Building a Chess Repertoire

Chess players often don’t have a trustworthy and watertight repertoire at their disposal. Rather, their openings have been accumulated ‘by chance’. At a particular stage, probably around 2000 FIDE on average, players will be forced to adopt a sound repertoire or be faced with an inability to improve their rating. At 2400+, transpositions become important, e.g. players with Black will face 1.Nf3 more often; this move is often played with the intention of a favourable transposition into a 1.d4 opening; therefore, players will need to be prepared to face possible transpositional qualities after this move. If their main response to 1.d4 is 1…c5, then 1.Nf3 c5 can end up in a Sicilian after 2.e4.

Nevertheless, most players will never need to worry about those intricacies. Let’s take a look at some more practical considerations. When building a repertoire, players should consider what their ‘style‘ is, i.e. do you prefer positional/strategic chess or would you rather play wild attacking games involving flurries of tactics? In addition, a player should have a think about how much time he can dedicate to chess and whether he likes to study the opening in general (most people do!). This will dictate whether the player employs theoretical openings or more plan-based ones. Plan-based lines or ‘systems’ rely more on general ideas and plans, and are hence much easier to learn.

For your interest, here are some notes to Black defences to 1.e4 (in order of popularity):

1…c5 – Leads typically to open positions, although White can choose to steer the game to quiet positions if he wishes. With regards to Open Sicilians, safer and more positional options are the Taimanov and the Paulsen/Kan, while theoretical and sharp lines include the Dragon (and Accelerated Dragon), the Sveshnikov/Pelikan and the Najdorf (a specialty of World Champions Kasparov and Fischer). The latter lines are suitable for tactical players with “time to burn” (J.Emms).

1…e5 – Leads to both solid and tactical positions. If White opts for the main line Ruy Lopez, Black can steer the game into either quiet or counter-attacking positions. White may also play the King’s Gambit, which tries to go straight to tactical situations. After 2.Nf3, The Petroff (2…Nf6) is known to be an extremely solid option, employed by World Champions Karpov and Kramnik.

1…e6 – Leads to both solid and tactical positions. The position is often closed, but can easily burst to life. Although White can steer the game into positional grounds, the main line Winawer or 3…Nf6 systems can lead to either crazy and complex positions. The Rubinstein Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3/Nd2 dxe4) is a fairly solid option, although with less winning chances.

1…c6 – Often leads to solid positions where Black’s pawn structure is great for the endgame. This opening is a good choice for those who like “systems of development” (J.Emms). This opening is suitable for strategic players. Most popular systems after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3/Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 are 4…Bf5, the Classical variation, or 4…Nd7, the Smyslov/Karpov system, which are both solid. An off-beat option is 4…Nf6, which can lead to the Bronstein-Larsen Variation (5.Nxf6+ gxf6) or the Tartakower System (5.Nxf6+ exf6). The Caro-Kann often fits well with the Slav (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6), as they have similar pawn structures.

1…d6/g6 – Leads to solid and sharp positions, depending on White’s choice. The normal fianchetto is fairly strong, but there is also the interesting option of the “Lion”, 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 followed by …e5.

1…d5 – Leads to solid positions with a queen recapture or sharper positions after 2.exd5 Nf6. This opening is a good choice for those who like “systems of development”.

1…Nf6 – Leads to positional or tactical positions, although White has more leeway to steer the game into whatever waters he wants. Somewhat off-beat, with less theory to learn than other aggressive options like the Sicilian.

1…Nc6 – Off-beat and can lead to both solid or tactical positions. White players are becoming more knowledgeable on this move.


I would advise players to stick with the main lines of popular openings, because “rarely played openings are usually rare precisely because they have some defect”
(GM John Nunn). So, if you play unusual openings, players will soon exploit this defect and you will be forced to change openings. This means the majority of the experience you gained in that specific opening will have been lost. This problem “doesn’t arise with a repertoire based on main lines” (J.Nunn). Consider this quote from GM Lev Alburt:

“Many amateurs spend too much time trying to memorize various opening moves… Getting caught up in the switching syndrome – jumping from opening to opening, memorizing and getting discouraged, and never making much use of all the time you’ve invested – is as impractical as it gets... You don’t really have to learn a second opening to surprise your opponents. There are enough choices within most openings to allow opportunities to catch your opponent offguard.” Nevertheless, knowing a second opening can be helpful because you can “learn the ideas and themes of different types of positions”.  GM Alburt (1945-)

Study complete games

IM Andrew Martin suggests that players should study complete games when they’re investigating the opening. The reason for this is that players often are confused at how to continue after they are ‘taken out of book’. The most disastrous consequence of this is that players are crushed shortly after they exhaust their memory bank. By studying complete games, players will develop a better idea of the piece placements, attacking plans, and how to play the middlegame and endgame pawn structures arising from their favourite opening.

Playing the main lines

Here is some advice from Former FIDE World Champion Alexander Khalifman:

“When playing the main lines [in chess openings] you are standing on the soldiers of giants, repeating moves and ideas that were found by better players than you are, and that automatically elevates you to the next level. Main lines go deeper into the middlegame than side-variations, thus the final positions are easier to handle. When this happens, your higher-ranked opponent often faces an unpleasant choice between following a theoretical line to the end, where the final position would leave him with no chances to win, and stepping aside (could be dangerous) by making an inferior move in order to avoid simplifications.” – GM Khalifman (1966-)

John Nunn gives a great example on the durability of main lines. For example, let’s say you play the main line Chigorin Defence in the Ruy Lopez as Black: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. Re1 b5 7. Bb3 d6 8. c3 O-O 9. h3 Na5 10. Bc2 c5 11. d4 Qc7 12. Nbd2 cxd4 13.cxd4 Bd7 14.Nf1 Rac8 15.Ne3 Nc6 16.d5 Nb4 17.Bb1 a5 18.a3 Na6. Suddenly a “blockbuster novelty” finishes off this line. What can you do? Easy, you could try “15…Rfe8 or, slightly earlier 13…Nc6”. Other options are 12…Bd7 and 12…Nc6. Since these moves “all lead to the same general type of position”, your experience with your former line will not be wasted; it will “still be valid in your new line”. This simple example from Nunn shows a major advantage of playing the main lines.


Remaining loyal to
an opening

“When you do pick some [opening] systems, stick with them for at least a year. Play they in blitz, play them in tournaments… Expect to suffer many reversals due to inexperience. However, instead of getting depressed about a loss, look at any bad opening result as a learning opportunity that allows you to …hone your line into a fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” When learning an opening, try to “learn the basics, play as many practice games as possible (even five minute games will prove useful), and then immediately look up the line just employed to see where you (or your opponent) went wrong.” – IM Jeremy Silman (1954-)

Using chess openings books

After you choose a new opening, a great idea is obtaining a respectable book on the opening which explains the general ideas and plans in the opening in plain English. Please note that memorising opening variations is “generally a waste of time and is often counter-productive” (E.Mednis); this is because the player has know idea how to proceed once his theory runs out. How do you know if a book is respectable? See if any reviews are out on the book, for example by searching “Book Title review” on Google (if the book title is a bit ambiguous with things that aren’t to do with chess, try searching “Book Title review chess”. You should also check the reliability of the author – sometimes grandmasters have come up with the most shocking howlers. Chess books by the two heavyweight publishers Gambit Publications and Everyman Chess are often high quality. Other publishers which have come out with good books are Chess Stars, Quality Chess, Random House Puzzles & Games, Siles Press, Batsford and New in Chess.

If you’re looking for a one-volume encyclopedic chess book on all openings, head for Nunn’s Chess Openings or Modern Chess Openings. Although, be forewarned that such books only deal in assessments and symbols, so if you follow their analysis, you may remember all the moves fine, but once your knowledge runs out, you have no idea what plan to adopt. Sometimes players crash right at the point when their knowledge runs out and they simply lose. Of course NCO cannot be as detailed as a specialised book on a specific opening, but it often provides a useful overview of the opening.

Keeping up-to-date

Maintaining your chess repertoire and keeping it watertight is also a point of interest. This can be done in a number of ways. If you have the time to study new games, you can feed off a free weekly supply of games from The Week in Chess. In this way, you can search for new games if your desired opening and see what players are doing most recently. For lazier people, players may want to subscribe to a chess opening theory website such asChessPublishing. ChessPublishing has its respectable authors give an update on a range of openings every month. Of course, the even lazier option is just to wait until a new book is written on your opening and purchase it. If you get any lazier, perhaps you should find a different hobby.

For more opening-related information, see the companion article “Opening Repertoire Suggestions“.

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