How To Build A Chess Opening Repertoire – Part I: Getting The Lay Of The Land

Are you struggling to define a good opening repertoire for yourself?
Then continue reading.

Probably one of the most discussed topics in chess is that of having a good, solid, attacking, defensive, broad, specialized, surprising or otherwise useful opening repertoire. I must admit it has always been a challenge for me to construct an opening repertoire. In the process I have gathered a lot of knowledge and experience on the subject, so in the article below I will share my views with you and give you advice on how to build a decent opening repertoire.

8 reasons why every chess player should have a decent opening repertoire

It is important for a number of reasons to have a decent opening repertoire. So let’s begin with the end in mind. I have listed eight of them, it is possible to think of more.

  1. With White: To reach an opening advantage and put the pressure on your opponent
  2. With Black: To reach a playable middle game position
  3. To know what to play
  4. To deepen your play
  5. To be able to play faster
  6. To feel at ease
  7. To punish your opponents mistakes more often
  8. To know which tabya to study (typical middle game positions, pawn structures, endgames and tactics that arise from certain openings)

Making choices regarding your opening repertoire should take these considerations into account.

What does it mean to have a chess opening repertoire?

Having an opening repertoire means more than just deciding to go 1.d4 or 1.e4 on the first move or deciding to counter 1.e4 with for instance 1…c5 – The Sicilian Defense. Ideally what constitutes an opening repertoire is:

A set of agreements with yourself based on prior relevant research and corresponding decisions regarding the systems, defenses, lines and moves you would like to play during the first phase of a chess game.”

Of course it doesn’t stop there. This set of agreements with yourself needs to be evaluated, checked and undergo maintenance if necessary. Also it demands a certain attitude from you, the chess player.

Ok, enough introduction, let’s get our hands dirty. Ideally your opening repertoire is a happy merger of two things: you and decent chess. But what about you and what about decent chess?

Considerations when building a chess opening repertoire

Let’s start with listing some of the basic considerations when building a chess opening repertoire:

  1. What is my playing style?
  2. What is my previous experience and what are my results?
  3. How much time do I have available to study?
  4. Should I play theory and main lines or not?
  5. Should I play to surprise or not?
  6. Am I playing for a specific result or not (win or draw)?
  7. Who is my opponent, should I be pragmatic?

OK, that was a nice exercise. Now what? To be able to decide on your opening repertoire it would seem you need to answer all of these questions. And ideally you would also like to know which questions are the most important so they can guide your decision making process step by step. In this case you would take a software-wizard-like approach where the answer to the first and most important consideration influences the options for the second one and so on, until you have the ultimate answer. But here comes the catch: building and maintaining your opening repertoire is very much a practical issue and it is virtually impossible to take all the above considerations into account and put them in some kind of expert system that will provide you with the perfect answer.

Cutting through the thicket, my opinion and advice for you

Let’s revisit the considerations listed above and see if we can split them into groups. I suggest the following labels: “You”, “Chess Considerations” and “The Circumstances”.

  • You
    • What is my playing style?
    • What is my previous experience and what are my results?
  • Chess Considerations
    • Should I play theory and main lines or not?
    • Should I play to surprise or not?
  • The Circumstances
    • How much time do I have available to study?
    • Am I playing for a specific result or not?
    • Who is my opponent, should I be pragmatic?

OK, that helps! Now allow me to share my opinion with you and give you advice which is based on the assumption that you want to optimize your chances to experience that winning feeling and also satisfaction about the way you went about it:

Forget about The Circumstances and focus on yourself and decent chess!

In my opinion it really does not matter how much time you have to study. As if a limited amount of time would suggest you would do better to build your repertoire around lesser known (surprise) systems that do not involve a lot of studying?! I don’t think that holds true. You will find that studying (dodgy) surprise systems or side lines can take up as much time as studying main theory, since after all the game is still played with the same 32 pieces on the same 64 squares. Believe me, I have been there. Besides, what is time? What is the difference between learning a surprise system in one month, and learning more theory oriented lines in two or three months time? Will you be playing chess after those months also? I sure hope so. So why not think long term, study for the years to come and have a strong and solid opening base?

Also it is well possible that studying main theory has statistically more practical value since your opponents will more often play these lines as well. And last but not least, certain (dodgy) systems or side lines may have surprise value, but what if the surprise has evaporated? Then statistically your chances of reaching an objectively better position or a playable middle game position will have deteriorated. The difference between += and = is significant! Of course, sometimes you will be able to surprise your opponent, force them to think for themselves and benefit from it. But in the end all you have at your disposal is the objective value of the position on the board, not some surprise value that has evaporated. This becomes more and more apparent if you improve and continue to play higher rated players, since they will see through your surprises, schemes and traps. To further stress this point let me refer to a game I played over a week ago. After 1.e4 my opponent played some kind of a side line of the Closed Sicilian against my 1…c5. I obtained an easy game and went on to win. After the game we had a short discussion:

“I thought your opening was rather tame”, I remarked.
“Yes, could be, but I wanted to play my own game”, my opponent answered.

Well, my opponent played his own game (by the way what does that mean?) and lost.
Therefore: Striving to have an edge is a vital element of playing stronger chess.

Of course it is important to try and figure out which systems are dodgy or not, and which ones give decent chances for an opening advantage or a playable middle game. I plan to discuss certain systems in How To Build A Chess Opening Repertoire – Part II. Some I am more critical about than others.

Also the question if you are playing for a specific result should preferably not lead to a change of your opening repertoire. In how many cases can we say that we definitely need a win or a draw? Maybe in that last tournament round where we could emerge victorious? Maybe once per year in our club competition? By the way, aren’t we chess lovers always playing for a win? And even then, I advise you to stick to your guns, since playing what you know combined with decent positions is what makes draws or wins games.

Also I advice you not to be influenced by the person of your opponent in the sense that you would deviate from your opening repertoire. Why build an opening repertoire only to deviate from it? You would miss out on probably another useful experience that could deepen your understanding of that very same repertoire. Just play your pet defense or prepare for his pet defense against your repertoire moves.

You

Having said that, all it boils down to is You!
In How To Build A Chess Opening Repertoire – Part II, I will further discuss the issues of previous experience and results and style. I will discuss in detail what different chess styles there are, which steps you can take to determine your own style and which opening systems fit your style.

Cheers,

Waldemar
Giving advice

6 Comments

  1. Johan April 26, 2009

    I agree that you may not play to passive in the opening otherwise you run after the facts the entire game (if opponent doesn’t make an blunder offcourse).

    But i learned my opening(s) by playing, not out a book or dvd. I only purchased a book of my after i saw that it discussed the opening that i thought i somehow invented by playing (in action and reaction by what my opponents played against it and had to tell about it in the postmortum).

    But i am curious how you gonna categorize which openings are by which playing style since i am not sure that a positional player doesn’t have to learn some tactical openings aswell.

  2. Roman July 9, 2009

    “What is the difference between learning a surprise system in one month, and learning more theory oriented lines in two or three months time? Will you be playing chess after those months also? I sure hope so. So why not think long term, study for the years to come and have a strong and solid opening base?”

    That’s a great point, I totally agree with this. My only note (from personal experience) is that where learning a “less theory oriented line” can take 1 month, a main line can take 1 year – compare 2.c3 Sicilian with open Sicilian. When you switch from 1. d4 to 1.e4, compromises like these have to be made occasionally while you’re rebuilding a major part of your repertoire.

    Cheers,
    Roman

  3. Herbert July 15, 2009

    I truly enjoyed reading your encouraging pronouncements. My only problem is that these days my schedule do not leave me with muuch time to study.

    Hovever, I give thumbs up to this site.

    Keep up the good work you guys are doing.

    Herbert

  4. will May 3, 2010

    i enjoyed this article and found it valuable. i play a “surprise” opening however it never seems to shady and can transpose into an English
    here goes:
    1 e3 e5
    2 c4 ?? I have seen d4 which is followed by cxd4 qsdf nc3 which is a solid situation for white, development of the queen seems a little premature and time can be gained on it in a variety of ways
    if you want to try this opening out please do,
    BE WARNED it requires good reaction when you see a move you dont expect so be prepared.

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