Thanks to the engines, openings have become increasingly difficult.
The first problem is psychological. In all the main openings, there is no advantage for White. The days of serve-and-volley chess, gaining a solid advantage out of the opening thanks to good engine-aided preparation and then converting, are all long gone and will never come back.
The second problem is practical: what to make out of the zeroes that the engine happily spouts out?
The first person to understand these problems and find a viable solution to it, thus turning it in his favour and gaining practical advantage, was Magnus Carlsen. Carlsen was ahead of his time, but few people saw it like that. Instead, people were saying that he was bad at openings, that his opening preparation is not at his level, that he wins in spite of his openings.
As years went by, it turned out that nothing was further from the truth. Carlsen was the first to understand where chess was going, and he was the first to adapt to that change. He started to distinguish between various opening positions that show zeroes. He investigated these positions and went for those that gave him easier play. In this way, he was both more familiar than his opponents with the equal position after the opening and he managed to impose these positions as ones that were easier to play for him and not his opponent.
What often looked like innocuous openings, were, in fact, deeply researched variations that provided Carlsen with the practical advantage and gave him an opportunity to show his middlegame prowess and outplay his opponents.
With time people learned to emulate Carlsen. Not that they had a choice – the engines forced them to find a way past the depressing 0.00. It was time for the human element to return to the opening preparation.
There are different types of 0.00 positions. Some are pleasant, others, less so. It takes a good understanding of the character of the position and human psychology to distinguish between the two.
This is what I tried to do with my latest course 1.e4 Simplified. When trying to find ideas against Black’s main defences, I was looking to be practical. Going for the mainstream lines is of no use – there is a lot of theory and the best defences have been established. Fresh ideas are needed and this gives the freedom to explore. I tried to find lines and ideas that were not mainstream, but were positionally sound and gave the white player chances to play for more. Sometimes I even managed to find an advantage, but this was more an exception than the rule.
Following Carlsen’s path, it’s important to have the element of surprise as one’s advantage and finding rare and surprising ideas is a welcome bonus. Putting it all together, today’s ideal opening preparation consists of surprising your opponent and leading him to a variation/position where you know more and where you feel comfortable, with your opponent feeling discomfort both from the surprise and the unfamiliarity of the position. If all these factors are fulfilled, then the chances of an eventual victory are greatly increased. Just look at Carlsen.