John Watson Book Review (53)
By Publisher, Part 3
IM John Watson - Friday 31st January 2003
The Nimzo-Indian 4.e3; Carsten Hansen; 320 pages; Gambit 2002
King's Indian & Grunfeld: Fianchetto Lines; Lasha Janjgava; 320 pages; Gambit 2003
Play the 2.c3 Sicilian; Eduard Rozentalis and Andrew Harley; 192 pages; Gambit 2002
The Cambridge Springs; Krzysztof Pancyk & Jacek Ilcuk; Gambit 2002
Understanding the Leningrad Dutch; Valeri Beim; 192 pages; Gambit 2002
Play The Classical Dutch; Simon Williams; 128 pages; Gambit 2002
How to Build Your Chess Opening Repertoire; Steve Giddins; 144 pages; Gambit 2003
Sicilian Defence; Alexander Kalinen; 274 pages; Russian Chess House 2002
French Defence; Alexander Kalinen; 261 pages; Russian Chess House 2002
The Milner Barry Gambit in the Advance Variation of the French Defense; Jim Bickford; 144 pages; Syzygy Publishing 2002
Advance French: Alternatives to 4.c3; Jim Bickford; 213 pages; Syzygy Publishing 2002
The Paulsen Attack in the Advance Variation of the French Defense; Jim Bickford; 245 pages; Syzygy Publishing 2002
The Main Line Smith-Morra Gambit Accepted; Jim Bickford; 196 pages; Syzygy Publishing 2002
We continue with our summary examination of some chess publishers' recent and not-so-recent books. The majority of them come from Gambit Publications this time , but I have included a few other books from smaller concerns.
As I stated last time, Gambit Publishing is one of the two giants of chess publishing (Everyman is the other) with respect to serious books which include verbal commentary. Of course New in Chess, ChessBase, and the publishers of Informant are other giants of the chess world, but they are best known for periodic publications and CDs, whereas books like ECO and the Encyclopedias of Middlegames (and Endings) are wordless. Gambit's audience generally ranges from the 'improving (club?) player' all the way to grandmaster. The company produces encyclopaedic works such as Nunn's Chess Openings ('NCO') and Mueller and Lamprecht's excellent and surprisingly accessible Fundamental Chess Endings (a book that is still growing on me). They also put out some advanced books on practical play and middlegame structures and strategy. I should emphasise that, as with Everyman, Gambit is publishing more works in the intermediate category, with books on tactics, chess improvement, puzzles, and the like. With a few exceptions, these are outside of the province of this column and I won't list them. One should visit their Website for details: http://www.badbishop.com/gambit/index.html . It may interest some readers that Gambit has translated and published some of their most popular books into German (11 books) and Spanish (5 books). My own modern strategy book was even translated into Italian!
To my mind, specialised books on individual openings have been gathering a little moss over the past few years. By this I mean that we are seeing too many books essentially generated from databases without enough original material from the author. I haven't reviewed several of the opening books from the last year for that reason. To me, 'complete' works have always been the most admirable form of writing about openings, in the sense that the alternative of merely picking out representative games allows one to present variations and general ideas without doing the hard work of establishing which are truly the best and worst options for both players. That is a much more difficult task than merely presenting the typical ideas, structures, and strategies of an opening, which I (and any other experienced master) can do well for just about every opening that exists. At any rate recent complete works have begun to get stale, as lists of game fragments, even well chosen, are not necessarily indicative of best or most interesting courses of play. In fact, I think that they rarely tell the whole truth about complex openings, since careful analysis will show that there are various interesting ways to deviate (or in some cases to boringly equalise), whether the game comes from Kramnik, Lputjan, Gulko, or some lower master. What makes a 'complete' opening book come alive is for the author to step out of the mold and show personal interest in as many lines as possible. Chess is a surprisingly rich game, and given enough diligence on the part of the author even the most established opening variations will yield fresh ideas. That said, just organising the incredible quantity of games and published material in major openings is already a very time-consuming task, so it's probably unrealistic to expect too much from authors who receive so little material reward.
Gambit is the publisher that most consistently produces new books of the complete type, and I will characterise a few with an eye on the issues above. Since reading more than a couple of these books thoroughly can only be achieved by people who don't have jobs, I should warn the reader that mine are sometimes superficial judgments and they shouldn't determine whether you need the book in order to (for example) improve your own repertoire. If nothing else I want to draw the reader's attention to these books' existence, as I have tried to do for all publishers recently.
The Nimzo-Indian 4.e3 by Carsten Hansen is a very large volume and difficult to characterise. I believe (along with just about every top player, it seems) that the Nimzo is the solidest of the d-pawn defences that also tends to produce genuine chances for Black, even in the games top players. The popularity of 4.e3 (after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4) is partially due to the fact that White immediately announces his intention to play solidly, develop naturally, and thus take fewer chances than in lines such as 4.Bg5, 4.Nf3 and 5.Bg5 or 5.g3, 4.a3, or even several of the 4.Qc2 lines.
As with his detailed English Opening books, Hansen has put a great effort into systematizing the massive material connected with a variation that has been around since the introduction of the Nimzo-Indian into practice. Practically all of his 320 pages are full of games and variations, with complex transpositions well covered. This is a no-nonsense book and in some respects resembles Graham Burgess' major works on the Slav Defence and the Taimanov Sicilian (two of the very best in recent years, along with the Kindermann/Durr Winawer masterpiece). The difference is that the latter opening systems tend to be inherently more dynamic ones which more naturally keep most readers' interest. It should be added that Hansen's game selection and analysis seem objective, and his verbal notes express no particular bias that I can discern.
The Nimzo-Indian 4.e3 contains very little prose explanation of strategies, so the quality of the book depends upon the moves and variations. I quickly noticed that he uses a very wide selection of sources (especially in the sense of citing so many other players' analyses). Most importantly, he consistently questions others' assessments while adding his own (usually brief) suggestions on nearly every page. Clearly this book has taken a long time to write.
I have by far the most experience in the lines 4...c5 5.Nge2 and 4...0-0 5.Bd3 with some normal and some irregular follow-ups. Hansen devotes 28 pages to the former line, certainly adequate space. As is to be expected, my rather extensive analysis for game preparation (some with top players) yielded a number of different moves and assessments than Hansen provides, which only shows that a book is inevitably limited by the dictates of time and available material. Although his is the best survey around on this particular variation, I don't think that it is his strongest chapter, since Hansen is more content to quote games without providing the same number of quality suggestions that he provides elsewhere. But in the classical Bd3 and Nf3 lines versus ...b6 or ...c5 and/or ...d5, he has obviously immersed himself in the work and given various new insights to many lines. I learned a lot of fascinating things about the main classical lines, ideas that I hadn't found despite having studied some lines at considerable length. Unfortunately for the 1.d4 player, too many of Hansen's improvements in these lines concern new ways that Black can equalise! This is of course good news for the second player and doubtless reflects the underlying soundness of the Nimzo-Indian.
I think my only overall beef with this fine effort is that I don't find any junctures (although there may be some) at which Hansen really throws himself into a fascinating problem or finds a new idea that he pursues deeply and thoroughly. I strongly believe that such an effort enlivens a book and teaches the student far more than a mere listing of conventional options (some deadly dull and unrevealing). To be sure, Hansen's suggestions are numerous and useful, but they tend to consist of two or three move variations mixed with an occasional longer one. The idea that 'long analysis is wrong analysis' is an insidious one that intimidates authors from doing what is most valuable for their readers: deep investigation that pushes the boundaries of an opening. Of course that saying is true as far as it goes (well, in some instances anyway); but it is quite irrelevant to the value of a dedicated analytical contribution, particularly in a theoretical book. As Hansen himself points out, no one knows all this theory anyway; and in showing how deep and interesting an opening is (by examining new pathways), the reader can get closer to the feeling of how the dynamics of a variation work. At the same time, he or she may receive inspiration not otherwise offered by the recitation of barely-annotated games. Such investigations, I think, are well worth the replacement of 15 or 25 pages of game citations. That is hardly a decisive beef, however, and The Nimzo-Indian 4.e3 is one of the better opening books to appear in the last few years. Hansen easily passes the test that I posed regarding attentive interest and involvement by the author. Also, you can't help but learn about positional play from this book.
Lasha Janjgava's King's Indian & Grunfeld: Fianchetto Lines also devotes a great number of pages (320) to one opening complex, this time the superficially solid but extraordinarily difficult g3 lines in the Kings Indian and Grunfeld Defences. Apart from the essential similarities of detailed organization and a lack of verbiage (there is almost none of the latter), his book has a different approach than Hansen's. Luckily for me, Hansen himself reviewed Janjgava's book in his ChessCafe column (which is called 'Checkpoint', still the best chess book reviews on the Internet or anywhere else, as far as I know). He noticed that the author has two pages of analysis on his own suggestion of the potentially important move 13.b3 after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.Nf3 0-0 7.0-0 Nb6 8.Nc3 Nc6 9.e3 Re8 10.Re1 e5 11.d5 Na5 12.e4 c6.
In fact, this forced me to partially revise my idea of the book. While reading through the book, I had concentrated not upon the Gruenfeld, but upon the details of various g3 lines in the King's Indian (which I played for 25 years; in fact, I used 4 major systems against the fianchetto lines). In doing so, I found very little that was new even in wide-open and critical positions. Very little appeared of what I had discovered through my own games and analysis. Without many suggestions or comments at all, the book read like an endless stream of game citations, ones whose results seemed to determine his ordering and evaluation of the variations involved, along with the assessments at the very end of game fragments. Sure, there are a lot of games to quote for such comprehensive material, but taking more time to analyse individual ones and/or adding more suggestions, however simple, would have greatly improved the book. Now, having seen Hansen's review, I have to give Janjgava credit for doing at least once what I described above (to make original suggestions and investigate them at length). But Janjgava fails to do what Hansen himself did: to show suggested improvements or alternatives on nearly every page and in most variations. Thus I would say that he largely fails my author involvement test. This book is an assiduous organisational effort and arranges the material as well as one could wish, but at times I became numbed by game after game without notes or indication of where the players might have improved. Too often the author seemed to have disappeared into a void while the downloaded games took over the controls. Thus I would recommend King's Indian & Grunfeld: Fianchetto Lines mainly as a reference book for specialists, with the hope that they will use their energies to see the materially freshly and find their own ideas.
I believe that I previously mentioned Play the 2.c3 Sicilian by Rozentalis and Harley, but it won't hurt to do so again. It is a repertoire book for White, but also a 'complete' book, in that it looks at every reasonable Black system and provides at least one and sometimes more ideas with which to meet it. Eduard Rozentalis is a first-class grandmaster with enormous knowledge of this system, and his co-author Andrew Harley is insightful and assiduous, so much so that I strongly suspect that he contributed as much as his better-known partner.
It is impossible to describe this book in any detail for reasons of space, but nearly every chapter and variation contains new and interesting ideas, often treated in great detail, so the authors get a perfect grade in the involvement department. It is also a tribute to the open-minded approach of the authors that they can find counter-intuitive moves that effectively change the assessment of a position that has been around for years and dismissed as dully equal. Several times they demonstrate a definite if small White advantage by pursuing some simplified middlegame that looks prospectless until you realize that it really is difficult for Black to coordinate his pieces. I certainly had to reevaluate my assessments of some key variations.
Of course it's still a real challenge to make 2.c3 work against all defences. The authors' treatment of the popular line 1.e4 c5 2.c3 d5 3.exd5 Qxd5 4.d4 Nf6 5.Nf3 Bg4 is comprehensive and fun. Particular attention is paid to the move 6.dxc5, when I agree that 6...Qxd1+ 7.Kxd1 followed by b4 probably favours White; but after 6...Qxc5, the authors are too optimistic and miss good ideas for Black (mostly a delicate matter of timing and move orders). Tal Shaked and I looked these ideas many years ago from both sides of the board. In my opinion, Black can equalise in more than one way; although that shouldn't deter players from entering into this complex and under-investigated line. After all, White always has countermoves to test each Black attempt. This example is typical: Rozentalis and Harley are often too optimistic about White's prospects, but they open up all kinds of new vistas and leave everything open for experimentation.
This book contributes a tremendous amount to theory and is highly recommended. Before moving on, however, I want to show one line that they missed for Black. After 2.c3 Nf6 3.e5 Nd5 4.d4 cxd4 5.cxd4 d6 6.Nf3 e6 (there are other orders) 7.Bc4 Nb6 8.Bd3, Short recently played 8...dxe5 9.dxe5 Na6! versus Shaw in Gibraltar 2003.
Black has the double idea of ...Nb4 and ...Nc5 followed by an exchange of queens and/or ...Bd7 and ...Rc8. Black was soon better, although I suppose that White must be able to equalise. In the end, I feel that it's unlikely that White gets an advantage after 2.c3, but Rozentalis and Harley show how many possibilities and options he has. A very fine effort.
The Cambridge Springs is written by the Polish IM Krzysztof Pancyk and correspondence player Jacek Ilcuk. It is also very much a 'complete' work, covering this opening thoroughly from Black's standpoint by recommending a repertoire. The Cambridge Springs goes 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Nbd7 5.e3 c6 6.Nf3 Qa5. To give the reader everything in one volume, the book includes a chapter on White's ways to avoid the Cambridge Springs with orders involving a delayed Nc3 or the move Bf4, for example. Then there is a detailed and impressive chapter on what to do against the Exchange Variation (4.cxd5 exd5). The Cambridge Springs has always been considered a solid opening but perhaps allowing White a safe, slight advantage. This book contains very little verbiage or explanation, but is a solid effort with plenty of independent analysis and some new conclusions about standard White remedies that might spark a revival of this line. I am not convinced about some of their analysis and conclusions after 7.cxd5, with which I have won a few nice games as White. Maybe Black can equalise in a theoretical sense, but these positions are hard to play and can go quickly downhill. To me, this isn't the most attractive opening to play, but with some homework it might become a good surprise weapon (perhaps a backup), and one will certainly need this book to play it with confidence.
Gambit has produced two recent books about the Dutch Defence. Understanding the Leningrad Dutch by Valeri Beim is quite different from the books mentioned thus far, because it contains a great deal of strategic explanation and friendly introductions to various moves at the cost of some theoretical detail.
His book deals with the opening's main lines 1.d4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.0-0 0-0 6.c4 d6 7.Nc3 c6 and 7...Qe8. Since it becomes obvious from his comments and analysis that Beim is suggesting ways to play the Dutch from Black's point of view, it is a little strange that he unnecessarily covers the irregular 7...Na6 and 7...h6 as well but then doesn't examine 7...Nc6, which used to be one of the main lines of the Leningrad Dutch. Even if it's a casually written book, I think that Beim should make explicit what he's doing with the organisation of material.
To his credit and with the reader's interests in mind, Beim deals with White's deviations on the way to the main lines, and provides solutions to early orders including 1.Nf3 f5 2.e4 (not even a 1.d4 opening!). After 1.d4 f5, Beim spends more space than one might expect to various gambits and in particular to the Staunton Gambit with 2.e4. This latter system is investigated in some detail with some very relevant new ideas. In general this book is very chatty and easy to read. At one point Beim digresses at length about his dislike for the new more rapid time controls! Understanding the Leningrad Dutch is recommended as an entertaining but still sufficiently theoretical introduction to a very popular opening. Don't expect a comprehensive reference work, however.
As I remarked in the last column there are two new books on the same opening: Play The Classical Dutch by Simon Williams, from Gambit, and Classical Dutch by IM Jan Pinski, from Everyman. I don't know enough about this opening or these books to compare them, so I will only say that there is a more explanatory explanation here than in any other book listed above, and that once again, Williams covers all of White's second- and third-move deviations, as did Pinski. He also looks at 1.c4 f5 and 1.Nf3 without c4 or d4. This is a repertoire book from Black's point of view. Viewed superficially and comparing his effort to Beim's, Williams' work might have been called 'Understanding the Classical Dutch', since verbal explanations are central to the book.
Steve Giddins' How to Build Your Chess Opening Repertoire is a very entertaining look at the world of openings, often eccentric ones, with discussions of unusual topics like reversed openings and how to use your extra tempo, the advantages and disadvantages of employing offbeat openings, whether all normal openings are sound(!), transpositions and clever move orders, 'universal systems' and more. This book is a truly pleasurable romp through the eccentricities and changing landscape of contemporary openings. It's a light work and probably won't revolutionise your game; but some of Giddins' insights will surprise you and I wholeheartedly recommend his book.
The Russian Chess House is a new publishing firm, apparently a division of Convekta, the Chess Assistant people. In column #50 we looked briefly at their appealing World Chess Championship Matches #1-3 and their series Masterpieces of Chess Composition. Here Alexander Kalinen has put out two opening books with the same languageless notation, Sicilian Defence and French Defence (both subtitled 'Modern Practice'). The series title is 'The Opening Self-Tutor: Modern Experience'. The expressed hope is to help readers play the opening without 'sinking in the boundless flood of chess information'. The book is organized by games (448 for the Sicilian, 401 for the French), filled rather densely by sub-games and annotations; and there are exercises on strategy and tactics at the back of the book. Although there is no allowance for specific ideas or middlegame instruction, Kalinen has in some cases used a 'TM' sign to indicate a 'typical method' that is employed in the game. There are very few of these in the Sicilian book but many in the French volume; obviously they are scant substitute for the real investigation of a position, but they may be helpful markers. As with the World Championship series above, Kalinen quotes a number of other annotators for better-known games, mostly Russian. In many other contests, the notes are imbedded fragments, just as in a typical database output. Kalinen himself frequently adds notes, usually brief, and these are welcome because they add something unique to the presentation. Because they are wordless, these books require some serious study and discipline; the reader may also miss the relatively easy reference to specific move orders provided by a specialised Everyman or Gambit book, for example. The main function of this series is to familiarise a student with typical games and quite a few of the concrete variations of these important openings. I feel that they are not as readable as the corresponding Everyman and Gambit books, and not systematic enough to work with easily. On the other hand, their scope is broader than most openings books, there are suggestions and notes unfamiliar to the Western reader, and fans of these openings may be drawn to the large number of annotated games.
Syzygy Publishing is Jim Bickford's recently revived company that produces monographs on various openings, mostly specialties of the author (Bickford). The Milner Barry Gambit in the Advance Variation of the French Defense has the typical layout: 17 chapters of nearly wordless variations about 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 e5 c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3 Qb6 6 Bd3, when 6...cxd4 7 cxd4 Bd7 8 0-0 Nxd4 9 Nxd4 Qxd4 10 Nc3 is the Milner-Barry proper (some might argue that other White 9th and 10th moves also qualify), giving up a pawn for compensation. A good feature of the book, especially for the average player, is Bickford's coverage of everything along the way, e.g., Black's 6th move options like 6...f6, 6...Nge7, and especially 6...Bd7 7.dxc5 Bxc5, a variation to which he devotes no less than 22 pages. He also examines things like 7...Nh6 and 7...f6 (instead of taking the pawn), and White's 8th-move options like 8.Bc2.
The Milner-Barry proper receives roughly 90 pages of very dense, wordless treatment. The author makes few strong judgments about the lines, often none at all. This is especially regrettable in the very main lines, where we are given a substantial number of very arbitrary, noteless games and their results (many irrelevant) to guide us. It's impossible to understand what might be important and what not, particularly since the games tend to be between players of lesser strength. When the author does give us a sign by means of '?'s or '!'s, it isn't always consistent with the games that he points to. It's not that he isn't fair; for example, in both this and the book centered around his favourite 4.Nf3, I think that he just as often takes White's side as Black's, and is not pushing any agenda. Also, there are plenty of ideas for both sides to be found in the noteless games; it's just an awful lot of work to dig them out. An example of the lack of needed analysis would be in the section on the irregular move 10...Ne7, which he gives a '?' with one of his rare verbal notes: 'This luxury of developing the kingside while neglecting the vulnerability of the Queenside quickly backfires.' But then he refers to only noteless games in the critical line 11.Nb5 Qxe5 12.Re1 Qb8 13.Qf3 Bxb5,
and when you look closer instead of just trusting results, you find that neither 14.Bxb5+ Nc6 15.Qxd5 Qd6 nor 14.Bf4 Qd8 15. Bxb5+ Nc6 lead to an advantage for White, the latter line needing only an obvious improvement in the game that Bickford presents, one that leads to a winning game for Black. Needless to say, such a reliance on lower-level games is even more serious in the main lines.
As mentioned, Bickford has a similar book, Advance French: Alternatives to 4.c3, that covers all of White's fourth-move options after 3.e5 c5 except for 4.c3; this includes 4.dxc5, 4.Qg4, and 4.Nf3. Since he has used 4.Nf3 for many years, that is his best section. There are still no notes to speak of, but the material is gleaned from many sources and it has a better appearance in terms of prioritizing lines. It is obvious that the author knows how the material breaks down in this case. Bickford continues with his 3.e5 study in the book The Paulsen Attack in the Advance Variation of the French Defense; it uses another 245 pages to examine 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.a3. The popularity of this variation, this time among leading players as well, can be seen in the massive numbers of games that Bickford organizes. Many of them are truly badly played, and it will take a disciplined student and true theory hound to sort out the truth. More than the other books in this series, The Paulsen Attack could have used a lot more editing, assessment, and verbal guidance to make it accessible to most of us.
In my opinion, these are works with a specific potential audience. Bickford's The Main Line Smith-Morra Gambit Accepted, for example, might be scarfed up by adherents of this opening, for which there is very little recent published material. Of course some people like to have every book on their opening and others could use these volumes as references only. In general players who are happy with searches and organizational tools on computer databases won't be very interested, since they already have access to most of the material, a small part of it even annotated in depth. And as indicated, there is no instructional material involved to lure them in. But there are also players who don't have a computer, or don't have a chess program on their machines, or just prefer to have a book in their hands when studying chess, perhaps on an old-fashioned board. Within that group are motivated students of openings who are willing to take some time to look at densely-packed examples and to learn lines, perhaps just those in specialised variations. Such players were common in the old days; I was one of them. Now the computer students are in the clear majority, of course, but there are still some in the traditional mold. Bickford certainly provides an awful lot of current material for them to sift through. Just be warned that he does not assist readers with general ideas, nor guide them through an opening in the sense of being told which lines are best. In my opinion the author would have done well to give his own assessments of each line in a chapter and conclude with his feelings about which lines players of each colour should use. In conclusion, Bickford's books have to some extent been surpassed by technology, but are still relevant for the player not as yet converted to the computer-based form of chess study.