This review has been printed in the October 2014 issue of Chess Life. A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.
Consider the following situation: it’s the last round of an important tournament. You spent weeks before the event preparing your openings, having just purchased the hot new book on the XYZ variation, and your mind is crammed full with analysis. The game begins; miracle of miracles, the XYZ variation appears on the board, and you come to the end of your preparation. And then… you have no idea as to how to continue.
Sound familiar? Anyone?
There is a reason that chess teachers will trot out the hackneyed truism about focusing on ideas and not variations for amateur players. For the vast majority of us – we who lack photographic memories and unlimited time for study – it’s just not practical to play the uber-theoretical lines that dominate super-GM practice. We would do better to skip the search for novelties at move 30 and instead try to understand the ideas behind moves 5, 10 and 15.
There have been a few books over the years written according to this philosophy. Reuben Fine’s The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings is the most famous of these. How to Open a Chess Game, by Evans et al, is another good book along these lines, while Sam Collins’ Understanding the Chess Openings is a more recent rendering. The four volumes of John Watson’s Mastering the Chess Openings, while decidedly more advanced and analytical, also embody something of this ideal.
Pete Tamburro has been advocating the ‘ideas over variations’ approach to the openings for some time now. Tamburro, a USCF-rated expert, has worn many chess hats. He writes a chess newspaper column, has served as the President of the Chess Journalists of America, and is a frequent contributor to these very pages. But it was his opening videos for chess.fm in the mid-00s, along with his posts at the New Jersey State Chess Association website, that made him something of a cult figure among chess fans. With his new book, Openings for Amateurs, I expect that the cult of Tamburro will grow.
Written for players between 1100-1900 (11), the two halves of Openings for Amateurs attempt to address two facets of opening instruction. The first half, “[t]he Primer,” is a series of sketches or mini-lessons on various opening topics. There are short essays devoted to topics like “be[ing] ever vigilant for Bxf7+” (69) and much longer ones on gambits and countergambits (73-95), offbeat openings (116-123), and defending against ‘preplanned’ variations like the Colle (123-136). While much of the advice is general in nature, a few lessons reappear throughout, including: Don’t waste time in the opening. Don’t neglect tactics. Don’t be an opening ‘robot’ (26-27) who whips out moves without understanding.
The second half of the book, also called “Openings for Amateurs,” is a distillation of many of Tamburro’s chess.fm videos and messageboard posts. Here the reader is presented with a possible opening repertoire that minimizes memorization while maximizes strategic comfort and clarity. Some of the details of the repertoire appear in the first part of the book – there is quite a bit of overlap – so readers are advised not to skip it.
For White, Tamburro follows Fischer and proposes that we play 1.e4. The Sicilian is met with a hodge-podge of anti-Sicilians (4.Qxd4 vs 2…d6, the c3 Sicilian, the Rossolimo and the Closed). The French is met with the Tarrasch variation (3.Nd2) while the Caro-Kann gets the ‘Fantasy’ treatment (3.f3). The Four Knights and the g3 Vienna are suggested against 1…e5, and Alekhine’s Defense, the Pirc/Modern, and the Scandinavian are countered with solid, if slightly irregular, variations.
Tamburro offers two systems for playing Black against 1.e4 and 1.d4. He suggests that we play 1…e5 (Two Knights, 4…Nf6 vs Scotch, the Ruy Lopez) against 1.e4; if that is not to the reader’s liking, the Dragon is offered as an alternative. Against the d-pawn, Tamburro argues for our adopting the Nimzo-Indian, with the Dutch standing as our alternative. A section on Botvinnik’s treatment of the English rounds out the repertoire.
No book is perfect, and Openings for Amateurs is no exception. Tamburro’s proposed variation (241) in the Two Knights – the Fritz/Ulvestad – is busted after 8.cxd4 Qxg5 9.Bxb5+ Kd8 10.0-0! (his punctuation) Bb7 11. Qf3 Rb8! 12.dxe5 Ne3! 13.Qh3 Qxg2+ 14.Qxg2 Nxg2 15.d4, when Black has no route to equality. I also found it somewhat strange that Tamburro recommends the Dragon, one of the most theoretical openings around, as part of a repertoire designed to minimize memory work. But these are both minor complaints set against the book as a whole, which I think succeeds admirably at fulfilling its stated goals. If you’re a club player looking to improve both the theory and practice of their openings, Openings for Amateurs might be the book for you.