The Openings of Magnus Carlsen

By Bryan Castro / On / In Chess openings

Openings of the World Champion

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Magnus Carlsen at the 2016 Chess Olympiad. Photo Credit: Andreas Kontokanis

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.

Let’s consider what International Master Greg Shahade had to say about him in his interesting 2013 article Greg on Chess: Magnus & Openings.

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.

Sneaky Scandinavian

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.

Interesting Italian

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.

Sicilian Surprise

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.

Conclusion

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!

The Openings of the Top Ten Chess Players of All Time

By Bryan Castro / On / In Chess openings

The Best of the Best

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.

Opening Observations

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
Tigran Petrosian in 1975 in Warsaw.

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. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 4. e3). When he allowed the Nimzo, he most often played the 4.e3 system (aka the Normal Variation: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 O-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

 

Spassky in 1984. Photographer Gerhard Hund.
Spassky in 1984. Photographer: Gerhard Hund.

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

Lasker in 1925 in Moscow.
Lasker in 1925 in Moscow.

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 in 1972.
Smyslov in 1972. Source: Dutch National Archives.

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. 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 h6). 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

Alekhine
Alekhine circa 1924.

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. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5. e3 O-O 6. Nf3 Nbd7 7.Rc1 c6 8. Bd3 dxc4 9. Bxc4 Nd5 10.Bxe7 Qxe7 11. 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

Botvinnik in 1969. Source: Dutch National Archives.
Botvinnik in 1969. Source: Dutch National Archives.

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

Karpov in 1977. Source: Dutch National Archives.
Karpov in 1977. Source: Dutch National Archives.

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
Capablanca circa 1920.

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

Fischer
Fischer in 1960. Color adaptation of original photo by Ulrich Kohls.

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 in 2007.
Garry Kasparov in 2007. Source: The Kasparov Agency.

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

Chessable’s GM co-authored and endorsed opening repertoires.

By David Kramaley / On / In Chess openings, Chess science, Chessable news, Features, Learning chess

Find out how co-authored endorsed repertoires can help you learn.
Find out how co-authored endorsed repertoires can help you learn.

Today we have the pleasure to announce co-authored endorsed repertoires. From today on you can acquire GM Rafael Leitao’s Sicilian Najdorf, co-authored by GM Rafael Leitao and Chessable user logozar. While we have an explanation of what this entails available in the FAQ, I thought I would elaborate on the logic behind this new approach to chess opening repertoire publishing. Why not just have the Grandmaster publish the repertoire on their own? Certainly, this could be an attractive option but most Grandmasters already have their schedules full to the limit, not giving them enough time to provide a Chessable repertoire and its students, the attention they deserve.  By partnering up with a more active Chessable user and offering an endorsed repertoire, our users get the following benefits:

Accurate scaffolding (Zone of Proximal Development)
At Chessable we like to inform our decisions in science. The decision to allow for co-authored endorsed repertoires was no different. In educational psychology, there is a well-established principle known as “scaffolding” or “the zone of proximal development.” While originally applied to children’s development, it has been successfully applied in many other settings as well. In a nutshell, for appropriate learning to occur it is important that the learning content you use is suitable for your current skill level or understanding. Because of this, it may be the case that you get better results with explanations from a player rated USCF 1,800, closer to your own level than it would directly from a FIDE 2,500+ Grandmaster. Because we aim to suit all skill levels, co-authored endorsed repertoires were a no-brainer.

Lower price
Grandmaster level players command high fees, and rightly so. Their time is a limited resource worth it’s value in gold. Opening repertoires shared by Grandmasters typically range in value from $20-$40. Sometimes educational content they create can even be sold for hundreds of dollars. By taking an endorsed repertoire approach, we offer a more affordable option; after all the repertoire can be yours today for a low fee of just $9.99.

Accurate content (GM Guaranteed!)
When endorsing a repertoire, we require the Grandmaster to review the lines to make sure they are an accurate reflection of what he or she recommends. This means that the variations you will be learning are GM approved and by studying them, you are learning indirectly from the best of the best.

More support
This kind of repertoire is often brought to you by an active Chessable member who is also a big fan or dedicated student of the higher-level player. By having such a user involved in the repertoire, you can get answers to any questions that may arise much quicker.

More content
At Chessable, we want to offer learning content to suit everybody’s needs. The more repertoires, the better. It is then up to you, the users, to decide what you like and what you don’t. You never know where the next gem of a work will surface from. By fully disclosing what a repertoire contains upfront, you can make an informed decision based on whether the repertoire interests you or not. Do make full use of our star rating facilities to let the repertoire owner and the community know what you think of their work.

Those are just a few of the reasons why we are indeed very happy to present GM Rafael Leitao’s Sicilian Najdorf opening repertoire. This repertoire is packed with 15,300 words of instruction from a club-level chess player. Do check it out; you may just find it is exactly what you needed. For today, that’s all from us and we hope to bring you even more great content in a near future.

Chessable review: How Chessable can help you become a Chess Master

By David Kramaley / On / In Case study, Chess improvement, Chess openings, Chessable review

Chess Master Illustration

I had a chat with a Chessable user, Professor Tim McGrew. Tim provides an in-depth Chessable review and how it has helped him improve his chess. Tim told us that opening preparation was one of the keys to achieve his lifelong ambition, the USCF National Master title. Openings that Tim rehearsed on Chessable were played in some important games. Thanks to our science-backed chess opening learning tools, Tim was able to make the most out of his opening preparation. His review follows in form of an unaltered interview:

Read on; this review style interview is packed full of instructional moments!

1) How did you find out about Chessable?
Word of mouth — my teenage daughter had found the site and described it to me.

2) What were your first few days on Chessable like?
Initially, I clicked around to see what was free and started exploring it. IM John Bartholomew’s Scandinavian repertoire — the free version — blew me away. Once I had seen that, I realized that I needed to get an account and import some of my own analysis for study.

3) How has your experience using Chessable changed since the first few times you used it to what it is like now?
The biggest change came when I realized the kind of work I needed to do in order to create my own opening repertoires for self study. There are two critical points here. First, a serious repertoire that will actually serve in tournament conditions at master level has to be fairly detailed. Yes, there are some openings that require a lot more work than others, but even theoretical sidelines demand some detail work these days. Second, I realized that the fundamental feature of Chessable — the spaced repetition — would enable me to recall much more than I was used to carrying around in my memory.

4) How many hours per day on average would you say you use Chessable for?
This varies greatly, as I have a family and a day job. Some days I may put in several hours (which fly by, since it’s fun); others, just a few minutes.

5) Your 53 day streak is impressive, any tips to fellow users to achieve such great study habits?
I like to do at least something every day. If I set myself a micro goal of doing ten positions a day, there is really no excuse not to do it. And generally I will do much more than the micro goal, even on a busy day.

6) What’s your favourite repertoire? If it’s a private one, could you please describe it a little bit that would be great.
My favorite public repertoire has to be the full version of John Bartholomew’s Scandinavian repertoire. It’s solid, interesting, and full of ideas that he has clearly tested with computer assistance. And he covers even the more obscure sidelines, making it a complete repertoire against 1.e4.

I have several private repertoires that I have constructed. Usually I will start with an idea I like, fold in the main lines from some GM games, and then look it up on a theory site to see what is current. Once I have built it out to a certain level of detail, I run through all of the lines with Stockfish 7 at 20 ply or deeper to do some tactical cleaning.

It’s very important, however, not to restrict the repertoire to lines the computer comes up with. Human opponents are going to play moves that look natural to them, and at this stage of repertoire building one needs to include those lines to maximize the probability of using one’s preparation over the board.

7) What have you noticed that is different about your chess play now that you use Chessable?
I had several holes in my repertoire that needed to be plugged. I’ve been in the upper 2100s USCF for about a decade, and my repertoire was fine for beating most club players, but closer to master level it began to break down. I was still playing some lines that weren’t ready for mission-critical applications. And these days, strong opponents do their homework between encounters with the assistance of GM-strength chess engines. So if there are holes in your repertoire, they are going to find them!

With the Chessable tools, I was able to address this problem and plug those holes. I have also built some repertoires just for fun to explore some new lines I am considering playing. So Chessable has not only helped me to fix concrete problems but also inspired me to widen my repertoire, which should make me a moving target for my opponents’ opening preparation.

8) If you had any rating changes, what were they? Do you think Chessable contributed to this rating change?
Actually, yes! About a month and a half after I started using Chessable heavily, I finally went over 2200 and earned my National Master title, a lifetime ambition of mine. I’m over 50, and at my age, most chess players find their ratings going down rather than up, so you can well imagine how pleased I am with this turn of events! I have no doubt that my work on Chessable was a significant factor, not only because it sharpened my openings but also because it increased my confidence in my opening preparation.

9) Some people say studying openings is unnecessary and you should be able to play any opening well (eg Capablanca was a natural! Apparently). What do you think of this kind of statements?
I think it’s unrealistic for non-professionals to aspire to play every opening well, if by “well” you mean at their own rating standard. For example, I don’t play the Grünfeld from either side. Now, it’s good to understand the basic strategic concepts behind openings one doesn’t play. But the most important thing is to understand the openings one does play.

10) What would you say to someone who has either just started using Chessable or is thinking of using it?
Players at different levels need different things. If you are a beginner, you need to get into the middlegame alive. I’ve been thinking of creating a repertoire for just that purpose for some of my younger students. If you are a club player (say, 1400-1800) and serious about moving up, you may want to work with a stronger player to develop a repertoire that is right for you. If you are over 2000 OTB and are willing to work at it, you can develop your own repertoires and upload them as private repertoires for personal study. But have a look at some of the ones that are built and for sale already — it could save you some time, and who knows, you might fall in love with something new!

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Tim McGrew is a Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University. He has been playing tournament chess for about 40 years and coaches his two chess-playing daughters.
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The answers to the interview questions appear unaltered as Tim answered them. Hyperlinks were added for the reader’s convenience by Chessable. This case study and Chessable review is made available with the kind permission of Tim. Thank you Tim for providing us with this Chessable review and interview. We really appreciate it!

8 reasons for learning openings NOW.

By David Kramaley / On / In Chess openings, Chess science, Learning chess

Everyone can learn chess openings.

When should I start learning opening theory? Do I even need to? These are questions that every chess player asks at some point. The internet is full of people asking this, but no one is sure of the answer. Fortunately, recently I was reading some cognitive psychology journals, and I came across a study that can help us clarify the matter once and for all. The answer is now, no matter what your level. Now! Read on to find out why.

Researchers from Oxford University and Brunel University set out to discover what made chess experts, well, experts. Often it is said that expert’s calculating skill differs the higher their chess skill is. This may be why every chess player at some point has been asked how many moves deep they ‘see.’ Research shows that this is surprisingly NOT the most important thing in chess. So what else can we gather from this study?

Reason #1: Calculating ability will only help you so much!
Once you reach a certain level of calculating ability it peaks. After this, improvements are very slight whether you are a chess master or not. There may be differences between one master and the next, but in general, the study suggests that based on experiments calculating ability is about equal for Class A and up to Master level. Compare this to playing an opening you are familiar with, every time you play it, you gather more experience, and this will help way beyond a rating of 1,800 (Class A). Once you get above master level things are different, but that’s above 2,400 in rating!

Reason #2: Getting a familiar opening saves you time
The researchers found that when master chess players had familiar opening positions, they were able to invest their time and energy calculating deeper instead of wider. Instead of looking at five different moves, you look at two, the two best ones because you know what goes on in this opening and pawn structure. With a good opening repertoire, this could mean finding the killer move you need, rather than losing half your time looking at all reasonable moves.

Reason #3: Playing openings you know increases your rating by a few hundred points
The researchers found that when chess masters played an unfamiliar opening (for instance, a Sicilian defense when the player is a French defense player), their skill was reduced by up to two standard deviations. In other words, their study showed that the chess master’s skill was reduced by a few hundred chess rating points! Potentially, this means a master would play like a club level player.

Reason #4: Do as chess masters do, even Grandmasters stick to openings they know
Aside from a few super-Grandmasters that seem to be able to mix it up and know it all, the researchers confirm that all other chess players, even at master level, play their opening repertoire and stick to it. In the research, an analysis of the Sicilian masters showed they stuck to their opening 81% of the time, playing the French only 6% of the time! The sooner you implement the study of openings, the sooner you will be able to start acquiring expert knowledge. Did you lose in that Spanish Game? Look up why or ask why, using our opening variation comments tool. You won’t make the same mistake next time.

Reason #5: Well, as White I have to face all these openings anyway, right? WRONG!
Pet lines also exist for white players, for instance, I play the Rossolimo Sicilian to black’s 1…c5. This means I never see the Sicilian Najdorf and avoid a ton of complications. Yes, the Najdorf might be objectively better, but until you reach Grandmaster level, those differences often don’t matter. What matters is that you get an opening you’ve got experience in and one that you are familiar with.

Reason #6: It’s one of the surest ways to improve your chess
Obtaining specialised knowledge of openings is something a chess player will have to do at some point in their career. Why not do it now? If you begin now, you begin accumulating those small nuggets of expertise in the openings early on. It all adds up.

Reason #7: Avoid opening blunders
We’ve all been there. Your opponent takes you out of the opening book. You know your stuff, so you think long and hard. You lose a lot of time on your clock but make an excellent logical developing move.  As it turns out, shortly after, this move leads to a super sharp variation that your opponent is familiar with. With the time advantage, their dream position can’t get any better, but of course, the pressure mounts and you blunder. Game over.

Reason #8: There are opening repertoires for all levels.
You can find something that suits your play. For instance, the Able’s Repertoires are around just five moves deep, easy to remember, and they give you a stable place to start from. Take this a step further, if you are an intermediate player you can find repertoires seven moves deep. Advanced? You can find opening repertoires that are ten moves deep and more. There is no excuse, and once you master one opening, feel free to pick a new one and move on.

Chessable can help you learn chess openings in the most efficient way, and you can browse a lot of repertoires, free and paid online. However, you don’t even have to use our awesomely social website. As long as we’ve convinced you that you should put more work into your chess openings, then we are happy.

*The research study analysed to prepare this blog post is titled “Specialization Effect and Its Influence on Memory and Problem Solving in Expert Chess Players” published in Cognitive Science by Bilalic, McLeod and Gobet (2009).