I found examples soon enough, but oddly - or, at the time, I found it odd - none of them involved players rated higher than myself. The six black games at Benasque, by contrast, had all involved players whose FIDE ratings were lower than mine. So I looked further - and though, eventually, I did come across games with lower-rated opponents playing 1.d4, another pattern emerged. While higher-rated opponents tended to accompany the move with 2.c4, the lower-rated players did not. None of them did.
There were Colles and Torres. There were games where c4 was played rather late on. But there were no Black games with a d4/c4 set-up as a first choice: not until I got as far back as February 2006, in which month I played two of them. A Slav and a Semi-Slav, both games against players graded not far below me (in the 160s ECF). February 2006. That's nearly three and a half years ago.
Is that extraordinary? It seems extraordinary to me. We all know that 1.e4 is a rather more popular choice, at club level, than the d-pawn. But where the d-pawn is selected - have the Queen's Gambit and Indian set-ups really become so very unpopular? At grandmaster level they took over from the alternative ways of handling 1.d4 eighty years ago and more - has this process, among club players, been reversed? (Or, perhaps, did it never really happen?)
I investigated my last 100 competitive OTB games with the Black pieces (which involved going back to 25 February 2005, picking up a couple more d4/c4 games from lower-graded opponents as I did so) and tabulated them by opening choice and strength of opponent. In the latter category I divided opponents up into three categories:
- those substantially stronger than myself (which I categorised as above 2200)
- those substantially weaker (below 2100)
- those of relatively similar strength (between those two figures).
The openings were also divided three ways:
- d4/c4 set-ups
The table I thus compiled is below.
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2100 - 2200
What, if anything, does it tell us? On one perfectly reasonable approach, not very much, since 100 games is still a very small sample. (I'd be interested in the opinion of anybody with qualifications in statistics, but I think I'd want perhaps 10,000 before coming to any serious conclusions.) Moreover the fact that all were played against the same opponent might in itself cause the statistics to be skewed, given the possibility of preparation, of opening choices being influenced by the identity (and for that matter the playing strength) of the particular opponent.
Still, they are the statistics I have, so they're the ones I'm working with. Note that because they are based on exactly 100 games, it's simple to add together figures to get overall percentages, so for instance we can see that 1.e4 was selected in 62% of games, d4/c4 in 21% and "others" in 17%.
Nothing utterly startling there, though the figures for "others" would, I think, be rather lower at professional level. But what does stand out, for me, is that for players rated below 2100, d4/c4 systems are outweighed by "others" by a ratio of 3:1. There's an obvious contrast with the higher-rated categories: in the middle-strength category the ratio is 2:1 the other way and in the highest, the imbalance against "others" is more than 5:1.
There's a slight falling-off in the use of 1.e4, the higher we go: it was employed in 57% (17/30) of all games in the highest category, but 65% (17/26) in the middle and 64% (28/44) in the lowest. Whether or not that would be reproduced with a bigger and better sample, I'd be interested to know: I was a little surprised to see players below 2100 apparently no more fond of 1.e4 than players between 2100 and 2200. A better sample would of course show whether that was actually so.
But it's the differential between d4/c4 and "others", among the lower-graded players, that really commands the attention. Partly because of the way in which it reverses the situation obtaining in higher-strength categories - partly in and of itself.
That 1:3 ratio, if it's an accurate reflection of the general reality, would tell us a lot about how lower-graded players approach their openings - and it might also tell us a lot about how they should approach their openings. It's been written* that at club level, 2.c3 in the Sicilian is the main line. If that's true, it may be similarly true that at club level, where 1.e4 is not selected it's the alternatives to d4/c4 that are the main line: not the traditional d4/c4 set-up at all. To a surprisingly large degree, but a large one nonetheless.
How many club players, studying their repertoire as Black, spend three times as much time studying those alternatives - Reti/English, Colle, Torre, Trompovsky and so on - than the Queen's Gambit and Indian lines which have been dominant for several generations at a higher level? My guess would be along the lines of "none, or close to none". But it might be wiser if they did.
Of course, if everybody did, then people would start playing the "main" lines after all, but as it stands, if your opponents are overwhelmingly below 2100 in strength - and this is presumably the case for most club players - then it's quite likely, at the moment, that when you're looking at opening theory that will be of actual use to you, you're looking in very much the wrong place.
It's a lesson it's taken me thirty years to learn, that you basically want to prepare for opponents you're actually likely to meet. Of course it's true at the same time that the higher-graded your opponent, the more they're likely to know and understand, and so it can be helpful to spend more time thinking about what to do against them than you is proportional to the regularity with which you meet them - especially if, like the the present writer, your opening choices vary to some extent, contingent on the strength of the opposition. But still, if you are thinking practically then it's a point to bear in mind, and perhaps at the forefront of your mind.
Are you really going to study contemporary theory in the Anti-Moscow Gambit when the only people who play it are people who you meet maybe once every two seasons and who are graded wildly higher than you anyway? Or might you be better off thinking about the Colle System that you come up against several times a season - and never really know what you should do against?
[* that is, written to me by Tom in an email a couple of years ago. Tom draws it to my attention that in the same email, he also mentioned the lack of mainline d4/c4 openings at club level. I should have read more carefully, or remembered more fully!]