Social Approval In The Chess Openings

Chess players probably like to think of themselves as being independent thinkers, devoid of the weaknesses that affect other humanoids such as the need for social approval. But I’m not so sure that this is the case, I think they’re highly susceptible to this tendency in their choice of chess openings.

If anyone doubts that this then please consider playing Lasker’s version of the Berlin Defence (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. 0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Be7) . To the best of my knowledge this is perfectly sound plus its rarity means that nobody below 2400 level will have a clue about what to do about it. Or what about the old Steinitz Defence with 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. 0-0 Be7 5.Nc3 d6. Once again there’s almost nobody who’s playing it these days even though it was a favorite of two World Champions, Lasker and Capablanca. Why doesn’t this appeal to more people? Probably because it has not been played much by a modern super-GM. There again should Vishwanathan Anand  suddenly adopt it as his main defence to 1.e4 it will become high fashion. And when this happens its surprise and psychological value will be lost.

There is a deep idea at the root of this. The willingness to falsify one’s ideas is essential to the chess playing process, chess players must find the flaws in their ideas before their opponents do. Yet this process necessarily involves the avoidance of being drawn along by the crowd which is easier said than done. I now recall with regret that I gave up the Berlin Defence to the Spanish (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. 0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Be7) when John van Der Weil played 6.d5 against me in the London Junior Championships of 1975. The other kids were playing a variety of modern stuff and my choice of opening met with derision. The loss to Van der Weil was enough to discourage me, the social disapproval conning me that my position was just bad. But had I maintained my psychological independence I might have found 6…Nd6 7.Ba4 e4.

Can this trait be cultivated by those who don’t have it? I believe that it can by gradually getting used to doing unfashionable things. Try playing the Berlin or something similarly unpopular and wear dated clothes to a trendy party. Now it could be that your party invites will dry up and your team mates will make fun of you, but do you really care? The feeling of independence is something worth having, quite apart from the time you’ll save in not having to study the Najdorf or Dragon. This is also one of those things with some very potent applications outside of chess, for example it’s the primary requirement for successfully playing financial markets. And it’s also a means by which we grow up into individuated human beings.