The Tarrasch lives!

This review has been printed in the January 2020 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Bezgodov, Alexey. The Art of the Tarrasch Defence: Strategies, Techniques, and Surprising Ideas. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-9056917685. PB 320pp.

Ehlvest, Jaan. Grandmaster Opening Preparation. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2018. ISBN 978-1784830526. PB 272pp.

l’Ami, Erwin. Erwin’s Opening Lab: The Dubov Variation. Online course from chessable.com.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Fight 1. d4 with the Tarrasch!: A Complete Black Repertoire vs. 1.d4. Milford: Russell Enterprises, 2019. ISBN 978-1949859072. PB 384pp.

I have long thought that the Tarrasch Defense (1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5) is the Swiss Army knife of chess openings. It forces players to learn how to handle the Isolated Queen’s Pawn, a fundamental structure that appears across multiple opening variations, and it can be reached from a number of move orders, including both 1. c4 and 1. Nf3.

But the Tarrasch is also one of those openings that suffers from the vagaries of taste and fashion. Spassky made it popular when he used it to defeat Petrosian in the 1969 World Championship match, and it was a key part of the young Kasparov’s repertoire in the early 1980s.

It went out of favor after Karpov’s victories of Kasparov in their first World Championship match. Despite Grischuk reviving the 9. …c4 line in the late ‘aughts, and the contemporaneous publication of two books – Aagaard and Ntirils’ Grandmaster Repertoire 10: The Tarrasch Defense (2011), and Sam Collins’ The Tarrasch Defense: Move by Move (2013) – it has been neglected by the world’s elite.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back once more. Magnus Carlsen recently trotted out the Tarrasch at the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid & Blitz; in doing so, he was perhaps inspired by the games of his former second, Daniil Dubov, who has reinvigorated a dormant line of the Tarrasch – 1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 c5 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Nf3 Nc6 6. g3 Nf6 7. Bg2 cxd4 8. Nxd4 Bc5 – and made it a key part of his repertoire.

Dubov’s invention is the subject of a new course on Chessable from Erwin L’ami, a Dutch Grandmaster and second to both Topalov and Giri. Over the course of 54 trainable variations in “Erwin’s Opening Lab: The Dubov Variation,” L’ami dissects the Dubov variation, explaining in great detail the nuances of Dubov’s ideas. Here is a brief overview, using a game between Dubov and Hikaru Nakamura as our example.

The “Dubov Variation” [D33]
Hikaru Nakamura
Daniil Dubov
Moscow FIDE GP (2), 20.05.2019

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 c5 3.g3 e6 4.Nf3 d5 5.cxd5 exd5 6.d4 Nc6 7.Bg2 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bc5 9.Nb3

A key alternative is 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.0–0 0–0 11.Na4 Bb6 12.Nxb6 axb6 13.Qc2 c5 as in Nakamura,H (2754)-Dubov,D (2700) Paris 2019.

9…Bb6!

The defining move in Dubov’s approach.

10.0–0

Other ideas:

(a) 10.Nxd5 is met by 10. … Be6 – “development before everything,” says L’ami!

(b) 10.Na4 0–0 11.Nxb6 axb6 12.Be3 h5!? (Mamedyarov,S (2765)-Dubov,D (2700) Riga 2019)

10…d4 11.Na4 0–0 12.Bg5 Re8 13.Nxb6

13.Re1 is “the big test” according to L’ami. After the forcing 13…h6 14.Nxb6 axb6 15.Bxc6 bxc6 16.Bxf6 Qxf6 17.Qxd4 Black has to prove compensation for the pawn. L’ami analyzes out to move 37 in the main line, claiming an equal endgame.

13…axb6 14.e3 d3 15.Bxf6 gxf6

diagram3

Modern chess at its finest! Black’s pawns are an utter disaster, but his pieces and the d3-passer more than make up for the structural weaknesses. The game was drawn after:

16.a3 Be6 17.Rc1 Rc8 18.Rc3 Ne5 19.Nd4 Rxc3 20.bxc3 Qc7 21.Qd2 Bd7 22.Re1 Rc8 23.Rc1 Qc5 24.f4 Nc4 25.Qxd3 Qxa3 26.Rb1 Nd6 27.Ne2 Bf5 28.e4 ½–½

L’ami does an excellent job of clarifying the nature of Black’s compensation in key positions, and his research is thorough. I could find no major omissions after a few hours of scrutiny with both Stockfish and the latest Fat Fritz.

The course is also perfect for Chessable, which prides itself on its use of spaced repetition in its “MoveTrainer.” Not every book translates well to the platform, but L’ami’s course is relatively short, and the variations are carefully broken down for training purposes. Perhaps the only question about the course is its price.

“Erwin’s Opening Lab: The Dubov Variation” is $12.98 for the trainable analysis, while $42.98 gets you the moves and a two hour video. L’ami’s ChessBase DVD on the Tarrasch costs €29.90 or roughly $33, and unlike the Chessable course, it presents its viewers with a full Tarrasch repertoire (not including the Dubov line). It’s not quite an apples to apples comparison, but buyers are getting less material for more money on Chessable if they choose the video option.

Another option for Tarrasch players looking for complete coverage of the the opening is Vassilos Kotronias’ new title from Russell Enterprises. Fight 1.d4 with the Tarrasch: A Complete Black Repertoire vs 1.d4 arrived unexpectedly in my mailbox, as Kotronias had announced his “return to pure chess-playing” in the introduction to his fifth and final volume on the King’s Indian in 2017. With this new book, Kotronias continues to meet the standard of excellence found in his Quality Chess titles, and in some ways, he may have exceeded it.

Fight 1.d4 with the Tarrasch includes a coherent repertoire against the London, neo-Trompowsky, Colle, and Blackmar-Diemer Gambit. The meat of the book is devoted to the Tarrasch proper, with the “new mainline” of 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.g3 Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0–0 0–0 9.Bg5 c4 at its center. (Kotronias discusses the traditional 9. … cxd4 in a three page aside, and there is no coverage of the Dubov line.) The analysis is exhaustive, and while the book sometimes skimps on references to other sources, this is more than made up for by the avalanche of new ideas.

Here’s an example, one relevant to those who might want to play the Dubov variation.

Kotronias on 6. dxc5 [D32]

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.dxc5

Though it looks innocuous, this move has proved quite a challenge for Tarrasch players, and L’ami urges his readers to take it seriously. Kotronias introduces (194-221) an important new idea in a critical line.

6…d4 7.Na4 Bxc5 8.Nxc5 Qa5+ 9.Qd2

9.Bd2 is the other move. After 9. … Qxc5 10.Rc1 Qb6 11.e3 Kotronias analyzes two ideas: the “solid option” 11…Nf6!? and the riskier 11…dxe3 12.Bxe3 Qxb2. Black equalizes after the gambit idea 10.b4!? Nxb4 11.Rc1 Qd6.

9…Qxc5 10.a3

Intending b2–b4 and the long fianchetto. 10.e3 is nothing to worry about after 10…dxe3 11.Qxe3+ Qxe3+ 12.Bxe3 Nge7.

10…Nf6!?

A novelty that the engine hates until high depths, but over the course of 10 (!!) pages Kotronias shows that 10. … Nf6 is fully playable. His analysis extends out to a 4 vs 3 same-side rook endgame, and the notes are both deep and didactic, even including a thumbnail sketch of how to draw such an ending.

10…Nge7 was Aagaard & Ntirlis’ suggestion. Kotronias analyzes it too, giving 11.b4 Qb6 as his mainline, but also offering the “evil” idea of 11…Qh5!?.

11.b4 Qe7!

Kotronias shows that Black can sacrifice the pawn with 12.Nxd4 (12.b5 Ne4!) 12…Nxd4 13.Qxd4 0–0 with analysis going to the 38th move.

I was stunned by the depth and density of Kotronias’ book. The influence of the engine is obvious, but compared to the King’s Indian books, this one was ‘chattier,’ filled with interesting positional asides and insights into his thought processes. Readers will learn about chess while learning the Tarrasch, and not every book can claim that.

The only drawback to Kotronias’ book is the layout. It uses an old-style ‘nested variation’ model of presentation, a difficulty exacerbated by the depth of analysis, and there are no indications in page headers or footers as to chapter or variation. I found myself continually having to refer to the table of contents to orient myself, and too often I was flipping pages trying to find specific lines on crammed pages. Were this a Quality Chess publication, I suspect that what is one volume here would have been at least two.

Design problems notwithstanding, Fight 1.d4 with the Tarrasch! is an impressive, encyclopedic work, and it should now be seen as the definitive work on the Tarrasch. It is perhaps best suited for advanced players and those already familiar with the opening, given its density and ‘no holds barred’ approach to analysis.

For those looking for an introduction to the Tarrasch, or for analysis of the traditional 9. … cxd4 lines, there is Alexey Bezgodov’s 2017 The Art of the Tarrasch Defence: Strategies, Techniques, and Surprising Ideas. Bezgodov presents a Tarrasch repertoire using a complete game format, and his notes are clear and to the point. He also includes two interesting sections worth mentioning.

In the first, “Four ‘bad’ lines that are actually good,” Bezgodov tries to rehabilitate a number of Tarrasch lines that history has deemed substandard, including the “Keres System,” or the Dubov variation mentioned above. While he does not anticipate Dubov’s key 9. … Bb6 idea, he does confirm the viability of the general approach in other lines.

Bezgodov also gives the “Giants of the Tarrasch Defense” their own section, using the games of Keres, Spassky, Gligoric, and Kasparov to show the historical progression of the opening. Importantly he shows how these players approached the Tarrasch with both colors, something overlooked in many such studies.

A final word on another book that treats the Tarrasch from a historical perspective: Jaan Ehlvest’s Grandmaster Opening Preparation (2018) is an absolutely fascinating work that tries to merge the insights of pre-computer Soviet training with those derived from our metal friends. While Ehlvest’s concern is to show how to approach the creation and maintenance of opening repertoires in general, the Tarrasch and IQP are key examples, with over 100 pages devoted to showing how ideas in the IQP grew and transformed. Despite an unfortunate aside about “women’s openings,” it’s a worthwhile read, especially for strong players interested in meta-opening considerations.

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