By Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen
You have to make many important decisions in life. When I was 12 years old, I decided to make 1.c4 my only weapon. I know what you are thinking - yes, I was a kid without any real worries.
I had the idea that 1.c4, also known as the English Opening, was a perfect choice. Almost all the other kids played 1.e4, and only a few played 1.d4. By playing 1.c4, I would get my opponent’s into my world. By continually repeating the same opening, I would quickly gain a lot of experience: something they wouldn’t be able to match even if they prepared something nasty. How could such a plan go wrong?
It worked perfectly! The others called me boring - a simple attempt to make me deviate from my plan. The truth is that I could see the fear in their eyes when I reached for the c-pawn, which of course made me like it even more.
Another good thing was that I had to do almost no work on it, as I quickly gained a lot of experience. After a few dozen games, I had turned into a well-functioning autopilot.
I hated having the black pieces, which unfortunately happens in half the games, but playing White was an entirely different story. Pushing the white c-pawn was like coming home to mama after a miserable day at school.
But guess what - my lazy plan didn't come for free! Okay, I scored well, but while the others were playing main lines in openings I knew nothing about, I was still doing the same things I was doing when I was a child. Time went by, and when I had almost doubled my age, I was stuck with the same opening repertoire, while the others looked like semi-professionals.
I was frustrated. One day, in a tournament game, I pushed the d-pawn. The others were shocked, and I told them I picked up the wrong pawn by accident and had to move it because I had touched the piece. The truth was that I was sick of 1.c4 and needed to do something else. I had also reached a point where I felt I wasn't improving my game.
I don’t remember how it happened, but one day I had the willpower to actually jump off the path I was on. I decided to switch personality. Instead of being the lazy 1.c4-player, I wanted to play the main lines and find out what I was missing. I also realized this is what I had to do to improve. I wish someone had told me this much earlier because now I understand things are limited when you have only tried a tiny part of what’s out there.
It’s hard to explain why, but 1.d4 felt too close to 1.c4, so I decided to play 1.e4. I planned to play critical main lines and try for an advantage right out of the opening. I guess you think this is an over-ambitious and unrealistic plan, right? Well, it’s not! It was the most important decision of my chess career.
Changing your style is not as hard as you might think. The key is to make a few practical choices in the beginning.
I quickly realized I didn’t have to focus on the Caro-Kann, as this was something I used to play with Black. 1.e4 e5 didn’t worry me much, as the Ruy Lopez looked pretty straightforward. Why not place the bishop on b5, castle and develop the queenside? I mean, how hard can it be? I knew it was more complicated than that, but I wouldn’t lose right out of the opening. I could learn the details later.
Although I had almost no experience against the French, I had seen Sergei Tiviakov playing the Tarrasch with 3.Nd2. His statistics in this opening are impressive, so copying what he was doing sounded like a good idea. Finding a hero within “your” field of interest is often a good idea.
Openings like Alekhine and the Scandinavian didn’t worry me. If anyone, Black was the one who seemed to struggle in these defenses, even after normal-looking moves by White. I knew some precision was probably needed, but it was not something I would lose sleep over.
What worried me most was the Sicilian. I had seen victims of the Dragon Variation and heard rumors about tons of theory in the Najdorf. No matter how scary these openings looked, this is where I wanted to start. I just had to dive into it and find something I liked.
Against the other Sicilians, I chose Anti-systems which were quiet and kind of played themselves. This way I could focus my work on what really mattered; the Najdorf, the Dragon, and the French Tarrasch. It didn’t take long before I had these openings covered, which meant I could start working on the Ruy Lopez and find something sharper against the other Sicilians. I went on to study one opening system after the other – until I had dangerous weapons against everything.
I used to hate the opening theory, but now I enjoy it a lot!
With a couple of hours of work, I could become the greatest expert within a small field, and I see no reason why you can't do the same. Take one step at the time, and gradually build an opening repertoire. It's never too late to do this!
Today I feel like a pretty dangerous 1.e4-player, but I am also the lazy 1.c4-player. Not bad - now I have two favorites, and I haven't even told you about my Black openings!
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Photo by Lennart Ootes