Nineteenth-Century Openings

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Many of the posts here on r.g.c.a. take the form "what should I play against..." or the related, but very different, "what's a good line against...". I've been thinking about this a lot lately, both for myself, and, more especially, for my students, who range in strength from beginner to class A, and I've come up with some thoughts that I'd like to share and invite feedback on.

  I believe it was Reti who first advanced the thesis that the development of the individual should follow the course of the development of chess itself. In other words that a player will first (Greco et al.) learn some cute tactical tricks, then (Morphy, Anderssen) become competent at deeper tactics, and concepts such as rapid development; next (Steinitz, Tarrasch) will come a fairly rigorous learning of positional concepts, etc.

  Surprisingly, I have never seen the parallel thesis that A player's opening repertoire should similarly follow historical trends. Therefore one should start by learning a "19th century" opening repertoire based upon open games, then move on to a "Classical" repertoire, leaning heavily on the Lopez and Queen's Gambit, and only adopt hypermodern and post-war openings much later. The more I think about this, the more it makes sense. Early in a chess career, tactics predominate, and piece mobilty is the primary strategical consideration. (Remember that pieces lose mobility drastically and permanently if they are captured.) Therefore we should adopt openings that will reward rapid mobilization. (A specific example: after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 6 4.Ng5 I have taught several of my students (rated < 1300) to play 4...Bc5!? (*) The result? an absolute 100% success rate, with not a single White King making it to move 25! White always grabs f7 and h8, and then perishes miserably. my players have not memorized reams of analysis, but have instead been shown a couple of key ideas, and then unleashed.)

  Once a player has achieved a certain level of competence playing these open games, then she is ready for openings that will teach and reward certain specific types of strategic knowledge. A second rule applies here: The greater the strategical complexity of an opening, the higher rated you need to be before playing it. Again, an example: Two openings frequently recommended to players in about the 1400-1800 range are the Torre Attack and the Stonewall. These recommendations are usually based on the superficial truth that "It's easy to learn- White plays the same moves no matter what Black does." However, in the Stonewall, it is almost true to say that there is only one strategical idea at work- "Keep the centre closed, occupy e5, and attack on the K-side". By contrast, White's strategical options in the Torre are numerous, and which plan to adopt frequently depends upon fairly subtle understanding of Black's defensive scheme. Therefore, I believe, despite the fact that White does make the same first half-dozen or so moves against almost any Black setup, the Torre is a very hard opening to learn to play well.

  Maybe the hardest openings to play well are those that require not only broad based strategical understanding, but also a willingness to engage in tactical pyrotechnics at the appropriate moment. The systems (predominantly subvariations of the Sicilian, KID and maybe Slav) probably should not be attempted by players lower rated than 2000. The fact that many of these are currently popular at Super-GM level proves the point. After all, if a 2650 is trying to set problems too hard for a peer to solve, the chance of an 1800 understanding anything about the position must be pretty low.

  Another, seemingly paradoxical, question that must be asked before an opening is selected is this: "Do I want to win, or do I want to become a better player?" If the primary goal is short-term maximization of results, then a variation should be selected which maximizes those strengths that the player already possesses. However, if the goal is long-term improvement, then the selection task becomes more difficult. It is necessary to evaluate overall playing strengths and weaknesses, choose an appropriate goal (eg. "Learning to play more patiently") and then select variations which will reward patient play. It is in this area that a higher rated colleague or coach may be of help - both in determining what is an appropriate strategic task to work on, and in selecting variations to help accomplish the task. The short-term results of such an approach may be painful, but the long-term improvement will be worth it.


  1) Selection of an opening repertoire can be a powerful tool for improvement.

  2) The question "what should I play against..." cannot be adequately answered without further data. (rating, previously used systems, goals, etc.)

  3) There are good reasons to believe that individual progression of opening understanding can and should mirror historical progression.

  I welcome any discussion or criticism of the theories I have outlined above, and I hope that the readers of r.g.c.a find this article both interesting and useful.


Matt Guthrie (click to mail)

Matt Guthrie is a USCF Master and professional chess teacher. He is Arizona State Champion, and coach of the teams that won both the Primary and Elementary sections of the 1995 All-America Cup.

(*) Wilkes-Barre Variation: see Example Games

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