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John Watson Book Review (4)

Some Recent French Books

The French Tarrasch; John Emms; 144 pages; B T Batsford, 1998
The French Advance; Tony Kosten; 144 pages; Chess Press, 1998

Some Recent French Defense Books

The French Tarrasch; John Emms; 144 pages; B T Batsford, 1998
The French Advance; Tony Kosten; 144 pages; Chess Press, 1998

For my first set of opening book reviews, I'll play it safe and choose an area in which I have (alleged) expertise: the French Defense. There seems to be a rash of French books of late, so let me quickly mention a few not listed above. Although it's from last year, I should say right off that those who prefer ideas to variations (for example, those taking up the French for the first time) should consider McDonald and Harley's excellent Mastering the French (Batsford, 1997). This is a well-written selective overview of the French by two experts in the opening; it emphasizes recurrent positional and tactical themes, and has the additional benefit of thorough research and even some original analysis. I also considered reviewing Gufeld and Stetsko's French Defence, Classical System (Chess Digest, 1998), which investigates the topical variation 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7. Unfortunately, Gufeld and Stetsko seem to have ignored most recent games, and the coverage is too spotty for such a specialized book. Also, the authors' English is terribly mangled; surely the editor could have cleaned this up without too much effortÿ At any rate, French fanatics and players looking for a general guide to this line might be interested in a copy, but there isn't much more to say. On an offbeat front, Nikolayev Minev has a second edition of his unique French Defense: New and Forgotten Ideas (Thinker's Press, 1998). This is a highly entertaining and original book of over 500 short games and notes, featuring mostly obscure lines. At least one of the editions is a must for the devoted French aficionado. Nevertheless, times have changed since the 1988 first edition, and Minev could have put a lot more effort into the book's revision. For one thing, he doesn't appear to have used a playing program to check for tactics, which is now standard practice to improve the base quality of a book. There also doesn't seem to be much new research; I was personally disappointed, for example, that he didn't even check the second edition of my own Play the French, which specifically addresses a number of the lines he investigates; nor are numerous other important references from the last five years consulted. Minev's book still has great value as a journey through the historical development of this opening, but it could be a lot better.

John Emms is a strong young player (co-British Champion in 1997), who is also one of the most modest and pleasant grandmasters I've had the pleasure to meet. Recently he has been appearing on a lot of book covers. For example, Emms' Easy Guide to the Nimzo-Indian (Cadogan 1998) is the best I've seen of the recent type of short opening book which provides a repertoire based upon the concepts of an opening without much analytical detail. The French Tarrasch is a bit more ambiguous in its goals. On the one hand, Emms wants to, as the back cover explains, "provide a rapid understanding" of the Tarrasch (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2) "through the use of model games and clear explanations." On the other hand, he makes the rather strange choice to analyze a couple of ultra-critical and highly unstable positions at great length (he has only 144 pages, some devoted to a survey of ideas and various indices), while neglecting a number of 'lesser' lines which are nevertheless important for the reader to be aware of. In general (and this applies to almost all the Batsford, Chess Press, and Cadogan books now), I have a real problem with the 'illustrative game' approach to opening books. Authors and publishers find it a convenient way to directly translate ChessBase files into books, of course; but the result has been to make it too easy to neglect covering an opening as a whole. Skipping even important established variations has become too common (even in books called 'The Complete ...'); and simply reproducing Informant games without attributing the notes is also becoming more frequent. To be sure, John doesn't commit either of those sins, but he does make less serious omissions. For example, he devotes 8 deeply-annotated games and 14 pages to the position after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 f6 9.exf6 Nxf6 10.0-0 Bd6 11.Nf3 0-0 12.Bf4 Bxf4 13.Nxf4 Ne4, and half of that to the sacrifice 14.Ne2 Rxf3. But common Black and White alternatives are given short shrift. For example, Black is currently doing well with the move 13...Ng4, which is not new but goes unmentioned in Emms' book. It is normal for theory to jump around in such lines; an author thus needs to balance his presentation as much as possible to anticipate such shifts (and to express a greater variety of ideas). He should also ask himself if it is so important (or important at all) for the average reader to know about all the recent improvements on move 23 (literally!) of the 13...Ne4 line.

Similarly, John gives a detailed analysis of some of the fashionable 3.Nd2 c5 4.exd5 Qxd5 lines, including the niceties of some move-19 options. But just for example, 3.Nd2 Nc6 (the Guimard) is given only three-and-a-half pages (with one of the very main lines skipped: 4.Ngf3 Nf6 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Be2); and several less popular but respectable approaches go unmentioned, e.g., 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Ngf3 Nc6 7.Bd3, intending 7...cxd4 8.Nb3 or 7...Qb6 8.dxc5, which has been played quite a bit in recent years and presents Black with some serious problems.

As you can see, I'm pretty critical when it comes to opening books. But there's a lot of good work here, as well as some original analysis, and I should point out that this is, after all, the best available book on its subject. Before leaving it, and in order to give French fans something to chew on, let me comment on what Emms has said about a few of the lines of my Play the French. First, he offers some of his own analysis to support that White stands well in the following important line: 3.Nd3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.c3 c5 6.Bd3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 Qb6 9.Nf3 f6 10.exf6 Nxf6 11.0-0 Bd6 12.Nc3 0-0 13.Bg5 Bd7 14.Re1. Now Black has two moves. Against 14...Kh8, John alertly suggests that 15.Ne5! is superior to the normal (but unsuccessful) 15.Na4. After 15.Ne5, aside from 15...Qxd4 16.Nb5 Qxe5 17.Rxe5 Bxe5 18.f4, as he gives, I think that 15...Bxe5 16.dxe5 Ng8 deserves strong consideration, in view of lines like 17.Qh5 Qxf2+ 18.Kh1 Nh6 19.Bxh6 gxh6 20.Qxh6 Qf7 intending ...Qg7, and 17.Qe2 h6 18.Bh4 Nd4 19.Qg4 Nf5, with a solid game. The other line after 14.Re1 goes 14...Ng4 15.Bh4 Nh6 16.Bg3 Be7 17.Na4 Qa5 18.Bc2. At this point, I agree with John that 18...Nf5 19.a3 is just good for White; he refutes my one-move suggestion 19...b6ÿ with 20.Qd3!, since the tactics after 20...Ncxd4 simply win for White. He also believes that my suggestion and analysis of 18...Be8 19.Rxe6 Bh5 gives insufficient compensation after 20.a3. But this time, I think that he is wrong after 20...Bg4, with these kinds of variations: 21.b4 (21.Re3 Bxf3 22.Rxf3 Rxf3 23.gxf3 Bf6 24.Qd3 g6, e.g. 25.Bf4 Nf5 or 25.Qc3 Qd8) 21...Qd8 22.Re1 (22.Re3 Bxf3 23.Rxf3 Rxf3 24.gxf3 Bf6) 22...Bxf3 23.gxf3 Bf6 24.Be5 Bxe5 25.exe5 Nf5, and now 26.f4 Nfd4! or 26.b5 Nh4! with good chances in both cases. These are typical French ideas; it shouldn't be too surprising that White's kingside pawns give him problems, as Black hasn't even had to sacrifice the exchange.

Another topical variation in this same line goes 12.b3 (instead of 12.Nc3) 12...0-0 13.Bf4 Bxf4 14.Nxf4. In Emms' book, this rather passive approach looks quite favorable for White. Without going into all the gory details, I think one way to neutralize this line is 14...Ne4. The main ideas are 15.Ne2 Nd6 16.Rc1 Bd7 17.Bb1 Nf5 and 15.g3 Nxd4 16.Bxe4 dxe4 17.Qxd4 exf3, as occurred in Kahane-Hummel, Honolulu 1998. This last position is messy, but fully equal, according to analysis by Tal Shaked and I, for example, 18.Qe4 Bd7 19.Qxf3 Rf6 prepares ...Raf8 and ...Bc6-d5. Tony Kosten's The French Advance is laid out in rather similar fashion to John Emms' book, with illustrative games for each line and an emphasis on ideas and fashionable variations. Kosten makes the interesting comment in his Introduction that "As a general rule less theoretical knowledge is required to play the Advance variation than other lines of the French. The play is slower and ideas are more important than memorization of lines." I don't know if I agree with this. There are so many different legitimate approaches for both Black and White in the Advance Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5), and each splits into such strange and unique positions, that I don't really find thematic ideas repeating themselves as often as in other lines of the French. Also, the examples in Kosten's own book seem to belie the idea of 'slow' play; the Advance Variation can easily get as tactical as, say the Tarrasch Variation or Positional Winawer.

Anyway, let's look at the book itself. Once again, the illustrative game approach has some drawbacks: is it conceivable that with a conventional presentation of variations, Kosten would have omitted what is probably the hottest variation in the traditional main lineÿ That goes 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.Be2 Nh6 7.Bxh6 gxh6 8.Qd2 Bg7, intending ...0-0 and at some point, ...f6 (more recently, Black has been playing on the queenside before ...f6). Kosten does have one exemplary position in his Introduction which clearly came from that order, but the average reader has no way of knowing that, and in any case Black played that position in an outmoded fashion. Contrast the omission of this popular variation with Kosten's inclusion of two different games with the virtually irrelevant 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.Bd3 Bd7 7.dxc5 Bxc5. Since Kosten shows Black doing very well in every line of the Milner-Barry Gambit (6...cxd4 7.cxd4 Bd7), there is no reason to play 6...Bd7, which is now largely a curiosity.

That objection notwithstanding, Kosten's book is quite a good overview of the Advance Variation. He has particularly strong chapters on the modern lines, such as 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.a3, and here 5...Bd7 6.Be2 Nge7. He also occasionally contributes provocative analysis, for example, in the discredited line 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 f6 6.Bb5 Bd7 7.0-0 Qb6 8.Bxc6 bxc6 9.exf6, he suggests 9...gxf6!ÿ. He also does a convincing job of showing why rare lines such as 3.e5 b6 and 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Qb6 5.Nf3 Bd7 intending ...Bb5 are not popular for Black. On the other hand, the Kupreichik Variation (3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Be3) ends up looking better for White than it actually is, as Kosten uses only examples favorable to the first player.

Overall, this is an adequate but not systematic presentation of the Advance Variation, useful to those interested in both sides of this opening. I recommend both Emms' and Kosten's books to players up to master strength. They serve as solid introductions to their topics, with clear and instructive prose explanations; in my opinion, however, neither has the completeness or originality to rank among the very best opening books.

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