The problem with the white pieces

First of several thoughts on chess openings.

I played in seven tournaments this year. Let’s say I averaged four rounds per (though I typically miss at least one game in weeknight tourneys) for 28 rated games. 14 whites and 14 blacks. And let’s further imagine that with black, I faced 1.e4 seven times and 2.d4 seven times. (Not exactly true, but most Nf3 and c4 stuff transposes into 1.d4 lines in my games.) 

About three years ago I finally decided to learn an opening repertoire. For black, I bought two basic books. One of the two doesn’t really rely on theory so much as themes, so while I did study the book, I didn’t memorize a lot. The other black opening is the Alekhine, requiring that I be fairly familiar with about seven major variations, two or three of them requiring quite a lot of very specific memory of correct move sequences. The payoff has been tremendous. Lots of great results on that side of the board. I did get thrashed by Greg Kaden in a common Alekhine line (thanks Greg), but I took that line back to the book and subsequently beat an expert in the same line, with my book knowledge in that game running all the way out to an exchange sacrifice around move 19. Results this year suggest I can play these openings at 2200 level or so, and now I’ve branched out and I am studying a couple of more classical openings as black to broaden my understanding and vary my games. (And not be reliant on such an unstable opening as the Alekhine.)

Now here’s the problem: white.

There are two players in the top section at my club who play (or have played) the French defense. I very rarely see the French. And if I do run into a random French player, what line will he play – Winawer? Rubenstein? McCutcheon, Classical? Should I choose an early deviation to avoid that complexity (the hated Exchange, the dull Advance, the nutty Alapin)?

When I’ve studied up for the French, I’m more likely to run into a Sicilian. But which Sicilian? Najdorf, Dragon, Sveshnikov? Maybe I learn the 3.Bb5 lines to avoid all that – but then I suddenly everyone’s playing the Kan and Taimanov with 2…e6. So now I need a whole book on the …e6 Sicilians to prepare for the two …e6 Sicilians I’ll face next year? And a Caro book and a Vienna book and a Modern book?

For decades I chose completely offbeat lines and gambits to help avoid this problem. That approach took me as far as it could, and I really believe main lines – i.e. an attempt at learning “the best” move in every position – are the way forward from here.

But I must tell you, it’s a thundering nuisance.

I think I’ll just request black from now on.

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16 thoughts on “The problem with the white pieces

  1. OK, you know my rating, so take my suggestion with 1638 grains of salt.

    For the Sicilian problem, I’m warming up to the English Attack. It seems to work against most of the major branches, Najdorf, Taimanov/Paulsen/etc., and of course the Dragon (where it oddly enough moves to the now non-existant Yugoslavia). Fun stuff. Anytime you can play g4-g5-g6 as white before move twenty, you must be winning.

    As for the French, anything works against it. :)

    -Matt

  2. How about a little S&M on that sicilian? Or do gambits fizzle out at the expert level?

    For year I avoided the 1.e4 because of the MOUNTAIN of prep work needed as white. But learning a “system” was quaint and easy and stood well until I started to climb up into the B class. I needed a new rep to break things open a bit. I’m glad I did despite teh rating drop. I have a better udnerstand for the game and open positions versus closed positions. Its nice to be able to play both ( equally like a patzer… but consistent none the less).

    I’m currently goign through my ” gambit” phase and find that the stronger players tend to know how to neutralize this and then I have to play an end game with a pawn down. I’m about to move to the “classics” phase and play main lines of the good old chess openings. When I do, My S&M will switch to a closed c3 style to come full circle as I went from a closed to open to a now closed system for White against that beast.

  3. Chris – :) Actually that’s one I’ve never played, though you’d think with the Vienna in my background it would be a natural.

    George – I made it to expert playing junk gambits (Blackmar Diemer most notably, Evans, Boden-Kieseritsky, and one famous Blumenfeld) and structurally dubious tactical stuff (Benoni, Dutch). Problem is two-fold: That was mostly the 80s, and nowadays everyone seems quite well-equipped for that stuff. And also, I don’t wanna be an expert. :)

    But I do recommend that nearly everyone can benefit from a gambit phase. You learn a lot about attacking. And tempi. And desperation. :) Just don’t stay stuck there. I think you’re on the right track.

  4. I am going through a similar issue right now. Except my problem is with both colors. I too started out playing gambits as white (Morra, Vienna and, against the French, even the Wing Gambit) and the usual structurally-unsound suspects as Black (Benoni,
    Dutch, etc.). Now things have “evolved” to the point where my repertoire consists of openings that a decent player might consider using as backups — but only as backups. Now I am at the point where I really need to start learning “real” openings. But who has the time for that??

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  6. Yes you need a book for each main line you play. I know it sounds like a lot but it helps so much.

    I was where you were a little over a year ago and I was prepping the Colle for a tournament because I was scared to play 1.e4. Then I played d4 and never even got to play the Colle and switched to e4 in the last round, I won all three whites and won the tournament incidentally. Since then I have played e4 exclusively and it just takes time…

  7. 3.Bb5 works well. When somebody plays 2…e6 I usually play d4 right away or throw c3 in first. The theory isn’t as heavy for the Taimanov or Kan and I don’t have any issues jumping into an open Sicilian against either of these set ups as neither is particularly sharp anyway.

    The French has been a huge pain for me. If you only face it once in awhile I’d recommend exchange variation. Exciting? No. but you won’t get surprised either. The downside is that the one time you will face it will be against an opponent in the last round of a tourney in which you will desperately want to win.

    Hope this helps, although I am just a humble patzer struggling to get to class c strength.

  8. Wang – I gotta tell you, “not getting surprised” is not worth playing the exchange against the French. That’s the equivalent of giving up the game IMO :)

    Kevin – The trick is “each main line you play”. What constitutes a main line? There are about six or eight main lines in the Sicilian, from the white POV, each with many subvariations. You really studying eight books for one opening that you don’t play as black? As Greg says, I don’t see ever having that much study time available.

    Greg – Why did I not know you play the Dutch? Nice. :)

  9. There is a reason I play c4 as White. I’m too freaking lazy to learn a bunch of crap to play against the French or Sicilian. Actually being a Sicilian player myself I wouldn’t mind facing it as White, but gawd I hate the French! Back in the days when I did play e4, as soon as saw the French I’d play g3, and and steer away from the usual crap.

  10. This makes me so happy I’m a patzer, where things like the Alapin French are dangerous fighting weapons of death. I feel for you. One solution: lose a bunch of games to lower your rating so that you can play the fun stuff again! :)

  11. No, I’m not looking at 8 books just for the Sicilian, I recommended Experts vs. the Sicilian as a starting point for the Open Sicilian. But I actually probably do own 7 or 8 books on the Open Sicilian, the point is you never read a survey book on an opening, but you need them around when you encounter the lines in play or in study. I have 2 books on the French that I use, a book on the Ruy but I need a couple more, and then against the Pirc, Caro-Kann, Scandinavian, Alekhine, etc. I just use my database. I think that I would define main line as anything that is theoretically intensive. And I would say that theory is only developed like this in the Ruy, French, and Open Sicilian. There are a few lines with d4 that are this deep as well (The main line of the Botvinnik Semi-Slav for instance starts at move 16 and goes to the late 20’s, with many deviations). I think that it helps to have an experienced author guide you through the immense complications and variations that are only known as a result of decades of grandmaster play.

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