Building a Chess Repertoire

It is often written that having a good repertoire is essential to be successful at chess, but what is a repertoire? Put simply a repertoire is a collection of openings & defences that a player will use regularly, something that they rely on to give them an edge. My own repertoire is pretty loose, I would suggest that I play 1.e4 as White and then as Black play c6 against e4, Nf6 against d4 and against anything else I sit and think.

I have however often turned to 1.d4 for a change, no particular reason I just go tend to go through phases of both main choices as my first move with White, whereas I am more consistent with Black and use the Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6) and the Nimzo Indian (1.d4 Nf6, 2. c4 e6, 3. Nc3 Bb4) or if Nf3 then the Queens Indian 3…b6.

Having said that I would not say I have a definite repertoire, by that I mean I play a few basic starter moves but anything deeper is much less defined. A repertoire would tend to form the basis for in-depth study and I would expect anyone having one to know the lines much better than I do.

The best way to start a repertoire is to understand which styles of play you enjoy most, are you a fighter or a lover when it comes to chess, do you prefer to attack or are you content to defend and then strike when the chance arises? Understanding your ‘style’ is important as learning the chosen lines will be much easier if you enjoy what you study.

One method is to find a player that you like to watch, do you have someone that you always look for to see what they have been playing? If so then why not build a similar repertoire to that player, for example if you enjoyed the Najdorf when Kasparov was playing then surely following his games would have kept you up to date with the Najdorf.

Having written the above it has made me think that I must sort my own repertoire out. My first step will be to go through my own games and see what I enjoy playing, not necessarily what gives my best results as the reason for losing may not be the opening or defence used, it is just as likely to have been poor play.

I wrote very similar stuff on the 8th August this year. Clearly this blog has gotten me to think more about my games, now I need to put some of it into action and quickly!

How To Play The Opening in Chess

When I wrote about the Sicilian Najdorf Opening and my choice of a 6gth move, I got to thinking about my favourite chess book. A difficult question as there are so many wonderful books on players, tournaments, specific openings and defences etc. One thing you can add to that are our own memories of a book, how we came by it and what impression it made on us.

Not having a formal chess education I came to the game through playing chess with an uncle and then a few other older people. Later in life I went back to the game and got my first chess book, it was ‘How to Play the Opening in Chess’ by Keene & Levy. Probably not a classic for many people but to me it opened up a whole new world of chess openings, defences and strategy.

That book was my constant companion for many years, today it sits in a cupboard with its spine all taped up to stop it falling apart. I have had the book for 42 years and even today it is probably my favourite book of the hundreds that I have owned. Why is it so good, well partly due to the history I have with it, but also because it coves so much in 224 pages.

We are treated to introductory sections followed by a chapter on each of the main lines, each chapter has 4 main sections plus lots of side lines, the chapters are,

  1. Development and Tactics
  2. The Importance of Pawns
  3. Psychology in Opening Play
  4. Kings Gambit
  5. Giuoco Piano and Two Knights Defence
  6. Ruy Lopez
  7. Sicilian Defence
  8. French Defence
  9. Caro-Kann Defence
  10. Queens Gambit
  11. Nimzo Indian Defence
  12. Kings Indian Defence
  13. Dutch Defence
  14. Modern Defence
  15. Flank Openings
  16. Some Other Openings

As you can see the book covers a lot of ground. It is a great start for someone learning the game but be aware that many of todays choices are not covered so far as modern theory is understood. For example the Sicilian Defence covers the Lowenthal Variation, Rauzer Variation, Dragon Variation and Kan/Taimanov Variation. There’s no Najdorf in there!

Having mentioned that point, I would still heartily recommend this book to beginners and those looking to advance their game. It is an easy read, not too complicated and one that I often turn to.

Sicilian Najdorf 6.Be3

As I sat looking at a game of mine this morning I found myself with yet another White side to the Sicilian Najdorf. The Najdorf starts with 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6. Recently I have been favouring 6. Be3 but am not 100% happy with this line.

Looking at my database I see that I have 5 ongoing games in this line but my file shows 34 older games scoring just 44% as White. Be3 played 22 times for 47.7%, Bg5 played 5 times for 20%!, Be2 (4) and f3 (3) scored 50%}

Having played 6. Be3 so many times perhaps that suits my style, there must be a reason for my favouring it, my main reference for this line is a book by Milos Pavlovic titled The Cutting Edge 2: Sicilian Najdorf 6.Be3. It was published by the reputable ‘Qulaity Chess’ publishing team as part of a series tackling current trends in chess. As it is currently on offer for £4 I guess it may be a little out of date.

Armed with my volumes of New in Chess Yearbooks and Magazines I must be able to find a way to tackle the Najdorf, in fact today I thought I need to be more serious about my repertoire so will be taking a major look at that in the next few weeks and working out how best to maintain it, perhaps via software or some other method. Currently I just keep the games in a database and work things out form there but that’s not going to work for me going forwards towards that IM goal.

I left the game with no decision on what to play, I have the same position in two of my games in the new Veterans World Cup 10 tournament, a tough event and the first in my new phase of looking for that 2300 ELO rating in correspondence chess so that I may get into a Master Norm tournament.

Left Hand Right Hand

I have been writing down my thoughts in this new blog and hope it is doing some good. I am mindful that my main objective in playing chess is to improve my game, enjoy the games and possibly make new friends through playing. So, it was quite a disappointment to discover that in the recently started Veterans World Cup 10, I have already made a strategic error in one game.

When starting the games I decided to stick with 1.e4, it is something that I have been playing mroe recently after a switch to d4 for quite a few games. I enjoyed d4 openings but wanted to try and win more games, e4 seems possibly a little more likely to give me that.

We started the game with my opponent going straight for the Sicilian Defence, not a huge surprise as it is a very popular defence. I had done a brief review of my opponents games before starting and thought it likely to get either a Ruy Lopez or the Sicilian, usual fare.

The moves have been, 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 e6

This type of notation error has been eliminated by the ICCF server but of course it still occurs because we keep our own records and make mistakes. Luckily I spotted something wrong before I played 6.e5, a look at the ICCF Webserver and my own record showed the error was of my own making, I have therefore amended my record and continued 6. Bd3 which has a decent score in top level correspondence games.What do I take from this experience? I was lucky that the error did not lose the game nor a piece, previously I have lost games in such a fashion. Clearly when I recorded my opponents 4th move my right hand was busy typing away whilst my brain was elsewhere, or as we put it ‘the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

Going forward I must take more care when recording the moves, not only to prevent blunders but also to save me wasting time on positions that do not exist!

Final Look at My Stats

A final look at the stats I have been putting into the excellent Google Sheets, I am much more adept with Microsoft Excel but needs must and I can not justify the expense of MS Office, hence Google to the rescue with its nice free ‘Sheets’.

My ICCF Rating is displayed in the ICCF Webserver as the following image which shows a very nice and sharp increase in recent times. I find this chart very useful but a little surprising in that the sharp rating increase is not how I feel about my game.

Therefore I decided to put the data into a spreadsheet and chart my progress with a different scale along the vertical axis. After playing around little I settled on a range of 1400 – 2500. There was no particular reason for this other than looking for a more meaningful way to review my chess rating. as you can see, changing the axis value gives a different story but it is one that I feel better reflects my progress.

Looking at this chart I can equate the recent increase with having more free time to study chess. However that is not the whole story, I also took out a subscription to New in Chess Magazine, New in Chess Yearbooks, British Chess Magazine, ChessPublishing and this year Chessbase Magazine.

Unfortunately I can not afford to keep up all those subscriptions so my next review will be to consider what I find the most useful and any that I can let go. Whichever I decide to halt will be sorely missed as all are excellent reading and have been a great help to me with my games.

Rating Ups & Downs

Continuing the recent thread looking at my previous performance I have now looked at how my rating (grade) has changed on an annual basis. Interestingly my best year was way back in 2002 after which things went downhill for a few years. Mostly I attribute this to the large amount of voluntary work that I was doing which took spare time away from chess.

When I look at the ICCF rating chart which reflects each rating period of 3 months, the chart is quite choppy with ups and downs. By looking at the data on an annual basis it is quite pleasing to find a nice four year positive trend.  However it is disappointing to see that over the last 17 years there has been a slow increase of some 200 rating points.

Hopefully we can keep on the positive path and reach that 2300 goal in a year or two from here.

Games on the Go

In my last post I took a slightly deeper look at my past performance than perhaps I have done before. In the next 2 or 3 posts I will cover a little more of my analysis and see where it takes us. I have identified that I play too many games, I know this because I have often been short of time when the game allows a lot of time for each ten moves.

The rate of play varies but is usually 30, 40 or 50 days per 10 moves. It Is not difficult to see how some players amass well over a hundred days in hand for their next moves. This fact has occasionally come under fire from players wishing the game to get a move on, but usually it comes under fire when a player in a lost position simply sits on their hands and allows their time to tick lower. This practice is known as ‘dead mans defence’ because the losing player is perceived as hoping the other player will get bored and resign.

Whatever the reason it is not something that usually affects my games, often I am happy for my opponent to take a little extra time between moves as I need that time for my own thinking. Anyway, onto the real topic here which is how many games I should be playing.

Chart of games completed per year

My notional figure is a maximum of 40 games at any one time. In the past I have played 85 or more at a time and that was when we had to pay for postage stamps! Interestingly my actual games per year is much lower than I had thought.

The figures are distorted due to  being limited to only ICCF games but going forward they will provide me with a base upon which to monitor how I am doing. I am going to aim for a max of 40 games but even that may be too many as I am spending much more time on my moves.

I am averaging 32 games completed per year although in 2013 there were 99 games completed and in 2014 another 87 games completed. In 2016 the total was another hefty 82. Of course today the games are completed much faster due to the Internet but this also makes It easy to take on too many games at one time.

By the way, I am using games completed as this is how ICCF records things. Traditionally the start date for an event is the date used for games databases but that is not very practical for grading purposes as games can remain open for a long time.

Charting My Progress

I have probably played near to 1,000 games of correspondence chess and at least a similar amount over the board and online. The ICCF rating database has my game total as 669 but it is missing a few from the early days of my career. I have also played many games in a variety of correspondence clubs, for some reason players frequently have memberships of more than one club as each offers something a little different.

When I look at the ICCF Rating for myself it appears that I have done very well in recent times, the chart from ICCF shows quite a large increase in my rating. ICCF RatingWhen I look at the ICCF chart which is provided by their web-server, I wonder how the chart shows such a steep increase when I know that my games are not all wins, there are losses in there and many drawn games with lower rated players.

Of course the ICCF chart is 100% accurate but when I look closely I can see that the effect is enhanced by the vertical values starting at 1900 and ending at 2300. This of course accentuates the rating increase but it does provide a good start for me to know where I am at with my aim of reaching that all important goal of 2300 elo rating.

So here I  am with an ambitious target of getting the IM title but I need to measure how I am doing to know what is working and what is not. To start with I have placed the ICCF rating data into a Google spreadsheet and added a few calculations to give me the annual grading/rating difference, number of games finished and an interesting chart showing the rating gain or less annually.

Having these charts and data table should help me measure my performance and give early warning of failure, mind you I think I will easily know if things are going wrong!


Chess Repertoire

Looking ahead to my next tournament I am reviewing my repertoire of openings and defences. A repertoire is your choice of how to open a game, how to respond to your opponents initial moves and generally which type of positions you are aiming for. The general advice is usually to pick an move such s 1.e4, 1.d4 etc. and then to have a choice against each of the main first moves, e.g. 1…c5 against e4 and perhaps d5 against d4.

In correspondence play it may be appropriate to have the same sort of repertoire, or it may be okay to have a broader repertoire due to the availability of chess databases. However, a third option may be useful for some players and that would be to study your opponent and prepare something for each single game.

In my case I have flirted with 1.e4 and 1.d4, as Black I have recently been using the Caro Kan defence against e4 and the Slav defences against d4. I have previously used the French defence and the Nimzo Indian defence with some decent results. I never really felt comfortable with the French so switched to the Ca oKan after purchasing a great book by Jovanka Houska which recommends the following against the popular Advance Variation, 1.e4 c6. 2.d4 d5, 3.e5 c5

The basic idea behind a repertoire is that you narrow your deep learning so as to give you a better chance of remembering theory, hopefully this translates into better results.

Looking ahead I will go through my games and see what is working and what is not. In truth I should know but I don’t. I prefer to play 1.e4 but think 1.d4 does slightly better, I also prefer to play the Ruy Lopez / Spanish as White whilst as Black I like to play the Nimzo Indian against 1.d4 and the Caro kan against 1.e4.

The big questions for me:

  1. How does my White repertoire score?
  2. How does my Black repertoire score?
  3. How does my repertoire compare against higher rated players?

I ask the third question of myself as perhaps better opening choices may help me improve my results. I know that a lot of high players use the Sicilian Defence as Black which is not something I am often seen playing, perhaps some analysis of repertoires will help me decide how to approach the next few tournaments.

Against all this it is necessary to remain aware that a decent database will allow any opponent to effectively combat any opening surprises you may choose, hence it is probably best to stick to what suits your style, not choose something hoping to catch an opponent out.



After days of deliberation and thought I have come up with a plan to reach that goal of the CC-IM title, of course not all plans succeed but time will tell if I can achieve it or not. In a previous post I mentioned my earlier attempts at improving my game and how my plan was not, in a strategic sense, very SMART.  Since finishing work due to family circumstances, I have had more time for my chess and have seen a decent increase in my chess grade, however I am not making much progress of late.

Naturally at work we had more than one method of planning but the smart idea is quite universal so I’ll go with that for now. So, let’s take a look at the plan:

  • Specific – The aim is to achieve the International Master title for Correspondence Chess.
  • Measureable – Title awarded by ICCF.
  • Achievable – Difficult but achievable.
  • Realistic – I am willing to work hard towards this goal.
  • Time Constraint – Not going to happen overnight, possibly 5 years so 31/12/2022.

I have put quite a long timeframe on this as before challenging for the award it is necessary to reach an elo rating of 2300 and then get into tournaments that offer title ‘norms’ of which I need two. Perhaps I need to think of ‘milestones’ such as achieving the 2300 elo, winning the CCE or CCM titles which are quite new to correspondence chess and sit between nothing and the IM title.

Quite a few players now have the CCE CC Expert) or CCM (CC Master) title, the problem in getting it is that the tournament has to have the requisite players for the title norm to be available in that event. For example in the soon to start Veterans World Cup 10 there are no norms available in the preliminary rounds, yet opponents include International Masters etc. I am thinking that having the CCE/CCM titles as milestones is not SMART as it is out of my hands if norms are available in the tournaments. I’ll give this more thought.