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Friday, February 17, 2017
Openings and Average Players
The best moves aren't in the books. My mind went back to a 1972 game I played in the finals of the US Open Correspondence Championship (Chess Review's Golden Knights) in which my opponent was a Senior Master and former US Championship competitor. I had lost a game against him two years previously in the semi-finals and was determined not to lose when I met him again in the finals...fat chance of that happening, but I was hopeful.
I was playing white against his Najdorf Sicilian and was using an opening booklet on the Najdorf and following a line that was supposed to be equal for white. After my 17th move, according to the book, black was supposed to play 18...Nc5 with equality, but my opponent played 18...Ne5 and quickly got the advantage. A couple of moves before I resigned 10 moves later he asked if I had been been using that particular booklet and when I said yes, he commented that he thought so because there was a mistake in the analysis! I had already figured that out, but it was a valuable lesson. It suggests that Schroeder was right when he said the best moves are not usually in the books.
Curiously, I found one OTB game played in 1975 where we followed that postal game and I played the same 17th move! My opponent also found 18...Ne5, but fortunately he didn't follow it up correctly and ended up losing.
That got me to thinking. In my OTB games during that period how far did the average game get before one of us left the book? The sample was about 30 games against opponents ranging from about 1300 to master. In two games we left the book at move three thanks to offbeat openings (like 1.c3, for example). The longest were a Dragon Sicilian and five Najdorf Sicilians where we left the book at move 12 or 13. The average was 9-10 moves (not plies).
The average chess player usually can't remember reams of analysis and as this little experiment showed you are usually playing book moves whether you know it or not for maybe a quarter to a third of the game.
I also noticed that even when we left the book, with a couple of exceptions, the moves played were not "bad" as evaluated by an engine. The blunders came, but rarely in the opening.
As Schroeder observed, we are weak because we tend to study openings long before we can comprehend them and we should first become knowledgeable of 1) how to checkmate, 2) understand the endgame, 3) know all kinds of tactical patterns and 4) play through at least a thousand games. Only then should we study openings.
It's as Schroeder said, authors and even many coaches pander to their readers and students. Pander. I like that word! It means "provide gratification for others' desires." GM Alex Yermolinsky commented that chess coaches are often put in the position where they have to pander to their students...if they don't give the student what they want, they just quit or find another coach. And, students often think they know more about what they need than their coach and what they usually think they need is...opening knowledge. That's why the best sellers are opening books.