John Watson Book Review (90)
Opening Books en Masse
IM John Watson - Wednesday 11th February 2009
Surprise: a very large number of books, CDs, and DVDS about openings has been released since I last addressed the genre in this column. My goal over the next columns is to cover a broad selection of products, sticking with the ones that I can recommend to the reader. Unfortunately, many of the books and electronic products are rather arbitrarily chosen because I'm already inclined towards their subject matter or because something in them happened to catch my eye. I'll go into detail in the more 'serious' of these reviews, particularly when I'm comparing the analysis in different books. You'll also get a modest theoretical overview of some variations, with a few of my own opinions. For lack of time, however, I will only be able to make superficial mentions of some very worthy books.
Before that, let me convey a few general impressions about opening books of the last 4-5 years (and before, for that matter). A common phenomenon is that authors tend to stack up games out of a database of master and grandmaster games, and it seems difficult for them to resist using the 'latest' games. This is fine and admirable if the book's subject matter is specifically some variation that is currently under investigation at the master level; but when a book is meant to cover an opening or variation in general, or to present a repertoire, the tendency is to assume that a new line or variation must be better than older ones, and devote too-large chunks of coverage to it. In a majority of cases, leading players will lose some or all interest in that line over the next year or two; the truth is that masters frequently play openings because they are in development and fashionable. Authors of chess book are often practical players or teachers of active students; in both cases they incline towards the latest fashion. Thus their opening books and electronic books/presentations devote too little space, if any, to older lines, ones that later prove to have a great many new ideas in them once attention is again turned their way. Not only will many of these lines become the fashion again, but they provide a much broader view of the characteristic structures, themes, and tactical devices associated with an opening. The result of following the latest craze too closely is to impoverish the reader's chess understanding.
I have another grievance concerning authors' inadequate use of external sources, especially books, but also CDs, DVDs, magazine articles, and web resources. Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily time-consuming to acquire and pore over the extensive literature associated with an opening. Even irregular openings have a remarkable amount of material associated with them. I think that this partially accounts for the generally lower quality of books by strong but very active grandmasters, who are simply too involved in playing, studying, and traveling to benefit from the work of others. The best writers have devoted many hundreds or thousands of hours to thinking about and researching various openings. Still, even among those who are writing much more than they are playing, the pressure to publish books in short time span leads to a similar disregard for their predecessors' work.
On the positive side, authors of contemporary opening books are providing the reader with more original suggestions than ever before. That isn't always the case, of course, but with the help of computers, it's easier to understand at which points games and/or existing theory falls short of the truth of a position. Thus more and more authors are recognizing the need to present moves that justify using a particular variation, refute it, or otherwise expand upon known possibilities. The traditional theory for many variations, including quite important ones, has often consisted of verdicts which stemmed from the results of one or two high-level games. This is where modern opening literature can shine, because a thoughtful and reasonably creative author will come up with moves that even leading players won't, and that are still beyond the ken of analytical engines. At this moment in history, books and media on openings can therefore be extremely useful to players at the highest level as well as to those of average strength. That said, let's move on to some reviews. I believe that all of the books will be beneficial for the appropriate audience.
Play 1...b6 ; Christian Bauer, 224 pages, Everyman 2005
English Defence; Ilia Odessky; 270 pages; Russian Chess House 2008
Kaissiber Magazine; Stefan Buecker, editor; www.kaissiber.de
Dangerous Weapons: 1 e4 e5; John Emms, Glenn Flear & Andrew Greet; 335 pages; Everyman 2008
Starting Out: Sicilian Grand Prix Attack; Gawain Jones; 174 pages; Everyman 2008
Fighting the Anti-Sicilians; Richard Palliser; 254 pages; Everyman 2007
Dangerous Weapons: The Queen's Gambit; Richard Palliser, Glenn Flear & Chris Ward Everyman, 237 pages; Everyman 2007
Chess Explained: The Meran Semi-Slav; Reinaldo Vera; 112 pages; Gambit 2007
Chess Explained: The Nimzo-Indian; Reinaldo Vera; 111 pages; Gambit 2008
Play the Nimzo-Indian, Edward Dearing; 224 pages; Everyman 2005
Apropos my comment about arbitrariness, let me begin with a book from long, long ago (2005!), Christian Bauer's Play 1...b6. Why? Because I've been using it in my own work recently and am very impressed with it. The book is about playing 1...b6 as a universal system; indeed, as far as I can make out, 1...b6 is currently hanging in there as a reasonable response to all of the moves 1 d4, 1 e4, 1 Nf3 and 1 c4. Bauer himself has been rated over 2600 for most of the last 5 years, and has playing 1...b6 for many years (as well as things such as 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 b6). He still employs it on a regular basis, albeit as a secondary weapon, and at least eleven of the main games in his book come from his own practice.
In the eyes of traditional theory, 1...b6 has a different reputation depending White's first move. For example, 1 c4 b6 (the 'English Defence') is an accepted and uncontroversial unbalancing continuation. There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of master games with it, and its current reputation is solid. Recent theory is extensive, for example, Hans Langrock has a multi-part series on the ChessCafe website (www.chesscafe.com), and the ever-inspiring German magazine Kaissiber (www.kaissiber.de) has had numerous articles over the years relating to 1...b6 in various contexts. Ilia Odessky has written the 270-page book mentioned below about 1 d4 e6 2 c4 b6 (= 1 c4 b6 2 d4 e6), and countless master games have refined our understanding.
By contrast, 1 e4 b6 (sometimes called 'Owen's Defence') has been looked at askance until 15 years ago or so, even though it had a certain amount of theory associated with it as far back as the 19th century (see again the magazine Kaissiber). In the past two decades, its reputation has improved, and 1 e4 b6 2 d4 Bb7 (as well as 1 d4 b6, when 2 e4 Bb7 transposes) has been used by a surprising number of strong grandmasters, going way back to the young Kramnik! Bauer is pessimistic about achieving absolute equality after 1 e4 b6, but he presents a good case for it being competitive with more conventional replies to 1 e4. By the way, French players might note that 1 d4 e6 can transpose to the French after 2 e4 d5, or to the English Defence after 2 c4 b6.
I'm going to stick to my plan of providing a minimum of details (as long as I'm not criticizing a book or comparing books), so I'll simply say that 1...b6 is the sort of fun and tricky opening that many players will enjoy, perhaps as one of two main systems, or even as a backup. Bauer has done a great job in presenting the material, and I don't feel that this book has aged much, certainly nowhere near as much as most other theoretical books from 2005.
As mentioned, Ilia Odessky's recently released English Defence deals with 1 d4 e6 2 c4 b6 in tremendous detail (it would have been nice, however, to include at least one chapter if not more on 1 c4 b6 lines that don't transpose). From all appearances (and keeping in mind that I've only just received it) this hardback book is a must for the most serious and consistent players of the English Defence, and would be great fun for anyone who wishes to learn more about the diverse structures and tactics arising from this opening. What is certain is that Odessky, an International Master, has written a lively and extremely humorous book that should keep your attention. Some of the humour is eccentric (even incomprehensible), and the generally competent translation occasionally breaks down for that reason. The bottom line, regardless, is that I will henceforth use the book as my main source for the English Defence.
Readers may remember (Column#76), and listeners to my ChessFM (ICC) radio know, that I am enamoured of Everyman's Dangerous Weapons series. Dangerous Weapons and Gambit's Chess Explained series are the freshest and most appealing ideas that we've seen in opening books for some time. Dangerous Weapons books deal with a single opening and suggest a mix of somewhat 'irregular' lines and fairly normal variations with less popular or even rather eccentric twists. The series shares some characteristics with Jeroen Bosch's great Secrets of Opening Surprises books and Stefan Bücker's Kaissiber magazine. Almost all of the recommended variations are demonstrably sound and playable, and the ones that are particularly risky-looking have quite a bit of analysis and history attached to them. As I write this, a game between top stars, Movsesian-Adams, Corus A Wijk aan Zee 2009 illustrates the point. It follows a line John Emms analyses in Dangerous Weapons: 1 e4 e5 (a book that is co-written by Glenn Flear and Andrew Greet):
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.0-0 Nf6 5.d4
"A move which has been recommended to club players, in one or two repertoire books of the "Win with White by force in 20 moves" variety, but it has never been taken very seriously at GM level. Maybe the present game will force a change in attitude." I've been wondering when some top players would take note of some Dangerous Weapons books and try out some of the ideas. In fact, a large, detailed repertoire based upon 5 d4 (and related orders) was the subject of a wonderful two-part article by Lev Gutman in Kaissiber (that magazine again!), followed by analysis and responses by the editor and readers. I've urged its inclusion into one student's repertoire, and have done so with a clear conscience.
5...Bxd4 6.Nxd4 Nxd4 7.f4 d6 8.fxe5 dxe5 9.Bg5
This is one of the fundamental gambit positions arising from 5 d4.
9...Be6 10.Na3 Qe7 11.c3 Nc6
11...Bxc4 is Emms' main line.
This has been played before, but Emms prefers 12 Rf2!, also making sure that ...Qc5 is not check, but with the added benefit of preparing Raf1. After 12...Rd8 13 Qe2, he is rightly confident about White's chances. The game is similar even though Kh1 is in many cases a lost tempo:
12...Rd8 13.Qe2 h6 14.Bxf6 gxf6 15.Rf2 Rg8 16.Raf1 Rg6 17.Nc2 Kf8 18.Ne3 Nb8 19.Qh5 Kg7 20.Qf3 Kh7 21.Nd5 Bxd5 22.exd5 e4 23.Qf4 Rd6 24.Re2 Nd7 25.Rxe4 Ne5 26.Bb3 Kg8 27.c4 b6 28.Bc2 Qf8 29.Re3 Rg5 30.Bf5 Kh8 31.Rfe1 a5 32.b3 c6 33.dxc6 Rxc6 34.h4 Rg8 35.Rd1 a4 36.Rd8 Qg7 37.Rxg8+ Kxg8 38.Rg3 1-0
My suspicion is that Movsesian was aware of the suggestions in Dangerous Weapons and/or Kaissiber. Interestingly, an old Max Lange line also fits into this repertoire: 5 d4 exd4 6 e5 d5 7 exf6 dxc4 8 fxg7 Rg8 9 Bg5. It receives massive analysis of very high quality. Again, Emms is able to use and improve upon the work of Gutman and Bücker and he clearly improves upon Mihail Marin's treatment of this line, reversing the assessment in White's favour.
I won't go into the details of this book, but you should know that it has 15 chapters of suggested lines, some for White and some for Black. For example, there are chapters for White on the King's Gambit with 3 Bc4 and the Rubinstein Four Knights Defence with 5 0-0!?, while three chapters by Andrew Greet are devoted to the Centre Game (1 e5 e5 2 d4 exd4 3 Qxd4!) The main drawback there is not the opening itself, but Greet's title 'The Centre Game Revealed';
I wish that we had a censor board to eliminate the use of the word 'Revealed' in chess books. Typical variations from the Black point of view include the Moeller Variation of the Ruy Lopez (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 0-0 Bc5), the Ruy Exchange Variation with 4 Bxc6 dxc6 5 0-0 Be7, and the Bird Defence (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 Nd4). There's much more, but suffice it to say that I recommend mining this book for useful ideas and analysis.
Now for two excellent and somewhat related books: Richard Palliser's Fighting the Anti-Sicilians and Gawain Jones' Starting Out: Sicilian Grand Prix Attack. The Grand Prix Attack has always attracted authors' and writers' attention, especially in its homeland of England. Gawain Jones' work continues the tradition. I have had a few students who play the Grand Prix, and still more who want to know what to do about it. Jones' book definitely tilts towards advocacy of White's cause, but not when he is convinced that a variation falls short. For example, he tries to indicate what he thinks are the most relevant lines of the 1 e4 c5 2 Nc3 Nc6 3 f4 g6 4 Nf3 Bg7 5 Bc4 variation, concluding that it can be a surprise weapon, 'but objectively it should not trouble Black.' One thing that I like about this book is its conciseness and clarity. Out of 100-200 pages of potential material about 5 Bc4, he brings the material down to a manageable 16 pages, omitting masses of details as befits the 'Starting Out' series. But he also includes seriously needed specifics; in this 5 Bc4 variation, Black absolutely needs to know these in order to avoid being crushed. At any rate, his emphasis when Black choose 3...g6 is 4 Nf3 Bg7 5 Bb5, and he has a nice if somewhat superficial chapter on 2 Nc3 Nc6 3 Bb5.
With that in mind, let me digress to complain about the Introduction's rather tiresome comment that "There are only a few lines that White needs to learn; the rest of the positions can be played using general principles." This is not only untrue, in my opinion (and untrue for the great majority of those many, many books making the claim), but is a type of misleading hype designed to attract more readers. To be clear, I have used Jones' book with students and been delighted to do so, but practice has revealed the pressing need for a very specific knowledge of best moves when playing with either colour. Apologies to the author for picking on him; let it be understood that this is a general complaint that applies to many and probably even most opening books!
Anyway, Jones does a wonderful job of covering the material most needed by the reader; he even adds ideas which would assist professionals to get by some irritating roadblocks. The book by Richard Palliser, Fighting the Anti-Sicilians (henceforth 'FAS'), does the same, but purely from Black's point of view. It covers Sicilian Defence variations in which White doesn't play 2 Nf3, which includes most lines other than the Open Sicilian (1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 and 3 d4), for example, 2 c3, 2 d4, 2 b4, 2 f4, and a whole variety of options stemming from 2 Nc3, including even a main line of the Closed Sicilian. As usual in Palliser's excellent books, his philosophy is one of depth and originality. He sometimes uses solutions that are a little Dangerous-Weapons-like, in that they aren't the ones usually played, and can even have a slightly funny look. But everything is solidly grounded and very thoroughly analysed, as opposed to the less analytical coverage of a Starting Out book. In the Preface, he promises to cover everything (I should say that this includes 2 a3, 2 Na3, and 2 b3, all with their followings), and to provide 'at least two systems to be thoroughly explored against each of White's main alternatives to 2 Nf3; one of which at least I hope will appeal to the reader...the emphasis has been on presenting' fresh' lines where possible...'. I think that he succeeds in this, and that the book could be of enormous value to a Sicilian Defence player, especially one who hasn't ever put together a specific and thorough repertoire versus these many options.
I'm going to compare Jones' and Palliser's takes on a few Grand Prix Defence lines. You will see that Jones' book, in keeping with the 'Starting Out' series, has to broadly characterise the Grand Prix and interest the reader; forgivably, he sometimes falls short on details. Palliser's book is denser and more analytic. As is his wont, he scours chess practice and finds less-publicised but high-quality variations, adding creative new ideas and leaving more to be discovered. Very occasionally I find his analysis to be a little too nice to Black, but that tends to be a part of any advocacy writing and is certainly understandable. It's also important to keep in mind that Jones', writing in 2008, had the advantage of knowing Palliser's 2007 material, including his suggestions, and therefore gets the last word. So, although he wins an argument or two, most of the material doesn't overlap and both books do a fine job of covering the material.
1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6
2...e6 and 2...a6 are Palliser's preferred move orders, as seen below.
The Grand Prix proper.
3...e6 4.Nf3 d5 5.Bb5 Nge7 6.exd5
This is Jones' answer to the main 3..e6 line.
Palliser recommends this. 6...exd5 7.Qe2! is promising. Then Black has tried numerous moves, for example, 7...g6!? has been successful, intending 8 Qe5 Rg8 and ...Bg7. Then Jones comes up with 8.Qe3!, hitting c5, for example, 8...Qd6 (8...d4? 9.Qe5 Rg8 10.Ne4) 9.d4 cxd4 10.Qxd4 with some advantage. A great suggestion!
A gambit. Here Jones benefits from Palliser's book coming out first, because he could work with the latter's analysis (there were no tests).
('!' - Palliser)
White seems to have more than enough compensation.
8...cxd4 9.Ne5! dxc3 10.Qxd8+ Kxd8 11.Nxf7+ Kc7 12.Nxh8 e5 (12...Bc5+ 13.Kh1 e5 14.Nf7) 13.Nf7 with an edge (Jones).
9.d5 exd5 10.Qxd5 would be interesting.
9...cxd4 10.Nxd4 Bd7 11.Qf3
Jones mentions 11.Nxc6 Bxc6 12.Bxc6+ bxc6 13.Qf3 . White should be happy in this position.
Palliser gives 12.Qe2 Qe5 13.Qf2 f6.
12...gxf6 13.Ne4! Nxd4 14.Bxd7+ Kxd7
Now Jones analyses 15 Rad1 e5 16 c3 with an edge, but
Even 15.Bxd4 e5 16.Nxf6+ Ke6 17.Rae1 should give White something.
So remarkably, the whole line beginning with 5...Nge7 may favour White. If so, it may be that 2...e6 3 f4 d5 is a better move order for Black.
1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 e6
This avoids the perhaps overanalysed 2...Nc6 3 f4 g6, but does get entangled in some move order issues. Palliser's other suggestion for Black, 2...a6, fills a lot of space in both books. Jones' solution again takes advantage of Palliser's long and complex exposition by trying to find a hole in it: 3.g3 b5 4.Bg2 Bb7 5.d3 e6 6.f4 d5
7.Qe2 (of course, there are options all over the place for both sides, which is why the result of this particular analysis needn't discourage anyone) 7...Nc6 8.Nf3 Nd4!? (8...d4!?) 9.Nxd4 cxd4 10.Nd1 dxe4 11.dxe4 Rc8 (11...Qc7!?) 12.0-0 Nf6 (Jones thinks that 12...Qc7 13.Bd2 Qxc2 14.Rc1 Qa4 15.Nf2 is double-edged.) 13.Nf2. Here Palliser quotes Rowson's recommendation 13...Qc7 14.Bd2 Qc4 15.Nd3 Be7!, but Jones adds 16.Rfc1 with the implication that White is better. Maybe, but he needs to prove it after simply 16...0-0. This is truly a fascinating line and wide open to interpretation.
Again, the Grand Prix move. One problem with the 2...e6 order is that White can switch to another system, for example, the relatively harmless Closed Sicilian with 3.g3 d5 4.exd5 exd5, as analysed at length by Palliser. Or he can play 3.Nf3, when if nothing else, White will be able to get some kind of Open Sicilian with 4 d4, since 3...d5?! 4.exd5 exd5 5.Bb5+ Nc6 6.d4 has been frowned upon for a century now.
3...d5 4.Nf3 dxe4 5.Nxe4
For me, it's hard to believe that this can produce an advantage versus accurate play, mainly because that pawn on f4 is so out of place. On the other hand, White is better developed.
5...Nd7 is Jones' main line, when in one game Tiviakov played 6.g3 Ngf6 7.Nxf6+ Nxf6 8.Bg2 Be7 9.b3! 0-0 10.Bb2. This is an aesthetically pleasing way to approach the position. Look at that central control from a distance. Instead, 5...Be7 6.d4!? cxd4 7.Qxd4 Qxd4 8.Nxd4 a6 comes from an Adams-Lautier game, when Adams suggests 9.g3!; Finally, 5...Nh6!? , heading for f5, makes sense. Now the position is unclear following 6.d4 cxd4 7.Qxd4 Qxd4 8.Nxd4 a6, for example, 9.g3 Nf5!? 10.Nxf5 exf5.
Both books consider 6.Bb5 Bd7 7.0-0 Nf6 satisfactory for Black.
Another course is 6...Nf6 7.Nxf6+ (7.Nf2!?) 7...Qxf6 8.Bg2.
7.Bg2 Be7 8.0-0 0-0 9.d3 Qd7
Palliser gives 9...Nf5, when 10.c3 has ideas of g4 at an early point, e.g., 10...Qc7 11.g4 Nh6 12.Ne5!. He also suggests 9...b6, which looks both appropriate and good. He gives as a sample line 10.Ne5 (10.c3!? Bb7 11.Qe2 Qc7) 10...Bb7 11.Nxc6 Bxc6 12.Nf6+ Bxf6 13.Bxc6 Rc8 14.Be4 Nf5 with satisfactory play, which seems fair.
Jones likes this better than double fianchettoing; covering d4 makes up for weakening d3, or so the reasoning goes.
10...Rd8 11.Ne5! Nxe5 12.fxe5 Qxd3
12...Nf5 13.Bh1!? is Rybka's solution, with g4 (or Qe1 and g4) next. For example, 13...Qxd3 (13...b6 14.g4 Nh4 15.Nd6) 14.Qxd3 Rxd3 15.g4 Nh4 16.Bg5 Bxg5 17.Nxg5 Rd7 18.Rad1 Ng6 19.Be4.
13.Bxh6 Qxd1 14.Raxd1 Rxd1 15.Rxd1 gxh6 16.Bf3
Cabrera-Teran Alvarez, Havana 1998. White is obviously on top.
1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nd4 4.Bc4 e6
Palliser says that 4...a6 [not given by Jones] is a promising idea, when one line he gives is 5.Nf3 (with a mention of 5.Bb3!? b5 6.d3) 5...b5 6.Bd5 Rb8 7.Nxd4 (7.d3) 7...cxd4 8.Ne2. Then Rowson suggests 8...Nf6! 9.Nxd4 e6 10.Bb3 Nxe4. This looks right, and leaves the ball in White's court.
Jones doesn't give this precise order; he does show a game with 5...Nf6 6.0-0, demonstrating a trick that everyone needs to know: 6...d5? 7.exd5 exd5 8.Nxd5! Nxd5 9.Nxd4 cxd4 10.Qh5, etc. He also talks about 5...a6 6.d3 Ne7 7.0-0 b5 8.Bb3. But it turns out that exact move orders are extremely important here, because by playing 5...Ne7, Black can eliminate some of White's desired positional ideas.
Palliser analyses the known line 6.0-0 Nec6, leading to a satisfactory game for Black.
6...cxd4 7.Ne2 Nc6 8.0-0 Be7
And here he shows a game excerpt beginning 8...d5 9.exd5 exd5 10.Bb3 Bd6 11.d3 0-0, leading to an equal position which Palliser would rather play as Black. None of this bodes well for White's attempts to gain advantage in this system.
9.d3 0-0 10.a3
There have been a number of games with this move, as well as with 10.Bb3.
Or 10...Kh8 11.Bf4 d5.
11.exf5 Rxf5 12.Ng3 Rf7 13.Bd2 d5 14.Bb3 Bd7
From a game Maiwald-Hainke, Bundesliga 2002. Black has equal chances which, taken together with 4...a6, presents a more subdued picture of 3 Bb5 than Jones suggests.
Since Palliser is suggesting these early ...e6 systems, only Jones has to deal with the main line of the Grand Prix with 3...g6:
1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Bb5 Nd4 6.0-0 Nxb5 7.Nxb5 d5 8.exd5!?
I don't think 8.e5 produces an advantage by force, but it keeps things complex and is the best way to play for a win. Jones gives some nice games and analysis.
8...a6 9.Nc3 Nf6 10.d4 c4
Jones describes 10...cxd4 11.Qxd4 0-0 12.Ne5 Bf5 with 'Black has compensation for the pawn, but White should still retain some advantage'. It happens that I've previously done extensive analysis of this position, and it turns out that Black equalises rather easily after any of White's 5 plausible moves here. In and of itself this casts doubt upon 8 exd5 as a winning try.
Jones analyses both this and 11.Qe2 giving only 11...b5 and quoting analysis from Djinjihashvili & Perelshteyn. As I previously showed in my column, 11...Nxd5! 12.Qxc4 Be6 gives Black enough compensation, and if White isn't careful, more than enough.
At this point, the book line 12...e6 is given, when a host of other alternatives are suggested by Rowson, all with interesting play. Actually, 12...Be6 looks fine to me, for example, 13 Ne4 Nc7!, and even 12...Nb4!? 13.Rf2 Bf5 probably holds the balance.
Another of the Dangerous Weapons series, The Queen's Gambit, is authored by Richard Palliser, Glenn Flear and Chris Ward, all expert opening theoreticians. They present a series of rarely-played lines in the Queen's Gambit, ones which are often unknown to the average player. As with most of the Dangerous Weapons series, I can happily recommend this book on the grounds that you can avoid theory without sacrificing complex and fun play. Importantly, most if not all of suggestions are basically sound, so you can use them without risking serious disadvantage if your opponent plays precisely, although I can't guarantee that you won't suffer some discomfort in that rare case. The fact that 10 of the 14 systems are recommended for White is mildly disappointing; on the other hand, readers will want to look at things from both sides of the board anyway.
To some extent, your interest in the book will depend upon your willingness to expand your repertoire and even change fundamental orders (for example, from 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 to 1 d4 d5 2 c4). Let me mention a few of the suggested lines. In the eccentric category are 1 d4 d5 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Nf3 Be7 5 g4!? for White, and two ways for Black to truly accept the Queen's Gambit by holding on to the pawn: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 3.e3 Be6 4.Nf3 c6 and 1 d4 d5 2 c4 dxc4 3 e4 b5!?. In the more conventional area of the Semi-Slav, White can play 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 Nc3 e6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bxf6 Qxf6 7.Qb3 dxc4 8.Qxc4 Nd7 9.0-0-0, which can lead to a race on both wings; or, in the Botvinnik System, the deviation 5...dxc4 6.e4 b5 7.e5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.exf6!? gxh4 10.Ne5 Qxf6 11.g3. A combination of solutions to two irritating openings goes 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e5 (the Albin Counter Gambit) 3.dxe5 d4 4.a3 Nc6 5.e3 or 1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nc6 (the Chigorin Defence) 3.e3 e5 4.dxe5 d4, arriving at the same position. There's more, of course, and I should remind the reader that every publisher has informative websites to look more closely at a book and, frequently, to have access to some sample pages from it.
Another very practical and well-written series is the Chess Explained project from Gambit. I have discussed some of these in previous columns, for example, the excellent books by Wells and Rizzitano. Although they are different in detail and approach, these books share a characteristic with Everyman's Dangerous Weapons series and a subset of the "Starting Out" series, namely, that the average player at the club level will learn the most from them, but there is enough serious analysis and original thought to be of use to by more advanced players. Chess Explained books use very recent games to present their theory, and their explanations can be more sophisticated than those explanations in the Everyman series, although that varies from book to book.
Chess Explained: The Meran Semi-Slav is written by Reynaldo Vera, a grandmaster and two-time Cuban Champion. The Semi-Slav, if it weren't already so important at the time Vera wrote the book, attracted worldwide attention in the Anand-Kramnik match, specifically in the Meran Variation. I'm not going to say much about the specifics of the book, but should point out that Vera has great expertise in this opening. Also, some may not realize that the Meran begins with 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 Nc3 e6 5 e3, and not 5 Bg5; the latter move can lead to the notorious Botvinnik and anti-Moscow Variations (not to mention the staid Cambridge Springs Variation!). So a Semi-Slav player has to do a lot of homework about lines that aren't included in this book; if you take up this opening, you should plan on keeping it for a while! After 5 e3, the Meran continues 5...Nbd7 6 Bd3 dxc4 7 Bxc4 b5. Anyone who has followed the long and colorful history of the Meran knows that it would take a book 3 times this size to even begin to cover all of the logical lines that have developed from it. After 8 Bd3, for example, Vera covers the most currently important modern lines after 8...a6 and 8...Bb7, and omitting Lundin's variation 8...b4, which is not in fashion (although it would be nice if White were informed why). Naturally this cannot be an encyclopaedic book, which is all the more obvious when you consider that Vera also covers the entire 'Anti-Meran' with 6 Qc2, in itself a massive subject. He even throws in a chapter on 5 e3 a6!?.
Throughout, Vera manages to at least give a short comment upon almost every line of which a player needs to be aware (particularly as Black), an impressive feat that is facilitated by his use of games from the last few years. The point is that these variations are so well known that most of what isn't being currently contested doesn't pose a serious threat, since good solutions have been found. Naturally, that's not always the case, but it's arguably the most efficient way to select lines when your space is limited. Unlike other Chess Explained books, this is not deeply researched (there is no Bibliography); in what are often highly tactical lines, however, most important ideas will be folded into the latest theory, and Vera knows what's important. The last chapter deals with move orders, emphasizing the difference between 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 with 3 Nc3 and 3 Nf3, as well as the popular order 2...e6 3 Nc3 c6. I can't tell you how important the issue of move orders is for both sides of this opening. Vera's exposition clarifies issues that confound many Slav players.
The Meran Semi-Slav is relatively short, (112 pages, although the Chess Explained series has smaller type than most opening books), yet Vera manages to give a remarkable amount of verbal guidance while introducing and annotating 25 illustrative games. Every chapter begins with an overview of the variations being covered, followed by a general description of the individual games and what ideas and themes they contain. Moreover, the analytical notes suffice to give anyone the knowledge to jump right in and play this system as Black. Vera has done an outstanding job, and I strongly recommend this book for the average player up to master, with the proviso that playing the Semi-Slav involves a lot of work and one needs to keep up with theory on a continual basis.
Vera has also written Chess Explained: The Nimzo-Indian, which appeared in 2008. For all of the traditional literature on the Nimzo Indian, a defence which is as important as any other in the d-pawn world, there have been few books for the amateur written about it in recent years. Again, the author has only 112 pages to make his presentation, and uses the same methodology: 25 recent, annotated games with considerable chunks of explanatory prose in the introductions, games descriptions, game annotations, and conclusions to each chapter. This time the subject dwarfs the possibility of covering even all the major lines (the Nimzo-Indian breaks down in a particularly diffuse pattern). Vera's solution is to write what is essentially a repertoire book, for example, his coverage of 4 e3 is limited to 4...0-0 (avoiding truckloads of theory on 4...b6 and 4...c5), and only 4...0-0 and 4...d5 are analysed after 4 Qc2. Lengthy books have been devoted to both 4 e3 and 4 Qc2, so you can see the problem. Similarly, White's most important moves are given in most variations, but Vera chooses one of several alternatives for Black. Really, the book would be spread far too thin to do otherwise. For the same reason, Vera sticks to the conventional lines; for example, only a couple of the suggested variations from the previously-reviewed Dangerous Weapons: Nimzo-Indian are mentioned. This is a very well-written book with enough analytical material to launch your Nimzo-Indian career, and more than enough explanation to justify the series title.
Finally, for those wanting a book with a more traditional approach, there's Edward Dearing's excellent Play the Nimzo-Indian, published a few years back. It is a repertoire book for Black, with strictly one answer recommended for each variation, which allows for in-depth coverage of each line. Dearing packs a lot of substance into 224 pages, with the material organized around 50 annotated games; he uses proportionally less explanation than Vera. I haven't read this book in depth, but as a reference it's been great, and Dearing has a deserved reputation for completeness and precision. One drawback is that he suggests quite a few sharp variations, for example, 4 Qc2 d5, and the theory of such variations has naturally evolved since the time of writing (2005). Nevertheless, all Nimzo-Indian players should find ideas of value in this work.
Next column, the march of opening books continues.
IM John Watson - Photo © Jonathan Berry
John Watson is an International Master, teacher, and author of numerous books, including the award-winning Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy and Chess Strategy in Action. His most recent work is the 4-volume Mastering the Chess Openings. John writes for the website ChessPublishing and conducts weekly interviews of leading chess personalities on ChessFM (ICC).