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As far as I know, most novelties at top-level games happen near moves 10 to 15. Before that, players just follow the lines, deeply knowing several best moves that lead to reasonable variations.

But what if one of the players spends a lot of time at home making a deep analysis of an opening starting with some very unexpected move such as 1. h3?
On one hand, White's position will be objectively worse.
On the other hand, such a move will devalue Black's preparation for "reasonable" openings. They will more likely blunder or at least spend more time at the opening because it would be a novelty for him.

Is it possible for White to gain an advantage due to excellent preparation, or are all uncommon early novelties bad enough to be easy for Black to refute?

2 Answers 2

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"Is it possible for White to gain an advantage due to excellent preparation, or are all uncommon early novelties bad enough to be easy for Black to refute?" Both are possible.

A famous recent example of White getting an advantage due to excellent preparation was Caruana - MVL, Candidates 2021. 16. c3 was essentially a novelty, and the follow-up pieces sacrifices were certainly novel, but Caruana had prepared the entire line until 26. Rd3 where MVL finally made a "mistake" relative to the absolute engine line by choosing to save his knight and not rook. Strictly speaking, 16. c3 is "worse" than the main line (something like +0.3 -> -0.3), but since MVL did not know it, Caruana gained a practical advantage from blitzing out the next 10 moves while MVL used half of his total time and still got a rotten position.

On the other hand, uncommon early novelties usually lead to unclear positions, but positions where the other side should feel reasonably comfortable with their position as long as they understand the main lines. A good example of some games where this occurred were in the 2021 World Chess Championship. In game 2, Carlsen sacrificed a pawn with the novelty 8. Ne5. While he clearly knew the position better than Nepo, Nepo was able to navigate the position well and even won the exchange around 10 moves later once Carlsen mis-stepped. In the infamous game 6, Carlsen sacrificed another pawn with his 8. c4 and 10. Nbd2 novel follow-up. Nepo refused the pawn sacrifice and instead played principled chess, ultimately getting a perfectly respectable position as black. Neither of these games were "refutations" of the novelty, even though Carlsen was certainly going to be the more prepared player in these lines. Still, both games show that with solid play, you should be able to handle whatever White is throwing at you if you're well aware of ideas in the main lines.

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  • why infamous and not famous? game 9 i believe was infamous, but i think game 6 should be famous...
    – BCLC
    Dec 17, 2021 at 20:01
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    @BCLC youtu.be/Q8mD2hsxrhQ?t=3 Dec 17, 2021 at 20:43
  • @NoseKnowsAll That's not quite hitting it on the nose. If it is infamous, it is famous but there is an upset, mis-behaviour or the like involved. One comes from infamy, the other from fame, even though the value-judgement is nearly gone. Dec 18, 2021 at 21:23
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The point of preparation is to set problems for your opponent that they will find hard to solve over the board. 1.h3 does not do this. It poses no immediate difficulty, and there are millions of ways that the game might go before any difficulty arises; you cannot prepare for all of them. Important innovations happen after both players have consented to a sequence of moves already played previously and known to lead to a tense position.

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