Thursday, January 3, 2008

Crossroads In The Opening

I’ve generally been a maverick minimalist on openings. From my first tournament game until last year, my standby with White has been the staid, stodgy, and stale English Opening, most properly played with upper lip in full contraction (scoring percentage 69%). Generally, the English seems to avoid a lot of theory, but I hardly feel like I’m ahead of Black because we’re both blundering toward the middlegame. I spent a lot of time (and book money) trying to understand the King’s Indian Defense and now my f-pawns advance at the slightest provocation. My main deference to the theoretical battle was to try and book up on the Sicilian Dragon. After keeping track of my opening successes and failures, the stats told me that even though the English is in some ways a Sicilian attack, I was doing much worse with the Sicilian (scoring percentage 49%) than my King’s Indian Defense (scoring percentage 61%). I especially hated trying to outplay young people who knew both sides of the Dragon to the 25th move.

So in 2004, I switched to the Modern Defense. One advantage of the Modern is that you play it twice as much, against 1.e4 and 1.d4. But in a way, Black is giving away his birthright by deferring to White how the game is going to develop. My scoring percentage with Black started matching my percentage with White (both around 68%), so I was happy. A couple years ago, GM Tiger Hillarp Persson came out with a book on his experiences in top level chess with Tiger’s Modern. I thought, “Yeah! Legitimacy AND creativity!” I think some teachers advocate trying to dictate the terms of the struggle in a way that emphasizes your strengths. A while back I bought The Hippopotamus Rises. I've heard of a certain player in D.C. who plays this as White as well as Black such that in that area, it's known as the Dupont Circle Opening. Now there's a maverick minimalist after my own heart.

My openings worked for me, but about two years ago came a slump where I couldn’t see anything tactically and so I began to think that my openings weren’t keeping me sharp and/or my middlegame experience wasn’t broad enough. So armed with my 2000 floor, I began to take riskless risks with the Scandinavian, the Budapest, and 1.e4, but still with weird side lines like the Grand Prix. I admire the super grandmasters and the club players that emulate their sharp systems. But I shudder at the thought of booking up the Dragon, Najdorf, Scheviningen, Sveshnikov, Kalashnikov, Paulsen, Pelikan, Taimanov Sicilians. Most likely I’d choose Alapin or Closed or Grand Prix or even Morra to avoid all that theory and then I’d be a maverick again. Then what about French/Scandinavian/Alekhine/Philidor/Pirc? And which way to go on double king pawns: King’s Gambit, Ruy Lopez, Scotch, Italian? How many lifetimes do I have to learn this game?

The powers of the grandmasters and the strong memory types remind me of two movies. In Song of the South, after duping Brer Fox into throwing him into the Briar Patch, Brer Rabbit says, “I was born and bred in the briar patch.” And in The Princess Bride, after defeating Vizzini the Sicilian in a battle of wits, Westley says, “I’ve spent the past few years building up an immunity to iocaine powder.” A while back I quoted Nietzsche’s “That which does not kill us makes us strong.” And Druknknite quotes Muhammad Ali in the banner of his blog, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” Incidentally, Drunknknite is a strong memory type and one I foresee blowing past me and making it at least to 2100 if not 2200.

What's the risk in studying new openings? I'm afraid that the briar patch will swallow me up and other areas of my game will atrophy. Perhaps a balanced diet of Chess Tempo and guess-the-master's-move is the remedy.

Some say that grandmasters such as Kramnik and the late Wojtkiewicz have narrow opening repertoires. It would be an attractive compromise to emulate such strong players in their legitimate but “narrow” repertoires. I have made databases of their games, but this remains another thing in my round tuit bin.

Should I boldly follow the masters into the depths of the abyss? Or should I continue down the path less traveled by in search of creativity? Should I play within myself and perhaps stagnate in my chess knowledge? Or should I tax my aging brain in the hopes that chess mastery lies beyond the briar patch of variations? I should point out that these questions are mostly rhetorical. Some people at the club are fond of pointing out that my openings are weak, but I think the pots in their glass houses are as black as my kettles. I’m just stubborn enough not to listen to even well-reasoned arguments from authoritative sources. Perhaps if Mark Dvoretsky wrote in and pragmatically appealed for me to switch to the Ruy Lopez…but of course I have slipped back into Zip-a-dee-doo-dah Land.

One thing that is perhaps pushing me to the tipping point: I just recently discovered Castling Queen Side. The author shows the true grit that I find so inspiring about lower rated players. She had 270 LOSSES this year alone, compared with my total 371 GAMES in my 16-year tournament chess career. Puts to shame my whining ways. Among some of her listed New Year’s “non-resolutions” is “Learn new openings.” I’ve spent years avoiding learning. Perhaps it’s time to try to grow as a chess player and try something new.

1 comment:

Polly said...

Thanks for mentioning my non-resolution.

Damn kids! I've had my fill of them, and all of their theory. I still haven't decided what direct I'm going to take with my openings. The thought of learning new stuff fills me with dread, but making the same mistakes over and over again isn't exactly a picnic either.