Minor Openings

By Dave Regis, with interruptions from the group

Note: This piece prompted an immediate response from Eric Petrusic, which was interesting. [See also Strategy and Tactics - DR]

  Note for visitors: the Minor section has a grade ceiling of BCF 100 (ELO=1400, USCF class D), and the intermediate has a ceiling of BCF 125 (ELO=1600, USCF class C).


  How should we open a game of chess? Here's an opening repertoire from Chess Openings for Juniors, suitable for juniors and presumably Minor/Intermediate players:

Main opening: Main line Giuoco Piano with 4. c3
Two Knights' Defence: Max Lange
French Defence: Classical, & Alekhin Gambit against Winawer
Sicilian Defence: Morra Gambit
Caro-Kann Defence: Main lines with 3.Nc3
Pirc Defence: Pseudo-Samisch 4. f3
Black against King's Gambit: Accepted, Modern defence 3...d5
Black against Ruy Lopez: Open Morphy Defence with 9...Bc5
Black against GP: Main Line Two Knights' Defence with 6...Na5
Black against 1.d4: Cambridge Springs Defence
Black against hypermodern: London system

  I played pretty much strictly from this repertoire for a while and would recommend it to anybody. It aims at open games emphasising piece play, perhaps with a view to tactics and attacking play, but as we all know "tactics flow from a superior position" (Fischer). [If you don't have this book I have expanded on some similar opening suggestions for White systems and Black Defences, including playing against 1.d4.]

  Another opening repertoire aimed at club players is offered by Nigel Davies in his Dirty Tricks video:

Main opening: pick a 19th century gambit like the King's or Danish
French Defence: Wing Gambit
Sicilian Defence: Deferred Wing Gambit
Caro-Kann Defence: Two Knights' Variation
Pirc Defence: System with Bc4
Black against Ruy Lopez: Modern Steinitz Variation with ...Bg4, Exchange Variation with ...Bg4, Bird's Defence, or maybe even the Nimzovitch Defence with 1...Nc6
Black against 1.d4: Tchigorin Defence
Black against hypermodern: London system

Lastly, there are two editions of 'An opening repertoire for the attacking club player' by Keene and Levy, and a book of the same name by Gufeld.


Keene/Levy I Keene/Levy II Gufeld
Main opening Scotch Gambit Scotch Game Vienna Game
French Defence Winawer 4. a3
Steinitz 4. e5
Advance, 5. Be3 Advance, 6. Be2
Sicilian Defence Alapin Variation Alapin Variation Grand Prix Attack
Caro-Kann Defence Panov/Gunderam Advance Advance
Pirc Defence Byrne system Byrne system Austrian Attack
Black against 1. e4 Pirc Defence Scandinavian Sicilian Dragon
Black against 1.d4 Benko Gambit Tchigorin Defence Leningrad Dutch
Black against hypermodern Dutch systems English: Dutch; Reti: ...d6/...Bg4 Dutch systems
To summarise: all offer a mix of systems with a common theme - open, aggressive play. Why are we recommended to play like this?

  "A knowledge of tactics is the foundation of positional play. This is a rule which has stood its test in chess history and one which we cannot impress forcibly enough upon the young chess player. A beginner should avoid Queen's Gambit and French Defence and play open games instead! While he may not win as many games at first, he will in the long run be amply compensated by acquiring a thorough knowledge of the game." -- RICHARD RETI

  - and, I might add, it's a lot more fun! The trouble with playing stodgy stuff is you can get stuck and bored and lose through losing patience, or perhaps you will never understand why you lose.

Tom: "I always play gambits!"

Dave: "Good for you! We might run through a few afterwards. You don't have to play a gambit to get an open game, and there can be other problems. When we look at the Sicilian later, I'll say some more about this."

So much for the books. How do people actually play, and how do they fare? (This survey has two points: firstly to see what's there, but also to model an approach to looking at your own games.) I looked at 253 games from East Devon 1995 (Minor & Intermediate sections), and found:

The results are weighted in favour of White

                                                        Valid     Cum
Value Label Value Frequency Percent Percent Percent .00 87 34.4 34.4 34.4 .50 54 21.3 21.3 55.7 1.00 112 44.3 44.3 100.0 ------- ------- ------- Total 253 100.0 100.0

...but more strongly than GM games in the minor section

Summaries of     RESULT   By levels of     TOURN
Variable      Value  Label                      Mean    Std Dev    Cases
For Entire Population                          .5494      .4416      253
TOURN      i         intermediate {c}          .4874      .4291      119
TOURN      m         minor {d}                 .6061      .4499      132

Hint: get your Black act together in the Minor.

Try and get White in Round 2!

Summaries of     RESULT   By levels of     ROUND
Variable      Value  Label                      Mean    Std Dev    Cases
ROUND      1                                   .5213      .4539       47
ROUND      2                                   .6058      .4240       52
ROUND      3                                   .5288      .4688       52
ROUND      4                                   .5300      .4450       50
ROUND      5                                   .5600      .4361       50

...Or Round 5...

Summaries of     RESULT   By levels of     SECTION
Variable      Value  Label                      Mean    Std Dev    Cases
SECTION    i1                                  .4792      .4293       24
SECTION    i2                                  .5217      .4123       23
SECTION    i3                                  .5000      .4564       25
SECTION    i4                                  .4783      .4390       23
SECTION    i5                                  .4583      .4403       24
SECTION    m1                                  .5652      .4839       23
SECTION    m2                                  .6724      .4284       29
SECTION    m3                                  .5556      .4870       27
SECTION    m4                                  .5741      .4537       27
SECTION    m5                                  .6538      .4188       26
The gore in Round two I think is as a result of the Swiss system, and the last round is clearly the crunch one. Still...

...Again, it's mostly in the Minor section that the advantage of White is seen.

Openings lean on ECO B and D

...rather than C, which is perhaps how we are supposed to play

                                                        Valid     Cum
Value Label                 Value  Frequency  Percent  Percent  Percent
Hypermodern and irregular       a        45     17.8     17.8     18.6
Semi-open games                 b        78     30.8     30.8     49.4
Open games (and French)         c        52     20.6     20.6     70.0
Close games                     d        67     26.5     26.5     96.4
Indian defences                 e         9      3.6      3.6    100.0
                                     -------  -------  -------
                            Total       251    100.0    100.0
I also looked at 400 e-mail correspondence games from the IECG from categories D and E and found the following distribution:


  There are obvious peaks and clusters at:

A00-A05 Irregular openings
A45 Unusual replies after 1. d4 Nf6
B00-B30 Semi-open defences (Irregular, Nimzovitch, Caro-Kann)
C00-odd French defence and irregular defences with 1...e6, e.g. Owen's
C40-C70 Open games
D00-odd Irregular closed games (Stonewall, Colle)
D30 Queen's Gambit
E90-odd King's Indian

  These e-mail games also feature B and D prominently, although I got more Cs here than in the East Devon sample. So, we have very much the same pattern of openings, which despite the 25% of open games, we are flying pretty much against what Reti recommends for beginners.

  So, just when are you good enough to stop playing open games? Minor? Intermediate? I think the answer is, when you are getting bored with them.

Ray:"Too right! I got bored playing the same old positions in the Moller and Max Lange against the same players each season, and so these days I like to play slow systems like Bird's Opening."

Dave: "Fine! Ray, we know you can attack when you want to or when you need to, as I remember you winning in about 20 moves with a double piece sacrifice in the Jamboree in September. To coin a phrase, you've served your apprenticeship in the open games, and can move on. But there is a lot of scope for exploration in the old Italian Game; Evans Gambit is far from played out. There are at least three good systems for Black in reply to 4. Ng5 in the Two Knights (Traxler/Wilkes Barre, Ulvestad/Fritz and the main line gambit), and two good replies in the Max Lange. And if anyone is bored like Ray, remember, you can move on to other open games which means you can hang on to a lot of your repertoire. Play the Scotch, or the Scotch Gambit, or the Ruy Lopez. "

Alan: "I've been doing very well with the Goring Gambit this season"

Dave: "I have a problem with the Goring, because I think 4...d5 equalises easily. But until your opponents start playing that, enjoy it! What do they do, decline and push past with 4...d3 I suppose?"

Alan: "No, they do decline, but they let me play 4. cxd4, when I get a pawn roller!"

Dave: "Go for it, then!"

Fred: "Isn't there an appalling lot to remember in all these openings?"

Dave: "Well, you've got to learn how to play open stuff and tactics if you are going to improve. You can play one of the closed 'System' openings to keep your book learning down (and maybe study tactics at home), but there's nothing like getting stuck in to improve. There isn't really that much to learn, and I don't think your opponents will know it any better than you - look at how Alan's opponent's are reacting, they not only don't know the Goring Gambit, they don't seem to be playing according to any sort of logic in the opening at all. I'm not insisting you play open games - if you are happy playing what you do now at the level you do now, you have no problems!"

But I also suspect that the main reasons that players don't play open games is, not boredom with the same old positions, but fear of losing, or too many painful tactical oversights. Instead of getting good enough at tactics to live and thrive among open games, some players prefer to play closed games without an immediate clash of forces so that fewer Loose Pieces Drop Off. It can happen, even to the best of us...

Karlsson,AS - Gustavsson,C, 1994: 1.e4 e5 2.f4 Bc5 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nxe5 dxe4 5.c3?! Nf6 6.d4 exd3 7.Bxd3 0-0 8.Qf3 Re8 9.Be3 Bg4 10.Qg3 Rxe5 11.Bxh7+ Kxh7 0-1

  I might be wrong, but I think this is half of what all these A00 and D00 openings are about: playing a stereotyped closed setup so that we get through the first 10 moves (a) without dropping any pieces, and (b) without having to think!

1. d4 2. e3 3. Bd3 4. f4 5. Nf3 6. O-O 7. Ne5 8. Qf3 9. g4... (or 8. Rf3 9. Bxh7+...)

1. g3 2. Bg2 3. d3 4. Nf3 5. O-O 6. Nbd2 7. Qe1 8. c3 9. e4...

  I can see the attractions, but one-idea openings like the Stonewall are so easy to see coming and avoid with only a moment or two of preparation.

1. d4 d5 2. e3 Nf6 3. Bd3 Bg4!? 4. f3 Bh4 and ...Bg6
1. d4 d5 2. e3 Nf6 3. Nf3 Bf5! or ...Bg4!
1. d4 d5 2. e3 Nc6!? 3. Bd3 e5
1. d4 d5 2. e3 Nc6!? 3. Bd3 Nf6 4. f4 Bg4 5. Nf3 e6 6. O-O Bf5!

  And, if your 'system' opening doesn't go according to plan, you may be in one of those stodgy positions where the plaintive cry goes up "I don't know what to do here".

Alan: "I like the King's Indian Attack as a system".

Dave: "So do I! The thing is about the KIA is that you can play it with more than one idea in mind, and it's not easy for Black to cut across your plans because you aren't committed to one plan. I'll come back to this later."

A count of all openings and results:

mean=0.5000 means White scored 50% in that opening

  My statistics software clipped the names off most of the openings, but you find the full names elswhere.

Summaries of     RESULT  By levels of     ECO
Variable      Value  Label                      Mean    Std Dev    Cases
For Entire Population                          .5494      .4416      253
ECO                                            .5000      .0000        2
ECO        a00       irregular openings,       .8750      .2500        4
ECO        a01       nimzo-larsen attack       .5000      .0000        1
ECO        a02       bird's opening            .5000      .7071        2
ECO        a03       bird's opening           1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        a04       reti opening              .2500      .3536        2
ECO        a05       reti opening with 1.      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        a07       reti opening, barcza      .7857      .3934        7
ECO        a09       reti opening             1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        a10       english opening           .2500      .3536        2
ECO        a13       english opening, sys      .5000      .0000        1
ECO        a16       english opening, sys      .7500      .3536        2
ECO        a17       english opening, ang      .5000      .0000        1
ECO        a22       english opening, rev      .5000      .0000        2
ECO        a25       english opening, rev     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        a40       queen pawn games          .5000      .0000        1
ECO        a42       modern defence, aver     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        a45       indian systems            .7500      .3536        2
ECO        a46       indian systems with      1.0000      .0000        2
ECO        a48       indian systems with       .5000      .3162        6
ECO        a52       budapest gambit, mai      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        a60       modern benoni             .0000      .0000        1
ECO        a80       dutch defence             .5000      .7071        2
ECO        a85       dutch defence             .5000      .0000        1

ECO        b00       king pawn games, inc      .5000      .4629        8
ECO        b01       centre counter defen      .4286      .4499        7
ECO        b02       Alekhin's defence       1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        b05       Alekhin's defence,      1.0000      .0000        2
ECO        b06       modern defence            .7000      .4472        5
ECO        b07       pirc (robatsch) defe      .0000      .0000        4
ECO        b09       pirc defence, austri     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        b10       caro-kann defence         .0000      .0000        2
ECO        b12       caro-kann defence         .5000      .5000        3
ECO        b13       caro-kann defence, e      .0000      .0000        2
ECO        b18       caro-kann defence, c      .3333      .2887        3
ECO        b21       sicilian defence, gr      .5714      .4746       14
ECO        b22       sicilian defence, al      .7500      .2887        4
ECO        b23       sicilian defence, cl     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        b24       sicilian defence, cl     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        b25       sicilian defence, cl      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        b26       sicilian defence, cl     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        b29       sicilian defence, ni      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        b30       sicilian defence wit      .6667      .5164        6
ECO        b33       sicilian defence          .0000      .0000        1
ECO        b34       sicilian defence, ac      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        b40       sicilian defence wit      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        b50       sicilian defence wit     1.0000      .0000        2
ECO        b52       sicilian defence, si     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        b53       sicilian defence, ch     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        b80       sicilian defence, sc     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        b95       sicilian defence, na      .3333      .5774        3

ECO        c00       french defence            .5000      .5000        5
ECO        c01       french defence, exch      .8333      .2887        3
ECO        c02       french defence, adva      .7000      .4472        5
ECO        c05       french defence, tarr      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        c10       french defence           1.0000      .0000        2
ECO        c13       french defence, clas      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        c15       french defence, wina     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        c17       french defence, wina      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        c23       bishop's opening          .5000      .0000        1
ECO        c41       philidor defence          .2500      .5000        4
ECO        c42       petroff defence           .0000      .0000        1
ECO        c44       double king pawn gam      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        c45       scotch game               .6250      .2500        4
ECO        c46       three knights' game       .5000      .5000        3
ECO        c50       italian game              .0833      .2041        6
ECO        c55       two knights' defence      .6000      .4183        5
ECO        c60       ruy lopez opening (s      .5000      .0000        1
ECO        c62       ruy lopez, steinitz      1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        c63       ruy lopez, schlieman     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        c65       ruy lopez, berlin de     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        c80       ruy lopez, open morp     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        c89       ruy lopez, marshall       .3333      .2887        3

ECO        d00       double queen pawn ga      .6471      .4598       17
ECO        d02       double queen pawn ga     1.0000      .0000        3
ECO        d03       double queen pawn ga      .2857      .4880        7
ECO        d04       colle system              .8750      .2500        4
ECO        d05       colle system              .0000      .0000        1
ECO        d06       queen's gambit            .5000      .0000        1
ECO        d07       queen's gambit, tchi     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        d08       queen's gambit, albi      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        d11       queen's gambit decli     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        d20       queen's gambit accep      .7500      .3536        2
ECO        d21       queen's gambit accep     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        d26       queen's gambit accep      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        d30       queen's gambit decli      .5000      .5774        4
ECO        d31       queen's gambit decli      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        d35       queen's gambit decli      .6250      .4787        4
ECO        d37       queen's gambit decli      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        d41       queen's gambit decli      .5000      .4472       11
ECO        d51       queen's gambit decli      .0000      .0000        2
ECO        d53       queen's gambit decli     1.0000      .0000        2
ECO        d80       grunfeld defence, ta     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        d92       grunfeld defence, sy     1.0000      .0000        1

ECO        e12       queen's indian defen      .0000      .0000        2
ECO        e15       queen's indian defen     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        e20       nimzo-indian defence      .0000      .0000        1
ECO        e61       king's indian defenc      .5000      .7071        2
ECO        e87       king's indian defenc     1.0000      .0000        1
ECO        e90       king's indian defenc     1.0000      .0000        2

Intermediate and minor players choose different openings:

...Intermediate avoid D and E in favour of more A and B

            Count  |
           Row Pct |intermed    minor
                a  |    25  |    20  |    45
  hypermodern      |  55.6  |  44.4  |  17.8
                b  |    49  |    29  |    78
  semi-open        |  62.8  |  37.2  |  30.8
                c  |    26  |    26  |    52
  open/french      |  50.0  |  50.0  |  20.6
                d  |    16  |    51  |    67
  closed           |  23.9  |  76.1  |  26.5
                e  |     3  |     6  |     9
  indian (semi-clo |  33.3  |  66.7  |   3.6
            Column     119      132      253
             Total    47.0     52.2    100.0
Whatever minor players should be playing, I guess it's not closed openings.

  Also, I'm not right impressed with anyone in the club, let alone players in the intermediate, playing hypermodern systems unless it's one you can interpret in a fairly direct King's-side attack sort of way, like the Botvinnik system or King's Indian Attack.

  I can see a role for the semi-open systems at club level, they are unbalanced and often exciting.

Also, intermediate players follow the main lines more

You find them in ECO B90 or B09 rather than ECO B00.

White scores best in ECO A and D openings

Summaries of     RESULT
By levels of     ECO1
Variable      Value  Label                      Mean    Std Dev    Cases
For Entire Population                          .5494      .4416      253
ECO1       a         hypermodern               .6111      .3827       45
ECO1       b         semi-open                 .5256      .4622       78
ECO1       c         open/french               .5000      .4316       52
ECO1       d         closed                    .5746      .4626       67
ECO1       e         indian (semi-closed)      .5556      .5270        9
Total Cases = 253

...which might explain why we play all this funny A00/D00 stuff

There's no arguing with results... as long as you are happy with your results. There's clearly a reinforcement here for getting your act together as Black against these unusual openings. We'll lay on a repeat of "Beating the Anti-Indians" towards this end.

Alan: "Surely it's better to play something you half-know than something you don't know at all - particularly if your opponent doesn't know it!"

Dave: "Yes, indeed - a player with a plan will always beat a player without one, particularly if you know some of the variations. But I fear in D00 openings the plan will go astray because the plan is too simple, and in A00 it will go astray because the positions are too complex."

The Stonewall & similar systems are played quite often

...but may even perform below average at minor level

Variable        Value  Label                      Mean    Std Dev    Cases

NON-STONEWALL     .00                            .5521      .4392      238
  TOURN      i                                   .4870      .4264      115
  TOURN      m                                   .6138      .4473      123

STONEWALL etc    1.00                            .5000      .5000       13
  TOURN      i                                   .5000      .5774        4
  TOURN      m                                   .5000      .5000        9
I wouldn't stake much on a sample of 13 games, but it's clear it's nothing special.
Ray: "I used to play the Stonewall but used to get a lot of draws."

Dave: "I can well believe that. The Stonewall is a one-idea opening (playing for a clockwork King's-side attack with pressure on h7 from a Bishop on d3) and if your opponents see it coming they can avoid this by 3...Bf5 or 3...g6."

Ray: "Yes, that's what happened. You then get a blocked position which neither side is going to enjoy much, and things often get bogged down and drawish. If you are prepared to think a bit in the opening, I still think the Colle (D04) is playable, because you still get an attack of sorts against 3...g6, and after 3...Bf5 you can switch plans with 4.c4 and 5.Qb3. White has pressure on b7 and can open the c-file."

  Dave: "That's the type of flexibility I'd expect to see in the Major; unfortunately in the Minor you are more likely to get a clockwork reaction like 3...Bf5 4. Bd3 Bxd3 5. Qxd3, which is usually a big yawn (because neither player realises they can open a file)."

Whites mostly avoid open Sicilians

Open Sicilians 5

  Other Sicilians 22

...Maybe with good reason!

Open Sicilians White scores 40%

  Other Sicilians White scores 73%

  So in the interests of playing Black we could usefully lay on a session on Beating The Anti-Sicilians. If only there was a suitable book available...

The single most common way of avoiding the Sicilian is the Morra Gambit

6 in Intermediate, 2 in Minor

However, while the accepted form is the more successful, most people decline it

Accepted: 2/2

  Declined: 21/2/6

...so I'd say think about another system!

The Open Sicilian is obviously critical and a bit scary, but surely the best way to play for a win as White. Tal used to say that he preferred meeting 1.e4 c5 than 1.e4 e5 because it was easier to get an open game; Karpov has also commented that there is no need to gambit a Pawn against the Sicilian because white gets an attack anyway! So, there's no need to play a gambit.

  Also, the GMs usually reckon the Morra is a nice free Pawn, and the best way to play for a win as Black. So why decline anyway? I guess this has a lot to do with club players:

a. being frightened of their opponent's book knowledge (justifiably or not), and/or

b. being frightened of being attacked


a. being frightened of their opponent's book knowledge (justifiably or not)

  I do see a lot of gambits declined at club level - remember what Alan was saying about the Goring. Sometimes I hear people say they declined "on principle". There is no principle that says "decline free Pawns". In fact, there is a principle that says always take a central Pawn if it is offered. The thing is, don't try and hang on to it, let your opponent waste time trying to get it back - or give it back yourself with an early ...d5 to get on with your own development.

Play the strongest moves you can, regardless of what you think your opponent knows. (After all, they might know how to refute your second-rate choice as well...)

  Despite all this, Blacks are being rewarded for declining! However, this might have something to do with the small numbers we are looking at here, or maybe which players are doing the declining. It does suggest, however, that you are getting a less open game by playing a gambit instead of the Open Sicilian, because Blacks are being panicked into declining! This may be true for other gambits as well.


b. being frightened of being attacked

  I think we need to brush up a bit on attack and defence.

  You mustn't ignore genuine threats, but don't be panicked or distracted by them - especially when faced with a King's-side attack [when you must pursue your own attack with extra vigour.].

  Don't worry needlessly, resulting in panic and retreat - you need to keep active and keep counterplay.

  Take nothing for granted. Don't fret needlessly - analyse and find out if there is a win for your opponent. I often say, "Oh, Black's only going to threaten mate", by which I mean, the best they can achieve is a one move threat that can be easily contained. When they make that threat, you do need to react, but don't worry needlessly; carry on with your own plans. There are some "clockwork" attacks (like the h-file assault against the fianchettoed King, or the King's Indian Attack) that will eventually produce checkmate if left alone, but usually the best recipe is to counterattack, even if you do have to stop from time to time to counter a mating threat.

  In particular, don't panic and refuse sacrificed material that you could have for free. Don't decline "on principle". This is declining from fear, not knowledge. Play the strongest move, which may well be to take the material and make your opponent prove their judgement was correct.

  Neither be over-impressed by your own threats. An attack by one piece on another is meaningless in itself - it may distract an important defender. Equally, don't assume that a stock combination or sacrifice works for you in the position you have today - small differences can make it fail. Don't hope vainly - analyse and find out.


Alan: "But the other reason people like to play cautiously is if they are playing for a team. If you do lose in 15 moves you feel you've let your team down.".

Dave: "You might be right, but remember these statistics are from tournaments where people are playing on their own behalf, not for a team. Maybe there is an argument for trying to hold the margin of the draw when playing for a team - after all, Reti cautions us that we " may not win as many games at first". But I think there is also an argument for having fun - and some of the closed 'system' openings look awfully stodgy. "Above all, to yourself be true"!"

Note: This piece prompted an immediate response from Eric Petrusic, which was interesting. [See also Strategy and Tactics - DR]