What are the best chess books ever written? We asked ten titled players this question and this article will share their answers. Because of the open-ended nature of the question, we received an interesting variety of responses.
Let’s jump right into the books and see what the masters had to say about them.
Chess books have been around for a long time. Although the quality of the books vary as they do in any genre, there have been a few that have endured through the years and prove to be both educational and entertaining for those who study them. The books in this section fit into this category.
The books are listed in alphabetical order. I have put the player who nominated each book in parentheses after each title.
Chess Fundamentals by Jose Raul Capablanca (GM Nigel Davies)
How to Think like a Grandmaster and Play Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov (IM Levon Altounian)
Ideas Behind the Chess Openings by Reuben Fine (GM Nigel Davies)
Lasker’s Manual of Chess by Emanual Lasker (GM Nigel Davies)
My System by Aaron Nimzowitsch (FM Daniel Barrish)
These books illustrated many concepts devoid of some of the complexity of modern chess brought about by decades of theory and computer analysis. This makes them ideal material for instructive purposes.
For example, commenting on Chess Fundamentals:
“One of the most lucid explanations of certain aspects of chess strategy.”
~GM Nigel Davies
Besides the clarity of instruction in these books, these were the pioneers of chess strategy as we know it. Books like My System by Nimzowitsch explained and built upon strategic concepts that were in their early stages of development and refinement. The fact that these concepts are still valid today are proof of the value of these books.
FM Daniel Barrish was influenced greatly by Nimzowitsch. In his recommendation of My System, Mr. Barrish writes: “A common choice – one of the first books I read and probably the most influential. It’s a classic that was revolutionary at the time and which defines and explains basic positional principles in a lucid manner.”
Similarly, IM Levon Altounian had high praise for the works of Alexander Kotov: “Likely the first book ever written that deals with finding candidate moves, dealing with psychological mistakes, time management and multi-level plan creation. All written in a very easy to understand way thanks to Kotov being a part time reporter at his time.”
These chess books have been the foundation for generations of chess players and I suspect will continue to be so for those wise enough to mine the treasures within these works.
Quests for Improvement
Our next selection of books features books that are reflections from players’ attempts to improve their play. I think these books hold a special place in the hearts of players because they often relate to our own attempts to get better at the royal game.
Amateur to IM by Jonathon Hawkins (IM John Bartholomew)
Lessons with a Grandmaster by Boris Gulko and Joel Sneed (GM Rafael Leitão)
The Seven Deadly Chess Sins by Jonathon Rowson (GM Alex Colovic and IM John Bartholomew)
With The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, Rowson investigates in a fascinating way why players lose games. As IM John Bartholomew notes, “GM Jonathan Rowson delves in to the psychological side of chess. Fascinating.”
Moments of empathy and understanding between author and reader occur often, as these players share their own struggles along with their triumphs as they ascend the chess ladder. For example, referring to Amateur to IM:
“Engrossing, honest read. IM Hawkins describes his path to becoming a strong player. Interestingly, the vast majority of the book is on endgames.”
~IM John Bartholemew
In Lessons with a Grandmaster, the co-authors share the relationship of teacher and student, as the grandmaster, Boris Gulko, instructs his student, Dr. Sneed, through deeply annotated games where student questions master. The effectiveness of this approach is the reason for its appeal to GM Rafael Leitão: “Brilliant idea for a book. Extremely helpful to understand chess better.”
Biographical Game Collections
Chess is about the personalities of its great players as well as about the positions and moves on the board. The following books were chosen I think not only because of the great games and commentary from some of the greatest players ever, but also because of the fascinating (and in one case tragic) lives that these players led. The fact that chess has produced so many interesting figures explains in part the size of this particular list.
Baloven Kaissi (in Russian) by Max Euwe and Lodewijk Prins (GM Alex Colovic)
Chess Duels by Yasser Seirawan (IM Christof Sielecki)
My 60 Memorable Games by Bobby Fischer (GM Alex Colovic)
My Best Games by Anatoly Karpov (IM Levon Altounian)
My Great Predecessors (series) by Garry Kasparov (GM Rafael Leitão and IM Christof Sielecki)
My Life and Games by Mikhail Tal (IM Levon Altounian, IM John Bartholemew, and IM Christof Sielecki)
My Life, Games, and Compositions by Pal Benko and Jeremy Silman (WGM Jennifer Shahade)
Being able to grasp the inner workings and mind of one of the greatest players ever is something we as mere chess mortals would love to do. Several of these books, such as Baloven Kaissi do just that.
“An incredible outlook on Capablanca’s games and career with psychological insights from the authors who knew the man personally.”
~GM Alex Colovic
Some of these insights come from the minds of the players themselves, such as Tal’s beloved classic My Life and Games, Yasser Seirawan’s Chess Duals,and Pal Benko’s My Life, Games, and Compositions. Besides some brilliant chess, our panel noted how interesting and entertaining these books were.
“Great games, wonderfully written, just a joy to read and browse through.”
~IM Christof Sielecki
Others, such as Kasparov’s epic series My Great Predecessors, share the knowledge and insights of legendary players from a unique perspective. GM Rafael Leitão describes it well: “The best player ever analyzing games by former world champions. Can’t get much better than that.”
We are very fortunate as chess players and fans to have these works by some of the greatest to play the game.
Our final section of this survey contain books that are written for strong players.
Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual by Mark Dvoretsky (WGM Jennifer Shahade)
Endgame Strategy by Mikhail Shereshevsky (FM Daniel Barrish)
Grandmaster Preparation series by Jacob Aagaard (FM Daniel Barrish and FM Nate Solon)
School of Future Champions series by Mark Dvoretsky (IM Greg Shahade)
School of Chess Excellence series by Mark Dvoretsky (GM Rafael Leitão)
Secrets of Chess Tactics by Mark Dvoretsky (WGM Jennifer Shahade)
From the feedback from my respondents, there are two aspects that make these books great. First, the authors carefully selected appropriate material to challenge their readers. The second is the ability to communicate the most important points to be understood and applied. The books on this list embody these qualities.
An observant reader might notice that one author dominates this list. International Master Mark Dvoretsky (who passed away in 2016) was regarded as one of the best chess trainers by many high level players. His selection of training material was one of the strengths of his works. For example, IM Greg Shahade (referring to volume one of the School of Future Champions): “I just love this book, lots of great examples and awesome chapters.”
For WGM Jennifer Shahade, there is an emotional connection to Mr. Dvoretsky’s work, as she shared that she had “fond memories” of Dvoretsky’s Secrets of Chess Tactics. Part of this connection arises from the feelings of confidence and joy from correctly solving the exercises of the author’s solutions.
For some, Dvoretsky’s books were extremely influential:
“I studied the early versions of these books (they were published in the beginning of the nineties). They changed the way I saw chess.”
~GM Rafael Leitão
In addition to Mr. Dvoretsky’s books, a couple of our respondents spoke highly of GM Jacob Aagaard’s Grandmaster Preparation series. Aagaard’s books are newer and combine the two key characteristics of selection of material and eloquent communication.
For example, FM Nathan Solon commented on Grandmaster Preparation: Positional Play: “The biggest thing that’s impressed me about the Aagaard book is the number of good examples he’s assembled. One thing I’ve noticed doing lessons is, in general, the less I’m talking, the better. It’s all about the student getting experience. So I think Aagaard’s approach of short but helpful explanations, followed by a lot of exercises, is a good way to go. When I do the exercises I really feel like my chess brain is growing.”
Although many of the other books on our lists above were meant for chess players of all levels, there is a need for training material and instruction for players who have at some level mastered the game. Fortunately, we have both the legacy of the legendary Mark Dvoretsky and newer training works from Jacob Aagaard and others.
Before concluding this article, I wanted to extend my gratitude for the generous participation of the following chess masters:
Chess players love chess books. It’s part of the culture of chess to read books. Fortunately, there is no shortage of chess books for us to read!
What makes a great chess book? I think from our lists of the best chess books (in our opinion) there are several conclusions we can make.
First, the books contain some great chess! Whether it be the games of world champions or instructive positions in a specific phase of the game, the beauty and truth of chess is on display first and foremost.
Second, some of the best books tell a story. It could be the story of a player’s journey as in Tal’s My Life and Games. It could be the story of the evolution of chess as in Kasparov’s My Great Predecessors series.
Finally, many of the books inspire and teach. You could be a beginner studying the early champions such as Lasker or Capablanca or a master delving into one of Dvoretsky’s training manuals. Either way, the games, positions, and words within these works both evoke your own desire to improve as well as showing you the method by which you can.
Indeed, reading the books are often as enjoyable as playing the game itself!
What do you think is the best chess book ever written?
Has our panel of chess masters missed any of your favorite books?
Update (April 12th, 2017): Wesley So’s continuation of his streak has resulted in him being crowned US Champion. To celebrate this special moment we’ve created an infographic of Wesley’s road to his success! Check it out.
Filipino-American GM Wesley So is the hottest player in chess at the moment. At the time of this post (after the Tata Steel tournament in Wijk aan Zee), he has won or drawn his last 58 games in tournament play. The last time he lost a tournament game was in July of 2016 against Magnus Carlsen at the Bilbao Masters tournament in Spain.
Like in most things, people love a winner. Fortunately, Wesley So is very easy to like. He’s friendly, humble, and happens to play very good chess as well.
Born in the Philippines, he learned chess from his father at age 6, Wesley So rose quickly in chess. He started playing in international chess tournaments in 2005 and earned his Grandmaster title in 2008. He moved to the United States in 2015.
In this post, we’re going to explore some of the highlights of the 23-year-old Super GM’s incredible unbeaten streak.
Wesley So’s journey started quietly in Spain. He finished this tournament tied for 3rd with one victory, one loss (to Carlsen), and eight draws.
Here is his lone victory of the tournament against the difficult-to-beat Anish Giri. Here So battles Giri in an evenly pitched match and then precisely and gradually builds up an advantage until he is able to build a mating net around his opponent’s king.
Sinquefield Cup 2016
The next stop on Wesley So’s journey was St. Louis and the 2016 Sinquefield Cup. With 5.5/9 points, So edged out four players who finished with 5 (Aronian, Topalov, Caruana, and Anand).
This was a highly contested tournament, and Wesley So clinched the lead with a comeback victory over Veselin Topalov – who had been leading earlier in the tournament.
One thing to note about this game was that Wesley So often has to fight back in double edged positions where he doesn’t always have the advantage. This type of toughness when your back is against the wall is the character of a champion.
42nd Chess Olympiad 2016
Although there are many draws in the elite tournaments where he usually plays, this is not the case at the 42nd Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan. Playing 3rd board behind fellow Super-GM Americans Fabuana Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura, So racked up an impressive 7 wins and 3 draws.
Here is an instructive victory against Serbian GM Nikola Sedlak. So demonstrates several positional and tactical themes in this game, including the power of the two bishops, sacrificing pawns for line clearance and time, and how to build pressure on a pinned piece.
Isle of Man Masters 2016
In October 2016, Wesley So joined a contingent of masters to battle it out at the Isle of Man International. So finished with a respectable 6.5/9 (4 victories and 5 draws), but he had to settle for 3rd place as Ukrainian GM Pavel Eljanov and American Fabuana Caruana tied for 1st with 7.5/9 points.
Although Wesley achieved victories against several strong GM’s, his most interesting game of the tournament in my opinion was his first round victory against WGM Marina Brunello of Italy in a game featuring the French Defense. In this game, So sacrifices a piece for a pawn and ton of initiative. Although the young Brunello tried her best, the game simplified into an endgame where the Super GM demonstrated his superior technique.
London Chess Classic 2016
In December, Wesley So competed in the London Chess Classic with some familiar opponents and finished with (what is becoming) familiar results. He edged out GM Fabuana Caruana to win the event with 6/9 points (with 3 wins and 6 draws).
Many of our games have shown Wesley’s considerable endgame skill. The following game shows us that he knows how to attack as well. His victim was Veselin Topalov, who struggled in London. Seizing the opportunity, Wesley So plays aggressively, with a sparkling finish.
Tata Steel 2017
Wijk aan Zee has been the location of super-GM tournaments for years, and it hosted the Tata Steel tournament in January – featuring a line-up that included World Champion Magnus Carlsen and recent challenger Sergey Karjarkin. However, it was Wesley So who once again finished first – a full point ahead of Magnus Carlsen.
In our first game, he defended well against the creative Hungarian GM Richard Rapport, who had an advantage for most of the game – playing brilliantly until making an error that So was able to capitalize on. Although Wesley So has played excellent chess throughout these past months, whenever anyone strings together a streak such as his, he has to have some luck and help along the way as well.
Finally, I’d like to show you his final round victory against GM Ian Nepomniachtchi. The Russian GM plays inaccurately in the opening, and Wesley So punishes it, winning his opponent’s queen for a rook and minor piece. It’s enough as So wins the game with precision.
The Future is Bright
I hope you enjoyed this little tour of Wesley So’s incredible run. Besides the unbeaten streak, So racked up tournament victories against the world’s elite at the Sinquefield Cup, the London Chess Classic, and at the Tata Steel Masters. During this run, he has also risen in the ranks and is currently the world’s #2 rated player behind the champ, Magnus Carlsen.
From reading several interviews, Wesley So seems to be a very humble, yet determined individual. He is very grateful for his talent, as he considers it a gift. However, he also understands his responsibility as a chess professional and the work and focus it takes to prepare for the his matches. This combination of hard work and humility seem to be a winning one for him.
How brightly will Wesley So’s future shine? Time will tell of course, but from my point of view, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think that this chess star will be leaving the limelight in the near future. Perhaps we’ll even see him as a future challenger for the World Championship.
Let us know what you think. Send us a message on Twitter!
How do you think Wesley So would do in a match against Magnus Carlsen?
When I first started playing chess, I had a very narrow view of strategy. In my mind, I was either attacking my opponent’s king or he was attacking mine. This strategy worked fairly well among my friends.
However, there were times when my “Attack or Defend” strategy would not quite work. The position didn’t offer either of us a clear way to attack. Eventually, I discovered that if I was very careful, I would often be able to win material via a tactical shot or more likely, left a piece en prise (undefended) for me to scoop up.
Eventually, that stopped working as well as my opposition got better and better. Eventually, I found myself on the defending side of my “Attack or Defend” method a little too often.
What I realize now that my opponents had started to explore the deep ocean of chess strategy, while I was just paddling around in my little pond in my back yard. Now, as I teach beginning players as well as playing against my children as they begin to learn chess, I see that they are often swimming in the same pond in the beginning.
In this article, I want to give beginning and novice players (and perhaps some intermediate players) a glimpse of the vast ocean of chess strategy. It can be quite beautiful, but also scary for the uninitiated.
Strategy versus Tactics
It is important to understand the difference between tactics and strategy. We can consider tactics to be forced sequence of moves that lead to a specific objective – usually (but not always) a gain in material.
Consider the position below (from one of my recent games against National Master Barry Davis). In this particular game, White won material by force – I could not avoid it. This is tactics.
On the other hand, strategy involves longer term plans and maneuvers. As we shall see in the following games, the moves in these games are not forced by an immediate threat against the opposing king or massive loss of material.
Tactics and strategy exist together. Typically, tactics serve the long-term strategy involved in a particular position. However, at times, if one side makes a big enough tactical mistake, finding it is more important than any strategic elements available in the position.
To put it another way, although beginning players often miss tactics – or fall prey to tactics – I think one reason they do so is because they don’t have a plan or a strategy in the first place. Hopefully, this article will give you a few ideas to work with.
With all of this in mind, let’s look at a few strategies with examples.
Creating and Attacking Weaknesses
One of the fundamental strategies in chess is attacking weaknesses. Often, this comes in the form of a weak pawn. Sometimes, your opponent creates these weaknesses by advancing a pawn or recapturing after an exchange. Strong players don’t wait for their opponents…they look for opportunities to create weaknesses.
How is this done? As we will see in the following two examples, it is often done using one of your own pawns to attack the pawn formation of your opponent. Whether your opponent tries to stop this or allows the pawns to be traded, what results is usually a backward pawn or an isolated pawn – both of which are often subject to attack. One thing to remember, which we will see in both of our examples, is that sometimes defending one weakness exposes other weaknesses. When this happens, you can often shift the target of your attack to win.
The minority attack is an important attacking formation to learn. Although this article won’t go in depth on the minority attack, the following game demonstrates the its potential. As mentioned, White’s pressure on c6 eventually leads to targets all over the board.
In the next example the legendary Viktor Korchnoi creates a weak pawn for his opponent. Although his opponent tries to counterattack actively, Korchnoi finds an opportunity to transform his positional advantage into a king hunt.
Remember the following about creating weaknesses:
ABC-W’s (Always Be Creating Weaknesses for your opponent). Actively look for opportunities, particularly when your opponent provides a “hook” (by advancing a pawn).
Remember that weaknesses often gives the owner of the weakness some compensation. For example, an isolated pawn has two open (or half-open) files next to it that the owner can take advantage of.
Pawn weaknesses are important, but always look for other opportunities that may arise when your opponent defends the weakness.
Using Files and Diagonals
Our pieces need a path to get to where they need to go. Often, our opening sequences will lead to specific files and diagonals being of specific importance. For example, the early …c5 thrust in the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5) will often lead to a half-open c-file upon which a lot of Black’s chances rely. Openings such as the Reti which creates a fianchetto of its king’s bishop (after initial moves Nf3, g3, and an eventual Bg2) often depend on using that long diagonal for its purposes.
As with creating weaknesses, we can wait for them to happen, or we can take the effort and forethought to create open lines for our pieces.
In our first example, the 3rd World Champion Alexander Alekhine takes control of the long diagonal a8-h1. Not only does he take control of it, nearly every move he makes contributes to keeping control and eventually using it to attack his opponent’s king.
In our next game, we see Hungarian grandmaster Istvan Csom create an open file using the h-pawn and then systematically and patiently puts his major pieces on it. His opponent, who controls the a-file himself, is diverted away to protect other weaknesses. Csom then takes control of that file as well and using both the a-file and h-files for his major pieces, winning a beautiful game.
Here are some tips for creating and controlling open lines:
Try to look ahead and see where a potential file and diagonal might get opened (if not open already).
Get their first with your rooks (for open files) or bishops (for diagonals).
Consider whether it is better to trade off your opponent’s pieces that contest the line or whether you should hold your ground and let them initiate the trades.
Avoid opening lines if you think your opponent is in a better position to take advantage of it.
Creating and Protecting Outposts
The final beginner chess strategy we’re going to cover today is the creation of an outpost for your knights. Although bishops can also use outposts, knights in particular need them to be effective. Why? Simply because bishops, rooks, and the queen have long-range mobility and can strike from afar.
Knights are very powerful also, as they can leap over obstacles. Their unique movement also can also catch opponents in deadly forks.
What is an outpost? An outpost is a square often (but now always) supported by a pawn that cannot be attacked by opposing pawns. The best outposts are on the 4th, 5th, and 6th ranks. Also, central outposts are often very powerful. Of course, an outpost is a good one if it is where the action is.
In our first example, Grandmaster Judit Polgar demonstrates the creation of an outpost on d5. Her knight quickly occupies it and from that jumping off point she exchanges it to simplify into a winning endgame.
In that particular game, Polgar forced her opponent to isolate his d-pawn, which shows us that the square in front of isolated pawns are good outpost squares.
In the following example, the 3rd World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca uses a simple but powerful move, …h5, to secure the f5 square for his knight. Later in the game, Capa’s knight finds its way to an outpost on e4, remaining there for the rest of the game where it supports Black’s endgame plans.
Capablanca annotated this game in his book My Chess Career, and I’ve included his most insightful comments where noted.
As you can see from these two games, knights are very effective if they can operate from a strong outpost. Here are a few things to remember:
Use pawn levers to divert or exchange opposing pawns to protect a potential outpost.
Remember the technique of putting a pawn on h4/h5 (or a4/a5) to prevent opposing pawns from attacking an outpost.
Outposts are only good if you can both occupy it and it is in a sector of a board where the knight can be useful.
Remember that a knight doesn’t have to stay on the outpost forever. Sometimes, the outpost is just a stop along the way for the knight to attack or exchange itself advantageously (as in the Polgar game).
Learning strategy is a long journey that never ends. However, the longer you stay on the path, the more enjoyment and success you will experience in chess. This article is just a beginning. Here are a few ideas on how you can continue to improve your chess strategy:
Strategy starts with the opening. Keep doing your Chessable repetitions and perhaps look at some repertoires written and commented on by strong players (like IM Christof Seilecki aka ChessExplained). As you study your openings, try to understand some of its key strategic elements.
Study annotated games from some of the game’s best strategic masters. I recommend the games of Capablanca, Botvinnik, and Karpov. They have written books of their own games as well as their games being featured in books of other great authors.
Read manuals on strategy to learn how to assess various positional elements such as pawn structure, king safety, bishop versus knight, and others. There are many good ones both classic and modern.
I hope this article was helpful to you and that these beginner chess strategies will help you win more games. If you enjoyed it, please share it with your friends. Chessable is here to aid you on your path to chess improvement. Until next time, I wish you the best of luck in that journey.
When I started studying chess seriously, I started with the games of the World Champion at the time, Garry Kasparov. I read several books about his championship matches and the openings he played (and like a typical fan played them myself). Kasparov’s approach was to find the sharpest, most critical lines in opening theory and find new ideas and weapons – unleashing them brutally on his opponents. This in contrast to the opening approach of our current young champion, Magnus Carlsen.
And somehow Magnus Carlsen seems to care little about the opening! In fact sometimes it feels like he just shows up and plays whatever he wants.
Mr. Shahade goes on to survey a few of Carlsen’s opening choices during that period, which typically were noncritical lines that you might find amateurs playing at their local weekend tournament. That article was from 2013, so let’s see what the champ has been up to since then.
Only Carlsen knows specifically why he chose certain opening weapons for certain encounters. However, I see a few advantages to his approach. First, he will most likely be more prepared in the positions and structures he ends up with. Also, as his opponent might often deviate early to either avoid Magnus’ preparation – or because he hasn’t studied the opening, the World Champion will often get a chance to outplay his opponent with his superior skill.
He may also choose specific variations because he feels they will be less comfortable for his opponent. This is reminiscent of the first World Champion, Emanuel Lasker, who often played opening not only for their objective worth, but for their psychological effect on his opponents.
Let’s take a look at some of his more interesting choices over the last couple years.
With the Black pieces, Carlsen tends to play very solid openings as befits his positional style. So he often plays 1…e5 against 1.e4 often aiming for several variations of the Ruy Lopez, including the solid Berlin Defense as well as several of the Closed Variations of the Ruy. Against 1.d4, he is very comfortable in dynamic positional openings such as the Nimzo-Indian and the Queen’s Indian.
However, at times he plays “ordinary” openings that probably both confuse his opponents as well as shows them how versatile he can be.
Here’s an encounter where he outplays Fabiano Caruana during the 2014 Chess Olympiad. He uses what’s known as the Mieses-Kotroc variation of the Scandinavian, featuring an early …Bg4. Although it has been played at GM level, this is the only game with this variation at the elite level. Carlsen shows his positional prowess and endgame mastery.
Sicilian Defense? No Problem
In conversations with amateur players, I occasionally encounter the theory that Carlsen – known as a predominantly positional and defensive player – is not skilled in sharp encounters. However, looking at a few games with White against the combative Sicilian Defense shows us that he can play sharp positions as well as anyone.
Against the Sicilian, he often chooses the slightly offbeat Canal Attack – which often transposes into the related Rossolimo Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5). This opening is also part of Able’s Repertoire: White with 1.e4 written by Chessable co-founder David Kramaley. In this next game, he plays the Canal Attack in a critical game that helped him win the 2015 London Chess Classic. His opponent is another world class GM, Alexander Grischuk.
By the way, he also plays the Open Sicilian very well. In the following game, Carlsen plays a fine positional game, where he gains several positional advantages, then simplifies into a winning endgame. In this case, his opponent is another top ten player, Wesley So.
Queen’s Pawn Game Adventures
Magnus Carlsen usually plays the standard 2.c4 after playing 1.d4 against both 1…d5 and 1…Nf6. However, he’s also shown some creativity in playing some openings seldom seen at the elite levels of chess – although club players will be quite familiar with them.
He is not afraid to play openings such as the London, the Trompowsky, and most recently, the Colle — although he lost that game in his World Championship match with Sergey Karjakin.
In the following game, Magnus plays the Accelerated London (1.d4 followed by 2.Bf4) which transposes into a seemingly harmless Exchange Caro-Kann. However, these are the types of positions that the champion relishes, gaining small positional edges and then transforming the position into a winning endgame.
The Daring Dutch
Another slightly uncommon weapon that Carlsen has trotted out in high level encounters is the Dutch. Unlike fellow elite GM Hikaru Nakamura, who prefers the Leningrad Dutch after 1.d4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 g6, Carlsen has played the Stonewall variation almost exclusively.
Here is another high level encounter against Poland’s top rated GM, Radoslaw Wojtasczek. White doesn’t make any big mistakes, but Carlsen slowly grinds him down and shows great accuracy and timing in a final assault.
When Magnus plays 1.e4, he often heads toward the Ruy Lopez. However, he has played the Italian Game (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4) several times recently. This opening often leads to a slow maneuvering game, which would appear to suit our young World Champion quite well.
Although it has a reputation for drawish positions, in the hands of a positional master such as Carlsen, the Italian becomes a weapon to be feared.
In the game presented below, Carlsen faces off against former World Champion Vishy Anand. Observe how White’s doubled isolated e-pawns help restrain Black’s knight while White’s own knight’s mobility wins the game.
For our final game, I’d like to show you a game that demonstrates Carlsen’s versatility and skill. Although Carlsen plays a variety of openings with both White and Black, one common thread is his positional prowess and endgame virtuosity. It is no different even when he uses offbeat openings.
I hope you will enjoy Carlsen’s final game in his title defense against Sergey Karjakin. In this game, Carlsen plays a move he has never played in competition, 5.f3 (The Prins Variation). This game was the final one of the rapid tiebreaks, and Carlsen was leading by a point, so Black needed a victory to continue on in the match. Although White’s play is solid and sensible, he produces a beautiful combination to finish the game.
I hope you enjoyed a look at some of Magnus Carlsen’s more offbeat opening choices. As I did researched his openings and played through many of his games, I made a few observations.
First, even though he plays what many do not consider “serious” openings, he made them work for him. Because of his tremendous skill, he found resources in these openings that allowed him to prevail. So don’t be afraid to play these openings even though some title player thinks they’re “garbage.”
Second, even though he chose different types of openings, his style manifested itself through the middlegame and endgame. Magnus played sharp openings like the Sicilian in a positional fashion and created favorable endgames. So even if you prefer a specific style of play – e.g. tactical vs. positional – don’t let this restrict the types of openings you play because they aren’t considered congruent with your “style.” There are positional lines in sharp openings and there are tactical lines in solid openings. It takes work (and perhaps a good book) to find them, but they are out there.
Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment with different openings. Although we may not have the time to study chess like a professional like Carlsen, we can still play different openings for enjoyment. Our study of different openings will benefit us, because ultimately openings lead to middlegames and endgames, each with various strategic lessons that will carry over whether we stick with the same opening or not. I believe Magnus Carlsen’s skill at the various openings are both a result of his inherent skill and training. However, I also believe that his skill and knowledge of chess has grown through playing and experimenting with different openings and structures.
Of course, it is important to learn our openings thoroughly as well as develop other aspects of our game, such as tactics, planning, and endgames, so don’t jump around too much when you’re first learning. Stick with your openings for a little while, doing your repetitions with Chessable daily, and you’ll soon find yourself in a different class of chess altogether.
You may not find yourself playing in the World Championship with Magnus Carlsen…but you never know!
Everyone loves to speculate as to who was the best ever. I’ll share my opinion, but I’ve put little spin on it this time. I’ll share who I think the Top Ten Chess Players of All Time were, but I’m also going to survey their opening repertoires and see what we can learn about them.
In creating my list, I did review a few other lists, including ones that used statistics to create ELO ratings for the players of previous generations. Also, I looked at the opinions of several masters for their top picks.
I looked for some consensus. For example, most lists placed Kasparov, Fischer, and Capablanca in their top three, although in various orders. However, after that there was no other trends that I could decipher other than the recurrence of the other players on my list.
There were a few notable players left off the list. Several non-world champions, Paul Morphy, Aaron Nimzowitch, Akiba Rubinstein, David Bronstein, and Viktor Korchnoi, who appear in other top ten lists didn’t make it onto this list. Mikhail Tal was on earlier versions of my list before I finalized it. Another world champion who didn’t make it onto the list was Max Euwe, who would definitely be on a top 15 list.
Finally, I left off currently active players such as Vishy Anand, Vladimir Kramnik, and Magnus Carlsen. Their chess careers have yet to conclude and I felt it would be difficult to place them among the legends on my current list.
I found the process of mapping out the top ten players’ repertoires both fascinating and challenging. There are a few reasons for this and to cut down on the length of this article I had to make some choices as to what to include.
First is the matter of style. We can use Petrosian as an example. Although he was primarily known as a positional defensive player, he was fairly comfortable playing the sharp and tactical Sicilian Najdorf as black – scoring quite well with it in fact. I noticed this as well with players who were primarily known as attacking or tactical players such as Garry Kasparov or Boris Spassky – they could play “quiet” openings quite well also.
The fact is that these top players know chess very well. Although they may have proclivities toward a particular style of play, their overall understanding of the game allows them to play opening systems that are against that “style.” Also, over time certain openings such as the Najdorf Sicilian have proven themselves to be quite effective and combative weapons and offered these legendary players the opportunity to find creative challenges for their opponents – and thus the best players will play them.
Similarly, the players of this group often played openings to counter specific opponents. For example, Garry Kasparov primarily played the Scheveningen and Najdorf variations of the Sicilian Defense during the years he was world champion. However, for psychological and gamesmanship reasons, he played the Sicilian Dragon in his 1995 World Championship match against Vishy Anand – who himself was a proponent of the Sicilian Dragon. You can see Kasparov’s Sicilian Dragon game in my previous blog post.
Because of these reasons, I chose to narrow down my survey of their opening weapons. First, I looked at their openings during their peak years – typically the years they were world champion plus a few years before and after. Secondly, I tried to identify the openings that they played most often as well as the opening variations they chose in their most important matches – e.g. the world championship.
I hope you find my list both entertaining and informative. Let’s start with #10 and count down.
#10 Tigran Petrosian
Tigran Petrosian – the 9th World Champion – is known as a defensive player who was a master of prophylaxis – the preventing of the opponent’s threats and ideas. Like many positional players at this level, his endgame play was exemplary. His chess style involved little risk and his record demonstrates this as Petrosian seldom lost.
Petrosian’s main opening moves with White were 1.d4 and 1.c4, usually leading to closed positional games. Against 1…Nf6 Petrosian played 2.c4 and against 2…e6 played both 3.Nc3 (allowing the Nimzo-Indian) and 3.Nf3 (denying the Nimzo-Indian. Against the Queen’s Indian Defense he often played the Spassky system (1. d4Nf62. c4e63. Nf3b64. e3). When he allowed the Nimzo, he most often played the 4.e3 system (aka the Normal Variation: 1. d4Nf62. c4e63. Nc3Bb44. e3O-O. When facing 1…d5 he usually played 2.c4 and against the Queen’s Gambit Declined continued with 3.Nf3 and 4.Bg5.
With the Black pieces, when his opponent’s played 1.e4, he most often responded with 1…e6 2.d4 d5 (the French Defense). When White played 3.Nc3 Petrosian played 3…Bb4 (the Winawer). This is a combative system and play combines both positional and tactical play with the center usually locked. Against 1.d4, Petrosian often aimed for the Nimzo-Indian after 1…Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4. When his opponent played 3.Nf3 (preventing the Nimzo), he played both the Bogo Indian (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Bb4+) and the Queen’s Indian (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6).
As an example of Petrosian’s play, I present a game from his second world championship match against Boris Spassky. Playing the Queen’s Indian, Petrosian demonstrates several of his strengths – his positional use of the Exchange Sacrifice, his exploitation of small positional mistakes by his opponent, and his incredible endgame play.
#9 Boris Spassky
Boris Spassky – the 10th World Champion – is often referred to as a “universal” player – comfortable in both attack and defense and in all phases of the game. Indeed, Spassky was adept at all aspects of the game, but as I play through and studied a few of his games, I observed his particular talent for aggressive attacking play.
With the White pieces, Boris Spassky was creative – using different openings even if they were not considered particularly strong. He opened primarily with 1.e4 in congruence with his strong tactical skills and aggressive play. Against the Sicilian, which he faced most often during his peak years, he usually played the Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3), but has quite a few games where he played the Closed Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3) as well. Against 1…e5, he played 2.Nf3 aiming for the Ruy Lopez. However, he also has trotted out the King’s Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.f4) quite a few times. Creativity and variety is a good way to describe Spassky’s play with the White pieces.
With Black, Spassky seemed to depend on just a few solid weapons. Against 1.e4, he most often replied with 1…e5 and when faced with the Spanish, he almost always replied with the Breyer Defense (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 O-O Be7 6 Re1 b5 7 Bb3 O-O 8 c3 d6 9 h3 Nb8). Against 1.d4 and 1.c4, he usually played 1…Nf6 and 2…e6, either playing the Nimzo-Indian Defense or transposing into the Queen’s Gambit Declined.
In the following game, Spassky demonstrates his skill in attack in the Closed Sicilian. Spassky’s deep tactical insight into the positions allow him to make multiple sacrifices to get at Black’s king.
#8 Emanuel Lasker
Emanuel Lasker – the 2nd World Champion – is most well-known for his psychological approach to the game. He made moves not only because of their objective worth, but also because of the effect they would have on his opponents. Lasker was one of the pioneers of chess strategy, and was good at all aspects of the game. However, he is best known for his defensive technique as well as incredible endgame skill.
Lasker almost always played 1.e4 and his opponents almost always responded with 1…e5 and Lasker usually headed towards the Ruy Lopez. He often played what are now known the classical variations against the French and Caro-Kann with 3.Nc3. Although the Sicilian was not played as much in the late 19th and 20th centuries, he faced it a few times and almost always responded with the Open Sicilian (2.Nf3 followed by 3.d4).
With the Black pieces, Lasker played a fairly narrow repertoire. Against 1.e4 he played 1…e5 and against the Ruy Lopez he most often chose the Berlin Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6). When his opponents played 3.Bc4 (the Italian Game), Lasker played the classical Italian (3…Bc5) while later he switched to the Two Knights Defense (3…Nf6). Against 1.d4, he most often chose 1…d5 and the Queen’s Gambit Declined. Although he orginated the Lasker Variation (where Black plays the freeing move …Ne4) in the QGD, he more often chose the Orthodox Variation (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e3 O-O 6.Nf3 Nbd7) during his career. These defenses often lead into rich and complex endgames, which Lasker excelled in.
The following game displays both Lasker’s psychological approach to the opening as well as his incredible technique. This is considered one of Lasker’s best games and it’s also one of my favorites and I’ve annotated it with analysis from various sources.
#7 Vasily Smyslov
Smyslov was the 7th World Champion. He had an incredibly long competitive chess career spanning from 1940 when he participated in the Soviet Chess Championship and ending in the early 2000’s, when he had a FIDE rating over 2400 at over 80-years-old. He was known for his positional prowess and exceptional endgame skill. He contributed much to opening theory, including the English, Gruenfeld, and Sicilian.
Categorizing Smyslov’s opening repertoire with White is difficult as he played 1.e4 and 1.d4 almost equally and also had a significant number of games with 1.c4. In looking at his openings over time, I did notice that 1.c4 and 1.d4 were more prevalent after 1960 while 1.e4 was played more frequently by comparison earlier in his career. However, that being said, Smyslov employed a few interesting weapons with the white pieces, including the Closed Sicilian and the King’s Indian Attack – in particular a variation now known as the Smyslov Variation (1.Nf3 Nf6 2.g3 g6 3.b4).
Smyslov depended on a few pet systems with the Black pieces. Against 1.e4 he responded with 1…e5 primarily and was defended the Ruy Lopez with various systems, but often used what has come to be known as the Smyslov Defense (1. e4e52. Nf3Nc63. Bb5a64.Ba4Nf65. O-OBe76. Re1b57.Bb3O-O8. c3d69. h3h6). Although he faced the Italian (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4) rarely, he used the Hungarian Defense almost exclusively against it (3…Be7). Against 1.d4 Smyslov played 1…Nf6 aiming for the Nimzo-Indian Defense, and played the Bogo-Indian and Queen’s Indian almost equally when denied the Nimzo.
The game I chose to demonstrate Smyslov’s style is a battle from the 1945 USSR Championship. In this game, Smyslov shows how he can take one positional element – the d5 square – and exploit it – transforming it into a winning attack. Although known for his positional and endgame prowess, he was also capable of brilliant flowing attacks.
#6 Alexander Alekhine
Alexander Alekhine was the 4th World Champion, defeating Capablanca in 1927. Alekhine was known as an incredible tactician and attacker. His play is characterized by an increase in complexity and tension as compared to the clear positional style of Capablanca. He was known as a tireless analyst and his chess openings contributions were numerous.
Although Alekhine played 1.e4 frequently, he more often preferred 1.d4. He most often faced 1…Nf6 and after 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 his opponents often transposed to the Queen’s Gambit Declined, where Alekhine often played for what is now known as the Alekhine variation of the Orthodox QGD (1. d4d52. c4e63. Nc3Nf64.Bg5Be75. e3O-O6. Nf3Nbd77.Rc1c68. Bd3dxc49. Bxc4Nd510.Bxe7Qxe711. Ne4). Against the Nimzo, he played the Classical variation (4.Qc2).
With the Black pieces, Alekhine played the Nimzo-Indian Defense at every opportunity against 1.d4. When he wasn’t allowed the NImzo, he often played the Queen’s Indian Defense. Against 1.e4 he often played 1…e5 and often headed towards the closed variations of the Ruy Lopez. Against 1.e4 he is also known for Alekhine’s Defense (1.e4 Nf6), although he played this much less frequently.
In the following game, Alekhine demonstrates the dynamic potential of the isolated d-pawn in the Black side of the Nimzo-Indian Defense. He uses converts it into a material advantage and uses his edge to win in the endgame.
#5 Mikhail Botvinnik
Mikhail Botvinnik won the World Championship three different times and was near the top of the chess world for 30 years. He was a pioneer in systematic training, incorporating psychological and physical training to supplement his chess training. He also founded a school of chess in the Soviet Union, which boasted such graduates as Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. As a player, he enjoyed complex positions. He was a master of deep plans and used his tactical skill to support those plans. He contributed much to some of the most complex opening systems, including the Semi-Slav as well as the several variations within the Caro-Kann with both the White and Black pieces.
Botvinnik preferred closed positions where he could build his deep plans, so he most often opened with 1.d4 and secondarily with 1.c4. Against the Nimzo-Indian he played 4.e3 (the Normal variation). When facing the King’s Indian Defense, he usually employed the Samisch Variation (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.f3). Against the Gruenfeld he played what is known as the Russian Variation (1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. Nf3 Bg7 5. Qb3 ).
With the Black pieces, Botvinnik played many systems. Against 1.e4, he played the Sicilian, the Caro-Kann, as well as 1…e5. However, he most often chose the French Defense (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5) and when allowed, mainly played the Winawer Defense (3.Nc3 Bb4). Against 1.d4, he mainly played 1…Nf6 usually headed towards the Nimzo-Indian Defense, but also played quite a few Gruenfeld games as well. Besides 1..Nf6, Botvinnik on occasion employed the Dutch Defense as well against 1.d4.
The following game shows Botvinnik’s combination of calculation and positional understanding. Creating wonderful outposts for his knight and then using an exchange sacrifice to eliminate a key defender, Botvinnik weaves a web around his opponent’s king. Except where noted, I adapted comments made by Alexander Alekhine.
#4 Anatoly Karpov
Anatoly Karpov won the World Championship in 1975 when Bobby Fischer failed to defend his title. Eager to prove his worthiness as champion, Karpov dominated nearly every major tournament he played in for several years including defending his title several times successfully before his epic rivalry with Garry Kasparov. Karpov is best known for his ability to sense and exploit slight positional advantages. As we’ve noticed with many positional players on this list, Karpov is also excellent in the endgame.
Although Karpov primarily played 1.d4 with White, he was extremely successful with 1.e4 as well. With 1.d4 he rarely allowed the Nimzo, and scored heavily with White against the Queen’s Indian Defense. Against the King’s Indian, his primary weapon was the Samisch Variation. When facing the Gruenfeld, he preferred the Exchange Variation. Against 1.d4 d5 he played 2.c4 (the Queen’s Gambit).
With the Black pieces, Karpov employed a few handy weapons. Against 1.e4 he played both 1…e5 aiming for the closed Ruy Lopez – usually relying on the Flohr system (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 O-O 8. c3 d6 9. h3 Bb7 ) – and the Caro-Kann for which he is well known for the aptly named Karpov variation (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 dxe4 4. Nxe4 Nd7 ). Against 1.d4 he most often utilized the Nimzo-Indian and Queen’s Indian Defenses. When he occasionally played 1…d5 he employed the Tartakower variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined (1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e3 O-O 6. Nf3 h6 7. Bh4 b6).
Although Karpov was known as a positional player, this does not mean he was uncomfortable in sharp complicated positions. In the following game, he demonstrates one of his main weapons against the Sicilian – the Keres Attack.
#3 Jose Raul Capablanca
Capablanca – the 3rd World Champion – was a prodigy at chess. He had a clear positional style and is considered one of the best endgame players ever. He excelled at neutralizing his opponent’s counterplay and simplifying into a winning or slightly adventageous endgame and simply outplaying his opponent from that point onward. His opening systems were not very complex and he was not known for sharp opening play, but I suppose one doesn’t need sharp openings when you rarely make a mistake in the middlegame or endgame.
Capablanca’s repertoire is fairly straightforward. Although he played 1.e4 he preferred 1.d4. He played the Queen’s Gambit against 1…d5. When he played against 1…Nf6, most of his opponents either transposed back into the Queen’s Gambit Declined via 2…e6 and 3…d5 or played the NImzo-Indian Defense. Against the Nimzo, Capablanca pioneered what is now known as the Classical Variation (1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Qc2) although it is also called the Capablanca Variation.
Capablanca’s repertoire with Black was also fairly narrow. Against 1.d4 he often opened with 1…Nf6 but almost always transposed into the Queen’s Gambit Declined, often employing the solid Orthodox Variation (1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e3 O-O 6. Nf3 Nbd7 7. Rc1 c6 ). When his opponents played 1.e4 he played 1…e5 most of the time and played various systems against the Ruy Lopez depending on what his opponents played. His opponents also played the Four Knights against him quite a few times, and he almost always responded with the Symmetrical Defense (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bb5 Bb4 5. O-O O-O 6. d3 d6 ).
I chose the following game for Capablanca as it was one in which one of his moves were criticized by other masters of his era being “anti-positional.” However, Capablanca did not blindly follow general positional principles. Instead, he instinctually found the right move for the position. This game also illustrates one of Capa’s characteristic “little combinations” which he concludes the game with.
#2 Bobby Fischer
Bobby Fischer was the 11th World Champion – defeating Boris Spassky in 1972 to capture the title. Although controversial throughout his life and ending his career abruptly, Fischer’s star shone most brightly when he was at the top. His style is hard to classify, as he excelled in all phases of the game with no apparent weaknesses. His opening repertoire was narrow, but his preparation was deep. He played both complex and simple positions accurately. He is also considered one of the greatest endgame players. When playing over and studying his games, Fischer’s play exudes a fundamental “correctness” that is beautiful to observe.
Bobby Fischer’s opening repertoire is fairly straightforward as he kept a very narrow repertoire (although he demonstrated that he could play other openings well when he deviated). With the White pieces, he almost exclusively played 1.e4 and played most of the main lines against most of Black’s replies. Exceptions include the Exchange Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Bxc6), which he turned into a formidable weapon and the Sozin-Fischer Attack in the Sicilian (1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e6 6. Bc4 Nc6).
Fischer’s Black repertoire was equally narrow. Against 1.e4 he played the Sicilian – focusing mainly on the Najdorf and often playing the Poisoned Pawn variation (1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bg5 e6 7. f4 Qb6). Against 1.d4 he played the King’s Indian Defense almost exclusively, although he started playing the Gruenfeld more towards the end of his career as well.
I chose the following game to demonstrate Fischer’s brilliance and clarity of his play. Each move logically follows the other. In this particular game, I include comments by Fischer and others (whom I credit in the annotations).
#1 Garry Kasparov
Garry Kasparov was the 13th World Champion. His long-term dominance in both matchplay and tournament play is unmatched – holding the world championship for 15 years as well as the number one ranking for nearly the same amount of time. A student of the Botvinnik school of chess – he brought chess preparation into the 21st century with his combination of physical preparation, analytical depth, and the incorporation of computer analysis in his opening preparation. In studying his games and reading his comments to his games and matches, I was particularly impressed by his preparation for specific opponents, which extended past chess preparation into psychological considerations. His opening preparation was considered superior to his contemporaries. Although strong in all areas of the game, he is known for his aggressive tactical style.
With the White pieces, Kasparov played 1.d4 and 1.e4 equally, usually choosing his weapons based on specific preparation against his opponent. He is known for reviving the Scotch Opening (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4) but most often played for the Ruy Lopez. Kasparov was usually at the vanguard of mainstream openings – and has been described as usually playing to find the most testing moves in every position (as opposed to playing solid but non-threatening options).
With the Black pieces, Kasparov most often played the sharpest, most combative lines. Against 1.e4, he almost always chose the Sicilian Defense, playing the Scheveningen earlier in his career and migrating to the Najdorf. Against 1.d4, he has played a plethora of openings, including the King’s Indian Defense earlier in his career and moving more towards the Gruenfeld and Nimzo-Indian later in his career. He is also very skilled with 1…d5, employing the Queen’s Gambit Declined and Slav defenses throughout his career.
The following game illustrates a couple key aspects of Kasparov’s play. First, Kasparov valued the initiative and quality of the pieces more than material – freely sacrificing pawns and other material to achieve these aims. Second, he avoided simplifying exchanges and preferred to keep tension and dynamic chances within the position. Finally, once he spots an opening in his opponent’s defenses, he is relentless in attack. Enjoy this briliancy against his long-time rival Karpov.
Looking at the opening repertoires of the Top Ten Players of All Time was very insightful for me. A came away with a few observations.
First, except for perhaps Fischer and Capablanca, the other members of the top ten had fairly wide repertoires. They played a variety of different systems against the major openings with both White and Black. Part of this was due to the fact that they could often prepare specific openings for their opponents during tournaments and matches. Another aspect is that their overall skill at chess allowed them to play what suited them for a particular match-up.
This is in contrast to the typical amateur player who does not study chess full-time and would also be confused by studying too many openings. Amateur players made to well to follow Capablanca’s lead and stick to a narrow repertoire that we can excel in and perhaps add to later.
Second, although most of the players stuck to the most well-known openings for much of their repertoire, there was a wide variety of systems being played overall. This is perhaps due to the fact that they were often at the forefront of opening developments – e.g. they were the leaders, and the other masters followed where they led. Because of this, they were the ones making new developments in these older systems and adding new wrinkles.
For we mere chess mortals, it tells us that we can try out different openings that we find interesting without worrying about playing the “main line.” The mainstream openings are only what the top players of the day are playing – and it doesn’t invalidate the soundness of other openings that are not currently in fashion.
Finally, a word about style. Although in my research I found many characterizations about certain players’ style, I found many examples (some which I shared in this article) where a positional defensive player demonstrates a brilliant attack or the reputed attacker simplifies into a complex endgame.
Remember that chess is a game of interconnected ideas. So you cannot fully separate strategy from tactics, attack from defense, or one phase of a game from another. So you must study your openings with an eye towards the middlegame and study your endgames with consideration from which openings that may arise.
With that in mind, remember to do your daily repetitions with Chessable, and although we may never make it onto a Top Ten list, we can surely improve our game day by day.
As we study our opening repertoire using Chessable, there are a few aspects that we should work on understanding and applying in our games. By understanding these, we will be able to connect the reasons behind the moves we choose in the opening phase and connect them to plans and moves in the middlegame and beyond.
The opening is the staging ground for your middlegame operations. Each move dictates what you can and cannot do in the middlegame.
I often talk to other amateur players and they will often say something to the effect of “play the opening moves that you memorized and then just play chess once you’ve left your theoretical knowledge.” This is all well and good, but by understanding a few important aspects of your openings, your ability to “play chess” once you’ve you are on your own at the board will be enhanced.
Over time, doing your repetitions and expanding your opening repertoire with Chessable will help you intuitively and naturally understand the elements I will be discussing. By knowing what to look for ahead of time, you can enhance this process by noting them in your repertoire.
The learning process is cyclical. Doing your repetitions will help you remember and understand your openings. Efforts to understand your opening moves will help you remember the moves. Chessable is the tool to put it together.
As your skill in chess increases and you begin to develop your own personal style, you can use these elements to select openings that fit with your preferences and proclivities.
Primary Win Conditions
The term win condition (or as some game theorists term victory condition) is the way that your opening set-up or variation wins games. This is the first thing you should try to understand about your opening, because it leads to the other elements.
Of course, this does not mean that your win conditions are the only way to win with your opening, but the particular configuration of pieces and pawns tend to lead to certain plans.
Here are a few practical examples.
Consider one of the main line of the Berlin Defense of the Ruy Lopez after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5. d4 Nd6 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8. Qxd8+ Kxd8 (diagram):
Because of the exchanges in this variation, this opening often heads into a complex endgame battle. White’s win condition involves using his kingside majority to eventually create a passed pawn and win in the endgame. Black’s win condition involves using the advantage of having the two bishops to compensate for the damage in his pawn structure. Chess theory says the battle is about even and currently the world’s elite players take up both sides of the argument.
Compare this to the Schara Gambit after 1.d4d52.c4e63.Nc3c54.cxd5cxd4 (diagram):
In this opening, Black sacrifices a pawn to accelerate piece development and open lines of attack. Black’s primary win condition is to use his development advantage and open lines on a direct attack against the king. Conversely, Black’s win condition is to survive long enough where the extra pawn would be close to decisive. Players who take up this gambit as Black need to be willing to play with a lot of energy and perhaps be ready to sacrifice more material to meet his aims.
Here’s an example of a recent encounter between two masters where White fails to secure the safety of his king and Black’s swarming pieces are just too much.
The key is that not only the chosen variations and analysis, but also the illustrative games and commentary to really help you understand the moves within the repertoire. Studying a repertoire in this fashion will help you save a lot of time and effort by leveraging the experience of the master.
How to Handle the Center
Often, the plans behind your opening flow from the type of center your have. Many opening systems have similar central structures so you can study these as you will see them often in your games. I will leave it to you to study the various types of central structures – e.g. fixed, dynamic, etc. – but I will give you a few examples on how the center affects your planning. I encourage you to try to understand these in your openings.
In our first example, let’s look at the position from one of the main lines of the King’s Indian Defense.
After 1.d4Nf62.c4g63.Nc3Bg74.e4d65.Nf3O-O6.Be2e57.O-ONc68.d5Ne7 we have the following position (diagram):
From this position, the locked center has led masters for decades to the following general plans: White will try to push his pawns and attack on the queenside, while Black will prepare to play the thematic pawn break …f7-f5 and attack on the kingside. As we discussed in the above section on win conditions, each respective player’s ability to carry out these plans will determine the outcome.
What is important to note here though is that these plans are partially a result of the locked center. Because the center is locked, play must ensue on the wings. Therefore, sometimes one or both players avoid this type of center in the King’s Indian – for example, with the Exchange Variation: 1.d4Nf62.c4g63.Nc3Bg74.e4d65.Nf3O-O6.Be2e57.dxe5dxe58.Qxd8Rxd8 (diagram):
Here, the symmetrical nature of the center as well as the exchange of queens leads to a more drawish game that often leads into the endgame. Players who play the King’s Indian Defense with Black must be ready for both types of central structures and be familiar with the type of play that ensues.
Many opening variations will lead very quickly into a certain type of central structure and thus study of model games and typical positions will be profitable.
However, certain openings such as the Reti (1.Nf3 d5 2.c4) can often lead to many types of central structures as well as transposing to other opening systems altogether. It is important to study these as well, but we have to be flexible and understand at what points in our opening our opponent can determine the direction of the game.
Thematic Pawn Breaks
Understanding the central structures in our opening systems lead naturally to the thematic pawn breaks in our systems. Understanding when, why, and how we achieve these pawn breaks is important if we are to maximize our effectiveness with our openings.
A good example of understanding the power of pawn breaks is to compare the traditional Queen’s Gambit Declined with the Chigorin Defense of the QGD. First, let’s consider the Queen’s Gambit Declined after the typical moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 (diagram):
Although we are very early in the opening and play can go in many directions, we often will see that Black prepares to break in the center eventually with …c5 (or in some cases with …e5). There are many ways to do this, sometimes right away, as in the Tarrasch Variation of the QGD (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5) or sometimes after some preparation with …b6 or even after first playing …c7-c6 and then later playing …c6-c5. Despite the many ways to get there, the pawn break …c5 is a key way for Black to fight for the center in the Queen’s Gambit Declined.
Now let’s consider the Chigorin Defense of the Queen’s Gambit Declined after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nc6 (diagram):
We can see here that the problem now is that the knight blocks the c-pawn, thus delaying or preventing our key …c5 break. Of course, Black has some compensation for this in that he gets a knight developed. Consequently, Black will often play for a …e5 break while White will often use the lack of Black’s …c5 break to build up a strong center.
Although many high level players over the years have championed the Chigorin such as Boris Spassky and more recently Alexander Morozevich, this key “flaw” in Black’s play have kept the Chigorin as a less popular variation within the Queen’s Gambit Declined.
So learn the thematic pawn breaks in your opening and note them in your repertoires in Chessable. As with the Queen’s Gambit Declined, the pawn break may be fairly early in the variation or may come later after some preparation. Understanding when and why they work will help you utilize them more effectively.
Key Minor Pieces
The next element that is important to understand in your opening repertoire are the key minor pieces. We may know that in closed positions, knights tend to be better than bishops because the bishops might get locked in by his own or his opponent’s pawns. Conversely, in fairly open positions, bishops tend to shine with their long lines of attack. However, as we delve deeper into our opening knowledge and understanding of chess in general, these relationships between the minor pieces get more complex.
Understanding which minor pieces to keep and which ones to exchange as well as where to best place them is essential if we are to make the most of our opening repertoire.
Consider the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defense: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 (diagram):
Black’s dark-square bishop will play a critical role in many games in this variation. White often castles queenside and attempts a kingside pawn storm against Black’s king while Black does similarly on the queenside. Black’s bishop – commonly known as the “Dragon” bishop – often contributes to Black’s attack while also helping to defend the dark-squares near his own king.
A common strategy for White is therefore to trade this bishop off. Sometimes, in doing so, he has to make concessions elsewhere. An example of this came in a World Championship encounter between Garry Kasparov and Vishy Anand in their 1995 World Championship match. Although Anand with White was able to exchange the dark-square bishops, in taking the time to do so he failed to get his king to safe haven and that was enough for Kasparov to win as he tears apart the center to get at White’s king.
White resigned because he will soon lose a lot of material. For example, if 26.fxe4 Rf6+ 27.Ke1 Rxd4+ 28.Kd1 Rxc4 with an ongoing attack for Black.
Chess is a complex game and that you should not blindly avoid exchanges or make exchanges based on key minor pieces alone, but instead use your knowledge to guide your planning. The reason certain pieces are more important than others in certain positions are not by arbitrary preference. It is because the particulars of the position such as the pawn structure, weak squares, and open lines of attack may favor one piece as opposed to another.
When you are studying openings, there are many things to look at, including specific move orders, transpositions, common middlegame positions, common endgames among others. Depending on the specific opening, this can be very complex.
However, if you can start recognizing and applying some of the elements in this article, you can start to make sense of the nuances within your openings. This combined with your own game experience and consistent repetition and practice of your openings with Chessable will help improve your chess results.