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John Watson Book Review (110)

John Watson Book Review #110: Repertoires in the Age of Carlsen

A Cunning Chess Opening Repertoire for White by Graham Burgess

A Cunning Chess Opening Repertoire for White by Graham Burgess | http://www,

John Watson reviews A Cunning Repertoire for White (Gambit) by Graham Burgess which was released first on Kindle and which I (MC) have been attempting to adopt for a few months now. There is now a physical book too. John Watson also wrote a white repertoire book for Gambit starting with 1.d4 but advocating 2.c4 rather than the 2.Nf3 used in this book and he compares their approaches.

John Watson Book Review #110: Repertoires in the Age of Carlsen

A Cunning Chess Opening Repertoire for White; Graham Burgess; 256 pages; Gambit Publications 2013

It's been a while since I reviewed any opening books, and still longer since I reviewed a Gambit Publishing book. Recently Gambit has cut back on the number of physical books they publish, but at the same time have been putting out many versions of their books both for use with their electronic App and as ebooks (further information at

Thus I was doubly pleased to see that Graham Burgess had again ventured into opening book territory with his A Cunning Chess Opening Repertoire for White ('CCORW'). Burgess co-founded Gambit and has been one of the very best and most popular of their many talented authors. He wrote numerous high-quality opening books in the 1990s and early 2000s, among them the influential classics New Classical King's Indian and Main Line King's Indian (with Nunn); Nunn's Chess Openings (with Nunn, Emms, and Gallagher); as well as The Slav and The Taimanov Sicilian, which set the standard for what a modern opening chess book should be. More recently, he has concentrated upon other areas of the game, for example, he produced new and heavily-revised versions of The Mammoth Book of Chess and The Mammoth Book of the World's Greatest Chess Games in 2010, and in 2011 wrote both Chess Openings for Kids (co-authored with this writer), and The Gambit Book of Instructive Chess Puzzles. The latter takes a unique approach to instruction and has received uniformly excellent reviews.

With CCORW, Burgess chose to write a type of opening book that is less dense and 'theoretical' than some of his major earlier works. I'm going to quote extensively from his Foreword, because it describes the underlying philosophy better than I could:

"This is my first opening book for 12 years, so the initial task was to develop a new working method that made full use of the advances in technology. On the other hand, the nature of the book means that it is less based on cutting-edge critical lines, and more to do with psychology and practical chess, so a large portion of the early work was devoted simply to choosing the lines to recommend, as they had to work both individually and as a whole, interconnected unit. This 'early work' was actually rather complex and took quite a few months."

Burgess' repertoire begins with the move 1 d4, and generally he avoids tactical complications where possible. Crucially, this repertoire requires only moderate levels preparation compared to the main lines so many books tout. Due to the non-critical nature of the play, a player who employs it won't need to constantly keep up with new moves and changes in the theory, because those are unlikely to influence the assessment, or at any rate won't create a life-or-death situation.

Burgess explains:

"The aim is to direct the game into structures where the opponent's specialized knowledge of their preferred openings will not be relevant. That will allow us simply to 'play chess' – and if we play better than the opponent, we can expect to win. We'll also be playing ambitiously for an advantage, of course, and seizing any opportunities to give our opponents a hard time, either by pouncing on inaccuracies or by leading them into unusually tricky positions. I should emphasize that the repertoire does not rely on 'system' openings, where White plays the same moves each time and ignores what Black is doing. Each recommended line targets some aspect of Black's set-up and fights for the initiative.

For the most part, we'll be delaying the standard advance c4 until it has a specific target – generally this means Black playing ...d5. In most cases our second move will be 2 Nf3, with 2 g3 our choice in certain specific cases. Even when Black replies 1...d5, we shall play 2 Nf3 before c4, as this gives us a few extra options while ruling out some of Black's possibilities.

The repertoire has three main pillars:

1) Queen's Gambit: 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 (D) followed by c4

2) Torre Attack: 1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 e6 3 Bg5

3) Counter-Fianchetto: 1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 g6 3 g3”

Notice how this compares with my own 1 d4 repertoire book, where c4 almost always follows next. Both repertoires emphasize non-critical and strategically based variations, and both are well-suited for developing players, but Burgess' is even solider than mine (see below). Here are some of his other general comments about the philosophy behind his choice of variations:

"Therefore, for this repertoire I have chosen variations that are solid and quite respectable, even if in some cases not so widely known. Sometimes, that might mean they are not the most critical or ambitious options, but they all have considerable bite. Generally speaking, our lines will limit Black's opportunities for counterplay, and rule out most of Black's gambit options.

The key word in the title is 'cunning' and not 'cautious', but we won't be taking huge risks in this repertoire, and we won't be offering our opponent many attacking chances. In his excellent work A Strategic Chess Opening Repertoire for White, John Watson writes of his recommended systems, "With the use of [after 1 d4] 2 c4, often followed by e4, they all take a good chunk of central space and in doing so, expose White to counterplay.” So we won't be doing that! In most cases we'll follow up with 2 Nf3 and choose our subsequent development based on what Black does next. However, it's important that 'safe' doesn't morph into 'passive'...

One of my primary aims has been to avoid opening lines that require deep, specific, specialized preparation. We won't be fighting King's Indian players in structures that they've been playing for half their lives, or engaging in "who can remember the latest novelty at move 24?” contests with Semi-Slav addicts. Not only will we be avoiding the specific variations that are their bread and butter, but we'll even be moving the game into strategic territory that is far removed from the typical lines of the opening in question.

This makes the repertoire suitable for players with a good general understanding of chess, who feel confident handling a wide range of positions, but "want normal positions where they can just 'play chess'” rather than open the game with a straight shoot-out. In particular, for players who have had a habit of changing their openings every so often (or more cynically: every time they lose a game!), this repertoire provides opportunities to put that wealth of accumulated knowledge to use. If you have experience with 1 e4, or 1 c4/1 Nf3, then there are plenty of lines in this book where you'll be able to put that to work, either by direct transposition, extra possibilities, or in terms of strategic familiarity."

Things are not so simple, and in cases where the main line might feel too tame, Burgess sometimes offers more active alternative systems to play. But I think the above fairly represents the gist of what he's trying to do.

The specifics are both interesting and surprising. Against the King's Indian Defence, for example, Burgess recommends a very eccentric-looking move that has been employed by strong grandmasters (including Petrosian), namely, 1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 g6 3 g3 Bg7 4 Bg2 0-0 5 0-0 d6 6 a4!?, gaining space on the queenside and intending to advance with a5 and even a6 if allowed. It looks a bit silly, but is easy to underestimate. Against the Gruenfeld Defence, White also fianchettos by 1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 g6 3 g3 Bg7 4 Bg2 0-0 5 0-0 d5 6 c4. This is extremely safe and keeps plenty of pieces on the board.

The Torre Attack, 1 d4 Nf6 2 Nf3 e6 3 Bg5, is an old Burgess specialty, and fits in perfectly with the goal of getting a sound and relatively safe position which still retains plenty of imbalance. Even for players who aren't interested in the whole repertoire, the Torre provides an easy way of sidestepping the whole Nimzo-/Queen's-/Bogo-Indian complex. Burgess does include one gambit in the form of 3...c5 4 e3 Qb6 5 Nbd2, but that is positionally-based and not particularly risky (except for Black).

In the Queen's Gambit Declined, White plays a Bf4 system, namely 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 c4 e6 4 Nc3 Be7 5 Bf4. This is a sound variation which has been used by numerous World Champions, and in the just-concluded Candidates Matches, Topalov defeated Kramnik in the main line of 5 Bf4; in fact, White's superior position in the opening had a lot to do with the result.

I was also happy to see a line to which I contributed a fair amount of analysis several decades ago, namely 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 c4 e6 4 Nc3 c5 (instead of 4...Bd7) 5 cxd5 Nxd5 6 g3 Nc6 7 Bg2 Be7 8 0-0 0-0 (which position can arise by a number of move orders, in the English Opening and Semi-Tarrasch Opening, for example), and now 9 Rb1!? (maybe '!'), a move originally played by Suba which has all sorts of unique and surprisingly dynamic features.

The only line that seems a bit out of place (meaning that it doesn't match my expectations in terms of solidity and risk) is Burgess' solution to the Semi-Slav, namely 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 c4 e6 4 Nc3 c6 5 g3!?, and the related 2 Nf3 e6 3 c4 c6 4 Nc3 dxc4 5 g3. It happens that I'm quite fond of both these lines as White, but have found in practice that they can become extremely tactical and difficult to play if Black plays ...dxc4 and holds onto the pawn. Actually, it won't hurt a player of White to mix in such a fun and challenging variation in order to balance what is otherwise a rather safe and very positional repertoire. Nevertheless, he or she needs to be aware of how vitally important precise move orders are, and that more memorization is needed here than in other variations. Alternatively, one could step away from the book and play any number of slower lines with e3 and/or b3, two versions of which are given in my 1 d4 book and Avrukh's 1 d4 book. Versus a standard Slav beginning with 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 c4 c6, Burgess chooses such a course by suggesting 4 e3. On a curious side note, in the line 4...Bf5 5 Nc3 e6 6 Nh4 Be4 7 f3 Bg6 8 Qb3, Black has been recently been playing the remarkable 8...b5!? with success, intending 9 cxb5 c5!. This has been extremely rare, and it is only just this past year that it's been taken seriously, so it's understandable that Burgess didn't include it. Players of White be warned!

The Contents of A Cunning Chess Opening Repertoire for White are as follows:

1 Queen's Gambit: Introduction 11

2 QGD: Main Line with 5 Bf4 19

3 QGD without 4...Be7 40

4 Ragozin QGD 53

5 Queen's Gambit Accepted 60

6 Slav 74

7 Semi-Slav and Triangle QGD 99

8 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3: Tarrasch et al. 107

9 Torre Attack: Introduction 117

10 Torre Poisoned Pawn 119

11 Torre with ...d5 127

12 Torre without ...d5 134

13 Counter-Fianchetto: Introduction 153

14 King's Indian 158

15 Grünfeld 189

16 Anti-Benoni 210

17 Dutch and Other 1st Moves 235

So how does this relate to Magnus Carlsen, as my title suggests? Well, except for a brief period a few years back, Carlsen as an elite player has generally avoided contesting sharp and theory-laden opening variations. For the most part, even as White, he plays modest positions which offer little or no objective advantage, but can still create difficult problems. Because of his superior understanding, and/or the fact that he is more familiar with the positions than his opponents, he is able to outplay them (with record-shattering results).

Recently, perhaps in subconscious imitation of the World Champion, or more likely in response to practical limits, we are beginning to see more opening play like Carlsen's. In master practice, you'll increasingly find more restrained openings with White: 1 e4 mixed with d3, 1 d4 mixed with e3, and first moves like 1 Nf3, 1 c4, and even 1 b3 leading to slow systems without a great deal of confrontation until the middlegame. To implement that philosophy without sacrificing too much ambition, a repertoire like Burgess' makes a good fit. The professional player may not want to employ all the variations he recommends, but for the practical student who doesn't have time to keep up with the latest nuances, the anti-King's Indian/Grunfeld systems with g3 and openings like the Torre will get White to an interesting middlegame while insulating him from dramatic surprises. I'm already teaching a couple of these systems to students of mine, and it has served to expand their frontiers while also succeeding in terms of results. For that reason alone, I can recommend Burgess' book; with luck, we'll have the fortune to get A Cunning Chess Opening Repertoire for Black from the same author!

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