Opening philosophy, part deux

by admin on January 12, 2011

There’s nothing like a little blog debate to start the year! Dennis Monokroussos, on his “Chess Mind” blog, has posted a rebuttal to “Dana’s Opening Philosophy.” Please go over there and check it out (and then come back here!).

I have to say that the first part of Dennis’s rejoinder puzzled me a bit. He was responding to axiom one of my philosophy, which says, “Opening theory is a scam! For anyone rated under 2200, that is, and probably even for anyone rated under 2400.” Dennis seems to take this axiom as meaning that you shouldn’t take opening theory seriously, and then he argues that I disprove my own statement by urging readers to do their own opening research, which certainly does mean taking opening theory seriously.

In response, I can see that a couple of things got muddled in my post, and that means I should have expressed myself better. First, the “not taking it seriously” part refers to a quote from Jesse Kraai’s training program. He made a very detailed program of what you should study at what points in your chess development, he says that when you reach 2400, “Now is the time to start taking openings seriously.”

To clarify what I mean and what Jesse means, I think we need to discriminate between two things: opening theory and Opening Theory. The first refers to the general principles of openings and the specific lines that I hope you will study and create on your own. I do think it’s important to have an idea of what you want to accomplish in the opening. In that sense, I do take opening theory seriously.

Then there is Opening Theory. This is the current accepted wisdom of what is the best and most topical move in a given position. It’s the kind of theory that goes out to move 20 or 25 or 30. It comes and goes with the seasons, just like fashion, and it is mostly driven by people slavishly following what the Great Players of the day, Carlsen and Anand and Topalov and so on, play. This is the Opening Theory that I feel is a waste of time for players below 2200 (and probably for players below 2400, although I cannot speak with the same authority on this point as Jesse can).

I also believe that this is the Opening Theory that Jesse was talking about. Once you get to 2400 level and you are playing grandmasters all the time — in other words, you are playing professional chess — then you need to start paying attention to that kind of Opening Theory. But below 2200 level, when you are not playing grandmasters, only amateurs who imitate grandmaster ideas, there is absolutely no point to it. You are better off playing solid moves that make sense to you.

So with this clarification, I would say that “Opening Theory is a scam.” For amateurs. On the other hand, working hard and developing your own opening lines and your own understanding of the principles underlying them — that is never a scam.

There’s one other thing I should say, to clear my own conscience. When I wrote, “opening theory is a scam” (now amended to “Opening Theory is a scam”), I was of course stating my thesis in very strong terms. I did that because if you don’t shock people, you aren’t going to change their behavior or at least get them to think about it.

But it’s important to acknowledge one sense in which Opening Theory is not a scam. The term “scam” generally implies a conscious behavior, a conscious trick to give people something different from what they think they are getting. I don’t believe that the vast majority of GM’s who write opening books are consciously scamming their buyers. However, the result is the same: the amateurs buy something that they think will solve all of their problems (the “get-rich-quick” mentality that Dennis writes about), and then they are either puzzled or angry when their opponents play lines that Grandmaster Z doesn’t approve of and win anyway.

About halfway through his post, Dennis writes:

So it’s hard to take his first point seriously as stated. What I think he really means is this: opening theory is important, but you should create your theory and not waste your time and money on opening books written by GMs (allegedly for 2400s). That’s a very different thesis, and now we should ask if it’s true or at least plausible.

He’s correct, this is very much closer to what I had in mind. And the rest of his post, from here on, is very informative. Now he refers to his own experience. He writes about how he was able to improve rapidly past the expert stage when he started reading and absorbing a lot of mainstream theory and grandmaster games. Other players, he says, scoffed at him as a “book” player, but he argues that this is what helped him improve and leave those players behind. He also cites the example of Bobby Fischer, who was a notorious theory hound and voracious reader.

I can’t really criticize this, because it’s written from the heart and from personal experience. Dennis truly means to defend Opening Theory, sanctified and canonized by grandmaster practice. He does not want you to play second-best moves, offbeat lines, etc. Most importantly, he argues that you should not spurn the opportunity to learn from stronger players who have written thoughtful books. Although he doesn’t cite it, Isaac Newton’s quote would be apropos here: “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

To this I can only say that each of us learns from experience, and our experiences are different. That is why I called my post “Dana’s Opening Philosophy.” It’s not “the only true opening philosophy,” but a philosophy that works for me. Similarly, we have now seen “Dennis’s Opening Philosophy” (at least a part of it) which says that you should find good opening books, ones where the GM’s really take the time to explain their ideas, and you should work on understanding rather than memorization.

Dana’s Opening Philosophy, instead, emphasizes creative thinking above all. Intriguingly, I think that computers have made this approach more accessible to amateurs than ever before, because computers are good at pointing out holes in the conventional wisdom. They give you license to ask the “What if …?” questions. But be warned: the computer is a very fickle ally, and it is imperative to think for yourself when you are doing computer-assisted analysis. Otherwise it’s even worse than following book analysis. (Why? Because “computer moves” are intelligible only to computers. The computer move that Rybka shows as best may require you to find another computer move the next move, and another one the move after that, and so on. At least if you are following human analysis, the thought behind it can usually be expressed in human-understandable terms.)

Both philosophies, Dennis and mine, are consistent with the idea of working hard rather than hoping to find a shortcut. Now, the real question is: What is your opening philosophy?

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Wall January 13, 2011 at 8:07 am

I experiment with Dana’s thesis. At a certain level a Chessmaster can play anything and win. I vary my openings a lot from junk to gold. Tal, Ivanachuk, Magnus Carlsen strive to be unpredictable. Sometimes I stick with openings for 5 years, 20 years but often I play what I create. I won with every legal move in rated Chess. I try to figure out what works and sometimes I just play what I like. Don’t listen to me, I’ve been stuck between 2200 and 2400 for 30 years.


Resden Boneur January 13, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Dana, I appreciate your point of view, particularly on the subject of chess creativity. Indeed, I tried to make this point on Dennis’ blog, but tragically, Dennis suffers from an acute case of “Alwaysneedingtoberightis,” and resists dissenting opinions (when he deigns to publish them at all) with the tenacity of an obsessive lawyer hell-bent on winning every argument…a trait which is almost as wearisome as his insistence on posting football scores in a chess blog.

Dana, perhaps you and your own blog can stand up to this arrogant tyrant once and for all, and depose him from his chess-blogging throne–or at least knock the pompous oaf down a few rungs on the humility ladder. True, your rating isn’t quite as high as his, but your intelligence level seems to be comparable: and I shall gladly lend my own support (and that of all my men) to your noble cause, should you elect to take up the gauntlet and challenge this despot to a blog-war. I’m with you, Dana!!


Chris Harrington January 13, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Hello Dana,

I was a bit confused on this as well. It seems in a great many of your game analysis you go into great detail on opening theory and get pretty technical, and as not being about 2400 yourself it seems a bit like do as I say but not as I do.

I’ve noticed many coaches telling students that spending time on the opening is a waste of time until you are 2300,2400,etc.

Yet they aren’t that strong and are very well-versed in openings.

I, personally think it helps allot to know the strong options in your common openings, as you get used to what it feels like and the themes of those type of positions, and its also fun to prepare traps and the like for specific people!


Chris Falter January 13, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Dana, I appreciate your adding some nuance in this second post, and I’ll give you a pass on the sensationalism. However, I do think that you are using a straw man argument. The straw man you portray is the club player who keeps investing in opening literature, hoping for a quick fix to add 200 points to his or her rating. I agree with you and Kraai, such attempts to memorize lines, in the absence of understanding the ideas behind them, and how to handle typical ensuing middlegames and endgames, are bound to fail. And too many chess players make such attempts.

In blasting the straw man, though, you are tossing out the baby with the bath water. (I apologize for the horrid mixed metaphor!) There is an abundance of good material for club players that explain the ideas behind solid openings, with numerous well-analyzed GM games to help you understand the typical themes. And you can learn a lot of chess from them.

I note that Yusupov’s fantastic Building Up Your Chess series devotes 10-15% of its pages to helping club players build a repertoire of a few solid lines they can understand. His approach makes sense to me; give most of your attention to tactics, strategy, and endgames, but learn enough opening theory to help you understand how to achieve the middlegames and endgames where the rest of your training will help you score points.


Chris Falter January 13, 2011 at 9:56 pm

To add a little pedagogy to Yusupov’s approach: studying/analyzing some GM games in a solid mainline (with the help of an expert commentator) will help you *apply* your chess knowledge in the laboratory of that opening, with particular attention on learning how to handle the transition from opening to middlegame. How can that be bad? I’m not saying that doing your own analysis is bad, I’m just saying that, like Sir Isaac Newton, you always want to stand on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before you.


Horatio83 January 14, 2011 at 8:26 pm

If I understand Dana right he argues for studying sidelines like his favourite Bird against the Lopez.
The advantage of this is that you know much more about the resulting positions than your opponent who has most likely devoted much more time on studying the mainline whereas the disadvantage is that the position you will get out of the opening is theoretically worse than one of the mainline.

In other words, the trade-off is theoretically best vs. practically good with the latter being more relevant on lower levels. Grandmasters might slaughter your Bird or Ulvestad but grandpatzers won’t.. 🙂


Chess Openings February 8, 2011 at 7:58 am

Hello Dana,

It was a pleasure for me to read your great post. The division of the chess opening studies into 2 parts (opening theory and Opening Theory) is
very interesting and must be true.

I thing that learning the opening theory, which is to follow a dozen of opening rules, is important for beginners. And learning Opening Theory has become
the main reason for our seeing the Grandmasters aged 15-17.

Thank you.


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