John Watson Book Review (75)
Openings 2006: Complementary and Unusual
IM John Watson - Wednesday 31st January 2007
Classical Sicilian, 2nd Edition; Anthony Kosten; ChessBase CD 2006
Chess Explained: The Classical Sicilian; Alex Yermolinsky; 112 pages; Gambit 2006
Creative Chess Opening Preparation; Viacheslav Eingorn; 159 pages; Gambit 2006
The Modern Morra Gambit;A Dynamic Weapon Against the Sicilian; Hannes Langrock, 334 pages; Russell Enterprises 2006
After the rundown in column #74, let me begin to tackle some opening books and disks. I'll start with two products on the same subject, and do the same in the next column.
Anthony Kosten has put out a revised 2nd Edition of his ChessBase CD Chess Explained: The Classical Sicilian, which first appeared in 2000. At almost the same time, Alex Yermolinsky's book Chess Explained: The Classical Sicilian appeared. These products, both excellent, are radically different in format and content, and complement each other in their coverage.
The Classical Sicilian is arrived at by 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 (2...d6 can lead to the same variation) 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 d6.
Kosten uses the traditional ChessBase opening CD format, which I prefer to most of the training DVDs because they contain so much well-organized database information. He employs 27 'texts' containing links to over 900 games; of those, over 200 have notes. A 'text' is a rundown of variations and subvariations with verbal assessments along the way; a text might have, for example, links to 30 games. This is a chess e-book at its best.
Yermolinsky's book is part of Gambit's new 'Chess Explained' series, in which the author uses a small number of pages to present 25 annotated games which are meant to illustrate the opening and indicate which variations are the most appealing or interesting. The author emphasises common motifs, themes, and features of typically-arising positions. Yermolinsky uses only 4 of his own complete games in spite of his extensive use of the Classical Variation for over 3 decades (I find 30 of his games in MegaBase 2007). He says that the majority of his games would be older, and that using too many of them 'would skew the book toward my personal taste.' Fortunately, we find plenty of others in the notes, filling in key gaps. In the interest of teaching about openings, he 'went for shorter games or at least ones that were basically decided before the endgame was reached. The insufficient representation of the endgame may shift the statistics in White's favour and might be viewed as a shortcoming of this work.' Perhaps, but we would otherwise be deprived of opening material that is already hard to fit into such a concise book. Furthermore, short games are generally more entertaining, at least to the typical reader with a short attention span!
Yermolinsky's book and Kosten's CD complement each other in many ways. First of all and most importantly, Yermolinsky's book features the Rauzer Variation 6 Bg5 (with 63 pages) above the other lines (45 pages). This is consistent with his view that the Rauzer is the most dangerous anti-Classical variation. Kosten doesn't deal with the Rauzer at all (which is left for a future CD), but gives extremely detailed attention to the other, equally important, main lines (6 Be3, 6 f4, 6 f3, 6 Be2, and 6 Bc4) and several sidelines. He concentrates upon variations in which Black plays ...e5 and not ...e6, including main lines like 6 Be2 e5, 6 f3 e5, 6 f4 e5 and 6 Be3 e5. The sections on 6 Be2 e5 could fill a small book. Nevertheless, this is a comprehensive treatment of the Classical Sicilian rather than a repertoire, so we also get an extremely detailed section on 6 Be3 Ng4, and he supplements 6 f3 e5 with several annotated games with 6 f3 Nxd4 and 6 f3 Qb6. Here as so often Black's first moves are very flexible; notice that after 6 f3, Black can also opt for the English Attack option 6...e6 or the Dragon 6...g6.
The main exception to the ...e5 rule is 6 Bc4, when 6…Qb6 is Kosten's main solution, but he also presents a great deal of material on 6 Bc4 Bd7, and points out that even 6 Bc4 e5!? 'is not as bad as once thought', with Epishin and Baklan having achieved 'passable results with it'. Typically, that claim is supplemented with a host of games. Yermolinsky in general shows variations from both points of view, but versus 6 Bc4 he annotates complete games with only 6...Qb6 and specifically recommends that move. Thus, while the book isn't strictly written from Black's point of view, we often see a natural tendency for him to emphasise what he thinks are Black's best or at least most practical choices. Having said that, Yermolinsky doesn't paper things over: he has plenty of ideas for White and leaves Black with problems to solve at various junctures. Both authors are unafraid to back lesser-known moves, for example, 6 Bc4 Qb6 7 Ndb5 Bg4!?, which they both indicate is fully playable (the most popular move is 7...a6), for example, 8 f3 Bd7 9 Qe2 a6 10 Be3 Qa5 11 Nd4, when Yermolinsky discusses 11...e6, and Kosten has additional games with 11...b5 and 11...Rc8. Furthermore, they touch upon interesting sidelines. Versus the same 6 Bc4, for example, we see 6...Na5!?, Yermolinsky digging up the variation 7 Bb5+ Bd7 8 Qe2, and instead of 8...a6 from an Anand-Leko contest, 8...Rc8!? 9 Bg5 Bxb5 with a respectable game. After the moves 7 Be2 e6, Yermolinsky gives the moves 8 Be3 a6 9 a4 Bd7 10 0-0 Rc8 with the idea ...Rxc3, whereas Kosten finds a game with the more promising 8 g4 h6 9 h4.
Apart from the fact that their subject matter overlaps to form a whole, the two authors complement each other in their approaches. Kosten's is a relatively complete record. He offers multitudinous games and indicates which specific lines he thinks are good and bad. You will find far more in Kosten about moves such as 6 g3, 6 Nxc6, and 6 h3 (to which he gives an exceptional ...e6 solution by 6 h3 e6, but also material on 6....e5 and 6...g6). Yermolinsky's is a more impressionistic overview, with plenty of detail on the line that he's discussing (especially 6 Bg5), but a limited choice of material to examine. His emphasis is on characteristic themes with occasional philosophic excursions. Yermolinsky is an extremely good writer with a charming way of presenting his thoughts in a humorous conversational manner, and he is arguably an even better teacher (both qualities are evident in his acclaimed book The Road to Chess Improvement).
Can the average player adopt this opening without going into hibernation for a year? It seems so. Kosten says that he is surprised to learn that so little of the basic underlying theory has changed over the past six years. The dates of the games that Yermolinsky has chosen for his examples suggest the same thing; he might even extend that period to 10 years or so. Such stability speaks well for the average player who wants to use the Classical Variation without having to keep track of many recent developments. For that reason alone you might be tempted to give the Classical a try. I strongly recommend these products, both as starting points and advanced guides.
Viacheslav Eingorn's Creative Chess Opening Preparation is an eclectic romp through openings by one of the most interesting of modern theoreticians, who also happens to be a strong grandmaster. Among other things, he tries to give the reader a sense of how to prepare openings and find new ideas. Eingorn has been responsible for bringing many odd-looking openings into the mainstream and finding completely original moves in the most innocent of positions. He manages to pack remarkably many surprising and/or original opening ideas into 159 pages, filing them under categories that are useful for the reader to get his bearings. Here are the Chapter titles and sample sections names: 1. Experiments in the Opening [e.g., Transgressing the Rules] 2. Disturbing the Equilibrium [e.g., The Advantage of the First Move, Drastic Measures] 3. Strategic Planning 4. Opening Structures [e.g., Recurrent opening situations] 5. The Modern Game of Chess [e.g., 'Scientific' Opening Play: A School and it's Crisis] 6. A Theoretical Kaleidoscope [e.g., History of a Variation].
I wish that I had perused this book prior to my recent work on various French Defence lines, because it includes games with variations that I write about extensively, for example, 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nd2 , and now 3...h6 and 3...a6, as well as some fun material on 3 Nc3 h6. As I confirm there, Eingorn had a strong hand in developing theory with all of these seemingly unusual moves. In the past, I have also recommended and taught the Queen's Gambit variation 1 d4 d4 2 c4 dxc4 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 e3 e6 5 Bxc4 c5 6 0-0 a6 7 Bd3, a sequence I called the 'Eingorn Variation' due to his advocacy. Among the many other openings that he addresses in this book are: (a) 1 d4 e6 2 c4 Bb4+ 3 Bd2 a5 (a short survey on this, an Eingorn specialty); (b) the Maroczy Bind with 5...Bh6 (which I personally don't believe in, but others differ); (c) Nalbandian's Grünfeld line 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3Nc3 d5 4 cxd5 Nxd5 5 Nf3 Bg7 6 Na4; (d) the more conventional Slav 4...a6 and Exchange Variations; (e) the Sicilian with c4 and e4 instead of d4; (f) the main line of the King's Indian with 9 Bg5, (g) 1 e5 e5 2 Qh5; (h) the main line 1 e4 d6 2 d4 Nf6 3 Nc3 g6 4 f4 Pirc Defence with 4...Bg7 5 Nf3 0-0 6 a3 (or, as he says, more accurately 5 a3 0-0 6 Nf3). I do think that he might have given more credit to other sources. The overlap with Jeroen Bosch's Secrets of Opening Surprises series is extensive, to say the least, and it's disappointing that Eingorn didn't mention or cite those books. He also devotes a section to various lines with an early g4, which he calls a 'Symbol of Chess Progress'. This is something I talked about at length in my two earlier strategy books for the same publisher; in fact, it has become a popular topic that has been written about in many books and articles, employing the very same examples that I used.
Eingorn is a modernist through and through, and doesn't believe that the problems of chess are solved by any means. He clearly feels that the game is more wide open to change than has been assumed. Here's a brief illustrative excerpt from Creative Chess Opening Preparation:
'Each new generation plays chess differently from the previous one and takes a different attitude to the game, but the sense and importance of the changes that take place are not clarified all at once. Big things, as they say, are visible from a distance, and it is always much easier to reflect on the 'good old days' than to evaluate contemporary phenomena. So we shall not do so - we shall simply discuss various matters which in my own view are interesting.
5.1 'Scientific' Opening Play: A School and its Crisis
The discovery and study of various chess principles led inevitably to the thought of embracing them in a general theory, with a view to answering that hallowed question: how to find the best move in any position by following well-defined rules. The opening of the game, of course, was what people were chiefly talking about. The old patterns of opening strategy were revised, after which the game of chess came genuinely close to the realm of science or art. As to that paramount riddle which had been posed, the efforts to solve it were highly reminiscent of medieval alchemists seeking the philosopher's stone; yet it was thanks to these efforts that such crucial positional concepts as the centre, the pawn-structure, the relative strength of the pieces, and many others, became the stock-in-trade of every chess-player. On the other hand, the fledgling theory soon revealed a major shortcoming: it could explain the individual elements of a position, but was sometimes incapable of comparing their significance effectively. In practice this often led to curious results.'
This is a fun book, with easy-to-absorb opening ideas. Its virtues are enhanced by Eingorn's enjoyable writing style. He also incorporates far more philosophic content than we are used to in a book about openings. Leaving that for you to investigate, I will strongly recommend this entertaining read.
Hannes Langrock's The Modern Morra Gambit; A Dynamic Weapon Against the Sicilian is a lengthy work about what still must be considered a lesser line of the Sicilian Defence. The Morra (a.k.a. 'Smith-Morra') consists of 1 e4 c5 2 d4 cxd4 3 c3, and usually 3...dxc3 4 Nxc3.
It is very rarely played by grandmasters and as far as I know has not been used by a top-ten player in the past 50 years, although there was an 'accidental' Morra when Fischer played 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 a6 3 d4 cxd4 4 c3 dxc3 5 Nxc3 against Korchnoi in Buenos Aires 1960, soon transposing to a known line. The key questions here are whether this variation should be so rare and whether it is a practical weapon for the average or even master player. Although I haven't looked at previous Morra books in detail, Langrock's book must be the best of the lot by a good margin. It is clearly a tremendous effort with loads of new suggestions at every turn.
To introduce the opening, he begins with a discussion of practical and psychological aspects of the Morra, the argument being that White benefits from its attacking nature. A brief section follows on strategies and tactical motifs. But the heart of the book is in the games and variations. I could only check a couple of chapters, but I was surprised to see that the 'Chicago Variation' was playable for Black. It begins with 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3 c3 dxc3 4 Nxc3 d6 5 Nf3 e6 6 Bc4 a6 7 0-0 b5 8 Bb3 Nc6 with ...Ra7 soon to follow, intending ...Rd7 in most lines. Langrock gives a near-refutation of the main line 9 Qe2 Be7 10 Rd1 Ra7, when he demonstrates at length that 11 Be3 Rd7 12 Na4! is very strong. Then he shows remarkable objectivity when, in spite of his obvious advocacy for White in the Morra, he doesn't stop at that point, but analyses the less common 9...Ra7, using his own games and analysis to conclude that Black is 'OK from a theoretical point of view', with sharp play and chances for both sides.
In an earlier column I reviewed Bob Ciaffone and Ben Finegold's Smith-Morra Gambit Finegold Defense [Henceforth 'C&F'], so I thought that I'd compare the two books with respect to that variation. The Finegold defence features ...d6, ...e6, ...a6 and ...Nbd7. After 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 d6 5.Nf3 e6 6.Bc4 Nf6 7.0-0, unfortunately, C&F use a number of orders to get to versions of the same position, including 7...Be7 (or even their originally 'recommended' order 6...Be7 7 0-0 Nf6) 8 Qe2 a6. Later in the book, in a very convoluted and poorly-written section about move orders, they settle upon the order 6 Bc4 Nf6 7 0-0 a6 8 Qe2 b5 (apparently slightly more accurate than 8...Nbd7, although that can be debated) 9.Rd1 Nbd7 as best (delaying ...Be7). The choice of sequences makes an enormous difference.
The problem is that Langrock, who uses C&F's book, examines only positions with an early ...Be7, which is quite understandable, since one of those positions is on their cover of their book and the variation fills most of it! To understand the importance of this, let's look at the order 6…Be7 7.0-0 Nf6 8.Qe2 a6. Here Langrock gives the new move 9 e5! as his main suggestion:
White has the idea 9...dxe5 10 Nxe5 0-0 11 Rd1 intending 11...Nbd7 12 Bf4!. That is both original and quite promising. He also gives the previous main continuation 9.Rd1?! b5! (9...Nbd7 10 e5! dxe5 11 Nxe5 is the last note) 10.Bb3 Nbd7. At this point Ciafone and Finegold answer 11.Nd4 with 11…Qb6!, giving 12.Bxe6 fxe6 13.Nex6 Kf7? and claim a winning advantage. As I pointed out in my review, this allows 14.Nd5!, which leads to a powerful attack that I analyse at length (best is 14...Qb7!, which ultimately seems to draw). Instead, I say that 13…g6! 'pretty much wins immediately and avoids these problems.' After even lengthier analysis of 13...Kf7, Langrock 'rediscovers' the move 13...g6, and finds some attack for White after 14 Bg5; but he is (quite rightly!) skeptical of its value. So the whole 9 Rd1 line looks good for Black. Thus Langrock's 9 e5! should be tried, leading to positions in which he correctly says that White has compensation or better.
So far so good, but by skipping C&F's ultimately recommended move order 6…Nf6 7.0-0 a6 8.Qe2 b5 9 Bb3 Nbd7 (again, this delays ...Be7), Langrock is able to bypass their main line entirely. Then after 10 Rd1, Black has numerous options: he can transpose to the 9 Rd1 line above with 10...Be7 (which Langrock likes for Black), or try 10...Qb6 immediately. In the end, therefore this book fails to show an advantage over the Finegold Defence, and in fact White still has to prove equality in the main line. This is not to say that the issue is closed, of course, and I suspect that he can do better. I also wonder about a move like a3 or a4 at an early stage.
A few details. The move order 3 d4 cxd4 4 c3 e5!? is covered at length. The Morra Declined is discussed with 3...d3 and some less important 3rd moves. But 3 c3 Nf6 4 e5 Nd5 and 3 c3 d5 4 exd5 Qxd5 are not dealt with, since they transpose into the Alapin lines 2 c3 Nf6 and 2...d5 3 exd5. I think that Langrock could have tried to address these, if only briefly, since he has 334 pages available. In any case, the Morra gambiteer will need to know these lines.
Finally, the Bibliography is a bit short. I think that hardly affects his work, since Langrock uses the most recent sources and older ones are probably mostly irrelevant now. Nevertheless, there are perhaps a few useful ideas from books that old codgers like me grew up with, for example, Ken Smith's books from Chess Digest (going back to 1972 and revised for many years thereafter); after all, much of the world calls 3 c3 the 'Smith-Morrra Gambit' as a result of these works. Then there is an old book by Janos Flesch from 1981, and Andrew Martin's Foxy Openings video on the Morra. OK, I'm indulging in nostalgia.
This excellent book is obviously the essential resource for anyone playing the Morra Gambit. Defenders of the Black side should also be aware of Langrock's analysis of their preferred defence to the Morra. They may want to get the book for that alone, or to find a new defence to the gambit, or even to get hooked and start playing it for White!