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John Watson Book Review (17)

Dance of the c-pawns

The Dynamic English; Tony Kosten; 144 pages; Gambit, 1999

English Defence; Daniel King; 144 pages; Everyman Chess, 1999

Gambit Guide to the English Opening: 1…e5; Carsten Hansen; 256 pages; Gambit, 1999

c3 Sicilian; Joe Gallagher; 176 pages; Everyman Chess, 1999

Easy Guide to the Bb5 Sicilian; Steffen Pedersen; 128 pages; Everyman Chess, 1999

The Dynamic English; Tony Kosten; 144 pages; Gambit, 1999

English Defence; Daniel King; 144 pages; Everyman Chess, 1999

Gambit Guide to the English Opening: 1…e5; Carsten Hansen; 256 pages; Gambit, 1999

c3 Sicilian; Joe Gallagher; 176 pages; Everyman Chess, 1999

Easy Guide to the Bb5 Sicilian; Steffen Pedersen; 128 pages; Everyman Chess, 1999

The openings discussed in the books above are related by their first moves, i.e., the advance of c-pawn by one party or the other. The Sicilian Defence books explore two options to the standard 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 and 3.d4 (the 'Open Sicilian'), and the English Opening books give us a long-overdue update to the theory of 1.c4. I'd like to make a few general comments about these works before examining the particulars. Gallagher and King use the illustrative game approach, whereas the other books are more traditionally organized (by variation, with a tree structure). I prefer the latter, but for limited topics such as the c3 Sicilian and the English Defence, it's fairly easy to find any line you're looking for and these authors are not the type to leave out anything essential. I do think that for repertoire books such as Kosten's and Pedersen's, the traditional organization which they use is far kinder to the reader, because one can quickly identify what is being recommended, as well as which lines are skipped.

The two Gambit books and Pedersen's book contain short introductions to the 'typical themes' of the lines being discussed, whereas the other two Everyman books simply plunge into the games. I don't have strong feelings about this choice. On the one hand, most readers seem to want more words with some positional guidance, and thematic introductions provide both. On the other hand, anyone studying such a book will quickly catch on to the standard ideas, which are best learned by example anyway. I personally find it irritating when, in the middle of the main theoretical section, the author refers back to the analysis of a game he has put in such an introduction (or in the Appendix), but only Pedersen among these authors does so, and not often enough to devalue his work.

All of these books are excellent efforts by dedicated authors, and all are recommended to anyone interested in the systems involved. The only common problem I sense is a lack of enough original analysis and suggestions. One feels that these books for the most part summarize theory rather than contribute to it. Kosten's book is probably the most original effort, including many of his own games, although it is also the least thorough. At times, the other books can slip into a sort of editorial mode, in which the author's task is limited to selecting games from a database and organizing them. That in itself is a worthwhile and essential function; as Gallagher points out in his introduction, he had to sift his way through and assess some 20,000 games in the course of assembling his work! Under such circumstances, it is probably inevitable that choosing the best continuations in each subvariation consumes the author's energy. This is also work which is beyond the average reader's capabilities, and thus of great value. It's just that it would be nice to see a more critical attitude. For example, in several of these books, I found instances of game excerpts being given to show that a line was bad for one color or another (the assessments were sometimes implied, but often overt), when a fairly simple improvement or suggestion would have made that assessment doubtful.

Tony Kosten's 'The Dynamic English' is a repertoire book from White's point of view, beginning with 1.c4. To simplify White's task and avoid certain lines, Kosten recommends the immediate fianchetto of White's king bishop (2.g3) after 1…e5, 1…c5, 1…Nf6, and even 1…e6 and 1…e6. This leads to some unique and interesting orders, for example, after 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.0-0 Nb6, Kosten suggests 7.d3 Be7 8.Nbd2!ÿ, with a relatively unexplored but promising reversed Sicilian, e.g., 8…0-0 9.a3 a5 10.b3 Be6 11.Bb2 f6 12.Qc2, and White tends to follow with e3 and d4. In this same line, Kosten suggests that the order 6…Be7 7.d4 e4!ÿ, chosen by Timman versus Topalov in Wijk aan Zee this year, runs into trouble after 8.Ne5! f5! 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.Nc3, although Timman's 10…Be6 11.Qa4 Qd7! intending …c5 seemed to equalize. To Kosten's credit, when I went to check his site on (review forthcoming!), he had included this game for his readers.

Kosten recommends the Botvinnik System with 5.e4 versus the reversed Closed Sicilian with 1…e5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Bg2 g6 4.Nc3 Bg7. He is a bit optimistic about this formation, but it serves as a simple weapon, especially for 1.c4 players who don't have experience with other setups from the Black side of the Sicilian. I was particularly interested in his ideas versus 1…c5. Now 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 is well-covered, with interesting new ideas in the 3…d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Nc3 Nc7 (Rubinstein) and 3…e6 4.Nf3 d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 (Keres-Parma) variations, making a good case for White in both lines. But the analysis of 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.Nc3 Nc6 5.a3 is awfully optimistic. For one thing, I think that Black can equalize in the variations after 5…a6 6.Rb1 Rb8 7.b4 cxb4 8.axb4 b5. More importantly, the pawn sacrifice 5…e6 6.b4 Nxb4 7.axb4 cxb4 8.d4 bxc3 9.e3 Ne7 10.Ne2 d5 11.cxd5 Nxd5 12.Ba3 is a dicey way to play for an advantage; I wouldn't be surprised, for example, if 12…Bd7 with the idea …Bc6, while complex, even favours Black.

It's interesting to compare Kosten's recommendation versus the English Defence with King's book. After 1.c4 b6 2.Nc3 Bb7 3.e4 e6 4.Nge2, King likes 4…Nf6'!', but doesn't mention Kosten's 5.d3, which might transpose to a known line after 5…c5 6.g3 d6 (6…d5!ÿ), unless 5…Be7 6. g3 d5!ÿ is worth a try. At any rate, there's a lot to think about in this book, and any 1.c4 player will be able to pick up at least a few lines to incorporate into his repertoire. Such a combination of originality and usefulness makes this work easy to recommend.

Daniel King's 'The English Defence' is an overdue survey of an opening (1.c4 b6, and if 2.d4, 2…e6) which has been scoring well for many years, but which has not achieved the respectability it probably deserves. The opening's advocacy by top English players such as Short, Speelman, and Miles (along with their countrymen Plaskett, Sadler, and King himself) justifies it's name (it also happens to be a defence against 1.c4, the English Opening). But others outside of the UK have been attracted by the dynamism of Black's play, e.g., two high-level advocates are Boris Gulko and the Latvian Edvin Kengis. King speaks largely from Black's point-of-view, and the book is mainly geared for players on that side of the board.

I think that King does well to include sound ideas such as 5…Ne7 and 5…Qh4+ in the line 1.c4 b6 2.d4 e6 3.e4 Bb7 4.Nc3 Bb4 5.f3, since 5…f5 6.exf5 Nh6!ÿ is not doing as well as in years past. Similarly, the line 4.Bd3 (instead of 4.Nc3) f5!ÿ 5.exf5 Bxg2 (or 5…Bb4+) 6.Qh5+ is no longer worthwhile for Black, in my opinion. Some years back, I spent a lot of time trying to improve Black's play with both of the moves King suggests as worth a try (11…Bf3 and 11…Qe7 in the main line, for those who have followed this theory), and I finally had to give up (I believe there are also move order issues here, e.g., an early Nd2). But King rightly puts the emphasis on (and devotes a whole chapter to) 4…Nc6, which allows for creative play and is scoring well.

I looked at some other lines which have been played against me such as 1.c4 b6 2.Nc3 Bb7 3.e4 and 2.g3 Bb7 3.Nf3 Bxf3 4.gxf3 c5, and I found King's coverage to be quite adequate for forming a repertoire. He skimps on some variations, understandably, but does a very good job of at least mentioning all the options, including many I hadn't seen before. I like this book, and think that it could be useful for anyone from experienced club players to grandmasters.

'Guide to the English Opening: 1…e5' comes the closest of these books to being 'encyclopedic', in that Carsten Hansen tries to do a systematic study of all 1.c4 e5 lines without favouring either side. As someone who wrote about this subject about 20 years ago, the first thing that strikes me is how much less theory has changed in these lines than after most openings which begin with 1.e4 and 1.d4. Naturally there have been many important discoveries, but a surprising number of variations look about the same, and have the same assessments, as they did long ago. Probably the areas which are most typical of ever-changing modern theory are fairly experimental areas such as 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Bb4 (unknown before, and now the recipient of 18 pages of analysis), and 2.g3, which was formerly somewhat of a curiosity, but now gets 9 pages of non-transpositional coverage. For all systems, Hansen gives a detailed and intelligently-chosen overview of practice, and his discussion of typical pawn structures together with his opinions of various lines' worth makes it easier for the reader to get a handle on so much material.

Hansen's book and Kosten's make an instructive contrast, with very different appeals. To me, it's extremely useful to have a thorough and considered overview of theory such as Hansen provides. Without such books, written opening theory would tend to consist of a large number of 'Play the X and Win' works or pure database dumps. When an author tackles an entire complex and puts his mind into discovering which lines are important, he is giving us the kind of information which would take a lot of effort to discover on our own. On the other hand, there is little original analysis in Hansen's 'Guide', whereas Kosten contributes a large number of original ideas and a practical repertoire for over-the-board play. His work lacks much depth, but offers specific guidance and tips gleaned from his own practice. Both of these approaches are valid, and it's up to the reader to decide which fits his or her requirements.

Moving on to the Sicilian Defence, Joe Gallagher's 'c3 Sicilian' covers the variation 1.e4 c5 2.c3 in admirable detail. Gallagher has a very readable style with an abundance of clear and well-reasoned opinions. He makes a book which is in fact quite dense with games and analysis move along very smoothly. This is characteristic of Gallagher's work; he is one of the leading chess writers in the world, with a number of superb books to his credit, e.g., books on the King's Gambit and Saemisch King's Indian (a personal favourite), the wildly-popular 'Beating the Anti-Sicilians', and the recent 'Najdorf: Modern Lines' (co-authored with Nunn) and 'Nunn's Chess Openings' (a collaboration of four authors). In fact, I believe that one can buy any of Gallagher's books and be assured of getting your money's worth and much more.

Unfortunately, I have to say that in the case of this new book, Gallagher was simply unlucky. As usual, he does a wonderful job of identifying the most critical lines and adding relevant analysis where necessary. The problem has nothing to do with the quality of his work, but rather, with his choice of subject matter and with the evolution of theory during the time he was presumably putting the book together. I have been working on 2.c3 lines with GM Tal Shaked for some years now, and with the fairly recent solution of certain positions, I strongly believe that White's play is at a dead end in the two main lines. As Gallagher himself delineates, 2…Nf6 is now giving Black effortless, often sterile, equality (or more than equality, in those complex lines where White tries to keep the play alive). White's many new ideas over the last ten years, which revived 2.c3 in international play, are petering out or being refuted. Thus, instead of the assessments like 'equal but unclear' or 'with compensation for the pawn(s)' which characterize much of modern theory, the 2…Nf6 lines are consistently leading to prospectless play (at best) from White's point of view. To make matters worse, 2…d5 has never been in better shape, especially in the …Nf6 and ..Bg4 variations. Again, a careful reading of Gallagher's book confirms that White is having a hard time making it even interesting. And he is too honest to suggest otherwise. But if this is true, one wonders if 2.c3 is worth writing a large book about, at least until someone finds new ways to bolster White's cause. In fact, just about every other anti-Sicilian system is more popular among top players at present.

It's interesting that Gallagher, in his Introduction, says that he has 'tried out virtually every' variation as Black against 2.c3, and that he has 'never found a single found a single variation for Black that has given complete satisfaction'. He also notes that he would no longer recommend the two antidotes he gave in 'Beating the Anti-Sicilian', i.e., 2.c3 d5 3.exd5 Qxd5 4.d4 Nc6 5.Nc3 cxd4 6.cxd4 e5!ÿ, and the 2…Nf6 3.e5 Nd5 sideline with 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nf3 e6 6.cxd4 b6. Well, yes; those lines may still be playable, but at the very least, they give White full-fledged play with a lot of options and attacking chances, something sorely missing in the main 2…Nf6 lines. In fact, it was the prevalence of those two antidotes and a number of other irregular defences in international play which made 2.c3 so much fun to play a few years ago. Alas, we're at a different point now, and leading players are looking elsewhere for anti-Sicilian solutions.

So I guess that's not a positive recommendation, but for an original reason: Gallagher's book is very well done, and therefore, from White's point of view, very discouraging. In fact, a bit of independent analysis only worsens the situation, if my own experience is accurate. I would therefore recommend 'c3 Sicilian' mainly to Sicilian players who need to find a system with Black versus 2.c3. For those players of White who are looking for another way to avoid the Open Sicilian (2.Nf3 and 3.d4), Steffen Pedersen's 'Easy Guide to the Bb5 Sicilian' may be the answer. In the long run, I'm not confident that the Bb5 systems produce any theoretical advantage, but for the moment, these fashionable lines are producing some very interesting play. Personally, I think that the Rossolimo Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5) will create problems for Black for many years to come; the lines are very flexible, and therefore not even beginning to be exhausted. I also think certain lines are somewhat better for White than Pedersen indicates. As far as I can tell, the Moscow Variation (2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+) gives Black clearer methods of equalizing. On the other hand, I know the Rossolimo better than the Moscow, so I could well be wrong. In any case, the equality that results from the Moscow is much more interesting and full of content than the equality of the type I bemoaned above arising from the 2.c3 lines.

Unlike Gallagher, Pedersen limits his material to fit a repertoire, but at the same time, he provides a repertoire for both players. To be specific, he analyses 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6 and 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+ Bd7 4.Bxd7+ Nxd7 in detail for Black. From White's point of view, he always emphasizes at least one line, e.g., versus 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+ Bd7 4.Bxd7+ Qxd7 (a popular line for Black used in Kasparov-ROW), he analyses (and thus implicitly recommends) only 5.c4, although other moves, including 5.0-0 intending Qe2 and b3 or c3, are also played. Pedersen's is thus an original and useful method of making a 'dual repertoire' book, and it works quite well in a very limited number of pages.

My own feeling is that, of the last three books Pedersen has written, this one is more interesting than his Bogo-Indian book (which mostly recited known games), but not so inspired as his Benko Gambit book, which contained all kinds of interesting opinions and original analysis and instantly became the best book on that opening. 'Easy Guide to the Bb5 Sicilian' is tightly organized and well-reasoned in the case it makes for Pedersen's chosen lines. It is a book I would certainly want on my shelf if I played the Bb5 lines, and a useful one for players defending against those lines as well.

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