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John Watson Book Review (49)

One Good, One Bad [Part Two]

King's Indian with h3
Martin Breutigam
CD-ROM; ChessBase 2002

Grand Strategy: 60 Games by Boris Spassky, '2nd Expanded Edition
Jan van Reek
176 pages; [Publisher not listed: Self?]

In this column I continue with my policy of presenting a very good product and what I feel is a bad one, in this case a real travesty.


Martin Breutigam was the author of the excellent ChessBase CD on the Chigorin Defence to the Queen's Gambit. With his new CD on the h3 variations of the King's Indian, he again enters into a subject that I have both written about and played quite a lot, so it's hard to resist reviewing his work. Breutigam covers 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6, and now 5.h3 or 5.Nf3 0-0 6.h3, the latter accounting for by far the most material. The CD also contains training questions, an h3 database, and an opening tree.

Breutigam speaks from the White point of view, and indeed one of the CDs strong points is that he wades through some incredibly complicated material and 6000 games to locate what he thinks are White's best lines. To me, he has done so with uncanny judgment, and there are only a few cases when I have meaningful differences as to what White should play. I do think that he misses Black's best lines more often, but I may be wrong and anyway no author could possibly get everything right in this morass. It should be mentioned that Breutigam also has an excellent section on the somewhat neglected 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 Bg4 6.Be2 0-0

(normally arrived at by 5...0-0 6.Be2 Bg4). This is an attempt to avoid the h3 lines, and I think a particularly interesting line for the practical player in that case is 7.Be3 and 7...Nfd7 8.h4!?, which has enjoyed much success; or 7...Nc6 8.d5 Bxf3 9.gxf3 Nb8 (or 9...Ne5 10.f4 Ned7 11.h4) 10.h4 with attack. The author was under no obligation to include this section and it reflects his dedicated attitude throughout towards improving this CD.

Returning to h3 lines, Breutigam emphasizes the phenomenal success of the leading grandmaster Michal Krasenkow when playing 5.Nf3 0-0 6.h3, but also points out that 'Evgeni Bareev, Vassili Ivanchuk and Alexander Beliavsky ...also [play h3 systems] more or less often. Even the World Champions Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Viswanathan Anand have already employed this system.' Breutigam gives credit to both Bent Larsen and Lubosh Kavalek for their earlier investigations into these lines. I think that he should also have mentioned the many contributions of GM Vladimir Bagirov, in my opinion the leading theoretician of such systems who spent decades playing and analyzing them. In fact, I named the 6.h3 variation 'the Bagirov System' in my book.

At any rate, Breutigam continues: 'Still, to date, as was mentioned above, hardly anything worth mentioning has been written on this line. This is confirmed by a look at three otherwise recommendable books about the King's Indian: Efim Geller devoted four pages to the variations with h3 in his old standard work ("Königsindische Verteidigung", Schachverlag Rudi Schmaus, Heidelberg 1980). Eduard Gufeld's "Gewinnen mit Königsindisch" (Sportverlag Berlin, 1990) devotes zero (!) pages to it; at least Joseph Gallagher's repertoire-book "The King's Indian" (Everyman Chess, London 2002) has twelve pages on it.' [jw: The latter book is actually 'Starting Out with the King's Indian' so it appropriately devotes more space to explanation and not too much to serious theory]. Unfortunately, Breutigam is unaware of my own 1997 book 'The Unconventional King's Indian' ('UKID'), in which I devote 44 pages to h3 systems, including 28 on the main line 5.Nf3 0-0 6.h3. I became interested in the latter line in 1980 when Dzindzihashvili slaughtered me with it (later I drew with him on the White side) and I immediately took it up. I have 37 of my tournament games on both sides of 5.Nf3 0-0 6.h3 in my database (with various others lost to posterity), so I know a good deal about these lines and can guarantee the reader that Breutigam has done a terrific job of covering the material. I would have avoided a few painful losses had I had his advice at the time.

I noted a couple of lines that interested me and may be worth mentioning. In his main text after 6...e5 7d5 Nh5 8.Nh2 (all other alternatives such as 8.g3 and 8.Nd2 are skipped in the general discussion, but are satisfactorily represented in the database of games), Breutigam doesn't mention my main recommended line in UKID, i.e., 8...a5!?

Played as long ago as 1947 and brought to general attention by Uhlmann. Then the play generally goes 9.g3 (or 9.Be2, when Shabalov-J Watson, Las Vegas 1993 went 9...Nf4 10.Bf3 Na6 11.Be3 Nb4 --11...f5!?-- 12.0-0 Nbd3 13.Qc2 f5. This was equal and led to an early draw) 9...Na6 10.Be2 Nc5 11.Bxh5 gxh5, intending 12.Qxh5?! f5!. White should therefore play 12.g4! hxg4 (I think that 12...Qh4 is also satisfactory) 13.hxg4 Qh4, and now a key game went 14.Be3 h5 15.Kd2!? (a novelty given '!' by Bagirov since earlier tries had failed) 15...hxg4 16.Nf3 Bagirov-Shaked, Linares 1997. Here instead of 16...Qd8?!, Black had 16...Qf6! with the idea ...Bh6, leading in my opinion to a small advantage for Black. One might want to keep the underrated 8.Nd2 in mind here.

The book has particularly good coverage of systems in which White plays Bg5, provoking ...h6, and then retreats to e3. In my opinion this is the best way for White to attempt to gain an advantage after three of the main lines following 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.Nf3 0-0 5.e4 d6 6.h3: 6...e5 7.d5 Na6 8.Bg5 or here 7...a5 8.Bg5, and 6...Na6 7.Bg5.

In the latter variation I was curious to see that 7...Qe8 8.g4 c5

has been answered by 9.Bg2!? in Krasenkow's games, with a strange sort of Maroczy Bind structure resulting from 9...cxd4 10.Nxd4. I'm not sure that I trust this to yield an advantage, but the older option of 9.d5 is still hard for Black to meet, as far as I know. One of my own games went 9...e6 10.Qe2!? Nc7?! (10...exd5 11.Bxf6 Bxf6 12.Nd5 is promising) 11.e5! dxe5 12.d6 e4 13.Bxf6 exf3 14.Qxf3 Bxf6 15.Qxf6 Qc6 16.dxc7!? Qxh1 17.Rd1 with a strong attack, although I failed to prosecute it accurately and Black achieved a draw in Watson-Gulko, Philadelphia 1993.

The coverage of 6...e5 7.d5 Na6 8.Bg5 and 7...a5 8.Bg5 is superb, discussing nearly every possible plan for Black. A key line is 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.h3 0-0 6.Bg5 Nbd7 7.Nf3 e5 8.d5 h6 9.Be3 Nc5 10.Nd2 a5 11.a3

11. ..Ne8 12.b4 axb4 13.axb4 Rxa1 14.Qxa1 Na6 15.Qa3 with a small but definite advantage, Beliavsky-Khalifman, Ubeda 1997, eventually won by White. In my book, I didn't mention 11...Ne8, but instead gave what I think are superior alternatives: 11...Nfd7 (since 12.b4 f5! looks equal), and 11...Bd7, when 12.b4 axb4!? (best is probably 12...Na6! with the idea 13.Qb1 c6) 13.axb4 Na6 14.Qb3 Nh5 yields unclear play.

I should add that Breutigam provides many suggestions and new ideas throughout. He also makes it fairly easy to assess which lines are the most desirable. My general impression from this CD (and from experience) is that White tends to be better in every main line in which (after ...e5) Black plays the moves ...Nc5 and ...a5, and then moves his f6 knight and plays for ...f5. But I personally had the most trouble versus flexible systems with an early ...c6 and ...Bd7, usually without an early ...Nc5, when Black retains options on both sides of the board (just as White normally does). This ...c6/..Bd7 plan is also recommended by Gallagher in several key lines. Anyone examining Breutigam's work will see that there is still a tremendous amount of leeway for creativity with all the h3 lines. I would therefore recommend not only this excellent CD but also the systems described on it. They are ideal for those looking for an anti-King's Indian System that is not even close to becoming worn out.

It's hard to imagine a worse vehicle for the great Boris Spassky's games than 'Grand Strategy' by Jan van Reek. Jeremy Silman, writing on his extensive and very highly recommended website, gave a negative review of van Reek's earlier book 'Hypermodern Strategy' (the book is subtitled 'Revision of Nimzowitsch's "My System"). After quoting several confused passages in which van Reek reveals a thorough ignorance of basic concepts, Silman concluded 'Quite honestly, this is one of the worst chess books I've ever seen!' I shared that opinion, but didn't express it at the time, since I tend to avoid reviewing books that have few or no redeeming features. Now that I have seen van Reek's 'Grand Strategy' (subtitled '60 Games by Boris Spassky'), I feel equal distaste for this second book and would very much like to warn away any readers who don't yet have it. That Matthew Sadler calls this 'an exceptionally good book', is reason enough to set the record (as I see it) straight.

Before doing so, one might wonder who van Reek is. In a section entitled 'Preparation', an unnamed person (surely van Reek himself) explains that the author of 'Grand Strategy' has 'written 150 publications' about 'mortality, smoking behaviour and heart diseases'. But he doesn't use a doctor's title, and no indication is given that he's a medical researcher or even has a university degree. Given the quality of the two chess books mentioned above, one wonders if he makes a habit of writing about things that he knows nothing about. At any rate, we find that he is a three-time 'Dutch Champion in War Games' (?). And that 'Although chess is a mainly tactical game, it is useful when someone looks into its strategy seriously every 70 years,' that someone being van Reek himself.

Why write this review? Because I am particularly upset by arrogance in chess writing. When a player takes credit for new moves, that is natural and even historically enlightening. Gligoric's chess/autobiographical work (reviewed later) provides good examples of this. But when a writer purports to having a major role in the development of the whole of chess theory, one expects some sort of justification for that claim. As in 'Grand Strategy', however, van Reek's presentation of theory is confused, hopelessly vague, and unreadable (the English throughout this book is execrable, despite the claim that 'John Beasley greatly improved the English grammar'). van Reek's idea of chess history and the development of ideas also reflects his ignorance and egocentric view. Just for example:

'The Soviet School of chess did not start from fascination by the game itself, but it was founded as an instrument for Stalinist propaganda...An important purpose is to let the opponent play poorly. The trick is to lure him into an unfamiliar position of direct combat, which the professional has studied thoroughly during home analysis. Later Kasparov refined this technique through the use of computers. Although the method is rational, it lacks scientific depth. The understanding of hypermodern chess is limited. Only Boleslavsky differed.'

Okay, although not the tiniest bit of evidence is presented to support the claim, we are told that the entire set of Soviets from Botvinnik through Bronstein and Petrosian were defective in understanding, that their chess lacked scientific depth, etc. A near-exception is Smyslov, who 'is able to play hypermodern chess, although he cannot rationalize its principles.' But close only counts in horseshoes. So who did and does understand chess? The answer is 'Dutch science', as represented by Euwe and evidently the author himself. Here's the sequence he presents:

'Theory about chess strategy made a leap forward in 1927, when Euwe wrote sagacious articles about pawns in the center and the attack on the King, and Nimzovich published his system of prophylaxis. Van Reek completed, clarified and combined these approaches into a general theory for human and computer chess in 1997.'

[After this review was written, I noticed that Taylor Kingston attributed the following unsurprising quote to Mr. van Reek: 'In chess, Lasker, Botvinnik and Nunn are mentioned as scientists, although they never made an intellectual achievement of lasting value, like I did.' In fact, Kingston in his excellent review at Chess Cafe covers much of the same material that I have. I would normally find his sarcasm about 'Grand Strategy' a little too insistent, but here it is well deserved.]

Perhaps I need say no more about this pretentious nonsense. But let's just humour the reader and ask: What is this general theory? van Reek list a series of 'principles', none of which would be helpful to any player that I can think of. There is no room here to present them all, but it turns out that 'Strategy typifies how the two opposing lines move forward [emphasis his].' The key is this 'forward movement', although 'movement is indirectly forward in a flank attack', whatever that means, and 'both sides move forward during a counterattack.' For practical advice, van Reek offers the observation that 'A player needs Russian intuition at the board and Dutch science during the analysis. We cannot judge the quality of this approach, but we have no serious alternative.' More accurately, we have no more comical alternative.

On the positive side, the book includes 60 games by Spassky (presumably all available in databases) and some nice photographs. And there is an interesting but too short biographical section written by Spassky himself (incidentally revealing a great animosity towards Petrosian). But van Reek's annotations to Spassky's games are contradictory and often beyond comprehension, e.g., 'Fischer carries out an active consolidation with accordions.' When Tal is about to sacrifice, 'the pale Spassky waits'. What little I could bear of the game annotations immediately revealed some misjudgments and odd claims. With regard to theory, van Reek expands the scope of the word 'prophylaxis' until it becomes quite meaningless, e.g., a player with a disadvantage who counterattacks is acting 'prophylactically', and a move that consolidates the position is 'prophylactic'. Similarly, 'overprotection' includes more or less any defence of a pawn (even an advanced passed pawn that can't be exchanged) by several pieces. And so forth.

For example, van Reek attributes Fischer's 1972 win over Spassky to his application of 'Boleslavsky's strategic approach'. 'As Black, [Fischer] frequently applied prophylaxis by playing the Sicilian, Grunfeld, and King's Indian.' Here prophylaxis apparently means playing almost any opening, because for the match itself, 'Fischer applied a similar approach with different openings', namely 'the Benoni, Nimzo-Indian, Alekhine and Pirc'! Thus he scored '4 out of 5 for prophylaxis as Black.' Why games with these seven openings were examples of Fischer's prophylactic play is beyond my comprehension, since they were mostly played very actively and without special regard for preventing White's plans. van Reek also claims that the Russians made two great errors: (a) 'They did not recognize Fischer's knowledge of prophylaxis'; he adds that 'this 'Russian' blunder shows a great defect in the Soviet School: the abstract properties of prophylaxis are not understood'; and (b) 'They did not even notice the strong similarity between Boleslavsky's and Fischer's strategic approach.'

I get angry when I see a book like this. It's so bad that after a while I stopped laughing at its absurdity, and just felt sorry that Spassky allowed himself to be represented by such a charlatan. Let's hope that we see a more serious biography dealing with this great World Champion from a modern perspective; for now, older and better ones can still be found. In conclusion, please don't waste your discretionary chess budget on this book. I would encourage you to buy the books of legitimate, hard-working authors instead.

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