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I like to play correspondence thematic tournaments as a way to practice/learn new openings/variations. Since they are unrated, I sometimes try wild/unusual moves to see what happens. However, I was wondering which is the best way to prepare for this kind of tournament if one wants to obtain best results (=win as many games as possible).

Thematic tournaments are those where all players start the game the same way, with a previously decided opening variation. This gives you the opportunity to study in advance the said opening. How do you do that? And how do you choose your moves?

Previously, I have taken the rather simplistic strategy of choosing the move with the highest winning percentage according to the database. But this sometimes leads you to inferior situations if you don't look to what happens in posterior moves.

Also, in correspondence games (ICCF, at least), players may use any help (books, databases, computer engines) they like in choosing their moves. So opening traps are unlikely to work.

UPDATE 20-10-2020

I am not interested in getting advice for a particular opening, but rather on the method you follow to prepare for such a tournament. Also, one of the interests of thematic tournaments is the opportunity to find and test new/unusual lines. I am also interested in the method to do this.

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    What opening would you exactly like to prepare? It's hard to give an answer that applies to all cases. Some opening require deep study and memorization of concrete lines. Others are more oreinted towards mastering a certain pawn structure or strategic theme. – David Oct 19 at 11:30
  • @David I am not interested in getting advice for a particular opening, but on the process you follow to prepare for this kind of tournament. In particular, I am interested about the process of finding new interesting lines. Also, although I am allowed to use whichever source of information I have at my disposal I should decide on my moves alone. Since the games start in a few days, I would rather not discuss the moves here with you all, that would be cheating once the games started. – lodebari Oct 20 at 5:51
  • @David I forgot, I have already some ideas of things that might work (analyzing games, etc.) but I am interested to know what more experienced people do. There surely is something I am missing. – lodebari Oct 20 at 5:53
  • @lodebert The process itself is dependent on what openings you are planning on using. The Dragon Sicilian can't be prepared in the same way as a Nimzo-Indian or a Queen's Gambit. – David Oct 20 at 8:12
  • @David So, one of the first steps would be to identify the main motives of the opening (mainly tactical/positional, type of center, resulting pawn structures, etc.) and then build on that. Is that what you are saying? – lodebari Oct 20 at 11:30
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I don't play correspondence chess myself (if I have occasionally it's without engines), but I have written a few opening books. The research aspect of both activities share some similarities.

In the tournament, I'm assuming you're allowed to use engines and databases. I'd recommend getting the best engine available (Stockfish 12), downloading the updated TWIC database, getting the up to date ICCF database, and possibly buying any recent books on the opening in question. You could try looking into renting someone's CPU time on the cloud to run Leela, but this seems excessive.

Then, before the tournament the main thing to do is to understand general important patterns in the opening you'll be playing. For example, who usually benefits from certain types of positions that can arise, where do the pieces tend to go in various circumstances, etc. Also try to learn the plans for both sides (how to develop, where to attack, etc). This will be useful to help guide the engine: i.e., to know what moves to get it to spend more of its time analyzing, since if those moves correspond to core principles, they have a higher chance of being right. Although there are always exceptions to principles and patterns!

When you're guiding an engine, this means letting it think for a bit. Then, when it comes up with a move (ideally at depth 30 or higher if you're very serious, otherwise, depth 25ish is okay -- although if it's absolutely clear only one move is acceptable, no need to let the engine think this long), play that move, and let the engine think again. Once you do this enough times, you can see what the evaluation is for the position you reach a number of moves later. This is a much more efficient way of analyzing than just letting the engine think on the starting position for some indefinite amount of time. Also, don't just play out the line with the best suggested moves, look at other moves as well when guiding the engine, and map those out for a while. It's possible an engine's third best move is actually the best one, which you could realize after analyzing it for many moves deep.

The exception to choosing a move the engine gives when guiding it is if the game is still early and you clearly know the move goes against the principles of the opening (based off your study of it). Like say it's on the 8th move and the engine wants to go against widely accepted theory - there's a good chance you can just ignore it. Another indication that the engine's move is poor is if it conflicts with the most common practice from the ICCF database. In this case, even if the game is later on in its development (say move 20+), ICCF games spend days on each move and use engines themselves. Although keep in mind that Stockfish 12 might be better than a game in the ICCF database from a few years ago, since the engine has made significant improvements. As in some cases, it might be that Stockfish 12 can do better in a few minutes than a correspondence player could guiding an old version of Stockfish (or another engine) for a few days.

As for finding and testing new/unusual ideas, don't worry about coming up with these before the tournament. During your games, when you guide the engine you can do this. If you see some wacky move that your gut tells you is good, and if the engine at least doesn't laugh at completely right away, then go ahead and guide the engine through analyzing this move. The engine might be a bit skeptical of the move at first, but if you play through the best moves it suggests (especially for each move being given at depth 30+), you'll have a better idea of the new move's validity at some point.

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I’m not sure if a correspondence chess thematic tournament is the right place for learning the basics of an opening. For obtaining good results, i recommend:

  1. Know your opening. Study all available grandmaster games, try to understand their plans. Get help by an engine, a book and/or a strong player. Be aware that the winning percentage of a line in a database is historical: The line might have been thought playable for a while, than the refutation was discovered, no one played the line since, so the winning percentage might remain high for a bad line. Don’t enter a correspondence chess thematic tournament until you have learned the opening. If you want to learn by playing, play a rapid online thematic tournament.
  2. Prepare a new idea if possible. That’s something else than „wild moves“. And it is difficult. A lot of playable ideas have already been tried. But there are lines that have been played once and could be revived. And other moves have never been played and might prove correct. Test your ideas with some engines to see what happens. Your opponents will also use engines, so there is no need to play bad moves in a tournament just to see what happens and loosing a game by doing so. But don’t believe an engine a single word about complicated endgames ;-) That’s the reason why correspondence chess still exists in spite of engines.

While in an unrated thematic tournament, you will find players who do not respect their opponents and play „wild moves“, be kind and don’t do so. Even unrated events are taken serious by most of their participants.

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  • Maybe I should have defined "wild moves" better: uncommon moves or dubious sacrifices I would not try on different circumstances. Thanks also on the insight about respecting the opponents, I hadn't thought about this. One reason is that at the level I am playing most players use databases, but not all of them use engines (I use them only occasionally myself). Still, I'll follow your advice and when I try unexpected moves in the future I'll do so based on deeper previous analysis. – lodebari Oct 20 at 6:12
  • @lodebari Ok, that’s something else :-) But while those moves can win a blitz game or even a regular tournament, they have to be ultra-sound (or ultra-complicated) to stand in an correspondence chess match. – Christian H. Kuhn Oct 20 at 8:37

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