When I started teaching the St. Pius kids, I only devoted one class to openings, and then only to basic principles. I explained that the three goals of the opening were to control the center, develop your pieces, and protect the king. I explained the difference between classical and modern development, showing them the Ruy Lopez and King’s Indian Defense main lines as respective examples. But I didn’t teach them any more specific lines, or insist that they play any particular openings. I didn’t want to force them to play particular lines, especially when I know my biases would leak through (I play a more aggressive, tactical style than most, and currently favor the Ruy Lopez or Evans Gambit for white, and the Sicilian Najdorf, Marshall Gambit, and Grunfeld for black).
And then I sent them off into the tournament world to get beaten up with weak opening play.
Looking at my students’ games without specific opening guidance, I’m seeing a lot of either overly cautious play or tactically sloppy play. My star student, lacking an idea of how to defend against e4, stumbled into the Damiano trap as Black in his first game at the Chicago championships: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 f6? 3. Nxe5 fxe5 4. Qh5+ g6? 5. Qxe5+ Qe7 6. Qxh8. Other students like to play passive moves; many of my games against Kris as White have started: 1. e4 d6 2. d4 e6? 3. c4 c6?.
So, no more friendly “do what you want” opening teaching. This week I start teaching them how to develop a real opening repertoire. They get some choice in which openings to pick, but only a limited choice.
1. As White, I want them all playing 1. e4. 3 reasons of varying quality for not letting them play 1. d4. First, the good reason: as many other chess teachers have noted, king pawn openings tend to be more open and tactical, and that’s what beginning students need to practice. Second, the practical reason: queen pawn openings tend to lead to complicated, subtle, positional play in closed positions, and these kids just aren’t ready to learn that style of play. And third, the less good reason: I know king pawn openings about 50 times better than I know queen pawn openings for White; my Queen’s Gambit, Slav, and Nimzo-Indian knowledge is practically nonexistent, while I’ve probably played as White against the Sicilian about a thousand times by now. Some day, I will have a student advanced enough who wants to learn the Queen’s Gambit, and I’ll have to learn the theory to teach it. But not today.
2. Having played 1. e4, they get their choice of responses to double king pawn openings limited to the Ruy Lopez main line, Giuoco Piano, or Evans Gambit. The King’s Gambit, Scotch Game, and Three Knights/Four Knights Game are all playable, but the first requires tricky theoretical knowledge and the latter two are pretty boring and passive. The Ruy Lopez and Giuoco Piano are very sound and easy to understand, and the Evans Gambit, while less sound, is an easy gambit to play and emphasizes attacking and fast development.
3. In response to 1. e4, they can choose between the Ruy Lopez, Sicilian Dragon or Najdorf, French, or Caro-Kann. All sound, playable defenses that aren’t hard to understand. I don’t want them trying to play the Pirc or Modern, both defenses that don’t directly challenge the center–they’re too willing to play passively in such lines.
4. In response to 1. d4, they can choose between the QGD, Slav, or King’s Indian. Either classical development or aggressive modern development are OK. The Grunfeld is a little too theory and trick based for these kids, and I just don’t have a good enough grasp of Nimzo- or Queen’s Indian Defense theory to teach it.
Opening principles are more imporant than lots of memorization, but a little memorization is necessary, and will help the kids get more wins.
So, after the NY International in June, my life got taken over by a wedding and move, and then I kind of forgot about this blog. But in November of last year, I began coaching the St. Pius V chess team in Chicago. These kids started knowing little more than the rules, but in a few months of not too structured lectures, we have 5-6 kids in grades 4-8 who have tournament experience, and one 5th grade girl won the 1st place unrated trophy at the “Greater Chicago Scholastic Chess Championships”, K-6 U600 section last Sunday.
My only tournament since then was a 4 round rapid tournament in December, one of the Knight’s Quest series in Northbrook, IL in which I scored 2/4 with draws against 1500 and 1900 players, a win against a 2000, and a loss to a 2150.
So, more coaching and less playing (and no directing, though I’ll be running my own scholastic tournament in May).
An exciting endgame from Sunday’s deciding game in the Championship section is instructive:
White to play, Azeez Alade (2040) vs. Matthew Zafra (~1850)
I’m fairly sure Matthew had a win earlier, but he just needed a draw to win the tournament. A win for Azeez would have won the tournament for him as well. So, Azeez takes the chance he needs to to win:
1. Kb6 Kd7?
Kd7 is already losing! Black can easily hold the draw with 1. … Bb8!, and because White can never cover the promotion square with his king, White can’t make any progress as the kings block each other forever. White should have a win after Kd7, but…
2. Ka7 Bc7 3. Draw offer?? 1/2-1/2
Azeez just didn’t calculate far enough here, probably confusing the actual position after promotion and trade:
With this one:
In the real position, while Black’s king is way ahead of the game, but white’s extra pawn on f3 proves surprisingly useful:
3. b8=Q Bxb8 4. Kxb8 Kd6 5. Kc8 Kxd5 6. Kd7 Ke5 7. Ke7 Kf4 8. Kf6 Kxf3 9. Kxg5, after which white easily promotes. Without that f3 pawn, Black wins the race with 8. … Kxg4.
Unbalanced endgames are frequently decided by these races that require calculating 7-10 moves ahead. When you get to one, that’s the time to buckle down and think–trying to get a result on principle might just throw away a perfectly good half point.
There was a small turnout at yesterday’s NYChessKids tournament, where I directed an 8 player Open section (1300-1600) and a 6 player Championship section (1600+). We ended with an exciting blitz playoff in the Open section. Oliver Neubauer of Dalton and Ben Drevitch of M.S. 54 tied for first with 2.5/3, and in the first game of the playoff, Oliver won after Ben had a brain fart and hung his queen. In the second game, Ben did better, and got to a winning endgame, but something went wrong:
White to Play
With a minute left on each side, Ben (playing White) overlooked that his bishop covered g8, so he missed the quick 1. g7+ Kh7 2. g8=Q+ Kh6 3. Qg6#, and instead let Oliver swindle him out of the half point he needed to keep the playoff alive:
1. h6? b3! 2. Bxb3? a2! 3. Bxa2?? 1/2-1/2 (stalemate).
In blitz, it’s really never over until it’s over.
After a few King’s Indian Defense rounds in a Chess.com correspondence tournament, I’m realizing that opening just doesn’t fit my tactical style. It’s an attacking opening, but one that’s heavy on alternate side pawn attacks in a closed center, and I don’t have a good feel for when defensive moves or attacking moves are necessary in those positions.
So, to finish my transition from a hodgepodge of opening choices in my scholastic years to a repertoire that fits my calculating, tactical style, my new response to 1. d4 will be the Grunfeld. It’s certainly become a lot more popular lately among GMs, and had a very good showing in round 1 if the World Championships, with Anand having to salvage a draw from a weaker position as White.