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Making Better Decisions

This review has been printed in the October 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may 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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Aagaard, Jacob. Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking Inside the Box. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-1907982354. HC 408pp.

There was a moment at this summer’s Paris Grand Prix involving Magnus Carlsen and Maurice Ashley that, besides being meme-worthy, was revelatory of the nature of competitive chess at the highest levels.

In the post-game interview after his tense rapid win over Etienne Bacrot, Carlsen took umbrage at Ashley’s characterization of the World Champion’s play as not entirely ‘smooth.’ Carlsen demonstratively pushed back against this line of questioning, asking Ashley what exactly he expected from him: “…what do you want me to do? Do you want me to get a huge advantage from the opening and then push it all the way [to victory]… is that the only way you can win a ‘smooth’ game? Is that your point?”

There was a time in chess history when these ‘smooth’ wins actually took place. If we look at the games of Capablanca or Alekhine, for example, we find precisely the kinds of talent mismatches that produce ‘smooth’ victories. The opposition often failed to recognize deep positional threats until it was too late, with the result being that many of these early contests are paradigms of strategy and attack. Numerous teachers recommend the collected games of Capablanca and Alekhine (among others) for precisely this reason.

Modern chess is not nearly so neat and tidy. With the wide dissemination of information in print and electronic form, and with the ubiquity of the computer, we have seen something of a leveling of the playing field at the highest levels. Players are much ‘wiser’ than they used to be, and what Alekhine once said of himself – that to defeat him, you had to win in the opening, the middlegame, and the ending – is true of all of today’s elite.

But Carlsen is still the World Champion, and he still wins more than he loses. How? There seems to be something of a consensus: what Carlsen does better than his opponents is solve problems. Instead of relying on a store of killer opening novelties, Carlsen is content to try and find positions that he understands better than his opponents, and use his superior decision making skills to successfully outplay them. It may not be ‘smooth,’ but it seems to work.

Isn’t this, at its core, the nature of competitive chess? The player who makes better decisions over the course of a game or, less charitably, who makes fewer bad ones, will usually come out on top. Training our decision making abilities would therefore seem to be critical for success in over-the-board play, and improvement would, quite literally, require that we rewire the way we think.

Such considerations have long been at the heart of Jacob Aagaard’s oeuvre. In one of his first books, Excelling at Chess, Aagaard implored his readers to think like humans instead of machines, sketching an approach to chess improvement on the basis of that key insight. He compared the differences between amateur and professional thinking in Inside the Chess Mind. And he served as the occluded co-author of Boris Gelfand’s Positional Decision Making in Chess and Dynamic Decision Making in Chess, both of which received high praise in these pages.

Aagaard’s latest book, Grandmaster Preparation: Thinking Inside the Box, is the sixth and final volume in the Grandmaster Preparation series and in many ways its lodestar. The title, a cheeky nod to Doctor Who, is also emblematic of Aagaard’s approach to improvement. It is only through the steady sharpening of basic chess skills, many already in our conceptual toolboxes, that we can begin to make better decisions and ultimately improve our results.

The great bulk of Thinking Inside the Box – most of Chapters 3 through 11 – revolves around decision making, and it is a useful lens for discussing the book as a whole. More specifically, it involves an in-depth discussion of the four types of decisions players encounter over-the-board. These are:

1. Automatic moves, or “decisions [that] you can make quickly.” (113) These might be theoretical openings or endings, forced moves or recaptures, etc. We are warned to double-check that the move is indeed automatic, and then to make it.

2. Simple decisions, which are largely intuitive and involve choosing between multiple candidate moves. These decisions rely less on calculation than on intuition or principle, and at some point, players simply have to guess when choosing the ‘best’ move.

3. Critical moments, where “the difference between the best and second-best move is large.”[1] Aagaard usually compares these to algebra exams. Critical moments can only be decided through intensive calculation, and any inaccuracy can lead to failure.

4. Strategic (or “complex”) decisions involve difficult positions that resist being decided through any of our individual decision-making skills (calculation, intuition, theoretical knowledge, general principles, bald hunches). All of our tools must be brought to bear on these positions, but ultimately, we have to guess here too.

I happened to attend this year’s US Open in Norfolk as I was reading Thinking Inside the Box for this review, and it was constantly on my mind during my games. One position is particularly pertinent in this regard. Here, in my 7th round game, I had the White pieces, and my opponent had just played his 32nd move.

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After 33.Rc2! Rxc3 I realized that I had encountered a critical moment in Aagaard’s sense of the term, one where a miscalculation could turn what had once been a winning position into a draw. I correctly decided that I had to look as deeply into the position as I could, burning through 15 of my remaining 25 minutes in the process.

What I discovered was that after my intended 34.Rxc3? the position was drawn: 34. ..Bxc3 35.Rc1 e2 36.Kf2 e1Q+ 37.Rxe1 Bxe1+ 38.Kxe1 Kxe6 39.Ke2 Ke5 (39. ..b5! is also equal) 40.Ke3 b5!=. Luckily for me, there was an alternative, and I found the much superior 34.Rac1!. After 34. ..Rc5? (34. ..Bd4 35.Kf1; 34. ..e2 35.Kf2) 35.Rxc5 bxc5 36.Rxc5 e2 (36. ..Bd4 37.Rc1 e2+ 38.Kg2 Kxe6 39.Kf3 Kd5 40.Kxe2; 36. ..Kd6 37.e7!) 37.Rc1 Bd4+ (37. ..Kxe6 38.Kf2) 38.Kg2 Bc3 39.Kf2 my opponent resigned.

That some may view this example as an automatic decision instead of a critical one is a strength of Aagaard’s system and not a weakness. By focusing on decisions and moments instead of positions, he highlights the first-person nature of decision making in chess, as well as the ways in which effective training can sharpen those decisions.

This is the practical upshot of Aagaard’s methods. In studying the nature of our decision making and considering our specific strengths and weaknesses as players (Chapter 3), we can try to locate and correct our personal weaknesses. I have discovered that I struggle with simple decisions, calculating too much and taking too much time in doing so. You cannot imagine how liberating it was to read that even Grandmasters have to regularly guess, and with this admonition firmly in mind, I have managed to limit my time trouble woes in recent games.

Aagaard’s discussion of the nature and limits of calculation (Chapters 7-8) was similarly illuminating. Borrowing heavily from the work of Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, he distinguishes between two modes of thought: System 1, which is “fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and subconscious,” and System 2, which is “slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious.” (157) Calculation for Aagaard is not merely ‘seeing variations.’ It involves “finding variations you do not see intuitively.” We improve our calculation by slowing down and actively searching for moves and ideas that are not intuitive, or those that we do not immediately see. This is Kahneman’s System 2 in action, and while Aagaard is careful to remind us that we must not over-rely on our calculative abilities (167), it turns out that even the World Champion could stand to activate System 2 from time to time.

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After playing 25. ..exd3 in his victory over Peter Svidler in the 2013 Candidates Tournament, Carlsen was asked about 25. ..Bxh3! in the post-game press conference. The idea is brilliant: after 26.dxe4 (26.gxh3? Qxh3) 26. ..Rg5 27.g3 Bg4 28.f3 Rb2!! 29.Qxb2 Bxf3 Black’s attack is irresistible.

Most commentators – including Ian Rogers in these very pages (June 2013) – argued that Carlsen had missed something, that he’d made a calculative oversight in not playing the bishop sacrifice. Aagaard, who was in attendance, saw something different. Carlsen just hadn’t seen the candidate move. Once he did, it was trivial for him to analyze it to its end, and Aagaard reports that it took Carlsen all of 10 seconds to confirm that it was “completely winning.”

Thinking Inside the Box is an immensely rich book, and another review could be written about what has been left out of this one. The discussion of opening study is solid, as is the account of Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ and its relevance for chess improvement. The appendix on nutrition, however, seems out of place, and I do not see the need for Aagaard to once again dredge up his decade-old debate with John Watson. This is especially true as he ends up agreeing with Watson in describing rules as having pragmatic validity in a broadly Deweyian sense. (237-242)

Very few chess books have stuck with me the way that Thinking Inside the Box has. I think it is Aagaard’s finest work, filled with useful insights, and I find myself reflecting on it frequently as I play and study. It is not an easy book by any standard, but I suspect that most players seriously looking to improve and capable of self-criticism would do very well to read it.


[1] Aagaard, Jacob. “Critical Moments – two opposing definitions.” Quality Chess Blog (blog), Quality Chess. July 11, 2017. http://www.qualitychess.co.uk/blog/6113#more-6113

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No KIDding – New KID books

This review has been printed in the September 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences may 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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Bologan, Victor. Bologan’s King’s Indian: A Modern Repertoire for Black. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056917203. PB 448pp.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Kotronias on the King’s Indian 1: Fianchetto Systems. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2013. ISBN 978-1906552503. PB 680pp.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Kotronias on the King’s Indian 2: Mar del Plata I. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982873. PB 320pp.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Kotronias on the King’s Indian 3: Mar del Plata II. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982538. PB 280pp.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Kotronias on the King’s Indian 4: Classical Systems. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-1784830199. PB 464pp.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Kotronias on the King’s Indian 5: Sämisch and the Rest. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-1784830359. PB 560pp.

Pavlovic, Milos. New Weapons In the King’s Indian. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-9492510020. PB 242pp.

I have noticed that a lot of amateur defenders of the King’s Indian (KID) tend to ‘wing it’ in the opening. They trust that their general knowledge of the KID will suffice as they fling their pawns and pieces forward, or that the Muse will grace them with the right move just when they need it.

What they forget is that even Kasparov – one of the most dynamic players in chess history, and one of the KID’s greatest champions – had to marry inspiration with theory, memorizing variation after variation as he tried to survive his theoretical arms races with Karpov and Kramnik. Eventually he gave up, deciding that the memory work required to play both the Najdorf and the KID was too much, and that the Najdorf was a better use of his time.

It is absolutely critical to know your theory if you want to play the KID, particularly at the master level or in correspondence play. And chess publishers have come to the rescue, with a slew of recent titles that cover the main lines, the side lines, and everything in between. We’ll take a look at seven books by three authors this month, using two examples to help illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of each author’s project.

The fifth and final volume of Vasilios Kotronias’ epic series on the KID is newly published by Quality Chess. Clocking in at over 2300 pages, these five volumes – Kotronias on the King’s Indian 1: Fianchetto Systems (2013), 2: Mar del Plata I (2015), 3: Mar del Plata II (2015), 4: Classical Systems (2016), and 5: Sämisch and the Rest (2017) – almost certainly represent the most detailed examination of a single opening in chess history.

In a clear echo of Quality Chess’ slogan, the series promotes the most central and principled of main lines in KID theory. This includes the ‘Kasparov’ line against the Fianchetto (v1) featuring ..Nbd7, ..e5, and ..Qb6, the famous Mar del Plata variation in the Classical (v2 and v3), and the super-topical 6. ..c5 against the Sämisch (v5). While the vast majority of the lines discussed in the early volumes still stand up – current top-level correspondence games seem to support this – Kotronias has kindly included 46 pages of updates and revisions to previous analysis in the fifth book.

Victor Bologan’s Bologan’s King’s Indian: A Modern Repertoire for Black (New in Chess, 2017) is a mildly revised version of his 2009 The King’s Indian from Chess Stars. Some of the material also appears on two DVDs released by ChessBase in 2009 and 2015. The book is not designed to be an exhaustive treatment of the opening a la Kotronias, but rather, one that describes the “KID Bologan Style.” (8)

On the whole the repertoire is very similar to that proposed in the 2009 edition. It trends towards the main lines (Panno against the Fianchetto, the Mar del Plata, 6. ..c5 vs the Sämisch) but nearly always included multiple repertoire choices for readers to choose from. Bologan also provides suggestions against the English Opening, White’s double fianchetto, the Torre and the London. His is the only book under current discussion that does so.

Our third and final book comes from Milos Pavlovic and Thinkers Publishing. New Weapons in the King’s Indian (2017) consists mainly of lesser known paths in the KID. Pavlovic analyzes the ..exd4 lines in the Classical and 6. ..Nbd7 in the Sämisch (which backs up into some 6. ..c5 variations). He eschews typical KID lines in the Fianchetto variations, instead arguing for the viability of an old pawn sac in the English Four Knights after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nf3 Bg7 4.g3 c5 5.Bg2 cxd4 6.Nxd4 0-0 7.Nc3 Nc6 8.0-0 d6!?.

Pavlovic’s book is largely raw analysis. There is, the table of contents notwithstanding, no bibliography in the book, and it can sometimes resemble a database dump a bit too much for my taste. The layout is very clear and pages have plenty of white space, but once again a Thinkers Publishing book suffers from mangled English. It is fully readable, to be sure, but the editorial lapses range from the mild to the comical.

One of the best ways to try and compare opening books is to compare their common analyses. There is quite a bit of overlap in some of the main lines between Kotronias and Bologan, and some with Pavlovic. Here we’ll take a look at what they have to say about two currently theoretically important positions.

The Bayonet Attack in the Classical KID remains quite trendy at all levels. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 0–0 6.Be2 e5 7.0–0 Nc6 8.d5 Ne7 9.b4 Black has two main options: 9. ..Nh5 and 9. ..a5.

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Both Bologan and Kotronias analyze 9. ..Nh5, where one of White’s current thematic tries is 10.Re1 f5 11.Ng5 Nf6 12.Bf3 c6. Here 13.Be3 and 13.Bb2 are White’s most common moves, but 13.dxc6!? is a rare move played by Vishy Anand’s long-time second Radoslaw Wojtaszek. After 13. ..bxc6 14.exf5 gxf5 15.b5 White has given up the center, but has some tactical possibilities in exchange. Kotronias devotes a full chapter to this variation, claiming that Black can ‘hold his own’ after 15. ..h6 16.Nh3 d5 17.bxc6!? e4 18.Ba3 d4 and 17.Ba3 e4 18.cxd5 cxd5 19.Nf4 Re8, with analysis running out to move 49!

13.dxc6 does not appear in Bologan’s book, but he does (briefly) discuss the alternative 12. ..h6. This precludes Wojtaszek’s move and forces White back into more traditional lines with 13.Ne6 Bxe6 14.dxe6 c6 as discussed by David Vigorito in his excellent column at ChessPublishing.com.

Bologan also covers 9. ..a5 and 9. ..c6 as alternatives to 9. ..Nh5. His discussion of 9. ..a5 is worth particular attention. After 10.Ba3 (10.bxa5 c5 locks up the queenside) 10. ..axb4 11.Bxb4 Nd7 12.a4 he analyzes the relatively rare 12. ..Kh8!? and shows it to be a very reasonable path for Black.

Another important variation – this time in the Sämisch – comes from the famous game between Peter Svidler and Alexander Grischuk in the 2013 FIDE Candidates Tournament. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.f3 0–0 6.Be3 c5 7.Nge2 Nc6 8.d5 Ne5 9.Ng3 h5 10.Be2 h4 11.Nf1 e6 12.f4 Grischuk set the board aflame with the fantastic piece sacrifice 12. ..Nxc4!? 13.Bxc4 b5 14.Bxb5 exd5 15.e5. All three books include this position as part of their repertoires, although Pavlovic reaches it by means of a slightly different move order (6. ..Nbd7 7.Nge2 c5 8.d5 Ne5, transposing).

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Grischuk continued with 15. ..dxe5, but there is an alternative: 15. ..Bg4. The key variation is 16.exf6 Bxd1 17.fxg7 Kxg7 18.Rxd4. Bologan thinks that this is improves over the Grischuk game: “[i]f White… exchanges queen for minor pieces, he will have to fight against a pawn wedge in the center.” (183) Pavlovic extends Bologan’s analysis with 18. ..d4 19.Rxd4 cxd4 20.Bxd4+ f6 and claims that Black stands better. (51)

Kotronias disagrees. Citing Svetushkin, he thinks that after 21.Ne3 “White had the more pleasant position… Black had a nominal material advantage with a queen and a rook against four minor pieces, but the pieces coordinate beautifully.” (476) I suspect that he might be right here, at least in terms of practical play. There are four over-the-board games with 15. ..Bg4 in my database, and after 16.exf6 White won all of them.

This is, by necessity, a small analytical sampling, but these examples help to illustrate some of the relative strengths and weakness of our authors and their books. Kotronias’ books are astoundingly detailed, scrupulously sourced, and analytically precise. It is hard to think that they could be bettered in accuracy or coverage. At 2300 pages, no one – not even Kasparov – could hope to memorize it all, so I suggest that readers focus on the skeleton of beginning of each chapter and the summaries at their ends. Fill in details as interest, practice and time allow.

Bologan’s book has two main strengths. It is concise, and it offers multiple repertoire choices when Kotronias tends to offer just one. That it covers ‘sidelines’ like the English, London or Torre is also very useful. Bologan’s analysis is generally of a high standard, but readers should pay special critical attention to pages that lack game citations after 2009.

I am less enthusiastic about Pavlovic’s book. I don’t trust his evaluation of 15. ..Bg4 as described above, and as I checked his analysis, both of Svidler-Grischuk and more broadly, I kept finding small problems. I think the book can be useful for those looking for lesser-traveled paths in the KID or for those whose repertoire matches up with his choices, but it’s just not in the same league as Bologan or Kotronias.

Analysis links:

Bayonet 9.b4 Nh5: http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2017/9/4/Game165832500.html

Bayonet 9.b4 a5: http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2017/9/4/Game165904844.html

Svidler-Grischuk: http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2017/9/4/Game165976625.html

Trend Hopping

This review has been printed in the August 2017 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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Edouard, Romain. Chess Calculation Training: Volume 1, Middlegames. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2017. ISBN 9789492510037. PB 250pp.

Kalinin, Alexander. Chess Training for Candidate Masters: Accelerate Your Progress by Thinking for Yourself. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056917159. PB 208pp.

Moskalenko, Viktor. Training with Moska: Practical Chess Exercises – Tactics, Strategy, Endgames. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2017. ISBN 978-9056916763. PB 336pp.

Every year it’s the same.

Someone stumbles upon an unlikely hit – think Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Whatever – and others, desperate to get in on the riches, commission analogous titles. Similar books and movies appear in waves, and publishers try to surf those waves until they peter out, leaving their riders high and dry.

The chess world is not immune from such trend-hopping. Opening books are always in style and in print, but recently (and much to my liking) a spate of titles devoted to training have come to press. We looked at a few earlier this year, and we’ll check out three more in this month’s column.

Both the title and subtitle of Alexander Kalinin’s book – Chess Training for Candidate Masters: Accelerate Your Progress by Thinking for Yourself – are evocative of the book as a whole. Kalinin implores his readers to think for themselves and resist the colonization of their thought by the engines. True mastery, he argues, can be achieved if four training principles are followed.

Players must form “a relationship with chess as an art,” strive for analytical mastery and precision, study the classics, and cultivate interpersonal relationships with teachers and exemplars. This last point is particularly important, as Kalinin’s book is filled with bon mots and other insights from Soviet trainers both famous and forgotten. My favorite comes from IM Oleg Averkin: “Tactics have a greater significance in the endgame than in the middlegame!” (65)

Kalinin is a persuasive writer, and the book is chock full of interesting and little-known illustrative examples. Most players would do well to heed his admonitions and turn off Stockfish most of the time. Still, I do wonder if there’s not a slight luddism in play here.

It is true that there is no small danger in our overreliance on the computer and its inhuman evaluations. But it is false that “we have stopped thinking and analyzing for ourselves.” (11) There are far too many computer-trained GMs and young phenoms for this to be true. If anything, the computer has, when handled judiciously, expanded our thinking about what is possible with 32 pieces on 64 squares.

I’m always happy to receive a new book by Viktor Moskalenko. His work is enthusiastic, inspirational and consistently worth reading. In his newest effort, Training with Moska: Practical Chess Exercises: Tactics, Strategy, Endgames, Moskalenko offers readers a wide range of positions for solving and training purposes. Each of the three main sections described in the subtitle contain multiple subsections with instructional elements and problems to solve.

Training with Moska lacks a substantive table of contents, making the book rather difficult to use. There’s no way to know what’s in each section without looking at each page, the book has no thematic index, and scanning the text for specific topics is difficult due to the cramped layout. This makes focused training very difficult.

It’s also not clear to me that the positions on offer here are practical, as the subtitle claims. Many of them are engrossing, even spectacular, but practical training might require more sedate, everyday moves and problems. I suspect that ultimately Training with Moska is best suited for pleasure reading and not for hardcore training workouts.

Our last book this month, Chess Calculation Training: Volume 1, Middlegames, is a much more austere training manual than Moskalenko’s. It is Romain Edouard’s second effort in this vein, with the first (Chess Manual of Avoidable Mistakes, Part 2: Test Yourself!) being reviewed here this past January.

Chess Calculation Training consists of 496 positions from recent games separated into ten broad sections. Some of the tasks are typical of the genre, where readers must find winning tactical or positional moves. Others, like “Find the missed move!” (chapter 8) or “Evaluate the opportunity!” (chapter 9), are less common.

This is a rather Spartan book, especially when compared with Moskalenko’s. Edouard’s book is a set of difficult problems and sparse solutions, and that’s pretty much it. True, occasional hints are provided, but they are completely optional and appear on pages separate from the problems. You’ll need to work hard to find the answers in Chess Calculation Training, and that seems to be exactly Edouard’s point in writing it.

I’d suggest that readers consider their goals in chess before deciding to buy one of these books. Kalinin is fantastic for someone looking for a broad overview of training techniques, and Edouard is an advanced workbook for the ambitious improver. Moskalenko, I’d argue, is more appropriate for someone looking for interesting examples that might also impart some wisdom. Chess is supposed to be pleasurable, even when we’re trying to improve, and despite the warts, Training with Moska is a pretty enjoyable read.

Bisguier’s Books (and beyond)

This review has been printed in the July 2017 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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With the death of Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier on April 5th of this year, one of the last giants of post-World War II American chess has left us. The bulk of his chess legacy lies in his games and in the tremendous amount of publicity work done on behalf of US Chess over the years. Bisguier played simultaneous exhibitions across the country while in the employ of the Federation, giving players in remote places the chance to challenge a Grandmaster.

Bisguier’s contributions to chess literature are lesser known. He was a contributor to Chess Review, one of Chess Life‘s progenitors, for many years, and even took a turn as its Managing Editor. Towards the end of his life Bisguier also wrote two books: The Art of Bisguier, Volume 1: The Early Years (1945-1960) and The Art of Bisguier, Selected Games 1961-2003. (There is a third book bearing Bisguier’s name – the 1974 American Chess Masters from Morphy to Fischer, co-written with Andy Soltis – but it appears that Soltis did the vast majority of the work.)

Published in 2003, The Art of Bisguier, Volume 1 is an oversized (8.5″ by 11″) volume covering Bisguier’s early chess career. The book, co-written with Newton Berry and self-published, is primarily a games collection organized by year. Each ‘chapter’ leads with a brief account of what was happening in the chess world at large, and each game is prefaced with Bisguier’s thoughts about his opponent. The result is a fascinating, if somewhat idiosyncratic, read.

Some of Bisguier’s opponents, like Albert Pinkus and Alburt Simonson, are sketched in detail in the pre-game notes, while others (generally the more famous ones) receive a more cursory treatment. There is wide variance in these introductions, and this variance extends to the way in which different events are covered in the book.

Only one game from the 1959 US Open, for instance, is given in The Art of Bisguier, Volume 1. This is surprising as (a) Bisguier won the event outright and (b) he famously brought his new bride to Omaha as part of their honeymoon! Bisguier’s round 4 victory against legendary Minnesota master Curt Brasket is not in the book, but it provides a glimpse into his fearsome tactical talents at the time.

Brasket,Curt – Bisguier,Arthur [B43]

US Open Omaha (4), 23.07.1959

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Nc3 b5 6.Bd3 Bb7 7.0–0 b4 8.Nce2 Nf6 9.Ng3 h5 10.e5 h4 11.Ngf5 Nd5 12.Nd6+ Bxd6 13.exd6 Qb6 14.Qg4 Nc6 15.Nf3 0–0–0 16.c4 f5 17.Qg6 Nf6 18.Be3 Qa5 19.a3 h3 20.g3 Ng4 21.axb4 Qxb4 22.Qxg7 Qxd6 23.Rfd1 Rhg8 24.Qc3

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24. ..Nxe3! 25.fxe3 Rxg3+! 26.hxg3 Qxg3+ 27.Kf1 Qxf3+ 28.Ke1 h2 29.Kd2 Qg2+ 30.Be2 d5! Tearing open the center to get to the King! 31.Qc2 Nb4 32.Qc1 dxc4+ 33.Kc3 Qxe2 0–1

Bisguier’s second book, The Art of Bisguier: Selected Games 1961-2003, was published in 2008 by Russell Enterprises. This sequel, also co-written with Newton Berry, is a more polished work than its predecessor, and the introductory sketches seem more expansive here. Structurally, however, the two are very similar. In this later work we witness Bisguier’s transition from tactical dynamo to strategic grinder, and special attention is paid to Bisguier’s favorite openings (2.f4 in the Sicilian, the Berlin Defense in the Ruy Lopez) and his best endings.

Bisguier’s two books received little attention, even among chess literati, and for all of their unevenness, that is a shame. But his written legacy goes far beyond his books, and at the end of the day, Art Bisguier might be one of the most widely read authors in American chess history.

If you are ‘of a certain age,’ you almost certainly saw Bisguier’s “Ten Tips to Winning Chess” in pamphlet form at some point in your playing career. It was available to organizers from US Chess headquarters, where Bisguier worked for two decades as a Grandmaster on Staff and Technical Advisor, and many a young player received a copy at their first tournaments. The document is still available at uschess.org in .html and .pdf formats, and dozens of websites still link to it.

Bisguier’s tips are pithy and well-chosen. We can feel his natural optimism in the text, something familiar to anyone who has played over his games. The tips may seem self-evident to experienced players, but a beginner who follows his advice – ‘have a plan,’ ‘control the center,’ ‘think about the endgame,’ etc. – will certainly benefit from doing so. As a first introduction to the deeper world of chess strategy, Bisguier’s pamphlet is outstanding, and it stands as a fine monument to one of the greatest promoters of American chess.

Doing Jay justice?

This review has been printed in the June 2017 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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Bonin, Jay, and Greg Keener. Active Pieces: Practical Advice from America’s Most Relentless Tournament Player. Newton Highlands: Mongoose, 2017. ISBN 9781936277766. PB 256pp.

Among Caïssa’s many servants, few are as devoted as is Jay Bonin. The International Master has been a fixture on the New York chess scene for over 40 years, and hardly a day goes by that Bonin is not playing at one of the Metro Area’s many tournaments. He has contested an astounding 16,885 rated games (as of 4/2/17, and across all time controls) since US Chess started keeping electronic records in 1991.

I came of age playing chess around New York, and I vividly remember encountering Bonin at one of my first tournaments at the Nassau Chess Club. That a titled player, someone one step away from being a Grandmaster, was right there in the flesh… it was astounding. Somehow I worked up the courage to walk up and ask him if he could recommend a book on bishop endings – how random! – and, looking back, the adult me can recognize the weary smirk with which he answered that gawky, sweaty teen.

It is not hyperbole to say that Jay Bonin is a legend of New York chess. So when I heard that there would be a book about Bonin, I was excited. There are so many great American players (particularly of Bonin’s generation) whose stories are never told, whose best games never make it to the databases. At least one of them would be spared that fate.

Active Pieces: Practical Advice from America’s Most Relentless Tournament Player is an annotated collection of 130 of Bonin’s games. While the stories and ideas are Bonin’s, the words themselves belong to co-author Greg Keener. This is Keener’s second such effort, having co-written The Czech Benoni in Action with another New York stalwart, FM Asa Hoffman.

Much of Bonin’s style seems to derive from the rigors of incessant tournament play. He is primarily a grinder, someone comfortable playing dry, technical positions to the bitter end against weaker opponents. We see this most clearly in chapters 4-7. Chapter 4 consists of games in Bonin’s pet openings, which often lead to quick queen trades and deceptively quiet situations. Chapters 5-6 show us how he handles sterile positions, using small imbalances to maximize winning chances. And Chapter 7 contains multiple examples of his counterpunching skills.

One of the very nice things about Active Pieces is the sparse, stream-of-consciousness nature of some of the annotations. It’s rare that we get something approaching unfiltered access to a strong player’s in-game thoughts, and I think there’s great value in seeing how Bonin goes about conjuring victories from equal positions.

Perhaps that’s why I was so disappointed by the multiple analytical errors I found when playing through the games. I’m not talking about a swing from +0.4 to -0.3 pawns, which would be forgivable. The text glides over major blunders without comment, and there are notes containing deeply flawed evaluations and analysis. Here’s one particularly egregious example.

image

In Bonin-Shchukin (Philadelphia, 2000) White has just played 38.Ne6, and Bonin and Keener write: “Decisive. The f-pawn will also have a say in matters.” (112) Black is indeed lost after 38. ..h5, but 38. ..Rb5+ is drawn. Some might argue that the draw is difficult, that it might be hard to see over-the-board, and I’ll willingly grant both claims. The fact remains that the annotation is fundamentally wrong.

Active Pieces is sloppy in other ways. The proofreading appears to have been lax, as there are incorrect move numbers in notes and inconsistent attribution of place in game headers (100). Bonin-Remlinger took place in Chicago, not New York, in 1992 (108), and Foxwoods is not in New York but in Connecticut (179). I also thought that the frequent repetition of games from chapters 1-8 in chapter 9, a set of 100 tactics to solve from Bonin’s games, deserved at least some kind of explanation.

Active Pieces could have been a fitting tribute to a man who has given much of his life to our game. Instead it feels like a first draft of that book. New York players will love it, but those concerned with accuracy may want to wait for a second and corrected edition.

Playing 1.e4 e5 as Black – Web Extra

This article was originally published as a web extra for US Chess Online. It contains comparative analysis originally done for my May 2016 review in Chess LIfe. I reprint it here, mainly so that readers can have access to the analysis in text format as well as in replayable format via the ChessBase website.

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One of the great difficulties of reviewing chess books is dealing with all of the analysis. The days of Fred Reinfeld and his breezy notes are long gone, and in their place, we get variations analyzed into the ground with the help of our ‘metal friends.’ The results can be mind-numbing. Sometimes I wonder whether today’s authors don’t analyze more than even they think they need to, lest a Stockfish-armed reader loudly find them sloppy.

In this month’s Chess Life column, I reviewed six books and one database dealing with 1.e4 e5 from the Black side of the board. I generated a lot of analysis along the way, but the realities of word counts and page space intervened, and the bits I’d wanted to include were relegated to the cutting room floor.

But there are no word counts on the Internet.

Perhaps it’s appropriate here to make something of an admission. There is no human way for me to play through every variation on every page of modern books, much less subject everything to critical scrutiny with the machine and my limited common sense. This is particularly true in cases like this month, where I try to give readers useful reviews of more than one title. Some strategy is required, where I can balance the requirements of objective criticism with the limits of my time and capabilities.

After some trial and error, I have settled on a standard methodology. The first thing I do when reviewing a book is read through it without a board, trying to get a sense of it on a macro-level. After that initial read, I try to engage the author on a micro-level, going through the text in ChessBase and with an engine. Here two different tasks become important.

First, I try to find points of convergence between books, places where the analysis overlaps. What do different authors recommend? Why? And what does that reveal about their authorial style, the quality of their work, etc.?

I also like to ‘drill deep’ into certain positions to test depth and originality. This usually (in the case of opening books) involves subjecting key opening tabiya to heavy computer-aided scrutiny. It can also include choosing lesser-known side lines to see if the authors bring anything new to the table, or if they are content to trade in the usual solutions.

Both of these elements came to bear on my May review. I spent some time comparing the various responses to the Belgrade Gambit, for example, and I discovered that the main lines of the Breyer can be incredibly complicated to analyze. It was a lot of fun, especially for this sometimes 1…e5 player, but man… there is a ton of theory.

For this web extra I chose two bits of analysis that might be of use to readers while also giving some sense of the books in the May review. The first is an overview of recommendations in the Italian, with a focus on the trendy variations that include an early a2-a4. The second is a more in-depth study of a popular line in the Zaitsev, where we see something of the divergent approaches of Kuzmin and Solozhenkin.

7.a4 Giuoco Piano [C54]
27.02.2017
[Hartmann,John]

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d3

(A) Avrukh (via the 3…Bc5 move order) and Bologan prefer 4…Bc5 5.c3 d6 6.0–0 and here paths diverge:

6…a6 Avrukh (6…0–0 Bologan, “Adams Approach” 7.Bb3 (7.Nbd2 a5) 7…a5!?) 7.a4 0–0 (7…h6; 7…Ba7) 8.Bg5 h6 9.Bh4 g5 and:

a) 10.Nxg5 “not too dangerous for Black” 10…hxg5 11.Bxg5 Kg7 12.Qf3 Rh8 13.Nd2 Kg6 is from Caruana,F (2804)-Nakamura,H (2787) Paris 2016 (0-1 in 32 moves). Avrukh gives the improvement 14.Be3 Kg7 15.Bg5 Kg6 and Black “has at least a draw.”

b) 10.Bg3 Ba7 11.Nbd2 (11.Na3 Bg4 12.Nc2 d5!?) 11…Kg7 12.Re1 Nh7 with kingside expansion.

(B) Bologan, Lokander, and Ntirlis recommend 4…Be7 5.0–0 0–0 6.Re1

Other White options:

a) 6.c3 allows 6…d5!? (Bologan) but the simplest repertoire choice is 6…d6 (Ntirlis)
b) 6.Bb3 d6 (6…d5 Bologan) 7.c3 Na5!? (Ntirlis) 8.Bc2 c5
c) 6.a4 d5! Ntirlis, Bologan

6…d6 7.a4 In this position, Bologan, Lokander and Ntirlis recommend different moves for Black:

image

Bologan: 7…Be6 “Modern Line” 8.Nbd2

a) 8.a5 b6!? 9.Bxe6 fxe6 10.d4 (10.a6 Nd4) 10…exd4 11.Nxd4 Nxd4 12.Qxd4 d5!
b) 8.Nc3 Nd4 9.h3 Nxf3+ 10.Qxf3 c6=
c) 8.c3 Qd7 9.a5 b6?!
d) 8.Bxe6 fxe6 9.c3 Qd7 10.Nbd2 Nh5 11.Nc4 Qe8 wti …Qg6

8…Qd7 9.c3 (9.Nf1 Rfe8 10.Ng3 d5 11.Bb5 (11.exd5 Bxd5) 11…dxe4 12.dxe4 (12.Nxe5 Qd6) 12…Qxd1 followed by …Red8) 9…Rfe8 (9…a6) 10.a5 (10.Bxe6 Qxe6 wti ..d5; 10.b4 a6 11.Bb2 Bf8) 10…a6 11.Bb3 (11.Qb3 Rab8 12.Nf1 Bxc4 13.Qxc4 Red8=) 11…Bxb3 12.Qxb3 d5

Lokander: 7…Kh8!? 8.Nc3

a) 8.h3 h6! (8…Ng8 9.Nc3 f5 10.Nd5 Bf6 11.b4 +=)
b) 8.c3 Ng8 9.d4 f5 10.dxe5 (10.exf5 d5; 10.d5 Nb8) 10…fxe4 11.Rxe4 Rxf3! 12.gxf3 Nxe5 13.Rxe5 dxe5 14.Qxd8 Bxd8 15.Nd2 Nf6 16.Ne4 Nxe4 17.fxe4 Bg4 18.Kg2 Bh4 19.f3 Bh5 20.Be3 Rd8 21.b4 h6 ½–½ (21) Fedorchuk,S (2635)-Giri,A (2722) Germany 2012

8…Bg4! 9.h3 Bh5 10.Be3

10.g4? Nxg4! 11.hxg4 Bxg4 12.d4 (12.Be3 f5!) 12…Nxd4 13.Be2 Nxe2+ 14.Qxe2 f5 15.Qe3 f4 16.Qd3 Rf6 17.Kf1 Rh6–+ 0–1 (32) Oparin,G (2343)-Khruschiov,A (2419) Moscow 2010

10…Nd4 [10…Nb4 11.Bb3 a5] 11.Bxd4 exd4 12.Nb5 c5 13.c3 dxc3 14.Nxc3 Bxf3 15.Qxf3 Nd7=

Ntirlis: 7…Na5 8.Ba2 c5 9.Na3! ‘critical plan’ (Ntirlis)

a) 9.Bg5!? Nc6 10.Bxf6 Bxf6 11.Nc3 Nb4!
b) 9.Nc3 Nc6 10.Nd5 Nxd5 11.Bxd5 Be6 12.c3 Qd7 13.Be3 Bf6!? Ntirlis via Marin

9…Nc6 10.c3 h6 (10…Be6 was Lokander’s rejected line, i.e. 11.Bxe6 fxe6 12.Nc4) 11.Bd2 (Saric, Chess24) 11…a6!

Zaitsev 12.a3 h6 13.Bc2 (edited) [C93]
27.02.2017
[Hartmann,John]

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 11.Nbd2 Bf8 12.a3 Very popular recently.

Other options: 12.a4 (Kasparov’s move, deeply analyzed today); 12.d5 (Khalifman’s recommendation); and 12.Bc2.

12…h6 The main line, analyzed by Solozhenkin in ch 22 and Kuzmin in ch 5–7.

12…Qd7 is very rare and the subject of chapter 8 of Kuzmin’s book. After 13.Bc2 Kuzmin analyzes 13…d5!?, a novelty inspired by Tal-Gligoric (Moscow, 1967).

13.Bc2 (K, ch 5)

Less often played are 13.Ba2 (K, ch 6) and 13.d5 (K, ch 7).

13…Nb8

13…d5!? (S p175) 14.dxe5 Nxe5 15.Nxe5 Rxe5 16.Nf3 Re8 17.e5 Ne4 18.Bf4 c5 19.a4 f5 20.Qe2 b4 1–0 (40) Oparin,G (2563)-Morozevich,A (2692) Moscow 2015 (20…Qd7!?; 20…Qb6!?)

14.b4

14.b3 is another huge line. See K p.90 and S p.175

14…Nbd7 15.Bb2

Other ideas for White include:

15.d5?! c6 16.c4 Nb6 17.dxc6 Bxc6 =+ S
15.a4 Nb6 16.a5 Nbd7 17.Bb2 exd4!? (17…Rb8) 18.cxd4 c5 with counterplay K

This is the key tabiya. No less than four moves are analyzed by Kuzmin and Solozhenkin. 15…g6 is Black’s most popular try, but Solozhenkin dismisses it, saying that Black will “need to defend several possible positions… all of them are much easier to play with White.” (p176)

image

Variation #1: 15…c5 K p97: “most critical course;” also briefly discussed by S. 16.bxc5

After 16.d5 play can follow:

a) 16…c4 17.a4 Nh5 18.Bc1! +=/= (18.Nf1 f5!)
b) 16…a5!? 17.bxa5 (17.Nb3 a4 18.Na5 Rxa5 19.bxa5 c4 with counterplay) 17…Qxa5 18.a4 with initiative Reb8
c) 16…Qc7 17.Nb3 Rac8! 18.Nfd2 Nb6 19.Na5 Ba8 20.Rc1 c4 with counterplay ½–½ (46) Montero Gabarro,J-Rosa Ramirez,V (2301) ICCF email 2008

16…exd4 17.cxd4

a) 17.cxd6 dxc3 18.Bxc3 Bxd6 19.e5 Nd5 20.Bb2 Bc7 =/=+
b) 17.c6 dxc3 18.cxb7 cxd2 19.Qxd2 Rb8 20.Rad1 Qc7! White has sufficient comp but not more (20…Rxb7?! 21.e5!)

17…dxc5 18.d5 (18.Bb1 Qb6 19.e5 Nd5 20.Ne4 ½–½ (20) Karpov,A (2690)-Smejkal,J (2535) Moscow 1981) 18…c4 19.Bc3

a) 19.Nd4 Qa5!? (19…Qc7 20.Bc3 transposition) 20.Re3 Bc5
b) 19.Bd4 Nh5!? 20.Nf1 Nc5 unclear/=

19…Qc7 (19…Bc5!? 20.a4= (20.Nd4? Qb6 –/+; 20.Rb1=; 20.Nf1 a5 21.Bd4 Qb6 with initiative ) 20.Nd4 g6 (20…Ne5 21.Nf5 g6 (21…Bc8) ) 21.N2f3 Bg7 1–0 (34) Lastin,A (2616)-Kasimdzhanov,R (2685) Plovdiv 2010.

Variation #2: 15…a5 K p99 16.Bd3!

a) 16.dxe5 dxe5 (16…Nxe5 is simpler) 17.Qe2 c6 18.Nb3 axb4 19.cxb4 Qb6 1–0 (50) Zhigalko,S (2678)-Saric,I (2671) Tromsoe 2014
b) 16.Rb1 c6 17.Nb3 axb4 18.cxb4 exd4 19.Nfxd4 c5!= ½–½ (48) Palac,M (2581)-Kuljasevic,D (2558) Opatija 2015

16…c6 17.Nb3

a) 17.Qc2 Rc8!? 18.Nb3 (18.Rac1 axb4 19.cxb4 (19.axb4 Qc7) 19…c5! with counterplay) 18…axb4 19.axb4 exd4 20.cxd4 c5! unclear 0–1 (34) Baron,T (2465)-Kuljasevic,D (2564) Skopje 2013
b) 17.Qb1!? axb4 18.cxb4 Qb6 (better is 18…exd4 19.Nxd4 Qb6=) 19.Bc3 Nh5 (19…Rad8?! 20.a4! +=(20.Qb2 ½–½ (31) Leitao,R (2571)-Vescovi,G (2590) Sao Paulo 2002))
c) 17.Rc1!? axb4 18.cxb4 exd4 19.Nxd4 Qb6

17…axb4 18.cxb4 exd4 19.Nfxd4 c5 20.bxc5 dxc5 21.Nxb5 Nxe4= 0–1 (32) Hjartarson,J (2615)-Karpov,A (2750) Seattle 1989

Variation #3: 15…c6!? K p101 16.Rc1

a) 16.Nb3 Rc8 17.Na5 Ba8=;
b) 16.c4 exd4 17.Nxd4 c5 18.bxc5 Nxc5„ ½–½ (55) Timofeev,A (2661)-Jakovenko,D (2627) Saint Vincent 2005
c) 16.Bd3 c5!
d) 16.Qb1 Nb6= (16…c5 17.Nb3)

16…a5!? (16…Rc8 17.Bb1² ½–½ (89) Ponomariov,R (2718)-Ivanchuk,V (2781) Moscow 2008) 17.Bd3!? transposes to 15…a5 (17.c4 axb4 18.axb4 bxc4 19.Nxc4 exd4 20.Nxd4 d5 21.Na5 Qb6=; 17.Bb1 Nb6) 17…axb4 18.cxb4 exd4 19.Nxd4 Qb6

Variation #4: 15…Nb6 Solozhenkin p176 16.dxe5 White has many choices here:

a) 16.a4 exd4 17.cxd4 bxa4=
b) 16.Rb1 Nfd7= (16…Rc8 1–0 (81) Tan,M (2400)-Zult,D (2241) Amsterdam 2011)
c) 16.Re3 Rc8 17.Qb1 Nfd7 18.Re1 Qf6 19.Qa2 d5 20.Rad1 Bd6=
d) 16.Qb1 Nh5 17.Re3 (17.g3 Qd7 18.Kg2 a5„) 17…Nf4 18.Qf1 exd4 19.cxd4 d5 20.e5 Nc4 with counterplay
e) 16.c4 exd4 17.cxb5 axb5 18.Nxd4 Na4 19.Bxa4 bxa4 20.Qc2 (20.Qf3 c5 21.Nf5 Re6 unclear) 20…c5 21.bxc5 dxc5 22.Nf5 Nh5!? 23.Rad1 Qg5 24.Nf3 Qf4= 0–1 (34) Petrov,Y (2309)-Schulz,G (2411) ICCF email 2012
f) 16.Rc1 Nfd7 17.c4

f1) 17.d5 c6 18.dxc6 Bxc6 19.Bb3 a5 20.c4 axb4 21.axb4 Nf6=;
f2) 17.Qe2 exd4 18.cxd4 c5 19.dxc5 dxc5 20.e5 (20.bxc5 Nxc5 21.e5 Rc8 22.Red1 Qe7    23.Bc3 Nd5 =+ 0–1 (39) Krebs,J (2097)-Schulz,G (2127) GER email 2010) 20…c4 21.Be4 Qc7 22.Bxb7 Qxb7=

17…bxc4 18.Bb1 exd4 (18…a5 ½–½ (30) Romanishin,O (2585)-Zhidkov,V (2460) Simferopol 1983) 19.Bxd4 a5 20.Nxc4 Nxc4 21.Rxc4 axb4=

16…dxe5 17.c4 c5!?

17…bxc4 18.Nxe5 c5 19.Ndxc4!? (19.Bc3 cxb4 20.axb4 ½–½ (43) Yagupov,I (2450)-Zaitsev,I (2447) Orel 1999 20…Qc7 with counterplay) 19…Nxc4 20.Nxc4 cxb4 21.e5 Rc8 22.exf6 (22.Bd3 Nh5 23.Bf1 Nf4 24.Qg4 Nxg2! 25.Red1 Qh4 unclear) 22…Rxc4 unclear

18.cxb5

18.bxc5 Nbd7!? 19.cxb5 axb5 20.Qe2 Bxc5 21.Nb3 (21.Qxb5? Ba6 22.Qb3 Rb8 23.Qa2 Qb6 –/+) 21…Bf8!? (21…Qb6 ½–½ (23) Matsenko,S (2461)-Nijboer,F (2582) Hoogeveen 2010) 22.Qxb5 Ba6 23.Qa5 Qb8 with compensation

18…cxb4!?

18…axb5 19.Nxe5 Nfd7 with compensation (19…c4 with compensation)

19.bxa6 Bxa6 20.Nxe5

20.axb4 Bxb4 21.Bb3 Qd6!?

20…bxa3 21.Nxf7!? axb2! 22.Nxd8 bxa1Q 23.Qxa1 Rexd8 S: All three outcomes are possible 24.Qa5 Nfd7 25.e5 Bd3! 26.Qc3 Nc5 27.Bxd3 Nxd3 28.Re3= ½–½ (28) González Pereira,F (2453)-Oreopoulos,K (2450) ICCF 2013.

Playing 1.e4 e5 with Black

This review has been printed in the May 2017 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.

Also note that a companion piece will appear at uschess.org with some of the analysis that had to be cut from this review for space reasons. I will link to it when it goes live.

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Avrukh, Boris. Modern Repertoire against the Italian Game. Available from www.modern-chess.com as a downloadable database.

Bologan, Victor. Bologan’s Black Weapons in the Open Games. Alkmaar: New In Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-9056915438. PB 528pp.

Bologan, Victor. Bologan’s Ruy Lopez for Black. Alkmaar: New in Chess: 2016. ISBN: 978-9056916077. PB 528pp.

Lokander, Martin. Opening Repertoire: The Open Games with Black. London: Everyman Chess: 2016. ISBN: 978-1781941942. PB 384pp.

Ntirlis, Nikolaos. Playing 1. e4 e5: A Classical Repertoire. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2016. ISBN: 978-1784830144. PB 384pp.

Kuzmin, Alexey. The Zaitsev System: Fresh Ideas and New Weapons for Black in the Ruy Lopez. Alkmaar: New In Chess, 2017. ISBN: 978-9056916848. PB 256pp.

Solozhenkin, Evgeniy. The Spanish Main Road. Sofia: Chess Stars, 2016. ISBN: 978-6197188073. PB 276pp.

What is the best response to 1.e4?

The answer to that question might depend on (a) your rating and (b) the relative strength of the tournament you’re playing in.

The Sicilian Defense is often said to be Black’s most popular response to 1.e4, and a survey of the 6.8 million games in MegaBase reveals that this is correct. In recent years, however, 1..e5 seems to have taken pride of place at elite levels. Double e-pawn openings were nearly ubiquitous at the recent World Championship, and a quick study of eight recent leading tournaments revealed a correlation between average participant rating and frequency of 1.e4 e5 on the board.

1.e4 e5 data May 2017

Super-GMs appear to prefer solidity with the Black pieces when playing their peers. The Spanish fits this bill rather nicely. Most variations – the Berlin, Marshall, and Breyer / Chigorin / Zaitsev in particular – are in good theoretical shape at the moment, and the key tabiyas retain enough complexity to allow Black to gingerly play for three results.

It’s perhaps for this reason that White players have increasingly turned to sidelines after 1..e5. Kasparov was one of the pioneers of this trend, reviving the ancient Scotch Game after bashing his head against Karpov’s Zaitsev variation in 1990, and today the hoary Italian Game is front and center in Grandmaster practice.

Assuming you want to take up 1..e5, where should you start? There have been a number of 1.e4 e5 books published in recent years, and this month we’ll take a look at six of them. We’ll also discuss – in a first for this column – a downloadable database product. With so much to cover, the reviews will be necessarily slight, but I’ll do my best to guide readers towards appropriate material. We begin with the titles (and databases) that cover the Open Games.

Martin Lokander is a Swedish FIDE Master, and Opening Repertoire: the Open Games with Black is his first book. Lokander describes the lines in his book as “aggressive, but most importantly, they are strong and theoretically sound.” (12) On the whole, this seems accurate to me. This is a well-researched and practical repertoire guide.

Lokander’s proposed repertoire is built around the Two Knights (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6) as opposed to the Italian (3…Bc5), and while he does not shy away from sharp gambit lines – he accepts the King’s Gambit and the Danish, for example – he also throws in some offbeat sidelines like 5.e5 Ng4!? in the Scotch Gambit. The book uses complete games to carry the analysis, and each chapter begins with a theoretical overview. Ebook fans should be aware that it is available from the Everyman website in multiple formats.

Boris Avrukh’s newest effort – Modern Repertoire against the Italian Game, from modern-chess.com – is to my knowledge his first downloadable product. Avrukh’s repertoire deals exclusively with positions after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5, with the exception of the Evans Gambit and Four Knights. The .pgn file contains ten annotated games and ten tests for readers to solve. Perennial favorites like the Moeller and Max Lange are covered, but exactly half of the file is devoted to the popular ‘Slow Italian.’

While Avrukh is justifiably famed as a top-level theoretician, I was surprised at how well he managed to explain positional ideas and move order nuances for class players. The analysis is current and concise, and Avrukh is generous with new ideas. But when you consider that this database, consisting of roughly 55,000 characters, costs €19.90 while his newest 400 page book from Quality Chess costs five euros more, some readers might wonder if they’re really getting their money’s worth here. The omission of the Evans and Four Knights does not help in that regard.

Playing 1.e4 e5: A Classical Repertoire is Nikolaos Ntirlis’ third book with Quality Chess, and the first written without his co-author Jacob Aagaard. While Ntirlis is billed as an “opening expert and advisor to numerous GMs” on the back cover, his playing credentials mainly come from his correspondence games. Ntirlis is currently rated 2302 ICCF and trending upward.

Modern opening analysis and successful correspondence play are both engine-intensive enterprises, and in the past, I have thought that Ntirlis’ work has been overly influenced by the computer. More specifically, I was underwhelmed by his last book, Playing the French, because some of the repertoire choices – the Tarrasch line with 12.Qe2 h6 in particular – were, while theoretically sound, very difficult to play. There is a tremendous difference between defending in correspondence games, where you can use the computer to snuff out mistakes, and trying to survive over-the-board when you’re not a GM. I’m not sure Ntirlis has always been attentive to that fact.

Playing 1.e4 e5: A Classical Repertoire is, on first glance, less overtly computer driven than Ntirlis’ previous books. The proposed lines, drawn from the Two Knights complex and Breyer, are certainly sharp and principled, but they are not outlandishly so. Ntirlis has read everything relevant, cites most of it, and distills the typical plans brilliantly. Still, the presence of the engine looms large in the analysis, and correspondence games are mentioned everywhere. This is a very advanced book, but for those looking for a one-stop solution to 1.e4, it might be just what the doctor ordered.

Victor Bologan has also published a complete repertoire against 1.e4; or, more precisely, he has published two (or more) of them! His goal in Bologan’s Black Weapons in the Open Games and Bologan’s Ruy Lopez for Black is to provide readers two divergent choices: “One is based on common-sense moves and on trying to avoid the gambits. The priority here is to equalize… The second approach is quite the opposite… [it involves] detailed analyses [sic] of the acceptance of the sacrificed material in those gambits that I consider dubious.” (Black Weapons, 12)

Clocking in at well over 1000 pages, these two books cover tremendous ground. Both the Two Knights and Italian are treated extensively, and almost every White try is answered with two and sometimes three repertoire choices. The Spanish is answered with the Breyer and Marshall, and Bologan helpfully includes 132 exercises at the end of Bologan’s Ruy Lopez for Black drawn from Breyer and Marshall games.

This inclusion of illustrative exercises is but one of the textual novelties in Bologan’s books. Most were not, to my mind, as successful. I liked the fact that the diagrams are shown from Black’s perspective – these are Black repertoire books after all! – but does every variation need a cutesy name? Does every element in the “Arsenal of Strategic Themes and Ideas?” What good is it for me to have to remember what the ‘Zuke-Strike’ or ‘Yates-Break’ are?

The text itself feels cluttered, although admittedly less so in Bologan’s Ruy Lopez for Black. Some move numbers are squared, while others are circled. There are asterisks and endnotes for game citations, while transpositions and move orders are marked with squiggly arrows. That the layout is so poor is especially unfortunate given the quality of the analysis. I think there is great value in these books, having personally put his discussion of the 8.Qf3 Two Knights to good use, but the reading experience left me cold.

The Zaitsev is among the most storied of Spanish variations, but in recent years, it has been somewhat neglected at the top levels. With recent theoretical innovations has come renewed interest and two new titles in print: Alexey Kuzman’s The Zaitsev System: Fresh Ideas and Weapons for Black in the Ruy Lopez, and Evgeniy Solozhenkin’s The Spanish Main Road. We conclude this month’s column with a jaunt through both.

Kuzman’s book focuses on the Zaitsev tabiya beginning on the ninth move. That both Caruana and Svidler laud it in their introductions is fully indicative of its quality. The analysis is fresh and full of new ideas, many of which are drawn from the author’s work as second for Karpov and then Morozevich, and I’d go so far as to say that this is the most original and least engine-driven of the books discussed this month.

Despite its title, The Spanish Main Road offers its readers a complete Spanish repertoire. Solozhekhin’s analysis is comprehensive if terse, drawing heavily from correspondence games, and the book’s compact structure and layout are typical of titles from Chess Stars. We get more of a consensus overview of the Zaitsev here, I think, and the book would be quite suitable for someone looking to get a current summary of accepted theory.

Both books include coverage of the trendy Saratov / Svidler / Kislik variation, discussed in these pages in April 2016. While the variation can appear on the board through two key move orders – 9.h3 Bb7 10.d4 Nd7 11.Nbd2 exd4 12.cxd4 Bf6 13.Nf1 Na5 14.Bc2 Re8 and 10..Re8 11.Nbd2 exd4 12.cxd4 Nd7 13.Nf1 Na5 14.Bc2 Bf6 – the first is pertinent for Zaitsev players as it gives them a way out of the repetition after 10..Re8 11.Ng5 Rf8 12.Nf3. Kuzmin (who discusses each move order as part of his thorough analysis) gives the rare 15.Rb1 c5 16.d5 Nc4 17.N3h2! as White’s best try, while Solozhenkin is content to summarize White’s move 15 alternatives.

While I suspect that repertoire fit might determine which book / database you end up buying, three of the books discussed here can be recommended above the others. Lokander’s Open Games repertoire is perhaps the best book among those reviewed this month. Ntirlis’ book provides a complete, high-level repertoire, but it might be too theoretically demanding for some. Kuzmin’s presentation of the Zaitsev is erudite, engaging and very original. Without taking away from any of the other products discussed this month, those three are certainly ‘first among equals.’