I have been asked this question in person many times, and have seen this asked in a number of garden varieties on chess.com. Well, after 22 years of tournament play, almost 2800 games, and having played just about every "normal" opening known to man king except the White side of the London System, this article has the answer for you.
My First Twenty Years
Once upon a time, when I first became a full time tournament player in 1997, I had played the King's Indian Attack via 1.Nf3 as White, and the Pirc and King's Indian as Black. In essence, regardless of what my opponent did, I had the same pawn structure no matter what. This comes after a year and a half of playing the Queen's Gambit as White and the French and Queen's Gambit Declined as Black back in college, but didn't play in tournaments at that time. At first, it appeared to work. I had great results. However, it was quickly realized, after about six months, that I was beginning to get very laxidaisical with my play in the opening phase of the game, and played a number of really bad moves as I wasn't paying much attention to deviations. It was soon realized that while this "lazy" approach worked at first, it was stunting my growth because every position was the same. It wasn't forcing me to think for myself, and to remain alert when my opponent did something unusual.
After it was quickly realized that I needed some diversity in my game, I went back to playing the French Defense against 1.e4, went back to 1.d4 with White, and tried different openings against 1.d4 as Black, including the Grunfeld, Leningrad Dutch, and Nimzo-Indian Defense, mainly looking for something that I deemed playable. This worked out better than the lazy approach above in that I didn't play the exact same position every game with both colors, but there still was this problem of playing moves out of habit rather than thinking things through, which should be done, even in the opening.
So by late 1999, I head to the other extreme. I am playing every opening under the sun. I might play a single opening for two months, then change to something else for a month, then something else for another two months, and then change it again. The only thing that remained consistent was that I rarely went more then a few months without playing the French Defense as Black against 1.e4 up until 2007, and then really didn't play it again but with rare exception until 2014. It seemed to be the only real comfort zone for me. But by playing everything and jumping from the solid Slav Defense to the wild Modern Defense to the complicated Nimzo-Indian Defense to the aggressive King's Indian Defense to the somewhat dry Queen's Gambit Accepted to the Benko Gambit to the aggressive Grunfeld to this to that to this to that was just as bad as playing a single opening. The problem in this case was that while you are exposed to many different positions, you haven't played any of them enough times to actually understand them. You become a "Jack of all trades" when it comes to openings, and good at nothing! Sadly, I kept this approach up until late 2016.
So What Happened in Late 2016?
If anyone saw my library of books, you would see about 350 books, and probably 80 to 90 percent of them are opening books. Being of the thought that opening theory changes while forks, skewers, rook endgames, and many other items don't change, that the right answer was the study openings via books that use the complete game system, thinking that would solve the problem. It was then that I realized that what I thought I knew, I didn't. That changed the last two years, and taking a different approach to my studying, while my rating has not gone up in the last two years, which I attribute to growing pains while focusing more on the middle game and end game, many of my losses since late 2016 I was able to nail exactly what I did. Sure, every now and then, I'm still at a loss as to what happened, but a good 60 to 70 percent of my losses now I know PRECISELY what I did.
So what does this have to do with opening selection and whether or not to expand beyond one opening? If you understand positional strategy, the answer would come to you naturally. You don't want to play the exact same thing over and over again as you start playing moves out of habit rather than analyzing the position every time. You also don't want to try to play everything under the sun. The answer is that you want to play something in between. Most specifically, it is best to have two first moves as White that lead to diverse positions, and at least two openings against 1.e4 and 1.d4. That said, and this is where understanding the middle game comes into play, you don't want to just randomly pick two defenses to e4 (or d4). For example, against 1.d4, saying "I'm going to play the, uh, Queen's Gambit Declined and the, uh, Grunfeld Defense" is not wise. The ideas behind the resulting middle games are like oil and water. One is based on a light-square defense and looking to keep control of the e4-square while the other is about allowing White the big center and then trying to either break it up, or else forcing White to advance a pawn to weaken certain squares.
And so this means what?
This means that you should not only have multiple openings in your repertoire, but they should be openings with similar ideas. For example, let's take a look at the Grunfeld Defense. What can be said about the Grunfeld Defense? White gets a big center. Black looks to chip away at it. White does nothing to prevent White from taking the center. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3, White has pawns on both e4 and d4, and controls all the central squares. Black's thought is that he will hit the center with a move like ...c5 (very common in the Grunfeld), and try to chip away at White's center before White is ready as he spent the time building the big center while Black has kept a compact position and is trying to quickly develop his pieces and castle. Ok, so great, you have the Grunfeld. So what other opening should you play against 1.d4? The answer is that it's not random. You are comfortable with the hypermodern strategy and the idea of allowing White to over-extend himself. Which other openings lead to a space disadvantage for Black, but on the basis of chipping away at it and trying to prove White's over-extension to be weak? Breaking moves like ...c5 or ...e5 after White has committed to c4, d4, and e4, which makes the d4-square weak since the c-pawn and e-pawn have both passed the spot to guard d4? Would that be the Slav Defense? No, of course not! But what about the King's Indian Defense or Benoni Defense? They diversify your game enough to force you to concentrate on the position, but are similar enough to where the ideas are ideas that you are already familiar with from having played the Grunfeld.
Well, in my own situation, after having studied openings like the King's Indian Defense for a long time, I came to the conclusion that these hypermodern positions were causing me more problems than good, and a number of lines lead to major areas of discomfort. For example, I don't like Black after 13.Rc1 in the Mar Del Plata Variation of the King's Indian Defense. So I have since taken a more restrained approach. As a long time French player, Black's strong point is the d5-pawn. What does it do? It controls e4! Against 1.d4 I have played the Queen's Gambit Declined of late. What does it do? Controls e4! Ok, so you have an opening against 1.e4 and 1.d4. Time to expand. So again, I will ask the question. Which QP opening has many similar ideas to the Queen's Gambit Declined? The Queen's Gambit Declined sees a light-square complex by Black with a willingness to sacrifice the scope of his light-squared Bishop in order to prevent the move e4 by White and maintain a solid position. What else does the Queen's Gambit and offshoots of the Queen's Gambit Declined, like the Catalan, have as a common middlegame idea? The Isolated Queen Pawn! So we have the dynamic IQP structure as a frequent occurrence. We have the idea of controlling e4. What other Queen Pawn opening has these same ideas? Possibly the Nimzo-Indian? After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4, what is the point behind 3...Bb4? To stop e4 by White! After 4.e3 O-O 5.Nf3 d5 6.Bd3 c5, there are a number of different move orders here, but very common is for Black to take on c4 once the Bishop has been developed (a common QGD idea as well) where White recaptures with a piece, and Black will play ...cxd4 at some point and White will usually recapture with the pawn to control e5 and what do we have now? An IQP position. Trade Knights on c3 and you have an isloated pawn couplet. Another common structure in both openings. This is a prime example of finding two openings that mesh.
The game that we are going to look at will be a Nimzo-Indian, but we are going to look at it from the perspective of how it is similar to the Queen's Gambit Declined.
Tuesday Night Action 48, Round 2
W: Advaith Karthik (1970)
B: Patrick McCartney (2067)
1.d4 e6 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 c5 5.Bd3 Nc6 6.Nge2 cxd4 7.exd4 d5 8.O-O O-O 9.Bg5 dxc4 10.Bxc4 Be7
So notice that we have many similarities to the Queen's Gambit Declined here. White gets his frequent Isolated Queen Pawn. Black has his Bad Bishop on c8. Black held on to control of e4 until the trade on d4, where White no longer has a pawn on the e-file to claim the center, etc. Yet, there are a few slight differences. The most alarming is probably the Knights. The White Knight is usually on f3 instead of e2 in lines of the QGD where White does not exchange on d5, and the Black Knight on c6 is usually on d7 in most lines of the QGD. So Black has to think about what differences might occur from this position compared to the QGD. The idea of blocking the IQP is still the same. The best blocker is the Knight. White should attack on the Kingside, especially if the Black Knight on f6 is moved to d5 to block the isolated Pawn. Black wants to reach an endgame and get pieces off the board, typical of the goal when opposing the IQP. A space advantage has less value with fewer pieces on the board, and an isolated pawn becomes weaker the closer you are to an endgame. The Knight being on c6 instead of d7 is actually a plus, as we will see in the game.
Using the idea that the g5-Bishop is hanging to block the pawn. Once White trades Bishops, the other Knight will back up the first one, allowing a Knight to block the IQP until White wants to trade a second set of minor pieces, which benefits Black.
12.Bxe7 Ncxe7 13.Qd3 b6
Opening a path for Black's problem piece.
14.Nxd5 Nxd5 15.Bxd5 Qxd5 16.Nf4 Qg5
Gaining a tempo on the Knight and not allowing White to advance the d-pawn to eliminate the weakness.
Better than the passive 17...Rb8 or the unnecessary 17...Bb7 18.Qxb7 Qxf4 where White invades on the 7th rank.
18.Rfd8 Rad8 19.Rac1 Rd7 20.Qe3 Bb7 21.Qe5
So since move 10, Black has achieved almost exactly what he wanted. Again, against the IQP, you want to eliminate the minor pieces. Black has gotten rid of three sets of minor pieces. If the heavy pieces can be eliminated, all the better, but the main goal is the minor pieces. He has threats against the White King that is tying the Knight down to the f4-square. Now we have what is the final critical position of the game. The Black Queen is under attack. What should Black do? Should he trade Queens on e5? Should he keep the Queens on the board and move away? Or does he protect the Queen?
The only move that gives Black a significant advantage. There is no reason to take the Queen on e5 and straighten out White's pawns unless there is an immediate tactical threat that either wins material for Black or else gains control of a critical square, like maybe an intrusion point on the second rank. Neither applies here, and so taking the Queen gives Black nothing. Also, there is no reason to try to hold on to the queen. Going to g4 just puts the queen in a vulnerable spot and White will soon be able to gain another tempo, and there is clearly no reason to go passive with the Queen to a square like e7. There are a couple of added bonuses to the pawn move. It opens up a flight square for the Black king, and so there are no back rank threats. In addition, if White trades queens on g5, then the knight will be forced to move to a passive square, as well as a light square, which gives the bishop the opportunity to trade itself for the last White minor piece.
22.Qxg5 hxg5 23.Ne2 Rfd8 24.Rc2 Ba6
This is going to remove the last set of minor pieces. White should maybe think about moving his knight and surrendering the d-pawn without trading the minor pieces as there is no real way to hold on to the pawn anyway.
25.Rcd2 Bxe2 26.Rxe2 Rxd4 27.Rxd4 Rxd4
Often times a pawn is not enough in a single rook endgame, but this one is pretty elementary as White has nothing for the pawn, and it's the Black rook that's about to become active.
28.f3 Kh7 29.Kf2 Kg6 30.Ke3 Rd5 31.Rc2 a5 32.a4 b5 33.b3 b4 34.Rd2 Rc5
Black was not quite ready to trade. If the Black King were one square closer to the action, he would trade here. Keep that in mind a few moves from now.
35.Rd6 Kf6 36.Rd2 Rc3+ 37.Rd3 Rc2 38.Rd2
What was this we said about the King being a square closer? Now we snap the rook!
38...Rxd2! 39.Kxd2 Ke5 40.Kd3 Kd5 41.g4 e5 42.Ke3 g6 43.Kd3 f5 44.Kd3 f5 44.Ke3 fxg4 45.fxg4 e4 0-1
The position is completely winning for Black and so White Resigned.
So what have we learned from the article and the game?
- By playing multiple openings, we are forcing ourselves to always assess the position and look for the main features in the position and not just play moves out of habit because of the differences in the position.
- By playing multiple openings, we become less predictable against local players that we play against regularly.
- By selecting a second opening with many similarities to the other opening we play, many of the middle game ideas are the same, or at least similar. We saw here that many of the ideas in the lines of the Queen's Gambit Declined where White gets an IQP (usually lines where Black breaks with ...c5 rather than ...e5) also applied here. The blockade on the square in front of the IQP. The desire to trade minor pieces. Etc. Also, having the same problem piece, the light-squared bishop, allows us to use the ideas from the QGD to resolve our problem piece here. The control of e4 early on. So on and so forth. With all of these similarities, we are not having to re-invent the wheel. This conserves a lot of time on the clock.
- Re-iterating the first bullet, despite all the similarities, there were just enough differences, namely the location of the White king's knight and the Black queen's knight, to force ourselves to reassess the position, which will help us in catching errors and/or traps in the opening by White, which will save you a lot of points. By not giving away free points to your opponent due to an opening blunder, he is forced to execute a higher quantity of accurate moves to win or draw, which in turn gives him more room to error and increases your own odds at the full point.
- Lastly, on the flip side, do not try to play every opening under the sun, and do not try to match together openings that are so far apart like night and day. It results in you basically starting all over from square one. Having the ability to use ideas from another opening and applying it to the second opening you decide to learn cuts down tremendously on the necessary work while at the same time expands your knowledge of analyzing middle game structures and decision making at the board.
Til next time, good luck in your games.