John Watson Book Review (59)
Catching Up With Openings: Quality First
IM John Watson - Saturday 22nd February 2003
Leningrader System: Eine Waffe gegen 1.d4; Stefan Kindermann; 197 pages; Chessgate 2002
Winning with the Trompowsky Peter Wells; 240 pages; B.T.Batsford 2003
Bashing the Sicilian with Bb5, Parts 1 & 2 [Video] [http://www.badbishop.com] Murray Chandler; Bad Bishop Chess Videos
The Four Knights 192 pages; Jan Pinski; Everyman Chess 2003
Before discussing books, allow me a personal note. I'd like to say to readers, especially those whom I haven't previously thanked, that I'll always be grateful for the wonderful support that was given me after the stroke that I suffered a few years back. We sometimes underrate the degree to which chessplayers form a community and how chess, a manifestly self-interested endeavour, can nevertheless inspire warm friendships and lasting ties. I have personally benefited from that side of our game and hope that most of you have as well.
Returning to the (relatively) mundane topic of chess openings, I wish that I could review all of the many interesting books that have been brought to my attention over the past six months or so. But since I like to examine authors' works in at least some detail and so many of them are produced these days, that's hardly possible. Over this and the next column, then, I want to sample some fairly recent output with the understanding that it is only a subset of what's out there.
This first column examines four works (3 books and a video) that I think are of particularly high quality. In fact, two of them must be among the best opening books of the past five years. The first is 'Leningrader System', a repertoire book for Black written by Stefan Kindermann. He is the same author who, with Ulrich Dirr, gave us the superb Winawer 7.Qg4 0-0 book that I have praised so highly. 'Leningrader System' deals with the Leningrad System of the Dutch Defence and the sidelines of that opening. 'Eine Waffe gegen 1.d4' means 'a weapon against 1.d4'. The main line of the Leningrad is 1.d4 f5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.g3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.0-0 0-0 6.c4 d6 7.Nc3, in whatever order of moves, after which Kindermann doesn't deal with the entire opening, but restricts himself to systems with his recommended repertoire move ...Qe8 (notably 7.Nc3 Qe8 8.d5, which takes up 48 pages). This means that the moves 7...c6 and 7...Nc6, for example, are not included. For the former move one might want to refer to Valeri Beim's 2002 Leningrad book (mentioned below), which stars 7...Qe8 but devotes 30 pages to 7...c6. For some reason 7...Nc6 has been buried, even behind oddities such as 7...a5.
After 7.Nc3 Qe8 8.d5, another critical choice is Kindermann's suggested move 8...a5.
Kindermann recommends this instead of the traditional 8...Na6, which was actually his repertoire choice in a two-part video that Kindermann made in 2001. One reason he gives for this switch is the line 8.d5 Na6 9.Rb1! c5 (It would be interesting to see what he thinks of 9...Bd7 with the idea of ...c6 in most lines) 10.dxc6 bxc6 11.b4 Bd7 12.a3 Nc7 13.Bb2 Ne6!? 14.c5!. Here 13...Rb8 and 13...a5 are attempted improvements that have been tried. It appears that the debate is ongoing, and that these alternatives need further analysis and tests. But 8...a5 has a more solid feel to it and may be less subject to radical reassessment than 8...Na6.
In Kindermann's book, just about every alternative Dutch system is given a look (with the emphasis on Black's repertoire); for example, 1.c4 f5, 1.Nf3 f5, 1.d4 f5 with 2.Bg5, 2.Nc3, 2.e4 etc., systems with Nh3, systems with b3 or Nbd2 without c4, and an early c3 by White (popular of late). The book is in the same format and style as his Winawer book: rich with history of the variation, meticulously researched, enhanced by explanation and excercises, and full of original analysis. The book is written in German, which is a shame for those unfamiliar with that language because there is a great deal of verbal annotation that is informative about all kinds of positions and ideas. Anyone interested in the theory of the Dutch Defence and the Leningrad Variation will find it an absolute must for their library, but I have to say that that a key feature of the book is Kindermann's lively and enthusiastic commentary.
The Bibliography is fairly short but wide-ranging, including even Harding's 1976 Leningrad System book and Christiansen and Silman's obscure 'Dutch Defence'. It's too bad that the recent books about the Dutch were not yet out, especially Beim's 'Understanding the Leningrad Dutch'. Also, Hall and Cartier's 1997 book 'Leningrad Dutch: Strategy and Tactics' might have something of interest. Nevertheless, one doesn't get the impression that Kindermann misses much, and especially not any early sequence that White might dig up to challenge the Dutch.
Obviously I highly recommend this book and hope that it will eventually appear in English so that it achieves greater appreciation.
(Postscript) A small point: Why is it that Dutch Defence books (including this one) don't seem to mention 1.d4 f5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bf4 (or 2.Bf4 Nf6 3.Nc3)? It seems to me that this move order leads to some unique and complex ideas.
The other really excellent book is Peter Wells' 'Winning with the Trompowsky'. As Wells points out in a thoughtful and informative introduction, the Trompowky (1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5) is no longer an eccentric opening nor even a terribly underanalysed one, but it does have what he calls an 'underestimation dividend' that causes even very strong players of Black to stray into unfamiliar positions which they may not handle optimally. The reasoning is that even though the Trompowsky no longer surprises anyone, players of necessity put more time into their defences to 2.c4 and 2.Nf3. On the other hand, Wells points out that players of the White side will achieve the beginning position of the 'Tromp' in about 60% of their games, thus needing less time to prepare for a wide variety of answers such as follow 2.c4 (the Gruenfeld, King's Indian, Nimzo/Queen's/Bogo-Indian, Benoni and so forth), or 2.Nf3.
This book is a repertoire book with plenty of side information. For example, the first chapter discusses why 2...Ne4 3.Bf4 is recommended instead of 3.Bh4 or 3.h4 (without analysing these options at length). In some main lines, Wells tends to present two repertoires, a 'solid' and 'attacking' one. Thus after 2...Ne4 3.Bf4 c5, 4.f3 is 'solid' and 4.d5 is 'attacking'. Wells has a strong preference and extensive coverage of 4.f3, but also analyses 4.d5 at length (although the relevant sections are hard to find). An interesting problem with 4.d5 is 4...e6, which may very well equalise.
In the 4.f3 line, after 4...Qa5+ 5.c3 Nf6, Wells examines both 6.Nd2 and 6.d5. His analysis of 6.Nd2 cxd4 7.Nb3 Qb6 8.Qxd4 Nc6 9.Qxb6 axb6 10.Nd4 is incredibly thorough. Wells feels that the whole line is underrated for White and contributes key suggestions for both sides. White does come out better in most lines; nevertheless, Wells is objective about a few of Black's best alternatives, reaching end positions that he feels are still unclear. I have to say that the huge number of options that both sides have, mostly unplayed, is a testament to the depth of this opening, and to opening theory in general. After all, the position after 10.Nd4 has undergone much scrutiny and many tests, but continues to generate new and remarkable ideas.
The repertoire flexibility continues after 2...c5, when Wells has chapters on both 3.Bxf6 and 3.d5. The latter can lead to the 'Vaganian Gambit': 3...Qb6 4.Nc3 Qxb2 5.Bd2, which is exhaustively analysed. On the other hand, lines such as 2...d5 and 2...g6 bring forth only one repertoire move (3.Bxf6) because that is the only consistent way for White to continue. Similarly, 2...e6 is answered by 3.e4, easily the most ambitious move. Returning to 2...Ne4 3.Bf4, the popular 3...d5 is met by either 4.f3 or 4.e3. Wells himself plays the latter move, which he calls 'the discovery of the last 5 years' and even the line that has 'revitalised the Trompowsky'. All these variations are without exception are well-organised and contain original analysis.
I have a prejudice in favour of the repertoire book for many reasons, among them: (a) it places more responsibility upon the author to find useful lines and analyse them well; (b) it allows the author to be much more thorough; (c) it requires an efficient concentration of material. The latter contrasts with a presentation that is all over the place, usually with the author's attention diverted to one or two favorite variations and often to the virtual neglect of equally important alternatives. This is the case with so many game-based books that contain dense notes to fill in the gaps. To be clear, I believe that a truly complete encyclopaedic treatment of an opening (one that covers 'all major variations') is the very best option, and in the long run most of the books published in this format are still more useful than the average 'Ideas Behind Opening X' book. But these days, books that try to cover every facet of a major openings often fall short in practice. More than ever, the page requirements for a truly comprehensive work would be excessive, so to the extent that authors attempt to cover everything, they skirt around major issues and lack room for meaningful analysis and specific opinions in too many variations.
What sets Wells' book apart is his combination of creative analysis and explanatory prose. His writing is knowledgeable, fluid, and entertaining, even in the middle of rather dense analytical material. I am often asked to recommend books that contain much more than theory and games with densely-packed imbedded games. For those readers, 'Winning with the Trompowsky' provides a nice balance. I can't imagine a better tool for the average player who wants a repertoire but works during the day (thus needing first of all to be able to stay awake while studying!). ECO, NCO, and the Informant are marvelous publications; however they can't provide the specialized and friendly insights of a repertoire book.
In my tradition of minor complaints, I didn't like the use of the complete games format; to me, it made navigation through the book a bit harder, although not really difficult. He also uses what he calls 'Theoretical Articles' that are tagged onto chapters, unattached to the main games, and referred to as 'TA's. This adds a third layer of searching (game, variation, article). Also, it would have helped to know on what page these variations and articles started, not just the chapter. Considering the simplicity of this function using modern software, it is too bad that publishers have mostly neglected page references in chess books.
In summary, 'Winning with the Trompowsky' gets my absolute approval. With its detailed explanations, original analysis, and infectious enthusiasm, it is without any doubt one of the finest opening books of recent years.
Another product that stands above the crowd this time is the two-part video (VHS) by Murray Chandler called 'Bashing the Sicilian with Bb5'. These videos present a repertoire for White against the Sicilian with 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 versus 2...Nc6 and 2...d6 (after 1.e4). In both cases White plays 3.Bb5, after which the character of the play varies considerably depending upon Black's second move. This is not a complete anti-Sicilian repertoire due to the possibility of 2...e6 (or lesser lines such as 2...g6 and 2...Nf6), but it covers a majority of the games that you will be involved in as White. The variation 2...Nc6 3.Bb5, by the way, has swept across the master world in the last few years, with many games by top grandmasters and even the world's top ten.
In the first video about 2...Nc6 3.Bb5, Chandler begins with the answer 3...Qb6, one seen on all levels. A cute but in fact relevant line he shows is
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Qb6 4.Nc3 Nd4 5.Nxd4 cxd4 6.Nd5
6...Qd8 (6...Qd6 7.d3) 7.Qh5! a6 (7...e6 8.Qe5; 7...Nf6 8.Nxf6+ gxf6 9.d3 with a large advantage) 8.Qe5 f6 9.Nc7+ Kf7 10.Qd5+ 1-0, intending 10...e6 11.Nxe6 Amazingly, this was the course of a game between two very strong grandmasters: Smirin-Afek, Israel Ch 1992!
3...Qb6 can also get into trouble after 4.Nc3 a6 5.Bxc6 Qxc6 6.d4 cxd4 7.Nxd4 with too rapid development, e.g., 7...Qc7 8.0-0 a6 9.Bg5 e6 10.Re1. This captures the aggressive flavour of White's repertoire, also shown by 3...Nf6 4.Nc3 Qc7 5.0-0 Nd4 6.Re1 a6 7.Bc4 or here 6.Nxd4 exd4 7.Nd5 as played by Anand versus Leko. Chandler very often shows us more than one way in which to proceed, based upon one's style and comfort level. A remarkable line after 3...Nf6 4.Nc3 is 4...Nd4 5.e5! Nxb5 6.Nxb5 Nd5 7.Ng5! with a bundle of attacking ideas that Chandler shows in some detail.
There are of course many other lines, but the largest section of the video begins with what is often considered the main line 3...g6. Chandler suggests 4.Bxc6 (also popular at the top) 4...dxc6 5.d3.
This move leaves open White's options of castling kingside, often with the simple idea Re1 and e5, or of castling queenside when the usual attacking setup is Nc3/Be3/Qd2. I personally don't think that this yields any objective advantage, but it's certainly a handy and relatively safe practical option. The well-known alternative course is 3...g6 4.0-0 Bg7 5.Re1 (among others), but in this case Chandler sticks with 4.Bxc6.
The second video deals with 2...d6 3.Bb5+. I have to admit that I've never liked this as much as 2...Nc6 3.Bb5, yet Chandler makes a strong case that White can always keep the play interesting, and gain advantages in many lines. One line that arises from either order is 2...d6 3.Bb5+ Nc6 (= 2...Nc6 3.Bb5 d6). Chandler suggests the old Vasiukov variation 4.d4 cxd4 5.Qxd4, certainly a dangerous one for Black to meet and often underestimated. Interestingly, this avoids the sideline 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Qxd4 a6 that arises from the conventional order of the Vasiukov line. The ambitious 3...Nd7 tends to give White good practical chances after 4.d4 Nf6 5.Nc3 cxd4 6.Qxd4. So a critical line is 3...Bd7 4.Bxd7+, when 4...Nxd7 5.0-0 Ngf6 6.Qe2 and 4...Qxd7 5.c4 account for much of this tape's coverage.
This video-book has two major positive features. One is the tightness and clarity of what is a reputable but easy-to-learn repertoire. The other is that Chandler himself is so consistent and organized in delivering the material. I was fairly tired when I put the tapes in yet I still enjoyed watching every minute of both videos because Chandler takes the moves at a careful pace and intersperses the strategic ideas in the clearest possible fashion. Each game reinforces the move orders just considered so that one doesn't get the sequence of opening moves lost in variations he analyses. Then at the end of each section Chandler gives us an overview of what has just been presented, again emphasizing the move order. That kind of repetition is precisely what a good teacher does when introducing an opening variation and ideas to a student.
In conclusion, 'Bashing the Sicilian with Bb5' is a relaxing and efficient way to learn a very useful set of variations. Give it a try.
Jan Pinski has chosen a rather obscure and underanalysed opening in the 1.e4 e5 complex: the Four Knights Opening (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6).
In the Introduction he bravely states that 'The Four Knights has made a comeback to the international chess circuit' and is 'a real alternative to the Ruy Lopez' which allows 'top players to use this system to fight for an advantage.' Unfortunately, the fairly brief period of experimentation with the Four Knights at the very top seems to be gone, and I don't think that Pinski quite makes his case. He does, however, show how to play as White and Black and provides a detailed presentation of the Four Knights, certainly an investigation that is not likely to be improved upon in the near future! The effort and originality of this book makes it stand out, however marginal the cause.
I will use John Emms' 'Play the Open Games as Black' to compare just a couple of the Four Knights lines. Emms book was written in 2000 and is not listed in Pinski's bibliography, which is too short but appealing in it's use of books by Alekhine, Keres, and Bronstein! Here are some interesting points that I saw:
A. After 4.Bb5 Bc5 (Emms' second solution), Pinski:
(a) offers 5.Bxc6 dxc6 6.d3 'with an improved version of the Ruy Lopez Exchange'. I don't see this as an improvement, but it does lead to original positions. He continues 6...0-0 7.h3 Re8 8.Ne2 Bf8 9.g4 (from a Psakhis game), but instead of 9...h5, Emms suggests 9...Nd7 intending ...c5 and ..Nb8-c6.
(b) quotes game Shabanov-Frolov that continues 5.0-0 0-0 6.Nxe5 Nxe5 7.d4 Bd6 8.f4 Nc6 9.e5 Be7 10.d5 Nb4 11.exf6 Bxf6 12.Bc4 Qe7 13.Kh1 'and White is better'. 12.Bc4! indeed seems better than 12.a3 and 12.Ne4, the moves Emms give that Pinski ignores. After his 13.Kh1, the move 13...Qc5 (Frolov played 13...d6?) 14.Bb3 Bxc3 15.bxc3 Na6 looks critical. Black wants to play ...d6 and at some point ...Nc5 (playing ...Qxc3 for defence in some lines), whereas White can try f5-f6 and/or Qd4. This is interesting, but at the least complex and very dangerous for Black, so Pinski has established a promising line of play versus 4...Bc5.
B. 4.Bb5 Bd6!? is a funny move that has done well for Black, as Pinski concedes. After some analysis, he says: 'All I can do here is to recommend 5.g4!', although then he himself finds that 5...Bc5! then leads to positions that are at least equal for Black. But there is plenty more to be discovered in such lines.
C. 4.Bb5 Nd4 has always been the real problem. After many years and enormous amounts of analysis, Black is still doing well. Ignoring the intricate details, we find that Pinsky's conclusions are not optimistic. He says that after 5.Ba4 with proper play (and it is fairly forcing), 5...Bc5 is fine for Black. Moreover, 5...Nxf3+ equalises, and 5...c6 (Emms' main line) gives Black good play in particularly forcing play. Pinski sadly admits that 5.Ba4 'no longer seems to offer 'chances for original ideas and opening surprises'.
So Pinski say that White should consider 5.Bc4, although 'Black will probably prove to be doing just as well there...'. In fact, he and Emms follow a line by Keres after 5...Bc5 that is satisfactory and a bit more for Black. Pinski offers analysis but suggests no real improvement. Emms at least finds a better try for White at the end, although it still leads to only equal play. Also, both show that 5...Nxf3+ is rather boring and quite equal. One feels that 4...Nd4 is a complete solution that doesn't allow White enough scope for spicing up the play.
D. Then Pinski's attention turns to the Scotch 4 Knights with 4.d4 exd4 5.Nxd4 Bb4 (both Emms and Pinski find at least interesting play for White after 5...Bc5), when the problem is that the only real try for White advantage is 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.Bd3 d5 (or 7...0-0 8.0-0 d5) 8.exd5 cxd5 9.0-0 0-0 10.Bg5 c6, a position that is so overplayed and overtested that, as Pinski says, 'White has no chances of getting an advantage solely from his own strong play in the Scotch Four Knights'. Objectively there's nothing much here, but as always, a well-prepared player of the White pieces can expect an advantage, sometimes even a considerable one, if Black hasn't studied these lines concretely.
E. How about the Belgrade Gambit? After 4.d4 exd4 5.Nd5, both Emms and Plinski conclude that Black is at least okay after 5..Nb4 (more forcing lines) and 5...Be7. Plinski: 'For White, I can only recommend that you play something else' !
F. Finally we have the Glek system with 4.g3. I have some analytical experience here and I think that Black has a couple of roads to equality, but this variation is surely White's best way to fight for advantage and look for new moves. The main line (and Emms' suggestion) is 4...d5 (4...Bc5 leads to 'complex equality', but with plenty of scope for original ideas; the odd 4...Nd4!? probably also suffices, but again with open-ended play) 5.exd5 Nxd5 6.Bg2 Nxc3. Pinski thinks that Lugovoi's 6...Nb6 7.0-0 Bc5! 'seems to give Black good play'; he offers complex analysis, but some of the resulting positions aren't completely clear. After the normal 6...Nxc3, 7.bxc3 Bd6 is fully equal if Black plays accurately (Emms likes 8.0-0 0-0 9.Rb1 Rb8 10.d4 Re8, for example). Okay, so Black can equalise in all these lines, but this time White is not limited by forcing variations and the final positions are interesting.
In the end, Pinski doesn't make a terribly strong case for the Four Knights, which is a tribute to his fairness and objectivity. I would think that any player of 1.e4 e5 as Black would want to have this book to cover the many approaches that White has. From White's point of view there are all kinds of options, but I see 4.g3 as the one that will most challenge a well-prepared opponent. For stronger players, the Four Knights is well worth considering, but mainly as a surprising second system when one isn't inclined to play the Ruy Lopez or 3.Bc4 lines.