Matthew Lunn: Opening Surprises

10/8/2020 – In order to improve your tournament results you can focus on (i) endings; (ii) tactics; or (iii) openings. "I am an adherent of the third option," writes Matthew Lunn in CHESS Magazine, "not because I think it's the best way to improve my chess, but because I enjoy it." You too may share this approach after replaying some of the examples Matthew provides.

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Ben Johnson’s superb ‘Perpetual Chess Podcast’ includes a variety of advice on how to improve, and given the range of interviewees, this advice is often contradictory:

i. Focus on endings – this will have the biggest impact on your results, as you will convert promising positions and save worse ones.

ii. Focus on tactics – you will find opportunities throughout the game that your opponents will miss.

iii. Focus on openings – computers make it easy for your opponent to out prepare you, and extensive knowledge in a range of lines will enable you to spring traps of your own.

I am an adherent of the third option, not because I think it's the best way to improve my chess, but because I enjoy it. IM Kaare Kristensen describes enjoyment as the tenet of chess improvement, which is advice I think we can all appreciate.

Preparation for a game can reap benefits at all levels, and over the last few months I have come to believe in the value of surprise. If you play the same variation of the Sicilian Dragon week in, week out, your opponent has a clear target. Conversely, whilst springing surprises can undermine an opponent’s prep, and give a psychological advantage, it will be for naught if you don’t understand the resultant positions. With this in mind, I wanted to explore different types of opening surprise, and summarise the advantages and pitfalls of each.

The Theoretical Novelty

There are two types of opening preparation that are guaranteed to surprise your opponent. The first, and most dramatic approach, is to play a move that you know they won’t have seen before, such as:

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "2.Na3 Dutch"] [Black "?"] [Result "*"] [ECO "A80"] [Annotator "Matthew Lunn"] [PlyCount "9"] [SourceTitle "Chess 2020 #10"] [SourceDate "2020.09.27"]

{[%evp 0,9,29,29,75,23,16,29,27,5,17,-7] There are two types of opening preparation that are guaranteed to surprise your opponent. The first, and most dramatic approach, is to play a move that you know they won't have seen before, such as: ---} 1. d4 f5 2. Na3 $5 {This move doesn't appear in databases (unlike moves such as 2 a3, 2 Bd2 and 2 Qd2, for some reason – check the Livebook in the replayer below). If your opponent rarely varies their openings, the odds of you being able to play a novelty like this are very high. This particular move has two advantages: the knight will find a home on c2 (or e5, if your opponent is very compliant); and White is not worse. --- The biggest disadvantage is that there's no way of engineering a critical position, and that White's best options divert into more familiar territory.} Nf6 3. Nf3 e6 (3... d5 {makes sense for Stonewall players, preventing Nc4. Then} 4. Bf4 c6 (4... e6 5. Nb5 Na6 6. e3 c6 7. Nc3 { is slow, but pleasant for White;} (7. Z0)) 5. e3 e6 6. c3 {;} (6. c4 Bb4+ { is irritating.})) 4. Nc4 d6 (4... d5 5. Nce5 {justifies White's bizarre approach.}) 5. Bf4 {. White once again goes for a London System, and kicking the weird knight with ...b5 will be positionally risky, as it creates a useful pawn hook.} *

The personal novelty

[Event "Martlets Cup"] [Site "?"] [Date "2020.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Cumming, R.."] [Black "Lunn, M.."] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B27"] [Annotator "Matthew Lunn"] [PlyCount "99"] [EventDate "2020.??.??"] [SourceTitle "Chess 2020 #10"] [SourceDate "2020.09.27"]

{[%evp 0,99,31,16,47,47,108,28,62,64,72,52,32,32,40,21,36,24,20,33,25,42,67,54, 47,55,56,42,69,65,70,63,76,64,82,67,46,60,80,80,102,115,118,62,67,58,107,89, 141,141,302,252,256,236,225,235,235,235,234,224,231,225,229,236,228,216,206, 191,241,233,257,282,362,409,435,439,480,542,618,464,466,322,324,322,412,439, 490,483,455,476,499,502,485,489,513,292,313,216,532,564,813,893]} 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 g6 {I must confess that I had played this move once before, and Rhys was aware of this. It is, nevertheless, a good example of the dangers of trying to surprise your opponent in the opening, as his measured response ultimately exposed my lack of positional awareness.} 3. c3 {A very good practical choice, and one which I had only superficially prepped for.} ({Here} 3. d4 cxd4 4. Qxd4 ({I felt comfortable in the Maroczy Bind positions after} 4. Nxd4 Nc6 5. c4 Nf6 6. Nc3 d6) 4... Nf6 5. e5 Nc6 6. Qa4 Nd5 7. Qe4 {is a tabiya in the Hyper-Accelerated Dragon, where I had planned the aggressive} Ndb4 {, which I thought Rhys wouldn't expect, given my tedious repertoire. Although White is doing well in a lot of lines, the positions are double-edged and might have taken him out of his comfort zone.}) 3... Bg7 ({Had I known Rhys would play this line, I'd have opted for} 3... d5 {, as recommended by Andrew Greet in his Everyman book on the Accelerated Dragon.}) 4. d4 cxd4 5. cxd4 d5 6. e5 Nc6 {In my glance at this line, I'd assessed that these sorts of positions weren't critical - i.e. not dangerous for Black. This is correct, but unhelpful as White has a straightforward way to achieve an enduring edge, which is exactly the sort of position I wanted to avoid against my stronger opponent.} 7. Bb5 Bg4 8. Bxc6+ bxc6 9. Nbd2 e6 10. h3 Bxf3 11. Nxf3 Ne7 ({Black's opening hasn't been a disaster, but the resulting middlegame is no fun at all, due to the enduring weakness on c6. The ...c5 pawn break is essential (...f6 is pretty risky), but very difficult to achieve: for instance, I'd love to be able to play} 11... c5 {, but after} 12. dxc5 Qa5+ 13. Bd2 {I can't win the pawn back with} Qxc5 {because of} 14. Qa4+ {with Rc1 and/or a nasty bishop move to follow.}) 12. O-O O-O 13. Re1 Rb8 14. b3 Qa5 15. Qd2 {[#] White's plan is incredibly simple - put his pieces on good squares and exert pressure on c6. Black must play solidly and take advantage of any mistake, but it's a grim undertaking.} Qa6 16. Qe2 Qa5 {Swapping off queens makes White's task even easier.} 17. Bd2 Qa3 18. Bc1 Qa5 19. Bg5 Rfe8 20. Rec1 Qb6 21. Rc5 Nf5 22. Rac1 {[#] I now calculate a plan that would still leave me worse, but with a little more counterplay, and greater chances of a white error. Unfortunately, I miss an important nuance.} h6 $2 {Positionally correct, but tactically unsound.} ( 22... Bf8 {immediately is correct, and after} 23. Rxc6 Nxd4 24. Nxd4 Qxd4 25. Rc7 Bg7 26. Qf3 Rf8 {White has the better position and more active pieces, but the c6 weakness is gone and Black has a small amount of counterplay.}) 23. Bd2 Bf8 {Expecting 24 Rxc6, with similar play to the 22...Bf8 line. However, with the bishop now on d2, White has the intermezzo...} 24. Ba5 $1 {Winning a pawn, so I tried to mix up the position:} Bxc5 25. Bxb6 Bxb6 26. Qd2 Kg7 27. Rxc6 Rec8 28. Rxc8 Rxc8 29. g4 {However, Black's position is doomed in the long run, and I went on to lose in 50 moves. ---} Ne7 30. h4 Nc6 31. b4 a5 32. a3 axb4 33. axb4 Ra8 34. b5 Ra1+ 35. Kg2 Na5 36. h5 Nc4 37. Qf4 gxh5 38. Qf6+ Kg8 39. g5 hxg5 40. Nxg5 Ra7 41. Nf3 Na3 42. Qg5+ Kf8 43. Qh6+ Ke8 44. Qh8+ Ke7 45. Qf6+ Ke8 46. Qh8+ Ke7 47. Qb8 Nc4 48. Nd2 Bxd4 49. Nxc4 dxc4 50. Qd6+ 1-0

I think this kind of surprise can work well, but only if you’re comfortable in a range of positions. With this in mind, there is a more pragmatic approach to opening surprises...

The Personal Finesse

The personal finesse involves sticking to your basic repertoire – which your opponent has likely prepared for – but to play an early finesse. This is the easiest to learn in the hours before a game, and the option with the least risk, as you are likely to have a base knowledge of the lines.

[Event "Martlets Cup"] [Site "?"] [Date "2020.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Lunn, M."] [Black "Brewer, C."] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "E32"] [Annotator "Matthew Lunn"] [PlyCount "62"] [EventDate "2020.??.??"] [SourceTitle "Chess 2020 #10"] [SourceDate "2020.09.27"]

{[%evp 0,62,35,29,29,-11,3,-20,33,-29,21,7,51,58,39,7,20,7,-9,-12,4,-4,-15,20, -11,14,38,12,44,27,56,32,22,12,17,-6,-2,-24,17,8,25,-12,50,9,17,0,-1,-16,1,4,8, -7,-6,-12,0,-5,4,3,5,2,0,0,5,5,-2]} 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. Qc2 O-O 5. e4 d5 6. e5 Ne4 7. Bd3 c5 8. Nf3 {My finesse, a line that has been played by a variety of strong players.} ({I have numerous games in the database that continue} 8. cxd5 exd5 9. Nge2 {, and although the resultant positions are messy, Black has good chances of obtaining a pleasant or even advantageous position, if they're well prepared: for instance,} cxd4 10. Nxd4 Nd7 11. f4 Qh4+ 12. g3 Qh3 13. Bf1 Qh6 14. Bg2 Qa6 15. Nde2 Qb6 16. Bxe4 dxe4 17. a3 Nc5 18. Be3 Nd3+ 19. Qxd3 exd3 20. Bxb6 axb6 {and I had to grovel my way to a draw in Lunn-Kucuksari, Reykjavik 2018.}) 8... cxd4 9. Nxd4 Nd7 10. Bf4 Ndc5 { A good practical choice from my higher-rated opponent.} (10... Qh4 {is a trickier line, but one that I believe increases the chances of Black making a mistake. There are also a few variations that lead to a draw by repetition, or endings where White has a small edge.}) 11. O-O Bxc3 12. bxc3 Bd7 13. Be2 Na4 14. cxd5 exd5 15. c4 Rc8 16. Rac1 {I spent a long time on this move, as although it hadn't featured heavily in my prep, I had discussed the variation with one of my 4NCL team-mates a few weeks previously.} Nac3 17. Qb2 Qa5 { [#] My opening finesse has left me with a comfortable position, and I can be happy with how my prep has gone, not least as Black has played extremely well.} 18. cxd5 $2 {A key mistake, giving my opponent the opportunity to seize the advantage.} (18. Qxb7 {is the best move, which I rejected because I felt it was 'too risky'. Such thinking is problematic as a risky move might be the only route to an advantage:} Rfd8 ({or} 18... Bc6 19. Qb2 Rb8 20. Qc2 Ba4 21. Qd3 dxc4 22. Qe3 {and although Black has gained some tempi against the queen, his pieces aren't brilliantly coordinated}) 19. Qb2 {with an unbalanced position.}) 18... Nxd5 $2 {Black makes a mistake in turn.} ({After} 18... Qxd5 {the only move is} 19. Be3 ({I'd looked at} 19. Nf3 $2 {, but it loses an exchange to} Nxe2+ 20. Qxe2 Bb5) {, but Black probably has the better chances after} 19... Qxe5 20. Qxb7 Rc7 21. Qb2 Rfc8 {.}) 19. Bg3 (19. Qxb7 {is still the only route to an advantage. Nevertheless, Black's best line requires White to find a difficult only move:} Nec3 ({if} 19... Rb8 20. Qxd7 Nxf4 21. Qf5 $1 Nxe2+ 22. Nxe2 {and White has the better chances}) 20. Bg3 Qa4 {and because of the threat to d4 and e2, White has only one move, namely,} 21. Bd1 $1 Qxd4 22. Qxd7 Rfd8 23. Qg4 Qd2 24. Ra1 {and while Black has compensation for the pawn, White is doing OK.}) 19... Nxg3 (19... Ndc3 {, hitting the e4-pawn, is a good alternative: for example,} 20. Bf4 Qd5 21. Be3 Qxe5 22. Qxb7 Rfd8 {and Black has the better chances.}) 20. hxg3 Nb6 21. Nb3 {[#]} (21. f4 {with Bf3 to follow is a more aggressive idea - the black queen can't really take advantage of White's dark squares.}) 21... Qb4 22. Rxc8 {I was running a bit short of time, but this wasn't the right idea, as Black was always going to be the only person playing for a win in the minor piece ending.} ({Instead,} 22. Qd4 Qxd4 ( {or} 22... Qe7 23. Nc5 Bc6 24. Ne4 Rcd8 25. Nd6 f6 26. f4 {, when White can try and claim an edge}) 23. Nxd4 {is pretty level; it's a case of whether e5 or b7 is the bigger target.}) 22... Rxc8 23. Rc1 Rxc1+ 24. Qxc1 Bc6 25. Qd2 ({ I was worried about ...Qe4, but in fact} 25. Bf3 {is a better way of clarifying the position. After} Nc4 ({otherwise,} 25... Bxf3 26. gxf3 Nc4 27. Qg5 h6 28. Qd8+ Kh7 29. Qd3+ Kg8 30. f4 {is pretty level, but White might have marginal chances}) ({and after} 25... g6 26. Bxc6 bxc6 27. Nc5 Qd4 28. e6 Nd5 { the e6-pawn doesn't do a lot and Black always has the threat of ...Qd1-h5+ with a repetition}) 26. Bxc6 bxc6 27. Qg5 Qe1+ 28. Kh2 Qd1 29. Qe7 {Black doesn't have anything better than a repetition with} Qh5+ 30. Kg1 Qd1+ 31. Kh2 Qh5+ 32. Kg1 Qd1+ 33. Kh2 {.}) 25... Qxd2 26. Nxd2 Bd5 (26... Nd7 {is a better idea, as the knight isn't very well placed on b6:} 27. f4 f6 28. exf6 Nxf6 { and White has got very decent drawing chances, but Black can try and make things uncomfortable.}) 27. a3 Kf8 28. f4 Ke7 29. Kf2 f6 30. exf6+ Kxf6 31. g4 h6 {. Black can probably keep pressing here, as it's a lot easier for him to create a passed pawn. That said, White's pieces can become pretty active on the kingside and a3 isn't easy to target, so it probably should end as a draw.} 1/2-1/2

About the author

Matthew Lunn is a contributor to CHESS magazine, where he reflects on the mistakes that he makes, and attempts to learn from them. He lives in London and works in the transport sector. 

Also read:

Matthew Lunn: Dealing with the Englund

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NaughtyNepo69 NaughtyNepo69 10/8/2020 04:39
Anyone know what this 'Martlets Cup' is? I can't find any information about it. It clearly had a lot of people watching it though.