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Building an Opening Repertoire

By John Lattier

My father taught me how to play in the 1980s. We’d set up the wooden chess set on the kitchen table. He’d play 1. e4, and I would respond with 1…e5, and then he’d launch his entire army at my weak f7 square. I had no idea what to do. I remember looking over at his happily castled kingside thinking it was an impenetrable fortress, while my king was busy waving the flag of surrender.

Back then, I thought studying openings was a chore. Sure, there were some books, but they were soooo boring. They’d just list variation after variation with no pictures or descriptions. Rudimentary software like Chessmaster was slow and didn’t give advice on how to sift through hundreds of openings. For 20 years, my concept of the opening was to fight for center control and piece development and not worry about move order. I basically began the middlegame at move one, where I was required to think on my own without the help of opening prep. You could argue my lack of opening knowledge was a blessing: what drove me forward were ideas, plans, and goals. But there were certainly times I simply was not prepared.

However, there is so much to be gained from studying opening theory.  With the databases and tools available today, it’s like receiving advice from the entirety of mankind over the history of the game. And from this knowledge, you can build a homemade repertoire that fits your style of play. We all know the benefits of being in a familiar position—you know what works and you know what fails. If you prepare a homemade repertoire, you can make sure you’re in a familiar position deep into every game so you can avoid the mistakes that come along with unfamiliarity.

What is an opening repertoire? It’s a pre-made, strategic plan of knowing exactly what moves you plan on making no matter what your opponent does. Yes, a repertoire requires using your memory. But it’s not mindless memorization like some people claim. Rather, the understanding of the position occurs at home, in advance, with all the tools you wish you had during the game. And, this is very important, if you study the opening properly and learn the ideas behind the opening in advance, you will be equipped to handle the situation as soon as the opponent jumps off the path or as soon as you forget a particular move order.

How do I build a homemade repertoire? I start with these 4 tools:

  1. A chess openings database: www.chess.com’s “game explorer” or Chessbase
  2. A chess engine: Fritz, some of the older versions are inexpensive
  3. A source of advice: www.youtube.com or a chess coach
  4. A spreadsheet: Microsoft Excel or graphing paper

I also start with an idea of what I want to study. For today, I’m going to try something completely new. I want a new defense against 1. c4. IM Carlos Perdomo used it against me during the Emory Blitz event, and I just didn’t have a concrete plan from the outset.

I open up the www.chess.com game explorer. I flip the board to black’s perspective and play the move 1. c4 as white. Black’s favorite replies show up. Clicking each move individually shows you their names: 1…e5 is the King’s English—that’s what I tried against Carlos, and from my humble experience black doesn’t have enough strength to fight back anywhere. White fianchettos the kingside and renders counterplay on the light squares impossible. So I know my goal: I want to fight for the light squares somehow. 1…e6 and 1…c6 fight for this goal, but there’s one other move on the list that catches my eye. Chess.com shows that 1…b6 has the best statistics of any of the replies to the English Opening. Let’s look deeper, and maybe another day I’ll go back and examine 1…e6 and 1…c6.

1. c4 b6. Chess.com doesn’t show a name, but Google found that it’s the English Defense (a fitting name). Normally 1…b6 is a weak defense. Against 1. e4 or 1. d4, 1…b6 allows white to develop the perfect center. In such positions, c4 wastes a critical tempo, thus if white plays c4 on move one, then 1…b6 is actually pretty solid. Another property of 1…b6 that intrigues me is the fight for the long diagonal. If I can occupy it before white, perhaps he won’t fianchetto. Or if he tries to hide the open diagonal behind a knight, my preference is to chop off the knight, doubling his pawns and removing an important pawn from the center.

Here’s where the repertoire-building begins. After 1. c4 b6, I write down white’s meaningful replies. Using Excel, I make column “A” white’s first move, column “B” is black’s first move, and so on. I color code them white or black (see below). I’m going to study each one “to completion,” meaning to the point where I feel confident, usually about 6 to 10 moves deep. The repertoire begins to resemble a tree with branches.

White’s meaningful second moves are 2. Nc3, 2. d4, 2. Nf3, 2. e4, 2. b3, and 2. g3. I determined this because they are the most popular moves, and they are the only moves that seem to give white good chances. Then I look over the board one last time and also check Fritz, and I decide if there are any other moves to include. In this case, there aren’t. After listing each move, I “merge the cells” of the previous moves using the Format>Cells menu. The resulting spreadsheet looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 9.48.40 PM

 

A repertoire for black, in development

Here’s where I take a moment to understand each move, not just memorize them. For 2. Nc3, I write down, “White moves the knight to c3 with the intention of advancing a pawn to e4. Additionally, the knight is very comfortable on c3 now that the c4 pawn is not hindered on c2.” I click on the cell for 2. Nc3 and Insert>Comment. This way, I will have an excellent reference to refer back to when I am trying to understand the reasoning behind such moves.

Now here’s the really challenging part of building a repertoire: this is where I decide on one move to be “my move.” Of course I can have multiple moves in my repertoire, but I find it much easier to pick just one move and roll with it, leaving open the option to come back and change my mind later. In order to pick a move, I first look at which moves are most popular: 2…Bb7, 2…e6, 2…c5, 2…Nf6. Then I look over the position to see if anything else looks worthwhile. I like 2…f5 and 2…e5 as well. After scanning YouTube for some advice, and looking at what Fritz thinks, I conclude they are all equally valid choices. Next, I play out a few likely variations for each choice, just to see where the position tends to go. 2…Bb7, 2…e6, and 2…Nf6 all lead to the same kinds of positions, where white builds a hefty center and black tries to fight back. 2…c5 and 2…e5 feel committal. At first, 2…f5 feels open and unsafe, but it also helps fight for the light squares. That is my goal, so I write down 2…f5 and proceed from there, with the idea that if I prove to myself that it’s unsafe I will go back and pick a different move.

Silly me, with 1. c4 b6 2. Nc3 f5, I have led you all down a path so completely obscure that there are virtually no games from which to study this opening. Normally chess.com and Chessbase are great resources to find out who plays these moves and then analyze individual games. Never fear, your favorite opening of choice will probably have thousands of games at move 2. But once you leave the well-trodden path, you will eventually have to rely on your own wits and reasoning to complete the repertoire.

Let’s look at what I came up with! I took this out to move 3 for simplicity purposes. If I took it out to the usual move 6 to 10, there would be hundreds of lines. I stuck with the theme of fighting for the light squares, stayed consistent about my move choices such as meeting Nc3 with f5, and kept in mind that e6 also opens up Bb4 which helps fight for the light squares indirectly. Once I’m done, I study it using software like Chess Position Trainer, or just play a lot of games online until I feel comfortable. Everyone is different, and everyone has their own path. What you can take from this article is that making a repertoire is not that difficult once you have the right tools and understand what needs to be done. The finished product will be your very own masterpiece that you can say you created!

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