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    « My Response to Mackenzie's Reply | Main | Karjakin-Nepomniachtchi Blitz Match Videos »
    Tuesday
    Jan112011

    Dana Mackenzie's Opening Philosophy, And Why You Shouldn't Follow It

    Dana Mackenzie, a national master and (formerly?) one of my colleagues over at ChessLecture.com, has written an interesting article on his blog expressing his opening philosophy, or at least those parts of it that apply to players rated below 2200 (HT: Brian Karen). There are four parts to it, which I quote:

    1. Opening theory is a scam (if you are rated under 2400).
    2. Do your own opening analysis!
    3. Make the opponent think for himself.
    4. Look for good developing moves that just happen to be less popular than the main line.

    Let's take a closer look at his first point, which certainly needs elaboration; after all, the remaining points all involve the creation and use of opening theory. Presumably he's not inviting his readers to join in the scamming, so he must have something particular in mind when he refers to "opening theory" in the first point.

    He begins with a quote from GM Jesse Kraai, who says that when a player crosses 2400, "Now is the time to take the openings seriously." Mackenzie seems to approve of this comment, but it's hard to see how he could, given points 2-4. Creating one's own opening theory (point 2), based on both psychological (point 3) and pragmatic (point 4) considerations certainly seems to involve taking openings seriously. Mackenzie's program would seem pretty involved:

    In one order or another, you'd have to think up some lines, and/or come up with some lines that are reasonable and will create non-trivial problems for one's opponent while not being the absolute main variations. Further, in addition to research and independent analysis, Mackenzie suggests that those following his advice do their due diligence and computer-check their results. That's a lot of work, and if this isn't taking opening seriously, I don't know what is.

    Compare this, for instance, to what many people do with the opening books they buy from those scamming GMs, who in his words "make a living off of our pathetic belief that if we just knew the openings a little bit better, we could play as well as they do." Most of the people suffering this cognitive delusion buy the books, look for lines that look entertaining, play over some of the illustrative games and main lines, and then go out there half-cocked with their very fragmented understanding. After a bad result, they will check with the book to see what they did wrong, and if they don't end up with successes soon enough, they'll move on to the next book and the next opening.

    My strong impression of amateur chess is that although they give lip service to the importance of opening theory, they really don't care about it very much. (I'm speaking very generally here, of course.) Speaking generally, their research is superficial and perhaps based on a get-rich-quick sort of mindset. An amateur who followed Mackenzie's approach would spend far more energy on the opening than he had on the previous model of "study". So I think we're forced to say one of two things about Mackenzie's first point, at least as illuminated by the Kraai quote. First, either he's guilty of quote mining, but without realizing that his point is exactly the opposite of Kraai's, or else he's engaging in what he takes to be a "noble lie". In other words, he doesn't believe for a moment that studying openings is unimportant for sub-2400s, but by misleadingly framing an arduous suggestion as hip, radical and labor-saving he hopes that his readers will be more easily persuaded to do what's good for them.

    So it's hard to take his first point seriously as stated. What I think he really means is this: opening theory is important, but you should create your theory and not waste your time and money on opening books written by GMs (allegedly for 2400s). That's a very different thesis, and now we should ask if it's true or at least plausible. He offers the following points in its favor:

    1. This is what GMs themselves do: they don't memorize; they create!

    2. When you create your own theory, you'll of course know why you're making the moves you do - this might not be true when you're following someone else's work that you've just memorized.

    3. Your opponent won't understand it, because this is your invention, not something he's just memorized.

    I think there's something to be said in favor of each of these points, and I don't reject want to reject any of them wholesale. There is nothing wrong with trying to create one's own theory, both on pragmatic grounds and because it will help a player develop. As an apologia for rejecting mainstream opening theory, books and the like, however, this is radically wrong, and I'll explain why with the help of a story.

    Once upon a time, when I was a young teenager trying to make my bones, I started out as one expert among many and made it to master long before the others did. While I wasn't a walking opening encyclopedia by any means, I did pay some attention to theory and to GM games in general, sometimes learning by design and sometimes learning by osmosis. Apparently even my relatively limited work on theory exceeded theirs, and some of my then-fellow experts would rather dismissively put down my successes against them to my being a "book" player.

    At the time, this really bothered me. It gave me a chip on my shoulder too, and accelerated the rate at which I left them in the dust. (Generally speaking, "dissing" me wasn't an effective psychological ploy, at least not for those interested in improving their expected score.) But more to the point, I felt that it denigrated my overall abilities. The opening is fine, but you still have to play after that. Further, if being a "book" player is something so worthy of dismissal, then why didn't they just spend a little time with a book (or two or ten or 100) and catch up to me?

    While the chip on my shoulder proved effective, I think my mindset was wrong. Rather than feeling belittled, I should have seen it as a backhanded compliment: they recognized that I was willing to learn from others, and apparently they weren't. Think of Bobby Fischer, for instance. He was almost definitely the greatest player ever as of 1972, and if anyone ever could have proclaimed his independence of all other chess players, it would have been him. Instead, we find just the opposite. He was rapacious and voracious, devouring chess literature wherever he could, and on all phases of the game. It could have been a women's game in a Russian chess magazine or an old opening book with Steinitz's analysis; it didn't matter. He would take it, read it, master what was there to be mastered and move on to something else. And this didn't just happen once he was great; he was a vacuum cleaner for chess material from the first possible opportunity, years before he reached 2400 strength.

    So sure, of course, if all someone does with an opening book is look at the blotches of ink, hoping that the latest sacrifice of $25-$30 will work its magic, then yes: that's a foolish approach that will lead nowhere. But many if not most opening books do try to explain what's going on at a level a middle-to-upper middle level club player can understand. It won't do it perfectly - if it could, then it would be a pretty boring and simple opening. But it's something, it's a start, and if a player is thoughtful about what's written and thinks about it in the context of what happens in his own games, he'll make progress.

    Ideally, a player should combine book study with the sort of independent analysis Mackenzie advocates. Indeed, this is probably the best way to learn, because if you analyze some mainstream variation on your own, you can then compare it to what happened in dozens if not hundreds of games (or more), and you'll see the questions that you had while you were analyzing get answered by strong players in real life. You get more feedback then you would from a handful of club games in your pet sideline. And the biggest benefit of this is not that you get a stronger opening repertoire, but that you learn more chess. This is the biggest advantage of playing and studying at least relatively mainstream lines, and conversely is the biggest detriment to those who wallow in the backwaters.

    In fact, this is why I developed faster than my peers. It wasn't my brilliant opening knowledge. In fact, the most anti-book among them probably knew their eccentric lines better than I knew my mainstream variations. Rather, the difference was that I looked at a lot of games in a lot of openings, and had some idea of how to play many different kinds of positions, while their knowledge was generally restricted to their homemade brews. Maybe they would average, say, 60-40 against me when they could get one of "their" positions, but I knew so many more kinds of positions that even if I had to make minor concessions to get there, my 60-40 advantage in 90% of the games made me a big favorite overall.

    One more point. When studied properly, knowing openings really means knowing middlegames, and sometimes even knowing endings. This won't be true when "studying" openings means getting out MCO, memorizing 10 moves, and putting the book away. But most of the books sold by those "scamming" GMs (and their IM colleagues) go much deeper. They are deeper not just, or primarily, in the move count, but in terms of ideas, plans, structures, the relevant pieces to exchange or not exchange, etc. A good opening book aimed at the club level will give you the information you need in many cases to understand (not memorize!) the way to handle a position to move 20 and beyond. This will often be explained in words and illustrated with games, and the point of the variations is rarely to memorize a magic formula but to show the way strong players think you're most likely to achieve the typical aims.

    The bottom line, then, is this. Significant parts of Mackenzie's advice are valuable - you should analyze on your own, you should look for new moves, you should not blindly memorize what you don't understand - and these points should be adopted. Where he's wrong, however - desperately wrong - is in steering readers from others' opening works. The word for someone who only learns from his own mistakes isn't "genius", it's "fool". Don't be one!

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    Reader Comments (12)

    Brilliant rebuttal. In fact, some opening books are wonderful collections of carefully annotated games. If learning an opening motivates someone to go through master games (from beginning to end), that has to be a real win.

    January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFreelix

    Hey, why rely on the teachings of experienced GMs when you can do it all yourself from scratch? Never mind chess- you only have to look at events like the Great Leap Forward, Jonestown and Year Zero to see the potential rewards of this approach to life in general…

    As you perhaps infer in your commentary, the ‘Mackenzie Plan’ sounds to me like an espousal of playing trashy openings by the back door. Mainstream opening variations aren’t mainstream just because fashionable GMs tell us to play them- they tend to be the best from general chess principles. Play them & you will become a better overall middlegame player.

    [DM: I don't mean to imply that he's advocating trash, but something more like "invent your own sidelines". Maybe he could have given an example - perhaps your inference is correct, but that's not how I took it.]

    January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick Funnell

    Interesting post. I tend to agree with John Cox in his Starting Out book on 1.d4 that all players should play the mainlines, more or less irrespective of whether they know the theory or not.

    January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom

    I am writing to endorse what you say inyour response. In the UK there are a number of books guides that encourgae players to take an anti theoretical approach. The problem is that openings are non theoretical because they are bad!! A typical example is the Blackmar-Diemer. Club players are encouraged to play this and other dodgy gambits, generally feel uncomfortable in the positions they get to lash out and lose, after a few negative experiences they move on to the next quick fix.
    So my advice is to get a solid repetoire based on a book by a decent author. Play through some games to pick up the basic plans. Do not be put off by the odd bad result. Not always good at following this but I have been surprised by the number of times when I have that it is the IM or GM doesn't remember the theory and who deviates into non threatening lines.

    January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike Twyble

    "Brilliant rebuttal"? It doesn't seem to me Dennis is "rebutting" MacKenzie at all--on the contrary, his conclusion is that MacKenize makes mostly sound (if sometimes insufficiently clear) points, with only one significant error.

    Having read MacKenzie's article, I would tend to agree with his point of view, with one exception: I agree with Dennis that "scam" is an inappropriate word to use of GM opening books, and that most opening books are aimed, not at 2400+ players as Dana suggested, but at the rank and file.

    The most valuable part of MacKenzie's advice is that it advocates creativity and the use of one's own imagination: a very important part of chess, which I think is lacking from most players' mindsets these days. Instead of analyzing and flexing their own brains, players all-too-often use computers to do their thinking for them, which to me is analagous to watching TV rather than exercising, yet expecting your muscles to grow. What Dana suggests is that we use our own minds, come up with our own ideas, and that's excellent advice.

    January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterResden Boneur

    I guess Jesse Kraai just meant that players below 2400 do not need to memorize ultra-theoretical lines (way) beyond move 20? Or at least Mackenzie interprets him like this, there is no context for the Kraai quote.
    I agree with Dennis that opening books, at least good ones, are still valuable - for amateurs primarily as middlegame tutorials? Typical games and plans in a given variation/position/(pawn) structure are more important than precise move orders and subvariation A1b5 ... .
    I don't think Mackenzie recommends dodgy or trashy lines, if anything it might come down to tame sidelines, e.g. 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 is a "good developing move". Which openings does he play himself??

    January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

    Resden,

    Trust me, I'm rebutting him! I'd also disagree with your thesis about creativity. It's a virtue, but not the supreme one. I'd rather be a little creative within a context of knowing what I'm doing, then very creative against a background of knowing nothing. Where I do agree with Mackenzie is on the value of engaging one's mind, but I not only think that this shouldn't be done at the cost of learning from others, I'd say that one will engage one's mind far more by studying main line positions, as you can then test your thinking against that of better players.

    January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDennis Monokroussos

    Mhm.. the old opening debate. First of all, you must take the opening seriously. It's a part of the game you'll never be able to avoid unless your opponent pulls a Fischer on you and doesn't show or something. It's easy to get very caught up in the latest of the latest theoretical lines, even if they don't change very often. For a sub-2000FIDE player, I don't think it's that benificial to be able to play the Najdorf with the latest novelty that helps black survive on move 30. But to dismiss opening theory as a hoax is equally silly.
    There are a lot of authors will "window-dress" their books (from overly optimistic analysis to deliberate omissions and misinformation) to sell their books. "Caveat lector" as the saying goes.

    Creating your own opening analysis is very beneficial. I've done my share of that and it's fun and quite educational, helped me understand why things work the way they do. The opening is the door to your middlegame plan and may serve as a foundation to the endgame. When using my own lines, I'm more motivated to play my best because I'm having more fun. I won't care if it is a sideline of a sideline, it'll be my sideline and I'll be better acquainted with the themes and ideas.
    That said, there are degrees to creating opening analysis. I have a few lines, mostly they're not beyond 15 moves into the game. They're not deeply researched, but have a sound strategical justification. On GM Simon Williams's DVD 'The Killer Dutch' there was a line starting 1. d4 f5 2. Bg5 h6 3. Bh4 g5 4. e4 Rh7 5. Qh5+ Rf7 which filled me with pride when I saw it because I've been playing that for years.

    Making the opponent think for himself is good.. and bad. If my opponent is rattling off a GM line he's got all the ins and outs on and I'm struggling to find the correct moves, I'll be at a disadvantage. If my opponent is actively thinking on his own every move, looking in depth at everything I do, that would be good for my opponent. There are players who'll just move pieces without thinking for themselves, but they're in the minority. What I think Mackenzie meant was players who don't stop to look and really get into the position in the opening; there's no escaping that if you want to get to master I think. Alas, this eats up a ton of clock time one might need to survive the rest of the game!

    Looking through my opening reportoire, I find a lot of sidelines, anti-lines and systems. I play the Chekhover Sicilian against 2. ... d6, the Rossolimo Sicilian against 2. ... Nc6, a delayed Alapin against 2. ... e6 and most other Sicilians. In the French I play the Alekhine-Chatard and Bogoljubow's line in the Winawer with the early Bd2-Nb5. I play the Byrne or a very much accelerated Austrian against the Pirc and I rather like the Dutch Defense. I like 3. Bb5+ against the 2. ... Nf6 Scandinavian and systems with an early Bc4 and late Nf3/Nge2 in Qxd5 lines.
    Then again, I play a fairly normal Ruy Lopez with white (sidelining in the Open with 5. Re1) and main lines in the Caro-Kann. Defending the Scotch I play out main lines as well. Somewhat on the fence are the Fritz and Ulvestadt Two Knights, the Petrov 3. Nxe4 d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4 5. Nc3.
    I try to find a middleground between seat-of-the-pants openings and opening science. My time is finite, so I'll have to prioritize and I do have other activities :-)

    (Here endeth the rant.)

    January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPerseus

    To anyone who's interested, I've posted a reply to Dennis on my blog. I hope it's not too much of a cop-out to say that different opening philosophies work for different people, and in the end you should choose what works for you. What my philosophy does, I hope, is give under-2200s permission to work out their own ideas (something that I think the chess establishment strongly discourages). Also, I think it gives amateurs a reason *not* to spend hundreds of dollars on books -- as I know some of them do -- that are not going to be of any use to them.

    To carry the discussion further, I think some specifics might be helpful. My "philosophy" post was actually a preamble to a series where I discussed Bird's Variation of the Ruy Lopez. This is one of the prime examples in my chess experience of a variation that conventional wisdom does not like, but in which I was able to find some ideas on my own. Dennis, perhaps it would be a useful service to your readers to mention some books that exemplify the understanding-based approach to openings that you recommend. I'll mention one that I like: Jonathan Rowson's "Understanding the Grunfeld." However, I still don't play the Grunfeld. What I got out of it was not "This is the opening I want to play," but "This is what it means to dissect an opening."

    Your opening library must be much larger than mine, since I mostly don't read opening books. What opening books do you consider exemplary?

    January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDana Mackenzie

    Dana,

    Thanks for the reply and the clarifications.

    Let me start to answer your question about exemplary opening books by noting that it's person-relative. Boris Avrukh's books are great, for instance, but only for very strong players. It would be ridiculous for an average club player to buy his books, because they presuppose a high level of sophistication; Avrukh assumes his readers will understood why their side is better and will know what to do from the end of his lines. But there are opening books that aim a bit lower and hit the target. One that especially comes to mind is Aagaard's relatively old book on the Panov-Botvinnik Attack in the Caro-Kann, because of the excellent introductory chapter on the endgame that arises in the 5...Nc6 line. You study such a chapter, and you learn a lot about chess. In a similar vein, Cox's book on the Berlin has as even better chapter on typical Berlin endgames.

    Marin's opening books are outstanding. They're written primarily for serious players too, but I think a 1900 - not just 2400s - will gain tremendously by working through them. Rowson's Gruenfeld book is, as you say, a very good one. Watson is a reliable (if slightly dry) author, and I've liked Schandorff's works too. Shipov's book on the Hedgehog is relatively accessible and very readable, and Yusupov's relatively old book on the Petroff is a model in its way, too. I'm in the 2300-2400 range, but all of the books I've mentioned strike me as valuable to a broader range of readers. Doubtless there are many more, but those come to mind upon a few minutes' thought.

    January 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterDennis Monokroussos

    I would add Matthew Sadler's excellent book on the Queen's Gambit declined to Dennis's list.

    It strikes me that Morozevich is am example of a player who follows Dana's opening philosophy, although most GMs have an approach closer to Dennis's opening philosophy. But, of course, even Morozevich has to be up to date on the theory in his pet lines.

    [DM: I'd agree on Sadler - if I had remembered his book at the time, I'd have included it.]

    January 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenternaisortep

    More or less forced by circumstances I followed MacKenzie's advise: not buying any opening book, building my own repertoire, the only source being databses and my ols stuff.
    It didn't work. I began to appreciate and play 4.e3 vs. the NID a lot better after I had bought Carsten Hansen's book.

    So here is my two SRD.
    1) The only sensible advice is not to memorize moves. Fortunately I have always been blessed with a bad memory.
    2) Buying books and doing your own analysis perfectly can be combined.

    I haven't read MacKenzie's article entirely. It begins with a false dichotomy (see point 2) that I have seen many times before and I grow tired of it.

    January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMNb

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