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John Watson Book Review (78)

The End of Openings, Part 1

Eventually I have to wrap up the subject of openings (if only a while!), so I have decided to write two more columns dealing with the loads of books and DVDs in that area. In them, I will finally do what I always threaten to do: go over a few products carefully, but then list other books and DVDs with a recommendation and minimal comments. In some cases this means passing over a first-rate work with only a nod, which does not reflect a lack of enthusiasm on my part. Among this large offering of products, I will include only two books that I cannot recommend, not a bad ratio among those that I have spent considerable time with.

A World Champion's Guide to the King's Indian; Rustam Kasimzhdanov; 3 hours, 25 minutes; ChessBase DVD 2006

Understanding the King’s Indian; Mikhail Golubev, 208 pages; Gambit 2006

Beating the King's Indian and Grünfeld; Tim Taylor; 222 pages; Everyman 2006

The Fearsome Four Pawns Attack; Jerzy Konikowski & Marek Sosynski; 283 pages; Russell Enterprises 2005

The Philidor Files; Christian Bauer; 304 pages; Everyman 2006

Opening for White According to Anand 1 e4, Vol 6 (346 pages) & Vol 7 (280 pages); Alexander Khalifman; Chess Stars 2006

Secrets of Opening Surprises, #4-5; Jeroen Bosch; New in Chess 2006

Starting Out: 1 d4!; John Cox; 240 pages; Everyman 2006

I've discovered my favourite DVD among the new crop of ChessBase multimedia products. Rustam Kasimzhdanov lays forth his ideas on the King's Indian in A World Champion's Guide to the King's Indian. The author is an Ex-FIDE World Champion who hasn't received much publicity of late due to his relative inactivity. He is a creative player (especially brilliant at Blitz) who has many other interests besides chess, and we are lucky to have him around. In this video, Kasimdzhanov presents his material with a sense of humour, and demonstrates an obvious love for chess. The lecture is organised by variation, with games to illustrate each. Thus we don't get a complete repertoire, but there are plenty of good ideas in the main variations around which one could form the core of what what's needed in practice. His emphasis is on aggression, so the many slower lines of the King's Indian are not to his taste, as the viewer soon discovers.

Rather than try to describe the DVD in detail, let me show an excerpt that I think typifies its appeal and high quality. Here's a transcript that I've created from Kasimzhdanov's lecture on g3 systems (only selected portions, with few side variations). The first game that I picked at random to look at was Neverov-Kasimdzhanov, Hoogeveen op 1999. Apologies for only approximating the precise commentary - it's always accurate as regards meaning, and I'll use quotation marks to separate verbatim remarks from paraphrasing:

1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nf3 Bg7 4 g3 0–0 5 Bg2 d6 6 0–0 Nc6

6...c5 can lead to a cute trick: 7 d5 (Kasimdzhanov isn't thrilled with the ending after 7 dxc5 dxc5 8 Qxd8 or 8 Nc3 Qxd1) 7...b5 8 cxb5 a6 9 bxa6

9...Bf5! Here Kasimdzhanov pauses, with a wry and pleased look at the viewer and says, 'We expected 9...Bxa6 with a Benko gambit', but now the two bishops rake the queenside, for example, 10 Nc3 Ne4 11 Nxe4 Bxe4 and the bishop on g7 is tremendously strong, Black will capture on a6' (jw: probably with the knight, but the rook looks promising as well). 'White is struggling for equality.'

7 Nc3 a6

This helps support ...b5, perhaps after ...Rb8, 'but it is also a waiting move. In this position without any weaknesses Black's position is rock solid ... Black just wants to be solid and wait before committing to any developing moves. ..It is actually White who has to show what he is doing.'

8 d5

[jw: alternatives are given along the way; I'll stick with the game]

8...Na5 9 Nd2 c5

Basically if he can make use of the knight on a5, Black will be fine. 'If not, this knight is doomed to be forever on a5, or b7, or d8 and none of them are very attractive.' In the note to move 12 below, he points out that this happens if Black simply develops naturally without the urgency that the dynamic KID demands.

[jw:] Here's an example of what in my Mastering the Openings book call 'cross-pollination' between seemingly radically different openings. In the Ruy Lopez, Chigorin Variation (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 0-0 Be7 6 Re1 b5 7 Bb3 d6 8 c3 0-0 9 h3 Na5 10 Bc2 c5 11 d4), a position such as this can arise:

Black has developed, but too automatically, because, exactly as Kasimdzhanov has pointed out in our game, the knight on a5 can't move except to b7, from where it has no squares; so then it might go to d8, from where it is still prevented repositioning itself by White's d-pawn! Looking at the potential paths is in general a good way to assess the strength of a knight on the edge of the board, whether for White or Black. In the KID, for example, a knight on h5 can move to f4, retreat to f6 after ...f5, or in a very few cases, support ...f5 from g7; you have to assess not only the knight's current position, but how good and realistic the retreats may be.

10 Qc2 Rb8 11 b3

Now c4 is defended, and it looks as though the knight will have to stay on a5. 'But miracles happen, and this case it's not even a miracle, but almost a tradition of this variation that the knight enters on c4'.

11...b5 12 Bb2


'A little unorthodox I admit...but sometimes in order to free your worst piece [you have to play unusual moves].' 'If Black plays normal moves like 12...Bd7 , maybe followed 13...Qc7 and [develops the king rook], White will simply consolidate, play Rac1, Nd1, e4, Ne3, and then this knight on a5 will never get in.'

13 f4

Now Black must continue with concrete measures:

13...bxc4 14 bxc4 e5

'White has a choice. He has many moves. But Neverov told me told me that he wanted to choose something little known to me, something out of the modern ways, and he remembered that Botvinnik 50 years ago in this position against Donner played:'

15 Rae1

', and he thought that Botvinnik could not be wrong. Besides the move is developing a piece' The plan is Nd1 and Bc3, with e4 and Ne3 to come, 'after which Black's collapse is actually imminent.'

15...exf4 16 gxf4 Nh5

'And ... [here he pauses] ...O.K., putting another knight onto the edge of the board would usually be a very silly move, unless it works. And in this case it simply does work.'

17 e3

'After which I retreat my bishop to g7:'


'You know, this is basically one of the essences of modern chess: you put your knight on a5, you put your other knight on h5, you bring your bishop to h6, and them back to g7. And for some strange reason, it works. Why does it work? We do not know. We'll probably never know. This game is just too complex for us to understand...'

18 Nd1

'When you look at this position you see that the square c4 is adequately defended.'.... 'I always find it mysterious that when you look at this position, White loses the fight for the very important vital square e4. When you look at this, you say "No, this is impossible: White cannot possibly lose the fight for e4. In fact White's pawn can go to e4. The square is controlled by a bishop, queen, knight, and indirectly the rook on e1." You say that it is just impossible. But see what happens:'

18...Bf5 19 Qc1

'White can play 19 Be4 to keep the status quo. And by the way that's what to do: When one of your opponent's pieces stand badly you try to exchange all other minor pieces and leave your opponent with a minor piece that stands badly. And using this strategy, the normal move would be 19 Be4.' Then 19...Bxb2 20 Nxb2 (You usually don't want to play 20 Bxf5 Bg7 because the bishop is extremely strong on the long diagonal....the rook can come to b4...) 20...Rxb2 21 Qxb2 'And here this miracle of chess happens:' 21...Nxc4! 22 Nxc4 Bxe4 'As I said in the beginning of this game,' Black is doing well if the knight gets to a good square or sacrifices itself on c4. Now 'Black wins the fight for the square e4, which was controlled by all White's pieces, and in fact' the bishop on e4 is terribly strong, White's king is a little vulnerable... 'probably White's position is already beyond rescue. And knowing some such details in a tournament game is absolutely vital'.

'It's difficult to meet ...Bf5. A natural move is 19 e4 ', when a very typical sacrifice in the King's Indian is' 19...Rxb2 20 Nxb2 Bd4+ 'This bishop is actually stronger than any rook you could put anywhere.' 21 Kh1 Qh4 22 Qd3 Bg4.

[After 19 Qc1:] 'And here we see that even in a quiet position something went wrong for White after making normal developing moves. [which he says, also happened in his Classical KID game vs Atalik]. But it's not enough in this opening to just play normal developing moves. ..'

19...Bxb2 20 Nxb2 Qf6 21 Nd1 Bd3

'attacks the rook on f1 and puts pressure on c4, which as we know, is the gate through which the knight on a5 enters the game.'

22 Rf3 Nxc4

'If a move like this works it [effectively] ends the game for White. Because his whole strategy was to keep the knight at bay, and if that doesn't work then something has gone seriously, seriously wrong.'

23 e4

23 Nxc4 Rb1 24 Qd2 Bxc4 'And Black wins a pawn and you will see that White's pieces are totally disorganized. Because his strategy was to keep the knight on a5, but to do so he had to make decisions that he would not make otherwise. That he would rather not to have done.' For instance, to weaken his kingside by playing f4 and so forth.

23...Nxf4 24 Nxc4 Qd4+ 25 Nf2

25 Kh1 Nxg2 26 Kxg2 Bxc4


'and Black won ...This is another example of how things can go wrong for White, although it would be really difficult to show where he made a mistake. After all [impish smile], it would be blasphemous to say that Botvinnik's move Rael was a mistake, wouldn't it?' This is a sort of model game for Black. 'You don't want to just play according to some general idea, developing your pieces and all that. You see your idea and some very concrete variations based on calculation' [as you see in other games from this system].'

26 Qxb1 Bxb1 27 Rxf4 Bxa2 28 Ne3 Qd2 29 Kf1 Rb8 30 Rf3 Rb1 31 Rxb1 Bxb1 32 Kg1 Qd4 33 Nfg4 Bxe4 34 Nf6+ Kh8 35 Rf2 Bxg2 36 Nxg2 a5 37 Ne1 a4 38 Nc2 Qe5 39 Kg2 a3 40 Nxa3 Qg5+ 0–1

I'll plead lack of space for not going on and on about this video. You'll like it even if you're a 1 e4 player who never intends to get near the King's Indian as White or Black.

The King's Indian Defence has been enjoying a revival at the top levels of play, and a variety of other products on it are appearing. An absolutely superb and exciting book is Mikhail Golubev's Understanding the King’s Indian. I've already used this extensively in my writing and teaching because of its analysis, but its real plusses are found in the philosophic ideas and sheer chess creativity that Golubev brings to the opening. The book is organised around the author's games, usually a poor idea. But here it works, amazingly well. Golubev's comments about the psychological factors surrounding games are entertaining and supplement the material. I should mention that although the book is not configured so as to form a complete repertoire with the King's Indian, the material as a whole (including some terrific notes) constitute the greater part of one, so much so that it's hard to find missing parts (although please note that 2 Nf3, 2 Bg5 and the like are not covered). Furthermore, many options are given for Black within the more important variations, so he is not constrained to play some forced sequence if he doesn't choose to be.

There is one drawback, a familiar one: the book is largely games and analysis, with relatively little of a directly instructional nature. The notes themselves are full of imbedded games and suggestions. Thus you need to really enjoy absorbing struggles, moves, and primarily casual commentary. So be forewarned about the level of difficulty, but rest assured that it's a rich book and the best of its kind. If you love this opening and/or have to face it as White, you'll definitely want a copy.

As good as Everyman's books on openings have been over the years (as evinced by the reviews in these columns), there are still some weak efforts. I was very curious about Tim Taylor's Beating the King's Indian and Grünfeld, because he advocates the Four Pawns Attack versus the King's Indian, a variation that I have played, and played against, for years. As I looked for interesting ideas for White, however, I was struck by the paucity of research as well as the lack of effort to find play on Black's behalf. To be clear, I am concerned here only with the King's Indian. I didn't investigate the part of his book dealing with the Grünfeld Defence, although in these days of difficulty for the Grünfeld from all sides, I find it odd to recommend 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 d5 4 e3 Bg7 5 Qb3 ! I suppose that I should sympathize, having at one point taken seriously Opocensky's line 5 Nf3 0-0 6 Bd2 with the idea Rc1. Taylor also suggests 4 Nf3 Bg7 5 e3 0-0 6 cxd5 Nxd5 7 Bc4, another slow line about which I have no strong opinion.

Taylor's Four Pawns assault on the KID comes from two directions: the 'Martz Variation', for which he gives the move order 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 Bg7 4 e4 d6 5 Be2 0-0 6 f4 c5 7 Nf3 (see below for move order issues); and the 'Liz Variation' with 5 f4 0-0 6 Nf3 c5 7 d5 e6 8 Be2 exd5 9 exd5 (instead of the usual 9 cxd5). Neither is impressive, and since this is a review with a King's Indian slant, let's go into some detail to learn a bit about the former system.

1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 Bg7 4 e4 d6 5 f4 0–0 6 Nf3 Na6 7 Be2 e5

Taylor gives this well-established main-line move a '?!'. He presents two lines:

A 8.dxe5

Always watch out that an author's confident words aren't used as a substitute for confirmation of his claims. Here Taylor says that 'If White doesn't want the large, but fighting advantage of the main line, he could play

8...dxe5 9.Qxd8 Rxd8 10.fxe5 Ng4 11.Bg5 Re8 12.Nd5

reaching a slightly better ending by force!'

Now anyone involved in analysing the King's Indian better be a little careful about assertions of White advantage in a position where he has weak isolated pawns on the e-file, a bad bishop on e2, only a temporary outpost on d5 (...c6), and at the same time Black has an outpost like e5 and a hole on d4 to aim for. These are typical KID features. Now it's conceivable that White's extra pawn and temporary activity might give him some advantage tactically, but you'd better have something concrete in mind.

Right away, White has to take into account the natural 12...h6!. Then those White weaknesses can come to the fore, for example, 13.Bh4 (13.Bf6?! c6! 14.Ne7+ Kf8 15.Nxc8 Raxc8 16.Bxg7+ Kxg7 and White's chances have soured) 13...g5 14.Bg3 c6 15.Nc3 (15.Nf6+?! Nxf6 16.exf6 Bxf6) 15...Nxe5 (or, just to prove White's lack of advantage, 15...Ne3 16.Kf2! Ng4+ 17.Kf1 Ne3+ 18.Kf2 Ng4+) 16.Bxe5 Bxe5 17.Nxe5 Rxe5 18.0–0–0 Be6 19.Rd4 Kg7 20.Rhd1 Re8, and Black stands positionally well in any case (compare the pieces), but the dual ideas...Bc8 and ...Nc5 or even ...c5 and ...Nb4/b8-d4 are irritating.

For his example, Taylor quotes Orlov-Shamilov, Vancouver 2002, in which 'Black never quite equalised': 12...Nxe5 13.Rd1 (13.Nf6+ Bxf6 14.Bxf6 Ng4) 13...Be6 (One natural continuation is 13...h6 14.Bf6 Nd7! (or 14...c6 ) 15.Ne7+ Kh7 16.Bxg7 Rxe7 17.Bc3 Nac5 , etc.) 14.0–0 , and 14...c6 was played, but the easiest course was 14...Nd7 (or 14...h6) 15.b4 (15.b3 c6 16.Nf4 Ndc5) 15...Bxd5 16.cxd5 Rxe4 with at least equality. In general, I think it's White who struggles for equality in this line, especially after 12...h6. That's hardly surprising if you have studied the basic ideas of the King's Indian.

Now we turn to that 'large advantage' for White that Taylor describes:

8 fxe5 dxe5 9 Nxe5 c5 10 Be3 Nb4!

In a ChessCafe review of this book, which appeared just yesterday, Carsten Hansen mentions 10...Qe7!?, intending 11 0-0 (or 11 Nf3 Nb4!? 12 e5 Ng4 13 Bg1 Rd8) 11...Rd8!? with the idea 12 Rc1 cxd4 13 Bxd4 Rxd4! 14 Qxd4 Nd7. This is not such a difficult line to find and should have been dealt with.

11 Rc1

Weaker are 11 0-0?! cxd4 12 Bxd4 Nc2!; and 11 Qb3 Nxe4! 12 Nxe4 Bf5 13 0–0 (13 Nxc5? Nc2+ 14 Kf2 Nxd4) 13 ..Bxe4 with a slight edge, Merilo-Nizynski, ICCF corr 1995.

After 11 Rc1, Taylor thinks that White gets a substantial advantage.


Exploiting the dark squares that are the essence of Black's play. Although it's in the books, Taylor doesn't mention the move.

12 Bxg4

Probably best. 12 Nxg4 cxd4 13 a3 (13 0–0 Bxg4 14 Bxg4 dxc3; 13 Nd5 Nxd5 (or 13 ..Bxg4) 14 Bxd4 (14 cxd5 dxe3) 14 ..Nf4! 15 Bxg7 Kxg7) 13 ..Nc6 with excellent play, for example, 14 Bd2 dxc3 15 Bxc3 Qg5!.


This leads to full equality, or perhaps even a touch more; White's pawn structure is a real problem for him.

13 Qxd4

White won't be happy with 13 Bxc8 Bxe5 14 Bxb7 dxe3 or 13 Bxd4?! Bxe5 14 Bxe5 Nd3+.


Or 13 ..Qxd4, which also equalises with good prospects, e.g., 14 Bxd4 Bxg4 15 0–0 (15 Kd2! Rfd8 16 Nd5 Be6=) 15 ..Bxe5 16 Bxe5 Nd3 17 Bf6 Nxc1 18 Rxc1 Rfc8 (or 18 ..h5 19 Nd5 Kh7) 19 b3 Kf8 20 Kf2 Christoffel,M-McNab,C/ICCF corr 1999/Corr 2002, and Black could have held onto his small edge by 20 ..Rc6 21 Nd5 Re8 22 Ke3 Rce6 23 e5 Rc6.

14 Qxd8 Rxd8 15 Be2!

The best try, and not 15 Bxc8 Nd3+. This is Potterat-Pavlenko, ICCF 1999, when the most interesting line was 15...Nd3+! 16 Bxd3 Rxd3 17 Ke2 Rd8 18 b3 f5 with at least enough compensation, e.g., 19 h3 fxe4 (19...Bxc3 20 Rxc3 fxe4) 20 Nxe4 b6!

After I wrote this, I noticed that the same 11...Ng4 line was recommended in the Golubev's book, which surely should be a primary source for someone writing about the King's Indian. And the author's research net apparently didn't extend to the games cited above, even though he quotes from other correspondence games that are found in the standard correspondence databases.

Taylor also slides past some serious move-order difficulties, ones that Tal Shaked and I ran into some years ago. His chosen move order for the 'Martz' Variation is 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 g6 3 Nc3 Bg7 4 e4 d6 5 Be2 0-0 6 f4. This comes to the same position as 5 f4 0-0 6 Be2. Why does Taylor prefers the move order with 5 Be2? Because 5 f4 allows 5...c5, when after 6 Nf3 (to get to his Martz line), then 6...cxd4 7 Nxd4 Nc6 8 Be3 Ng4 'and Black has the initiative' (he has gained a strong tactical position by not castling). That is quite true, unfortunately, and also a obstacle for anyone who would like to play the variation 5 f4 0-0 6 Nf3 c5 7 dxc5.

The problem is that 6 Be2 presents Black with new possibilities. In the second volume of my Mastering the Openings book I suggest the possibility 6...e5!, for example, 7.dxe5 (7.fxe5 dxe5 8.d5 Na6= is a main line from the 6...Na6 Four Pawns that Taylor is at pains to avoid, as shown by his line above. I think that White does better with his bishop on d3, as I have played myself) 7...dxe5 8.Qxd8 Rxd8 9.fxe5 Nfd7

Again, a typical King's Indian positions in which Black holds all the positional trumps. Given an extra move, Black will have the advantage because of White's inferior pawn structure, so White must use his extra pawn and strike first: 10.Nd5! (10.e6 fxe6 covers d5. Then Black can turn his attention to occupying the weak squares e5 and d4) 10...Na6 11.Bg5 Re8 12.Ne7+ Kf8 13.Nxc8 Raxc8 14.Bg4 (otherwise Black captures on e5 exposing the isolated pawn behind it) 14...Nxe5! (a positionally-motivated Exchange sacrifice (14...f5 15.exf5 Nxe5 is equal) 15.Bxc8 Rxc8

As given in MTCO 2. Black controls every important square and has ideas such as...Nd3+, ...Nc5, ...Re8, and ...Nxc4. A sequence such as 16.Rd1 Nxc4 17.b3 Nd6 18.Nf3 Bc3+ 19.Ke2 Nxe4 may be the best that White can do, but he then stands worse because Black has two pawns and superior piece placement. This is all from my book.

As always, I've gone on too long. But in my opinion, again based upon personal experience and theory, the 'Liz' variation that I mention above is also utterly harmless. That is only a proclamation on my part, however, and if you are attracted by it you should look into the theory and study the line critically in order to form your own conclusions.

Finally, The Fearsome Four Pawns Attack by Jerzy Konikowski & Marek Sosynski is a comprehensive treatment of every variation of the Four Pawns KID and thus a very ambitious undertaking for a 283 page book. The authors' solution is to make the project primarily a research-based theoretical investigation. That is to say, they provide little explanation of the lines, and a great deal of the book is filled with closely packed game excerpts. Thus it can be used as a reference work, and at first may appear to be little more than a database dump. That's not so. For one thing, the monotony is broken up by its organisation around complete annotated games. Furthermore, the authors pay attention to every variation and subvariation, suggesting new moves throughout, many very relevant for an objective assessment. The Fearsome Four Pawns Attack may not be a necessary purchase for all King's Indian players, but it's definitely worth having. And for someone who plays the White side of the Four Pawns it would be risky to do without it.

Christian Bauer's The Philidor Files is one of the several pleasant surprises coming from the recent batch of Everyman books (it was only very recently sent out, I think in 2007). Only the first two Dangerous Weapons books have made such an impression on me. Bauer (a strong GM who plays the Philidor regularly) includes not only his favourite systems but the entire Philidor complex. For example, we are treated to 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 (3 Bc4) 3...f5!?, 3...Qe7, and other early deviations. Then, after 3.d4, there follows a detailed examination of 3 d4 exd4 4 Nxd4 (and 4 Qxd4), and now 4...g6 (Larsen) and 4...Nf6 5 Nc3 Be7 (Antoshin). At this point (132 absorbing pages into the book) Bauer begins his exposition of the two featured orders, which are in fact the ones played today by grandmasters rated into the 2700s. The first is 1 e4 d6 2 d4 Nf6 3 Nc3 (25 pages on White's 3rd move alternatives such as 3 Bd3) 3...e5 (3...g6 is a Pirc), which can easily lead to the Hanham Variation: 4 Nf3 Nbd7 5 Bc4 (5 g4!?, etc.) 5...Be7 6 0-0 0-0, etc., the main-line position rich with new possibilities. The second is 3...Nbd7!?, a Bauer specialty, allowing, for example, 4 f4 e5 5 Nf3, which he demonstrates to give Black full-fledged play by more than one means.

All this is enhanced by the author's many suggestions. Perhaps there are still readers who aren't aware of the sound and often dynamic play that this ancient defence can produce. I don't see why it can't be used on all levels; the only warning for the inexperienced player is that early move orders must be mastered precisely in order to avoid some winning shots. What to say? A great book that you can't go wrong with.

I hate to give short shrift to any series of such import and even brilliance as the Alexander Khalifman's Opening for White According to Anand 1 e4. Khalifman is assembling an astonishingly thorough repertoire for White with the move 1 e4 (keep in mind that it is a repertoire and not an encyclopaedia of all openings). Already eight dense volumes have appeared with the ex-FIDE World Champion's thorough analysis of not only major systems (the ones that Anand himself actually faces), but of everything else that Black can throw at the 1 e4 player. The entire series bears the mark of a theoretician who is preparing a top master for international play; and of course Khalifman himself presumably takes advantage of his own masterwork. Chess Stars, the publisher, also has a similar series on Kramnik's openings (like the Anand set, ranging far, far beyond what the World champion has played or encountered). They publish a range of books on openings and historical topics; see their home page

Here's a rundown on the main contents of Anand series, of which I only have a couple volumes, but have seen several:

Vol 1: 1 e4 e5 including the Petroff (2 Nf3 Nf6), the Ruy Lopez Berlin Defence (2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 Nf6), and numerous seldom-seen systems.

Vol 2; Ruy Lopez main lines

Vol 3: Caro-Kann (1...c6) and Scandinavian Defence (1...d5)

Vol 4: Pirc/Modern complex (1...g6; 1...d6)

Vol 5: Alekhine Defence (1...Nf6), 1...Nc6, 1...b6, and other rare orders

Vol 6: Classical French Defence (3 Nc3 Nf6), Rubinstein French (3 Nc3 dxe4), and other rare French lines.

Vol 7: French Winawer (3 Nc3 Bb4).

Volume 8 about the Sicilian Defence has just been released. Here is a portion of the publisher's description:

'The first part of the book analyzes some seldom played lines on move two for Black. The author devotes special attention to 2…b6 ...The second part of this book is devoted entirely to the O’Kelly system - 2…a6. The third part of the book deals with some rarely played lines after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4. Systems like 2…e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Qb6 (4…Bc5) as well as the Sicilian attack (2…e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Bb4)...

Finally, the fourth part of this book is devoted to the Paulsen-Kann system (2…e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6). This variation is regularly played by Svidler, Ivanchuk, Kamsky, Rublevsky, Smirin and many other strong grandmasters and it is one of the really popular lines of the Sicilian Defence...' Further Sicilian Defence volumes will follow.

I have read major portions of Volumes 6 and 7 on the French Defence. They are full of dangerous systems for White's use, many infused with Khalifman's original suggestions, and others the product of long research. Volume 7 starts with 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5, and here he first addresses the lesser-played but important move 4...b6 (with the related 4...Qd7). After the main move 4...c5, he plays 5 a3, and now 5...Ba5 is a non-trivial variation that has been played a lot of late and at this point in time seems to give just enough play. Finally, we have the main line Winawer with 4...c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 followed by 7.Qg4. In every case, the goal is to find the best way for White to strive for advantage. As a devotee of the French, I am happy to say that my defence is not threatened with extinction by these suggestions. But some are good enough to eliminate certain lines from consideration, and in other cases it takes careful investigation and new analysis to counter them. Most players of Black won't have the understanding to match Khalifman's, so a dedicated study of these volumes will produce excellent results.

And that's the key: although the books are easy to read, they don't pretend to tell the reader how to play the given systems on general principle, nor to grasp them in the abstract. Inexperienced players may find them too much to digest, at least as a whole, and won't want to play many of the highly theoretical main lines. There are quite a few of those, so it would be useful to look a volume over before committing to purchase them. On the positive side, although explanations are limited, I should point out that they are given throughout and are particularly useful in explaining why positions at the end of the analysis favour White. In the end, Khalifman's are books for serious players who enjoy studying and/or truly want to improve their opening play. I admire them greatly, and notice that they have already earned a loyal following.

I've discussed Jeroen Bosch's Secrets of Opening Surprises series ('SOS') in this column before. The SOS volumes (I have #1-5) constitute the most entertaining of books about openings that I know of. Their contents include offbeat opening lines and, increasingly, ones that really aren't so offbeat any more, in that grandmasters and international masters are happy to play them. I should point out in passing that the German magazine Kaissiber ( has for years presented openings from the little-played to the truly bizarre. The 27th issue has been published and may be of interest to players on every level; the text is in German.

Returning to SOS, I have used both Volumes 4 and 5 in writing recent books, and it is my opinion that most of these initially strange-looking systems are actually perfectly sound, and that quite a few are as good as or better than some conventional systems in producing interesting play.

The fourth volume of SOS is typical, at least of this atypical publication. It begins with a series of examples of play in variations presented in previous issues; this is a favourite section of mine. Then come the articles. The authors (a majority of them Grandmasters) present more or less detailed analysis and discussions about their favourite offbeat openings. Here is a selected list of the contents of Volume 4, by chapter:

1 The SOS Files Jeroen Bosch [a series of updates from previous volumes]

2 A Surprising Scandinavian [1 e4 d5 2 exd5 Qxd5 3 Nc3 Qd8!?] Artur Kogan

3 The Alapin Opening [1 e4 e5 2 Ne2] Jeroen Bosch

4 Attacking the Slav Stonewall [1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nc3 e6 4 e3 f5 5 g4!?] Sergey Volkov

5 The Dutch Benoni [1 d4 c5 2 d5 f5!?] Jaan Ehlvest (this used to be called the 'Clarendon Court Defence' - jw)

9 King's Gambit Vienna 1903 [1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3 f5!?] Dimitri Reinderman

11 An Indian SOS, Part I [1 d4 g6 2 c4 Bg7 3 Nc3 d6 4 e4 e5 5 Nf3 Nd7 6 Be2 c6 7 0-0 Nh6!?] Dorian Rogozenko In the case of this article, a very large number of alternatives are analysed from move 1 all the way to move 7!

14 The Bellon Gambit [1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 c5 3 Nf3 cxd4 4 Nxd4 e5 5 Nb5 d5 6 cxd5 Qa5+ 7 N5c3 b5]

And so forth. Volume 5 includes, among many others articles on 1 e4 c5 2 Na3!?, 1 c4 e5 2 g3 Nf6 3 Bg2 h6!?, 1 d4 c6 2 c4 b5!?, and 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Nc3 g6 4 a3!?.

I've never heard anyone complain about this series. It's wonderful to see the extremes to which modern grandmaster play can go, and how moves that contradict the normal strategic rules can be perfectly sound. I recommend SOS because it is so much fun, to be sure, but also for its practical utility.

Everyman has not been hesitant about implementing its 'Starting Out' series, which by my count is up to 25 books, the great majority about openings. You can nearly always count upon gaining something useful from these books, so from the standpoint of a chess consumer, none is a particularly risky purchase. Authors of this series include Neil McDonald, Richard Palliser, Chris Ward, and the ever-reliable John Emms, all writers with deservedly good reputations. However, readers may have noticed that the level of the material and degree of verbal assistance/instruction varies wildly, which is to say that the quality of 'starting-out-ness' is not necessarily shared by all of them! For example, I enjoyed Starting Out: 1 d4! by John Cox a lot. It is written with care and full involvement, and has some exciting suggestions, even some that grandmasters can benefit from. But it is also one of the densest books of the series and most appropriate for players above 2100, perhaps higher, and only if they have the time to master even a portion of the suggested systems. Nevertheless, I think it's useful to consider such a book in this column, and the issue of its practicality for the average player.

Cox's book suggests a complete repertoire for White beginning with 1 d4. Here are a few of the main systems that he recommends: (a) versus the King's Indian: the main line 4 e4/5 Nf3/6 Be2/7 0-0 and 9 b4, the Bayonet Variation, , one of the most theoretical lines possible, with Black systems to cope with on every move that leads up to that move; (b) versus the Grünfeld: the main line of the 7 Nf3/8 Rb1 system, that is, the one that Edward Dearing recently wrote a densely-packed 205-page book about; (c) versus the Nimzo-Indian: 4 Qc2 and pretty much every main-line line that follows this most investigated of modern lines; (d) versus the Benoni: the Modern Main Line with h3 and Bd3, again the most-analysed current variation; (e) versus the Benko Gambit: g3 and Bg2 with the contemporary main variation 10 Rb1; (f) versus the Queen's Gambit Declined: the main line Exchange Variation with the sharp Nge2; (g) versus the Tarrasch Defence, the main line: 6 g3/9 Bg5, also ridden with traps and tricks to remember; (h) versus the Slav Defence: the main line with 6 Ne5, the most theoretical and complicated Slav line ; (i) versus the Semi-Slav: the main line Botvinnik Attack, one of the most-analysed variations in all of chess history.

Quite a list! The majority of these recommended systems share several characteristics, two of which stick out: (a) they are extraordinarily complicated and tactical, often in the extreme, depending upon exact moves at late stages of the opening. In many of them, one mistake and you're done for. In others, a poor memory will cost you dear, since there are many counterintuitive moves that even the best players took years to discover; (b) They are high fashion in contemporary chess, by which I mean in the present moment, and of course that is likely to change as time moves on, leaving some such systems as sidelines.

Are these bad things? Not necessarily. What you get is a remarkable overview of chess as it is played by modern, top-level grandmasters. Every chapter needn't be read through, and Cox provides an excellent selection of whole games full of content to illustrate the variations given. Like all chess study, reading this book can only improve your game, in this case by using opening patterns to expose players to high-level grandmaster strategy. For advanced players, the book can be an excellent preparatory tool. On the other hand, even most grandmasters are extremely cautious about entering into such high theory, and would likely play 3 such systems at most (and sometimes none!).

Now let's face it: the moderately experienced player with a regular job and a few hours a week to study chess isn't well advised to actually employ these systems in tournament play. That is an unrealistic way to 'start out', and a guarantee of defeat after defeat. This in spite of an amusing string of arguments by Cox. Referring to players rated 120-160 BCF (or 1560-1880 ELO), He slams the idea that they 'don't need to be studying openings where the theory goes down to move twenty-odd moves because they don't know the first thing about the game', calling it 'patronizing tosh'. Most teachers would of course substitute the words 'don't know enough about the game', and point out the narrowing of critical thinking that often accompanies mimicry. He then opines that 'Everyone ought to play main line openings most the time. If you want to be a strong player, then you have to play strong moves. It doesn't make sense to approach that by deliberately playing moves in the opening that aren't strongest.' Elsewhere: 'Another excuse tends to be; sure, I'm going to take up (say) 5 Bg5 against the Semi-Slav, once I've got time and learned it properly. This tends to be a way of lying to yourself...'.

Talk about patronizing tosh! The poor amateur who wants to play relatively simpler and clearer variations to get out of the opening in reasonable shape is deluded. If he hasn't time to master the most complicated variations in the history but wants to make an effort to learn a couple of them later, he is making excuses! I think it's revealing that so many grandmasters avoid playing these 'strongest' moves for their entire career. Cox's advice contradicts the commonsense advice given by most professional chess teachers, including leading grandmasters. Are you really becoming a stronger player by consistently getting mauled when you play someone who has far more time than you to master these main lines? He also thinks it's sad that Michael Adams and Nigel Short were held back by not playing main lines, but I don't think the average 1700 player will be afraid of not making it past 2700. This is silly and defensive stuff. Cox simply doesn't require excuses for presenting top-level modern theory. He does so extremely well, with an admirable enthusiasm for the genius of wonderful players. It's just one choice of many about how to write an opening book, and not the only legitimate one.

I've concentrated upon this issue because it interests me as a teacher and will be relevant to the decisions a student makes. Of course it can't hurt to study Cox's lines and I think it's a good idea for even a lower player to take up one or perhaps even two of them if he has enough time to gain some reasonable command of them. But I haven't had good experiences with students addicted to theory who follow nearly every top-level opening fashion. My personal experience is that their understanding of chess tends to be narrower, in part because they are experiencing too little of the game as a whole, and looking at only a sliver of the stylistic choices that chessplayers can make. I'd propose that even in the long run this approach can hurt their results, but that's a judgment call which is probably best left to the reader to make.

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