The element of surprise – Part 2


Following on from last week’s post, I have a few observations.
Obviously not many of us will be privileged enough to play for the World Championship; in a match or in the Candidates tournament. But we will play games against players who know us well and who will prepare against our standard defences.
Basically there are two strategies for designing an opening repertoire.
Principled: Take for example Alexei Dreev or Sergei Tiviakov. They play the same lines again and again and improve their repertoires incrementally. They are very difficult to throw off balance and quite often have nice small surprises ready. What is characteristic for the openings they play is that they are generally not too sharp. If they are surprised and react poorly, it does not mean an immediate loss. The advantage of this method is that you will get a game every time and you will be familiar with the structures. The disadvantage is that you very rarely win in the opening.
Opportunistic: Other people like Peter Heine Nielsen or myself, move around. We try to outsmart the opponent and be one or two hours ahead of him in opening preparation by analysing a new idea; either against his favourite defence, or maybe just in a side line. The advantage is that you might be better out of the opening and get ahead on the clock; the disadvantage is that you can quite easily be outsmarted and end up in a territory you are quite unfamiliar with, which means the decisions are harder to make; an expensive scenario on the clock.
The combined strategy: It has always been my opinion that a combination of the two is the best strategy. You will see a lot of grandmasters do this; half the time they will play their standard repertoire and the other half they will try something new, just for the sake of it. In this way, you are a moving target. The opponent never knows if you are going to go for familiar ground or try something new.
If you are able to do this, develop a main repertoire, but be ready to deviate often enough to keep the element of surprise.
Some players learn an opening for a tournament and then move on to a new one for the next one. I have quite a lot of personal affection for this strategy, as it can be very difficult to make real progress against something you are not even sure your opponent will play, without the help of a second. But the downside can be that you do not keep up with your core repertoire and become an entirely opportunistic player.
If I were to give any advice (which obviously will not fit everybody) it would be to start by building a core repertoire and after some time – say six months – spend half your time looking at openings in your core repertoire and half the time on whatever takes your fancy. In this way you will get the best of both worlds.

37 thoughts on “The element of surprise – Part 2”

  1. There’s a fourth option. You improve your repertoire but using very sharp openings (Najdorf, Grunfeld) as a base. You risk that a big improvement can destroy your repertoire but you have also big surprises for your opponents. In my opinion the distinction between risky and solid openings is not about the position they bring on the board but the “narrowness” of their path toward the correctness. For example NimzoIndian and Grunfeld are both “unbalanced” opening but the Nimzo is far more solid in the sense that an improvement is not going to bury it.

  2. There is the chucky way. You play all openings and you are an expert in all of them!
    Jokes aside. I think it depends on what level you play. If you are 1800 there is no need to vary the openings. The main thing is to know them well. If you are 2200 or above you need to be flexible since the oponents will be capable of deep preparation. The sharper opening the more flexibility is needed. It is not advisable to play the dragon all the time since it is a quite narrow opening.

  3. Gilchrist is a Legend

    I use the combined strategy, having main opening(s) and playing completely unrelated or unfamilar openings against certain opponents if a new move can be used. It also depends on the level of the player. 2300+ and/or trying for IM and GM norms I would say varying openings is almost a prerequisite. For example, if I play the Grünfeld and I suspect the GM opponent prepared for this, I would see the database to see the player’s performance and variations against other openings, for example, the Nimzo-Indian, and if I can try some new move against some line where I see weaknesses in the play or preparation, for example 4. Qc2, then that could be a surprise preparation. I think this is quite necessary for norm players and 2300+.

  4. Jacob, would you advice the ‘combined approach’ also for amateurs? It certainly sounds attractive to me, but on the other hand we (as amateurs) are constantly being told not to spend too much time on openings but focus on other aspects of the game… Is there maybe some kind of rating level above which this would be the preferred approach?



    How are French books progressing? Can we know lines which will be included in Playing the French and GM Rep Winawer?


    By the way, with so many good repertoire books on French I’m quite perplexed what to play. Hopefully your solutions shall be the best.

  6. I just noted a strange move for black after 1. d4 Nc6 2. d5 Ne5 3. e4 e6 4. f4 (as suggested by Avrukh in GMR 2) 4. … exd5!? as played recently by Rapport and Ulibin. Point being that black seems to have perpetual checks after fxe5 or at least regain enough material (as in Erdos-Rapport, 2012), and other moves don’t look too promising either.
    Avrukh claims that 4. … Ng6 is the “only move”, which, well, was true until 2011 when it was first played 🙂 Any ideas how white could/should play here? Thanks!

  7. George Hollands

    This 4…exd5! line is covered in “The Dark Knight System” recently published and is actually included in the downloadable excerpt of the book from chessdirect and I’m guessing the publisher’s site too.


    ### Grandmaster Preparation ###

    Jacob, your 3 questions procedure in positional/strategic decision making really works! What an excellent algorithm that is so strong and so obvious. No wonder that I couldn’t incorporate it by myself… I was deluded by so many methods and sorry authors. Thanks again 🙂

  9. @Ray
    Many people improved their play by studying the openings (studying does not mean memorisation). It is not my generally preferred way, but if you feel inspired, probably it is a good think to spend some of your time on.

    There are always many ways to do something.

    I am on a week off at the moment, training a 2600 youngster. We use the three questions from time to time here as well, and it helps him a lot to see things clearer.

    I do not want to compare it with other training methods; only say that this one contributes something quite valuable on all levels I have worked with as a trainer (beginner to close to 2700s). The reason is simple:

    Weaknesses are always important; games are decided on weak squares
    The overall activity of the pieces is always important; thus activating your worst placed piece is relevant at some point in all games.
    The opponent’s ideas are always crucial.

    None of this is controversial; the only “new” thing is the questions idea.

    Here I have simply borrowed from psychology, where we often see that finding the answer is not the problem, finding the question is…


    @Jacob Aagaard
    Thanks for comment.

    I just want once more to emphasize the sheer importance of openings and a rational choice of opening repertoire based on various elements. If you shall properly investigate this topic in GM Preparation Thinking inside the box you’ll be a god.

    But till now actually nobody has answered this hot question. Many have tried:

    – Johan Hellsten: Mastering Opening Strategy;
    – Lars Bo Hansen: How Chess Games Are Won and Lost;
    – Dvoretsky (shallowly) and Watson: Mastering the Chess Openings – Vol. 4

  12. I would say that a lot depends on your level- there is a big difference in what is right for between what is right for up to 2000, 2000-2200, 2200-2400 and what is right for a professional.
    I still feel that following a particular player isn’t a bad idea although what you do if they suddenly switch from say 1 e4 to 1d4, I really don’t know !


    How are French books progressing? Can we know lines which will be included in Playing the French and GM Rep Winawer?
    By the way, with so many good repertoire books on French I’m quite perplexed what to play. Hopefully your solutions shall be the best.

    On one blog Nikos wrote about 🙂 Playing the French 🙂

    “There is a lot of theory in the book … but the main try had been to “teach” how to play the positions. As we all know theory moves forward, but the main ideas don’t. That’s why more there are about 250 exercizes in the book … featuring important positions, some theoretical ones we think that the reader should not forget, but also important strategic, positional or tactical themes that have to be in the “database” of all French Defence players.”

    This sounds great. Such concept can be seen in new Kotronias KID book. Is this your new general concept, or only for training books and GM Guide books? I’m satisfied.


    @Jacob Aagaard
    To my mind this is very good because before delving into overview and memorization of variation student struggles to solve position which he will later recall during studying.

    Are French books going to be finished in September?

  15. Gilchrist is a Legend

    @Jacob Aagaard
    I had a feeling it was early October, but still that sounds good, two French books as birthday present–that Playing the French book definitely has been on my favourites list. I suppose Rating and Attack/Defence are probably around 23/09 or so then.

  16. @croflash
    We have just moved office and had some communication problems with the printer about the covers, so we have been a bit snowed under. But I am sure it will be there soon.

  17. @Boki
    Two years ago, yes. Third office in Glasgow. Second time in this building. Although our new office is a bit smaller, I have to say I like it more.

  18. Gilchrist is a Legend

    I see the .pdf excerpts for Attack/Defence and Rating, quite interesting. The section with the Training Programme is something new. Also the insight into Scandinavian chess in the book looks quite enjoyable.

  19. @Gilchrist is a Legend

    Agreed, looks very interesting and Axel Smith’s background story is also quite intriguing. It doesn’t hurt either that I seem to enjoy and get a lot out of chess books written by Danes and Swedes. 🙂

  20. Gilchrist is a Legend

    Definitely, and there is one book whereabout I am very enthusiastic–The GM Repertoire French (Winawer) Vol 1 by Swedish GM Berg. And of course any book from Jacob from Denmark.

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