prior to the above game that I faced it was during the German Youth Championship in 2004 against IM Maximilian Meinhardt. Back then, I prepared a specific line together with a trainer, but in the Schachbundesliga 11 years later, I didn’t remember it at all. This meant that I was in the unpleasant situation to rely on a line that I had prepared the last time as a kid, probably at the age of 12 or so! The opening followed the normal path in this line:

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 c5

Tarrasch Defence, chess opening preparation

The Tarrasch Defence

4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bg5 Be7 7.Bxe7 Ngxe7 8.dxc5 d4 9.Ne4 0-0 10.g3 Qd5 11.Ned2 Qxc5 12.Bg2

opening position after 12 moves, kid's preparation

Position after move 12, Walter – Fiebig, Schachbundesliga 15/16

I’ve probably encountered this position a couple of times in online blitz games. Since White has no weaknesses, I guess this line is fine at faster time controls. Objectively though, this position is dead equal. White really has not even the slightest edge and more importantly, it’s pretty easy to play for Black. Why did I chose this line then? Well, simply for a lack of alternatives, since it is always dangerous to improvise over the board.

Assessment now and then

I can also see why I chose this line in the first place as a kid. First of all, there was not too much theory involved, which I hated back then. I had no theory books, and I prepared my opening repertoire with the help of databases only. Second of all, I was vastly overrating the play against isolanis. I might have thought to have a solid position, since there is no way that Black can launch a kingside attack (which is a known theme for IQP positions). Nd2-b3 might come next and White exerts some pressure against the Isolani. Also, the bishop on g2 has the potential to become strong in the long run.

Nowadays, with more experience, it is clear that the above features don’t count for much. Especially the fact that the IQP is already placed on d4 and not on d5 makes the position very particular. It restrains White’s opportunities and never really is a weakness, as it can be defended comfortably with the rooks if necessary. Also Black is (half) a tempo up, since his queen is already developed.

Constant improvement

There are a few of those embarrassing holes in my opening repertoire, I’m sure. The game against Thomas Fiebig made me realise this very clearly. As a youngster, this line was fine, but you really have to work on your opening repertoire constantly. I’m not referring to the latest theory and novelties by strong GMs here, but to changes of yourself. Those can be manifold of course, for example

  • changes in your playing style (think of “Big Vlad” Kramnik, who used to be a highly tactical player in the 90’s, and then became an incredible positional monster with the help of his beloved Catalan)
  • changes in your positional understanding
  • experiences in certain lines, that help to reassess openings
  • ability to play tactical positions
  • knowledge of new openings and harmony of the whole opening repertoire

Generally your opening repertoire has to keep up with your skill development. In my opinion, this is especially crucial for the start of the game, compared to middlegame and endgames.

Chess education

Starting with chess, you permanently hear wise advice to study endgames, sharpen your positional understanding and solve tactics puzzles. Don’t get me wrong here, by no means do I want to criticise that. Those are extremely important features and they shape a chess player for his whole career. I have quite a high rate at predicting a prodigy’s eventual position in the chess world, just based on his playing style. The latter is certainly not formed by memorising opening lines in your childhood. I particularly like the following excerpt from the book “Chess for Zebras”:

Trying to build a reliable opening repertoire is a worthwile pursuit, but it’s important to realize that it won’t significantly improve your chess if the variations are just pasted over layers of confusion.
– Jonathan Rowson

I found it very interesting to read in the above mentioned Gelfand book on my “SUB” that he was influenced already very early by the games of Akiba Rubinstein. One of his first chess books was about the games of the Polish Grandmaster and since then Boris tried to imitate his positional style of squeezing the opponents.

However, things change. The better you get, the more time you will spend on your opening repertoire. And that’s very natural. In a beginner’s game the evaluation of the position makes a zig-zag like a 1-dimensional Brownian motion. It might go from +5.43 to minus pi and back to White mating in 2, before the game ends with 78.Nh8 stalemate. For better players, already the slightest of advantages (that might have been accumulated in the opening phase) dictates the progress of the game.

Recent examples at top level

Not long ago, the world’s chess elite was in the UK, playing the “London Chess Classics”. Most of the time, the players are well prepared and Black succeeds to equalise comfortably out of the opening. This was not the case in the English capital, where there were a couple of games that were basically decided in the very beginning. Let’s take the game Caruana – Nakamura as an example.

opening repertoire, White to move

Caruana – Nakamura, London Chess Classics 2016, position after 20….Qd8

The opening was a sharp Sicilian and both players knew the theory. However, Hikaru did not realise during his preparation, that the position above is actually already much worse (if not losing) for Black! Instead of winning the queen back with 21.Nc6, which would have been the normal move here and the one that Hikaru prepared for, Fabiano put 21.Nf5!! on the board, willing to play with only two minor pieces for the queen. On social media and chess platforms, this initiated a huge debate about preparation with the engine. Computers actually give this move as a decent possibility. Still, 21.Nc6 is the engine’s first choice, of course.

Converting this position generally remains a challenge for White. But at this level, I’d say the game has already been decided during home analysis, before the first move was even played. Lesser skilled players than Fabi might stumble. This shows the immense significance of openings for the top players. Consequently, they spend most of their work time on them.

Back to the future

When I look at my opening repertoire now and how it used to be, I’d like to travel back in time and give some valuable advice to my younger me.
Make sure to build up a repertoire which is harmonic and fits together!” I realised way too late, that either move order tricks would get me out of my comfort zone in certain lines, or that I unnecessarily learned new opening lines when I could’ve stuck with something similar to what I knew.
Play openings that suit your style!” I’ve played the Dutch, Leningrad variation, for a couple of years. Not my thing at all.
Don’t you dare playing 1….g6 against 1.d4!” This needs no explanation, really.

On the other hand, I’ve played 1.e4 e5 with Black my whole life and I’m very happy with that choice. Somehow I was lucky to choose nice and solid variations almost everywhere. That’s a nice feeling, when you can simply partially improve your repertoire. After 1.d4 I had to learn complete new systems when I got stronger and even now, I feel a little bit uncomfortable.

If you could predict that a young kid is staying with chess and not ditching it for another hobby, ideally you would hire a strong coach who offers a suitable repertoire. A simple and limited one maybe, but one that a chess player can rely on the whole time.

What are your experiences? Let me know below if you like.