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The Other End of the Quill

Hitai Talks About Chess: Problems in the English Opening

Rating: 4 votes, 4.75 average.
Well I haven't updated this in a while, so why not brush the cobwebs off this old blog and write something interesting.

Back in the day, folks used to play chess on TWC. We had chess tournaments and there was even a member of Gaming Staff responsible for chess related matters (a good buddy of mine actually, who has sadly been absent in recent times). If you see me around the forums posting, underneath my avatar it has two extra fields: Tournaments Joined and Tournaments Won. This was from an old chess tournament here that I participated in. I lost in the semi-finals, sadly, but it's a fun little piece of TWC history.

I play chess on and off. I've never played over the board chess and I don't have an official rating, but I play a fair bit online. I was playing some mmo's recently, but I was really missing a competitive 1v1 kind of game, so these past few months I've defaulted back to chess again, after a bit of a break. I primarily play 5|5 blitz chess, which is 5 minutes, with a 5 second increment. So you have 5 minutes in which to play your moves, but for every move you make, you gain 5 seconds on your clock. This is quite useful and whenever I play 5|0, I always get into winning positions, but lose on time! So a little increment is very nice, just to have a safety cushion.

My current blitz rating is 1069, which honestly isn't all too good (about 63% percentile). But since playing again, I've managed to get this up from around 800, so I can't complain. I'm regularly getting to 1100 and it's definitely a platform I can build upon.

What barriers am I facing though? Why have I plateaued at 1100? I think part of this comes down to the openings I play. For those who don't know chess, your opening is your choice of moves and position at the start of the game. It's good to have one or two openings for playing both white and black, so that you can get into middle games feeling comfortable.

The thing is, these days I'm much more comfortable playing with the black pieces. The opening that I play for white (which I've played for years) is the English, but I'm really struggling to pick up convincing wins with it recently.

The English

The English Opening begins with the move c4. It is a hyper-modern opening, which focuses on gaining control over the flank, rather than putting direct pressure on the central four squares (the most important). By ceding control of the centre, white hopes to develop his minor pieces quickly to the flanks and put indirect pressure on black's central advance.

The reason why I've always liked this opening is because there's less transposition than other openings. In other words, my first few moves will always be the same, regardless of what black does. This means that I won't have to play into black's hands too much, and what they choose as a defence won't immediately force me into a different line and out of the English. For example, in the Symmetrical, the Symslov and the Carls-Bremem variations (three common lines the English can go down), my position is always the same, and I can feel quite comfortable.

As you can see, I always have three pieces pointing at the d5 square and I'm controlling the centre of the board from the flanks, without moving my central pawns. Whilst my position tends to stay the same, black still does have some agency, especially if they play very aggressively. Nb4 can be an annoying move in some lines, which often prompts me to play a3 pre-emptively and lose a tempo, which is definitely something you shouldn't be doing as white. But I'm not a huge fan of playing d3 as a response to nb4, especially if I've already played e3 and developed my king side knight to e2, which is fairly standard for me (and d3 is often required when black plays their light square bishop to e6).

This is a very standard position for me out of the Reversed Sicilian, from a game I lost last month. Already you can see some issues. First of all, my dark square bishop isn't doing anything and I often struggle to get him working properly in the English. Secondly, my Queen has nowhere to go either. Whilst I'm typically looking at a d4 break in this position to get her working, if my opponent locks up the position, she has no good squares to go to. In this game I did play a d4 break, but my queen still didn't move until move 20 (where I blundered her and lost my rook in response). Black, meanwhile, had his queen much more active in the middle game and eventually won.

The English, like any opening which includes a fianchetto (moving your bishop onto a long diagonal) is also susceptible to modern attacks such as above, where the black queen and bishop are combining to force a light square bishop exchange. This neutralises my best piece and also calls my king's safety into question. It also reinforces the how lacklustre my dark square bishop is, and he is going to really struggle as the game progresses, especially if black can get into a knight vs bishop endgame. Being able to avoid these kind of situations, or turn them to my advantage, is definitely something I need to work on in my games.

My main problem though, is that I just really struggle to be aggressive with the English and a hyper-aggressive black player will often crush me and exploit the slow development of my dark square bishop and queen. Somewhere along the line I always seem to lose white's inherent initiative, and I find myself on the defensive. Rb2 has been suggested as an alternative attack for white out of the English, especially against a c6 knight in a Carls-Bremen or Reversed Sicilian variation, which is something I'm looking to try out. An early queen side attack might be a good solution to my troubles here, instead of looking for a delayed central break.

Well, that was a quick discussion about some problems I'm having out of the English - I probably need to hit the books and study up a bit more! Thanks for reading, and if you fancy a game, don't hesitate to drop me a line!

Updated May 03, 2018 at 04:24 PM by Hitai de Bodemloze



  1. NorseThing's Avatar
    This brings back memories from decades ago. I was always a Fischer guy so this was one of my favorites. Anything to steal a tempo!
  2. pannonian's Avatar
    I played a mini tourney a number of years ago that Harry Lime won, with one of the games being an opposite castling Sicilian where I thought I was playing to entice his pawns forward, only to notice too late that he was only doing so to restrict my pieces, whereupon I threw my queenside pawns forward too late.

    Here's a game that I won though, where my opponent effectively lost the game through a positional blunder that allowed me to dominate the board. I liked the ending though, where I encouraged him to take as many pawns as he wanted, but each one taken weakened his position.

    1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d3 Bg4 5. Be3 Bxf3 6. Qxf3 c6 7. Nc3
    Qa5 8. O-O c5?

    This created an outpost for me at d5. So I proceeded to swap off as many of his minor pieces as I could that could access d5, starting with my dark squared (useless) bishop for his f6 knight.

    9. Bg5 Nbd7 10. Bxf6 Nxf6 11. Nd5 O-O-O

    Giving up a pawn, but if he's castling on the opposite side he may not care too much.

    12. Nxf6 gxf6 13. Qxf6 Rg8 14. Bd5

    The whole point of the exchanges.

    14... Qd2 15. Rfd1

    Look at that tasty c2 pawn, undefended and helpless. Here's your chance to get your pawn back.

    15... Qxc2 16. Rac1 Qxb2 17. Rb1 1-0

    He didn't move in time, and I claimed a win on time. A plausible continuation for black may be to move the Q to e2 and hopefully escape back to g4. However, that d5 B is mighty strong, and the game might have continued thus.

    17... Qe2 18. Qxf7 Rg7

    Looking to defend the 2nd rank as well as support the Q coming to g4. However, the white Q is in the way, as that d5 B makes itself felt. It's forced mate from here.

    19. Bxb7+ Kb8 20. Bd5+ Kc8 21. Be6+ Rd7 22. Qe8+ Kc7 23. Qb8+ Kc6 24. Bd5#

    As well as encouraging my opponent to take my pawns, I also liked the theme of using my Q to block the way while my B did the heavy lifting.