John Watson Book Review (85)
A Convenient Truth
IM John Watson - Thursday 3rd January 2008
In this column, I'll be focusing mostly upon titles that I've read in the course of doing other chess work. This is a matter of convenience for me, to be sure, but I think that you'll find some appealing books here.
Grandmaster Secrets, The Caro-Kann; Peter Wells; 174 pages; Gambit 2007
Play the Caro-Kann; Jovanka Houska; 208 pages; Everyman 2007
Dynamic Chess Strategy (e-book); Mihai Suba; Mens Sana E-ditors 2007
Winning Chess Explained; Zenon Franco (translator Manuel Perez Carballo); 192 pages; Gambit Publications (2006)
Chess Explained: The Queen's Gambit Declined; James Rizzitano; 127 pages; Gambit 2007
Chess Explained: the English Opening; Zenon Franco (translator Manuel Perez Carballo); 112 pages; Gambit 2006
How to Play the English Opening; Anatoly Karpov; 191 pages; Batsford 2007
The appearance of two excellent books on the Caro-Kann this year, Jovanka Houska’s Play the Caro-Kann and Peter Wells Grandmaster Secrets, The Caro-Kann, has significantly advanced the theory of the opening, as opening books often fail to do. They are quite different, in that Houska proposes a repertoire for Black, whereas Wells covers the breadth of the opening with no apparent prejudice towards either colour. At any rate, although this review is primarily about Grandmaster Secrets, I also want to give Play the Caro-Kann some exposure, and will do a gentle comparison between the two. As for any damage done thereby, suffice it to say beforehand that as far as I'm concerned, these are the best two books ever published in English about the Caro-Kann.
To get a complaint out of the way before attending to the more important matters, I have to say that the lack of a Bibliography in Wells' Grandmaster Secrets is disappointing, and unusual for a Gambit publication. A Bibliography is arguably not vital when the subject is 1 Na3, but the Caro-Kann is one of the major openings in chess, and its fans presumably don't want to go hunting around their libraries to ascertain which sources might or might not have been consulted, and which good moves missed. Wells' book has a lot of detail about specific moves, so it would be nice to at least know at what Informant or TWIC issue or NIC Yearbook he stopped his research.
Addressing the issue of the purportedly 'drawish' nature of the Caro-Kann, the author isn't so predictable as to completely deny the notion, but points to the many active lines, and the implications of the D-word for even stodgy positions. He concludes with a point that should be obvious to everyone, but apparently isn't. You can confirm this by listening to conversations about openings, whether at the club, online, or during tournaments.
[Wells:] 'For the most part in the Caro-Kann, Black tends to have solid options available if he cares to use them. Moreover, positions which are viewed as drawish in the hands of the world elite, armed as they are with outstanding technical proficiency, may nonetheless afford quite sufficient scope for battle among lesser mortals. This point is often lost in the literature, especially when, as here, the material for the book has been chosen primarily from top-level encounters. However, the thought is worth bearing in mind when considering assessments in general. To pronounce a position as 'equal' is by no means to declare it drawn.'
Wells goes on to give an abbreviated strategic introduction to the Caro-Kann as a whole, beginning with a segment entitled 'The Rationale for 1....c6'. He compares other responses to 1 e4, some of which cede the centre (Pirc, Alekhine's) and some which stop d4 (1...e5 and 1...c5). 'The Caro- Kann belongs to the third type, in which Black does not seek to prevent the move d4, but rather prepares to strike back in the centre with 2...d5, posing a question to White's e-pawn. By attacking the e-pawn, he intends either to entice it from e4 or to remove it by exchange. In either case this opens up possibilities for developing Black's light-squared bishop, which is of great importance to hopes for a harmonious deployment of the black pieces as a whole. This is perhaps the single most important motivation for 1...c6.' Indeed, the uses and fate of the light-squared bishop characterise each line as much as any other factor. Wells points out that the pawn break ...c5, challenging White's space advantage, is also fundamental. He discusses the White's options of defending e4, advancing the e5 pawn, or exchanging on d5. Then he says:
'I shall not attempt a further general strategic overview here. Some openings are particularly susceptible to such treatment, with ideas common to all variations which bear exposition in very general terms. The Queen's Indian, for example, my previous subject for Gambit, could be described throughout in terms of Black's attempts to control the squares e4 and d5. There is no such strategic unity in the Caro-Kann and hence it is the individual chapter introductions which provide the best venue for such detailed discussion. Personally, I do not see this as a drawback. Any loss in terms of overall strategic cohesion is more than compensated for by an enticing variety of types of position'.
As you can see, Wells' prose style is a treat. He clearly relishes his opportunities to phrase issues in philosophic terms, without doing so gratuitously. This not only gives us a more nuanced view of the game, it makes for entertaining reading.
Here are the chapters:
- Main Line with 4...Bf5 p9
- Main Line with 4...Nd7 p36
- Main Line with 4...Nf6 p55
- Advance Variation: Sharp Lines and Black’s Early Alternatives p66
- Advance Variation: Short System and Other Modern Treatments p92
- Panov-Botvinnik Attack and 2 c4 p118
- Miscellaneous Systems for White p156
The book is presented in the form of 25 games, which is the number allotted to authors of Gambit's 'Chess Explained' series. I think it's a fair guess that Grandmaster Secrets: The Caro-Kann was originally part of that series but outgrew the page targets for those books (112 pages, although that has been extended to 127 in the latest Rizzitano book). If that's true, we are fortunate it worked out that way. Notice the space Wells devotes to the Advance Variation (3 e5), considerably more than to 4...Bf5 and 4...Nd7 combined. This reflects the radical turn that the Caro-Kann has undergone at the highest levels. As Wells describes, the emergence of two lines has made a tremendous difference, both of which I grew up thinking were harmless. First, what he calls the 'less-controlled aggression' of 3...Bf5 4 Nc3 e6 5 g4, and second, the paradoxical positional lines involving the move c3 as a response to 3...Bf5, fortifying White's centre but allowing Black to achieve his ideal set-up with ...e6. This complex includes and is an extension of what is called the 'Short Variation'. Wells' discussion of the former lines is very streamlined and shows a deep knowledge of what current theory reflects. In particular, the defence with 6...f6, which Wells himself played as far back as 2000, is given a clean bill of health. You could almost get your money's worth from the book by simply playing through his commentary on the group of games with the 4 Nc3/5g4 variation, with it's extraordinarily rich set of dynamic and positional factors. Toss in his brilliant exposition on when and why the Short plan works (and when it doesn't) and you've got an instructional pamphlet on the Advance Variation that alone justifies buying this book.
Jovanka Houska's Play the Caro Kann is a complete and very detailed repertoire with an enormous amount of original analysis. It has to be one of the top few repertoire books in the past few years and is already serving as the basis of a repertoire for a host of players around the world. Each chapter is introduced by a section which has the main ideas of each variation therein. This is done more clearly and pointedly than in most opening books, where I feel that such thematic explanation has become a toss-off. In brief, Houska recommends the following in what are arguably White's three main attacking lines: (a) Against 3 Nc3/Nd2 dxe4 4 Nxe4, she makes a strong case for the Classical System with 4...Bf5; (b) Against 3 e5, Houska bypasses the main Advance Variation lines by recommending 3 e5 c5, as many teachers have taught their students (the reasoning seems to be: who but a professional has time for 3...Bf5 these days?); (c) Versus the Panov-Botvinnik Attack, 3 exd5 cxd5 4 c4, Houska gives 4...Nf6 5 Nc3 Nc6, with 6 Bg5 e6 7 Nf3 Be7 and 6 Nf3 Bg4 7 cxd5 Nxd5 8 Qb3 Bxf3 9 gxf3 Nb6!?. The latter is arguably one of the more marginal recommendations of the book, and will take a good deal of preparation to feel comfortable with (or not). But she gives it in order to give the reader something fun to play, rather than recommending the over-over-over-discussed ending after 9...e6 10 Qxb7 Nxd4 11 Bb5+ Nxb5 12 Qc6+ Ke7 13 Qxb5 Qd7, etc. Give her credit for sparing us another 5-10 page exposition about that one! In her own words: 'I have very much tried to write this book exactly how I like books to be written - with plenty of explanation of ideas and basic principles, along with some new theory! On the whole I have tended to avoid lines where I feel Black only has the chance of playing for 'two results' (a loss or a draw) and instead chosen lines with 'three results' on offer.' Hence 9...Nb6.
Here's what the two authors say about Houska's favourite line of the Classical Defence. You should be aware that I'm only looking at a side variation for Wells, whose job is to cover the entire opening, whereas for Houska it is an essential part of her repertoire, so we expect her exposition will be the fuller one:
Anand-Macieja, Bundesliga 2006/7 2006
1 e4 c6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 dxe4 4 Nxe4 Bf5 5 Ng3 Bg6 6 h4 h6 7 Nf3 Nd7 8 h5 Bh7 9 Bd3 Bxd3 10 Qxd3 e6 11 Bf4 Qa5+ 12 Bd2 Bb4 13 c3 Be7 14 c4 Qc7 15 0–0–0
Houska firmly states her case against 15 0–0, primarily citing the exposed nature of the h5 pawn in an endgame, whereas Wells thinks it's interesting after 15 ..Ngf6 16 Rfe1 0–0 17 Nf5. As befits a repertoire book, Houska's gives several options for White at move 16, and a lengthy analysis of 17 Qe2 instead of 17 Nf5. After 17 Nf5, the books continue 17 ..Bd6 18 Nxd6 Qxd6
Wells stops here, opining that the 'minor exchange' should count for something, as long as White 'is mindful of the possibility of ...b5 breaks'. Houska cites a game L Doninguez-Dreev, Beersheba 2005, which continued 19 Qb3!? (my engine is pretty happy with Black in any case) 19...a5 (19 ...Qc7) 20 Rad1 b5!? 21 Ne5 bxc4 22 Qxc4 Rfc8 23 Qe2 Qd5 24 Bf4 Rd8 (24...Qxa2) 25 Rd3 Nxe5 26 Bxe5 Nd7 27 Rg3 Nxe5 28 dxe5.
What I find interesting about this discussion is that the pawn structure with Black's pawns on c6 and e6 versus White's on d4 (with a c-pawn) is fundamental to a lot of openings and middlegames arising from them, e.g., the Scandinavian, the Alekhine's (systems with ...c6), the Slav Defence, and of course the Caro-Kann. The middlegames are very often characterized by White having 2 bishops versus knight or bishop or bishop versus knight (as here). If White is better in such positions, that's of general theoretical interest and might be a consideration when deciding upon a lot of different variations. Of course the assessments will differ according to the unique factors of the position, in this case (perhaps) that pawn on h5.
15 ..Ngf6 16 Rde1
Wells mentions 16 Kb1 0–0 17 Rhe1, and suggests 17 ..Rad8. Houska talks about 16 Kb1 0–0 17 Ne4, and covers 16 Rhe1 b5! at length. Throughout this variation, most of what she offers is original analysis.
16 ..b5 17 c5 0–0
17 ..0–0–0 is 'worth considering' (Houska).
18 Ne2 Rfe8
Here's the key point: Houska queries this move and suggests one of her favorite thematic moves: 18 ..Ng4!, stopping g4, stopping Nh2, clearing the way for ...Ndf6, and discouraging Ne5. She appends some analysis, the main line of which goes 19 Rhf1 (here a short analysis of 19 Ref1 and mention of 19 Be3) 19 ..Ndf6 20 Bf4!? Qa5 21 Qb3 Nd5 (21 ..Nxh5 looks good) 22 Bg3 Qb4.
19 g4! e5 20 Qf5 exd4 21 g5 hxg5 22 Bxg5 Nh7 23 Bf4 Qc8 24 Nexd4 Nxc5 25 Qc2 Bf8 26 Reg1 Re4 27 Be5 f6 28 h6 fxe5 29 hxg7 Be7 30 Nxe5 Bd6 31 f4 Bxe5 32 fxe5 1–0
In conclusion, these are two very fine books that Caro-Kann players must have.
If you in an adventurous mood, check out http://menssana.co.uk/index.html. Mihail Suba has put out an e-book called Dynamic Chess Strategy, which is an extension and update of Suba's short but brilliant work of the same name (Pergamon 1991), a book I cited many times in my own Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy. I was going to give a fairly lengthy description of the e-book, good and bad, but it's almost impossible to describe the many navigation features, much less a subset of Suba's countless theories and pronouncements. And since I can't cut-and-paste from the e-book, I would have to take hours and hours to give you a feel for the style and content. Fortunately, there is a demo version to look at before you decide whether to purchase it. Suba was generous enough to let me in on the complete version, so I haven't used the Demo version, but I'd recommend taking a look. The display and navigation features can be intimidating at first, but without any serious effort you can play over the games, notes, and variations, leaving the fancy features for later. I don't like the colour scheme much, and couldn't adjust my display to my satisfaction, but that may not be true for all users and video cards.
Let's start with some good points: all the fine games and wonderful notes from the original edition are there, many updated, with lengthier and more detailed philosophic exegeses. Whatever you think of the latter (they're a little windy), you can play through the moves and notes rather than having to put them on a board or enter them into a computer yourself. So there you have it: one of the most fun and interesting strategy books around on your screen.
And now a very, very good point: As far as I can tell, the original book Dynamic Chess Strategy costs about $100 (or more), at least on the booksites that I went to on the Web! While a collector may not be satisfied with an electronic version (and I myself would rather have book in hand), the price differential would sway most of us in favour of the e-book.
The not-so-good part is that although a lot has been added to Suba's original work, much of it difficult to read, in part because the book's English is marginal. In this regard, Suba thanks a friend: 'Aggravating circumstances, for making the message even clearer, can be applied to Bob, who, for the current version, took upon the task of rephrasing my English'. Alas, that sentence is typical of those which were changed from the original edition or added to it, and too often, awkward, rambling wording replaces what was quite understandable in the original. In many instances, a scanner would have done a better job than 'Bob'.
I also think that Suba needn't have interrupted the flow of his work so much. For example, Dynamic Chess Strategy begins with what is called the 'Foreword to the First Edition'. Traditionally, this means a reproduction of the original Foreword; that is often followed by a Foreword to the Second Edition. Not so here. A fair amount of prose has been added, for example, after the first sentence about how he has never written a Foreword, 'and [has] no idea what it should contain', a new, second, sentence is added: "It was simpler when they got Stalin out of the Mausoleum, when one just had to mention 'the big father of the neighbouring country', or even later on, when the Romanian password had been changed to 'Genius of the Carpathians'." (jw: the latter referring to Ceausescu). Not that this doesn't make sense when you work at it, but it's hardly readable, and changes the meaning of the original.
Suba does add some worthwhile basic information, for example, he gives some rating ranges for a potential reader, i. e., 1900 and above for those without exceptional skills, and appealing most to players of a 2150-2350 (he says that it 'could be a crack' for such readers). I think that is fair, and I also think that somewhat lower-rated players will enjoy the games themselves, as well as Suba's humour. He adds that the book is relevant for even stronger players (than 2350, with which I heartily concur.
In his entirely new Introductory chapter, Suba begins by talking about the influence of Rybka and other machines on the updated version, but makes the point that the essential part of his philosophy remains. Then he launches into a lengthy essay about all aspects of the game: positional considerations versus calculations, what happens when grandmasters error, stylistic issues, Nimzowitsch's precepts, how to find winning moves and what that means, attitude, psychology, 'Psycho-Physiology and Chess Patterns' , Computer Impact, and all kinds of meditations on chess thought. Those who think that Jonathan Rowson jumps all over the place in his books haven't seen anything. But in the right mood I enjoy Rowson's wandering style a lot, since he has a lot to offer if you focus on the nuggets of wisdom. Similarly, within Suba's rather zany excursions are some subtle and interesting observations that I haven't found elsewhere.
At any rate, it's worth a look at the website. Just be forewarned that there's a lot of wordiness and clutter that needn't distract you from the book itself.
I'm going to look quickly at two books by the same author, Zenon Franco, a grandmaster who has written several books for Gambit, including The Art of Attacking Chess, Chess Self-Improvement, and Chess Explained: the Modern Benoni.
Franco's Winning Chess Explained is a set of 50 annotated, top-level games with 45 reader exercises. The main games come primarily from this decade but a few go back to the 1970s; they are carefully chosen, full of content, and not so well-known that the average player or even professional will have seen most of them before. It's actually not fair to say that there are only 50 games, because the author inserts separate, complete games with notes that he compares with the main, numbered games. These supplementary games themselves go way back in time; I saw more than one from the 1930s. Franco's book is divided into four major sections and subsections, with relevant exercises throughout. Although I won't talk about them in any detail, here are the abbreviated contents:
1 The Art of Sacrifice p9
1.1 The Pawn Sacrifice p9
1.2 The Exchange Sacrifice p25
2 Manoeuvring Play p49
2.1 The Art of Manoeuvring p49
2.2 The Second Weakness p63
2.3 Permanent vs Temporary Advantages p66
2.4 Regrouping 70
2.5 The King’s Destination p82
3 Simplification p99
3.1 ‘Strange’ Exchanges p99
3.2 The Queen Exchange p102
4 Pawns, the Soul of Chess p109
4.1 Surrendering Strong Squares to the Opponent p109
4.2 Kasparov’s Pawn-Centre p141
4.3 The French Pawn-Centre p153
4.4 A Special Centre p156
4.5 The Central Breakthrough p162
This certainly isn't the only book to use a games collection as a vehicle for illustrating strategic themes, but Franco manages to develop the relevant ideas in each section from game to game, with each game showing a different or more sophisticated version of the various shared features. For example, in the first, relatively elementary section, we see a couple of straightforward pawn sacrifices, for the purpose of speedy development and direct attack conducted along thematic lines. These very crisp examples are followed by more difficult ones, also to gain initiative but with a longer-term view. He finishes with a game by his former student Paco Vallejo, featuring a beautiful 3-pawn sacrifice of a type that I've not seen before. In the realm of pawn play he takes the same approach, for example, in the section about 'Kasparov's pawn-centre'. That arises from 4 a3 in the Queen's Indian Defence, and is a Grünfeld Exchange Variation structure where Black has committed to ...e6 and ...b6. Franco has five games with this structure (4 main games and a supplementary one), each game informing the treatment of the next. The first section of the 'manoeuvring' Chapter together with the 'regrouping' section have a unifying theme: how one goes about either changing the pawn structure or bringing ones pieces to better squares. It's an interesting authorial approach; Franco says that the basic instructional method was suggested by Nimzowitsch. Assembling these grouplets requires a specific set of related games, and the author must have spent a long time finding ones that served such a purpose. I think he succeeded.
Franco says in the Introduction that he is putting 'special emphasis on the positional aspects, and above all on the explanations to the moves'. This means that the tactics are there, as always, but not emphasised. Furthermore, the early opening moves are usually not commented upon (assuming that they are standard ones). This has its advantages and disadvantages, but clearly focuses the author's energy into middlegame ideas, without much distraction.
What makes the book stand out most is the clarity of Franco's annotations, mostly verbal, which incidentally also applies to his book Chess Self-Improvement. His explanations are simple and backed up by analysis (generally brief), but he doesn't talk down to the reader. There is an assumption of familiarity with modern chess and just enough complexity that I'd estimate the rating range of the audience for Winning Chess Explained to be 1400 to 2200, especially since the exercises tend to be a bit challenging. As I've indicated before, however, I'm very bad at these things. To me, almost any good chess book should be able to be read by any player with real interest!
A final comment. Reading over the games it's clear that the author has done his research, and I suspect that his impressive Bibliography accurately expresses where he found his games and notes:
Informator 1 to 92, Sahovski Informator, 1966 to 2005
New in Chess 1984 to 2005
Leam from the Grandmasters, Raymond D. Keene (ed.), Batsford, 1975
The Test of Time, Garry Kasparov, Pergamon, 1986
Isaac Boleslavsky, Isaac Boleslavsky, Caissa Books, 1988
Uncompromising Chess, Alexander Beliavsky, Cadogan, 1998
My Life and Games, Vladimir Kramnik and lakov Damsky, Everyman, 2000 Secretos del Ajedrez Argentino, Sergio Slipak, CA Villa Martelli, 2000
My Best Games Vol. 1, Victor Korchnoi, Olms, 2001
Lilienthal's Hundred Best Games, Andre Lilienthal, Caissa Chess Books,
2001 School of Chess Excellence 3, Mark Dvoretsky, Edition Olms, 2002
Tony Miles: "It's Only Me", Geoff Lawton, Batsford, 2003
Smyslov's Best Games Vol. I & Vol. II, Vasily Smyslov, Chess Agency Caissa, 1003
Bobby Fischer Rediscovered, Andrew Soltis, Batsford, 2003
My Great Predecessors I, II, III, and IV, Garry Kasparov, Everyman, 2003-5
The Story of a Chess Player, Jaan Ehlvest, 2004
Fire on Board II, Alexei Shirov, Everyman, 2005
Garry Kasparov's Greatest Chess Games Volume I, Igor Stohl, Gambit, 2005
Anyway, this book is highly recommended, which leads us into the next one.
I'm going to be a little critical of Zenon Franco's Chess Explained: the English Opening, at least as a part of Gambit's 'Chess Explained' series. It has the strong points of Winning Chess Explained, but not in as appropriate a context. The books of the 'Chess Explained' series that I have read have been uniformly good, as expressed in this column, for example, Chess Explained: The Taimanov Sicilian by James Rizzitano; Chess Explained: The Queen's Indian by Peter Wells; and Chess Explained: The Classical Sicilian by Alex Yermolinsky are all excellent books.
I should also loudly call attention to Rizzitano's new, well-written, and amazingly well-researched Chess Explained: The Queen's Gambit Declined (listed above at the beginning of the column). Partly I think that Gambit has been extremely fortunate (smart) to have these particular authors. Wells and Rizzitano are stubborn writers who are so loathe to sacrifice completeness and have managed to include virtually all important variations within the confines of 128 pages or less. The miracle is that their natural explanatory styles have saved their efforts from looking like too-dense sets of annotated games. They are rather sophisticated authors in that respect. Even Wells' book, which is simply loaded with prose, manages to describe and/or refer to most variations of the Queen's Indian, including some rather minor ones.
Franco's natural expansiveness has taken his English Opening book on a different route. Unfortunately, he seems to have decided that his goal isn't to explain the opening as a whole, but to compare sets of games from the same variations, as he does with Winning Chess Explained. Of course, the English Opening is defined by the very first move 1 c4, which is naturally a broader subject than the openings covered by the above authors. There is simply no way that Franco can achieve the density of coverage that they do and still retain the instructive feel of the book. However, the cover says, correctly, that "The English gives rise to an immense variety of structures, ranging from reversed Sicilians to Hedgehogs and fluid or locked central structures."
The problem is that Franco's book radically limits the number of these structures considered, and in fact doesn't even include most of the important Reversed Sicilian structures they mention on the cover. The same applies to main lines of the Symmetrical Defences and others. There's nothing wrong with cutting down the number of variations to a maneagable set of representative ones, but Franco's book goes too far, devoting excessive numbers of pages to relatively minor variations while skipping extremely important ones entirely. The root cause is his concern with a few piece placements at the expense of the others. I think that his Bibliography for this vast subject reflects this, in that it is limited to these few books and CDs:
Informator 1 to 94, Sahovski Informator
New in Chess 1984 to 2006, New in Chess
Partidas Selectas I [Selected Games I], Mikhail Botvinnik, Ediciones Eseuve, 1990
Opening for White According to Kramnik, Alexander Khalifman Vol. 2, Chess Star Openings, 2001
The Hedgehog, Mihai Suba, Batsford, 2000
The English Opening 1 c4 e5, Mihai1 Marin, ChessBase, 2003
ChessBase Magazine 1 to 110
I should be very clear: The descriptions of Franco's chosen variations are well written, often exceptionally well, and properly balanced between verbal explanation and a desirable level of detail. He also writes excellent chapter summaries which describe the lines in the chapter without going into excessive detail. Furthermore, the 25 selected games are uniformly recent (2003-2006), which enhances their theoretical value. Unfortunately, you would have to be interested in several of a small subset of variations and structures from the English Opening to get much theoretical help from this book.
Oddly, Franco consistently presents variations in which White plays Nf3 at an early stage and skips most of those without that move (that is, the ones with Nc3 and/or g3, but where Nf3 is not an essential part of the system). What's more, some main lines with Nf3 are also neglected. In fact, much of the book reads like preparation for a White player to play part of a certain repertoire, mainly involving an early commitment to the move Nf3. To be fair, Franco also shows how to play the Black side of many lines, so it's not so much a prejudice for White as a severely limited selection. The Contents Page should illustrate this, although perhaps not to the player who doesn't know much about 1 c4:
Part 1: Symmetrical English: 1 c4 c5
1 The Hedgehog 7
2 The Double Fianchetto 25
3 Symmetrical: Miscellaneous 34
4 The Rubinstein System 43
Part 2: Reversed Sicilian: 1 c4 e5
5 The Reversed Rossolimo 55
6 1 c4 e5: Miscellaneous 78
Part 3: Nimzo-English: 1 c4 Nf6 2 Nc3 e6
7 Nimzo-English and Mikenas Attack 91
Let me just run through a few of the major variations (and perhaps even more importantly, structures) that are omitted, together with which ones Franco has put his energy into:
Let's start with 1 c4 e5. The Closed English, 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 Nc6, which is one of the very most popular setups in the English Opening, isn't mentioned at all. That includes, for example, ..g6/...Bg7/...d6/...f5 lines. Or, for White, the important g3/Bg2/e4/Nge2 Botvinnik lines; in fact, there are no Botvinnik structures for either side. Nor is any example of the traditional Closed English lines (after 3 g3 and 4 Bg2) involving e3/Nge2 (and d4 or d3). After 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 Nc6 3 g3 g6 4 Bg2 Bg7, we also don't see any standard Black defences involving ...Nge7 or the KID structure ...d6/...Nf6.
Then what's using up so much of the space devoted to 1...e5? The variation Franco calls the 'Reversed Rossolimo' uses 24 pages of a 111 page book! (In fact, there are only 104 pages of direct material). It is an important line indeed, defined by 1 c4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 Nc3 Nc6 4 g3 Bb4 (one game is with 4 e3 Bb4). A game in another chapter with 4 g3 Nd4 adds 4 more pages. That's a hefty portion of the book. As usual, Franco writes clearly and interestingly about this system. Nevertheless, all this still occupies only a fraction of 1...e5 territory. However, there's no true Rossolimo Reversed, which is 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 g3 Bb4, or here 3...c6, the latter of which yields particularly instructive structures. I think there is only one logical explanation for these huge omissions, and that of the Closed English. Allowing for a few exceptions, Franco has decided that the setups with which he deals will involve the move Nf3 at an early stage. For example, since most unique lines with 2 Nc3 are ignored, we don't get a peek at two defences that Grandmasters use a lot: 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 Bb4, and 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 d6, with 3 Nf3 f5 and 3 g3 f5. These structures are almost unavoidable for White, and at any rate both sides should know them.
Within the 1 c4 Nf6 realm, there is no reference to the King's Indian Defence setup, with 1...Nf6, 2..g6, 3...Bg7, 4...d6 , which a very large percentage of people use to counter 1 c4 (and 1 Nf3, for that matter). To put that into perspective, a book that Carsten Hansen and John Donaldson are writing about English lines stemming from 1 Nf3/2 c4 systems devotes as much space or more to these King's Indian setups as any other. Two very important English lines against the KID involve d3/Nf3 and d3/e4/Nge2.
Franco does address 1 c4 Nf6 2 Nc3 e6 systems. But he devotes almost 14 pages(!) to 3 Nf3 Bb4, which really isn't a major line any more, and less than 4 pages to the popular Mikenas Attack, 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3 e4. Again, the inclusion of Nf3 seems to decide matters. He gives a game in the Mikenas with 3 e4 d5, but barely mentions 3...c5 in two sentences, referring the reader to 30 years of extensive theory. Actually, I think that's completely legitimate in principle – after all, it's just one of many parts of a huge opening complex – but his overall bias makes no sense.
Finally in the Symmetrical English (1.c4 c5), Franco once more devotes all of his attention to 2 Nf3, with the Hedgehog getting 18 pages (check out its limited frequency these days); and the Double fianchetto, which is rarely seen at the level of the average player, receiving 9 more pages. Two games are devoted to 2 Nf3 and 3 d4 (or transposing to it). The infrequently-played Rubinstein System is given 8 pages (one order is 1 c4 c5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 Nc3 Nc6 4 g3 d5 5 cxd5 Nxd5 6 Bg2 Nc7), but only when Nf3 is played (not, for example, 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 g3 d5 4 cxd5 Nxd5 5 Bg2 Nc7 6 d3, 6 b3, 6 Qb3 etc.).
Remarkably, the move (1 c4 c5) 2 Nc3 seems be missing altogether. Among other things, it can lead to the vast territory of symmetrical systems with 2...Nc6 3 g3 g6 4 Bg2 Bg7, played and analysed at the top level more than extensively for a century, including not only moves such as 5 e4, 5 d3, and 5 e3, but even 5 Nf3 lines such as 5 Nf3 e6, 5 Nf3 e5, 5 Nf3 Nf6 6 d4 etc.
'It's important to note that Franco supplements the theory of the main games with examples and variations in the notes.' Franco makes the unusual choice of using mainly older games, often decades older, apparently content with the relative currency of his main game to represent tolerably up-to-date opinion. You get the feeling that many of the notes to these games were probably made at the time of the game. This contrasts with Rizzitano's books, in which he doggedly investigates even the latest correspondence game to construct a partial repertoire that is immediately playable, and to keep up with where the current arguments are. I think both approaches are legitimate; here's a case where the 'Chess Explained' title keeps the possibilities open. In the English Opening, it would be sad to omit the many classics which indeed demonstrate to basic contours of play that persist to this day. Those games in fact 'explain' the ideas as well as the messier, more sophisticated games of contemporary grandmasters. Still, one might hope for more detail, because the average reader doesn't have time to catch up to current English Opening theory on his own.
Well, I don't want to cudgel the subject to death. To summarize, the English Opening is a huge area that requires being selective. I think Franco took it as his mission to examine a few pawn structures in depth, as he does in Winning Chess Explained. That's an interesting effort, and useful for someone who play these particular lines; I just don't see that as the idea of the Chess Explained series. However, you may still want to own this book as a games collection, one that investigates the tactical and positional themes of certain English Opening structures. Not surprisingly, given his chess understanding and powers of explanation, Franco does this very well.
Continuing with the 'convenience' motif, I've been reading English Opening books recently and might as well mention one more: How to Play the English Opening, by former World Champion Anatoly Karpov. As usual, the title is at least partially misleading, because it's more of a simple games collection. In fact, the subject matter of this book shares a quality of Franco's work in its lopsided distribution. There are 30 games, most by Karpov, but a substantial chunk(13?) by other players. Seven of the first nine games feature the variation 1 c4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 Nc3 Nc6 4 g3 Bb4, and the other two 4...Bc5 (a few of these are by transposition). In pages, that's roughly a third of the book, and there are a couple of 4 e3s later in the book. Other 1...e5 variations like the Reversed Dragon, Closed English, and 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 Bb4 fill a lot more ( I think there are 100 pages total with 1...e5 out of 191 pages). Unfortunately, there is no Index of Variations, remarkable in what is advertised as an opening book, so I'm not going to play around with listing every variation that's covered. But there's a pretty good distribution of Symmetrical lines, with a smattering of 1...Nf6, including the 2 Nc3 e6 3 Nf3 Bb4 lines that Franco examined. I think for both authors that's partially due to a period of popularity of 3...Bb4 at the top levels in the 1980s and to a lesser extent in the 1990s.
Which brings up a further point. The games selected by Karpov tend to be older, generally in the 1980s and 1990s, with just a couple from this century. This reflects his own usage, and his knowledge of other players' practice. The theory isn't up to date either; my understanding is that most of the book was written ten years ago or so and updated for this edition. The good thing is that there are a lot of games in the notes, with annotations; even older English Opening theory is useful in getting a feel where a variation is headed. Sometimes nothing much has happened in the opening variation of a particular game, and I think that this is a case where the ideas can to a large extent carry one's understanding. See also my comments about the games in Franco's notes, with the accompanying warning. The difference is that at least Franco's games themselves are of recent vintage, so in many cases you won't have that far to go to catch up, whereas with Karpov's examples, it will take quite a bit more research if you want to get current.
Taken as a whole, that description sounds pretty negative. But I have to say that I've always liked Karpov's annotational style, with plenty of words and real engagement with the struggle. The notes are extremely easy to read, and instructive. He uses a minimum of variations, ones which are usually essential to following the game. Karpov's annotations extend to the end of the game, and in fact the book reads far more like a games collection than an opening treatise. You probably see where I'm leading: just as with Franco's book, you might well consider Karpov's a set of interesting games with a thematic connection, in this case annotated by one of the greatest players of all time. That would be the best reason for getting it, in my opinion. I'm not too happy with either of these books from the practical player's point of view, certainly not for someone who thinks he will pick them up and have a ready-made repertoire. But as attractive and instructive reading, especially for someone who has an interest in this opening, they might work.