The Ultimate Armageddon Chess Openings
When it comes to chess variants being played by top GMs, few come close to the breathtaking Armageddon Chess. Chess pieces flying all over the board have been the way millions of viewers on YouTube described these types of matches. To call this dramatic would be a massive understatement. Designed as the foolproof tiebreaker, it puts both the result of said tournament, and all that prize money on the line.
A quick explanation about what Armageddon Chess is to those who need it. Armageddon Chess is seen as the ultimate tiebreaker for many of the biggest tournaments. This type of playstyle draws similarities to blitz chess, such as only having 5 to 15 minutes for the white pieces, depending on that particular tournament.
Contrary to blitz, however, both players have different amounts of time. Some of the most popular formats for this type of chess include 4 minutes for black compared to 5 for white, or 5 minutes for black compared to 6. However, in certain tournaments, the players can bid for the chance to play with the black pieces. Though this doesn’t seem fair, the trade-off is that if the game is a draw, black wins, therefore, generally, there is an advantage to obtaining the Black pieces.
Side note, this “race” to obtain the black pieces has often resulted in many hilarious incidents. One of these memorable moments occurred in a match between World Champion Magnus Carlsen and GM Hikaru Nakamura, part of the Champions Chess Tour. Hikaru had boldly predicted that Magnus would bid 9 minutes, so he confidently placed his bet at 8:59. However, in a spectacular twist, Magnus seemingly saw into Hikaru's soul and placed his bet at 8:58, creating a legendary moment in chess history
Many GMs highly regard Armageddon Chess, hence its popularity. However, with the given rules, top players have to get very creative with how they decide to play their games. Therefore, we have compiled a list of openings played by top GMs in this particular variant and their win/lose rate, and explain why we believe that’s the case, starting with the most common openings for both pieces!
Before we dive in, let's discuss how we arrived at our conclusions. We examined a total of 104 games played by Grandmasters from various corners of the globe, across four different international tournaments. These tournaments included the 2019 Armageddon Series, the 2023 Armageddon Series, and more. This diverse selection of games, spanning different timeframes, provides us with valuable insights into these potent repertoires and their standing in the meta.
Furthermore, while this blog post will focus on a handful of the most popular openings, it's essential to acknowledge that more than two dozen different openings were observed. We're not implying that any of these openings are 'bad' or 'unviable,' but it's evident that they might not be the top choice for many Grandmasters. With our stats in order, let's jump into the exploration of these distinct openings!
According to our research, English is far and away, the most played opening for the White pieces. Being used by Ian Nepomniachtchi, and Veselin Tapalov, both in Armageddon games, this repertoire has proven time and time again to be a powerful opening option for their player. And with a win rate of 58%, it is understandable why. However, in a way, this is quite strange, since the English opening is not really known for its aggressive nature, more so, its versatility.
Straight on move 1, the English Opening does not attempt to control the centre with a centre pawn, instead, with a flank pawn, meaning unless the other player decides to play D5, like GM Veselin Topalov in his game against Gata Kamsky, control of the centre will be less dominant than compared to a king’s pawn opening.
Furthermore, The English Opening is known for its ever-slower development of its pieces, as well as the higher tendency to trade more of your pieces. With that being said, the English Opening is known for its versatility, not necessarily its passiveness, and an aggressive playstyle is certainly possible with the repertoire, which is mandatory for the white pieces in this variant of chess.
An example of this would be the game between GM Hikaru Nakumara and Ian Nepomniachtchi in 2015, where Ian, with the white pieces, really shows the aggressive potential of this opening. He leverages the fianchetto bishop to launch a massive attack on the queenside, gaining valuable space, which he eventually uses to gain a full +1 advantage according to Stockfish!
Quite interestingly, according to our research, which will be provided below, the Sicilian, also known as objectively the most aggressive opening for the black repertoire, is an outlier as one of the most played openings with the black pieces. According to armageddon rules, being aggressive with the black pieces would be considered as taking an unnecessary risk. This therefore begs the Question, what urges GMs to go for this insanely wild option?
Stereotypically, the Sicilian is known as by far the most aggressive opening for the black repertoire. But why is that the case? Well, the Sicilian, straight on move one, already attempts to control the centre with a flank and not a centre pawn. This means that the white pieces will aim to attack the Kingside, while the black pieces will attempt to gain control of the Queenside. This also means that, in some positions, defensive options are available for the black pieces playing the Sicilian defense, which would explain the 43% win rate.
An example of defensive resources in by far the most dangerous opening can be found in the game where Fabiano Caruana played 5-time World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen. By placing all his pieces and pawns on or behind the 6th rank, the Sicilian player was waiting to respond to white’s advances, attempting to fight for the centre by poking holes in the enemy position, and eventually, infiltrating. By no means am I saying the Sicilian defense is a passive opening, however, it is impossible to say that this repertoire is certainly not versatile.
THE KING’S INDIAN
This one repertoire stands as an outlier according to our research, with a mind-whopping 17% of all our games being played, and is the only opening we expected to show up. The King’s Indian Defence overall is seen as a very versatile option with the Black pieces. While it is very much possible to use this repertoire aggressively, it can also be a very defensive alternative for the Black pieces.
The King’s Indian defence, firstly, does not focus on putting a pawn straight in the four centre squares straight away, instead, putting a pawn on D6, and waiting for a chance to strike in the centre. This is the very reason GM Mamedyarov chose this repertoire against Maxime Vachier Lagrave. By waiting for the perfect moment to strike in the centre, the Black pieces avoid unnecessary risks, especially avoiding tearing open the centre without preparation. This allows for quite an impressive 46% win rate according to our data!
To analyse the aforementioned game with GM Mamedyarov and MVL, you can tell that all his pieces, just like the Sicilian, are placed on or behind the sixth rank even by move 21, despite there being no apparent attack. In other words, just like the way Nordirbek Abdusattorov managed to leverage his pieces to poke holes in the enemy's position, so did Mamedyarov. This slow yet stable method of playing this game was what eventually got him the win.
LESS PLAYED OPENINGS
When starting this research, we genuinely expected to see many hyper-aggressive openings. High-level Gambits such as the Evans Gambit, or generally aggressive openings like the Spanish were what was on our mind when doing the research. Astonishingly, however, all the openings previously mentioned were only played 4.7% of the time, and the most commonly played gambit was The Queen’s Gambit, which was 7.7% of the time.
Although, some of these openings, for example, the Spanish, have opening counters, that will likely bring the game to a draw, think, Berlin Defence. Furthermore, it’s not impossible to think that Gambits, barring the Queen’s Gambit, could be way too risky for the White pieces at these high levels. This is evidence for the fact that, perhaps these time control handicaps are not as big of a game-changer as we first thought, and that GMs might not be too interested in changing their primary repertoire to combat these new conditions.
The results that we’ve found were rather extremely interesting and unexpected. This shows that the rules of Armageddon Chess don’t completely change a GM's repertoire, instead, they just mildly adapt to the new ruleset to gain the best chance. With all that being said, if you’re looking to prepare for an Armageddon Chess game, here are a few essentials you should keep in mind, based on the data we just mentioned!
Don’t completely change your opening repertoire - As the data showed, it is most likely best for you to slightly shift your openings, if necessary, but don’t completely change them. This could mean choosing a more/less aggressive variation or picking a repertoire you’re familiar with.
- Black has less time on the clock - Due to the major advantage of black winning should there be a draw, it is advised for white to look out for and choose complex openings. A common example we see is White trying to be hyper-aggressive in many Sicilian games, making positions more complex, and ultimately, wasting Black’s time.
All in all, there are many different openings one may consider when choosing a repertoire designed for armageddon games. But, to answer the question we originally challenged ourselves to find, which is what is the best opening, specifically for armageddon chess, it would have to be the English opening for White and the Sicilian for Black.
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About the Author
Andy Nguyen (aka Andy Green) is a chess-based copywriter who also enjoys writing chess lessons for others to read. You can reach him on Twitter (@AndyGreenChess).