Reviewing my opening repertoire: “Is the Scandinavian holding me back?”

Its June and chess is in lazy season. The cut and thrust of the league has finished and we have to rely on weekend congresses and one-day rapid plays to see us through the long sunny months of Summer.  Traditionally I take this opportunity to review my chess with a full 360 degree review.  Following in the advice of the excellent book Chess for Tigers by Simon Webb, every few years I review my opening repertoire to see if I am falling down anywhere. Whilst on holiday this week I started by poking around some of my opening statistics with some interesting findings.

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Despite the surprise of many friends, this actually is a sound opening for black! (Photo courtesy of Chris Lamming)

At the start of last season I set myself the goal of reaching a personal best of 160 ECF / 1900 ELO.  The grades don’t come out until July in England but I suspect I have come dangerously close but not close enough.  My current estimates put me at around 158 ECF / 1885 ELO. Close but no cigar!  Whilst I appreciate there are bound to be multiple areas of my game to improve (for example, spotting one move mate threats which cost me two games this year), lets break down where those pesky few points could be being dropped in my openings.

White

This analysis is relatively straight forward as I only play the one opening with white…

Nimzo-Larsen Attack

27 games / 54% / 158 ECF or 1885 ELO average opponent

Everyone knows I enjoy a good 1. b3.  Lets face it I’m not going to change this up until it starts doing me a serious disservice.  Over the last two seasons I have scored a respectable 54% with it against strong opposition in the top two divisions of the Bristol & District Chess League.  A score of 54% seems to be about average with what a player with the white pieces should be scoring but it did lead me to question if I could be doing better with white by switching to something more conventional?

That may be the case but I think its fair to say I’m not under performing with white and seeing as a really enjoy these types of games why fix what isn’t broken?

Black

I’ve broken down this analysis into two groups – 1.e4 and 1.d4.  Only a small handful of games started with anything else and many of those that did, transposed back into mainline e4 or d4 openings anyway (I’m looking at you 1. nf3 players…).  I have not included the “other” openings category as they are two small and varied in number.

Scandinavian Defence- 1.e4

17 games / 41% / 151 ECF or 1833 ELO average opponent

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The numbers suggest I may have already gone wrong in this position

“I’m really enjoying and playing well with the Scandinavian”

“It really suits my style of play and the 2.nf6 lines give me plenty of room to play for a win”

Um. Well yes.  Thats what psychology can do to you!  I have been confidently trotting out the 2. nf6 Scandinavian for almost two seasons now believing that its treating me well.  The fact of the matter is I have barely scraped in with a performance of 41%.  To make matters even worse it turns out I’ve only won 3 of those 17 games (18%. Ouch!).  So why do I so passionately defend and even recommend this opening to friends and club mates?

Well it turns out that I draw with it a lot.  8 times out of 17 to be exact. For a player desperately questing to both improve their grade and perform in the top local leagues, draws with the black pieces against strong opposition go a long way to cementing a perception of an opening.

I did actually double check the figures but the numbers don’t lie.  My record with the Scandinavian reads:

  • Played: 17
  • Won: 3
  • Drawn: 8
  • Lost: 6

In addition, the average grade of my opponents is 151, slightly worse than my current predicted grade.  Although the sample of 17 games is relatively small, my predicted grade would seem to indicate I should be scoring atleast 50% with the Scandinavian against this level of opposition.

I checked the numbers in the database and black is scoring 46% at pro levels.  Overall my numbers would seem to suggest I am underperforming with the Scandinavian and this important defence to the kings pawn may need to be looked at over the summer.

Queens Gambit Declined and assorted 1. d4 defences

11 games / 59% / 146 ECF or 1795 ELO average opponent

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Blissfully unaware of how well I’ve been playing these positions

“I’ve always hated facing the queens pawn”.  

“Never do well against it.  Can’t stand it when they shove the d pawn forward, urggg”

Again my bias and psychology has been playing to the fore when the numbers actually tell a different story.  In stark contrast to my performance against 1.e4 I have actually been scoring remarkably well against the 1.d4 openings.

A cracking 59% with the black pieces which actually rises to 71% (7 games) when you factor in I changed the way I play against 1. d4 at the start of this season.  Again I double checked the numbers and was stunned to see that I have been comfortably handling the d-pawn all season long.  So solid has my performance been that it made me wonder if it had not been a contributory factor to my victory at the recent Frome congress.  At the time I had bemoaned getting three blacks over the weekend but actually my worst result came in a drawn Scandinavian whilst two cracking victories against 1.d4 had brought home the metaphorical bacon!

As a ringing endorsement for those people who recommend not losing too much sleep over opening study, I have been generally playing “good instinctive moves” against 1.d4, pretty much because I assumed I have a terrible record against it.  Freed from the burdens of opening theory I have also hit upon playing in a way that befits my personal style.  I should definitely review my 1.d4 games further to see what it is about those pawn structures and style that appeals to my play.

My average opponent strength in these d4 games is the lowest out of all the openings (approximately 10 ECF or 75 ELO) but the scores I am achieving reflect this, indicating my d4 openings are yielding what one would expect.

Perhaps the most pressing concern is how can I have such a large swing in performance between my responses to e4 and d4? Since my transition to the “Care-free Defence” (editors note – patent pending) there is a stark difference of 30% in performance!

Conclusion: “Is the Scandinavian holding me back?

So there we have it.

Twelve months on from when I set myself the goal of achieving 160 ECF / 1900 ELO I believe (July ratings pending) I have fallen short by a handful of rating points.  If you had stopped me in the local club and asked me where I thought it was going wrong, prior to this I would not have stated the Scandinavian Defence as a potential problem.

Perhaps 41% is not the worst ever score with black against 1.e4 but its clear that I am able to perform well with black as highlighted by my 1.d4 performances.  I think the thing that bothers me is the win column.  An 18% return of victories just isn’t good enough in my opinion (especially when one of those was against a much weaker opponent).  I’ve been painting a false picture about my performance with the Scandinavian due to holding multiple strong players to a draw with it.  In hindsight, there are very few games where I have been pushing my opponents for the full point.

In addition, my analysis of opponent strength seems to indicate that my White and d4 defences are scoring as expected if not better against my opposition.  However, my results with the Scandinavian are a good 10% below where you would expect them to be over a large number of games.

The Scandinavian is very popular at club level and has an excellent reputation.  To be clear, I’m not saying its a bad opening. But the important question to ask is is it right for me?  As I strive to creep ever closer to competing against the top players in the local leagues is it the right kind of opening to give me wining chances?  Perhaps an alternative defence to the kings pawn might have netted me those scarce few points I needed to hit my  personal goal?

Overall, a very useful exercise that yields some interesting questions.  I thoroughly recommend all amateur cub players perform this kind of analysis atleast once every two years as I have done.  Its amazing the stories we like to tell ourselves and how we can be actively missing out on areas of improvement we didn’t realise existed.


mecircle

Jon Fisher

Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.

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