The Winning Academy 27: Lefthanders

by Jan Markos
11/28/2023 – In some sports, being a lefthander might give you a substantive advantage over your opponents. In table tennis or in tennis, for example, lefthanders score better over their right-handed opponents. Why? Approximately 90 percent of professional table tennis players are right-handed. Therefore, a left-hander plays a right-hander in 9 out of 10 matches, whereas a right-handed player plays a leftie only in 1 out of 10 matches. Left-handed players therefore have 9 times more experience with such a match, and therefore score consistently better. | Photo: John McEnroe, one of the most famous and successful left-handed tennis players | Photo: Wikipedia, Nrbelex

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In chess, we have "lefthanders" as well. Of course, I use the term "lefthander" only as a metaphor. Several grandmasters have such a unique and original style that it feels like they are violating the basic strategical rules. And yet, they are often successful. Why? Well, for the same reason as with the left-handed table tennis pros. They simply get strange and original positions far more often than their opponents, and therefore feel more comfortable playing them. This subjective edge often more than compensates the positional risks they are taking.

Probably the strongest "lefthander" among the top GMs today is Richard Rapport. Let us see how he was able to confuse a strong GM in a well-known structure:

Riazantsev-Rapport, Palma de Mallorca 2017:

1.d4 e6 2.c4 f5 3.g3 Nf6 4.Bg2 Be7 5.Nf3 d5

The Stonewall, a defensive set-up that is better than its reputation.


However, now the Hungarian magician started to cast his spells. First of all, he played two moves with an already developed knight.

6…Ne4!? 7.Nc3 c6 8.Nd2 Nd6!? 9.b3 Nd7 10.a4

And now, instead of modestly finishing the development, he launched a surprising attack, playing 10…h5!? 11.b4 h4.

GM Moradiabadi, who was annotating the game, remarked: "If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have told you that this move should lose on the spot but these days such a move can be played, and you need deep and thorough calculation to refute it! If it is refutable at all!"

And indeed, Riazantsev was not able to refute Rapport's set-up. After an interesting fight, Black won a nice game.

Here it is in full:


Believe it or not, there are even crazier players around than GM Rapport. One of them is Jergus Pechac, currently the strongest Slovak chessplayer. His rating has been hovering around 2600 during the last years.

And yet, some of his openings resemble those that you can see at some event for beginners. One relatively fresh example:

Pechac-Motylev, Prague Challengers 2023:



1…e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.d4 exd4 4.Qxd4 Nc6 5.Qa4

Well, is this touch of a genius, or a pure act of provocation? Or both, perhaps? In any case, Motylev felt that he should react aggressively:

5…b5 6.Qxb5 Rb8 7.Qg5

The queen is flying around like a bee on a meadow.

7…Nb4 8.Na3 Bb7 9.f3

A truly original position has arisen. White's play has violated basically all the laws of chess. Pechac ignored the centre and failed to develop his pieces, playing half of the moves with his queen. And yet, he did not lose the game, although playing a very respectable opponent, the European ex-Champion

The game ended in a draw.


Some players become "lefthanders" only on special occasions. Usually, they play relatively normal chess, but sometimes – when the circumstances are just right – they turn into "lefthanders". This is how Hikaru Nakamura let his creativity flow freely against a much lower rated opponent in 2015:

Nakamura-Dejmek, World open 2005

1.e4 c5 2.Qh5!? d6 3.f4 Nc6 4.c3 Nf6 5.Qf3 e5 6.f5 d5 7.d3 b6

Again, the American GM did not bother much with development. All his pieces – except of the queen – are still in their initial positions. And yet, Nakamura did not feel obliged to move develop any of them. He played the aggressive 8.g4!? and later won.


The World ex-Champion Magnus Carlsen is usually seen as a player with a truly classical style. Following the footsteps of Capablanca or Karpov, he prefers harmony over chaos, and strategical battle over murky complications.

And yet, even he sometimes turns into a "lefthander". Well, a careful positional version of a "lefthander", but still. This is how he started his game with Harikrishna:

Carlsen-Harikrishna, Wijk aan Zee 2013:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6

So far everything is normal, right? But now Carlsen played 3.c3!?, a move that is an extremely rare guest in tournaments at basically any level. Why did the Norwegian opt for such a second-rate opening?

Well, playing something off-beat makes senses if you want to make your opponent think on his own. In a Ruy Lopez, for example, Harikrishna would make 20 theoretical moves in just a few minutes and keep almost all his thinking time for another 20 moves till the first time control.

In the Ponziani opening, Carlsen has a good chance that his opponent would know only 8 or 10 theoretical moves, and therefore will have to make 30-32 independent decisions till move 40. Moreover, in a pawn structure that is not so familiar to him as Ruy Lopez.

Carlsen's psychological gamble paid off. Despite an objectively modest opening, he got a tangible advantage before move 20 and won a nice positional game.


Despite being left-handed in the everyday life, I never dared to become a "lefthander" at the board. I simply could not persuade myself to play moves that I knew were objectively second-rated. And yet, I admire all the "lefthanders" among professionals. Despite playing strange openings and violating chess rules, they are fully able to win games and tournaments.

And – of course – they get invitations to interesting events. The organizers know very well, that "lefthanders" will amuse the audience with their original play, and therefore the entire tournament will get better coverage.

In fact, thanks to lefthanders the life of entire chess community is richer, more amusing and more colourful.

And therefore: Long live "lefthanders" among us!

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Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.