GM Joel on Two-Faced Repertoires
By GM Joel Benjamin   
January 6, 2009
Dear Joel,

I'm a class B player from New York. Recently I have been playing opponents who are much stronger than myself...around 2300 and 2200, and I was wondering if you could offer a professional opinion on some theories I have developed.

Against much stronger rated players I have taken to playing lines that have drawish reputations. Against lower rated players I like to play sharper lines, forcing my opponents to tread carefully because inaccuracies are swiftly punished.

For example, against these stronger players I will play (as White) the exchange variation of the King's Indian Defense (E92), which I have studied extensively.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 O-O 6.Be2 e5 7.dxe5

Position after dxe5

In this system, I feel that stronger players have to work much harder to force a win. Inevitably the stronger player tends to outplay me in the endgame. (But I'm working on that!) Still, I have had moderate success with this line and am planning on continuing it. I have also considered playing this line to win against lower rated players, but have not had a chance to try it yet.

Against lower rated players I have started playing The Kings Indian Four Pawns Variation (E76) with great success. This line is very sharp and typically lower rated players don't know the theory and punishment comes swiftly. Against higher rated players, I fear that their ability to outcalculate me and their knowledge of strategy will prove too much for me.

With Black, I recently played a very aggressive FM who played the anti-Caro-Kann line...luckily for me I had played him before in this line, and I had prepared for it. Our moves (which I had prepared up to move 10):

1.e4 c6 2.c4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.cxd5 Nf6 5.Bb5+ Nbd7 6.Nc3 a6 7.Qa4 Rb8
8.Bxd7 Qxd7 9 Qxd7 Bxd7 10.d4 b5

Position after 10...b5

Once the queens are traded the position is less sharp and there is less room for me to blunder. Still, the FM won with better play and positional inaccuracies on my part.

In our first game, despite not knowing the theory, I got a good position after he misplaced a piece. I was probably even slightly better for a short time...(of course you don't become an FM by losing to 1600s, so he found a way to win). That game went as follows:

1.e4 c6 2.c4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.cxd5 Nf6 5.Bb5+ Bd7 6.Bc4

Position after 6.Bc4

In retrospect I probably should have played b5 here...

6. ...Bg4?! 7.f3 Bf5 8.Nc3 g6?! 9.Nge2 Bg7 10.0-0 0-0 11d4 a6?! 12.a4 Qc7 13.Qb3?! Rc8!

I miscalculated and went down a pawn in this position.

So my questions are: Should I be playing different openings against different rated opponents?  And if so, should I be playing these drawish lines against higher rated opponents or should I take my chances on very sharp positions where its easy for either side to misstep (like in the second Caro-Kann variation)?

I enjoy playing both the sharp and slower positions. I would prefer be anonymous, as I only play these openings and I have a small opening repertoire. But I will say that we've spoken before.

Thank you in advance for any advice you can give.

You have asked an excellent question which I think will be of interest to many other players.

My first thought is, why are you playing drawish openings against higher rated players?  If the goal is to frustrate them into overreaching and providing you winning chances, I can understand the strategy, though I probably wouldn’t endorse it even then.

But if you are just hoping for a draw, or at least to make your opponents work harder to outplay you in endgames, what is the point?  It’s a nice accomplishment to draw a higher rated player, but nothing compared to beating one.  Every time you are paired way up it is an opportunity to add a nice scalp to your account, so I think you, or any other player for that matter, should make the most of the opportunity.

I think your strategy for higher rated players may not be ideal for your development as a player and enjoyment of the game.  But while your logic is sound, the reverse approach could just as well be argued.  Masters tend to be more fundamentally sound than lower rated players, and by your own account, they usually do outplay you in the endgame.  If you played more aggressively, you would have a puncher’s chance of delivering a decisive blow.  You would also better take advantage of your opening knowledge.  If the master doesn’t know the theory in a sharp opening, the consequences are much more serious than in a quieter one.

When you play lower rated players, they will probably lose their way in complications, but they also have a similar opportunity to get lucky if you make a mistake.

You say that you enjoy playing both sharp and quiet positions, but I think it is likely that you play one better than the other.  The openings you play should be dictated by your natural style rather than the ratings of your opponents.

Moreover, you describe your opening repertoire as “small,” but you have two sets of openings for lower and higher rated players.  It strikes me as impractical for a non-professional to have to study so much.  If you know the King’s Indian Four Pawns Attack well, why not take a shot at knocking off a master with it?