Openings: Why, Where, When, and How

“Improvement starts at the end of your comfort zone.” GM Jonathan Rowson

I took a look at my repertoire in part 1, and now I want to talk about some questions you might have about openings:

  • Why do strong players play multiple openings?
  • How risky is it to play a new opening?
  • When to add the new opening?
  • How useful is having a new system?
  • When do I know a line/opening is not working for me? Should I trash it?
  • When and where to practice your new opening?
  • How wide and how deep should your opening repertoire be?

Let’s start with the base question.

Why do strong players have multiple openings?

There are multiple reasons for this.

  • Don’t be a stationary target.

It’s so nice for your opponent to know what you will play with 99% certainty. Even if your repertoire is sound, your opponents can cook up or defrost some opening prep that may not be a refutation, but it may have practical value.  Or imagine lower rated player who just wants to draw you.

When you play more openings, it gets tougher for your opponent to prepare. Instead of spending all his time preparing against 1 opening, he has to divide time between various openings. As a result, your opponent’s prep will probably not be so deep and impressive.

I’ve been the victim of that quite a few times and so have my opponents. One time, I prepared for 30 minutes against my opponent, currently a GM-elect whose name will remain a secret, and then he played 1.d4 instead of 1.e4.

  • Have a choice.

You can choose what to do against a particular opponent. If they play something annoying against your plan A and something not-so-great against your plan B, then you can go for plan B.

You can play against your opponent’s weaknesses.  If they are not so good in tactics, you can try spicing things up in the opening. If they are not so good positionally, try to play something calmer in the opening. It may not work out, but you can try to steer the game in a certain direction out of the opening against certain opponents rather than playing the same thing against everybody.

That’s another reason why some people think for 5 minutes on move 1. They are deciding which opening to play against you specifically.

Go to the tournament with multiple plans. If right before or in the middle of the tournament one of your openings needs a last-minute visit to the repair shop, you have another opening to rely on.

  • Get fresh positions and get out of your comfort zone.

In order to become a top player, you need to be able to play a variety of positions. There’s no way of getting around that one. The best way to learn them is by playing them.

As a 1.e4 player, I knew very little about the positions coming from the Nimzo, until I got to play them as black. I was out of my comfort zone, and I was getting beaten badly, but I learned. At least I hope I did. No need to prove me wrong.

This all sounds very nice, but…

How risky is it to play a new opening?

Okay, playing a new opening is risky the first few games when you don’t have much experience. We are all told that rating doesn’t matter, but none of us likes to see it going downhill. Yes, there probably will be games you don’t win which you would win with your old opening. Still, those losses/draws are a learning experience. Maybe you won’t know the opening well enough and fall into a trap. Maybe you mishandle the ensuing positions. Whatever it is, you will be better prepared next time.

The further from your previous repertoire the new opening is, the more you will struggle in the short-term. Yet, in the long term, those are the openings you will benefit from most, as they will give you fresh positions that will expand your understanding of the game itself.

My stats when starting out in the Caro-Kann were pretty good. I went 5 wins and 3 draws against a 2123 average before losing in it to a 2436. Isn’t that a contradiction to my previous statement? Well, I did have some experience playing against the Caro from the white side. Also in general, Caro positions are quite similar to French positions.

The Nimzo was a totally different story. First of all, I had no experience in it from the White side. The Nimzo and Slav (my previous opening) positions aren’t as related as the French and Caro are. Honestly, there is probably a larger variety of pawn structures coming from the Nimzo than in the French, Caro, and Slav combined.

I started with a glorious 0.5/3 against a 2103 average. Okay, those weren’t my greatest tournaments, but still. Had I played my Slav, I probably would have done much better in those games.

However, my temporary gamble paid off. I won the next 8 games in the Nimzo as black against a 2120 average. I guess those first three games got me started.

Is it really that easy? Just play a new opening, have a rough ride the first few games, and then start crushing everybody? Well, not usually.

When to add a new opening?

When your younger sibling is beating you up… just kidding. That’s a question I cannot answer fully. Here are some reasons why you may consider adding a new opening:

  • you are bored of the old positions and want something new
  • your openings are too predictable and your opponents are taking advantage of that
  • you plateau and there no obvious weaknesses in your chess
  • when the guy sitting next to you plays something you want to try
  • you’re having trouble against an opening so you decide to play it yourself
  • just because

If you don’t feel like adding a whole new opening, consider a new system in your opening.

How useful is having a new system?

Three words: flexible, low risk, and cheap. It is definitely less risky than going for a completely new opening, since the positions should be similar to what you have experience in. Maybe you want fresh positions. Or maybe you want a main line to play against higher rated opponents and a sideline to avoid main line theory against lower rated opponents. Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing to be flexible.

Back in the day, I trashed many systems for a variety of reasons. I returned to some of them a few years later in my “recycling” process. Trashing systems was probably a mistake on my part. I probably should have kept them, at the very least as backup plans. There is no reason why I couldn’t have played a couple different systems in my French when I was say 1800-1900.

When do I know a line/opening is not working for me? Should I trash it?

If you have some bad games in an opening, it is natural to think it is not working for you, and you may want to trash it. I admit I have trashed various systems for a variety of reasons.

If you have insufficient theoretical knowledge and lose because of that, I suggest you study it more before giving up on the line. If there is a theoretical problem with the line, then there is a problem, and if the problem is big enough you have a full right to discard the line.

A pressing problem, however, is that you mishandled the ensuing positions. They don’t suit your style. Should you replace it?

Yes and no. If you feel you can play the ensuing positions well, then you should give the line another shot. However, if you feel you have had enough, set the opening aside for a bit and play something else. But keep it as a backup plan. Say you are playing somebody who you think will mishandle the ensuing positions even worse than you. Play it. There’s no harm in that.

When and where to practice your new opening?

Training games are an excellent way to practice new openings, even if they are blitz games. You can try out your new openings without any rating risk. You can find out what you know and don’t know about the opening.

Playing it in tournament games is something you have to do at some point.When is the right moment? I think that you should play it when you feel confident enough.

Personally, I like to play new openings when I know what my opponent will most likely play against them. I’ve had some bad experiences playing new openings against people whose repertoires I did not know anything about.

Now, for the big question.

How wide and how deep should your opening repertoire be?

It depends on your level. Below 1000, openings don’t play a significant role. It’s nice to know some, but concentrating on tactics would be better.

In the 1000-1500 range, openings do start popping up. I think that having a basic opening repertoire where you have a general idea what to do against most openings is best.

In the 1500-1800 range, openings start getting serious. Starting to work on some databases, like I talked about in part 1 [insert link], is probably a good idea. Study the ideas in the position more than specific moves.

In the 1800-2000 range, openings get even more serious. That may be a good point to start expanding your opening repertoire, even if it is a few systems in your main opening.

Between 2000 and 2200, you should probably consider adding an opening or two. In the 2200+ region, the more openings you can play the better.

However, don’t go too wide. It’s better to know 1 opening well than 10 badly. If you aren’t doing well in 1 opening, patch up the holes first instead of ignoring them and going headlong into studying another opening.


In general, the wider the opening repertoire, the better. Don’t be predictable. Learn to play new positions. But don’t make it too wide. It’s like constructing a building: have a solid base and build up from it, not the other way around. Once you know an opening well enough and feel like moving onto another one, do so.

These are just my personal opinions. Feel free to share your ideas.


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