John Watson Book Review (93)
The Never-ending Opening Project
IM John Watson - Thursday 10th September 2009
John Watson reviews a large number of opening books.
Fighting the Ruy Lopez - Milos Pavlovic, Attacking the Spanish - Sabino Brunello, The Berlin Wall - John Cox, Alexei Shirov: My Best Games in the Spanish, The Petrosian System Against the QID - Alexander Beliavsky and Adrian Mikhalchishin, Play the Queen's Indian - Andrew Greet, Gambiteer 1 - Nigel Davies, Gambiteer 2 - Nigel Davies, Win with the Stonewall Dutch - Sverre Johnsen, Ivar Bern & Simen Agdestein, Play the Sicilian Kan - Johan Hellsten, The New Sicilian Dragon - Simon Williams, Starting Out: The Sicilian (2nd ed.) - John Emms, The Easiest Sicilian - Atanas Kolev & Trajko Nedev, Starting Out: Sicilian Sveshnikov - John Cox, A Top Player's Guide Through the Sveshnikov - Loek Van Wely, My Best Games in the Sveshnikov - Alexei Shirov DVD, Opening for White According to Anand, Volume 10 - Alexander Khalifman, Pirc Alert! A Complete Defense Against 1.e4, 2nd Edition - Lev Alburt & Alexander Chernin, Dangerous Weapons: The Pirc and Modern - Richard Palliser, Colin McNab & James Vigus and The Pirc in Black and White - James Vigus.
In this large column and the next, I'll try to catch up with what I see as some of the more interesting opening books and DVDs from the last few years (mostly 2009). I think that I promised only one more such column, but that was so long ago that scads of new books have appeared in the meantime. There's a never-ending supply of these works, so my apologies to the authors whose books I have neglected in this round.
Fighting the Ruy Lopez; Milos Pavlovic; 190 pages; Everyman 2009
Attacking the Spanish by Sabino Brunello; 288 pages; Quality Chess, 2009
The Berlin Wall; John Cox; 327 pages; Quality Chess 2008
Alexei Shirov: My Best Games in the Spanish; Alexei Shirov; ChessBase DVDs; Vol 1, 2005; Vol 2, 2007; Vol 3, 2008
The Petrosian System Against the QID; Alexander Beliavsky and Adrian Mikhalchishin; 168 pages; Chess Stars 2008
Play the Queen's Indian; Andrew Greet; 256 pages; Everyman 2009
Gambiteer 1; Nigel Davies; 192 pages (available in e-book); Everyman Chess 2007
Gambiteer 2; Nigel Davies; 192 pages (available in e-book); Everyman Chess 2007
Win with the Stonewall Dutch; Sverre Johnsen, Ivar Bern & Simen Agdestein; 208 pages; Gambit 2009
Play the Sicilian Kan; Johan Hellsten; 320 pages; Everyman 2008
The New Sicilian Dragon; Simon Williams; 224 pages; Everyman 2009
Starting Out: The Sicilian (2nd ed.); John Emms; 304 pages; Everyman 2009
The Easiest Sicilian; Atanas Kolev & Trajko Nedev; 240 pages; Chess Stars 2008
Starting Out: Sicilian Sveshnikov; John Cox; 272 pages; Everyman 2007
A Top Player's Guide Through the Sveshnikov; Loek Van Wely; DVD; Chess Base 2006
My Best Games in the Sveshnikov; Alexei Shirov; DVD; ChessBase 2008
Opening for White According to Anand, Volume 10; Alexander Khalifman; Chess Stars 2007
Pirc Alert! A Complete Defense Against 1.e4, 2nd Edition; Lev Alburt & Alexander Chernin, 446pages; CIRC 2009
Dangerous Weapons: The Pirc and Modern; Richard Palliser, Colin McNab & James Vigus; 244 pages; Everyman 2009
The Pirc in Black and White; James Vigus; 381 pages; Everyman 2007
The Ruy Lopez is in favour these days, and the last couple of years have seen some rather sophisticated books recommending various defences to it for Black. Some provide a particular main variation and a repertoire of solutions to the White alternatives leading up to that variation.
Before I discuss the new books, let me remind the reader about some only slightly older ones which you should also consider before committing to a particular variation in the Lopez (or to a particular purchase). In an earlier column I reviewed Sverre Johnsen's & Leif Johannessen's The Ruy Lopez: A Guide For Black, which promotes the Zaitsev 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 Bb7 10.d4 Re8. That book is a complete repertoire after the move 3...a6, that is, it includes solutions to the Exchange Variation and White's alternatives from moves 4-10. I consider it the best 'Ruy Lopez for Black' book in general, because in addition to great theoretical detail and a good choice of variations (see below), it has a huge amount of material on ideas and themes, strategy in the Ruy, and how to prepare and practice openings.
A couple of years back, Mihail Marin's A Spanish Repertoire for Black suggested a repertoire with the traditional Chigorin Defence (the same first moves, then 9...Na5 10 Bc2 c5 11 d4 Qc7). It is also a repertoire book, lacking only the Exchange Variation (which is in his earlier book on 1 e4 e5). The book is loaded with detail and a fine effort, although in my opinion, the Chigorin is a difficult system and I wouldn't recommend it to the average player on purely practical grounds (see my compilation of results below).
A few years before these (2005) Nigel Davies put out a very useful and well-written book, also reviewed here, called Play 1 e4 e5! , which features the same line as Marin, but with Keres' 11...Nd7 instead of 11...Qc7. In Davies' book, you get a complete repertoire, not only with Black against the Ruy Lopez, but with 1...e5 itself. It is, naturally, less detailed than the books above.
Two books from this year (2009) pursue the same course of trying to supply the reader with a complete system versus the Ruy Lopez. Milos Pavlovic's
Fighting the Ruy Lopez advocates using the Marshall Gambit: 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 0-0 Be7 6 Re1 b5 7 Bb3 d6 8 c3 d5.
The book is also a complete repertoire for Black beginning with 3...a6, so you have all you need in one volume. I only read two chapters closely, both from the main line 9 exd5 Nxd5 10 Nxe5 Nxe5 11 Rxe5 c6. The first involves 12 d3. Pavlovic has some good new ideas in the line 12...Bd6 13 Re1 Qh4 14 g3 Qh3 15 Re4 Qf5, with which he manages to achieve a level game for Black with a key new move. In the end, however, that takes extreme accuracy, and he prefers the much played and analysed 13...Bf5. Following loads of theory, and using top-flight games, he concludes that Black can equalise. Nevertheless, in line after line, Black 'has to display some accuracy' to do so (for the average player, this means a lot of memorization), and he admits that 'the only problem is that it's nearly impossible to play for a win' as Black if White plays safely, often because a standard drawish endgame arises in which Black is if anything very slightly worse. To me, his conclusion characterises the Marshall Gambit as a whole. In almost every chapter, just reading through the games, analysis, and assessment (without playing through the moves), White can play for almost a sure draw, and even in the more active variations, theory tends to end on a move in the late 20s with another equal position.
In another chapter, featuring the moves 12 d4 Bd6 13 Re2!?, I took a little time and found myself agreeing consistently with Pavlovic's excellent analysis; here you can play for more than a draw with either colour. I was a little confused by Pavlovic's introductory remarks regarding 12 d4 Bd6 13 Re2 Bg4 13 f3 Bh5, when he says that 'a perfect example of Black's play can be found in the game Kamsky-Ivanchuk, Linares 1991', but we find this game hidden in a note, ending rather early with the comment 'was fine for Black...a game Black went on to win.' This was surely a case in which we should be shown the complete game, or at least 30 moves of it. Indeed, there are hardly any complete games in the book. This of course leaves more room for pure theory, and Pavlovic's independent analysis of a few main-line 12 d4 Bd6 13 Re1 positions is remarkably deep; he draws heavily on his own experience, which adds a lot of information that you wouldn't get from a database. But personally, I think complete games would have added a lot to the reader's understanding; it might have been instructive, for example, to have some illustrating how the ubiquitous 'drawish endings' actually play out.
Sabino Brunello's Attacking the Spanish proposes not one but three defences in the Spanish:
- a. the Schliemann Gambit (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 f5)
- b. the Gajewski (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 d5)
- c. the Marshall Gambit again, as in Pavlovic's book.
There is a huge amount of detail in small type about each system, so much so that it might have been helpful to reserve a little space to present a full repertoire for Black, including White's early deviations, for example, the Exchange Variation, Centre Attack, Worrall System, 5 d3 and such. I imagine this was deemed unnecessary, because the book is obviously designed for advanced players, who presumably have studied those systems elsewhere. The lower player, however, should be aware of this gap, except in the case of the Schliemann Gambit.
The Schliemann is an excellent choice for both the average and more experienced player (it is Davies' choice in his Gambiteer series that I discuss below). Black fights for the initiative right away, and he bypasses all White deviations (Black doesn't even have to deal with the Exchange Variation!). More importantly, it appears to be a perfectly sound system. Recently the Schliemann's reputation has grown from a speculative line to a respected one. I should say that in Brunello's main line, he has Black drawing a position in which he needs to know what he's doing to achieve that. But he shows specifically how to, and there are other way to play the Schliemann if you don't want to follow his.
I know next to nothing about the Gajewski, but it's an exciting and relatively new line that offers wide open and original play. Tactics are at a premium, and Brunello provides ways for Black to get around some of the lines which have previously been said to favour White. In terms of pure theory (which hardly applies to the games of the average tournament or club player), the jury is still out. For example, among the world's elite players, we are seeing a lot of main-line Ruy Lopez games but very few with the Gajewski. Of course, at any given time, elite players aren't using any number of perfectly fine systems. But in this case, you have to wonder why they wouldn't avoid the long struggles that are involved with closed systems, usually with less space a small disadvantage, when they could be playing something more definite that didn't sacrifice space. It's just a thought, but perhaps there are is some analysis on their laptops which, when all is said and done, makes the system unattractive to them.
Normally I would compare Brunello's and Pavlovic's analysis on the Marshall Gambit, but as I began to do so, I realised that would be too difficult to do fairly. In general terms, Brunello's book has far more detail, and resembles grandmaster preparation in its thoroughness. He goes off on long stretches of extremely dense analysis, and certainly provides more total material (on the Marshall, that is; remember that Pavlovic's book includes White's early choices beginning at move 4). Pavlovic often stops his analysis of lines earlier, especially in the old main lines; on the other hand, his assessment of any given line is usually the same as Brunello's, so for the average player the difference may not be critical. His idea is to locate the most important moves, and he seems to discuss more playable options for Black at early stages. Brunello and Pavlovic both have many original suggestions, and their books have excellent Indexes of Variations. But neither has a Bibliography, which is quite a shame given the rich history of books and analysis for 90 years in the Marshall, and the extremely long duration of the Schliemann (the Gajewski is quite new, at least as a widely-used system; the current boom began in 2007). My suspicion is that these books rely almost entirely upon databases and personal analysis, without extensive research outside of them. In the case of systems like these, that's probably not a real drawback, because the key developments have been so recent.
Of the three systems in Brunello, my own inclination would be to recommend the Schliemann to the average player, and use it until someone demonstrates a real advantage against you. Beware that the material is rather dense and technical.
I usually don't refer to books that I don't have a copy of, but John Cox's The Berlin Wall has to be mentioned. For one thing, Cox is an excellent and reliable author, and for another, the Berlin Defence is the safest of the Black systems I've mentioned, with a thoroughly positional bent that may appeal to some players. It is also the system which is most forgiving of small errors, and in which you can truly say that understanding is more important than learning the lines exactly (arguably, that's not the case for any of the lines above). The main line of the Berlin goes 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4 0-0 Nxe4 5 d4 Nd6 6 Bxc6 dxc6 7 dxe5 Nf5 8 Qxd8+ Kxd8.
Obviously I can't comment upon how well the lines are covered.
The question is: With all these books about wonderful systems for Black, who is upholding White's case? The lone defender of White's cause that I can think of is Andrew Greet's Play the Ruy Lopez, which I previously reviewed in this column. But his book bypasses all of the defences above by recommending 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.Qe2, sometimes transposing after, for example, 5 0-0 Be7 6 Qe2. The author calls this the 'Worrall System'. Even after 3...Nf6, he makes a case for 4 Qe2.
Why are there no other recent books promoting White's chances? It's probably become too difficult to give a detailed White repertoire in the main lines of the Ruy Lopez (that is, being willing to play 8 c3, 9 h3, and 10 d4), because each defence has so much theory behind it. Even if you could find good answers to the Marshall, Chigorin, Smyslov, Zaitsev, Breyer, etc., you would ideally want to suggest solutions to all of Black's alternative defences such as 3...d6, 3...g6, 3...f5 (the Schliemann!), the Berlin Defence, Black's later and popular options such as 3...a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 0-0 Bc5, or 5...b5 6 Bb3 Bb7, and so forth. It's no wonder that such a book remains to be written.
You might find it interesting to look at the results which these systems have brought Black. I've collected a database on each of them, and compiled a list of winning percentages and the difference in performance ratings between White and Black (White always has a lead, so the result will be '+' a number rounded to the nearest multiple of 5), for each of the following cases: a. Overall results for the last 15 years; b. Results when both players have ratings over 2500 (or 2400 when the sample space is too small); c. Results when both players have ELO ratings over 2500 (or 2400 in one case, due to the small sample space) over just the past five years. The number of games in each case is high enough to produce a small margin of error.
|Summary of Ruy Lopez Results by Variations|
|Variation||a) Overall||b) Both players over 2500||c) Over 2500 in the past 5 years|
|Zaitsev Variation (excluding the 11 Ng5 Rf8 12 Nf3 Re8 etc. draw)||59%||41%||+90||53%||47%||+40||51%||49%||+20|
|Marshall Gambit main line (beginning with 11...c6)||51%||49%||+30||54%||46%||+65||55%||45%||+80|
|Berlin Defence main line (after 8... Kxd8)||54%||46%||+65||55%||45%||+70||54%||46%||+60|
|For the Worrall (including 5 Qe2 only)||57%||43||+80||54%||46%||+50||62%||38%||+160|
|For the Worrall (including 5 Qe2 and relevant lines with 6 Qe2)||55%||45%||+60||52%||48%||+30||58%||42%||+120|
For the Zaitsev Variation, we have (excluding the famous repetition draw by 11 Ng5 Rf8 12 Nf3 Re8, etc.): a. [Overall]: 59%-41%, +90 ELO b. [both players over 2500]: 53% - 47%, +40 c. [over 2500, in the past 5 years]: 51%-49%, +20.
This bodes well for Black, as the 'c' figure is excellent for any Black defence. I think that in chess in general, it's become typical that the more active and enterprising lines (like the Zaitsev) are getting the best results.
For the Chigorin Variation, we have: a. [Overall] 58%-42%, +90 b. [both players over 2500]: 60%-40%, +125; c. [over 2500, in the past 5 years]: 60%-40% +125.
These figures are pretty bad, which is not to say that the Chigorin is inferior in theory, simply that in practice White can pose more difficulties than Black. Black's general lack of ambition is probably a major reason for this.
For the Keres Variation: a. [Overall]: 55-45%, +60; b. [both players over 2500]: 55-45%, +60; c. [over 2500, in the past 5 years]: 54-46%, +50.
Black's results are uninspiring, but within a normal range for Black defences in general.
For the Schliemann Attack: a. [Overall]: 63%-37% +145 b. [both players over 2500]: 54%-46%, +30 c. [over 2500, in the past 5 years]: 52%-48%, +15.
These are very interesting results. The figures suggest two things: stronger players do better than weaker players with it, and in recent times it has done extremely well at the top, as indicated by the meager 15-point performance rating gap. Again, a very active defence mixes up the game, after which the strength of the players seems to become the dominant factor, rather than who moves first.
For the Marshall Gambit main line (beginning with 11...c6): a. [Overall]: 51%-49%, +30 b. [both players over 2500]: 54%-46%, +65 c. [over 2500, in the past 5 years]: 55% - 45% , +80
Players of White complain about having to face the Marshall, and it has an extremely drawish reputation at the top. Yet we see that as the players move up in strength (and forward in time), White's results improve, to at least the level expected in a normal defence, if not better. Some of this is probably due to the fact that if he knows what he's doing, White can get a drawish position with relative ease, so the decisive results tend to be in his favour.
For the Berlin Defence main line (after 8... Kxd8): a. [Overall]: 54%-46%, +65 b. [both players over 2500]: 55%-45%, +70 c. [over 2500, in the past 5 years]: 54%-46%, +60
I should add that against any but the main lines, Black has a terrific record in the Berlin, with overall equality in performance rating against White's other reasonable tries (that is, variations other than the one above with the exchange of queens). In the main lines themselves, the results are fairly normal, which is perhaps a bit surprising considering the difficulty that White has making progress in theory. Perhaps his position is just a little easier to play in practice.
For the Worrall (including 5 Qe2 only): a. [Overall]:57%-43, +80 b. [both players over 2400]: 54%-46%, +50 c. [over 2400, in the past 5 years]: 62%-38%, +160
For the Worrall (including 5 Qe2 and relevant lines with 6 Qe2): a. [Overall]: 55%-45%, +60 b. [both players over 2400]: 52%-48%, +30 c. [over 2400, in the past 5 years]: 58%-42%, +120
These results surprise me a lot, and I'm not sure how to explain them. Apparently players of Black are simply unprepared for the Qe2 systems. Even Andrew Greet doesn't suggest that in White's play is theoretically so much better than in the main lines.
I plan to talk separately about some of the DVDs from the last couple of years, but this is a good point at which to mention Alexei Shirov's three DVDs about his games on the Ruy Lopez/Spanish, one of which I briefly reviewed 3 years back. They are ChessBase's multimedia 'Fritztrainer Opening' DVDs, featuring Shirov lecturing while showing moves on a board. He plays both the White and Black sides of the Ruy Lopez.
The first DVD goes for over 4.5 hours, covering games in the Steinitz Variation, the Berlin Defence, the Open Variation, , the ...Bc5 systems, Marshall Attack and Anti-Marshall (with 8 h3), the Chigorin Defence (the latest versions), and finally, the dynamic Zaitsev Variation.
The second disk contains over six hours of material and covers 3...a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 0-0 b5 6 Bb3 Bc5 line, which Shirov may be the world's leading expert on; the Marshall Gambit, the Berlin Defence, the Breyer Variation and more on the Chigorin and Zaitsev.
The third disk is almost 6 hours long. Shirov discusses the Schliemann Defence, the Open Ruy Lopez, and more on the Marshall Gambit, Breyer, and Zaitsev.
These are high-quality DVDs from one of the leading players of the last two decades. If you prefer to get your opening information visually, by means of lectures, these are the ideal way to learn about the Ruy Lopez.
It's been some time since the anti-Queen's Indian system 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nf3 b6 4 a3 was all the rage, mainly due to the efforts of Kasparov. It's still a regular visitor on the tournament scene, but has been absolutely swamped by 4 g3. In The Petrosian System Against the QID, Alexander Beliavsky and Adrian Mikhalchishin take a new look at this old system and patch together material which makes 4 a3 look attractive enough to use on a consistent basis, although they certainly don't claim a forced advantage.
Belyavsky believed enough in the system to play it in the recent Experienced versus Rising Stars tournament, and his usually very well-prepared opponent reacted poorly:
Beliavsky - Caruana, NHC Tournament Amsterdam (7) 2009
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.a3 Ba6
4...Bb7 is the main line, but this has always had a good reputation. Instead, 4...c5 5.d5 Ba6 6.Qc2 has generally given White the advantage.
5.Qc2 Bb7 6.Nc3 c5 7.e4 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bc5 9.Nb3
This has all been seen hundreds of times before.
It's hard to believe that this was prepared. Apparently Caruana and his trainer were unaware of Belyavsky's book.
9...Nc6! has always been played here, developing and targeting d4; it has a proven reputation in terms of results. In their book, Beliavsky and Mikhalchishin analyse it in depth and fail to find any advantage for White, although there's enough to keep the game interesting. They discuss no alternative to 9...Nc6, except to say that 9...Be7 'would mean to abandon the dark-square strategy'. In Andrew Greet's new Black repertoire book Play the Queen's Indian (listed above), he doesn't comment upon 9...Nc6, probably considering it too obvious to have to explain.
Another problem with 9...Be7 is 10.e5, for example, 10...Ng4 (after 10...Ng8 11.Bd3, 11...Nc6 looks best, after which either 12.Bf4 or 12 f4 leaves White with the advantage) 11.Qe2 h5 (11...Nh6 12.Bxh6 gxh6 13.0-0-0) 12.h3 Nh6 13.Qxh5.
10...d6 11.Rd1 0-0?!
11...Nc6 12.c5!; 11...Nbd7 12.Bxd6 Bxd6 13.Rxd6 Qe7 14.Rd1 leaves Black insufficient compensation.
12.e5 Nh5 13.Be3 Bg5 14.Qc1! Bxe3 15.Qxe3
The rest is self-explanatory.
15...Nc6 16.Rxd6 Qh4 17.Rd7 Rab8 18.g3 Qg4 19.h3 Qf5 20.Rxb7 Rxb7 21.Bg2 Rc7 22.Bxc6 f6 23.Be4 Qxe5 24.f4 Qd6 25.Nb5 1-0
Incidentally, Greet's book Play the Queen's Indian features the very interesting system 1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 e6 3 Nf3 b6 4 g3 Ba6 5 b3, and now not the tired old 5...Bb4+ 6 Bd2 Be7, but 5...b5!?, a move that has been around for a long time, but hasn't ever been a main line. Greet makes a good case, as far as I can tell (I haven't used the book yet), although I have to say that in a couple of the diagrammed positions my instinct was to make a move not played in the game, and I'm not convinced that Black stands completely equal in general. Regardless, the variation is clearly sound and playable, and this is the most up-to-date QID book out there at a time when the some lines are evolving rapidly.
I seldom touch upon the general subject of gambits in this column, and there aren't many books that deal with them in repertoire form. Nigel Davies' Gambiteer 1 and Gambiteer 2, which came out two years ago, have that as a goal, with the limitations mentioned below. These books are clearly aimed at the developing player, not because the recommended openings are inferior, but because of the way they are presented: optimistically, and without great detail. Gambits are enjoyable and generally underrated (because only a minority are worthwhile), but in my opinion they are an important part of everyone's chess education. I've been writing about gambits extensively in the final volume of my Mastering the Chess Openings series, and I think they go particularly well with an inexperienced player's repertoire, and even experienced players should consider using one or two gambits, perhaps as alternate weapons in conjunction with a main line.
Gambiteer #1 is about an active White repertoire versus 1 e4, including gambits wherever possible. Davies begins by recommending 1 e4 e5 2 d4 exd4 3 c3 dxc3 Nxc3, which he calls a 'Danish Gambit'; it usually transposes into a Goering Gambit after Nf3, but in a few lines Davies prefers Nge2. This is a fun, instructive, and ultimately sound way for the developing player to go. It can garner points at all levels.
Of course, the Sicilian Defence is critical. This time Davies' treatment is less impressive: he recommends the Wing Gambit, 1 e4 e5 2 b4 cxb4 3 a3, which is ambitious enough; but as far as I can see, he skip the direct acceptance of the pawn entirely, that is 3...bxa3! Also, 3...Nf6, which I think is seriously underrated, isn't mentioned (unless it's buried in one of the games).
Versus the majority of defences to 1 e4, Davies suggests playing systems which are active and enterprising. The point is that there aren't respectable gambits versus many defences. Versus the Alekhine Defence, he offers 1 e4 Nf6 2 e5 Nd5 3 Nc3; perhaps the Four Pawns Attack would have been even more appropriate, but that's a lot of theory. Against the Pirc Defence, he gives 1 e4 d6 2 d4 Nf6 3 Nc3 g6 (nothing versus the popular 3...Nf6) 4 f4 Bg7 5 a3, a fun and increasingly popular line. To be sure, it doesn't involve a pawn sacrifice (in fact, Black sacrifices a pawn by ...c5 in one of the main defences); but no decent line against the Pirc does. Even the Caro-Kann Fantasy Variation, 1 e4 c6 2 d4 d5 3 f3, is not really a gambit. There is one line in which Black temporarily wins a pawn, 3...dxe4 4 fxe4 e5 5 Nf3 exd4 6 Bc4, but when Black manages to defend against it, White wins the pawn back shortly. Nevertheless, the Fantasy Variation can lead to wild and fun play. Against the French Defence. Davies suggests the French Wing Gambit, 1 e4 e6 2 Nf3 d5 (I suppose some players might not like 2...c5 here) 3 e5 c5 4 b4!?. This is a good choice, arguably the most interesting of gambits against the French, although I wouldn't play it against a grandmaster.
His Scandinavian choice is the most fun: 1 e4 d5 2 exd5 Qxd5 (for some reason, he simply suggests a main line non-gambit versus 2...Nf6) 3 Nc3 Qa5 4 Nf3 (4 b4!? Qxb4 5 a4 is similar) 4...Nf6 5 b4!? Qxb4, and here the old move 6 Rb1 was has never impressed, but 6 a4! has been played a bit of late and has some real promise; for one thing, ...e6 at an point allows Ba3 and Bxf8, preventing Black from castling kingside and gaining more time thereby. I'd happily play this way.
The Gambiteer #2 subtitle is 'A hard-hitting repertoire for Black'. The core of the book deals with White's two most popular variations, the Ruy Lopez and Queen's Gambit. Versus 1 e4, he suggests 1...e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 f5, the Schliemann Gambit. Again, this is ideally suited for the dynamic player, and probably as good as most regular 1 e4 e5 openings - see my comments above on Brunello's book 'Attacking the Spanish'. Here, however, there seem to be some fairly serious gaps for a 'repertoire': I see nothing recommended versus 2 f4, or 2 Nc3, for example. He neglects the fairly common Scotch Game 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4, and against 3 Bc4, gives only lines with 3...Nf6 4 d3 (in the e-book, at least, which is the version I'm working off of for #2). Obviously, the traditional main lines 4 Ng5 and 4 d4 should be at least briefly dealt with. Of course, you can always buy Davies' excellent repertoire book 1 e4 e5! , discussed above.
Versus 1 d4 d5 2 c4, Davies again makes an excellent choice with 2...e5 3 dxe5 d4, the Albin Countergambit; and after 2 Nf3, he goes for 2...Nc6, intending 3 c4 e5!?; here 3 Bf4 and 3 g3 can be played, but it's understandably hard to come up with dynamic options against everything (including 2 Bf4).
Davies can't possibly present a complete gambit repertoire against slower first moves, but he's close, for example, he suggests meeting 1 c4 with 1...e5 2 Nc3 Nc6 3 g3 f5 4 Bg2 Nf6, and if 5 e3, 5...d5; or 5 d3 Bc5, and if 6 e3, 6...f4!? (I think this is rather weak, although it was played by Fischer once). Unfortunately, there's also 3 Nf3, when 3...f5 4 d4 e4 leads to interesting play, but not a gambit.
To be clear: These books are not aimed at masters. Their analysis is not extremely deep, and it is clearly skewed towards the 'gambiteer' side of the board, as I'm sure that Davies would acknowledge. If you're going to make serious, long-lasting weapons of these lines, you'll have to supplement them with other material and your own study. But I personally think that playing gambits (at least one, at most three!) is healthy, and Davies gives you good ideas with enough analytical material to get started.
I have nothing but praise for the book Win with the Stonewall Dutch, written by Sverre Johnsen and Ivar Bern, with a Foreword and introductory chapter by Simen Agdestein. The Dutch has been a part of my recent writing (Mastering the Chess Openings again), and I got a chance to look at this book closely. The Stonewall Dutch goes 1 d4 f5 2 Nf3 (or 2 g3) 2...Nf6 (sometimes ...e6 comes first; there are a variety of move orders) 3 g3 e6 4 Bg2 d5 5 0-0 (or 5 c4 c6) 5...c6. Then Johnsen Bern prefer the setup with ...Bd6, by far the modern favourite, as opposed to the classical ...Be7, and their repertoire is based upon that move. The 'main line' is 6 c4 Bd6 7 b3 Qe7, and here 8 a4 a5 or 8 Ne5 0-0. Naturally these lines and the defence itself are constructed from the ground up; for example, after 1 d4 f5, no less than 8 moves are examined (including the important 2 Nc3 and 2 Bg5), and after 2 g3 Nf6 3 Bg2 e6, the authors analyse 4 Nh3 in great detail: 28 dense pages. Similarly, 2 c4 lines without a fianchetto get their own chapter, Bf4 at is examined at several points, and the move order 1 Nf3 f5 2 d3 is given special attention. The authors provide exercises throughout, but only 12 in total, which I think is a good thing. Many opening books include exercises, but as a rule, students and players that I've talked to skip them. A chess book simply isn't used or read in the same way that a university textbook is.
This book provides a degree of detail that usually goes with a highly technical book. The variations are analysed deeply and accurately, with plenty of original ideas. But in addition, there's a tremendous amount of prose with plentiful explanations in every section of the book; it's very easy to read, and the authors' love for their work shows through. If you want a new opening to try out, you might consider the Stonewall, if only because everything you need is contained in this superb volume.
I haven't done much work on the Sicilian of late, although I need to keep up to some extent for my students. In any case, I want to alert the reader to a variety of books on the opening that have caught my eye over the last two years, with limited comments.
Johan Hellsten's Play the Sicilian Kan is another repertoire book for Black. If you're wondering why we're seeing all these repertoire books, it's simply because these days no one can cover single openings in detail in one book, and many authors prefer to keep the detail rather than trying to do something comprehensive but relatively superficial. The Kan Sicilian, also called the Paulsen Sicilian, goes, 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 e6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 a6. The author uses his own repertoire (or at least lines that he has played), and is careful to explain strategies and pawn structures as he goes along, without losing himself in the details.
Hellsten's suggestions versus 5 Nc3 are pretty mainstream, for example, after 5...Qc7 6 Be2, he chooses the more modern 6...b5 (rather than 6...Nf6 7 0-0 Nc6), and against 6 g3, he likes 6...Bb4, and after 7 Bd2, the bishop soon retreats to e7, but having gained enough time to develop without getting bowled over. The same philosophy applies to 7 Nge2 Be7. Versus 5 Bd3, Black can actually play 10 legitimate moves! Having played many of them, I heartily approve of his recommendation 5...Bc5, meeting 6 Nb3 with 6...Be7. Then after 7 Qg4 g6 8 Qe2 d6, White can choose between piece play (for example, 9 0-0 Nd7 10 Nc3), or a variation with an early c4 (9 0-0 Nd7 10 c4, for example), yielding a sort of Maroczy Bind which is not advantageous for White because of his knight on b3, which may well have to return to d4 in order to make progress. I wish that I could say that I've done more than skim through this book, but it gives every appearance of being absolutely first-rate, and in any case, someone who wants to play the Kan/Paulsen simply must have a copy. I should also mention that there's a great Index of Variations, which in this opening is essential!
Recently, when I see a book or DVD or article on the Sicilian Dragon, I sigh and immediately lose interest. There have been so many over the years that the latest wrinkles don't interest me. Nor have I given much thought to The New Sicilian Dragon by Simon Williams, but I feel it deserves mention because the line in question is not the traditional Dragon; instead, the subject is 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 g6 6 Be3 Bg7 7 f3 a6, which has been dubbed the 'Dragadorf' (or Dragdorf?) because Black chooses to play both the Dragon move ...g6 and the Najdorf move ...a6. This line has been hot for several years now, and even those who haven't focused on it may have seen a game or two in which Magnus Carlsen tried the idea in delayed form, that is, with the normal Dragon moves and castling before embarking upon ...a6. As far as I know, this is the first and only book about a new and exciting system. I should add that Williams covers the slower lines for White as well as the attacking ones (which generally involve the Yugoslav moves f3, Be3, Qd2, and 0-0-0). Keep in mind that I haven't played through or analysed any lines from this book, so I can't vouch for the quality of analysis. As an aside, White might want to take a closer look at what Black does in the English Opening after Be2/Nb3/Be3/0-0; Williams has White playing an early Qd2, which is probably not the best plan.
Here's the perfect book for the lazy reviewer: John Emms' Starting Out: The Sicilian, the second edition. This is already a classic book, and John Emms is one of the very best chess authors around, so you can't go wrong with having it on your shelf. But just to make the case airtight, Emms has updated the previous material, no small task, and added over 20 new games (meaning games with notes and comments on alternative variations) and 130 pages. In his words: 'All in all, the additions and amendments have resulted in a considerably bigger book, one that's almost twice the size (in the number of words) of the first edition'. And yes, he includes the Dragadorf!
This book is the ultimate introduction to the Sicilian for the average player, and even advanced players can learn something from Emms' notes and ideas.
In this column I've previously looked at The Sharpest Sicilian, by Kiril Georgiev and Atanas Kolev, and The Safest Sicilian: A Black Repertoire with 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6, by Alexander Delchev and Semko Semkov. The third in this Chess Stars series is The Easiest Sicilian by Atanas Kolev and Trajko Nedev. It features the Sveshnikov Sicilian. It seems that have been more books, CDs and DVDs about the Sveshnikov Sicilian over the past decade than with any other Sicilian variation. This is almost certainly because the themes and ideas are generally simple and occur so repeatedly throughout most games and variations. Thus 'The Easiest Sicilian' moniker. Nigel Short said something similar to me about how one-dimensional (and even boring) the Sveshnikov can be. The funny thing is that it started out as a kind of crazy opening, with the surprising concession d5 coupled with a variety of sacrifices on b5. Now that the former is taken for granted and the latter are defanged, things have settled down, and the Sveshnikov has become rather drawish at the higher levels of play. Needless to say, for the average player it can still be an adventure on either side of the board.
As with other books in the series, the authors present a repertoire for Black, in this case beginning with 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6. Thus, along with the Sveshnikov (3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 e5), they cover 3 Bb5 at great length (the Rossolimo Variation), 3 c3, and some other sidelines and move orders. For those unfamiliar with the series, the book is organised in terms of a 'quick repertoire' with each line, a 'step-by-step' detailed look, and complete games.
Let me list some other works on the Sveshnikov. I've previously reviewed Rogozenko's excellent The Sveshnikov Reloaded, which is from 2005, hardly out of date by normal standards, but in the Sveshnikov, four years of theory represents a vast number of new lines and refinements on old ones.
The 2007 work Starting Out: Sicilian Sveshnikov by John Cox is a bit advanced for a Starting Out book, but Cox is an excellent writer and covers all of the positional bases and less important ideas as he goes along. It's a book for both Black and White (not a repertoire), and doesn't concern itself with moves like 3 Bb5 and 3 c3. But Cox does spend time on the popular move order 2 Nf3 (and 2 Nc3 Nc6 3 Ne2) 2...Nc6 3 Nc3 e5.
For those who like learning in video format, ChessBase has produced two DVDs on the Sveshnikov, both featuring the games of elite players. A Top Player's Guide Through the Sveshnikov by Loek Van Wely features van Wely's games, including classic battles with Kramnik, Shirov, and Anand (a pretty loss).
There is some theory, but mostly games. My Best Games in the Sveshnikov by Alexei Shirov, similarly, has games against top players; Shirov plays both White and Black in this opening, and even talks about typical endgames.
A book that takes White's point of view, suggesting a repertoire for him, is Alexander Khalifman's Opening for White According to Anand, Volume 10. Like every book in this Chess Stars series, the analysis is deep and careful.
Finally, a few words about books on the Pirc Defence. Lev Alburt & Alexander Chernin's Pirc Alert! A Complete Defense Against 1.e4 is a 2nd edition of the classic book published in 2001, which I reviewed way back in Review Column #37. The new edition has been somewhat updated by Lev Alburt, but it's hard to know where; an Introduction with some signposts would have helped a poor reviewer like me. At any rate, you can spot occasional games played after the first edition, but of course theory has changed dramatically in the meantime, and I think it's fair to say that the book is largely the same. As if to support this, Alburt says 'But even when updating Part III, which deals with current theory, I tried to preserve Alex's masterpiece; thus, my comments are usually in brackets.' Indeed, there aren't many brackets; a few important theoretical changes have been included in the new game references. However, it's a repertoire book, and much of it is unusual enough not to be greatly disturbed by mainstream theory.
Regardless of the holes, this is one of the best explanatory books on an opening ever written. Without going into detail, let me quote what I said in my earlier review:
'...for some players the good news may by itself outweigh everything else. I find the ideas and themes section of the book incredibly instructive and well thought out. Instead of a mere presentation of a few diagrams with short thematic comments...Chernin treats every main Pirc idea thoroughly and enthusiastically. He uses many diagrams of typical positions and then verbally analyses the actual continuations at length in terms comprehensible to any post-beginner. The number and variety of these well-chosen examples over the 180 pages is more than impressive...This is truly quality stuff from a knowledgeable grandmaster...I think that for mid-level readers, especially those beginning or wanting a user-friendly tutorial on the Pirc...[the reader will benefit from] the extraordinary instructiveness of 'Pirc Alert'. The superb 'Themes and Ideas' section could be a book in itself; it is easily the best example I've seen of this idea-based approach.'
I agree with what Carsten Hansen said in his review of Pirc Alert: If you already have the First Edition, you probably won't get much out of this one, and may want to keep track of the latest developments by culling through databases or subscribing to ChesPublishing.com (I happen to be in charge of the section that includes the Pirc). However, the great majority of readers will not have a previous copy, and this book is a classic instructive book that not only Pirc players but any player will profit from.
In Everyman's rapidly expanding series of Dangerous Weapons, the new Dangerous Weapons: The Pirc and Modern has, as usual, a set of excellent authors: Richard Palliser, Colin McNab & James Vigus. 8 of the 12 chapters promote Black's cause, which is perhaps a bit too unbalanced, but McNab and Vigus are two of the greatest Pirc experts around and doubtless have more ideas for the second player than the first.
Just a few of the chapters:
- a. 'Benjamin's Flexible 6...e6' (1 e4 d6 2 d4 Nf6 3 Nc3 g6 4 Nf3 Bg7 5 Be2 0-0 6 0-0 e6
- b. The Delayed Spike (1 e4 d6 2 d4 Nf6 3 Nc3 g6 4 Be2 Bg7 5 Be3 0-0 6 g4)
- c. 'Meeting 4 Bg5 in Dragon Style' (1 e4 g6 2 d4 Bg7 3 Nc3 d6 4 Bg5 Nd7
- d. 'Blunting White's Bishop on c4' (1 e4 g6 2 d4 Bg7 3 Nf3 d6 4 Bc4 e6)
If you like the Dangerous Weapons series and play the Pirc or Modern, there's undoubtedly some valuable ideas that you can take from this book.
Lastly, a quick reminder that the most comprehensive and recent source out there is James Vigus' The Pirc in Black and White; James Vigus; 381 pages; Everyman 2007. I use it constantly for my column. Thus, for pure ideas and instruction, I'd recommend 'Pirc Alert', and for more dense theory with fewer explanations, there's The Pirc in Black and White.
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).