My Opening Evolution: Playing Against 1.e4

If you hear a seasoned chess player talk about chess, it’s usually one of two things: either about famous players or openings. What else is there to talk about? Everybody has his or her own favourite player, be it the dauntless Tal or the dominating Capablanca or the demolishing Fischer. Finding your favourite player is generally pretty easy as well. Go through a collection of famous games, see one that catches your eye and presto, your favourite player.

For the record, my favourite player is Siegbert Tarrasch.

Openings, though, are completely different. While you might enjoy going through your favourite player’s games, you need to play your own openings. You need to study hard and memorize lines if you want to avoid opening traps, especially in the heavy theoretical lines. Each opening is different, leading to different positions, and it can seem overwhelming. Where to start? Which is best? How can I possibly know any of this?

Over the years, I’ve put in countless hours looking at chess, with openings playing a big chunk. I’ve changed my repertoire countless times. I could never find that one opening that I liked above all else, that I’d keep forever. Sometimes I thought I found it, but then nope; I’d find the middlegames boring, or too symmetrical, or too hard to win, or I just kept losing. In what follows, I share my opening journey as it concerns 1.e4, how I got where I am today, nearly 2100 online rating, and tips and tricks along the way.

Learning Principles

When I first started chess, I, of course, knew nothing about opening theory. I would typically start with 1.e4, as my grandfather said it was best, and then I did whatever. Sometimes I brought my Knights out, sometimes I just moved my Bishops, sometimes I just moved my pawns over and over again. Hey, I was a beginner, okay?

Slowly, very slowly, I gained a general understanding of what to do: pawns should go to e4 and d4, Knights to c3 and f3, Bishops to c4 and g5, the King should castle and the Rooks come e1 and d1. You often want to play h3 to prevent the pin. Ideally it would look like this:

Many opening manuals preach this exact set-up, and it’s a good one … but it has a problem. I mean, look at it. Both sides have played ‘perfectly,’ following opening rules exactly … and the position is identical. What’s the next step? What’s the plan? The game has no life to it, and if you play this for both White and Black, then virtually every game is this same slow, boring mess.

This is where opening theory comes in. If both sides just follow principles and develop, then the game will remain equal. To change things up, to try to get an advantage, you can try different ideas. For instance, if you play both Nf3 and Nc3, and Black does the same, then it is very hard to play in the center. You can perhaps play an early d4, or you can try c3 and d4 instead. Voila, suddenly the game is very different.

Black has an even better choice. He can play symmetrical, answering 1.e4 with e5 or 1.d4 with d5, but these risk getting bogged down in the lifeless swamp we saw above. Alternatively, Black can play something completely asymmetrical and fight that way. This is where the Sicilian, the French and every other defence comes into play. Now we’re talking!

Taking Up the Sicilian (and the Benoni)

I started playing the Sicilian for two reasons. One, as hinted above, I disliked the symmetry of ‘regular’ opening play. I craved something different, and the Sicilian was exactly that. However, that’s not even the main reason. I read in a book that there was an opening called the Sicilian Dragon, and I said, “Dragons are cool; I’m going to play that.” And I did.

I memorized the first six or so moves and then played them against everything. That’s it. I didn’t know anything about plans or common tactics. I didn’t know the strategy or the reason behind the moves. I played it because I like dragons. That’s it. I even used it against 1.d4, which was the Benoni but I didn’t even know it. I just called everything the Dragon.

It took about six-thousand losses before I realized, hmm, maybe I’m doing something wrong. I then found an opening encyclopedia and worked my way through it. I learned about every major system and I played most of them. Seriously, if it’s an opening, I played it during this period. In particular, I tried every idea against 1.e4, trying to find something I liked. I had lots of good ideas, but it seemed like every opening had a problem I couldn’t overcome.

The Sicilian? Kept losing to kingside attacks. The Alekhine? White has the Exchange Variation that takes away all the fun. The Caro-Kann? Too passive; hard to win against weaker opponents. The French? A terrible opening, absolutely terrible. The Pirc or Modern? White always plays c3 and keeps a slight, boring edge. Just play 1…e5? White has eight-thousand gambits that I’m not ready for.

I never stuck with any one opening. In general, I played an opening until I had a bad game, and then I switched to something different. In the process, I learned a lot about all the different openings, but I never learned any one opening in any depth. This hurt, as when I faced a good opponent who knew the typical plans while I did not, I generally suffered. My solution? Give up, try a new opening.

Playing What I Hated

Every opening I played seemed to have a problem, and I didn’t know how to counter it. It seemed everything I tried turned to ash … which then gave me an idea. There were two openings I hated seeing as White, the Scandinavian with Qxd5 and the Open Spanish. Whenever I played these as White, I never seemed to get anywhere. I decided, what the heck, let’s try these openings out. If I get destroyed, then at least I’ll have an idea of how to counter these openings as White.

The Scandinavian in particular was eye opening. I learned so many new ideas. In particular, the following really impressed me:

This just seemed so creative. White moves his Knight early but does so to get a big attack going. It always felt like Black was so solid, so hard for White to attack. Not so bad here! Another line, which I believe is the mainline, looked like this:

Black can’t afford to play Qxf6 as White then has Bg5 and Black has wasted half of his moves moving his Queen around. White naturally has a big lead in development, and Black has a hard time developing any type of attack. Both these lines made me re-think this opening, and I started enjoying playing White against the Scandinavian.

Playing What I Loved

One day, I happened to find a chess book at the local book store. This rarely happened. It was Tiger’s Modern, a very fun take on the Modern defence. It treated it more like a Sicilian than a Pirc, and the author wrote in a very engaging style. The games were awesome, it didn’t have reams of theory, and I seemed to have a knack for playing it. I was in love.

It’s a wonderful book, and it’s recently been updated and re-released.

I began playing the Modern almost exclusively. You couldn’t get me to try something different. I learned more about chess, and it seemed like every game was both unique and exciting. Best of all, most White players didn’t have a clue of how to face Tiger’s version of the modern, and so the wins starting coming.

There was only one problem … I didn’t play the King’s Indian Defence. At all. I tried, but I failed. I have something like a 20% win rate over my lifetime. If White played c4, it basically meant I lost. I could thus only play the Modern against people who I knew wouldn’t play c4 … and I couldn’t know this. I eventually gave up the Modern not because the Modern was bad, but because the King’s Indian was too painful.

Finding Smirnov

My openings remained in a constant state of flux until I found my chess coach, GM Igor Smirnov. His courses changed the way I looked at chess, but in terms of openings, it was his Opening Lab 2 that stood out. It taught opening principles in a novel way, showing how important they are in just about any position. My play improved so much, it’s actually remarkable.

In particular, the courses gave me two pieces of advice. First, my habit of switching openings every few weeks was more harm than good. I needed to make a repertoire and stick to it. I could still play other openings, but I needed to invest 80% of my time in one defence and stick to it. Secondly, he suggested, in an almost off-hand way, that if you’ve never played 1…e5 then you are missing out. Playing classically with 1…e5 teaches you so much about chess, and everyone should do it, at least for a little bit.

Smirnov is not the only person to say this. Victor Bologan, in his highly acclaimed openings works, says the same thing. Playing 1.e4 e5 teaches you not just an opening: it teaches you the heart of chess. Many great players played this move almost exclusively; the great Paul Keres comes to mind. It has the seal of approval. Also, I mentioned above that the Open Spanish always gave me troubles …

My Final 1.e4 Repertoire

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that I returned to 1…e5 as my choice. It’s like the Circle of Life, for I’m back to the first opening I ever used. The difference, of course, is that it’s been over a decade and I’m nearly 1000 rating points higher. 1…e5 has served me fairly well.

I must admit, there’s a certain delight in winning with this opening move. It’s exactly what White wants to see, and it’s a symmetrical position. Being able to win despite these two factors shows that you were 100% the better player. I mean, in a Sicilian king assault, with both sides attacking, you might overlook one little tactic and lose instantly. Was your opponent better or did he just get lucky? Alternatively, did he just memorize six-hours worth of theory and pounce on your mistake without even thinking? Is he a better player, or just one with a better memory? With 1…e5, you never have this worry hanging over you heard … at least with the lines I play.

I mentioned I play the Open Spanish. I never liked playing this as White, as it seemed clumsy and Black has easy play. I now realize that White indeed has some good ideas, but they are very positional in nature. White wants to occupy key squares and attack potentially weak pawns. Black, though, has his own fair share of chances. I haven’t found a reason to give it up yet, unlike the Scandinavian earlier.

As a bonus, 1…e5 allows me to effortlessly expand my repertoire later on. I can switch things up on the second move, playing the Philidor or the Petroff, or I can switch things up on the third move, playing the Berlin or the Classical or any other sideline. In the Spanish proper, I can switch to the Closed setups or try some of the Arkhangelsk variations. All of these are the same opening, in a sense, but they are completely, completely different. That’s fun.

This will be my defence to 1.e4 for the rest of my life. I might add other things to complement it. For instance, I’ll almost certainly pick up a Sicilian line at some time, and if I ever learn the King’s Indian I can play the Modern again, but this is my current and future opening, and I’m finally happy with it.

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