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John Watson Book Review (11)

NCO: A preliminary Look

NCO: A preliminary Look

Nunn's Chess Openings; John Nunn, Graham Burgess, John Emms & Joe Gallagher; 544 pages; Everyman Chess/Gambit, 1999

As I've been away for more than a month, a lot of worthy new books have come in. I think that they all deserve at least a mention, and, as a result, the next installment (#12) will be a series of mini-reviews, in which I will comment upon some of the books in a relatively uncritical fashion. I will try to concentrate on who might benefit from the book in question, and why. In this review, I will look in a bit more detail at John Nunn's important new one-volume encyclopedia from Everyman Chess and Gambit. In this case, too, my review will be based upon preliminary impressions, and is mostly meant to give the reader an idea of whether the book is meant for him or her.

Various points which have arisen in the interim:

(1) My 'correction' regarding The Golden Treasury of Chess provoked at least 10 readers to respond with their own corrections to my correction! In fact, Chris Holmes, who sent me the original note, did mention that he thought that someone named Wellmuth had actually done the work on this book, but this was a bit vague and I just let the Horowitz correction stand. From the many emails I've gotten, I now believe that the true state of affairs is this: Francis J Wellmuth was the author of The Golden Treasury of Chess and was listed as such on the original edition of the book. Apparently Fred Reinfeld also did a great deal of the editorial work. Horowitz evidently then 'revised' (some say 'gutted') the book, and published it under his own name. Regardless of the various versions my readers supplied with respect to Horowitz' co-opting of the book, all agreed in their disapproval of Horowitz, most of them feeling that his claim of authorship was both unethical and self-aggrandizing. Thanks to all who sent me material on this matter. I am, clearly, neither a chess historian nor a true chess bibliophile!

(2) Thanks also the readers who sent me comments on their least favourite books and/or about what they didn't like in a chess book. The overall response to my invitation was so tepid, however, that I've decided to drop my 'most disappointing lemons' idea, at least for the time being. No more Mr. Mean Guy!

(3) Publishers, help! Aside from Batsford, Cadogan (now 'Everyman'), and Gambit, I continue to receive precious few books, and even those others I have usually had to specifically request. TWIC is the most widely-read chess site around, I'm sure (probably by a landslide; one estimate was 30,000 readers!), and a good place to have your books mentioned. Those readers who are friends with small publishers might point this out to them. All languages welcome.

As I just indicated, Cadogan is now 'Everyman Publishers'. This has an odd ring to it--one rather expects a new edition of Pilgrim's Progress to be one of their first projects. But instead, we have Nunn's Chess Openings ('NCO'), a massive and ambitious attempt to revive the one-volume opening encyclopedia. For the record, Gambit (the publishing concern run by Nunn, Burgess, and Murray Chandler) is given half-credit on the cover and owns the NCO copyright; apart from publishing their own titles, Gambit actually produces books for the other leading British publishers, and this is apparently a joint effort.

After a day of thumbing through this book, I can't do it justice in a short review, and will undoubtedly return to comment upon it further in forthcoming columns. But I do feel able to give my opinion on the first and most important question: "Who is this book forÿ" As I see it, this is the book for those of my students (a majority of them, in fact) who either don't have database programs or don't have the time to use them extensively, and who want to bring just one or two books to a tournament to study from, perhaps with the help of a friend. It is also a book for the vast majority of club players who, for example, can't possibly prepare for that Friday night match with a thorough review from a 200-page specialty opening book (which they may have to borrow anyway); but do have an hour after work and before the game in which to bone up on what NCO tells them is more-or-less the general state of theory in the two defenses they think their opponent might play.

Well, then, who isn't this book forÿ My guess is that you won't find very many titled players (or even national masters) toting around a copy of Nunn's Chess Openings, because the theory is, in Nunn's own phraseology 'ruthlessly weeded out', and the variations are 'cut short' to such an extent that advanced players just won't find enough that they don't already know in it. Also, there are no explanations whatsoever for the beginner, who would really be out of his depth here. The important thing (and the difficult thing for someone like me to see at first) is that for a vast majority of active chessplayers, the material is deep and accurate enough to keep them occupied and learning for a long time to come. In other words, I'm pretty sure that the market still exists for such a book, and I think that Everyman/Gambit deserves credit for committing the considerable resources and energy this project clearly required.

Many of us grew up on the one-volume encyclopedia, e.g., Modern Chess Openings ('MCO'), Chess Openings: Theory and Practice, or Batsford Chess Openings ('BCO'), among others. When theory seemed to be getting too dense for such works, the Informator folk produced the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings ('ECO'), now up to 5 volumes ('A-E') of small print, which has since been mostly supplanted by detailed booklets corresponding to just one or two of the 500 ECO codes! Thus, the day of the one-volume openings encyclopedia seemed past. But readers have consistently asked me about which one-volume work was best, indicating an ongoing interest in this subject. How will they like this new solutionÿ Quite a lot, I think. Let me first point out some obvious good points. Right off, we have the choice of authors: Burgess, Emms, Gallagher, and Nunn himself are the cream of the crop in writing about openings. They all have broad expertise, and their work reflects the sort of eye for detail which is so valuable for this venture. Furthermore, four authors is probably a bare minimum for such a project. DeFirmian did his best with MCO, but it really isn't up to modern expectations. And the first edition of BCO had the unusual situation of Eric Schiller writing the lion's share of the first draft and then turning it over to Keene and Kasparov for a thorough review; I don't get anywhere near the sense of detail and precision from BCO that NCO gives. Apparently, the second BCO was done by a team of Russians, but to me, anyway, it also lacks the aforementioned precision. Of course, we now have computer-checking of variations and vastly-expanded database resources, so this is not a slight upon BCO; but I also feel that NCO's set of expert and hard-working authors is eminently suited for this task, more so than previous combinations. Also, the areas which each author handled are delineated at the beginning of the book (this has been a problem with other encyclopedias).

There are a number of other good features to this book. The computer-checking itself should practically eliminate one- or two-move tactical oversights (I haven't found any yet). Every line is given an assessment, a policy which at least guarantees some guidance by the authors. Nunn, furthermore, claims that there are 'literally hundreds' of innovations spread throughout the book, although in the articles/advertisements he's written, as well as in the Introduction to the book, he keeps pointing to the same three examples. No big deal, but it would have been nice to see a few others identified, even with no accompanying detail. In any case, I don't think that encyclopedias should be judged by their original material (unless excellent suggestions and innovations simply permeate the work in vast numbers, which I don't find to be true of either BCO or of NCO--yet--and certainly not of ECO). I should mention that, in contrast to ECO, the footnotes never stray (visually) from the page of their citation by more than one page; this is no small point when one considers ease of use and general readability. One of the most significant advantages of NCO is important for those readers who don't own a database: due to the use of today's database programs (and at least two of the authors qualify as leading database experts), the reader will be sure that very little of known significance was missed due to human error (e.g., forgetting that a line existed, misunderstanding a transposition, or just being unaware of how theory breaks down in some variation). In other words, the reader is practically guaranteed of an accurate overview of how contemporary theory views a given variation, at least in lines employed by players of master strength and above. (For irregular variations, this may not be true, as described below).

Inevitably, I find some problems with this book, although I don't think that they'll impact upon the average player too severely. Maybe it's just a coincidence, and one should keep in mind that I'm a person who has rather deeply specialized in certain lines; but too often, I found myself disagreeing with assessments of positions, some of which I feel are rather 'established' (to experts, anyway), and I also found a number of strong and already published moves missing. After going through about a dozen openings in which I consider myself to have some specialized expertise, I began to suspect that in many or even most cases (and I am open to correction on this), the authors had a policy of limiting their work to the massive database material in front of them (as described by Nunn in his Introduction), and didn't cross-check the material with books or articles on the openings involved. That is a reasonable (practical) decision--after all, the amount of work involved by researching the published material would be daunting; but in my admittedly preliminary judgment, it seems that a lot of good moves and more precise assessments might have found there way into the final product had the authors taken this extra step. Let me emphasize that this sounds like a more serious problem than it is. In the vast majority of cases, databases which include tremendous numbers of annotated games (e.g., from Informants and Chess Base Magazine) adequately represent the material that makes it into books. For most players, and for a high percentage of variations, the difference will be negligible. And I should also mention the cases I saw in which one of the authors clearly did pore over loads of complex theory to indicate the best play (and very possibly took advantage of published theory to do so). But readers who are familiar with the literature about their favourite opening should not be surprised if, from time to time, there are the types of omissions described above.

The other problem I have is less abstract and technical, and more relevant to the book's intended audience. NCO quite properly allots little or no space to unsound and refuted lines. But that's not quite the same as giving short shrift to lines which are speculative, but extremely popular on not just lower, but middling (e.g., club-) levels of play. Now I don't want to get into an unfair game of pointing out things like: "Look, there's 11 columns on the Marshall Gambit and only 10 on the entire 9.Ne1 King's Indian!" In fact, I think that if you use your judgment fairly, you'll find that the authors were quite thoughtful about such space-allocation decisions when it came to mainstream openings. But when it comes to lesser openings, some of these decisions seem truly questionable. I was amazed to see, for example, that the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit (1.d4 d5 2.e4 dxe4 3.Nc3) was only given a very short footnote (8 half lines), and that the order 1.d4 d5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.e4 Nxe4 4.Nxe4 dxe4 was fully covered by "5.Bc4 unclear". The Blackmar-Diemer is an opening with too many fans, books, and active practitioners to be sloughed off in such a fashion. By contrast, the Cochrane Gambit, 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nxf7, is given its own variation row and, astonishingly, a verdict of '='. I don't know what glitch occurred here; I am quite confident that the Cochrane is simply unsound, and two of the easiest ways to refute it aren't even mentioned by NCO. My guess is that the databases just didn't have many or appropriate games. There are several other cases of semi-respectable, popular openings which are brushed off and misassessed by NCO (many of the lines treated in The Big Book of Busts by Eric Schiller and I, if you want to find some examples). But some well-and-truly irregular lines are also unfortunately overlooked. In fact, considering how many of the users of NCO will be mid-range club players, the line between 'irregular' and 'unmentionable' seems to have been badly drawn. Stefan Buecker, for example, will be upset to see the complete omission of most of his favorite openings, e.g., he has collected many games with and written a whole book on 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 Ne4 ('the Vulture'), which is at any rate not refutable, and should have gotten at least a footnote. And 1.g4 (used by GM Skembris and a host of IMs) gets one 9-move footnote excerpt in a seldom-used sideline, ending in equality! The real point is that such openings have loyal followings and a considerable body of practice and published material behind them; somehow, that should have been taken into account. The amount of space required to do so would have been relatively trivial, I think.

To conclude, however, let me make clear that the good points of NCO clearly outweigh the bad ones. It's fun to once again have an up-to-date, very competently written one-volume reference on the openings; and as I stated at the first, there is a large audience of amateur and developing players for whom this book is just the thing. I would think that the vast majority of TWIC readers would be well-served by owning a copy (the price is certainly reasonable), and my only warning would be that masters and advanced opening specialists will not likely find much in it to meet their particular needs. Overall, NCO is a laudable venture which targets the larger chess community; it should serve as a complement to the increasingly-specialized works which, as valuable as they are, sometimes go over the heads of the average player. Congratulations to the authors on the successful completion of this daunting task!

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