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John Watson Book Review (9)

Odds and Ends #2: Improvement and the Openings

101 Chess Opening Surprises; Graham Burgess; 128 pages; Gambit Publications 1998

101 Chess Opening Traps; Steve Giddens; 112 pages; Gambit Publications 1998

Complete Defense to Queen Pawn Openings; Eric Schiller; 288 pages; Cardoza Publishing, 1998

Complete Defense to King Pawn Openings; Eric Schiller; 288 pages; Cardoza Publishing, 1998

101 Chess Opening Surprises; Graham Burgess; 128 pages; Gambit Publications 1998

101 Chess Opening Traps; Steve Giddens; 112 pages; Gambit Publications 1998

Complete Defense to Queen Pawn Openings; Eric Schiller; 288 pages; Cardoza Publishing, 1998

Complete Defense to King Pawn Openings; Eric Schiller; 288 pages; Cardoza Publishing, 1998

To continue the subject of improvement for developing players, I want to talk a little about opening books. While doing so, I will continue my 'odds and ends' theme by working in reviews of some recent books. The connection between these two areas may not always be smooth, so let me apologize in advance if I jump around a bit.

Before beginning, I should mention that I always try to answer email from TWIC readers, if only with a line or two to say that I don't have time to answer their sometimes complex questions. But I continue to get a consistent minority of these replies (perhaps 5%) returned to my (by AOL) because the return address is for some reason unreachable. This is particularly true for certain emails originating in Latin America and certain Eastern European countries, but also for some domestic ISPs. I just want to assure those who haven't gotten a reply that I'm not ignoring them.

I have reviewed a number of opening books in this column already, mostly fairly sophisticated efforts by some of the best openings authors around. Here I want to talk a little about more popular efforts in this field. The email correspondents I mentioned in my last review (in the 1200-2000 range, mostly on the low end) are quite consistent when they write about their problems with opening books. A goodly number of them want a book or books which tells them how to play an opening (or even openings in general) by explaining the 'ideas' of that opening, with as few variations as possible. When I not so gently suggested that one cannot learn openings in this way (Review #5), I got more negative responses to that opinion than to anything else I have written. Duly chastened, I will attempt to include some popular and more user-friendly opening books in the discussion, and even admit that there can be more than one approach to chess education.

Unlike the classic popular books I mentioned in my last review, opening books from 50 years ago are not of much use today. When I was growing up, in fact, there was nothing like the modern opening book, which exploits vast database resources and if nothing else, provides a wealth of examples of master play in whatever variation is being considered. Instead, we had general books about openings like Fine's Ideas Behind the Chess Openings, the 'encyclopedic' Modern Chess Openings, and a variety of pamphlets and monographs. The magazine article was still a primary source of information about openings, perhaps even the most important one. To get one up on that nemesis at the club, authors like Reinfeld and Horowitz offered books of opening 'traps' and 'swindles' into which the unsuspecting could lured. It was with the German-published Schwarz and 'Bis' series that I was first exposed to a more systematic and thorough opening coverage along modern lines. Looking back, those first 'Bis' series books were rather superficial, continually falling into the fallacy of allowing one victory by a famous player to set the assessment for an entire variation (as did the 'Schwarz' series and, for that matter, some early Batsford books). But at the time, they seemed as advanced and authoritative as one could possibly wish for.

Chess book publishers these days seem to be making quite an effort to produce more accessible opening works. Just for example, in the tradition of the 'tricks and traps' books, Gambit has two works which appeal to the reader on a basis of surprising or fooling one's opponent in the opening. These are Steve Giddins' 101 Chess Opening Traps and Graham Burgess' 101 Opening Surprises (details above). Giddins' book is a compendium of some of the most common opening traps in chess. A particularly entertaining aspect of the book is his research into how many times players have fallen into a particular trap (e.g., as many as 19 times), along with how many times strong players failed to play the winning move once the trap was sprung! A book like this is useful for those who like tactics, and might well stimulate someone who was otherwise unmotivated to study an opening by giving them a trap to shoot for. I have to say that a few of the 'traps' simply reflect Giddins' lack of theoretical knowledge. In a few cases, I know this, because I have written about the openings myself. For example, in the Fried Liver Attack with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 ("ÿ"--Giddens) 6.d4 ("!"), Giddens gives only 6...e4ÿÿ, rather than the 6...Bb4+ line I examine in The Big Book of Busts, which may well be fine for Black. And one of the French lines (#48; I don't have room to cite all the analysis here) ignores much of the work which has been done on the position, thereby coming to a dubious conclusion. I can't recommend this book to everyone (see the comments on price below), but it is entertaining and should appeal to those love the tricky side of chess.

Burgess' book looks at obscure and unconventional ways of playing the opening, with the express intent of throwing the opponent off balance. He aims the book at 'keen amateurs, club, county, and tournament players', and even assures the reader that "many of these ideas are not going to become popular at the top level", so that the ideas will retain their surprise value! This therefore qualifies as a truly 'popular' title. The surprises themselves are not, for the most part, obscure middlegame novelties, but rather unusual moves at a very early stage of the game which can be used to confuse the opponent. Burgess' vast opening knowledge also leads him to include some rather sophisticated examples, especially in modern d-pawn openings. Every idea is rated for both soundness and surprise, and Burgess provides enough material supplementary to the surprise that one obtains a useful mini-repertoire instead of just a one-move shocker. In contrast to Giddins' book, there are some important contributions to (mostly offbeat) theory here, and I didn't find any cases of bad analysis or terribly wrong assessments.

Both of these books are well-written, and should appeal to a reader looking for more fun in his study. This is a case in which the older and cheaper books are at a real disadvantage; the traps and surprises they suggest are connected with a lot of out-of-date openings, whereas Burgess and Giddins put a considered emphasis on frequently-occurring ones. I have to mention a problem I have with both of these books, however: the price-to-pages ratio. The books are $14.95 for 112 pages and $17.95 for 128 pages, respectively. Perhaps it isn't realistic, but for more popular books like these, it would be nice if the publisher could give the customer a good deal more material for this price, and hopefully made up for the loss of per-volume profit by increased sales. The rationale for accepting the generally high prices charged by the leading British publishers is that the quality of the material offered is so much higher than with other publishers. I have no problem with that at all; most of the books put out of late by Cadogan, Batsford and Gambit are of really terrific quality, and they offer original material and writing which just can't be found elsewhere. In the case of the books before us, however, the nature of the subject matter makes that justification marginal. I personally think that Burgess' book makes enough original contributions and has sufficient detail and practical value to be a good value; but you should probably look it over before buying it. The more so for Giddins' book, which is really quite fun to read, but may not offer enough material relevant to the reader's particular openings.

Cardoza Publishing has produced a series of books which are sold in the mass-market 'super-bookstores' dotting the American landscape. As such, their books generally fall within the subject of this review, i.e., books primarily aimed at developing and club players. Cardoza's main author is Eric Schiller, who may cause computers a Y2K-like problem when they list the number of his books ("We never planned on a third digit for chess authors, boss!"). Fortunately, this 'odds-and-ends' column is not designed to address controversies about an author's work; Eric has been subject to some severe criticism elsewhere, but the fact is, he has both good books and bad ones. Thus the simple warning I mentioned in my article on small publishers applies to Schiller's oeuvre as well: be sure to look over the book before you buy or reject it, to determine whether you like it and how useful you think it will be. The aforementioned mix of good and bad also applies to the recent Cardoza line, in my opinion. It's worth remembering that these are popular books, aimed at a mass audience which may not be as sophisticated as TWIC readers. Notice first that Cardoza's prices are very affordable: Schiller's recent 768-page work on 'Standard Openings' cost only $24.95, and the two books listed above offer 288 pages for $16.95. Of course, quality matters; I can't really recommend the former book, but think that the latter two have a definite place in the market. In fact, I picked them out of Schiller's 10 (and counting!) recent Cardoza books because I believe that they show him at his best: serving as a chess teacher in a restricted and well-defined subject area. Complete Defense to Queen Pawn Openings is the best of those Cardoza books, in my opinion. Eric has a long-standing familiarity with the Tarrasch Defense to the Queen's Gambit, having played it himself and co-authored a book on it with Shamkovich in 1984. This new book offers a complete repertoire with 1.d4 d5 based upon the Tarrasch. For my long-suffering TWIC email correspondents, Schiller gives a 36-page overview of typical strategies, tactics, and piece placements, and very useful 10 pages about transpositions and move-order issues. The prose is at the level of an fairly elementary chess lesson, and Schiller doesn't skimp on strategical explanations. Importantly, his concrete presentation of the repertoire has a level of detail sufficient to serve as a genuine reference work for the reader who has, say, tried out the Tarrasch at a tournament and gotten into trouble in the opening. Schiller's real knowledge of the Tarrasch lines distinguishes this book from some others in which his mere arrangement of database games resulted in an inferior presentation of material. Furthermore, he does not neglect to give the reader sample ideas (although not a complete repertoire) against moves such as 2.Nc3, 2.e4, and 2.Nf3 e6 with 3.Bg5, 3.Bf4, and 3.e3. It's clear that the author has taken the reader's interests to heart.

I did find some problems with this book, for example, the lack of an explicit variation index (with the moves spelled out), a number of irritating typographical errors, and the often sloppy prose. Dr. John Nunn, for example, is described as "a true prodigy, entering Oxford at the age of graduating in 1973." And speaking of John Nunn, he and the rest of us may be surprised to find that Eric is "the world's leading writer on chess openings"! Other back-cover prose explains that the book's repertoire "allows you to achieve an early equality and even outright advantage in the first few moves!" Quite an achievement for Black. But kidding aside, we all write too quickly sometimes, and I think the solid chess content of this book outweighs its occasional awkwardness. The main thing is that the reader is given a thorough repertoire for Black, without wildly exaggerated assessments or cleverly hidden 'missing' lines which turn out to be good for White. Of course, this is a book for students and not a magnum theoretical opus. For example, I was interested Schiller's suggestion versus Karpov's move 13.a3 in the main line of the Tarrasch (after 9.Bg5 cxd4 10.Nxd4 h6 11.Be3 Re8 12.Rc1 Bf8), as I have played it myself with success. He puts it in a short note saying "13.a3 is preferred by Karpov. This interesting plan is discussed in Heyl-Kahane in [another chapter]." Turning to that chapter, Heyl-Kahane continues 13.a3 Bg4 14.Re1 Qd7 15.Nxc6 bxc6 16.Na4 Bh3, without any discussion of these moves whatsoever, even though Karpov himself played 14.h3 against 13...Bg4 in the best-known game with this line, versus Illescas Cordoba in Leon 1993; and in fact, only 14.h3 has been played to date by leading players, as far as I know.

Well, as I say, this is not a pathbreaking theoretical work; but I think it would be a great introduction for a developing player who needs an active d-pawn defense and wants as much overt explanation of ideas and strategies as possible. You could also learn a lot about active piece play and isolated pawns from its study.

Complete Defense to King Pawn Openings is another good student book, but as I see it, not quite up to the quality of the corresponding Queen Pawn work. It is organized similarly and has the same positive features: extensive discussion of the main ideas of its featured opening (the Caro-Kann Defense: 1.e4 c6), with a lengthy overview of typical pawn structures, piece placements, tactics and strategy. Again, Schiller has a lot of experience with the Caro-Kann, which in my opinion is the reason that this book is more thoughtful and accurate than some of his other works. I didn't peruse this volume as carefully as the one above, but it seems to pay careful attention to the irregular lines and infrequent sidelines which are of particular concern to the student and club player; and Schiller also gives what looks to be a well-explicated repertoire of the main Classical (2.e4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5) variations. On the negative side, there isn't even an index of named variations this time. And the prose occasionally falls apart completely (there doesn't seem to be a proofreader or editor for these books). Just for example, when Eric discusses the Advance Variation pawn structure, he talks about the role of each piece: "King: The King stays in the center for a while, but must inevitably castle to coordinate the rooks. Kingside castling is normal. Sometimes the king sits comfortably on d7, and Black should consider this possibility before castling. In the endgame, the king may wish to operate on the queenside." "Queen: White doesn't have any useful role for the queen, so often both queens are developed at b6." "Bishops: ...The dark-squared bishop operates in the center, where all of the dark squares are important...", and so forth. (It's not just the writing; some of this isn't even true!) Well, clearly it was just too late that night and a deadline loomed; I've experienced this problem myself. But where is the proofreading and/or editingÿ

That objection notwithstanding , the repertoire itself and how it's presented is of primary importance (for me, anyway). I didn't get time to look seriously at these variations, so I can't say how well they hold up in the details. While I have to admit that I don't much like 3...Na6 against the Advance Variation (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5), most of the other recommended lines have good reputations and plenty of history behind them. A student looking for an ultra-solid Black opening versus 1.e4 could do worse than to start with such a book. I should add that I tend to subscribe to the conventional wisdom that inexperienced players should choose mostly aggressive openings and only later turn to the safer lines; but this doesn't have to be a hard-and-fast rule.

The point which bears repeating is that these books are explicitly aimed at the developing student, not the advanced player, and I think they both do a particularly good job of gently guiding an inexperienced player through a new opening. Those of you clamoring for books with 'ideas' might want to look here; you'll get a great deal of detail as well, without the comprehensiveness of a major theoretical work. While Schiller probably deserves some of the criticism he gets, a consequence of writing too many books too quickly, he should also get credit when he does a good job. I think that on balance, these two books are excellent introductions to openings about which, importantly, the author has real understanding.

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