How do grandmasters choose which opening to play?

A grandmaster base their opening choice on the following: what openings they have prepared for the tournament, what are the weaknesses of the opponent, what are the skill level of the opponent, what is the time control, or just a spark of spontaneity.

The opening is the most studied part of the game more than any other in the elite competitive setting, it is revered. Computer moves are being used constantly to reinforce theoretical openings, which is proof of its importance to grandmasters.

An interesting thought would be how do grandmasters choose which opening to play? It is really interesting to see how the top of the chess rankings deal with their opening decisions.

This will allow us to identify standard considerations when choosing what to play in our own games, so it should be interesting. With all of that in mind, let’s begin.

Do grandmasters play certain openings because they prepared it?

Grandmasters usually study around 1-3 openings for both black and white to be used in specific tournaments, this is a factor in their choice of openings.

The opening itself can either be driven by personal expertise, the expertise of the seconds, or a sense of spontaneity.

The opening repertoire of grandmasters usually don’t include openings that people rarely play.

The thing with the opening is they are made exclusively, something you prepare for white cannot necessarily be applied for the black pieces (it will be a different theory).

This is why grandmasters usually prepare 1-3 openings extensively for both white and black in tournaments, they will choose those since it is heavily studied.

Nobody wants to indulge in uncharted territories in such a competitive setting as a tournament, they study the lines beforehand.

Most of the time, the opening that is being played in such an environment is actually made from preparation, something that has already been decided before the tournament.

A grandmaster will of course consider different factors in assessing which opening to prepare (which will be discussed below).

But ultimately, about 80% of the opening play by a grandmaster is from preparation since it feels comfortable when something is studied beforehand. What are some of the considerations for the preparation though?

Grandmasters prefer playing an opening they have expertise with

One reason for a grandmaster to play a specific opening is expertise, they don’t necessarily have to study something extensively if they’ve mastered it out, Maxime Vachier Lagrave for example is an expert in Sicilian-Najdorf.

With expertise comes deeper insights that can generate ideas only someone who thoroughly studies can identify, it is safe waters for the most part.

These are the openings that grandmasters themselves have likely been playing for years, most of the traps and tricks are embedded in their memory.

This would make their studying easier as they are only focusing on ideas that are not usually seen, and will bring more expertise for the grandmaster in the long-run.

You can argue that since this is their expertise their opponents are likely to improvise a way to counter such, but it just comes to pride at that point.

If someone is proud of being able to master a specific line they would gladly accept the challenge for those who can debunk it, and most of the time it is a good choice for them.

Playing an opening beyond our expertise is risky

If someone is an expert in the game, they would not go into some lines that they haven’t studied or done well against in the past.

A grandmaster should know which theoretical lines they can be comfortable playing against and which are not, and this can be a basis.

Grandmasters have spent so much time learning chess, they know how much preparation it takes to be on the top.

Playing in uncharted territories after all can waste a lot of time, makes one likely to fall for a trap, or is just very stressful to deal with, so grandmasters can rely on their expertise.

There is a video of Vishwanathan Anand in a world blitz semi-final where he has spent a whopping 1:43 min. on just the fourth move of the opening (he only has five minutes to play) due to lack of expertise.

Anand after the match explained that he is not well-versed in the updated version of the theory in the Petroff line and he is worried that his opponent (Smirin) might have prepared something.

He has spent all that time in order to ensure that he is not missing a crucial move, he won in the end but demonstrates how expertise is important in the opening.

He has already been brought into a stressful situation just from the start of the game, there are potential dangers in the position and as a good player, he recognizes and overcomes it.

That is not the case most of the time though, grandmasters can scramble if they have not prepared something, so it is just better to choose something that has been prepared.

Will the choice of openings depend on the weaknesses of the opponent?

Certain players will have certain weaknesses that can be found in databases, grandmasters usually use this as a reference to base what they are going to play against specific players in a tournament.

Chess elites scout each other through databases to gain an idea of a particular playstyle or opening expertise, this can be a basis to which open to play against specific opponents.

An opponent may have a statistical disadvantage when playing against a certain opening, grandmasters can use this as a basis to play that specific opening against them.

It is after all easy to identify the weaknesses of each competitor in today’s modern world, looking at the databases has become a routine for grandmasters (or their seconds).

It doesn’t have to be direct though, a playing style of an opponent can be used to play an opening that would likely produce the opposite that will pressure that specific player.

If somebody is bad at endgames, one can choose an opening that exchanges a lot of pieces to directly head into the endgame for example.

If one is bad at complications they choose an aggressive line, if one is bad at positional play they can choose a quiet positional line.

The weaknesses of the opponent are a consideration for grandmasters to easily exploit such characteristics and make a win come easier.

Grandmasters study the weaknesses of each other

Other players are likely to study a grandmaster’s own recorded games, this will be a factor in deciding which opening one can opt for.

Perhaps one can predict that their opponent will head into a specific line since they are bad at it, and this can be used in the preparation.

It can be used to identify the weaknesses of the said player and improve it, in order to meet the expected battle plan of the competitors.

Or conversely, it can be used to identify which type of position the opponent can choose to go for and therefore be able to counter it.

So for example, if an opponent is expected to play aggressively since the grandmaster is bad at complications, they can use the English opening to nullify the possibility.

Grandmasters are studying each other trying to predict opening choices and devising counter-strategies against each other, it is amazing.

Do grandmasters play specific openings to achieve specific results?

A grandmaster will play a quiet opening if they are looking for a draw while something quite aggressive (even a gambit) if they are looking for a win. The opening choice for a grandmaster will depend on the outcome they are looking to achieve.

A grandmaster can choose an opening that they wouldn’t normally play depending on their standing (on a tournament) or position in a match, especially when they need to win.

Someone who is more oriented to positional-play can choose a more aggressive opening if a win really is a necessity (armageddon for example).

If you don’t know what an armageddon is, this article (will open in a new tab) shall explain the rules of such a tie break, but essentially it is where a draw is not enough.

In such situations a grandmaster will choose openings that are not that stable since a draw is to be avoided, they are likely to even play gambits that are pretty uncommon.

Conversely if a grandmaster is only looking for a draw they wouldn’t choose complicated openings and will settle for an uneventful one.

Even a grandmaster that is focused on attacks can play it safe since they wouldn’t want to risk losing, therefore choosing a quiet opening (something that they wouldn’t normally do).

Why do grandmasters occasionally play ridiculous openings?

There are openings that exist to be noted as so horrible that it can never touch the light of competitive play you would think, but it did.

Some openings have been played just because of the surprises, hoping to break a stasis in the match to get a decisive win 

Sometimes theory is not enough to beat someone who has also mastered the theory, so an opening out of the ordinary can throw someone off.

Some of the ridiculous openings you wouldn’t expect to see in top play are the Barnes opening or Polish opening, or other gambits like King’s gambit and Evan’s gambit.

Is skill level a factor when elites decide which opening to play?

Grandmasters are likely to play super-aggressive and suboptimal openings against opponents of inferior skill level, something that they will never choose against opponents of higher or equal strength.

Grandmasters will decide what opening to use depending on the skill level of the opponent, some might even try gambits against people they are confident to beat.

It is not just when they are forced to win, there is much more leeway if the skill of the opponent is not comparable to the grandmaster.

They are much less likely to know the correct replies to even the most revocable theories, this allows grandmasters to put on a show.

A show that would highlight their most known quality as a player, so they might play openings that are more aggressive than usual than if they will play against someone their level.

Conversely, a grandmaster pitted against another expert will try to play quiet openings (most of the time) since the opponent is likely to be capable of making appropriate replies.

Suspicious moves can make a grandmaster deviate from an opening

A factor for an elite to play specific openings is based on the choice of moves of their opponents, whether it is suspicious or not.

They may have prepared something extensively before the game but have seen very unusual moves from the opponent, indicating that they have also prepared.

This will make a grandmaster choose another line that is less likely to have been studied by the opponent, since they don’t want to go into the preparation.

However if the unusual moves are played by someone who is a rookie, the grandmaster might not even pay attention to the opening.

Is there always a reason why an elite played a specific opening?

Occasionally there is no reason at all for a grandmaster to play a specific opening, it can be done in the spur of the moment without any prior study (especially if the setting is not competitive) since most grandmasters already have the knowledge to play most of the openings available.

You see just like us mortals grandmasters have emotions too, they might feel a specific urge to try something without any initial preparation.

Occasionally grandmasters might play openings that they have not thoroughly studied on a whim, there is no need to have a reason.

But again, 80% of the openings played in tournaments (at least) are prepared or studied beforehand to a degree. Only a really small minority of the opening choices can be derived spontaneously since there is a lot of risk to playing in uncharted territories.

But it does happen, grandmasters might even try to experiment if they are confident that they can beat the one on the opposite side of the board.

Grandmasters can have different openings in different time controls

An elite player will also play different openings depending on the time control since the pressures will differ among different time formats.

An opening that might not work within longer formats (since it can easily be analyzed) might actually be a good choice in blitz or bullet.

In long formats there is a lot of time to think about the best replies and evaluate the weaknesses of a move, that is not the case when there is not a lot of time.

In blitz, even gambits can work since the replies are most of the time not well analyzed, therefore making it more likely for both players to make a mistake.

Do you now know how grandmasters choose their openings?

Opening preparation is definitely a serious step that every grandmaster takes a lot of investment to master, it is pretty interesting.

Most people wouldn’t benefit much by focusing on the openings but some do, and it is important to know the standard that the experts follow in order to do things right.

It gives us an idea of how serious the competition in tournaments is, and to what lengths people would go in order to have any advantage they can attain.

It can allow us to appreciate the greatness in theoretical openings seen in competitions since we know that the battle begins even before it has started.

Personally I just love to share these things since I have a lot of knowledge to say, and I did, sleep well and play chess.