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To Teach Openings, or Not?

February 11, 2013

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.

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