The most recent opening trends

by Thorsten Cmiel
1/21/2019 – The World Rapid and Blitz Championships in St. Petersburg at the end of 2018 offered interesting insights into the openings. After all, some of the strongest players took part and many games were played over the five-day event. THORSTEN CMIEL had a closer look to see what opening trends may be in store for 2019.

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Possible trends in 2019

2018 ended with a pair of first-class tournaments: the World Rapid and Blitz Championships in St. Petersburg. That gives us an opportunity to dare some predictions for opening trends in 2019.

I think, as far as opening trends are concerned, one should not give tournaments such as the Grand Chess Tour too much weight because the players at the very top seem to have agreed to play only a few select openings — the Berlin, the Italian, and Najdorf, at least if a certain French player is present.

World Champion Magnus Carlsen (born in 1990) is dominating the Blitz World Championship but young talents such as Jan-Krzysztof Duda (born in 1998) from Poland, who came second at the World Blitz Championships, and the Russian Daniil Dubov (born in 1996), the new World Champion in Rapid Chess, also took the limelight and their play might give hints to new ideas and lines.

A few numbers

162 grandmasters (142 for the open tournament, 20 for the women's tournament) came to St. Petersburg and in the open tournaments, 1496 rapid games and about 2000 blitz games were played. In the women's tournament, 740 rapid games and 1004 blitz games were played. The most popular opening move in the open tournaments was 1.e4 (it was played in 43% of the games in the blitz tournament and in 46% of the rapid games). However, in the women's tournament 1.d4 was the most popular first move through by only a slight margin. In the open tournaments, White scored a bit better, which, however, was not the case in the women's tournaments, particularly not in the blitz tournament.

I focused first of all on the open tournaments because the players on average had a higher rating in these tournaments. Of course, rapid and blitz games are more often decided by blunders than tournament games and therefore statistical evaluations of such events always have to be taken with more than one grain of salt.

Magnus Carlsen's two first games in the blitz tournament show what can happen in blitz. In the first round, Carlsen's opponent committed suicide and the game of the second round saw a nice and instructive escape. After that things went better for the World Champion who is a slow starter: in fact, Carlsen did not lose a single game at the World Blitz Championships 2018.


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Opening choice

It doesn't come as a surprise that the players preferred active openings in the World Championships: the Berlin is only rarely played in blitz and rapid and White almost always counters it with 4.d3. And the London System (1.d4 d5 2. Bf4) by now promises hardly any advantage — at least according to the games played in the rapid open, the most important event.


Elisabeth Pähtz recently recorded a ChessBase DVD (in German) about the London and this paid off: she scored 3½ from 5 in Blitz and 3 from 4 in the rapid with the London.

Jan-Krzysztof Duda scored 3/3 with the London in blitz and even a player like Timur Gareyev, who even tried 1.g4 in three games scored 2 out of 2 with the London.

All in all the starting position of the London was played 70 times in all four events.


Click or tap a game in the list to switch

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Personally, I am glad to see that 1.e4 is popular again, at the least in the open. Worth mentioning is also that the Sicilian was the most popular after 1.e4 in St. Petersburg. After the many draws, we have seen in top-level chess during the last months this promises more exciting games in 2019 — at least between players with less than 2750.

It does not come as a surprise that the Najdorf was the most popular Sicilian. In the Open, White tried no less than 13 different choices on move six to counter the Najdorf, in the women's tournament only six different moves were played. In all four tournaments, the most popular line against the Najdorf was the English Attack with 6.Be3. 6.h4 which occasionally is seen in tournament practice and proved to be a successful surprise weapon. However, some players tried to spoil the fun for the Najdorf aficionados either by playing 3.Bb5 or by taking with the queen on d4.


Here the Carlsen system is still a weapon (see Renato Qunitiliano in CBM 186) particularly against Najdorf players who do not reach their favourite set-up.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Qxd4 is also seen again.


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Much more rarely seen were lines of the Dragon or Accelerated Dragons. In the Yugoslav Attack, almost everyone plays the line with 9.0-0-0 d5 and then 10.Qe1 most is played. The Sicilian Paulsen was also a rather rare guest in St. Petersburg. A new trend in the Sveshnikov could not (yet) be seen — maybe it still takes some time before the good positions Magnus Carlsen reached at the World Championship match in London have an impact on the opening choices of other grandmasters. At any rate, Caruana's move 7.Nd5 found no followers in blitz and rapid in St. Petersburg: after all, it is much easier to organise Black's kingside play in this line. [Jorden van Foreest tried it in Round 5 of the Tata Steel Masters but was taught a lesson by the World Champion. -Ed.]

The Caro-Kann and the French were rather rarely seen in the open but scored rather well. Evidently, the Caro-Kann is a popular opening in women-only tournaments. Still trendy is the Flohr variation (5…exf6) about which Petra Papp had some interesting insights in June 2018 (CBM 184).


ChessBase Magazine 184

Enjoy the best moments of recent top tournaments (Berlin, Baden-Baden and Shamkir) with analysis of top players. In addition you'll get lots of training material. For example 10 new suggestions for your opening repertoire.

Instead of the old main lines (after 3.Nd2 or 3.Nc3) Advance and Exchange Variation continue to dominate the chess world though without promising White a significant opening advantage — St. Petersburg was no exception.


Blitz weapon or more?

One likes to watch the so-called creative players and one expects to see beautiful combinations. However, the way to these is often not recommendable: the move 1.b3 (the fifth most popular opening move) was the preferred weapon of Baadur Jobava who played the move nine times (50%) and also scores well in classical games with 1.b3. Jobava played a couple of entertaining games but sometimes he drifted in positions that looked horrible with his favourite set-up (Ne5, f4 and Nc3) — I was reminded at some of my accidents in bullet games.


My Secret Weapon: 1.b3

Meanwhile, 1.b3 has also found its way into the practice of today's world elite, and now finally a modern top ten player has taken on the subject for ChessBase: none other than Grandmaster Wesley So!

In contrast, Anton Korobov and others had a lot of success in their Sicilian with 2...Nc6 and 4...Qb6 (4½/6 in the Rapid World Championship and 6½/7 at the Blitz World Championship). This decent line is of course more than a weapon for just one game: a glance into the live-database reveals that Black scores an impressive 53% from more than 2900 games with this line. Maybe this is a Sicilian that is worth a look. Quite successful were, of course, sidelines which can yield an advantage in games with a shorter time-control. Here a line might be interesting that Jan-Krzysztof Duda had twice on the board (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 b6).



Most chess players (particularly those who do not belong to the world's elite, that is, practically everyone) might have mixed feelings when seeing their own openings in popular tournaments: on the one hand you may find inspiration for the development of your own repertoire; on the other hand your opponents also get recommendations. Insofar as a lot of amateurs will be glad that the London System is still very often played — particularly against 1.d4 d5 — it is no longer as keenly debated as it was one or two years ago.

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer


Thorsten Cmiel is FIDE Master, lives in Cologne and Milano and works as a freelance finance journalist.


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Michael McDonagh Michael McDonagh 1/22/2019 05:14
I agree with dobbscs. What is an interesting premise for an article is not fully explored. The article as it stands can almost be considered to be clickbait.
dobbscs dobbscs 1/21/2019 05:33
I think that this kind of analysis is interesting and would like to see more of it in the future. The present article, however, has incongruities that severely detract from the overall effect. 1) I see only casual mentions of the fact that players have broader repertoires in Blitz and Rapid games than in slower, traditional time controls. These mentions come at the very end of the article, but that fact is incredibly significant for the applicability of this article. 2) This is an article about openings, but the first two positions shown are endgames. 3) The author proposes looking at a wide range of players "because the players at the very top seem to have agreed to play only a few select openings." Two of the first three games feature wins by Magnus Carlsen and Anish Giri, who are certainly players at the very top. If we count those first two positions, then the first five examples include four from "very top" players: three from Carlsen and one from Giri. 4) There is no chart or other means of tracking the overall opening choices. The author only gives a few statistics i.e. opening with e4 or d4). We are told that White tried 13 different moves against the Najdorf in the Open section, but aren't told what those moves were or how often each was played. Percentages would help tremendously if we are trying to analyze trends here. In sum, I enjoy the idea behind the article, but this effort raises far too many questions and falls short of providing true predictions for what we could see from player beneath the "very top" in 2019.