Saturday, June 30, 2007

Chess Openings: Part 2

We study openings because we find that it is unpleasant to lose games without having at least convinced ourselves that we had a fighting chance. A few 12-move losses, and it's hard to show your face at a chess club, and that's the honest truth.
The trouble is, it's really hard to know what the best way to study an opening is. What are you trying to learn, and how will the lessons take root? For example, assuming that we can agree that ideas, tactical motifs, and positional patterns for strengths and weakness are more important in one's knowledge of an opening system than concrete lines, what happens if we misapply something? It's easy enough to read through a few variations, get an idea, and then try to generalize. Here are some praxis examples:

White: Joshua Haunstrup (1825)
Black: William Michael (1730)
Event: MCC Fall Swiss (4)
Date: 2006-09-26
(B45 Sicilian, Taimanov V)
1 e4 c5
2 Nc3 e6
3 Nge2 Nc6
4 d4 cxd4
5 Nxd4 Nge7?
Poor William was trying to play Taimanov's system in the style of Taimanov himself I'm sure. Grandmaster Mark Taimanov pioneered the whole modern interpretation of the Paulsen Sicilian complex, but then went off on an eccentric and very interesting tangent with lines that include Nge7. Most of these lines are theoretically considered a little suspect, but they are very creative and different for the Sicilian, and several opening books expound the virtues of them. HOWEVER, even when playing Taimanov's own pet lines, there are some basic rules for development in the Paulsen complex, and playing this move on move 5 is an absolute no-no. What followed was:
6 Ndb5

6... d5?
This loses quickly, but even after the necessary 6...Ng6, William would have been forced to give up his dark-squared bishop after 7.Nd6+, and would then have been saddled with an inferior game with weak dark squares and an ugly and unpleasant defensive task.
7 exd5 exd5
8 Bf4 Ng6
9 Nc7+ Kd7
10 Qxd5+ Ke7
11 Qc5+ Kf6
12 Qg5++ 1-0
Afterwards, he told me he was sorry that he didn't give me much of a game. Sure, there were some tactics involved, but it's really hard to spy complex tactics from the getgo. At the beginning of a game, the heuristics of patterns are supreme. They tell us how to play a position, what to anticipate, what to be afraid of, what to strive for.
Here's a subtler example:
White: Christopher W. Chase (2316)
Black: Joshua Haunstrup (1826)
Event: MCC Stanley Crowe Memorial (4)
Date: 2006-10-24
(A08 Réti, King's Indian A)
1 e4 c5
2 d3 e6
3 Nf3 Nc6
4 g3 d5
5 Nbd2 Bd6
6 Bg2 Nge7
7 0-0 0-0
8 Nh4

Alright, so I knew that Chris played the King's Indian Attack, and I knew some variations of the opening pretty well, as my father always played it, but I didn't recall what black was supposed to do here. More generally, I think that I lacked a sense of the positional themes of the opening. I knew some moves, and after that, I would adopt a wait and see attitude, doing my best to parry the kingside attack. There's more to an opening than that though. You have to put your pieces on coordinated squares and then know how to use them once they get there.
8... b6?!
This move does all of nothing, but it looks alright, I mean it's a move that black does make in other variations...
9 f4 dxe4
10 dxe4 e5
11 c3 Ba6
12 Rf2 Qd7
13 Nf5

And here it's panic time. Chris has some nasty threats, my position looks about as rock solid as swiss cheese, and I don't have the foggiest idea what I'm doing. Have I blundered? Not really, although yes, in a sense. My game is coming close to indefensible and I haven't even started playing, all because I don't know the opening.
13... Nxf5
14 exf5 exf4
15 Ne4
And here I should have just resigned.

Now, did I learn from this fiasco you ask? No, not at all. I simply made a mental note that f5 could be a problem square in the King's Indian Attack, and I stored that memory for a future date. Ahem.
White: Max Enkin (2249)
Black: Joshua Haunstrup (1877)
Event: Harry Nelson Pillsbury Memorial (1)
Date: 2006-12-02
(A08 Réti, King's Indian A)
1 e4 c5
2 Nf3 e6
3 d3 Nc6
4 g3 d5
5 Nbd2 Bd6
6 Bg2 Nge7
7 0-0 0-0
8 Nh4

Here we go again. Another master, the same position, time to show that I learned.
8... f5!?
Ahhh, much better, at least it's a playable move!
9 f4
And now what? IM John Watson gives 9...b5, but that's not the sort of move that you would innocently think up by yourself. No, I played what seemed logical again, and was out of my depths in no time:
9... dxe4?!
10 dxe4 Bc7?!
Whoops, this can't be right. What about the gaping hole on e5? That looks like a positional disaster, but at least he's not going to kill me on f5, right?
11 c3 e5?!

Problem solved... ha! The end draws near.
12 fxe5 Bxe5
13 Nxf5 Nxf5
14 exf5
And, up a pawn and with freer pieces, Max finished me off easily.
These kinds of opening disasters are common place in class competition, and they really do underscore the need for concrete knowledge. It's not about knowing specific moves, it's about having a sense of where your pieces need to be and what you need to be afraid of.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Josh: This is a great blog. I jumped to it when browsing blunderprone's blog.

I am an expert who is decent (at best) in the opening, mediocre in the middle game and downright atrocious in the endgame. In my experience, there have been two benefits to having openings as the strongest part of my game. First, it has put me on the winning side of a number of miniatures, especially against much weaker players. Second, because I can usually blitz off my opening moves, I am able to minimize time pressure and leave myself more time to think during the phases of the game where I am weakest (i.e. middle and endgames).

But there are two big downsides as well to my particular balance of chess knowledge. First, I tend to suffer an unusual number of frustrating losses, because when I have the advantage out of the opening I will often fritter it away in the middle game or blow the endgame in comical fashion. Second, opening theory is voluminous and evolves rapidly. When that reality is combined with the fact that any particular variation shows up in one's games only once in a great while, one is left with the problem that even arduous opening study yields very small rewards over the board.

On the other hand, endgame knowledge and middle game tactics and planning have all remained relatively static over time. The odds of a rook and pawn ending or a particular strategic or tactical motif showing up in one of your games is much greater than a random opening variation that will require many hours of time just to stay up to speed on. So, if I had time to study anything (which I don't), I would spend the bulk of my time studying endgames and middlegames -- that is far more likely to be rewarded than opening knowledge in over-the-board play.

Given the disparities in our ratings and your implicit assertion that openings are not the strongest part of your game, I suspect that it is fair to say that I have a bit more opening knowledge than you do. Even so, I still am often dead lost by move 15-20 against the Enkins and Chases of the world. That just happens sometimes against stronger players, regardless of the level of the weaker player's opening preparation. So this is all a long way of saying that I don't think that openings study is as important or worthwhile as you say it is.

As further evidence of this, take a look at two of the top players at metrowest (where I play): Foygel and Shmelov. Both have a pretty pathetic opening repertoire that I would say is, at best, comparable to that held by a garden-variety master in the height of the Cold War. However, despite their seemingly non-existent knowledge of current opening theory, they are both extremely successful players because of their outstanding middle and endgame abilities.

So I do think that, say, an understanding of opposite-colored bishop endings is far more helpful than knowledge of opening "ideas" (because that's still not going to immunize you from the occasional winning tactical shot by a stronger player) or of 35 moves of theory in a topical line of the Sicilian (because you will almost never get to demonstrate that knowledge in an actual game).

8:20 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

I think that my emphasis is not really on openings to the detriment of endgames or middlegames, I'm just arguing that they are more important than most strong players seem to emphasize. Foygel and Shmelov are both immense talents. Neither of them are great openings experts, I agree, having watched their games and played them, but both have areas of positional familiarity in the opening stages of the game. This is also true of Chris Chase, and certainly of Curdo. Chase has emphasized to me that I don't stand much chance against him in the King's Indian simply because he has been studying it and playing it for twenty+ years. When I have been lucky enough to get him out of his theory in casual games, and pushed him into positions that he is not as familiar with, I have seen him struggle and even blunder. What I think is important about the early stages of the game that seems absent from trainers' discussions is that most lower level games on the class level are decided in the first 15-20 moves or so, and I think a lot of it has to do with opening planning and the transition from the opening to the early middlegame. I know that there is a lot of emphasis on the endgame in lessons and when I have taken lessons myself, teachers have always insisted on emphasizing middlegame structures. However, I have yet to encounter more than maybe 2 rook endgames in perhaps 200 rated games over the past two years, and positional themes in my middlegames rarely recur. However, my openings come up all the time, frequently providing opportunities to apply lessons newly learned, especially in terms of plans and ideas. This seems to me to be one of the clearest ways to apply knowledge and to grow as a player. Positional planning in abstract positions is just much harder to use, and endgames seem too arcane to be relevant unless you're really playing a lot of games where neither player is making some kind of bad mistake.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

I think perhaps another part of the discussion is what one means by the idea of studying openings. I find that what is most helpful is reading through many complete games in the lines that I intend to play. I try to get a feel for piece placement, patterns, typical structures, types of endgames that may arise, etc. Maybe I study a few lines if necessary, but mostly I just try to look at lots of games. I don't mind if they're old or outdated either, it's just the structures and the ideas that I try to learn.

9:01 PM  

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