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John Watson Book Review (37)

Noteworthy Releases, Part 1

Opening for White According to Kramnik, 1.Nf3;
Alexander Khalifman; 240 pages; Chess Stars 2000
Pirc Alert!;
Lev Alburt and Alex Chernin; 446 pages; CIRC 2001
4...Qh4 in the Scotch Game;
Lev Gutman; 272 pages; Batsford, 2001
The Slav;
Graham Burgess; 256 pages; Gambit 2001
online program; Chesspublishing 2001

This and the next two reviews are really one, all dealing with the products I like best from the multitude that arrived while I have been talking about one or two books at a time. I will probably go on doing the latter; but for the readers’ and publishers’ sake, I want to take some time to present a taste of what’s out there. Since I can hardly read all these books, I have in a few cases just mentioned what they contain, in hopes of commenting further upon them later. It’s worth noting that I have only picked items that I thought would be of interest to the reader, so to the extent that I say something negative, I am not suggesting that the product isn’t worth your time. To begin, then:

I have delayed reviewing ‘Opening for White According to Kramnik, 1.Nf3’ because I was hoping to receive volume 2, and perhaps also the ‘Opening for Black according to Karpov’ book. Alexander Khalifman was the last FIDE World Champion before Anand, and is a first-class grandmaster of enormous talent. Here he has a new idea for a book: to present Kramnik’s White repertoire while filling in the many gaps for subvariations that Kramnik hasn’t faced. This task is done in considerable detail, but also with more than adequate explanation for the average player. Such depth is possible because the book is split up into 3 volumes, and thus will presumably extend to somewhere between 600 and 800 pages by the time it’s done.

When explicit guidance (in words) is lacking, I am particularly impressed with Khalifman’s choice of examples, always strictly relevant to the issue at hand. This is very often not the case for other opening books, who tend to throw in cute but misleading games.

Khalifman’s effort also illustrates the distinct practical advantages of a repertoire book. The good author can concentrate upon the theory of the recommended solutions and needn’t fill in the theory of inferior moves for his own side. The King’s Indian Defence dominates this first volume, with Kramnik’s latter-day mainstay 9.b4 in the main line. What I enjoyed most and learned most from was Khalifman’s coverage of the ‘sidelines’ to the KID such as 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Be2 Bg4, or here 6...e5 7.0-0 Na6. With his guidance, one can cut through all the confusing theory associated with such lines and find an effective way to play the White side.

I don’t, however, understand Khalifman’s decision to use 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Qa4+ and 5.e4 Nxc3 6.dxc3 versus the Grunfeld. I can only find 6 Kramnik games with the first (harmless) option and not a single one with the second! Instead, Kramnik almost exclusively plays for the position after 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.d4 in this line. Or, about half the time, he has played 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 etc. In both cases we see him playing the introductory position of a main-line Gruenfeld. In that position, Kramnik has played and developed the theory on 7.Bb5+ (in about 18 games), played absolutely key games with 7.Nf3 and 8.Rb1 (39 times), and has often played 7.Bc4 over the years. In this case, then, Khalifman seems to be trying to save space rather than follow Kramnik. On the other hand, neither of Khalifman’s repertoire solutions require much memorization and thus have practical advantages.

My only other and truly minor complaint is the poor translation; however, this is almost always the case when someone whose native language is X tries to translate into language Y. The other way around is usually preferable, but it can also be expensive or difficult to arrange.

I have used and am very pleased with this book, and I look forward to the other volumes in this series. Club and tournament players of just about any strength will benefit by studying this book and adopting at least some of its variations in their play.

‘Pirc Alert’ is book that I haven’t finished examining (so much material), but it seems to be much better as an instructional work than than as a theoretical one. The core of the book is Chernin’s. He is responsible for all of the ‘Games and Ideas’ section, covering approximately 180 pages. And the ‘Theoretical Variations’ section, about 225 pages, is stated as being ‘by Alex Chernin, assisted by Lev Alburt’. It is important to note (and never mentioned, I believe) that this is a repertoire book for Black, not a comprehensive treatment of the Pirc. There is only one line offered for Black against each of White’s options, with the unusual exception that three choices are given in answer to the relatively rare g3 line. Thus one plays 5...c5 against the Austrian Attack (3.Nc3, 4.f4, 5.Nf3), for example, and not 5...0-0; similarly, your move against the Classical (3.Nc3, 4.Nf3, 5.Be2, etc.) is 6...Bg4.

As a bonus, related Modern Defence positions (1...g6 without ...Nf6) are given throughout the ‘Ideas’ section, but only sporadically analysed, and usually not included in the variations table at the back of the book. Such 1...g6 lines offer a way to get to desired positions or avoid unwanted variations. Nevertheless, actual concrete analysis is given for just a few Modern lines involving 4.Bg5 and 4.Be3; and oddly enough, after a long chapter on the Pirc with 4.Be3, the authors offer Black 2 other unique Modern Defence solutions!

I went back to my old review of Nunn and NcNab’s ‘The Ultimate Pirc’ (#10) to check on the Classical line that I analysed there. Alburt and Chernin repeat that book’s mistake of assuming that a Kasparov blitz game versus a lesser opponent represents best play in what is arguably the main line of the whole opening! One assumes that the game wasn’t even looked at, because White seems to be clearly better at the point where they stop (it is assessed as equal). Regardless of the assessment, the authors should have checked this critical variation (or at least read my TWIC review! Just kidding). See Pirc expert Randy Bauer’s lengthy discussion of missing systems and problems with analysis on his book review page. One of Randy’s main points is that Alburt and Chernin don’t seem to have looked at other sources much, especially Nunn and McNab. Despite some very fine original analysis by Chernin, the analytical section is generally disappointing, especially given Chernin’s expertise not only in this opening but in opening theory generally.

Okay, that’s the bad news. But for some players the good news may by itself outweigh everything else. I find the ideas and themes section of the book incredibly instructive and well thought out. Instead of a mere presentation of a few diagrams with short thematic comments (such as I myself gave in my Benoni book, for example), Chernin treats every main Pirc idea thoroughly and enthusiastically. He uses many diagrams of typical positions and then verbally analyses the actual continuations at length in terms comprehensible to any post-beginner. The number and variety of these well-chosen examples over the 180 pages is more than impressive. Talk about ‘ideas behind the chess openings’—by comparison, one has to laugh at superficial and misleading attempts such as Fine’s, even for his time. This is truly quality stuff from a knowledgeable grandmaster.

In conclusion, I think that for mid-level readers, especially those beginning or wanting a user-friendly tutorial on the Pirc, the complete and detailed treament of variations given by Nunn & McNab will probably not be as important as the extraordinary instructiveness of ‘Pirc Alert’. The superb ‘Themes and Ideas’ section could be a book in itself; it is easily the best example I’ve seen of this idea-based approach. Just be warned that the analytical section is choppy, has holes, and will probably not satisfy an experienced Pirc player.

‘4...Qh4 in the Scotch Game’ is a massive and admirable effort. Its author, GM Lev Gutman, deserves some kind of award for incredibly detailed analysis (272 pages) of what is still a rather obscure line (has anyone, for example, played 4...Qh4 against the world’s leading Scotch Game player, Garry Kasparov?). I admire this kind of advancement of theory very much, and it makes fascinating reading. I suppose that the market for such a book is inevitably a limited one, which is sad. In that respect it reminds me of the Korchnoi endgame book in Review#26.

The book contains a great deal of historical material about 4...Qh4, especially judgmental comments by well-known players and authors about each variation (most of which Gutman refutes). Then there’s the theory, which must include the highest percentage of original analysis of any current opening book (modestly excluding my own Benoni book, of course). I should say however that ‘The 4...Qh4 Scotch’ is an organizational nightmare: transpositions and confusing section numbers (‘sequels’) all over the place. Fortunately, Batsford has included an excellent index. The biggest problem with this book is that Gutman doesn’t say which lines are important, nor does he give an ultimate assessment of which variations are best, much less whether 4...Qh4 itself is good (although the move clearly gives plenty of practical chances).

I played around with the lines and transpositions, trying to find the ultimate assessment of various approaches. One often-recommended one seems to come down to 5.Nc3 Bb4 6.Be2 Qxe4 7.Nb5 Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 Kd8 (this position is often reached by transposition from 6.Nb5, but practically forced with one of these move orders if Black wants to avoid disadvantage) 9.0-0 Nf6! (after incredible convolutions, both 9..a6 and 9...Nge7 seeem to favour White according to Gutman) 10.Bg5 Qf5 ('interesting but not sufficient is 10...a6'--Gutman), and here I like 11Qd2 a6 12.Bd3 Qc5 13.Nd4 (13.Qf4 Qe5 is what Gutman gives, with Black okay) 13...Nxd4 (13...d6 14.Qf4 Qe5 15.Nxc6+ bxc6 16.Qxe5 dxe5 17.f4!) 14.Bxf6+ gxf6 15.cxd4 Qxd4 (15...Qg5 16.f4 Qd5 17.Qf2 and c4 is difficult for Black) 16.Qh6 and White has ideas like Rad1, Rfe1, and even Qg7, capturing the h-pawn, and eventually running with h4-h5 etc. Perhaps nonsense, but I have now made my one great contribution that Gutman can refute in the next edition.

If you play the Scotch or want an exciting system against it, you should seriously consider this book. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kasparov himself would benefit (or is benefiting) from a copy. In any case, Gutman shows that a chess opening book can also be a source of genuine scholarship.

Graham Burgess’ book on the Slav is another work I’ve only gone lightly through. As with many other of Burgess’ efforts, this one will surely become the leading source on the opening. The reader should at least know about its existence and how the book breaks down.

‘Slav’ here refers to the entire opening after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6, with the important exception of the Semi-Slav (in which Black follows with the moves ...e6 and normally ...Nf6). The latter opening was covered by Steffen Pedersen in two volumes previously reviewed in this column. Burgess spends more than half of the book (132 pages) on such variations as the Exchange Slav, the fashionable ...a6 systems, and unique orders with 3.Nc3. He builds towards the traditional main line of the Slav: 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4, to which about 100 pages are devoted.

I have only looked at a couple of variations. We have a minor disagreement about one of the Geller Gambit (5.e4 in place of 5.a4) lines, but that is hardly relevant, since as Burgess demonstrates, the whole gambit has fallen into disrepute for good reasons. I also looked at 5.a4 Bf5 6.Ne5, a variation promoted by Kramnik and others and which I have some knowledge of. The relevant games and players’ notes are fully represented and Burgess adds some good original analysis. I was very impressed by his treatment of the fairly obscure 6...e6 7.f3 c5!?, for example, which goes further than my own investigations a year or two back and clarifies the issues. In the main line with 6...e6 7.f3 Bb4 8.e4 Bxe4 9.fxe4 Nxe4 etc., I would probably assess a couple of the queen-and-rook endings differently; the reality, however, is that no one understands these positions except Kramnik!

I’m sure that someone more familiar with Slav theory than I would make a better critic of this book. Nonetheless, I’m also certain that Slav players with White or Black who want to keep up with the ever-changing theory of the opening will need to have this resource.

I intend to review ‘ChessPub’ in a future column, and to revisit the progress of the Chesspublishing sites (reviewed in #18). For now, I would just say that ChessPub (accessible from the website) is an important new version of Chesspublishing that presents its columnists in a format that is more convenient to access and has attractive new features. One is able to look at all of the game within any ECO code range (with the associated openings mapped right there for those who are not used to ECO codes). One can also look at an author’s contributions from any date onward, submit comments and suggestions automatically to the site author, and play from lists of games on the interactive board (as opposed to having to guess what’s in them one at a time). Most importantly for me, one can now download any number of games into a PGN file or ChessBase database in batches again without having to bring up games one at a time and then download. For example, you can download all E90-99 King’s Indian games at once, or select any set of games from the database list and do the same. To me, this improvement is like night and day, turning the site into an efficient source of well-annotated games for your databases.

ChesPublishing/ChessPub is a subscription site, so you have to consider whether you want to pay for a single site or all of them. What you are paying for is access to titled chessplayers annotating every game of interest in their areas of specialty, and updating their contributions every month. I think that it’s extremely valuable and at least worth visiting to check out.

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