Pace of Play, Easy versus Hard Moves

by admin on August 17, 2015

I was away for a few days at a science meeting in Seattle, but now I’m back. I had a chess-ful weekend. First, Eric Montany invited me and the Usual Suspects to a birthday party at his house. There were, like, real people at this party, not just chess players, and so Eric was too busy being a good host to play chess with us. Still, it was a fun evening in a beautiful spot.

Even better, on Sunday Mike Splane organized one of his regular chess parties, except it wasn’t at his house. Because of the hot weather, Gary Kelly offered to host us at his air-conditioned house. This was more of a chess spa than a chess party. First of all he has a beautiful house with tons of space, and to top it off he prepared food for us — hamburgers for the meat eaters, spanakopita and gorgonzola cheese pastry for those, like me, who don’t eat red meat. I was blown away. I barely even knew Gary Kelly (he must know some of the other regulars, but not me), yet he has given us an afternoon worthy of Club Med. Thanks, Gary! I know who you are now!

The theme for today’s party was: how do you develop an opening repertoire? I didn’t expect much out of this discussion, because it’s so individual. My opinions are known, some people disagree with them strongly, and there’s no final answer. Nevertheless, I was curious what other people would say, so I mostly listened. Just as you might think, everybody had their own sage advice:

Gjon Feinstein and Austen Green: Watch videos!

Eric: Read books! (He had a number of specific recommendations. They sounded great, but I am incapable of reading a chess book cover to cover without falling asleep. Especially an opening book.)

Austen: Subscribe to Megabase, and go over the annotated games!

Juande Perea and Austen: Fritz Trainer! (This last one was new to me. Does anyone have any opinions on it, positive or negative?)

Gary: Know yourself, know your opponent, play types of positions that he doesn’t like. (This is useful if you are in a club and you know everybody’s favorite openings and styles. Less useful for open tournament play.)

At some point we finished talking and started playing speed chess. I played a very interesting blitz game against Austen, which relates to openings (I guess) because the game was decided basically in the first twelve moves.

Dana Mackenzie – Austen Green

Dutch Defense

1. d4 f5 2. Qd3 …

Would I play this in a tournament? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But for me, a useful prequel to playing a move in a tournament has always been testing it out in blitz. I remembered seeing this 25 or 30 years ago in Modern Chess Openings and thinking it looked wild and crazy.

2. … d6

After the game, Gjon and Richard Koepcke almost in unison said that Black is supposed to play 2. … d5. How do they know all this stuff? Isn’t 2. Qd3 the most obscure move I could possibly have chosen? That’s one approach to the opening: Know everything.

3. g4 fg 4. h3 Nf6 5. hg Bxg4

All right, now we’re at the end of my theoretical knowledge. I’m just winging it from here.

6. Bg5 …

Striking at a key defensive piece for Black. I was relatively confident about this move, as it plays a role in the Staunton Gambit as well, which I’ve played many times.

6. … Nbd7?!

The most natural move on the board; in fact, I think it’s the only way for Black to remain up in material. 6. … g6? would run into 7. Bxf6 and 8. Qe4+. 6. … e6 would, I think, run into 7. f3 and 8. e4. Rybka recommends 6. … Nc6 or 6. … c6, moves that essentially give back the pawn with no fuss. Rybka is probably right, because Black gets a nice solid position with no weaknesses.

The text move is intended to discourage Bxf6 because Black can recapture with the knight. But it has a subtle flaw; do you see what it is?

austen1Position after 6. … Nbd7. White to move.

FEN: r2qkb1r/pppnp1pp/3p1n2/6B1/3P2b1/3Q4/PPP1PP2/RN2KBNR w KQkq – 0 7

The problem with this move is that Black’s king no longer has a flight square, so I played 7. Rxh7!

At first it looks as if White is simply winning. But Austen kept his cool — something that is, by the way, one of Austen’s strong points — and he quickly found Black’s only chance to stay in the game.

7. … Ne5!

Now it was my turn to be shocked. My first reaction was that this was a desperado trick that must be unsound. But when you look closer, it makes perfect sense. Black frees up the flight square, covers the checking square, and incidentally has both my queen and rook under attack. White can’t help losing material. 8. Rxh8? Nxd3+ would be very bad, so I’m forced to give up the exchange.

The question after the game was whether Austen’s move is just a refutation of 7. Rxh7. But the computer gives White something like a +0.1 or +0.2-pawn advantage. When a computer says you have full compensation for an exchange, that’s saying something. Against a human opponent, you might be +0.5 or +1.0.

8. de Nxh7 9. Qg6+ Kd7 10. Be3 …

Hallelujah! The computer says I played the best move! I had no idea. I just thought the bishop was less in the way here. True, it’s in the way of the e2 pawn, but I felt that it was unlikely I would need to move that pawn.

10. … Be6

As Austen pointed out, the position was pretty easy for Black to play. All of his moves are forced. It’s harder for White because there are so many plausible moves, and in fact this was where I messed up.

austen2Position after 10. … Be6. White to move.

FEN: r2q1b1r/pppkp1pn/3pb1Q1/4P3/8/4B3/PPP1PP2/RN2KBN1 w Q – 0 11

If I had been playing Matrix chess, this would have been a good place for a timeout, but of course you can’t do that against humans.

My first thought here was that Black is planning to play 11. … Qe8 and either trade queens or force me to retreat. So I felt that it essential for me to keep the pressure on him. My second thought was that I might even be able to set up the queen sacrifice, Qxe6+. But that is just a fantasy. Black’s king has too many flight squares for me to checkmate him.

One of the hardest things to grasp in chess (for me, at least) is when it’s time to change the pace of the game. This is especially difficult when I have already sacrificed some material. I feel as if I have to push, push, push. Make threats, don’t give my opponent time to organize his superior manpower.

Therefore the move I played here was 11. Bh3??, a move the computer says is a huge mistake. You can see that I have only one thing on my mind: checkmate Black’s king. This move forces Black to do something that he wants to do anyway: trade pieces! He trades a very awkwardly placed defender for a potentially powerful attacker. He can now think about playing … Qe8 and … e6 and developing normally.

I failed to ask myself what is the true nature of White’s compensation for the exchange. It isn’t that I have a mating attack. In fact, I completely overrated my attacking chances. I have too many undeveloped pieces to attack successfully. I need to invite the rest of my pieces to the party.

The real reason White is okay in this position is that Black’s pieces are in utter confusion. Black has four pieces on the kingside that are tripping all over each other, and he can scarcely move any of them. If White simply plays developing moves, his advantage will grow and grow and grow. The very last thing White wants to do is to exchange pieces, because that solves all of Black’s problems.

So the correct thing to do here is change the pace. Slow the game down. Build the pressure until something breaks. Time is on White’s side.

The computer’s recommendation, therefore, is 11. Nc3! This is instructive for another reason. The play is switching over to the queenside, therefore White needs to get his queenside pieces out first. Surely Austen would have played 11. … Qe8, and then of course I want to avoid the queen trade with 12. Qe4. In all likelihood Austen would play 12. … c6 as in the game, and then I simply castle (13. O-O-O). Let’s look at the position and compare it to what happened in the game.

austen3Position after 13. O-O-O (analysis). Black to move.

FEN: r3qb1r/pp1kp1pn/2ppb3/4P3/4Q3/2N1B3/PPP1PP2/2KR1BN1 b – – 0 13

Last night I played the computer’s “best play” analysis out to about move thirty, but that is really beside the point. This is not a position you can evaluate with “if-this-then-that” type of thinking, because there are just too many possibilities for White and for Black. You just have to look at the position. Black has not come any closer to solving the problem of how to develop his kingside. Retreating the e6 bishop will cause him grief after Bh3+. Fianchettoing with … g6 and … Bg7 will cause him grief after I take on d6. Closing up the center with 13. … d5 doesn’t work because after 14. Qa4, the d5 and a7 pawns are both hanging. The protection for Black’s king is eroding away.

For all these reasons, Rybka recommends the patient move 13. … Kc7 for Black. But if this is Black’s best move, White should be happy, because it’s one more move that fails to address the real issues in Black’s position. Meanwhile, White will just continue to play natural moves: Nf3, Bg2, Nd4, building pressure on targets like e6 and d6 and c6.

I’m probably making it sound as if White has a won game, and that’s not true. Black has a solid position without a lot of weaknesses, and that’s one reason why White has to adopt a “take-it-slow” approach. Basically, I’m waiting for Black to make a concession or a commitment; until then, I just play flexibly. The roles have reversed: my moves are easy, and his moves are hard.

(By the way, this easy-moves vs. hard-moves issue is one that I should pay more attention to. As we noticed before earlier in the game, when the defender has to “walk a tightrope,” play a lot of forced moves just to avoid losing, a lot of times that is easier for him than to play a position where he constantly has to choose between unpalatable options.)

Now let’s compare this with what happened in the game. After 11. Bh3? Austen played 11. … Bxh3 (again, forced moves are sometimes good moves) 12. Nxh3 Qe8 13. e6+ Kd8. White’s last move was also somewhat questionable, but I wanted to prevent him from playing … e6 and developing normally. The trouble is that 13. e6+ closes off lines of attack and releases the pressure on d6. It’s the opposite of flexible.

The game continued 14. Qe4 c6 15. Qb4 Kc7. Notice how I’m only making queen moves, not getting the rest of my pieces into the game. There’s also a constant worry that Black might open up the h-file with a move like … Nf6, attacking my loose knight on h3. So I played 16. Nf4 and he played the brave — and correct! — 16. … g5! And here, for the second time in the game, I played a move that visibly caught him by surprise: 17. Nd5+.

austen4Position after 17. Nd5+. Black to move.

FEN: r3qb1r/ppk1p2n/2ppP3/3N2p1/1Q6/4B3/PPP1PP2/RN2K3 b Q – 0 17

The trick here is that if 17. … cd? then after 18. Qc3+ I win back the exchange. But Cool Hand Austen calmly said, “Okay, I won’t take the knight then.” He simply played 17. … Kb8! And we can now see that my 17th move was all flash and no substance. The knight is still under attack, and if I move it away he is going to play … Nf6 and that open h-file will become more and more of a problem.

Because it was just a speed game, I decided to leave the knight on d5 and hope for a miracle. This is called “hope chess.” And as is usually the case, it didn’t work. After 18. N1c3 Bg7 19. O-O-O cd 20. Nxd5 my attack fizzled out in just a few more moves.

So what do we learn from this game? I learned quite a lot:

  1. Be aware of the pace of the game. Try to judge whether the position calls for rapid forcing moves, or slow and flexible moves. Even if you have sacrificed material, you don’t necessarily have to play for an immediate knockout.
  2. What are some signs that you should take it slow? (a) Your opponent’s position does not have any easy targets. (b) You have not developed all your pieces yet. (c) You have weaknesses in your own position that will come back to bite you if you only focus on attack.
  3. Be aware of which player has the more difficult choices to make. It’s tempting to think that you have your opponent on the ropes when you are forcing him to play “only moves.” But in reality, you may just be making it easy for him. Consider making moves instead that force him to make hard decisions.
  4. Watch out for moves that have more flash than substance. Both 7. Rxh7 and 17. Nd5+ were flashy moves, but after Austen recovered from the surprise he found perfectly good answers.
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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Roman Parparov August 19, 2015 at 2:42 pm

The question of repertoire gets different answers for different level of players. I’d say:
Between 1200 to 1600 – gambits.
Between 1600 to 2000 – play setups that fight for initiative and space.
Between 2000 to 2400 – pick the openings that fit your style:
Aggressive vs. containing?
Weaknesses and free play vs. solid setups with restricted mobility?
Fianchetto vs. playing on d5/e4 or d4/e5? (reverse the choice with colors)
And unless you have plenty of time, avoid the most popular lines in openings such as Najdorf, Ragozin, Gruenfeld and others because you won’t be able to keep up with the developments. Never play dubious openings (for example, 1.e4 b6 or 1.d4 Nc6 with black, or 1.g4 as white)
Between 2400 to 2800 – you should know the answers yourself. 🙂


MaryKaye August 19, 2015 at 2:47 pm

Ah! You were in Seattle! Next time let us know and we might arrange some chess!


Mike Splane August 20, 2015 at 1:08 am

Dana, I have to agree with you that the discussion was unproductive. I think the main problem was I used unclear terminology in framing the discussion. What I wanted to discuss was techniques to use to deepen your understanding of the midddle-game ideas that typically arose from your opening tabiyas. Very few comments by the other party goers addressed that issue.

I felt very frustrated by my inability to clearly communicate what I was hoping to learn. What I was hoping to get out of the discussion is the kind of in-depth and specific advice you would get from working one-on-one with a chess coach. Instead we mainly came up with a list of general advice that was pretty much useless.

The other problem was when Gary K brought up an interesting topic which unfortunately broke up the discussion of opening tabiyas, how to pick an opening for a specific opponent. The whole issue of how to pick an opening repertoire is a discussion that could take many hours.

I did come away with some useful advice. Gjon mentioned the use of annotated games as a starting point, Eric mentioned a book called Pawn Structure Chess for typical plans, and Gjon mentioned the importance of playing multiple speed chess games to familiarize yourself with the positions. Gjon also pointed out that you should start with the annotated game and then research the line with help of a database, rather than going directly to a database to look for opening ideas. I will be using all of these ideas.

The point that you need to play speed chess to increase your knowledge of tabiyas convinced me to give up my boycotting of speed games. In the long run I think that may be the best advice I ever received at one of my parties.

As always, I enjoy reading your comments about the chess parties.



Roman Parparov August 20, 2015 at 9:36 am


Connecting the opening with the ensuing middlegame is key. Botvinnik was first to pioneer this approach (although Chigorin worked on that too). That’s why the repertoire starts with your style and builds around it. I think Austen, Paolo and Juande have a very good healthy repertoire.

Picking an opening against a specific opponent is largely irrelevant on sub-2400 level. I only did it two or three times in my life, and I think it had to do with preempting the opponent’s preparation more than anything else.

And indeed, blitz is the perfect way to hone your repertoire.


Gjon Feinstein August 22, 2015 at 5:15 pm

Hi Dana, Mike and blog readers,

Mike Splane laid out the points he wanted to have answered at the very beginning of the party. What I heard him say was: He wanted to develop a clearer understanding of the key ideas stemming from the tabiya position into and through the middle game. These ideas mainly concern things such as: which part(s) of the board to play on, proper pacing of play, piece maneuvers and which pieces to trade.

I don’t remember the following additional questions brought up at the party but I think they are also essential and I do remember talking to Mike about them before the party. The nature of the pawn structure, Key pawn breaks, Typical structural transformations, key squares – involving outposts, blockades and defensive control.
Of course, one wants to be acquainted with the typical tactical motifs for both sides in any opening. Lastly, typical endings to strive for or avoid should be considered.
I think it’s clear that all of these considerations define an opening’s character.

I think that The best ways to learn the character of an opening is to play it yourself. Play blitz games against a number of good players. This can be both useful and fun. Review well annotated model games and pick up opening books/videos that use illustrative games to demonstrate their points. Game date bases can be useful but I like to use this resource last generally… after I’ve already made use of the other resources.

The proportion of time studying to playing depends on your own needs, circumstances and sensibilities.
The kinds of study material I make use of are the following: Online Video lectures, Books, blitz games ( my own as well as viewing strong players that play online). I find well annotated model games
to be a great way to gain insight of an opening. These games can be found in game collection books or videos covering a player’s career. High quality opening books/videos routinely use model games to illustrate the key strategic and tactical ideas of an opening. Lastly I use a data base to get a sense of the success and/or popularity of an opening.

I brought up each of these ideas for learning openings at the party. I’m not surprised to see that Mike came away with most of these ideas.
I have little doubt that there are other effective ways to learn an opening.

Hiring a gifted GM opening specialist at $150./hr. could work. While this may offer a short cut to understanding openings, I’ve never learned this way. It could prove fruitful for those with the means ($) that feel a sense of urgency in learning the ideas quickly.

Gjon Feinstein


admin August 23, 2015 at 12:30 pm

Hi Gjon, Good to hear from you at last! After talking about you so many times in my blog, it’s good to actually hear your reaction.

If you feel like it, there are a couple questions specific to your opening repertoire that I (and readers) might be curious about. In speed chess, you play one of the most diverse sets of openings of anybody that I know (except maybe a computer). Yet gradually I notice that there are some openings you use more often — for example the Old Indian 1. … d6 after 1. d4, often with the idea of transposing into a Dutch or a Pirc depending on what White does. What went into your choice of this system? Was it model games, a book, … ?

Second, a very interesting topic that we did not discuss at the party was how you decide to give up on an opening. I understand that you used to play the Blackmar-Diemer a lot during your tournament days. I now have the sense that you would not be likely to play it (although it’s hard to tell since you haven’t played in a tournament for such a long time). What went into the decision to play the Blackmar-Diemer less often?

Finally, do you have separate repertoires for blitz and for tournament games? It seems to me that the question of opening preparation could have different answers for tournament players vs. for people who only play blitz. (And at the other extreme, correspondence players… I’m sure that they have a whole different approach.)

Roman Parparov August 20, 2015 at 9:38 am


I don’t understand this comment. I’ve never been to Seattle.



admin August 20, 2015 at 10:50 am

Hi Roman, she was referring to the first paragraph of my article, but mistakenly wrote her post as a reply to your comment rather than starting a separate comment thread.


admin August 20, 2015 at 10:59 am

I agree with Roman that preparing for individual opponents is a questionable strategy at the sub-2400 level (and even more so at the sub-2000 level). When you are under 2000 you should be working on developing your own style, not just reacting all the time to everybody else’s. It’s true that when I’m White, I will often decide between 1. d4 and 1. e4 on the basis of who my opponent is and how I feel that day. But when I’m Black, I play my trusted openings regardless of the opponent. If he feels as if he can refute my Bird’s Variation of the Ruy Lopez with one hour of preparation (or one night, or one week), when I’ve been studying it for 20 years, then I’m delighted to let him try.

Also, Roman’s comment, “Never play dubious openings,” is very much part of the Russian school. Eugene Perelshteyn recently gave a lecture at ChessLecture with almost the same title: “Don’t Play Bad Openings.”


Roman Parparov August 20, 2015 at 11:34 am

It’s not always the question of refutation.

If the opening is considered a bit unreliable, such as Bird’s Variation, the question is – if your opponent plays naturally, can he end up with a small but persistent edge? I think in Bird’s (4. Bc4) , or Alekhine’s defense the answer is “yes”, but in Pirc or Modern Defense the natural moves may land him in trouble. Or the Caro-Kann 4. … Nf6 5.Nxf6+ exf6 if white plays natural moves he ends up slightly better, while 5. … gxf6 requires a specific approach to fight for advantage. Against 1. d4 the analogy would be the Tarrasch defense vs the Budapest gambit, or to the extreme, the Snake Benoni (5. … Bd6?!)

As of Soviet school, indeed, in the games between 3rd category players (something like 1800-1900 USCF) you would see 80% of games starting with 1. e4 e5, ten percent with 1. e4 c5 (almost exclusively the dragon) or e6, and the remaining ten with 1. d4 d5. Other openings were simply not welcome. At the 2nd category level you were allowed a bit of flexibility, and that’s when I started playing the Caro-Kann I am playing till today, and only the 1st category (2100 USCF) and up you were truly beginning to pick your openings and build your repertoire.


Gjon Feinstein August 24, 2015 at 11:43 am

Hi Dana,

Your question asking me “What went into my choice to play a system revolving around 1….d6 against 1 d4 is a somewhat complicated. Suffice it to say that I relied on the methods of choosing an opening that I outlined in my previous blog email, seen above. 1…d6 was a good fit with my style and background of opening knowledge. I did refer to opening books/videos for model games
and specific analysis. I also played countless blitz and bullet games online as well as playing blitz games locally with friends like you.

I only braved trying out the BlackMar -Diemer Gambit once in tournament play back in the late 1980’s.
I was fortunate to win with it but felt the game (opening) too unconvincing to bear repeating.

The question about having separate openings for tournament vs. blitz play is a good one.
I agree with you that there are openings clearly more suitable for blitz than tournament play. Distinguishing between the two assumes one can discern the shortcomings of an opening for tournament purposes and is unwilling to risk
playing one of these “ill advised” openings simply to throw an opponent off.

On the other hand, chess is a game/sport first and foremost. Some might enjoy playing objectively unsound openings in the hope of creating a lively and unbalanced game. Please Excuse me for a moment while I play 1 Nc3 in my online blitz game!
Have fun. Who are we to judge?!


Roman Parparov August 24, 2015 at 11:54 am

1. Nc3 is an ok opening if you intend to transfer to Veresov, the problem with Veresov is that if Black plays regular moves it’s still fine. Especially if Black feels at ease with French defense (1. Nc3 d5 2. d4 Nf6 3. Bg5 e6 4. e4 and so on, if White doesn’t play 4.e4 the knight on c3 is misplaced, same for 1. Nc3 d5 2. d4 e6). 1. Nc3 d5 2. e4 is garbage.

1. … d6’s main problem is that it can transpose into Pirc which is considered inadequate nowadays. If your opponent doesn’t play 1. e4 then you are much better off, and you’re like to end in Old Indian/King’s Indian, and the line 1. d4 d6 2. Nf3 Bg4 3. c4 Nd7 is fine. But you need to feel good in a cramped position. The staple game of that opening would be Topalov-Adams, 1996


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