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    Wednesday
    Jun022010

    Only Defenders Have It Tough?

    I recently read an article online advocating what most players take to be a dubious gambit. At one point the author reports that the computer claims that the defender is slightly better (or to put it differently, the gambiteer lacks full compensation for his material investment), but hey, it's no problem. If you were playing the world champion then yes, sure, you're in trouble. But - heh heh heh - your poor opponent can't meet that standard, so no problem.

    I've seen this sort of advertisement on behalf of junk openings before, and to be honest I don't think very much of it. With all due respect to the author and those who would play bluffish gambits, he and they aren't exactly Anand or Kasparov either. It's amazing to me that writers will so often push shady lines with the argument that defenders make mistakes (gee, really?) and not consider that the attacking prowess of their enthusiastic readers might also fall a touch below perfection.

    Now, it's true that with a lot of study, practice and experience the gambiteer will increase his chances for a successful performance. Maybe he's no Carlsen, but learning from the computer, previous games and one's own analysis and experience will help tremendously. In that case, he may indeed be a favorite against those of his peers who haven't studied that gambit line in any detail. (Of course, this assumes that defenders rarely investigate gambits that might be - or might have been - played against them. This is a dangerous assumption!)

    But here's the kicker: if you amass a lot of study, practice and experience with a good variation, then guess what? You'll do well there, too. In fact, you might be even more successful, for several reasons. First, you're not giving your opponent a headstart: you get a good position even if your opponent is well-prepared (no real risk), and an advantage if they go awry. Second, if your opponent is the sort of player who spends their time looking at junk openings, then they will be comparatively underprepared for quality openings. Third, when you're known as a player who uses real openings, a pretty good chunk of your opponents will panic and play something awful in the hopes of avoiding your knoweldge. In that case, so much the better: after a little while, you'll know all the usual junk lines and it will be you who gets the headstart, not your opponent!

    Now, sometimes the cheap, trappy line will work. That's true. But overall, it's better - both for one's improvement and one's results - to avoid the junk and capitalize when your opponent trots it out. As a wise chess player once said, it's (generally) better to sacrifice your opponent's pieces.

    Note: I'm not telling anyone what to play. If you like to play trappy stuff, then play it. I'm not the chess openings Pope offering an ex cathedra pronouncement. I'm critiquing one argument for playing trappy lines, nothing more. Also, please don't write to defend this or that opening. Here's my handy definition: if White is at best slightly worse against best play or Black clearly worse, then those lines are junk. What openings fall under that header is something I'll leave up to you. (Alright, I'll offer one example: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5?? 3.Nxe5+-. That one's just too easy.)

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    Reader Comments (21)

    You have often advocated main lines, but what about slightly offbeat, but basically sound openings like the King's Gambit, Schliemann Ruy, Vienna Game, Closed Sicillian, Gran Prix Attack, Trompowski Attack, Tchigorin QGD, etc.?

    White can pretty much be assured of equality with best play in most of these White lines, many unclear positions that would benefit the better prepared player. On the Black lines, these don't typically fall into sterile equality. Even when Black has an uphill battle here, the well prepared player should be able to hold the balance.

    I can't immediately locate my old copy of Spielmann's The Art of Sacrifice in Chess. I recall the author gives his reasons why the attacker has an easier time than the defender. Perhaps Spielmann was biased towards giving a justification for his style, but I thought his reasons sounded pretty convincing when I read it.

    I play the Ruy Berlin myself. I've been playing it since the mid-80s, when it was hardly a "main line". Sometimes, you have to wait for the main lines to catch up to your sidelines.

    June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJordan Henderson

    Well, the stuff you mention isn't trappy junk. Heck, Dennis plays (played?) the Schliemann, and the Trompowski, Grand Prix, and Chigorin are all perfectly respectable openings that see play in Super-GM games. The Benoni is popular again!!!

    There's a difference between unpopular but theoretically viable lines (Berlin/Schliemann, Chigorin) and trappy junk (Englund, Latvian, etc.

    June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSchroedinger

    the benoni is still junk regardless of resurging popularity.,... I've not seen a single Super GM game yet where I'd want black's position after the opening stage.

    At any rate, I find it best to mix mainlines with sidelines both for the value of fun (that is why we play after all?) and to keep the locals I play all the time guessing. Most of my sidelines though provide white at least equality in their gambits not =+

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

    The Schliemann is += at worst, so it doesn't count as junk. The point of my piece, again, wasn't to single out any opening (excepting the mandatory cheap shot at the Latvian, which really does deserve it), but to take a crack at junk openings in general. I've given my general definition, which seems to me sufficient for the purpose at hand.

    Schroedinger: I agree with your general assessments of the first paragraph and the distinction made in the second. Some minor points, however: (1) the Berlin is extremely popular - strong and super-GMs use this all the time. It's not at the level of the Slav or Najdorf, but it's a major opening nowadays. (2) The Tromp, Grand Prix and Chigorin are all very rare birds at the top. There was a brief flurry of interest in the Chigorin thanks to Morozevich, but I can't remember the last time I saw it. Also, the Schliemann seems to have passed its day as well: Radjabov seemed to show that it was viable, but only as a way to suffer for a draw, nothing more. Black desperately needs some new ideas if he wants to play it as anything more than a poor man's Petroff against a well-prepared opponent.

    Jordan: I'm not sure White equalizes in the KG, and definitely don't trust the Chigorin. I think all the openings you mention are basically playable, though, and entertaining as occasional weapons. I don't think they're terribly efficient as main weapons, and some of them are rather boring to me. But who cares? If you like them, play them.

    And again - to everyone - if you like junk openings, play them! My point isn't about what I like or think should be played. It's mainly about authorial bovine scatology. If you want to write a book on the Englund Gambit, be honest and title it "Losing With 1.d4 e5?" Don't tell us how many three year old children got mated on c1, or give us a pep talk about how White players will overextend themselves against this opening. Admit that it's garbage, show the kinds of things Black can hope for, AND tell us how to try to minimize the damage against well-prepared opponents (e.g. those who spent 15 seconds looking it up in any competent reference work). Warn us, wish us luck, and call it a day.

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDennis Monokroussos

    Indeed, dedicating a lot of time to dubious variations is, generally, a waste of time but there is one more point. Why should there be ONE optimal strategy for every player? (Sounds like economics.) Evolution does not work this way. There is room for sidelines, so to speak. The less predictable one´s choice of a certain dubious variation is, the less known it is, and the trickier it is, the better for the adventurous player! Just think of Topalov´s knight sacrifice against Kramnik. Or wild pigs: some of them enter cities on occasion. No good permanent job, quite risky, but not stupid.

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHamburgaci

    The last time I remember seeing the Chigorin was in May this year - maybe not current toppest level, but a game between a former and (possibly) a future WCh candidate: game 4 of the Giri-Short match in Amsterdam. Short (playing black) lost that one, but had scored 1.5/2 with white with King's Gambit and Trompowsky. The fourth game was a - comparatively mainstream - Benoni. Games can be found at
    http://www.chessvibes.com/reports/video-euwe-matches-in-amsterdam/

    At amateur level (didn't Short refer to himself as "just a happy amateur"!?) the motivation to play offbeat and somewhat dubious openings may mostly be just to have fun - and the lower the level, the more promising it will be to gamble that the opponent is unprepared. You may even play such stuff regularly and face known reputations only once in a while ... .
    German IM and semi-prof (making some money from chess, but also following university studies) Ilja Schneider regularly plays the Colorado (1.e4 Nc6 2.Nf3 f5) and, on average, gets away with it. This may be an improved version of the Latvian, but presumably still fits Dennis' definition?

    But of course Dennis didn't criticize players, but authors who recommend dubious openings with dubious arguments - which makes perfect sense to me.

    [Says someone with - self-proclaimed - reasonable knowledge of mainstream openings at 2000ish amateur level, who easily gets confused when confronted with supposed garbage openings]

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

    Couldn't agree more. Gary Lane wrote recently on the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit on ChessCafe.com, apparently at the request of some readers. While I understand why it's popular on Internet chess servers, what I can't understand is the sheer passion that its devotees are ready to advocate the gambit with. Perhaps no other opening has this much fanatics, who would sell their soul to prove it to be instant +-. Um, what? IM Lane quotes a letter from one of them, who is currently writing a book on it. He apparently believes it to be a good, attacking opening to play in serious competition.

    Anyway, I took a look at Amazon and found two books that I think illustrate well the point you're making: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blackmar-Diemer-Gambit-Keybook-II/dp/1886846146/ and http://www.amazon.co.uk/Latvian-Gambit-Lives-Tony-Kosten/dp/0713486295/ . What amazes me is not that somebody actually bothered to write such a book (on the contrary, I think it's great as long as there are people who wish to read it), but the tone of reviews. It's not that the reviewers like the book (again: good for them), it's that if you scratched the book title from the reviews, you could never guess it's not about a serious opening. You could easily think the book is on the Anti-Moscow or some other super-sharp GM line, because the players of those gambits often talk about them just as if they were talking about the Ruy Lopez.

    (And BTW, I do play the Latvian, the BDG, or even 1.f3 e5 2.Kf2 or the Four Knights with 4.Nxe5, once every five hundred blitz games with friends in a pub and find it good fun. I'm just agreeing with what Dennis said on defending those openings as a path to advantage.)

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKajetan Wandowicz

    Dennis,

    I actually play none of those openings, well, I have been known to play a Closed Sicillian as a transposition from a g3 anti-Pirc and I used to play the Gran Prix, so I might consider playing that. I was just asking the general question about sidelines vs. mainlines.

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJordan Henderson

    Oooohh poor Dennis, did someone whipped the board with you in Englund???
    If you want to write something about Englund Gambit just be honest and say it - "I have no clue what's going on! " , wish us luck, and call it a day. Just because you don't see / understand beautiful strategic concept behind this marvelous opening it doesnt mean that you have to spoill fun for everybody else.

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarco Trollo

    @Marco

    Its common knowledge the Englund is refuted and its tantamount to black resigning. There is no need to hate on Dennis for stating it.

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

    @Daniel: are you familiar with the concept of irony? :-)

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKajetan Wandowicz

    Of course, but I think you mean the word sarcastic. In this case, I believe the fellow is not being either sarcastic or ironic but vindictive as though Dennis struck a nerve insulting his pet line.

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

    It wouldn't really matter if I had lost a game against the Englund Gambit, but anyway the answer to Marco is no. I've never faced it in a tournament, and I'm 1-0 (in about 14 moves) against it in correspondence. Similarly, I've only faced the Latvian once over the board, and it gave me my first ever win against a 2300 (I was a 2100 player at the time). I do see it occasionally in blitz, and while it's possible that I lost to it once upon a time, I can't remember not beating it.

    It wouldn't matter if I had lost to either opening, though. All of us have won lost positions and blown winning ones, so if that were to happen against the Latvian or Englund Gambits it wouldn't prove that they were good openings.

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDennis Monokroussos

    Whether the attacker or the defender has it easy usually depends on the position. Usually the ones with White as the attacker, he needs to only play cliched moves, e.g. in a Blackmar-Diemer or Smith-Morra, whereas the defender has to be more careful. If the opening is super-sharp like an Ulvestad two knights then neither side has it easy. Long-term compensation for a gambit can also mean only that it is easier to play with the initiative. The argument then is that the decisive mistake in the game is more likely to be on the side which is harder to play.

    A position can also be more difficult to play because it is unusual, like in the Englund gambit. This is why opening novelties have a lifespan, where players lose in unfamiliar positions until they become familiar positions.

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTodd

    I found my copy of Spielmann's The Art of Sacrifice in Chess, c. 1951 Fred Reinfeld and I.A. Horowitz. Here are the relevant quotes. Emphasis below is in from the text, not mine.
    From page 44-46:


    Just as the battle between the numerically superior side and the better-developed forces is about to begin, the defender (White) makes a mistake which tips the scales clearly in the attacker's favor. "Then," many will say, "this game is a poor one, and of little use as an example." On the contrary! The game is a good illustration precisely because of the mistake. For it is a typical mistake.


    Practical play adduces evidence that errors occur far more frequently in defense than in attack. This is particularly the case when the defender has to solve unusual problems. In this game the unusual problem is that not only the lack of development is to be remedied, but that the material advantage is to be preserved at the same time. It would not be satisfactory to expedite development by giving back the Pawn, for Black would still have his two Bishops. Though the task was possibly not insuperable, it was certainly one of extreme difficulty.

    For over the board the moral effect of the attack plays an important role. This effect, experience teaches us, is particularly acute after a sacrifice. The reasons are technical as well as psychological. The attacker's troops are well deployed for the battle, he commands great freedom of space, he can carry out lightning changes of venue and of tactics, and in consequence, besides the main object, he can pursue all kinds of subsidiary schemes. The defender is limited to striving to see through his opponent's plans and often he can only guess their purpose. At best he can espy some flaw in the enemy front. This task requires far more care and willpower, it is therefore more taxing and frequently leads to a weakening of the power of resistance; either the problems become too difficult or all faith in his position are lost.

    and p. 156:


    I cannot emphasize often enough, that in practical play, the scale is turned not by the objective state of affairs, but rather by the relative difficulty of the problem which has to be solved. If the task is particularly arduous, then the player will generally fail, even if, objectively, matters are in his favor.

    This seems reasonable to me and I would think that this intimidation and pressuring of the defender would only be amplified when the players are weaker, club players. Certainly, the club player more often involves himself in studying beautiful attacks rather than stubborn defensive masterpieces and would be more familiar with the patterns of attack.

    Even at higher levels, couldn't it be said that Tal won more than a few games because the problems of defense could not be solved across the board?

    Having said all that, I have to submit that I don't myself play for the cheap attack. A weaker player down at the club recently said to me that he enjoyed playing against me because I play logically and don't go for the quick kill. I sometimes wonder if I shouldn't develop some sharper openings, though.

    June 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJordan Henderson

    Why do people play junk openings? I don't think it has much to do with advertising or advocacy. I was thinking of some psychological factors that might be part of it.

    - They are easy to learn, because you get to play your familiar positions.

    - It is a player's pet line. In some sense it's his/her "special thing", something unique from other, ordinary players.

    - At amateur level there's positive reinforcement when playing trappy opening lines. Many weak players fall into the traps, and it seems that one gets good results. (The problem is that in case of improvement, the better opponents will not be so cooperative, and the time would have been better spent with real openings.)

    Another interesting question is how people choose their openings in general. Why someone is playing the QGD and someone else likes the KID. How many players actually have found their opening repertoire by some selection method? Or is it just about what one feels or likes?

    June 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertikru

    I really enjoy the book Unorthodox Openings by Benjamin and Schiller. It's dated now, but it classifies unusual openings as Good (may not be best, but certainly playable), Bad (not good, refutable) and Ugly (probably suspect, but no clear refutation available).

    What really classifies as Junk? Are there bright lines? I bet someone who studied the Muzio gambit in depth would win 80% at the club level. Of course, in practice many club players seem to have an offbeat, but good, anti-KG line like the Fischer Defense, Falkbeer, Modern (1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 d5) or Cunningham ( 3 ... Be7) prepared against the KG. Would we classify the Muzio as junk?

    How about the Tchigorin French? 1. e4 e6 2. Qe2. This is Good in the Benjamin/Schiller book and usually results in a KIA formation. It's certainly offbeat, but is it junk?

    June 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJordan Henderson

    I have hosted a blog on the atavistic and properly maligned Jerome Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.Bxf7+) with daily posts for almost two years now (jeromegambit.blogspot.com). Check it out: there is no pretending that the opening is any good. (Bizarre? Grotesque? Cro Magnon?)

    My original fascination was historical, and I play the Jerome for reasons both psychological (How, exactly, does one lose to such a monstrosity?) and tactical (Is there any way out of this mess??) -- not to omit the fun factor as well. For blitz, off-hand or casual games -- or for giving "odds" to a less experienced player -- the Jerome Gambit is a hoot. And, as a chess friend who plays chess, including the Jerome, in a local bar, says: win or lose, either way, it's over quickly...

    What intrigues me as I collect examples of Jerome Gambit games from around the world is how many club players sac that Bishop at f7 over and over again -- but tell me that they've never heard of the Jerome. "Oh, it has a name? I was just starting the game off with a bang..."

    The USCF's Chess Life for Kids just came out with its June 2010 issue, and includes my article "The Worst Chess Opening Ever" -- on the Jerome Gambit. Part 1 has some interesting games. Part 2 next month will have more focused analysis. My goal is to drag this "it really is an opening?" into the light of day, show how Black's reacting poorly can lead to disaster while reacting properly can lead to a win for the second player.

    I am not sure, as my latest blog post indicates, whether this will serve as a "warning" or a "menace".

    June 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRick Kennedy

    So what is the main line refutation(?) of the Latvian?

    June 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRich Kmiec

    Jordan,

    I already offered a definition of "junk" in the last paragraph of the post. As I intend the term (in this context), it refers to any opening that that leaves White at best slightly worse or Black clearly worse, assuming best play by both sides. I could add that such openings are generally played in the hopes of winning with either a pretty simple trap or with a stereotyped plan based on apishly following some string of moves.

    In this context, then, there's absolutely no reason to think Chigorin's 2.Qe2 vs. the French counts as junk. It's not the main line, that's for sure, but as I didn't equate "junk" and "non-main line" I'm not sure why you'd offer the example. The Muzio is more interesting. Does Black have a clear path to an advantage there that's well-known to theory? If so, and White knows it, then it is at least junk-ish, though I hate to denigrate such a fascinating and historically interesting variation. (But IS there such a path?)

    Rick,

    Yes, I believe we discussed the Jerome Gambit a long time ago, maybe on my original blog, in the context of some posts I wrote on an old Blackburne game - the one that ends with the Blackburne mate. It's kind of shocking to me that 10.Qd8 could hold, but I think it does (though only a draw). Anyway, sure, the gambit is bad, but I think it's good for kids and new players to have some fun trying and analyzing it.

    Rich,

    Looking you up on the USCF ratings page, I see that you're a pretty respectable 2150. As such, I don't think you really need me to tell you what the books say, or to point out that their negative evaluations are well-confirmed both by tournament practice and computer evaluations. If your aim is to pick some sort of theoretical fight over this, then all I can say is that I'm not interested. I engaged in a long internet debate with James West over his interpretation of the Philidor Gambit, but even though ten out of ten times I found paths to clear advantages (or more) for White, and it was always he who had to vary in the next analytical go-round, I was unable to persuade him that his line was even dubious, let alone bad. So I see no value in going through this again.

    On the other hand, if we ever play in a tournament and have the White pieces, I'll happily play 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 against you if you want to play 2...f5 in response. If, however, you're just reacting to my claim that White is winning after 2...f5, I'll acknowledge that it's a bit hyperbolic. I do think White is clearly better after 2...f5, but not winning...yet.

    June 5, 2010 | Registered CommenterDennis Monokroussos

    I especially like Dennis' point that opponents may panic if they think you know the main line, and so they play outright inferior moves. Even if you don't play accurately, you can still get a good game against some (many?) inferior moves, and if you do play accurately, so much the better.

    I used to play the Møller Attack (Italian Opening with 7. Nc3?!), Bird's Opening, and other non-main lines simply to avoid popular theory. Since I started playing popular openings in correspondence, I've found that I can play the same openings OTB and get middlegame positions where I'm no longer fighting for equality as White. Plus, by not avoiding main lines, I give myself options to transpose between related systems rather than playing disparate side lines.

    Maybe I should write "Losing with 1. d4 e5?" and see if anyone buys it. It can't be too difficult to write a book on an opening whose evaluation is well-known.

    June 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel D

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