11 November 2019

Common opening repertoire pitfalls

Here I'd like to explore some deeper and perhaps less talked about aspects of opening repertoire selection and training, from the point of view of how to avoid common pitfalls as an improving player. (Some earlier posts on the fundamentals of repertoire building and tools to use are Openings Selection: Initial ConsiderationsEvolving a Repertoire and Simple Openings Reportoire Database System.) My personal focus is on the type of repertoire that can be used by a Class/Expert player, say in the 1400-2100 range. That naturally reflects my own experience and requirements, although I would expect that most of the below ideas are valid, regardless of rating level. That said, not everything discussed is applicable for grandmaster-level repertoires, which brings us to the first topic:

1. Studying only GM games and lines
This seems counter-intuitive at first - why should it be a problem to study only the best lines? I've come to believe, however, that preparing only the 'best' openings and variations can really hamper your effectiveness as an improving player. Why is this the case?

Primarily, it's because the level and style of play reflected in GM preparation and tournament praxis will not be the same as your own tournament experiences. Even if some opponents occasionally go deeply into main book lines in your favorite opening, this is unlikely to happen a majority of the time. It therefore becomes more important to know how to respond to, and take advantage of, the other moves that can be made by your opponent, outside of top-level theory. This is really the case regardless of the level you are at, but I think it is especially important for the practical results of improving players.

Many times we believe that deviations from theory should be 'punished' at the board, but in fact our opponents are not really making mistakes; instead, they are playing solidly, if not 'best'. In these instances, our opponent is not creating any significant weaknesses to 'punish' - instead, they may fail to prevent us from carrying out our optimal opening plans and piece placements, giving us the opportunity for an easier or quicker path to the middlegame positions we want. (More on the idea of preferred middlegame positions as the real purpose of our openings selection is below.)

Alternatively, our opponents can play more aggressively than they 'should' (in strictly objective terms). These lines - for example, gambits or early flank pawn pushes - will still pose opening problems that cannot be ignored. However, if we are secure in our knowledge of the position, this usually gives us an opportunity to either win material for insufficient compensation, or to inflict long-term positional weaknesses. If you know your chosen opening's themes, ideal piece deployments, typical maneuvers and early middlegame plans well, then you should be able to reach a good (or at least playable) middlegame position, regardless of your opponent's choices.

The problem we often face is that theory books and other resources tend to focus on the 'best' lines (at least what is considered best at the time of publication). These can ignore popular 'real-world' options, as well as fail to explain how to best take advantage of any supposed deviations and inaccuracies. This often is true of materials aimed at master-level audiences, which are the most professional and where conceptual knowledge of the openings is assumed rather than explained. How can we combat this?
  • Use opening resources that contain specific explanations of typical plans and maneuvers, not just discussions of variations. While some of these may be aimed deliberately at Class players who are learning a new opening, such as the 'Starting Out' series from Everyman Chess, others may be higher-level, for example Karpov's How to Play the English Opening. Reviews or samples of the works in question are usually the best way to figure out whether they have enough explanatory content, although it may take some searching. Having specific guidance on plans - for example, something like "here White can opt for a queenside minority attack with Rb1, Rc1 and b2-b4-b5, or instead choose pursue a kingside strategy with Ne5 followed by f2-f4 and Rf3-h3" is also important. Too often we see only generalized principles that are too vague to be accurate and effective when coming up with a concrete plan in the early middlegame.
  • Study annotated games in the opening. A quality annotator will provide comments and insights into positional characteristics, typical plans, and how opening play affects the middlegame. Individual annotated games in magazines, articles or videos are usually not meant to be systematic opening treatments, but they often yield key insights. An annotated game is often used in opening works as a basis for introducing and explaining lines, but you need to be sure that concepts and plans are in fact explicitly addressed, so the game is not just a framework for giving variations. Also, if you can find decent peer-level blogs with annotated games, these can be a great resource, as well as entertaining. They can help identify common mistakes, problems and challenges in the opening below the GM level. The sidebar has links to some of these kinds of resources.
One of the open secrets of growing in chess strength (and gaining rating points) is to identify and study the commonly played, non-theoretical lines that you repeatedly face. These are bound to have certain weaknesses, sometimes serious ones. In the latter case, you can then earn a lot of points by essentially winning the same games over and over, since you already know the best plan and how to implement it over the board. At minimum, even if it does not lead directly to an advantageous position, this type of preparation will give you a pleasant and easy middlegame without much time or effort, while your opponent will have to struggle.

This leads us into the next topic: 

2. Pursuing wrong or unsuitable early middlegame plans
The benefit of employing opening theory is that you stand on the shoulders of everyone who has gone before you in analyzing the moves. Over-reliance on theory, however, has the drawback of not knowing what to do with a theoretically 'best' position once you run out of 'free' moves, even if they have been of the highest quality. The practice of repeating theoretical variations without really understanding the resulting middlegames can seriously retard a chess player's performance and understanding; it was one of the principal reasons I essentially made no progress for over a decade as an adult. Many masters and coaches will therefore recommend focusing your opening study time on common early middlegame positions. I think this is good advice, although you still have to know how to reach them. The opening can therefore be viewed as a way to get to a middlegame position of your liking, rather than as an end in itself.

This makes it doubly important to find and study materials that explain and demonstrate ideas and plans, along the lines of what was mentioned above. Most importantly, you as a player have to understand and be comfortable playing the resulting middlegame. This means 'comfortable' in the sense that you have a good idea about what should be done in the position, rather than necessarily having a peaceful or easy one to play - it may in fact be highly complex or imbalanced. Although I think that 'style' is an overrated concept, it's a fact that people naturally gravitate towards particular types of positions. So constantly setting yourself up for open games, when you really prefer (and do well) in more closed positions, may not be the road to success. On the flip side, if what you really want to do is attack, attack, attack, then often reaching a quiet, maneuvering middlegame is going to frustrate you.

A final important principle is to exercise critical judgment when selecting lines - which really means the types of middlegames that you want. This includes making sure to not blindly accept 100% any 'canned' repertoires or recommendations. If you have trouble handling a particular middlegame situation, perhaps it's a useful challenge that will help grow your chess abilities. On the other hand, if you frequently get into trouble in the middlegame after a particular opening, or don't enjoy playing the positions, then it simply may not be well-suited to your current playstyle in terms of general position-types (open, semi-open, or closed).

3. Over-reliance on engine analysis and evaluations
Along with over-reliance on theory, it is easy to get seduced and sidetracked by over-reliance on our computers' recommendations. As mentioned in Pitfalls of Computer Analysis, it is important to use engines as a tool - and not have the engines use us, which means simply parroting engine lines without understanding them. Engines paired with databases can be profitably used for identifying new possibilities in the opening, and for exploring "what if?" branches in analysis of variations. However, 'final' engine evaluations of an opening line are much less helpful in practical play, especially when there are no forcing plans available (as is usually the case). Do you really want to pick a line that may be 0.1 better on the engine evaluation, but that you cannot play as well practically? That will only lead to worse results at the board.

This goes back to the principle of always being able to answer the question "why?" for yourself, both when playing individual moves and selecting whole variations. What will it do for you, and what are the trade-offs involved versus playing other moves/variations? Your ability to play a position and the results you get with it are the most important factors to consider. It's worth remembering that you would lose every game against a full-strength engine, so what is the point of preparing for it? If you always go for the top engine line, this is essentially what you are trying to do. Instead, craft your repertoire around your human opponents.

4. Not analyzing your own games and evolving your repertoire
The idea of using the study of your own annotated games as the central component of your chess improvement is valid for all aspects of your game, including the opening phase. Your own games and analysis should be the primary driver of testing and developing your repertoire, as it is an experiential process and not just theoretical. An obvious benefit of this process is highlighting common recurring problems with your openings; one of my own examples is Annotated Game #63: Third time's the charm (?)

It's not enough to diagnose a problem, though, you also have to fix it. This usually means researching tweaks to your opening repertoire database when you identify issues in your games. With a database/engine combo this is usually easy to do, although it will still take time to pursue in a reasonably thorough manner. Sometimes more than a tweak is needed, if you don't have anything prepared for a particular variation or opening. Even if you don't 'like' it (see emotional attachments below), if your opponents play something often enough, you'll need to research a middlegame setup that you can be comfortable in reaching. This sounds obvious, but at the Class level one can often find Sicilian players who don't know what to do against 2. c3 or 3. Bb5, French players who don't prepare a line in the Exchange variation, etc.

Self-analysis and repertoire evolution is a constant, continuing process - which is in fact a good thing. Making small updates to your repertoire, while in the process reinforcing the lessons of your recent games, will have a significant cumulative impact over time. This is also much easier than trying to revamp large chunks of your repertoire at once, only based on theory. However, sometimes major new ground does need to be broken, with more of a revolution than an evolution.

5. Lacking enough weapons in your opening arsenal 
Mastery of openings involves experiential knowledge, not just "book" lines. This is evident in relatively minor, but important, things like move-order and transposition considerations; these are often ignored or over-simplified in opening resources. Better ones will point out practical ways to do things like force your opponent into your chosen variations, or to avoid having to deal with particular variations. One common example in the Dutch is starting with 1. d4 e6 as Black if you play the Stonewall, to avoid all of the Anti-Dutch options for White on moves 2 and 3. (Of course, the Black player should have the French in their repertoire if White does and chooses to continue with 2. e4.) Failure to understand and intelligently apply these practical weapons can result in unneeded time in opening preparation, while over the board you will simply be less effective.

On a more macro level, openings selection is necessarily part of your overall game and tournament strategy. I think it is a legitimate choice to focus on the minimum necessary number of openings for a complete repertoire, rather than having multiple systems as White and multiple defenses to 1. e4 and d4 as Black. However, a player ideally wants to be able to go into an opening that will be best for a particular opponent and situation, in order to obtain maximal results. The most critical aspect of this is the ability to select lines that are imbalanced and therefore offer more winning chances, or to go for solid but more balanced positions. This requirement sometimes can be satisfied by preparing alternate variations within a single opening, but not always, depending on how you match up with your opponent.

In the broadest sense, mastering different openings can only be good for your chess, since you build up understanding of different position-types and a deeper understanding of middlegame and endgame concepts and how they relate to the opening. This is more of a long-term investment, however, as it is extremely common to lose more games initially when playing a new opening, reflecting the experiential component of practical knowledge. If you are willing to suffer on the front end, though, eventually you should raise your ceiling and be stronger in the long term.

6. Emotional attachment to openings
What happens when a player becomes unreasonably attached to specific openings, or particular ideas within them? First of all, the growth process described above is not allowed to happen, so it ends up being a limiting factor for an improving player. Mis-alignments in style can also occur, as what one 'likes' to do may not be what actually works for them, at least at their current level of ability. If your tactical skills are currently poor (let's be kind and say 'under-developed'), but you always try for a Sicilian Dragon as Black, then it's not going to end well. Conversely, if you love flank openings, but lack the ability to identify and exploit positional weaknesses or endgame advantages, your results will suffer.

Sometimes this sort of emotional blockage can even extend to move choices within in opening, as described in my case in Annotated Game #2. One should not eliminate the option of playing e2-e4 just because you no longer like playing king pawn openings, is the moral of the story. Another variation of this unwillingness to vary from set patterns, I would argue, is a slavish devotion to 'system' openings where the exact same thing is played every time for a relatively long move sequence, regardless of the opponent or situation. This is not to say that they are necessarily objectively bad or losing, but if you try nothing else, you will not get optimal results in your games or, in the long run, your chess.

In the end, openings are a tool for you, so don't put yourself in the position of being a slave to them. Make them work for you, which includes evolving your repertoire over time and sometimes shaking it up to better your chess. Mastering opening weapons takes time and effort, but will bring satisfaction and better results in the end. 


  1. About #1, I like to plough databases for games won by 2200+ players against u2200 in my openings : they often show typical pieces set-ups and useful mini-plans against the kind of opposition I'm likely to face in my games.

    1. That's a great recommendation. Often I've naturally found such games as part of database lookups, but making it a systematic practice sounds very helpful.


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