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'Opening preparation for the Club Player'



Upwards of 30 people attended Peter Well’s lecture on (almost) the above topic, organised by Witney CC, and a pleasant and thought-provoking evening resulted – punctuated by lively discussion, tea at the interval and some post-match pub analysis in the Bell Inn.




In his opening remarks, Peter dealt with a range of openings-related issues that have been delayed from appearing at a chess bookstall near you by the arrival of his first child in November. It would be facile to pretend my notes cover the breadth of commentary – but I recall a starting point with the Nigel Short observation (I think) that people (i.e. the audience) generally do tons of work on the opening … badly – and how openings books divided between those selling variations, and others providing ideas – with the (I think) unspoken conclusion that ‘never the twain shall meet’ for many people.


And, perhaps for that reason, players tended to get caught either in a fug of variations which never appeared in their games (and were generally forgotten until they appeared in some World Championship match twenty years later), or they floated into the match room with an aura of positively beautiful chess ideas, only to see them get shot down at 7.40pm of a Monday, by which time their opponent has unhelpfully unfurled the Colle system in reductio ad absurdum. Beautiful.


In passing he mentioned that the lecture title wasn’t quite that which he had signed up for – the preferred title being more economical and losing the last four words of the advertised title. A good move, I felt. It is better to let club players in to the GM’s approach to the opening, than for a more generalised GM “doctor-is-in” post-mortem into the many disasters that befall the club player in their travails – club players would have fewer disasters if they did some openings prep properly. [ … and besides, doesn’t Gary Lane already provide such an invaluable service in Kingpin (which also suggests some other forms of GM preparation for which the club player probably needs no introduction…)]



The first part of the lecture was structured around McShane – Palliser from the February 4NCL played the day before, which Peter had witnessed from the next board. A non-standard closed Sicilian after White deviates from known book as early as 6. a3, and – without any obviously bad moves on Black’s part – White gradually finds and executes a plan which sees both his knights land on f4 and g5, whence to impose a pawn presence in the centre, gaining control of the c-file choices, and culminating around move 39 with the invasion of the rook to c7 – almost the first aggressive sortie into his opponent’s half of the board.


Peter’s treatment here was more autopsy than post-mortem – looking at how a very good player was rendered powerless by what seems on a casual replay to be a series of extremely sensible, dare-I-say simple, moves. That White (much more than Black) has a wider scope to indulge in such ‘fantasy’ play is a factor – and the plain deceit of some moves was interesting to have noted. (a3, Bd2, and Rb1 all hint strongly at queenside play initiated by b4 - and while this does ultimately result – these preparatory moves seem to divert Richard from the Knights’ tours on the other side of the board.)


A final point that stuck with me was the approval Peter had for this game, which while having some element of midnight oil in terms of preparation, contrasted with what seems a disappointment that the Nakamura – Howell draw in London 2010 was for the most part all openings prep by Nakamura – he knew the game was drawn with best play and left Howell to find the ‘only’ moves to the draw). It’s a worrying trend … but not one that will immediately impact on the club player.


In the second half, and enlivened by tea and biscuits and the opportunity for discussion not normally available on a Monday club night (pictures), the debate was thrown open. To queries as wide as computer chess, prepping, internet chess, and favoured chess players – a list which went to-and-fro and included McShane, Short, Miles, Rozenthalis, and Hebden….


On the proper preparation for openings, some valuable hints emerged:


  • main lines are main lines for a reason

  • maybe you can start work in the middle game (or: examine middle games that arise from your opening) and Peter’s Grunfeld game against some un-named German was an excellent illustration

  • be aware of pawn structures and how structures in openings (The Zaitsev Ruy, the Sveshnikov) overlap and lead to similar thematic continuations


and though they might not be followed up immediately, or in some cases, ever – it is helpful to know where the road to improvement lies, even if (as it sometimes the case) some of the audience are looking for a route to more enjoyment…


I particularly enjoyed the “cost-effectiveness openings study” debate – initiated by Simon King, and which sees White cut out 400 columns of MCO by studying instead the 21 columns that deal with the Closed Sicilian. Peter seemed to think this was a good approach – and many club players adopt this – though an unexpressed drawback would seem to be the limited range of opportunities for excitement. If you want “exciting chess”, then – depending on how you define your terms – you might need to broaden your repertoire. (That said, if you think winning alone makes for exciting chess, and are getting your fair share of victories, then maybe you don’t need to buy more books.)


An excellent evening entertainment was continued into Bell Inn, where the GM wound down actively as the Pubformator™ gang wound itself up, and revealed some of the secrets of “How to Maintain a Club Player Repertoire” (and remain, I suppose, a Club Player), which included some annotations such as;


22. … Nb6

Now my plan to play 23. Bc4 was in ruins because when he played this move he looked away from the c-file and towards the king-side.” and discussed the following diagram:




White to move



where the open question was “when Black plays … Nf6, do you (a) retreat the rook (the sober strategic option) or (b) punt it to h4 (the hacker’s choice)”, but of course the real question was “how guilty should I feel if it turns out I’m a happy hacker?”


We leave the reader to decide for themselves… in the meantime, a vote of thanks to the Witney Club for its hosting of the event, the provision of demonstration board and Grandmaster, and in particular to the anonymous supplier of the extra strong, “Deep” Blu Tac which held the games together during time trouble.


- Sean Terry 06 March 2011




Thinking more about this in the meantime, and how the club player’s perspectives differ from those of the GM, I found myself looking at one of the books mentioned by Peter (Watson’s Chess Strategy in Action) and came across this diagram in chapter 2:



Botvinnik – Smyslov (Game 2, 1954, WCh)



where White has just played 10. g4, a move which – when I first remember seeing it properly, about 10 years ago – pleased me tremendously. “bloody hell, imagine the old geezer playing that, and in a World Championship match” summed it up. Contrast that with the book’s verdict:


10. g4! Peter Wells commented upon this famous move, which seems to expose the wing upon which White’s king resides: “It’s all here: space; driving/restricting pieces, even the pawn-storm – even prophylaxis. The implied threat to d5 will discourage Black from ever considering counterplay in the centre (with … c5) and hence the ‘fixed centre’ which encourages White’s win ambitions looks here to stay. It also has, crucially, timing. If Black had a tempo either to castle or to play … c6, he would be able to organize his knights optimally. As it is, they are likely to impinge on each other’s space since they both need to land on d7. Thus are space advantages driven home.”

Secrets of Modern Strategy, p. 81


It’s easy to see a shared joy – between patzer and Pulitzer, as it were – at the move itself, and it’s not one which can be explained by any traditional, coin-throwing, aesthetics of the move – but a greater understanding appears in the GM’s comments, along with some concrete advice about how to apply the ideas implicit in Botvinnik’s move to one’s own chess player career.


In the meantime, we will await Peter’s book ...


PGN of games from Peter's lecture.

Click to play through the games





© SC


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