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If you look at openings explorer, you can see the most popular moves and their respective win percentages. Most lines have top 2 or 3 moves that number in the (ten) thousands. However, there are moves less common (100s of games) with better percentages. What is the best way to think about this problem? If you take two alternatives with equal win percentages but one is much more common, is it better to play the less common because your opponent is less likely to be familiar with it? Alternatively, should you not play it because it's less popular for a reason, and that reason is that it's not as good?

Here is an example: https://www.chess.com/openings/Kings-Indian-Defense-Normal-Variation-4.e4-O-O

  1. Nge2 has the highest win percentage, but it is not very popular.
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There are many reasons why percentages are misleading. They can mean that the move is more often played when white is stronger than black, or in situations where a draw isn't what white wants, or there is a trap that many people fall into but that can be avoided, or lots of different reasons. Maybe it used to be considered good in the past until some novelty was found that refutes it, and then people stopped playing it.

For your game, what matters is how you will score playing it. That depends not on the results other people had with it in the past, but on how good your moves in the rest of the game are going to be.

So much more important than the winning percentage is how well you understand the idea behind the move. 5.Nge2 there is a bit odd since it doesn't pressure e5 and blocks the white bishop; but in return you keep options open with your f-pawn (you can still transpose to the Samisch, basically). Is that what you want? Do you think you can make the best of those pros and cons? Do you understand what black can do to make use of the cons, and are you ok with that?

That's the sort of thing you need to be asking instead of looking at percentages.

Although of course if they are extreme and you don't know why, that may be a hint that there is something you need to figure out.

Also, the problem with "is it better to play the less common because your opponent is less likely to be familiar with it" with a move that you are not familiar with, is that you are certain that you will be giving yourself that disadvantage, but there is still a chance that your opponent actually knows the move well. So only do that with sidelines you actually investigated a bit first.

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Well, if people don’t see those moves often people don’t know how to react to them. Also keep in mind that the win percentage can sway easily due to the small amount of people playing that move.

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  • That's basically the answer, but you could go into more detail. – Annatar Feb 5 at 6:14
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    One important point: In modern times with widespread use of well-updated databases for preparation, if a master finds a solid refutation to some formerly well-performing line, this line will immediately drop out of play before the percentages can adjust downwards. – Annatar Feb 5 at 6:21
  • @Annatar That is a good point – carson07_ Feb 5 at 6:26
  • You can also ask yourself the question if this move was the reason that the game ended the way it ended. Perhaps, especially when there are not that many games, some players failed to play the correct move in the endgame or blundered in a winning position. – Marco Feb 5 at 13:55
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is it better to play the less common because your opponent is less likely to be familiar with it? Alternatively, should you not play it because it's less popular for a reason

Neither.

You would do best to understand that the only popularity contest that is important in your games is which positions you find easier / more fun to play. Play the moves that lead to positions you like not the ones that other people like. They are not playing your game. You are playing your game.

Of course to do this you will need to learn and understand which moves lead to which kinds of positions. Doing this, improving your positional understanding, is an important part of improving as a player.

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