Peter Zhdanov
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6 October 2021

How to Avoid Getting Caught by Your Opponent’s Opening Preparation

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained, you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In the modern chess age defined by engines and extensive databases, it is more menacing than ever to fall into a trap right out of the opening. What can one do to minimize the chance of this happening?

Check your own and the opponent’s dossiers. Sun Tzu made a good point, after all. Modern chess databases allow one to quickly scan all the publicly available games you and your opponent played. Try to foresee where the opponent will try to trap you based on the weaknesses evident from your player profile.

If you have a decent alternative to one of the moves you have always been employing in a certain position, sometimes it makes sense to try it out. This is especially productive if your opponent has never faced that continuation in his life and is not likely to be aware of the intricacies of the arising positions.

Keep adding more openings to your repertoire. To familiarize yourself with new pawn structures and associated plans, it makes sense to keep enhancing your repertoire as time goes by and you gain more experience and improve as a player. However, it is important not to overextend since it is hard to master a few openings at a time. Also, this “it’s better to be rich and healthy than poor and ill” advice is tough to follow for amateur chess players who can allocate only a minimal amount of time to chess studies.

Play “opening schemes”. There are quite a few openings that can be played on “understanding” as opposed to relying on concrete knowledge and exact move orders. The nature of play there is not forced, so it is hard to prepare a refutation. Basically, by playing them, you don’t pay much attention to what your opponent is doing and just develop your pieces in a more or less predefined way.

For instance, in the London System, which is employed even at the top level, White typically goes for d4, Bf4, Nf3, e3, c3, Bd3, Nbd2, erecting a pawn triangle in the middle of the board. Of course, one should not play these moves in a braindead way, but it is still a setup that one can often accomplish with minimal care.

A typical London setup for White

This method is particularly popular with casual players who don’t have much time to spend on openings and people who dislike studying chess in general or have a poor memory and can’t memorize long lines no matter how hard they try.

However, the obvious drawback of this approach is that such setups are usually not ambitious enough and typically lead to equal or (slightly) inferior positions. Also, if you keep repeating the same setup over and over again, it shouldn’t be a problem for the opponent to find a plan against it that suits his style well.

Play a “one-time” opening. You might be familiar with the advice of having some tricky one-game openings prepared for specific tournament situations. For example, sometimes you need to win at all costs; your opponent is a booked-up theoretician, so you want to avoid his preparation; the opponent has a strong coach who can pinpoint weaknesses in your main repertoire, etc. The trick here is that one still needs to put in a lot of effort to get a sense of what is going on in those offbeat lines; you shouldn’t just improvise and hope that everything works out somehow.

Of course, it takes a lot of courage and self-confidence to employ in a crucial tournament game an opening that you haven’t played much. However, there is an even more dangerous aspect: after trying such a line with success, a chess student may be tempted to think there is no need to build a solid and sound chess repertoire. Why do it when you can merely unleash your surprise weapons one after another on the unsuspecting victims? The problem with such an approach is that an essential part of becoming a strong chess master is gaining experience with particular pawn structures. To do so, one has to play many games with the same opening, study the main plans and ideas, and keep working on one’s positional and tactical mistakes. The chess muscles develop gradually but steadily this way.

Meanwhile, someone who knows a bit of everything is usually mediocre because there is not enough time to study everything in chess till perfection. I have seen some people, especially coaches who have a relatively broad knowledge of chess openings, get away with using the “new game, new opening” method. However, even those usually remain on the same level or start slowly losing rating points. After all, getting the opponent out of book at all costs is usually something that can be recommended against partners of much lower chess skills. If you keep playing weaker opposition, your chess level will start to deteriorate. Also, if you try doing that against players who are better at chess than you, there is a high chance that the surprise weapon will surprise you more than the opponent.

Summarizing, one-time openings are a valuable tool of a competitive player, but they shouldn’t be a replacement for serious work on the main lines of one’s opening repertoire.

Prepare a counter-surprise. Instead of being the hunted, you can become the hunter! That is, if you are a good analyst who remembers the content of your opening files, you might as well accept the challenge. I recall a funny story about Peter Svidler arriving at an exciting position, coming up with some conclusions on it and producing a move only to meet Garry Kasparov off-stage and hear from him something condescending like: “I hope you do realize that for normal people this position is only the starting point of home preparation?”

Anti-computer strategy. Suppose you know that your opponent loves working with a chess engine and has extensive opening files. In that case, you might want to choose an opening that the computers still don’t grasp well enough, where the nature of play is not concrete and requires sophisticated understanding and maneuvering. For example, in the Ruy Lopez or the Berlin the engines typically give a -0.1/0.2 score and can’t advise you on what plans to opt for. Of course, this approach might be less efficient against someone who has a strong human coach and can guide his protégé through the jungle of opening ideas.

I hope these simple yet efficient tips will make your life easier when preparing for your next game!

Be it mainstream openings, opening schemes, anti-computer lines, or surprise weapons, you will find a fine selection of them in the Magnus Trainer app. Please make sure to check it out if you are interested in learning from the World Champion and taking your opening repertoire to the next level.