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dfan's answer to this question suggested the following. Why would a specific opening become popular as the method of choice to play for a draw? Wouldn't it be better to select an obscure out-of-fashion variation that leads to a draw? That way you always have the chance to catch your opponent unprepared and score an extra 1/2 point.

  • If you choose an out-of-fashion 'drawing' opening, your opponent may miss the fact you're looking for a draw. This negates the benefit of selecting a 'drawing' opening. – Tony Ennis Sep 14 '13 at 13:26
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Because an obscure variation is just that -- obscure. It is far less understood and analyzed, and so you cannot be confident in your ability to play lines that lead to the outcome you want. In a well known opening, you can play the lines that you know most likely lead to certain positions.

In response to your edit:

In order to be confident in playing the lines of an opening, you would have to be well-studied in it. If you are playing at high level chess, your opponent most likely will know that you play these lines, and will prepare for it.

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If I choose a well known drawish opening, it sends two messages to my opponent:

  1. Offer me a draw and I'll accept it
  2. If you play for a win, you'll just smash against my rocks. If you try too hard, you'll lose. If you don't, you'll probably just get a draw anyway.

Of course, some opponents won't care and will fight for the win while others will be more than ready to throw in the towel, especially if there's a rating difference in the opponent's favor.

This really only applies to master play. Amateurs make enough mistakes that nothing is drawish, nothing is safe.

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It's difficult to give a general answer why one opening is more popular than another. I can try to give some reasons in the specific case of Berlin vs Petrov that prompted your question.

In the Petrov the following line is popular for white.

[fen ""]
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3 Nxc3 6.dxc3

This might be theoretically fine for black, but from a practical point of view white is very much in control. White may have prepared a dangerous novelty to use at a later stage in the opening, and black has to react over the board. There is almost no upside for black as white can play for a win with little risk.

The Berlin

[fen ""]
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 

on the other is much more flexible. Black has almost as many different possible set-ups as white has. Compared with the Petrov, here it is much more difficult for white to prepare specific lines. White frequently goes wrong even at the highest levels. I think Aronian once commented that he sometimes plays the Berlin when he wants to win with black.

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Specific openings become popular as a way to play for a draw (among grandmasters!) because those openings tend to lead to very drawish position (few unbalances).

Playing less popular lines is a different subject, with pros and cons -- the opponent may not remember too much about it and that may be an advantage, on the other hand you won't have much experience with them either, and unpopular openings are usually unpopular for a reason -- they're often worse than the popular ones. In fact your opponent may well know the exact reason why it's unpopular.

But those are trade-offs associated with playing unpopular openings at all -- not of playing them when trying to achieve a draw. Your question boils down to "why play popular openings at all?" Well, if one line is seen as having the biggest chance of success at the moment, then that line is going to be popular.

People don't choose a line based on popularity, but based on how good they think they can do with the positions they lead to.

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