Mike Surtees is a strong amateur chess player (2200 level) who plays close to Manchester in England. Over the last 10-20 years he has been developing his own opening theory which prioritises pawn moves, a strong pawn centre and delaying piece development with the idea that when the pawns move, the pieces can often become active and influential from their original squares. He also questions the need to castle as a routine move and sometimes leaves his King in the centre with the idea that it will be well placed in the endgame.

Here is the theory in his own words followed by a game he won in the British Championships 2008 versus IM & WGM Jovanka Houska using his theory. It won the ‘Game of the Day’ prize.


ROT offers an alternative method of playing the opening which significantly enhances the number of sound playable moves.It is my belief that opening theory will be broadened and enriched by ROT and a greater understanding of optimum development will emerge.ROT does not refute or replace the bulk of conventional theory; although it may point the way to objectively superior moves or variations.
Sometimes the insertion of just one or two ROT type moves will radically alter a conventional opening, but many openings are playable using only ROT.
The main principle of ROT is that, compared to conventional theory, a much stronger emphasis is placed on developing pawns before pieces. But if a good square is available for a piece then consideration is given for its deployment.
A secondary principle is that more scrutiny is placed on the necessity of castling, its timing and its advantages or drawbacks.
The raison d’etre for these modifications is based on the following logic:-
a) As appropriate pawn moves are made,the pieces on the back rank gain more activity and may become automatically developed where they stand in ZERO moves.
b)If the pawns are developed, in general, as a priority, options for the (further) development of the pieces,tend to be kept open, ultimately allowing greater flexibility and more effective siting for attack or defence.
c)Bringing out pieces makes them more vulnerable to enemy attack or becoming pinned.
The delayed piece development gives less time in which they can be attacked aswell as more time to select safer squares.In addition optimum pawn moves will tend to prevent such attacks or defend the pieces,(at least against enemy piece attack.)
d)Pieces in their initial position may be useful in defending weak squares or pawns or other pieces especially the king.
e)If these pieces are captured then at least no time will have been lost on moving them!
Positions can arise where an opponent is induced to exchange one of his pieces,(which may have moved several times), for a back rank piece. Sometimes a piece in its original position might be advantageously sacrificed.

f)If pawns are captured or exchanged then pieces may be activated (without moving).
g)Developed pieces often block the mobility of the pawns,(aswell as other pieces);this is less likely with ROT.
h)Pawns are superior to pieces in controlling the important central squares,(aswell as other squares).This is because they are more expendable than pieces;a bishop or knight being worth about 3.2 pawns in the opening.


i)An appropriate pawn move may,(apart from other functions),create a safety square for a piece including the king.

j)Castling also tends to be delayed or may become unnecessary which may save time.For example,if queens are exchanged,then the king may be best placed in the centre for the ending. Or it might be useful defending weak pawns or squares in the centre.
By pursuing this policy options are kept open for castling either wing,moving to five adjacent squares or staying put.
Attacks on the king are thus more difficult objectively though the defence may require more nerve and precision. The rooks may also be more effective on their original squares for either attack or defence.
However if the king is in danger or the corresponding rook is better placed on other files then castling may be the best option.
Castling too soon may reduce your options and may lose time. It may also be bad to castle into an attack.
On the other hand castling one move too late may prove fatal;so this move must be timed very carefully.
By delaying castling the eventual optimum position of the king will become more apparent.
It is often a good tactic to wait and see where your opponent castles before committing yourself.

k)In general the pawns the pawns are more effective at threatening enemy pieces to displace them to inferior squares with loss of time.

l)The pawns can be used to gain space—space for increased activity of the pieces or room for manoeuvre.

m)The pawns may also be used to storm the enemy king position.Surprisingly it is possible to start attacking with the pawns and pawn sacrifices can be sound even though you may be behind in piece development in the conventional sense.

n)Pawns may be sacrificed for various reasons; however it is more economical to sacrifice pawns than pieces.

o)The pawns can set up a defensive shield which blocks enemy pieces from penetrating into your position or else denies squares of advance which can neutralize your opponents development.

p)Pawn promotions are more likely the further they advance and on the fifth rank the en passant capture becomes possible.

q)Pieces can be trapped or forked by pawns.

r)It is often useful to exchange an enemy central pawn for a wing pawn; this normally involves a pawn move.

s)Advanced pawns can restrict the mobility and options of enemy pawns. In particular it is often important to prevent enemy pawn breaks to maintain a closed position until your piece development is sufficient to attack or to adequately defend a given front.

t)The rooks are often developed more quickly in ROT type openings.

u)When open lines are required to attack,the pawns are better adapted to break through the enemy front.

v)It is possible that a pawn move may be best because it lands on a square where it is safer than its original position, though such a move is usually made in combination with other motives.

w)With relatively more pawn moves compared to conventional openings and with delayed piece developmeht, many more options become available; this equates to a greater probability that a stronger move can be generated.
The disadvantages of early pawn advances can be that weaknesses are created behind the pawns or the pawns themselves become difficult to defend.

In addition the safety of the king is often more critical.It is not uncommon that your opponent can sacrifice a piece to break through the pawn screen to attack your king.
Consequently ROT in practice is a more complicated method of playing the opening and one wrong pawn move can leave you with a clinically dead game.

Many games tend to be tactically wild which may not suit your style and until your pieces come into play,you may have to remain on the defensive.
It may be necessary or best to suddenly switch to conventional play and develop pieces as quickly as possible.There is no guarantee that ROT is playable in a given position;above all moves must be geared and calibrated to counter your opponents plans aswell as to enhance your own.

But with care and a lot of practice the disadvantages can be overcome. It must be noted that a weakness is only a weakness if it can be exploited.

If you start to play ROT be prepared for many set-backs until you are familiar with the openings. I do not advise inexperienced players to play ROT unless they are comfortable with conventional theory.

Incidentally,computers are usually confused by ROT because they have been programmed by humans to play conventional openings.

However, whatever happens, more aesthetic games usually result.


2 thoughts on “Mike Surtees and his Revolutionary Opening Theory”

  • Richard Meulders says :

    Hi there

    I first met Michael in 1965 I guess, when he was staying with his uncle in Belgium. We had several games of ‘skittles’ back then. A few years later after playing in the Glorney Cup with Belgium at Plymouth I travelled on to where he lived then with his parents, at Camberley, Surrey. I stayed there for a week. Afterwards we never met again.

    Do you have an email address of him? I’m on Facebook as well, as Richard FJ Meulders.

    Thank you!

    Richard Meulders

    1. Alchemos says :

      As yet no, but I do know a couple of people who play for the same clubs as him so I will see if I can get his email address and/or pass on yours. Regards, Stephen.

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