Constructing Your Opening Repertoire (By Max Illingworth)

Fri, 2013-06-14 12:31 -- IM Max Illingworth

Constructing Your Opening Repertoire

At some point in their chess development, most players face and try to resolve the issue of which openings to play, and how to best learn these openings. With this blog post I’ll aim to answer this question, which has a differing answer depending on your playing strength, style, available time to study and opponents/time controls you are playing.

Let’s say you are fairly new to chess (without a chess rating) – then you don’t need to worry about creating an ‘opening repertoire’ – instead, develop your pieces to good squares quickly, control the centre with your pawns and pieces, keep your king safe and check that your pieces and the opponent’s are safe on each turn. I offer the following fragment as a model of these principles by White:

[Event "?"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "2013.06.13"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Model Game"]
[Black "Opening Principles"]
[Result "*"]
[ECO "B01"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "15"]
[EventDate "2013.??.??"]
[SourceDate "2013.06.13"]

1. e4 {I recommend this move for the majority of inexperienced players as it's
fairly easy to get your pieces out (e.g. with Nf3, Bc4 and 0-0) and you take
some control of the centre from the first move.} d5 {The Scandinavian is a
playable opening, but it breaks a couple of general principles and doesn't
have as good a reputation as the Open Games (1...e5), for instance.} 2. exd5
Qxd5 {Black brings out his queen early - which isn't necessarily bad in itself
but you have to be careful that your queen isn't bossed around by the
opponent's pieces.} 3. Nc3 Qd8 4. d4 {White ensures a central space advantage
and is ready to start developing his queenside when the time is right.
Development in the opening phase isn't just about developing your pieces but
also stopping your opponent from ideally deploying their pieces.} Nf6 5. Nf3 c6
{Though not a developing move, this is a reasonable way to play.} 6. Bc4 {
White has developed his pieces quickly and actively and has a space advantage
in the centre so it's not surprising that he has slightly better chances.} g6 {
Black prepares to fianchetto his king's bishop but this is a little slow.} 7.
O-O {By castling, White safeguards his king and also prepares to bring his
rook to the half open e-file with Re1.} (7. Ne5 {is also promising, but you
shouldn't move a developed piece a second time unless there is a good reason 
(e.g. the piece is attacked or you can win material).}) 7... Bg7 8. Re1 {With
simple developing moves, White has obtained a clear advantage and full control
over the position.} * 

For the next level – the player ‘starting out’ in tournament play – more concrete opening study can be very beneficial. You can be successful with almost any decent opening as the game is most likely to be decided by the ‘vision’ of the players (what moves are seen and overlooked in the heat of battle), but picking the right openings at this stage can accelerate the development of your tactical vision and chess understanding.
In the game below I’ll suggest a possible repertoire for White, based around 1.e4 gambits. I find playing gambit openings to be a great way to get a feel for the initiative and improve your tactical ability early.

[Event "?"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "2013.06.13"]
[Round "?"]
[White "White Repertoire"]
[Black "For Starting Out Players"]
[Result "*"]
[ECO "C21"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "7"]
[EventDate "2013.??.??"]

1. e4 e5 (1... d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 g6 {, the Pirc, is not an easy line to
sacrifice a pawn against, but the system} 4. Bc4 Bg7 5. Qe2 {followed by a
quick e5 and Nf3 is very logical and easy to play.}) (1... c6 2. d4 d5 {is the
Caro-Kann, against which I suggest the Panov-Botvinnik Attack with} 3. exd5
cxd5 4. c4 {, when an IQP (Isolated Queen's Pawn) position is likely. Yes,
there are a lot of nuances to IQP positions, but it is important to be able to
play them well.}) (1... e6 2. d4 d5 {, the French, can be met simply by} 3.
exd5 exd5 4. c4 {which isn't a try for a theoretical edge but also is likely
to reach an IQP position and is very easy for White to play (i.e. with simple
developing moves).}) (1... c5 {, the Sicilian Defence, can be a difficult
opening to understand, but with the Morra Gambit we can obtain a strong
initiative with fluid development early in the game:} 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3 dxc3 4.
Nxc3 {and White has a guaranteed lead in development plus better control of
the centre. Once you learn the basic tactical motifs you can play this opening
very successfully.}) 2. d4 exd4 3. c3 dxc3 4. Nxc3 {This line is known as the
Danish Gambit, where White sacrifices a pawn to obtain an early lead in
development, superior central control and chances to develop an early attack
against Black's king. We're not concerned with playing the objectively very
best moves as much as getting experience in the positions that will improve
our game the most - namely open positions! As I've stated before, an open
position cannot become closed, but a closed position can and usually does open
up. By the way, none of these suggestions leave White with an objectively
worse position, even if Black plays the best moves in the opening.} * 

As Black, I suggest a similar approach of aiming for more open, tactical positions, though you may find other openings to be more to your liking. My generic recommendation is the Open Games and Tarrasch Defence:

[Event "?"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "2013.06.13"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Black Repertoire"]
[Black "For Starting Out Players"]
[Result "*"]
[ECO "C58"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "10"]
[EventDate "2013.??.??"]

1. e4 ({The Tarrasch Setup can be employed against just about any first move
other than 1.e4, for example:} 1. Nf3 d5 2. g3 Nf6 3. Bg2 c5 4. b3 Nc6 5. Bb2
e6 6. O-O Be7 {and Black has a robust position.}) (1. d4 d5 2. c4 ({Black can
also play in Tarrasch fashion against White's d4 lines that don't entail an
early c4, for instance:} 2. Nf3 e6 3. Bf4 c5 {when Black may even consider ...
Qb6 to attack the b2-pawn.}) 2... e6 3. Nc3 c5 {This is the starting position
of the Tarrasch proper. There are a lot of different options for both sides
but a typical continuation is} 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Nf3 Nc6 6. g3 Nf6 7. Bg2 Be7 8.
O-O O-O 9. dxc5 Bxc5 {leading to the IQP positions that so frequently occur in
the Tarrasch. For his structural weakness Black gains very active piece play
and possibilities to transform this into a kingside attack.}) 1... e5 {The
other opening that's often recommended to new players is the French Defence,
but it tends to lead to closed positions where the key themes are based more
around the pawn structure than active piece play.} 2. Nf3 {Obviously there are
a lot of alternatives here such as the Danish Gambit but I just want to show a
couple of ideas for Black.} Nc6 3. Bc4 {You will most often face 3.Bc4 or 3.
Nc3, even though the Ruy Lopez (3.Bb5) is the rage at Grandmaster level.} (3.
Nc3 Nf6) (3. d4 exd4 4. Nxd4 {is the Scotch Game, which can be met by} Nf6 {
and Black will get early pressure on White's centre.}) (3. Bb5 {, the Ruy
Lopez, can be met by} Nf6 4. O-O Bc5 {, rapidly developing Black's pieces to
good squares. This system is quite sharp in nature but still fairly solid,
which makes it a good choice for the relatively new player.}) 3... Nf6 {The
Two Knights requires more theoretical knowledge than 3...Bc5 but is more
likely to lead to the sharp open positions we're after.} (3... Bc5) 4. Ng5 {
White has a few alternatives but this is critical. Then the main line runs} d5
5. exd5 Na5 {, where Black sacrifices a pawn to get a lead in development and
the initiative. If you have a look at this yourself you'll see it's
surprisingly hard for White to complete his development in this line.} * 

The simplest way to learn these openings is to play them in some casual games (e.g. on a chess server) and check the game afterwards with an opening book/website, but if you want to be confident in your lines before playing them I’d recommend analysing a few games by the old masters in the variation you want to play, looking up the basic theory online and then trying out your new weapon. A chess coach can also be very helpful in explaining the ideas behind your openings.
Now let’s assume you are a ‘club player’ (say rated 1400-1800 ACF or 700-1100 NSWJCL as an approximation). You can still be successful with the opening outlines above but you might prefer to play more ‘grown-up’ openings (e.g. replace the Smith-Morra Gambit with the Open Sicilian). If you are fairly rigid in your opening preference and like to stick to your guns, you can broaden your repertoire more gradually (e.g. in the Ruy Lopez example you might start playing 3…Bc5 as well as 3…Nf6).
For the more solidly inclined I’ll provide a second repertoire, based around 1.d4 as White and the French/1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 as Black.

[Event "?"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "2013.06.13"]
[Round "?"]
[White "White Repertoire"]
[Black "For the Positional Player"]
[Result "*"]
[ECO "E53"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "13"]
[EventDate "2013.??.??"]

1. d4 Nf6 (1... f5 2. g3 Nf6 3. Bg2 g6 4. Nf3 Bg7 5. O-O O-O 6. b3) (1... d5 2.
c4 e6 (2... dxc4 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3) (2... c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 Bf5 (4... e6 5.
Bd3 Nbd7 6. O-O) 5. cxd5 cxd5 6. Qb3) 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Bg5 Be7 6. e3
O-O 7. Qc2 c6 8. Bd3 Nbd7 9. Nge2) 2. c4 (2. Nf3 e6 3. Bg5) 2... e6 (2... c5 3.
d5 e6 4. Nc3 exd5 5. cxd5 d6 6. Nf3 g6 7. g3 Bg7 8. Bg2 O-O 9. O-O) (2... g6 3.
Nc3 d5 (3... Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. Be2 O-O 6. Bg5) 4. Nf3 Bg7 5. e3 O-O 6. Be2) 3.
Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 O-O (4... b6 5. Nge2) (4... c5 5. Nge2) 5. Bd3 d5 6. Nf3 c5 7.
O-O * 

And for Black:

[Event "?"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "2013.06.13"]
[Round "?"]
[White "Black Repertoire"]
[Black "For the Positional Player"]
[Result "*"]
[ECO "C18"]
[Annotator "Illingworth,Max"]
[PlyCount "14"]
[EventDate "2013.??.??"]

1. e4 (1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4) (1. c4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. Nf3 g6 4. g3 Bg7
5. Bg2 e5) (1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 (2. Bg5 e6 3. Nf3 h6 4. Bxf6 Qxf6 5. e4 d5) (2. Nf3
e6 3. Bf4 b6 4. e3 Bb7) 2... e6 3. Nc3 (3. Nf3 b6 4. g3 (4. e3 Bb7 5. Bd3 d5) (
4. a3 Bb7 5. Nc3 d5) 4... Bb7 5. Bg2 Be7 6. O-O O-O) (3. g3 d5 4. Nf3 Be7 5.
Bg2 O-O 6. O-O dxc4) 3... Bb4 4. Qc2 (4. Nf3 b6) (4. e3 O-O 5. Bd3 d5 6. Nf3 b6
7. O-O Bb7) 4... O-O 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. Qxc3 d5) 1... e6 2. d4 (2. d3 d5 3. Nd2 Nf6
4. Ngf3 Nc6) 2... d5 3. Nc3 (3. exd5 exd5 4. Nf3 Bd6 5. Bd3 Ne7) (3. e5 c5 4.
c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Qb6 6. a3 c4) (3. Nd2 Nc6 4. Ngf3 Nf6 5. e5 Nd7) 3... Bb4 4. e5 (
4. exd5 exd5) (4. a3 Bxc3+ 5. bxc3 dxe4 6. Qg4 Nf6 7. Qxg7 Rg8 8. Qh6 Rg6) 4...
c5 5. a3 (5. Bd2 Nh6) 5... Bxc3+ 6. bxc3 Qa5 7. Bd2 Qa4 * 

To finish up, I shall make one more point: You don’t have to play the most fashionable lines! Sometimes a more old-fashioned line can be just as dangerous – especially if the opponent does not remember or understand it! Make sure you are playing an opening because you want to play it – and not just because Kasparov or your coach played it. Try to place your stamp of individuality on your games.
Good luck with constructing your opening repertoire, and if you do it well you shouldn’t need too many renovations!