If you can’t decide between the Marshall, the Najdorf, the Dragon, the Sveshnikov and the Winawer, you should consider the workload of each of these opening. The payoff on the other hand doesn’t matter, because all of openings lead to drawn positions and they are all sharp enough for your opponents to go wrong. What follows is a list of variations that you have to be prepared for. Since those are only the starting points, expect a huge amount of work required in some of these lines.

If I counted correctly then the Sveshnikov comes out ahead, and if you consider the amount of forced draws that help to cut down variations, it’s not even close. In my opinion the Sveshnikov is the opening where you clearly get the best bang for the buck. The Rossolimo spoils it a bit, but so does the Ruy Lopez Exchange for the Marshall.

The problem with the Sveshnikov is that it is a very concrete opening where you have to know exactly what you are doing. Superficial knowledge or concepts like “play on the dark squares” are not sufficient. Here is an example from my own practice:

At the first glance this looks like a pretty decent game and if two GMs had played it, you would probably assume that it was computer preparation leading to a draw. There is a rook sacrifice, a queen sacrifice and an exchange sacrifice, white accepts neither one of them and after all of these fireworks it all fizzles out to nothing. It is all cool until you switch on your engine, then you start to cringe. The truth is that I totally botched the opening, ended up in a lost position and simply managed to swindle my opponent.

One final reminder: If you want to play the Sveshnikov because you like the dynamic positions after 9. Bxf6, forget it. About 80% of your games will feature 9. Nd5 where you will be faced with the task of defending a stable rather passive position. Same thing in the Dragon: If you seek “sharp” equality after 9. Bc4, forget it! About 80% of your games will feature 9. 0-0-0 which leads to “boring” equality. In a way it’s like picking your poison and it all depends on how comfortable you are with the position when white doesn’t go for the tactial refutation. That’s why I switched to the Accelerated Dragon.


Update: After Grischuk rolled it out against Topalov in the 2017 Grand Chess Tour in Paris, it may be time to add the extremely forced Nakamura-Variation to the list:

Play it safe!