Dealing with Surprises in the Opening

Today, I want to deal with a slightly more advanced topic. Say, you are playing your normal starting move and you opponent suddenly uncorks a move that he has never played before on the database. You almost fall off your chair. Judging from his character, you think your opponent has prepared something special against you. What should you do?

I have always wondered about this problem. Should I keep playing on, straight into my opponent’s preparation, or should I deviate and play another line I know a tiny bit about?

Here is a quote from English Grandmaster John Emms that I quite like and which elaborates on this issue.

“If your opponent’s choice of opening is not the one you expected, then a lot depends on the flexibility of your opening repertoire. If you havew a very narrow repertoire (i.e. only one line against everything) then generally it’s best to just stick to what you know. It’s true your opponent might have something specific lined up against this, but you can rely upon your greater general understanding of the positions – something that will increase in importance once any preparation from your opponent runs out… If you do have a wider repertoire… it might be a good practical choice to use this… This could negate all or most of your opponent’s preparation, and still lead to positions in which you generally have more experience.” – John Emms

So, in my previous scenario, probably the best choice would be to keep playing the line I know best, rather than play the line I know “a tiny bit about”. However, if you have another line that you know quite well, and you believe that your opponent was not able to prepare for it, then Emms’ suggestion would be to use this alternative line, allowing you to bypass your opponent’s preparation. He gives the example of a game where he played 1.e4 and his opponent surprised him with 1…e5 (he had always played the Sicilian). His normal repertoire opening was the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5), but he decided to avoid preparation and switch to the Bishop Opening (1.e4 e5 2.Bc4), where he proceeded to win nicely.

Emms’ quote seems to suggest that it is somewhat better to have a wider repertoire than a “very narrow” one.

Here’s another interesting quote by American Grandmaster 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”. – Lev Alburt

Okay, that didn’t clear anything up. That last statement (which I wrote half of, but I didn’t take out of context) sort of puts a cloud over the previous sentences. Nevertheless, I think the implication is that it is perfectly adequate to have a narrow or wide repertoire.

In my opinion, it pretty much depends on your style and the amount of time you have. If you have little time, you should probably go with a narrow solid repertoire where theory does not advance at a dramatic pace. If you have plenty of time to spend on chess, you can take advantage of this by investing in a wider repertoire, or you can choose a narrow, but highly theoretical repertoire, where you have to keep constantly up to date (but you generally reap the rewards of doing so). Basically, the advice is to stick with what is practical.

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