No Surprises, Please

Chess players don’t like to be surprised – unless it’s a pleasant surprise of course like a massive blunder from an opponent. Knowing what to expect is important – information increases confidence. A whole industry has grown in the chess world devoted to preparing players for battle. For example, chess databases – to prep for your opponents and learn using instructive games; and chess openings trends/surveys, like Chess Informant and New in Chess SOS.

Some players make it their game-plan to surprise their opponent as much as possible and disrupt whatever plans they had in mind. For example, playing off-beat openings, choosing unusual plans, playing some home-brew opening that departs from theory early. But these strategies are in themselves predictable to a degree, particularly if you know what your opponent is like. So, you can even prepare for the unexpected… or try to get in your surprise first.

However, in general I don’t think improvers and intermediate players need to worry about  preparation of this kind. It is probably unhelpful to think in terms of tricking your opponent in some way (forget the Fried Liver Attack), instead just play logical moves according to what the position demands. Focus on solid plans and forget the one-move cheapos that lead nowhere. Of course this is easier said than done – but young players learn with enough practise against decent opponents that one-move cheapos won’t work, they need to think further ahead.

Using databases as a learning tool to find instructive games can be useful for improvers though. Finding the right example games can be difficult – rather like trying to fill a little cup from a tsunami of games. The most recent games are not necessarily the most instructive. You either need to be prepared to search for quite some time, or preferably rely upon a coach or very strong player to find the most instructive games for you to study, or refer to books that have done this for you.

At club level it is important to make sure you learn from mistakes in your games – and develop strategies to avoid the same mistakes happening again. This comes from analysing your games with your opponents, with other club players, with a coach, or at home with the help of a chess engine. With experience, it will become much more difficult to surprise you.

As players improve and get into the very strong/master level, putting in a little bit of time to prepare for opponents can pay dividends. You can make use of the resources mentioned above and it might assist you with reaching your goals. But make sure you don’t wear yourself out in advance – you need plenty of energy at the board itself in case the unexpected still occurs!

This short film about Kasparov mentions his dislike of surprises.

Angus James