The History of My Openings: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Openings are an interesting topic nowadays. I would like to write a series of articles on openings and decided to start by talking about the history of my personal opening repertoire.

I learned to play chess in the spring of 2009, when I was 6. I started taking lessons in the fall of 2009 and played my first non-rated scholastic tournament in January 2010.

At first I had a standard beginner opening repertoire. I played 1.e4 e5 as black and the Giuoco Piano as white. I learned basic openings from Winning Chess Openings by Yasser Seirawan. The book didn’t go really deep, but it was an excellent introduction to the land of openings. I got a general idea about various openings which gave me a little bit of an advantage over my opponents.

Recently, I discovered a treasure trove of casual games I played against my brother during this period. A couple days ago I looked at one of them and thought “what kind of opening play is this???”. Then I looked in ChessBase and found that I played a main line for the first 10 moves of the game until my brother deviated. OMG!!! IN THIS OPENING I KNEW MORE THEORY WHEN I WAS 8 THAN I DO NOW!!!

Sometime in 2010, when my rating was about 1000, I was facing a disturbing situation. I was losing to my younger brother in casual games when I played 1.e4 e5 a little more often than was to my liking. Older siblings do not tolerate this. If that’s not a reason to update your opening repertoire, then I don’t know what is.

I eventually chose the French. Why the French? Okay, there is no such thing as “the best chess opening” (though there are things like bad openings). When choosing an opening, there is always a subjective reason or two why you want to play it. My “objective” reasons were:

  • I first faced the French in a chess camp in the summer of 2010 and I got crushed in both games with white
  • My opponents would likely be unaware what to do
  • A big hope of mine was that my opponents would play 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 and then they wouldn’t find the best move 5.f4, and would instead do something like 5.Nf3 and after 5… c5 I’d eventually win their e5-pawn

Bullet point #3 didn’t really happen, but French and I really suited each other, and I had success on the black side of it. I was slowly getting somewhat obsessed with openings, especially given my rating.

At 1500, I got Chessbase and started making my own opening “databases”. The analysis was low-quality, but it was mine. It consisted of me copying in semi-random games between top players. The games were sometimes old and not theoretically relevant, but I got an idea about the ensuing positions. I ran my openings through my coach but mostly to check I wasn’t completely off. Most importantly, I did majority of the work on my own and therefore learned a lot, not only about the openings but also about the resulting positions, and analysis itself.

You may find this shocking, but I didn’t use an engine till I reached 1950. It may be controversial, but I think it was good for me overall. I do admit it may have resulted in some flaws in my analysis, but I’m glad I used my brain in analyzing rather than the engine. However, above 2100, using an engine for openings is pretty much necessary. Without it, my analysis would just be too low quality.

At 1800, things started getting tough. Those 1900+ players knew their openings better than I did (usually), and I had to step up my game. My analysis started getting more serious. My main goal was to know the lines and positions really, really well. The improvements in my analysis included:

  • Concentrating on single lines — no more tree of variations I could play
  • Shortening the lines. If you want to review an opening quickly, going through 80 moves of random games is not really so useful. Instead, cutting the games around move 15-20 and putting an evaluation is a lot more practical.
  • Adding model games to my databases – those were games which I thought were model ways to play the opening. Those let me see general ideas quickly.

Those things worked. I soon switched from the QGD to the Slav after getting sick and tired of the Exchange QGD.

Fast-forward to fall 2014, when I was around 2250. My repertoire had pretty much the same infrastructure, and I knew the lines I played really well (with the occasional hiccup). The problem was my repertoire was super-duper narrow. Way too narrow. It was time to add an additional opening.

I decided on the Caro-Kann. Why the Caro? Well, it is supposed to be the next-door neighbor of the French, and there used to be times when the Caro really annoyed me from the white side.

I patched together some analysis on the Caro within a week of my decision and went on to play it in round 1 of the next tournament. I won the game, and my Caro soon reaped success. Don’t try this at home! One week is usually not enough to learn a new opening, but I had a general idea what I wanted to do against most of white’s replies and somehow put it all together.

The big project, however, was the Nimzo-Indian for black. This one took way longer than 1 week. It did not bring immediate success. Let’s be honest, it brought immediate disaster! However, after two tournaments, I started scoring heavily in it against lower rated players.

My personal history doesn’t end here. I continue working on my opening and have made changes since, but I better keep a few surprises up my sleeve.

You can say things have worked out pretty well for me, and I cannot really disagree with you, but looking back there are things I would have done differently. I believe I should have introduced a couple systems for both white and black when I was 1800-1900. Also, I probably should have added an additional opening for black earlier, say around 2100, rather than at 2250.

Next time I would like to address general questions about openings, like when to add them and how risky it is to do so. If you have any questions you would like answered, leave them in the comments.

6 thoughts on “The History of My Openings: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Jason Braun

    Interesting article, and very similar to my experiences! I started playing 45 years ago! I took off many years and started playing again about 12 years ago. My rating has been as high as 2100 but now I’m struggling to stay over 2000 (the game is harder when you’re 61!).Up until early 2016, I played e4, e5 as black and dreaded each black pairing. It always seemed like white could come up with some obscure line that I hadn’t looked at, either in the Ruy Lopez or Scotch, or King’s Gambit or Vienna or…(you get the idea) and I’d be miserable within 12 moves. My results with black were terrible, offsetting good results with white. Last year, I had enough and decided to learn the French (sound familiar?). Early results have been very encouraging…I’ve beaten several experts and actually have a plus score with black. The French seems to give me the dynamic positions I was lacking with e4, e5. I also think it helps my game overall to become familiar with new types of positions. Against d4, I also play the Nimzo with decent results. I’m still trying to get comfortable when white avoids the NI with Nf3.
    I’ve heard a lot of commentary about how I should be studying endgames instead of openings but I don’t think I can survive without a solid opening repertoire. And it gives me a lot more time in the middle game if I can breeze through the opening.
    Thanks for your article!

    1. David Brodsky

      Glad to hear the French worked well for you. It looks like the French+Nimzo-Indian is a good combination for a lot of people.

      I think you’re right in saying that at 2000 you need a solid opening repertoire. Endgames are very important, but opening knowledge is a must.

      Good luck! And if you need a break from the French, there is always the next-door neighbor Caro :).

  2. Noah Flaum

    Your article is very well written, and explains nicely how and why you chose your openings. My experience is slightly different. Im a month shy of 18 years old and I learned to play chess in 9th grade (15 or 16). Like anyone else I played E4 E5 as white and black because what else is there. This wasn’t getting it done, I began rated tournaments and got destroyed by the fried liver over and over again. There was one kid (USCF 800) that played the sicilian Nadjorf as black and always beat me. This sparked my interest and I decided to learn it. Occasional wins, Occasional losses but overall I liked it. So I started watching youtube videos on it. In about 2 years I went from USCF 700 to 2124 by the summer of 2016. With white I play the scotch gambit, and mainline sicilians nowadays.Black I play the benko gambit, and the nadjorf sicilian. I never had a “real coach” or chessbase all I did was play tournaments and watch youtube videos. My current rating has gone down to about 2020 (from 2124) and I have no idea why. My results are inconsistent. I make mistakes, Hang pieces, do things that I know better simply because of fatigue. Do you have any suggestions on what to do about this and whens the time to switch openings?

    1. David Brodsky

      That’s a very impressive rise.

      If blundering pieces is a big problem, then doing some daily tactics should help. It’s a good idea regardless, even if it’s 2-3 problems a day. You may also want to do a few right before the tournament or even before the game to wake up your brain.

      Also you want to create a little mental blunder-check (look for all the checks, all the captures, threats, etc.) and run it through your head before every single move. It doesn’t eliminate blunders completely, but it helps.

      Your openings are good, but they are sharp. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if tactics are your problem, then you may consider switching to some other opening. In new positions, you’ll also be more alert, reducing the number of pieces you blunder on auto-pilot.

      I’d first try tactics and the blunder-check, because you should do those no matter what opening you play.

      Good luck!

  3. Pingback: Openings: Why, Where, When, and How – chess^summit

  4. Pingback: Blindness in Winning Positions – chess^summit

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