Saturday, November 08, 2008

Opening knowledge pitfalls

Heisman advises that the first time in a game your opponent makes a move that is not in your opening book, you should take a fresh critical look at the position. It's one of those times you need to drink from the well of The Think.

Oddly, when I feel I am "booked up" on an opening, and my opponent plays out of book early on, I often panic. I don't calmly evaluate the position, but often freak out, thinking "Crap they have me out of book."

There are a few reasons this is a mistake.

My main opening lines are fairly sound. When my opponent plays out of book it is often because they don't know the opening, or at least aren't playing the best line, and have just weakened their position. Instead of assuming they have some pet line prepared to devastate me, I should see if they have just missed a basic tactic, examine which squares and pieces they may have made vulnerable, etc.. In other words, start playing chess.

Worse, I sometimes don't even notice they pushed me out of book, and I just continue with my usual plans without looking at how their deviation from my preparation influences the position.

For instance, I was playing the Caro-Kann as black when white moved his Bishop to d3 (a common theme). However (perhaps because of his own narrative demons) he did it too early (black to move):Instead of grabbing the juicy pawn with Qxd4 I played some "normal" developing move (Nf6) in the Caro Kann without even slowing down to look for basic tactics. I could have had a pawn for free, and a beautiful position, but because I was locked into a Caro Kann way of thinking (which is usually a fairly quiet game), I failed to look for, and take advantage of, an early gift.

Good players exploit weaknesses in the opening. As Rowson would say, they don't let their little opening narratives get in the way of seeing what is actually happening over the board. Let the position, not all your book knowledge, tell you what your plans should be.

Keeping this in mind in a subsequent game, I actually got it right. I played the Smith-Morra gambit as white, and black played an early d5, which is usually a mistake in the SM because it leaves f7 vulnerable. The position was as follows (white to move):This position is not in my opening knowledge, but especially in the Smith Morra there is a kind of grand system where you castle kingside, move your Queen to e2, and rooks to the open files on c1 and d1. My initial candidate moves were all part of this general schema.

Luckily I remembered the lesson from the Caro-Kann, and I let myself drink The Think, and came up with Qd5! (mate threat at f7). I went on to get a nice miniature (the game concluded 7...Qc7 8. Qxf7+ Kd8 9. Qxg7 Bf6 10. Qf8#). My move violated the principle 'Don't move the queen too early', but when mate is in the air, nothing else matters!

Note this is an example where my knowledge of the opening actually helped: the principle, 'If black plays an early e5 in the SM, then attack at f7' actually helped me find the right move.

Chess is complicated.


Blogger wang said...

Well, as you just demostrated it's a double edged sword. I have a couple of examples of my own, recent opening brain farts. positions where I played normal moves but needed to stop a minute and look to see what was different.

Ultimately "booking up" doesn't mean much if you don't stop to look at the position when it leaves book to look for opportunities.

11/10/2008 12:24:00 AM  
Blogger From the patzer said...

I am reading the 'Chess for Zebras' book from Rowson also and i think his major point is to unlearn what you have learned and that narratives can do more bad then good. If we look at your opening mistakes in the Caro Kann one can say that your narrative hindered you to see the just plan and you played the move you learned instead of looking at the position and find the best move (plan) now that the opponent went out of book.

11/11/2008 04:53:00 PM  
Blogger Loomis said...

This highlights an important paradox of opening study. Learning the moves allows you to play perfect chess as long as your opponent plays perfect chess as well. To be fair, many books will also show common mistakes your opponent can make and how to refute them. But expecting these lines is just a high brow form of hope chess.

Learning the ideas will help you play better when you're out of book and will also help you get the book moves right. For example, I play the accelerated dragon and one of the pet rules is that black should castle before playing ... d5. The book I have gives several examples of white exploiting a check or pin against the king on e8. So, I'm able to get my book moves right because I remember those ideas.

11/11/2008 06:15:00 PM  
Blogger Polly said...

I looked at that first position and my first thought was "If I grab the pawn on d5, he has Bxh7+ and I lose my queen." In reality that is not a threat since it's a typical C-K position with the black bishop on g6. I guess that was my immediate thought because I had a game last night where I had to analyse whether I could take white's pawn on d5. (I couldn't)

That second game is just wicked. One of the things I show my students is why f7 (f2) is the weakest square on the board. Before castling it's only guarded by the lonely king. This is one of my ways of trying to get kids to castle early, and to also know how to defend against Scholars Mate.

That game reminds me of why I keep refusing to accept the Gambit as Black.

11/11/2008 07:54:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Wang: yes definitely a double-edged sword.

Loomis: the hard part is often finding the right ideas, and opening books that are clear on such things.

Polly: I hate when black declines the gambit!!!

Chesstiger: Good summary of my post.

11/12/2008 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

Learning and memorizing openings is a lot like only learning the opening guitar riff to a song ( like Stairway to heaven for instance) and then going to a music store and cranking it and playing that riff. Then you get some real player who comes along and wants to "jam" with you and takes it in a completely different direction and you just stop and go Whoa.

Playing over whole games to leanr openings is crucial, then you learn the entire song. If he takes you out of the book, you have a more instinctive feel as to how to bring the song back around... or you are better equipped to improvise.

11/13/2008 09:54:00 PM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

Not only your opponent is able to get you out of the book. I skimmed thru the 3...Qd6 variation of the Scandinavian a few months ago. But only yesterday was my first chance to play it. After move 3 I was out of book. I lost a pawn but was able to hold the draw. In my next game with black, I played the Qd6 again. I managed to improve on my first game. In stead of losing a pawn, I made 5 queen moves in the first 9 moves. In the end I managed to win the game.

My chess friends were very surprised that I played the Qd6 so soon again without additional study. But I do that for a special reason.

In a book everything has about the same emotional value (none, that is). That's why it is so hard to remember the lines from a book.

But when you are out of book so soon, you have to look for yourself. The mistakes you make cause an urge to know which is supported by emotions. This will result in that when I now start to read about the 3...Qd6 variation, I will suck up the information with greed. Since I want to know.

It is a hard way, but the fastest way I know to learn an opening. It takes some courage, but after playing the KG for years my nerves in the opening are battle hardened:) And after all, 1.5 out of 2 isn't a bad start.

11/16/2008 10:52:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

BP: Another good use of your music analogy!

TS: That is a really good point. At my last tournament, less than a week after deciding to use the Caro-Kann, I almost didn't play it. But I decided to go ahead. Great point that the emotional tagging of certain lines is really helpful.

11/16/2008 06:48:00 PM  

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