Why You Shouldn’t Focus on Openings

If you ask the average chess player a question about openings, they’ll likely have pretty strong opinions.  They like certain openings, dislike others, and they can list off names and variations left and right.  There’s nothing intermediate-level players like to study more, and beginners think their biggest issues are always opening related.

You can find resources on openings just about anywhere.  There are more chess books released each year about openings than the rest of the literature combined.  Heck, I’ve recently published two of my own posts discussing opening advantages and opening traps, respectively.  Bottom line, there’s a lot of information out there.

And, in all honestly, you don’t really need it.  You don’t need to focus on openings.  You need to focus on good chess.

I’ve recently gone through my database of old games, and one in particular caught my eye.  At first glance it looks like nothing special: I get an opening advantage, I keep pressing and my opponent finally cracks, letting me win a piece and later the game.  Ho hum, nothing special.

Nonetheless, here’s the game.  Before I go into detail, let’s just look at the position every four moves.  This will give us an idea of how everything played out.  Note that both my opponent and myself were about 1800 at the time.

Voong – Smithy, 2003

We have a pretty standard opening position.  This is the Semi-Tarrasch, a not-too-popular but definitely not bad line for either side.  Play will likely continue along standard Queen’s Gambit lines, with one side or the other getting an isolated pawn at some point.

Wow, that’s a big change!  Black has pushed White backwards, and he has more central control.  Black even has a space advantage.  White will have a hard time developing his Kingside, as the pawns restrict him.  Black is already better.

White still has no pieces beyond the second rank, though he has managed to castle.  Black is ahead in development and is already threatening the c-pawn as well as landing his Knight on the great b3-square.  Black is two moves away from castling, but that doesn’t look dangerous.

The central tension has resolved and Black still has the more active position.  White still hasn’t developed his entire Queenside, and most of those pieces are under attack.  Things look grim for White.  Can he save material?

Sure enough, Black has won a piece.  Over the next two moves he will play Be7, 0-0 and nurse his extra piece to victory.  See?  A pretty boring game.  White didn’t know the theory, he played the opening poorly and lost without a fight.  What’s so special?

In all honesty, those were my exact thoughts, and I nearly passed this game by without a second thought … but something bothered me.  My King was in the centre this entire time, and he was wide open.  I never thought about King safety back in 2003, and perhaps White had more resources than it first appears.

I analyzed the game deeper, and frankly, I found something amazing.  Remember, this game was between two 1800 players, so definitely not beginners.

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 c5 5.a3?!

White makes the first mistake, playing a rather useless move a3.  Perhaps he didn’t know the theory.  The mainline is e3, though cxd5 is also possible.  Tell me, are those moves hard to find?  They are two most obvious choices in the position!  You don’t need to be a Tarrasch expert to find them.

5… cxd4 6.Nxd4 e5 7.Nc2

White just moved his Knight from d4 to c2… why?  Tell me, is that the best square for the Knight?  What’s wrong with Nf3?  If Black tries to push the Knight with e5, then the Knight just jumps back to d4 and has a great square.  White pressures the d5-pawn, so it will be impossible to keep the pawn chain in the centre.

If instead 7.Nf3 d4 is tried instead, White has 8.Nxe5!, because if dxc3 then White trades Queens and then play Nxf7+, forking the Rook.  Black doesn’t have enough pieces developed to support his centre, so White can chip away at it.

Regardless, Nf3 was the most logical move and it’s the best move.  Nc2 was unnecessarily passive.  The computer claims Black now has a big advantage… just like I said in the above analysis.  But just wait.

7… d4 8.Nb1 Be6 9.e3 Nc6 10.Be2 Rc8 11.O-O Na5?!

I’ve played well so far, but now I get distracted by the weak pawn on c4.  With Na5 all my pieces are ready to attack it … but my King is in the center and my d4-pawn now becomes weak.  I’ll be honest, I almost certainly didn’t see my d4-pawn was now hanging.  I just wanted to win the pawn.

With this move, the computer says the position is now dead equal.  Black’s opening advantage has vanished.

12.exd4 exd4 13.Nxd4 Bxc4

And now, two moves later, White is suddenly winning!

In this position, if White finds 14.Re1!, then Black is completely busted.  If he exchanges on e2, then after Qxe2 White has his major pieces lined up against Black’s exposed King.  Not good.  Even if Black tries Be7, the pin and the pressure makes it almost impossible to castle without dropping a piece.

It’s also worth noting that Nf5 is threatened, hitting both e7 as well as g7.  The computer says that this position is now +3 for White.  Not only has Black’s opening advantage disappeared in the span of three moves, I am completely losing!

My opponent didn’t see this, though, and play continued 14.Bxc4 Rxc4 15.
Nf3 Qxd1 16.Rxd1 Nb3, reaching a diagram we’ve seen before.

Things look bad for White, as both his Rook on a1 and Bishop on c1 are under attack.  He can’t save both … but he can make a counter-attack!  17.Nbd2! saves the game.  It attacks both the Rook and the Knight.  If Black takes the Rook, then White takes it right back.  Also, moving the Knight opens up the a1-Rook’s defence of the Bishop.

If White had found this move, the computer likes his chances, saying White has nearly a pawn advantage.  Instead, White played 17.Ne5?, which simply dropped the piece, and after Rxc1 18.Rxc1 Nxc1 19.Nd2 Ne2+ 20.Kf1 Nd4 Black’s Knight has escaped and White is simply down a piece with no compensation.  It took twenty more moves, but I won the game in a simple endgame.

Conclusion

White might have thought after this game, “Blast, I didn’t know the theory, and after move 5 I had no chance!”  Of course, the exact opposite was the case.

On move 5, White played a bad move.  It wasn’t a question of theory, it was simply common sense.  Then on move 7, he played a very passive move, again rejecting the most obvious move, and he ended up in a worse position.

By move 12, though, the situation had reversed.  Black got greedy with a premature attack (perhaps the single most common opening mistake) instead of finishing development, and suddenly the position was dead equal.

By move 14, White had a completely winning position if he found 14.Re1!  At this point we aren’t even in the opening anymore: White missed a middlegame attacking idea.  Even after this, though, White still has a small advantage.

Finally, on move 17, White had a way to not only stay in the game but take advantage.  Was this an opening mistake?  No, White missed a defensive idea.  To be fair, I also completely missed it at the time.  I thought I was simply winning, but in fact White could have pressed me hard with accurate play.

So, was this game decided by the opening?  Of course not.  Both sides made many mistakes: White played poorly for the first seven moves, allowing Black to gain an advantage … and then Black played poorly, allowing White to gain a potentially winning advantage … and then White missed his chance and ended up in a losing position.

Black had a massive advantage on move 7, over 2 pawns according to my computer, and I still nearly messed it up in five moves.  Again, I wasn’t weak, I was 1800 at the time.  The problem wasn’t the opening; the problem was we both didn’t understand chess well enough.  In the end, I made a position where it was easier for White to make bad moves than good moves, and so I won … but it’s hard to call it good chess.

Don’t worry about the opening.  If you are under 1800, this is even more true.  Worry about playing good chess.  Get coaching or lessons if you want, but just play good chess.  Focus on that, not the opening, and you’ll be well on your way.

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