Using chess.com explorer to prioritise opening study

For most of us in the amateur club scene we regularly purchase books or trawl YouTube for the latest “Win with Black with the Bonecrusher Opening” (editors note – This is not a real opening). Many club players spend ages reading and nodding along with the main line of their new opening only to discover that hardly anyone plays it against them.  Thus the big dirty secret of amateur chess emerges – the frequency of mainline theory is far far lower in amateur chess circles. Often the lines covered as an afterthought at the back of opening books, DVDs and YouTube under the “Other sidelines’ title are the very lines that we encounter most often. Lets look at how we can overcome this problem using a great feature on chess.com called MyGames Explorer.

For a while now I have been interested in the differences between professional and amateur chess players with regards to opening choices.  Fortunately, chess.com contains a lovely feature that does just that! Lets first look at what this feature is and where to find it and then we will look at an example using the Nf6 Scandinavian.

Looking at My Games with the chess.com opening explorer

When logged into chess.com go to “Explorer” in the navigation:

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The Explorer option is underneath the weird blue and white icon with an arrow on it…

You will see the following page:

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The main Explorer page on chess.com.

At the top of the Explorer page are two dropdown menus. Change the first dropdown from “Master Games” to “My Games”.  And you will get a full breakdown of statistics for all your games.  The second dropdown menu allows you to view your games with black or white.

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With MyGames and black selected I can start to look at the opening statistics of different lines that my opponents play against me online.

Now you know where to find this great feature, lets start to use it to understand how amateur chess players differ from professional and thus aid ourselves in directing our study efforts.

Comparing Profesional to Amateur Opening Statistics – An example

Ive been playing the Nf6 Scandinavian for almost 18 months and like most players who want to learn a new opening I bought a book and started playing loads of blitz games.  I highly recommend Smerdon’s Scandinavian by GM David Smerdon if you are interested in this opening, it really is one of the best opening books I have ever read. One feature I love (which is sadly missing from most opening books) is a diagram outlining the likelihood of facing each line out of every 100 games.

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The diagram (editors note – taken from Amazon’s preview feature, I don’t know why its grey and blue?!) at the start of Smerdon’s Scandinavian showing the likelihood of each line occurring. A wonderful feature for all opening books.

Im not going to dwell on Scandinavian opening theory in this article.  What I want to look at is the percentages of common lines occurring amongst professional / strong players according to GM Smerdon:

1. e4 d5 2. exd Nf6:

  • 3. d4 – 47% 
  • 3. c4 – 19%
  • 3. Bb5+ – 17%
  • 3. Nf3 – 11%
  • 3. Nc3 – 10%
  • All other lines – 6%

This all looks nice and normal right?  It would seem that I would be sensible to prioritise looking at d4, c4 and Bb5 lines as part of my study. Now lets compare these statistics to my own experience in online games against 1300 – 1900 rated opposition.  The MyGames Explorer feature on chess.com shows me that I have played 340 games of (admittedly blitz) in the Nf6 Scandinavian and my opponents have responded in the following way:

1. e4 d5 2. exd Nf6:

  • 3. Nc3 – 26%
  • 3. c4 – 18%
  • 3. d4 – 17%
  • 3. Nf3 – 13%
  • 3. Others – 8%
  • All other lines – 18%

Comparing the predicted occurrence of a line in the book to amateur occurrence shows some interesting insight:

  • The d4 mainline occurs a whopping 30% less of the time compared to predicted theory.
  • The third best line for white, Bb5, is not even on the radar of most amateurs with a measly 7 occurrences from 340 games or 2% of the time.
  • The fifth most common line at professional level, Nc3, is the most popular line at amateur level occurring 2.5 times more often.
  • Almost 20% of players don’t take on d5 on move 2 (compared to 6% of professionals).  A response widely regarded by theory as leading to inferior positions for white.
  • The propensity of greed (i.e. keep the d5 pawn) amongst professionals and amateurs is about the same (editors note – this is a joke before anyone kicks off!)

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Amateur chess players seem to demonstrate an annoying obsession with 3. Nc3…

To back these numbers up in over the board play, in the last 18 months I have played the Nf6 Scandinavian 12 times with the following breakdown of white responses:

1. e4 d5 2. exd Nf6:

  • 3. Nf3 – 25%
  • 3. d4 – 25%
  • 3. Bb5 – 25%
  • 3. Nc3 – 25%

Admittedly 12 games is not a large sample size but the percentages are certainly close to the amateur statistics observed online (with the exception of Bb5).

This is not the first time I have spoken about the differences between amateur and professionals in their opening choices. My article from last summer comparing responses to Larsen’s Opening has become one of the most popular blogs I have written and highlighted stark differences again. To me it is becoming clear that there is a demand at the amateur chess scene for opening statistics for the club level player to help prioritise which lines to study, especially given how time poor your average club player is with regards to study. This is exactly the gap that I see chess.com’s MyGames Explorer filling.

 

Conclusion

Whilst we all recognise that below 2000 ELO, opening study is unlikely to yield big changes in rating compared to studying tactics and endgames, we can’t get around the fact that we all love playing with our opening repertoires. Using the My Games Explorer has the potential to identify differences that we didn’t even know existed and allow us to plug valuable gaps in our knowledge at the amateur level.

I remain fascinated by the differences in move choice between amateur and professional levels and am certain that many publishers and producers of opening content could benefit from thinking about and recognising these differences.  In my opinion, we can’t ignore the fact that when it comes to amateur chess the sideline is the new mainline.

The MyGames explorer on chess.com could prove an invaluable tool to the average club player in terms of prioritising which lines to study or atleast which lines to have a response too. For example, I am now very comfortable with my response to 3. Nc3 in the Scandinavian scoring a respectable 53% with black. No I’m not telling you what it is, I need some secrets!

Thank you for reading and do let me know if you discover any other interesting differences in your own opening repertoires and if that changes which lines you study.


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.