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Chess: Building an Opening Repertoire

Here's how to avoid losing a chess game in the opening.

It's no secret that masters give contradictory advice on the opening. On the
one hand, they advise novice players not to spend too much time working on
openings, but to work on middle games and endgames instead. On the other
hand, they spend most of their own time working on the opening!

What's a non-master to make of this? While everyone certainly needs to

work on tactics, positional concepts, and endgames, if you lose in the
opening, what good does extensive knowledge about the rest of the game
do? Surely detailed knowledge of the openings is the fastest way to success.

Unfortunately, it's not.

Improving at chess is like climbing a glass mountain. You make some

progress, and then you slip back. You recover the lost ground, make a little
more progress, and then slip back again. You improve in one area, but you
weaken in another area where previously you made progress.

Your objective at the beginning of the mountain climb to chess mastery

should be to become familiar with as many different types of positions as
possible. You'll only do this if you expose yourself to all sorts of positions in
practical play.

That's why there's a difference between what masters do and what they say.
Masters have approached the top of the mountain. They've encountered
thousands of typical middlegame and endgame positions. They know more
about different types of positions than most players know even exist. Factors
like personal style and the element of surprise start to become more

What do grandmasters know that the masters don't? They calculate

variations more rapidly, but that's not the subject of this article. They know
even more about different types of positions. And they also spend a great
deal of their time preparing the openings!
Grandmasters study the games of their opponents and prepare openings for
specific opponents. They study the openings of their own published games
looking for surprises that a well-prepared opponent might try to spring. In
other words, they work on their opening repertoires and study the repertoires
of their opponents.

An opening repertoire is one of the secret weapons that makes a

grandmaster. The reasons that grandmasters play what they do are specific to
their personal repertoires. Those repertoires are a result of their own
preparation, and beyond the understanding of most of the rest of us. That's
why you shouldn't pay much attention to the openings that grandmasters use.

Most of the published games that you'll encounter are games that have been
played by the grandmasters. If it makes you feel good playing what
Kasparov or Kramnik plays, that's very nice. You'd get more benefit by
working on your own repertoire.

It goes without saying that you can't work on your opening repertoire until
you have one. How do you build a repertoire? We'll cover that in a future

We'll close this with how not to build a repertoire. Forget about learning
openings where your main objective is to have a won game after 10 or 15
moves. This is playing for traps. While you may have the satisfaction of
winning a few games quickly, your overall knowledge is not going to
increase very much. Your objective in the opening should be to get a game
where you feel comfortable. It should also be to get games where you are
exposed to the largest number of possible types of positions. Then you'll be
pointed the right way on the road to mastery.

n the first article in this series (see the sidebar at the right) we discussed the
importance of an opening repertoire. Now we're going to build one.

The first step is to decide what to open with White. You'll make things a lot
easier if you restrict yourself to the choice between 1.e4 and 1.d4.

The other acceptable first moves for White (of which the best are 1.c4 and
1.Nf3) lead to a tangle of opening transpositions which will complicate the
development of your repertoire. Transpositions are another weapon of
masters, so wait until you approach that level before you spend too much
time on them.

Openings like 1.b4 and 1.Nc3 have their place, but they lead to specific
kinds of positions that are relatively limited in the richness of ideas. You'll
certainly learn how to cope very well with the kinds of positions that arise,
and you may score a few points off opponents who are less familiar with
them, but you'll miss out on developing the adaptability that you need to
cope with new situations.

If anyone tells you that either 1.e4 or 1.d4 is better than the other, don't listen
to any more advice from that person. I'm serious. Either that person knows
something that 99.99% of the rest of the chess world doesn't know, or that
person is talking nonsense. Chess is not so simple that already on the first
move we can make definitive judgements.

Of course, you can play both 1.e4 and 1.d4, but you'll have to learn so many
variations that your head will be swimming. Save that for later.

In general, 1.e4 leads to more tactical games and 1.d4 to more positional
games, so choose accordingly. That's a big 'IN GENERAL'. The exceptions
may be more numerous than the rule, at least after 10-12 moves have been

Don't pick 1.e4 just because you think you're a tactical wizard. If you feel
uncomfortable when maneuvering, you might want to pick 1.d4 to give
yourself more experience in positional play.

After you've decided on move one or the other, consider each good response
to your choice. What distinguishes a good response from a bad one? A good
response is one that doesn't have an immediate tactical refutation and that
doesn't violate any of the fundamental principles of the game.

For example, after 1.e4, don't spend any time studying 1...h6. Black has
wasted a tempo by ignoring development, ignoring the center, and
weakening the kingside without knowing how play will evolve there. If you
play on general principles, you'll get a very good game.
After 1.e4, the responses should include at least 1...e5, 1...e6, 1...c5, 1...c6,
1...d5, 1...d6, 1...Nf6, and 1...g6. There are a few more moves that might be
playable, but eight responses is already a lot.

For each of these moves, choose ONE move that you want to learn more
deeply. For example, after 1.e4 e5, you could choose ONE of 2.Nf3, 2.f4,
2.Bc4, or 2.Nc3.

After 1.d4, the responses would be 1...d5, 1...Nf3, 1...f5, 1...c5, 1...g6, 1...e6,
and 1...Nc6. Again, choose one move to learn in depth. Against 1..d5 you
should choose one of 2.c4, 2.Nf3, 2.e3, or 2.Bf4.

Since transpositions are more important to 1.d4 openings than to 1.e4

openings, you should choose the most popular responses. For example,
choose 1.d4 d5 2.c4 over 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 until you start to recognize how the
different responses affect transpositions.

That discussion was for White. The second step is to decide how you want to
respond with Black.

Consider the possible opening moves for White -- 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4, 1.Nf3,
1.g3, 1.b3, 1.f4, 1.b4, and 1.Nc3. For each of these moves, you follow the
same procedure as you did for White, and choose one response to learn in
depth. The choices for 1.e4 and 1.d4 are the same that I listed when
considering White.

I won't labor this explanation any more, because I'm sure that you already
get the point. For each good possible move of the opponent, you're going to
choose one response. Your goal is to build a tree (or network) of variations
where you will be comfortable at any point.

That's what we mean by an opening repertoire. In the next article, we'll

discuss some of the practical issues in developing a repertoire.

In the first article (see the sidebar at the right) on the opening repertoire, I
explained what it is and why it's important. In the second article, I explained
how to develop it. In this last article I'll discuss some practical matters and
offer a few tips.
Remember the process? Starting with the initial position you choose one
move that will be your move. For each possible response by your opponent,
you again choose one move that will be added to your repertoire. You repeat
this until... Until when? When do you stop?

The short answer is that you stop when you run out of time. Former world
champion Garry Kasparov is said to have 3000 novelties in his repertoire. A
novelty is a move that hasn't been played before and that changes the
evaluation of a position. Kasparov is a professional player with a
phenomenal memory and a team of grandmasters helping him with opening
research. He earns his living by beating the best players in the world and
every successful novelty means a fatter paycheck at the end of a tournament.

The casual player with limited time needs to be practical. There are only so
many hours in a day, only so many minutes which can be used for chess, and
so many interesting things in chess competing for this limited time.

The best way to use your time is to keep your repertoire balanced. Don't go
to move 18 in one variation, while the others all stop at move 4. Some
variations will naturally be longer than others. There are certain popular
lines with a long sequence of forced moves where your work will start at the
end of these moves. These should be the exception.

How do you choose which move becomes part of your repertoire? You
should have a reference or two that gives the known moves in your favorite
lines. Caution! Developing a repertoire does not mean memorizing these
references. Along with chess publications, there is a lot of material available
on the Web. Check the 'Game downloads' link on the left sidebar for some
useful sites.

Consider your own strengths and weaknesses:-

1) your ability to calculate complicated variations, and
2) your knowledge of the endgame.
If you want to improve these areas, then steer into those lines where you'll
be challenged. That means choosing tactical variations (for #1) and piece
exchanges (for #2), especially major pieces. If you feel that you'll never be
able to calculate more than two moves ahead or you're bored by endgames,
then steer clear of those same lines.
What about novelties? What do you do if you come across a move that isn't
in any of your references and looks like it's never been played before? Be
suspicious. There are thousands of excellent players who have studied the
same lines that you are learning. Does the move lose by force? Does it lead
to a game where you'll have a chronic positional weakness and will suffer a
long time to achieve a draw? If, after doing your own analysis, you don't see
anything wrong with the move, play it against your computer before you risk
it in a serious game.

What do you do after deciding on your move? Write it down. Keep a

notebook with the moves you've chosen, the moves you've rejected, and the
reasons why you decided on a certain move. Even better, keep track of your
repertoire using your computer. Use your favorite chess database software to
manage the tangle of variations that will arise from your work. This will let
you incorporate any key reference games that you have collected in digital

When you reach a position and you don't know what to do next, practice that
position against your computer. It won't complain if you always play White
or always play Black, and you always play the same move. If you have a
friend who's interested in the same openings that you are, then work with
your friend. You won't need a nondisclosure agreement until you win your
first title!

Play the same variations for both White and Black if you can. It will lighten
your workload. Play the openings that you're afraid of meeting. Let's say, for
example, that you like to play 1.e4, but you always have a tough time against
1...c5. Play 1...c5 yourself whenever you meet 1.e4 as Black. You'll soon
learn what you're overlooking when you play against the Sicilian as White.
Ditto for, say, the King's Indian against 1.d4.

Have you reached the point where one response to a certain move of your
opponent is a handicap? This can happen if you repeatedly play against the
same opposition. In that case, add a second move. It will keep an element of
surprise. The earlier in the game that you add a second move, the more work
you will have to do to maintain your repertoire. That's why I recommend
against two first moves when you play White.

One last word of advice. If you play tournament games, keep track of your
win and lost percentages with your repertoire lines. You might be surprised
to find out that you play above your strength in some lines and below your
strength in others. That will give you a clue where you need to work to
improve your overall results.