Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Universal systems

Sometimes I receive the question from a less experienced player what could be a good opening for black. It is clear to me when I get such question that the player doesn't expect a complicated answer based on complex lines with a lot of study-work but rather an easy recipe which can be quickly implemented everywhere. Answering the question from whites perspective is rather easy. The Colle system or also often called businessman-opening, can be learned in a minimum amount of time and can be used against most normal setups. A few enjoyable video's can be viewed on the chessimprover. However for black it is much harder to find a universal system.

As discussed in my article to open with the f-pawn I built my black-repertoire by answering almost every first move (except e4 and g4) with f5. Well we can't really speak about creating a repertoire as I only learned the Dutch modern stonewall and to minimize my lag of theoretical knowledge, I always tried to get the same type of structure on the board. So unconsciously I used the Dutch modern stonewall as a universal system. Of course it didn't take long before the first cracks popped up in this concept. My opponents quickly found setups which guaranteed them an opening-advantage so forcing me to make some adaptations. In my article Dutch steps in the English opening I discuss one of those painful journeys.

An additional disadvantage of the Dutch modern stonewall, is that the opponents can prepare very easily something dangerous. A funny anecdote in this context is my game in 2006 against the Dutch IM Koen Leenhouts. Before the game Koen warned me not to prepare as he would play something that I never could foresee. I partly followed his advice as I also noticed from his repertoire that he is not afraid of experimenting/ varying. Besides at that time I loved too much hanging around with my girlfriend (and future wife).

Now it is not because the Dutch is not a universal system for black that no such setups are existing. The success-rate for a universal system depends mainly on the degree of contact between both forces. In other words the lesser the contact, the more moves can be played irrespective of the opponents chosen setup. Chess played from the baseline is born. A few months ago the Amercian grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek wrote a nice article about this subject in the Huffington Post which was copied by chessbase. In this article he correctly states that the hyper-modern player Richard Reti was 1 of the pioneers to appreciate the strengths of this strategy. In his follow-up article he shows that this strategy was developed further by the Serbian grandmaster Ljubojevic Ljubomir beginning of the 70 ties in deploying the Hedgehog. This modern setup is still today popular which I encountered e.g. in one of my games of Open Leuven 2011.

The hedgehog may present itself as an excellent example of chess from the baseline, a good example of a universal system it is not as you still need c4/c5. To really create a universal system for black, one must avoid early pawn-moves on the 5th row. Some of those setups have been discussed already lightly on this blog. I am thinking at the Pirc or the Czech Defence. This time I want to cover maybe one of the most universal systems I've ever seen: the Hippopotamus Defence. There exist discussions about what exactly is permitted or should be part of such setup but everybody at least agrees that black should play as long as possible on only 3 rows. Personally I always thought that this can only be good for blitz but recently the German international master Haub Thorsten Michael used it against me in an official game.
Hippo specialist Haub Thorsten Michael  (photo: Fabrice Wantiez)
I had noticed during the preparation that TM used the hippo before but I didn't spend much attention to it as Haub was only 1 of the many possible opponents and obviously much more critical systems needed my limited available time. It is no surprise probably that I quickly got worse with white.

So I escaped with a big blue eye but even after analyzing the game I was amazed to how flexible and solid the hippo really is. The fact that a +2400 player regularly employs it, already says sufficient about the qualities.  Players having little time to study openings or consider openings more as a necessary evil or rather prefer to be lazy than tired, shall maybe after this article finally have the universal system which they can use for years to come on their level.