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Chess opening preparation (Part 1 of 2)

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The following (both Parts 1 & 2) is based partly on old chesstalk posts of mine:

How does a player prepare his openings or prepare for games? Much has been written about these subjects, but I will try to sum up what I think is some very useful advice for players below grandmaster level especially.

First, before thinking about tournament play, try to figure out if you have a suitable repertoire. To check this, or to build a custom made repertoire from scratch, first think about:

1. Your style:

I can offer two methods to appraise one's style in the process of selecting a repertoire, the second method being a more complex one I devised for myself, which I could recommend to at least serious players rated 2000+ who have more time to spare:

Method (I): Appraise how tactical vs. how positional you are (you may be more balanced than you may think). If you are not sure of your overall tendency, I can suggest the following 10 criteria to rate yourself - the tendencies on the left I think are more indicative of being tactical (but not always so). All these criteria can be used to help narrow down the openings and variations you might use, besides establish your overall tendency:

- like middlegame (queens on) vs. like endgame
- like sharp (precise) play vs. like solid (safe) play
- like attack and counterattack/defence vs. like safe king
- like compensation for material vs. like extra material
- like open positions (and often bishops) vs. like closed positions (and often knights)
- like dynamic play vs. like good (static) pawn structure
- like potential (for several good pawn breaks or advances) vs. like space
- like middlegame pawn play (commitment) vs. like middlegame piece play
- like uncontrolled (wild or intuitive) positions vs. like controlled (calculable or logical) positions
- like complex positions vs. like simple positions

Method (II): A sort of self-survey method that I once used to verify whether I should like my current repertoire, i.e. whether to change it in any way, is to try to quantify openings in terms of criteria I selected to represent my style, which I could rate of equal importance, or weight some criteria more than others. I weighted my past results (if poor, worth 0 else 1x2), or having experience with an opening (if not much, worth 0 else 1x2), slightly more than all the other otherwise equally weighted criteria I used (I arbitrarily chose x2, instead of the usual x1, in these 2 cases) . To be clear, relative past results with an opening and relative experience with an opening count as two separate criteria.

The criteria I used were based partly on conventional words of advice from opening/repertoire advice I had read. After I scored a given opening for Black (of all the defences that exist, except those that I ruled out automatically out of hand [e.g. Black defences that should lead to a clear disadvantage]), using each criteria that I had a long list of, I added up that opening's total criteria score.

The Black openings that had the top criteria scores (and/or having at least a minimum score I arbitarily selected, if any of the candidates met it) would be among my choices for a potential repertoire. I then did something similar for my choice of White openings. I don't mind having a wide repertoire, but many players want just one or two defences with Black, and just one or two first moves with White (along with one or two variations against each major Black defence).

Over the years I used various criteria (many included in the self-survey I later came up with) in arriving at my current repertoire, or else it was arrived at at least partly by a sort of natural selection process based most heavily on past results.

My self-survey method involved such criteria as whether I could play for a win 'reliably' with at least one line vs. everything the other side might throw at me (taking evaluations according to known theory I agreed with, and how dry a line looked or statistics suggested, or was pronounced as such by a stronger player than myself). I also took as a criteria whether I could do so with at least three such lines whether or not they were reliable, whether an opening scored a good win percentage on average in databases, whether an opening scored a good win percentage (I choose 12.5%, or 1/8, as an ideal minimum for Black) in 2600+ vs. 2600+ games, whether an opening was well respected, king safety (either that or having a counterattack/counterplay).

I also included as criteria various common pawn structures (that possibly tend to arise) which I tended to favour (or not), whether defence was required (e.g. for a pawn) without a counterattack, whether lots of memory work was required (e.g. many variations past move 20), initiative or dynamic potential often available to my side, lots of space, easy development, ability to play solidly/positionally/tactically/sharply/offbeat vs. opponent. Regarding the ability just mentioned, I like to have all these options (within one or more of my chosen openings, for both colours) in order to make use of what I see as the fairly universal or balanced style (overall) that I think I've acquired over the years. I also often like having lots of transpositional avenues available to reach a given opening. I didn't rate being down material as a criteria, as assuming my side is otherwise okay that normally doesn't phase me.

Another, special, criteria I used was how many fairly popular variations/defences I might have to face in practice. Prefering a low number (and given that I nevertheless didn't want this criteria to have equal weight to others), this criteria was scored 1/n, where n is the number of popular variations/defences I might face. This special criteria also can come in handy for breaking otherwise tied criteria scores for two or more openings.

Note also that I used my various criteria to score each major variation the other side might play against me (if I were to be Black) that I was scoring overall (or I would score each variation I could use against each standard defence, against a given first move to be scored overall, if I were to be White). I then noted the major variations/defences with the highest and lowest scores, giving me an overall range - I then used the average of these highest and lowest scores to give me an overall value for an opening (or first move) that I was giving a (final) criteria score to. This involves more work scoring White first moves, and the work overall took some days for me to finish, as far as scoring both colours goes, even though I was able to take advantage of a quick recall of my impressions of the characteristics of many variations or defences that I was scoring - an experienced NM like myself often has developed an impression or memory of a great number of openings, through study or experience, over decades.

Somewhat shockingly, and yet also pleasantly, after I painstakingly went through all existing openings/defences that I didn't reject automatically beforehand, I found that all the openings in my existing repertoire completely agreed with my top criteria scores for all unrejected openings/defences. The exercise was still useful in a practical sense, because I discovered other openings that were almost as good in terms of their criteria scores, and I could keep them in mind as the first additions or replacements to my repertoire.

Whatever method you might use to judge your style, bear in mind that style can change over time (often many years).

[edit: below is a link to another blog entry of mine that features a four dimensional model to classify chess styles, and which might also be used to help select a repertoire.]

Next, if you still haven't confidently established what your repertoire ought to be, let's assume you used Method (I) above, and know roughly how tactical (or not) you are. Now it's time to think about:

2. Selecting your repertoire (with both colours):

Might you want to have a wide or narrow repertoire with either colour? The answer may well depend on how much study time you have, or else how good or bad your memory is. A person's memory can be improved, but this can take quite some time to occur. The vast majority of relatively modern grandmasters seem to inevitably acquire a wide repertoire, but for amatuer players this may not always be optimal.

Might you want to play a repertoire of openings that are mainline or at least somewhat offbeat (or a combination of both) with either colour? Again there is the question of available study time or powers of memory. At least mainline positional openings often do not have relatively many long lines that really should be remembered (i.e. to survive the opening phase). Some tactical mainline openings have within them interesting sideline variations that are less popular or less explored, or that are less sharp.

After taking the above into account, finalize your choice of openings and variations by taking into account transpositional possibilities (at least for within the first few moves of the game) that both you and any possible opponents may use at some future time.

Links to 3 set repertoire ideas of mine for anyone interested, or if one is still undecided on one's repertoire:

Below is a link to Part 2:

Updated 02-09-2021 at 02:23 AM by Kevin Pacey

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Chess opening repertoire discussion