Dana’s opening philosophy

by admin on July 5, 2008

(In case you can’t read the writing in this photo, it says “Dana’s Secret Chess File.”)

Yes, that’s right. One of the responses to my post “Taking stock” suggested that I should cover more openings in this blog. So I’m going to do it — in some future entries I’ll post some of the contents of Dana’s Secret Chess File. I guess it won’t be secret any more, huh?

But I’m not going to start today! Before I start unveiling the contents of Dana’s Secret Chess File, I first want to say a few words about Dana’s Opening Philosophy.

The first axiom in my philosophy is that opening theory is a scam! For anyone rated under 2200, that is, and probably even for anyone rated under 2400. If you look at Jesse Kraai’s Step-by-Step Training Guide on chesslecture.com, you will notice that he writes that when you get to the 2400+ level: “Now is the time to take the openings seriously.” No earlier than that. Not when you’re a class D player, or class C, or B, or A, or expert, or even a beginning master.

Why do I say opening theory is a scam, instead of a harmless waste of time? Because grandmasters make a living off of our pathetic belief that if we just knew the openings a little bit better, we could play as well as they do. They write books on openings that are only useful for players over 2400 … but who buys those books? At least 95 percent of the customers are amateurs.

So the first point in Dana’s opening philosophy is to ditch all your opening books, except maybe for a general reference book (I use a 25-year-old copy of Modern Chess Openings.) In particular, you should not pay attention to my opening analysis either! If I ever wrote a book on chess openings, I would call it Do Not Buy This Book. Either that, or I’d make it a blank book that the reader would write in. Unfortunately, I don’t think it would sell very well …

The second point in Dana’s opening philosophy is to do your own analysis. That’s really key. That is part of why I don’t want you to buy my book!

Why do I want you to do your own analysis? Because that’s what the grandmasters do. That’s what makes a Kasparov so good. It’s not because he has memorized the latest innovations in Openings X, Y, and Z — it’s because he discovered the latest innovations in Openings X, Y, and Z! Unfortunately, chess amateurs learn the wrong lesson. Instead of doing what the grandmasters do, which is come up with their own ideas in the openings, they think they can achieve chess mastery by copying the moves the grandmasters play. Sorry! You won’t become a great writer by typing the works of Shakespeare.

Of course, when you do your own analysis, it won’t be as good as the grandmasters’ analysis, and your innovations will not be as good either. Don’t let that dissuade you! Your opponents aren’t grandmasters either. If you are a class-B player, and you’re playing against class-B players, then a well-thought-out innovation that you prepare at home will be as effective as an innovation prepared by a grandmaster. In fact, it may be more effective. Why? Because you will understand your reasons for playing it, and your opponent won’t! The goal of an opening innovation is to force your opponent to think for himself, instead of playing memorized lines.

Now that I’ve told you to come up with your own innovations, you might wonder how. Well, this is a matter of personal style and taste, but what I often look for are good developing moves that are for some reason not the most popular. Look for those #2 or #3 or #4 moves that are in the footnotes of your general opening reference. Better yet, don’t even look at the footnotes. What do you think is the right move in this position? If your answer is different from the most popular book move, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Just the opposite! It means that the herd of chess players, in their eagerness to play the orthodox line, have taken leave of their senses and forgotten that there are other good moves in the position.

True, the grandmaster at the head of the herd might have had a very good reason to prefer his move to yours. But the rest of the players in the herd don’t know that. They have no clue why the book move is better than yours. So there are two two things that might happen. Either your move is as good as the book move (in which case, hooray! You’ve just found a TN!) or else the book move is a little bit better but your opponents won’t be able to figure out why. Either way, go ahead and play your move! You’ll come out ahead. Eventually, you might figure out why the book move is better, and then you can go on and play the book move with a clear conscience.

Just make sure that your ideas have some grounding in common sense. I’m not a big fan of playing things like Grob’s Opening (1. g4) because it doesn’t really have a positional basis. As I said, look for moves that seem reasonable but just happen not to be popular.

Finally, use your computer, but use it with caution. It’s like having your own private grandmaster to help you! The computer will spot resources (both for you and your opponent) that you either overlooked or underestimated. But don’t get sucked in too deep by computer analysis. Sometimes a “computer move” will only work if it is followed by a half dozen more computer moves that defy common sense. In that case, you’ve fallen back into the trap of memorizing something you don’t really understand. For this reason, I think that it works better if you can come up with the main idea yourself, and verbalize what you are trying to accomplish with it. Then use the computer to firm up your analysis and maybe spot things that you missed.

Also, if your innovation is a pawn sacrifice, be aware that computers sometimes have trouble evaluating a gambit. They might initially show you as being behind by 0.75 pawns or 0.5 pawns, but then after a few moves (if it really is a good gambit) they will wake up and realize you have full compensation. So don’t be too discouraged by that initial “-0.75″ assessment. (On the other hand, if the “-0.75″ persists or even gets worse after a few moves, then your innovation is probably not so good.)

So, to sum up:

  1. Opening theory is a scam (if you are rated under 2400).
  2. Do your own opening analysis!
  3. Make the opponent think for himself.
  4. Look for good developing moves that just happen to be less popular than the main line.

Happy inventing!

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Carina July 6, 2008 at 5:02 am

Wow, I wish I’d known that before buying so many chess books (openings included) that it’s embarrasing to say how many, because I’ve only read (parts of) a dozen. Now I feel like an idiot, haha.

I’ll just have to get above 2400 so I can get some value for my money! But it’s true that I won’t get there by reading the books, which is maybe why I haven’t prioritized reading them yet. Kind of depressing. How do I get rid of those books again!?

Good points about the difference between creating your own play instead of copying others. The lines I’ve memorized, I don’t even completely trust. Simply because I haven’t REALIZED the point of the lines. Even this is a new realization. I’ll just wait with fixing it until I’ve realized all the stuff that needs fixing. :/


Michael Goeller July 6, 2008 at 8:05 pm

I have often wondered about chessplayers’ “secret files,” since I’m sure most end up doing their own analysis. I think I already had an opening notebook when I was an 1800 player. Nowadays most players keep their notebooks on their PCs using ChessBase software or PGN files. I’d love to see more of the interesting ideas even amateur players have cooked up.

I’m curious if anyone has ever inherited such a file from a strong player. It would be interesting to hear such a story. Alas, I imagine that many such files are simply thrown away by wives and children who don’t fully appreciate their value.
All the more reason to publish some of what you know during your lifetime….

So why would anyone would want to read amateur opening analysis? For one thing, it is often focused on lines that GMs will never bother to examine (or never look at closely) — including gambit lines that tend to settle far beneath the oceans of GM theory. “Theory” in non-canonical lines therefore tends to bubble up from the amateurs (both amateur analysis and amateur games) rather than floating down from on high. Increasingly, with amateur games and analysis appearing online, even GMs may be influenced by their discoveries.

Besides, GMs do not take the time to look deeply at relatively obscure lines–even when they write about them! An article by Nigel Davies or somebody looking at an off-beat or “shortcut” line is usually quite superficial. The pros are just out to make a buck and feel no need to cover things thoroughly: not only don’t they have the time (especially when time is money) but they don’t expect their amateur readers to be interested in throrough treatments. Or they may simply have space limitations imposed by publishers. Some are even quite unscrupulous, avoiding the most important lines to save themselves trouble.

An amateur analyst who takes the time to look at a relatively obscure or forgotten variation — especially with some book research and checking by a computer — can therefore produce much better results than the pros. That’s not to say that the pros would not *be able* to produce better results — if they took the same amount of time and did a thorough treatment — just that in the regular order of things the pros simply will never do that sort of analysis for you. You have to do it on your own.

I found that out early on, which is what inspired my work on the Urusov. There is just so much crap written about “amateur openings” — and so many people lazily repeating the same wrong lines — that it is actually pretty easy to develop better theory on your own than you’ll find in the books.

I could say more. But I look forward to seeing what you have to show us…


admin July 7, 2008 at 8:39 am


Don’t feel too bad about spending money on those opening books. My position here is extreme. I do think that some basic familiarity with openings is helpful. Occasionally I run into a player (usually unrated or just starting out in tournament chess) who really should learn some opening theory, because they are falling into known traps over and over. But for the great majority of experienced tournament players, I think that memorizing long book variations is a serious waste of time.

Michael, what an interesting point about the secret files that get lost and thrown away! I guess that’s all the more reason for putting my secret files out there on my blog. If I died, I don’t think my wife would destroy my files — she might want to keep them in a closet as a memento — but she certainly wouldn’t have any idea of whom to give them to. In fact, I wouldn’t know whom to give them to, either! A blog is the best way, because the people who want the analysis will find it themselves.

My opening analysis is not going to be as thorough or definitive as Michael’s Urusov pages. But I think that putting them up on the blog may force me to do a little bit more quality control — looking on Chessbase for other people who have played my pet lines, for example. I haven’t done that before. It might actually benefit me in the long run. We’ll see!


gurdonark November 11, 2008 at 2:34 pm

Thank you for writing an energetic post on a useful topic. Although I tend to buy opening books whenever they appear on sale,
I do not confuse that trait with gaining a commensurate benefit from reading them. As you can imagine, the benefit from beginning to read them, and then finding a line for an opening recommended as a strong innovation actually results in a gambit situation difficult for me as a 1600 to play, is less than that in intensely studying them.

Lately, I play postal chess at ICCF.
Because I like irregular openings, I determined to assay 1. e3 2. d3 and 1…e6 2…..d6 in each opening.
When I won far fewer games than I lost, I switched to a more traditional opening. My winning percentage, already abysmally low, declined.
Is the problem the opening?
I theorize, with good evidence, that the problem is with other aspects of my play.

The “drug” for lower-rated players is that knowing a few traps can result in quick wins against less-tutored players. We all have known the B player who plays the Budapest solely because of the sublime thrill of once in a thousand games scoring the 11th move mate.

Yet the methadone for this addiction runs along the lines of your post–chess is a lot of fun, and analyzing your own lines with a little common sense is even more fun.

If I had donated every dollar I spent on chess books to the animal shelter, imagine how many pets I could have helped.


Chuck Ripperger April 12, 2010 at 6:08 pm

Essence Being
Genus King Queen
Difference Rook Bishop
Species Knight Pawn

Final Public
Genus Summary Evidence
Diff. Counter Cross
Species Defense Pleading


Dennis Monokroussos January 12, 2011 at 10:50 am

Hi Dana,

I commented on your article over at my blog. I disagree with your negative view of mainstream theory and try to explain why, but maybe you can set me straight!


James Stripes February 3, 2012 at 9:30 am

A few things:

1. Great post! I came here from the February 2012 carnival, and I’m glad that I did.

2. I chose to labor on an obscure line, doing my own analysis, the analysis of a friend who was a stronger player, and extensive computer training and analysis when I was a B-Class player going Mano-a-mano against an FM in our city championship. I netted a draw against Hiarcs at game/15 and a draw against the FM in our third and final game.

Here’s the game:
Stripes,J (1738) – Sprenkle,D (2257) [A80]

Spokane City Championship Spokane (3), 12.07.2008

1.d4 f5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bg5 d5 4.e3 e6 5.Bd3 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.0–0 Be7 8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.Na4 Be7 10.c4 0–0 11.Rc1 Ne4
12.Bxe7 Qxe7 13.Qb3 Na5 14.Qb5 Nxc4 15.Bxc4 dxc4 16.Rfd1 Qe8 17.Qxe8 Rxe8 18.Nd4 Bd7 19.Nc3 e5 20.Ndb5
Nxc3 21.Nxc3 Bc6 22.Nd5 Rac8 23.Kf1 Kf7 24.f3 Ke6 25.Nb4 b5 26.Rd2 a5 27.Nxc6 Rxc6 28.Rcd1 c3 29.bxc3 Rxc3
30.Rd6+ Kf7 31.R6d5 Rxe3 32.Rxb5 a4 33.Ra5 a3 34.Re1 Rc3 35.Kf2 Kf6 36.Re3 Rc2+ 37.Re2 ½–½

3. Typing Shakespeare may not make you a talented writer, but typing F. Scott Fitzgerald was how Hunter S. Thompson got started. Perhaps there’s some benefit in memorizing.


Jason May 5, 2012 at 12:44 am

I suspect the opening books are wrong about a lot of things. Often, they dismiss pesky variations with an evaluation justified by one line. Take the Latvian Gambit, for example. Hard to refute. So if a GM say’s it’s refuted, don’t believe him unless you are one. What do the opening bibles do? They just dismiss the Latvian as giving away a free pawn after white isolates it with d5 and captures it. But any worthy opponent will skillfully avoid that line, making the analysis useless.

Bobby Fisher said the King’s Gambit was unsound. Only true if your opponent is rated 2800. Or if your opponent is 200 rating points better than you.

The Cochrane Gambit is said to be unsound by most GMs. Even masters struggle to play against it without losing quickly. If both players are rated 2000, the Gambit is virtually a win for white.

I guess the problem with most books is they underestimate the role of psychological advantage. Pachman was right to devote a section of his middlegame book to that one.

The books say the King’s Indian Exchange is a dull opening with Black for choice. I’ve lost many games with it as Black against 1600 rated players on the FICS and ICC. These players I would normally beat in a psychologically more balanced opening. In my most recent FICS game, I won an objectively lost position with a one-trick pony. I confess to playing hope chess and getting away with it because my opponent also played hope chess. Well, at least I didn’t resign.

Most books recommend that novices start out with double king pawn openings and play both sides of gambits once in awhile. They say it improves tactics. I suspect they are right. When I was a child prodigy, my chess tutor recommended me take up the King’s Indian Attack and Defense. I don’t think it did much good. I liked the typically closed positions, but they are so hard to get, your opponent always has the option of exchanging instead of advancing, and I didn’t much like the queenless middlegames that often arise from the exchanges.

The hypermodern openings are not only hard to refute, they are also hard to play with unless you are a GM.

Both sides of the Sicilian lose by force, unless you have the discipline, ability, and spare time, to memorize everything.

Most gambits are rubbish (especially for Black), and most hypermodern openings are also rubbish (especially for White). The balance lies somewhere in between.

After seeing so much rubbish, it is refreshing to see someone with a sound opening philosophy that a novice can actually follow and get results with. I think I need to rehabilitate those classic king pawn openings, improve my tactics, and throw the hypermodern opening books in the trash bin where they belong.

I think chess authors are usually biased. GM’s are biased towards hypermodernism, while amateurish authors are partial to wild and wooly chess. If you read a book about a much vilified gambit that you find a pest at the tournament table, the GMs dismiss it with a superficial analysis, while the amateurs analyse it to death. I think I trust the amateurs in that case.

Another curious case is the Benko Gambit. I can’t find even a reference to it in an opening encyclopedia, and yet this is a positional gambit suited for a hypermodern player. It seems to slowly grind White to pieces. Black literally sacs a pawn for the Minority Attack and wins.


Praveen September 9, 2012 at 12:09 am

What a great post! I think that people often mistake lines with ideas. Part of the problem with opening study is that one might not get the feel for the positions arising from them. So it might be a good idea to look at entire games from a given opening – say from your favorite practitioners. My own sad openings come from attempts to imitate (obviously, poorly) petrosian and kramnik. But I feel that even a single game played otb might be enough to reveal its nuances. The level of concentration during the game does that. But there are others who do just fine studying opening lines. Nevertheless, getting familiar with the themes arising from an opening (which often take it all the way to the endgame – eg. The importance of the dark bishop in the kid for white) might in itself constitute opening study.


Roman Parparov April 25, 2016 at 4:11 pm

A belated comment.

Recently I found myself playing a very small 4-round swiss against 1900-2100 teenagers (because no master level besides me signed up).
Three of them ended up in unfamiliar territory very early. None of them tried to think deeply to understand the nuances of the opening. The fourth one played a rare line himself, got a somewhat inferior position, didn’t recognize the thematic Ojanen-Penrose breakthrough and only after f4-f5 began thinking seriously, alas too late.

In fact in every game by the decisive moment (I won the tournament 4-0) I was behind on the clock (G/61).


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