3 Rules to Thrive in Sharp Chess Openings

Gazing over at your ticking clock, readjusting in your seat to ease the cramps in your legs, hands clamped over your forehead as you continue to check and recheck your calculations to make sure you aren’t blundering in an extremely sharp chess position…

If you’re a seasoned chess player, then you know this feeling all too well. It’s worrisome; it generates anxiety and creates jitters. You don’t want to screw these moments up. If you do, your position will come crashing down in a matter of moves.

Let’s define a sharp position as it applies to chess, learn how to identify them, and most importantly how to survive and thrive in them!

Combining communal definitions found in the Chess Reddit and Wikipedia’s Chess Glossary we will create our own definition.

Sharp SHärp (adj.): an extremely tactical position where there is little room for error and very few candidate moves to consider.

Often times in sharp positions, one mistake can decide the game. There are opening variations that tend to be sharp, styles of play that tend to be sharp, and positions that become sharp by virtue of the decisions made by both players.

While it is easy to go wrong in sharp positions, there are a few disciplines that, if mastered, will help you come out on top or, at the very least, survive with the least amount of damage possible to your position.

Sometimes club players play chess without a real sense of danger or are unsure of how to identify and prioritize certain positions over another during a game of chess. So, how does one identify a sharp position and get the internal siren to go off?

If you’re calculating a “forced variation”, where there is only one move to make that doesn’t lose, it is not a sharp variation. However, if you’re considering a move or a capture and you notice your opponent has a couple of moves that give you something to think about or consider then the sirens should start going off in your head. Also, strong threats or positions with the potential for pitfalls and tactics are to be considered sharp. And here’s what you should do when you encounter such positions…

#1 – Take your time

This one seems fairly obvious. However, no matter what time control I’m playing, whether it’s G/90 or G/15, I notice that tons of players don’t take the time necessary to consider all of their options in critical, sharp, positions. It’s as if they are scared to have a lower amount of time on the clock against their opponent. Don’t be scared to utilize your clock. In most long time control games (G/60-G/90 or 40/90 with a sudden death), amateurs or players, especially under 1600 USCF, tend to end their games with a significant amount of time left on their clock. (20-45 minutes).

Knowing that, you should always pause and really take your time when you come across a sharp position whenever possible.

#2 – Calculate

You absolutely must take your time and thoroughly calculate as much as you can.

Some things to look for in order to expedite your calculating progress is to look for forcing moves first. Look for threats, checks, and captures. I can’t count the amount of games I’ve seen lost due to an in-between move that the opponent simply didn’t look for.


#3 – Double check

No, not the tactic! Your work. You must check and recheck your work at least once before you make your move in these sharp variations.

Once you think you have the correct plan, look over the line again before you touch your piece. Do this every time, without fail, and you’ll commit less blunders. These blunders sting the most because they can be avoided by simply taking the effort to find the right idea and eliminating those that don’t work.


These “rules” sound simple but violate them and you’re in deep water. You can’t skimp over sharp positions. You can’t simply play on intuition. Watch some YouTube videos of some strong players such as International Master John Bartholomew or National Master Spencer Finegold playing at a standard time control and you’ll see that no matter the opponent these players utilize their time very wisely — especially in sharp positions.

So slow down… and play better chess.