Why don’t amateurs play mainline openings?

I will confess that I had an alternative name for this blog post that went something along the lines of “Wading into the Sicilian swamplands”. However I decided that sounded more like a pulp fiction thriller than a conversation on amateur chess player habits.  In addition I feared it would put too much emphasis on the Sicilian rather than the wider aversion of amateur chess players to tackle openings more usually employed by the professionals.  Across the amateur chess scene you are more likely to see Owens Defence (1…b6) than a Berlin but why is that and what are we so afraid of?

 

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What shall we play today? Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

So unfortunately I fall into the category of amateur chess club player.  To give you an idea of the kind of club player I am I’ve broken down some facts about my play for you:

  • My OTB grade has hovered between 145 – 155 ECF (1788 – 1863 ELO) for the last 10 years.
  • I tend to play in Majors at weekend congresses where I occasionally win a prize
  • Recently i’ve played at the bottom of several Open tournaments where I claim the odd scalp and end up dining out on that far more than the three games I lost in the endgame (of which with best play I should probably have drawn two)
  • The type of openings I play include the Nimzo-Larsen Attack (1.b3), the Scandinavian (1…d5) and the Clarendon Court (1.d4 c5 2. d5 f5?!)

Like a lot of club players, I console my lack of progress (and justify my opening choices) by saying things like “I don’t have time” (note – I really don’t, my children are 2.5yrs and 13 days old) or “My openings drag my opponents out of book“.

But heres the thing.

The entire amateur chess scene says this.  The choice of obscure / semi-sound / non-mainline openings for time poor amateurs is further reinforced by a huge range of system style books and DVDs. As a result it is not unusual to watch a game in a Minor or Major section of a tournament involve 10 opening moves of system style openings where both players are overlooking obvious opportunities on the board in the name of getting to “their desired set up” (as dictated by whichever latest book or DVD you have studied this month).

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing overly wrong with this approach and indeed works well for a large number of club players.

Earlier in the year I wrote several pieces on reviewing your opening repertoire but also how, in my opinion in the amateur world sidelines are the new mainline.

However, is it ultimately limiting the growth of many players? This question is based on a recent eye opening experience that has challenged my belief in this approach.

Time to kill with a stale repertoire

As regular readers will know, I recently suffered a serious accident which has left me convalescing in bed for the last five weeks. As a result i’ve played a lot of rapid chess (10 minutes, no increment) online.

Forced to rest with a lot of time to kill and a growing believe that my repertoire needed updating I started playing anything in order to spice things up.  This radical approach led me to start playing…whisper it…the Sicilian.

1…c5

I know.

Take a moment.

If you were to ask my partner in crime at the Bristol Chess Times, co-editor Mike Harris, my personal opinion of the Sicilian he would probably tell you that its not safe for work and should be broadcast after 9pm in the evening. I hate the Sicilian.

Its complicated, it has entire libraries of theory and literature and every player has a special anti-Sicilian sideline (I’m looking at you 2.b3 weirdos) which makes studying it a nightmare.  Of all the possible opening moves available, I have never played 1…c5.

Well I guess circumstances eventually forced my hand and it turns out that i really like the Sicilian!

Its fun, its tactical and at no point have I bothered to learn any names of any variations.

That last point is key to my message today.  When I first started throwing the C-pawn forward I just started applying sound opening principles to see what happened.  I was just playing chess rather than starting from the position of looking for a new book or DVD involving the words “Crush”, “Win” or “Beat”.

I started winning.  I started winning cool exciting games. Beating 1900’s and 2000’s become the norm rather than the exception. My online rapid play grade went from 1840 to 1950 ELO, a personal best.

Lets look at the numbers taken from my rapid games on Lichess:

  • Scandinavian Defence – Won 38% / Drew 4% /  58% (24 games)
  • Sicilian Defence – Won 59% / Drew 0% / 41% (29 games)

Obviously being 10 minute games amongst amateurs the number of draws is very low. However, the difference is stark!

Noticing my general happiness in my chess improving following the adoption of the C-pawn, I decided to look up the variation I had naturally been playing.  Turns out its called the Scheveningen Variation and has been championed by none other than Gary Kasparov in the past.

Hold on.  This doesn’t compute. Im an amateur player. Every book, DVD and YouTube video  tells me I should be playing a system style opening that crushes all before me and yet I seem to be having fun and winning using a mainline opening played by possibly the greatest world champion of all time.

I shouldn’t be having fun. I certainly shouldn’t be winning because I haven’t learnt any theory in this behemoth opening that has always terrified me. Whats happening?

Style beats theory

Turns out that there is something about the Sicilian that resonates with me.  I genuinely don’t know whether that is that the plans make sense to me, I like the types of tactics or it dissolves into endgames that make sense to me? It could be all three to be fair.

Whatever it is, my personal style seems to connect with the Sicilian and it has really reinvigorated both me personally and my results. Ive learned a valuable lesson.

How much are amateur chess players holding themselves back by not playing mainline openings due to a fear of a lack of time and an intimidation of theory?  How much are club players short changing or even stunting their chess development by burying their heads in their hands because mainline openings are scary?

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“Curses! A mainline opening…(sigh)” Photo by taha ajmi on Unsplash

Ask someone else what your style is

Amateur chess players are famous for telling themselves stories about how they play (“Im a tactical wizard” or “Im a positional master“) but often the reality is far different.  Today I have spoken about how I have accidentally found a love for a mainline opening after shunning it for years.

Remember my point is not to go into realms of time consuming study. I have no more time in my daily life now than before and have still not studied any Sicilian Scheveningen theory (although somebody did mumble something about the Keres Attack, g4, blah blah something something).

Therefore, in my opinion, perhaps the most important challenge for amateur players is identifying their actual personal style rather than starting from the position of which time saving system shall I play? Given we often tell ourselves stories my best recommendation would be to ask your club mates, friends or coach about how they think you play.  Work through several of your games and look at the raw data, even if that data is from blitz games online. You might just surprise yourself over what you learn whilst saving yourself both time and money on that next “Beat everyone with this system” DVD you were eyeing up.


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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 (Yes. I know its not a mainline…).

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