Opening Repertoire Strategies

One of the most challenging aspects of chess (among many) is developing an opening repertoire. There are many ways to choose an opening repertoire. For example, some play the openings of their favorite players. Others try to go their own way, experimenting with various openings until settling onto a few favorites. Still others gain guidance from a coach or author.

Like many things in chess and life, there are many good ways to go about the task. In this article, I’m going to highlight a few of the strategies used to develop opening repertoires and some of their pros and cons.

Based on your chess goals, style, and personality, you may decide that one of these strategies are for you. Or, as I have over the years, you can mix and match.

Offbeat and Surprise Openings

This type of repertoire depends on surprising opponents with rarely played – and thus rarely studied – variations. Although these openings are generally not highly regarded, they often have some practical bite for unsuspecting or unprepared opponents. Among these openings are certain gambits as well as “odd” openings such as 1.b4 (the Sokolsky) and 1.g4 (Grob’s Attack).

Some advantages of this opening repertoire strategy:

  • You will probably be more familiar with the opening ideas than your opponent.
  • Your opponent may underestimate the danger and play complacently.
  • Unprepared opponents may fall into a tactical or positional trap, leaving them with practical problems to solve at the board.

Some disadvantages of this strategy:

  • Some of the openings are unsound if your opponent doesn’t fall for the traps, leaving you with an inferior position.
  • Your opponent doesn’t necessarily need to play the main line or the best responses to achieve equality or better.
  • It may be difficult to find high level examples of play within your opening for instructional purposes.

As an example of this strategy, I found an interesting game involving Sokolsky himself playing the opening that bears his name (although it is also known as the Orangutan or Polish opening). Although the opening move (1.b4) seems to break general opening principles, it trades a wing pawn for some central control and an active bishop on b2. His opponent was a strong player as well, IM Yakov Estrin (who surprisingly has a few losses against 1.b4).

Set-up or System Openings

There are some openings that focus on playing a single formation or move order against almost anything their opponent can put up. Some of these openings fall into the off-beat category, but some of them are quite well-known. For example, the King’s Indian Defense falls somewhat into this category, and has been played by two of the greatest players ever – Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. Other examples of this include the London, Colle, and King’s Indian Attack for White.

Advantages of playing opening systems:

  • At least for the first few moves, you don’t have to memorize much theory. (NM Jim West is a big fan of the King’s Indian Attack, and discusses that it allows you to focus on studying the middlegame instead of memorizing opening moves as he discussed in my interview with him).
  • With some exceptions, many of the strategic ideas are applicable in many positions, making it easier to find a plan.
  • With the exception of openings like the King’s Indian Defense, many of these openings does not have a lot of developed theory, so you don’t have to worry about falling into a long theoretical line with your opponent.
  • Similar to offbeat openings, many of these opening systems – again with the exception of the King’s Indian Defense – will not be heavily studied by your opponents.

Disadvantages of this strategy:

  • Although some of these openings are quite sound and well respected, by nature of being a “system” there are some variations that do not press aggressively for an opening edge (this isn’t such a big deal for most amateurs).
  • Playing a narrow set of positions (with a narrow set of plans and strategic ideas) may hinder overall chess development.

The London System is a popular opening both at club level and is making more appearances among the world’s elite, including US chess star Gata Kamsky.

Mainstream and Fashionable

The mainstream approach is just as it sounds – e.g. following the opening variations and the latest developments of the top players. There is a lot of scope within this category, as the top players have a wide variety of opening choices, from the solid choices of Magnus Carlsen to the aggressive options that a player like Nakamura prefers.

The advantages of these opening choices:

  • The quality of the variations have been vetted by the best players in the world, and are unlikely to be refuted anytime soon.
  • The rich strategic complexity of these openings can be very instructive for players’ overall development. (I discuss this with IM Greg Shahade in our article about developing an opening repertoire).
  • You will be able to find recent games by high level players with the most recent developments in your chosen variations.
  • It can be fun playing the openings of your favorite players.

The disadvantages of this opening strategy:

  • Fashionable openings change fairly often, as the strategic battles among the world’s elite can often suddenly change the landscape of the opening – requiring constant maintenance.
  • The complexity of the opening may be difficult to understand for amateur players at times.
  • A lot of time is required because of the first two points, but also because the amount of theory developed in these lines can be enormous.

The nature of fashionable openings is that variations that were once rare can be revived very quickly when championed by one of the world’s elite. One of the most striking examples of this is the Berlin Defense against the Ruy Lopez. Vladimir Kramnik resurrected this defense in his World Championship Match with Garry Kasparov. In that match, the Berlin defense allowed Kramnik to hold key games with the black pieces, allowing him to capture the title from Kasparov after winning two games with White. His revival of this opening had long-term ramifications, as every 1.e4 player who plays the Ruy has to decide whether or not they want to face it and many of the world’s current top ten include it in their repertoire with both colors.

Other Opening Repertoire Strategies

Besides the three I listed above, there are a couple other strategies that can be employed. As with the strategies above, there are pros and cons to each.

Here are a couple examples:

  • “Almost” Mainstream Openings – Playing strong openings that may have been fashionable at one point and are still sound, but are not as popular as they once were. This includes openings played by strong players who are not quite on the main stage of the chess world – such as strong IM’s and “ordinary” GM’s.
  • Modeling a Player – Simply copying the opening repertoire choices of a favorite player. For example, playing 1.e4 with White and the Gruenfeld or KID and Sicilian Defense as Black and studying the games of Bobby Fischer. This can provide some cohesion to your repertoire, but needs to be updated with the latest developments – particularly in sharp openings.

Conclusion

I hope you found this discussion helpful. For most amateurs, all of the main openings are sound and you shouldn’t fear experimenting with different openings. As your skills develop, you can employ one of these strategies to pick openings that meet your needs and ambitions as a player.

Good luck and as always, Better Chess!

Bryan Castro

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About Bryan Castro

Bryan Castro is a businessman and writer from Buffalo, NY. When he's not spending time with his family or working, he can be found playing chess or practicing martial arts. He combines his interests of personal development and chess on his site Better Chess Training (betterchesstraining.com).