Tuesday, July 16, 2013

To Play or not to Play Vanilla Chess Openings

A common piece of advice often heard is that improving players should play "sound tactical openings" in order to improve. Another statement is that "anything is playable below Master level". This is very interesting to me and at the same time very confusing. I really would like to gain a better understanding of the situation. 

If open tactical games is food for brain and a solid ground for Improvement, then why not play wild gambits?

If you you offer your opponent a substantial advantage, then you will have a difficult task winning. Still, I do not see how playing loosing positions will slow down your improvement process. It is a canonical advice to play stronger opponents in order to improve. Playing against a stronger opponent is a loosing position. 

If  you play a strange gambit with a name worthy of a middle earth dwarven prince lord, then you might have problems playing Magnus Carlsen but is it really the gambit to blame?

My home work for you, dear readers, is to come up with arguments for why it is benefitial for Chess Improvement to play vanilla Openings.


  1. I think learning and playing the vanilla openings, as you call them, gives you a big plus in the long run, given if you do it properly, you will add a brick at a time, and come up (eventually) with something very solid and satisfying. Playin random things (or unsound) may give you quick points, but won't be such a benefit in the long run. Also, playing vanilla openings will give you the possibility to go through master games and learn about middle game ideas and the like.

  2. I'm not sure what is the best. But I think stronger players must play more sound main openings.

    On my C-level you will not win a game alone by getting a small advantage from the opening. I'm sure everybody on my level, have played games where you have had a big advantage, but blundered and lost the game.

    My current view is to play a mix of gambits and more solid lines. I have learned by heart maybe 4-5 moves for both sides, but after that I try follow general opening principles and just play sound moves. I can't say my results are worse now then before.

  3. "Anything is playable below Master level"...very true, but there again, where I saw this written, it was Garry Kasparov being quoted, and I would guess that he could play any opening with an excellent chance of winning ( let alone achieving a decent middlegame position ) ! Same for Carlsen, and most probably any GM worth their salt, since I would think they've all been through the process of generalisation, specialisation, re-generalisation and then refinement, particularly around openings.

    What distinguishes GMs, in my viewpoint, is that they have a (deep) understanding of opening principles, so although it may be a gambit they are playing, they actually understand the chess reasons behind the gambit, and use these to steer the game to a position they recognise and want. I probably don't need to add they they seem to do this effortlessly.

    If I play gambits, I may have read/seen the reasons, but understanding at a level that allows me to benefit from a gain in tempo, initiative, development etc, is a skill that I do not have ( at the moment :) at least in any significant depth or consistency. I have enough trouble doing these things when I have a good position, so starting with a dis-advantage by playing a gambits seems to put me twice as far behind !

    I think it all depends what one wants from one's chess. Am I intending to take on Magnus Carlsen with a serious intention of winning ? or is my aim to gain a better understanding and appreciation of the position in front of me, with a view to having a more enjoyable and satisfying game ( and winning more often :) or is it even to enjoy the game in a more social and fun atmosphere ?

    Personally, I have played gambits occasionally ( real ones, like the King's Gambit ) but I find the tension/stress too much really to enjoy playing them ( or playing against them, since one is supposed always to accept a gambit, in order to ' prove it false'). The only one I have played regularly is a gambit in name only, since the gambit pawn is usually re-gained with ease : the Reti gambit is more of a way for me to tip the die-hard French player off-balance, and save me learning umpteen lines of theory [see http://signalman90.blogspot.nl/2010/04/monthly-standard-april-round-1.html] for my failure, although I have had success with it as well ! ).

    In ICC TL, if you look at openings, there are few gambits played. For example in TL51 a quick look shows 8 of 1300 games ( ie less than 2% ) are real gambits ( ie King's/Evans/Vienna/Falkbeer/Budapest, since Queen's and Benko tend not to be so gambity, as I understand it ). This certainly seems to imply that amateurs don't play gambits so much in their 'semi-serious' chess games.

    But maybe that's the point ? Its' "horses for courses" as the English saying goes. I'm unlikely to play a gambit in a League game, but could well do so in blitz or in a relaxing cafe-chess game with a beer and conversation, and all of these have their place in a balanced chess education !

    So, benefits of playing 'vanilla openings' ? For me, less stress, greater availability of good knowledge from recognised sources, generally more structured play and positions arising ( this displaying the "truths" of areas such as pawn structures, and revealing better signposts to recognised and repeatable plans ), and most importantly, I enjoy them !

  4. Wow!

    Thank you for interesting feedback!

    In my limited chess world, I find it more stressfull to play vanilla openings. I tend to falsely assume that my opponents always are well booked up in "normal" lines. Playing wild stuff, I know that it is more or less new to me and I am willing to bet that it is the same for my enemy.

  5. "I tend to falsely assume that my opponents always are well booked up in "normal" lines" ... I used to believe that from listening to, and reading comments in various fora, but I don't think it is so true any more.

    There is a small percentage of serious and dedicated amateurs who are booked up, and specialise in opening study, but I think the majority ( in fact the large majority ) are not. They either switch openings around a lot ( hence not getting to know positions ) or they just know a few moves to start, without knowing why.

    I'm always surprised in my post-TL-match chats how many players say they were "out-of-book" at move 5 or something ( invariably less than move 10 ! ), and who also did not check what openings I usually play.

    Having a day job ( & social life ) means that though I want to put the effort in, it sometimes just doesn't happen consistently..it's a real bummer, and probably the real reason why the belief is that chess is a young man's game. After all, they have time to focus on things like chess, shoe-staring-indie-guitar, geeky kernel programming and world of warcraft !

    In the end, I think you probably need to study a wild or gambit opening as well, in order to obtain the most advantage from it, so why not put that into classic openings instead ?

    Just a thought ;-)

  6. Good point! Youth is wasted on the Young!

  7. Opening "study" is a waste of time on lower levels. You don't win or lose your games because of the opening.

    If you gambit a pawn, just forget it. Develop ALL pieces and play active moves. Sometimes you will get quick wins, sometimes YOU will loose quickly. So what... All losses are valuable lessons, if you analyse them afterwards. Don't be afraid of loosing rating points. Rating is just a number and chess is a game.

  8. Good Points! I do have had a few wins that might be misstaken for "book wins". However, a closer look would tell you that the Quick wins were all from a standard f7-sacc set-up. The wins had very Little to do with theory but quite a lot to do with pattern recognition.