Seirawan and Openings

By Bill Wall


A few years ago, former U.S. chess champion Yasser Seirawan wrote a book called Winning Chess Openings.  The book was more than just chess openings; it was how Seirawan learned and experienced chess openings himself. 


Previously, Seirawan wrote a book called Winning Chess Endings and had some ideas about how endings should be presented.  He knew that telling a student to study the endings didn’t do much good.  Most endgame books were just too boring and he felt that a new approach was called for.


He took the same approach for chess openings.  He knew that beginning players pound away in the openings with little rhyme or reason and almost never get to an endgame.  Seirawan knew that there were thousands of chess books on openings, so he took a new approach and wrote about his own experiences, right and wrong, of how he learned and studied openings.


Seirawan spoke to several other grandmasters and was astonished to discover how many “identical steps” they all took together in learning openings.  Virtually all of Seirawan’s grandmaster friends committed the same errors and discovered or were taught the truths about chess openings.  So why not teach others based on the experience of Seirawan and other elite grandmasters.


Seirawan recited his own first-hand experiences of his failings as a chess beginner and how his defeats helped guide him in the openings.   His presentation of opening material in his book is in the same order as it was taught to him.  Sierawan first introduces opening discoveries that he thought was his own (in chess, there is nothing new under the sun).  He shows his first openings there were not very pretty (Queen out early, pawns moving out first from the edge rather than the center, etc) which demonstrates  what a truly poor player he was at the beginning.  It was only after working with experienced chess players, who became his chess teachers, did he learn classical King Pawn and classical Queen Pawn openings. 


Seirawan’s chess teachers just didn’t whip through the first dozen moves and proudly state, “So that, Yasser, is the Queen’s Gambit Declined, Orthodox Variation!”  Instead, they encouraged him to question every move, including the first one.  He was asked to memorize any opening.  He was taught to understand the logic of the move.   Yasser wanted to know why a move was good or bad.  He soon learned that every logical move had an opening name.  Sierawan teaches the classical openings in the same manner – by questioning every move and looking at the alternatives while trying to stay on a main line.


After he learned the classic openings and the principles, it seemed to him that a fair number of modern defenses violated the principles.  And they do.  Principles are only guides; they are not rules.  Seirawan recommends not to cling to principles as the sole answer to a given position.  They are there to stimulate you to think up the right move or plan.


Seirawan found the amount of theory of chess openings overwhelming.  It seemed that he was always a step behind his opponent on the latest opening moves.   So his solution was to try to avoid the sharpest theoretical variations.  He would play openings that created a solid hiding place for his King.  Once that had been done, he turned to dealing with the center, found a plan, and conducted possible attacks.


The first critical lesson that Seirwan gives in his book is to write down the moves to all your games and save your game scores.  If you are playing quick or 5-minute games, try to record these games as best as you can.  If that is too hard, try to reconstruct the game afterward and make a written record.  Seirawan says that he improved his play enormously by doing this simple exercise and charting his own progress.


Another sound advice that Seirawan makes is to believe in your own ideas.  Give up your own ideas only after severe trial and tribulations.  If you get clobbered, then seek an adjustment, but don’t be afraid to play your own moves.  They might be bad, but you will learn a lot faster playing your own moves instead of copying or mimicking others.  Adjust your ideas by the results of your own practice.


Seirawan writes that he fell for the greatest pitfall for all beginners: an overwhelming fascination with the Queen’s power.  He would develop his Queen early and try to win as fast as possible.  He soon started playing chess with more experienced players at a chess club.  But every time he brought out his Queen early, he soon lost.  He found that his Queen was being chased around the board and that he was falling behind in development.  He discovered a new principle: While an early Queen Raid against a beginner is effective, a Queen Raid will not work against an experienced opponent who knows how to coordinate pieces.   He noted that beginning players enjoy using their big guns, their Queens and Rooks, early – often to the exclusion of all the other pieces.  The Queen Raid is effective when threats are overlooked.  Against a proper defense, the Queen is vulnerable to attack and is often left stranded.


When Yasser started playing at a chess club (Last Exit Coffeehouse in Seattle), he found that a whole new understanding of the chess world opened up for him.  By playing against experienced players, he gained a new appreciation for the game.  All his opening “innovations” were being neatly refuted, and he was completely unable to survive the opening stages.  He learned a new principle of chess: A chess game has three phases called the opening, the middle game, and the endgame.  In the opening, pawns and minor pieces (knights and bishops) play the key roles.  The major pieces (Queen and Rooks) do not.


If Yasser was to have any chance against an experience player, he would have to learn how to use his pawns and to develop his Knights and Bishops first.  He had to resist the impulse to bring his Queen out too early or to expect his Rooks to blaze away like cannons.  He had to learn that the purpose of the opening was to get a safe King and an equal middle game.


After watching many chess games between strong players, he noticed that some players intentionally sacrificed material, usually a pawn, for superior development.    That concept of giving up a pawn or pieces for gain in development was called a gambit.  He had witnessed a few King’s Gambit openings.


The next things that Seirawan learned were new pawn formations.  Before that, he never thought of pawn structures at all.  He thought pawns just got in the way or got traded.    The next principle that he learned was that the underlying goal for all openings and defenses was to control the center.  That principle had not occurred to him in his early days of chess.   Armed with this understanding of the need to control the center, it became much easier for him to understand why some of the moves for those peculiar-sounding openings were played.  It was at this point that game notation (first descriptive, then algebraic notation) became an important part of his development.  He was now writing down the moves of his chess games.  He was then able to analyze the games at home and learn if what he had played was right or wrong.  Along with writing down the moves to his own games, he discovered that he could replay the games of other players.  He soon discovered chess books.


As soon as Yasser began to compete with more experience players, he had a new outlook on chess and began to understand chess openings, the principles of play, pawn structures, controlling the center, protecting his King, open files, outposts, gambits, tactics, and combinations.


At the beginning, Yasser avoided strong players (he didn’t like losing).  On the other hand, he realized that he learned a lot more from his losses than from his wins due to some trappy opening moves that a beginner would fall for.  Summoning up his courage, he began to play stronger players that he knew would clobber him.  The effort paid off.  Playing stronger opponents was simply the best way of improving his game.


Seirawan also discovered the difference in classical King Pawn openings and classical Queen Pawn openings.  King Pawn openings usually meant that sharp play would ensue immediately; the King was more vulnerable; calculating variations was fundamental; an opening slip could cost the game; certain lines required memorization; and the game was often shorter.  Queen Pawn openings usually meant that the fight was delayed until later in the game; the King was less vulnerable; strategic play was fundamental; opening slips were as meaningful; memorizing lines was less necessary; and the game usually lasted longer.  Seirawan liked the King Pawn openings more because Bobby Fischer played it.