Category Archives: Openings

Gusti’s Nimzo

This review has been printed in the March 2017 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Gustafsson, Jan. A repertoire against 1.d4. Part 3: Nimzo-Indian Defense. Available at Chess24.com as part of the Premium Membership or a la carte for $12.99.

If market competition leads to improved choices for consumers, chess players are reaping the rewards of the ongoing online chess arms race. Playing sites are rushing to add exclusive content like instructional videos, live event commentaries, and (of course) endless sessions of Banter Blitz.

Chess24 is one of the newest kids on the block, and since being founded in 2014, it has come to challenge for a leadership position in the world of online chess. A driving forces behind this ascent is the German Grandmaster Jan Gustafsson, who plays the dual role of onscreen talent and website co-founder.

Widely respected for his theoretical knowledge – Magnus Carlsen employed him as a second for the recent World Championship Match – Gustafsson appears to have largely set aside his playing career to focus on teaching and Chess24. He provides some of the best live commentaries of major events around, particularly when paired with Peter Svidler, and his blitz sessions against site subscribers are entertaining and instructive.

This month we take a look at one of Gustafsson’s new set of videos for Chess24 on the Nimzo-Indian (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4). “A repertoire against 1.d4. Part 3: Nimzo-Indian Defense” is part of a larger series against 1.d4, following up efforts on the Catalan (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3) and the Vienna (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 dxc4). With promised videos on 1.d4 sidelines like the London or Trompowsky forthcoming, Chess24 subscribers should soon have access to a complete 1.d4 repertoire for Black.

Video cannot compete with the written word when it comes to density of information transfer, but it makes up for that shortcoming with easy accessibility. The Nimzo series consists of 13 videos that, taken together, add up to just over four hours and 12 minutes of content. While Gustafsson can only sketch his recommended lines in that time, he does an admirable job of presenting the essentials.

The repertoire offered in this series is fairly technical, something typical of most of Gustafsson’s opening videos. This is most clear in his discussion of two of White’s most important tries in the Nimzo. Against 4.Qc2, Gustafsson recommends that we play 4…0-0 and head towards lines (following recent Kramnik games) where we aim for …b6 and …Ba6, exchanging the light squared bishops.

4.e3 is also met with 4…0-0, but here paths diverge. Gustafsson presents the new and trendy 5…c6 against the Reshevsky Variation (5.Nge2), and he prefers to meet both 5.Bd3 c5 6.Nge2 and 6.Nf3 with lines that saddle White with an Isolated Queen’s Pawn. The games of Anatoly Karpov are our guide here, and one of the longest videos in this series – second only to the coverage of 4.f3, in fact – is devoted to the so-called ‘Karpov Variation’ after 4.e3 0-0 5.Bd3 c5 6.Nf3 d5 7.0-0 dxc4 8.Bxc4 cxd4 9.exd4 b6.

Other recommendations include meeting the aforementioned 4.f3 with 4…c5 5.d5 b5 6.e4 0-0. The Samisch is handled in classical fashion with 4.a3 Bxc3 5.bxc3 c5 6.e3 Nc6 and Black plays against the doubled c-pawns. Both 4.g3 and 4.Nf3 are met with 4…0-0, and there is also sufficient (if sometimes slight) of sidelines like 4.Bg5, 4.Bd2 and 4.Qb3.

Some of Gustafsson’s choices are deeply theoretical, and because he is limited in what he can say in a video of reasonable length, some lines require further study. The coverage of the Karpov Variation feels light to me given its strategic complexity, and some of the variations – most notably 4.Qc2 0-0 5.e4 d5!? 6.e5 Ne4 – are very sharp and forcing.

Here is where a good accompanying eBook would be of great value. Some Chess24 video series feature such eBooks, and some (like Peter Svidler’s on the Grunfeld) are tremendously useful. Unfortunately the eBook for this series is rather wanting. There is some new analysis to be found within, particularly in the Reshevsky Variation, but the expansiveness varies and the analysis curiously lacks terminal evaluations.

I don’t think that a Grandmaster would use Gustafsson’s videos as the basis for an opening repertoire, but then, I don’t think that Gustafsson made these videos for Grandmasters. His target audience seems to be the ambitious amateur player, one who doesn’t mind theory and who tends to prefer technical positions over outright slugfests. The variations presented in “A repertoire against 1.d4. Part 3: Nimzo-Indian Defense” are solid and reliable, and with a bit of home study, they could form an integral part of a player’s repertoire.

London Calling

This review has been printed in the November 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Romero Holmes, Alfonso, and Oscar de Prado. The Agile London System: A Solid but Dynamic Opening Choice for White. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2016. ISBN 978-9056916893. PB 336pp. List $29.95.

Sedlak, Nikola. Winning with the Modern London System: A Complete Opening Repertoire for White after 1.d4 d5. Niepolomice: Chess Evolution, 2016. ISBN 978-8394429096. PB 224pp. List $27.95.

The opening theory arms race never ends. It used to be that a novelty played one day could be used for weeks; now, with the transmission of games via the Internet, today’s hot new move is almost instantly in tomorrow’s databases. So increasingly we find even super-GMs ‘opting-out,’ preferring to play less studied variations instead.

Nowhere do we see this phenomenon more clearly than with the explosion of interest in the London System. Once considered suitable only for amateurs with little time to study, today the London is being played at the highest levels, with Carlsen, Kramnik, and Kamsky (among many others) championing its cause.

That the world’s elite are playing the London has not escaped the notice of chess publishers. No less than three books and one DVD devoted to the London have appeared in recent months, leading one sly wag at chesspub.com to win the Internet when he proclaimed:

…I can no longer keep up with the deluge of dense theoretical material published on the London System on a weekly or monthly basis. … I have decided to cut my theoretical workload by switching to the Ruy Lopez.

This month we look at two of these new London titles: The Agile London: A Solid but Dynamic Chess Opening Choice for White by GM Alfonso Romero Holmes and Oscar de Prado, and GM Nikola Sedlak’s Winning with the Modern London System: A Complete Opening Repertoire for White against 1.d4 d5.

Some might wonder how the stodgy old London could rightly be described as agile or modern. The answer lies in the move order. Following pioneering work by Eric Prié at ChessPublishing.com and Johnson and Kovačević in Winning with the London System, today’s Londoneers play 2.Bf4 first, keeping Ng1-f3 in reserve. This allows them to avoid a few problematic lines, but it does not solve the problem of what to do against the King’s Indian, a traditional bugbear for London players.

Sedlak so fears the King’s Indian that, in his Preface, he explains he can only recommend the London after 1.d4 d5. This seems slightly overwrought to me. The standard London setup is no worse against the King’s Indian than other variations, and changing plans with an early Nc3 could transpose to the Barry Attack or the Pirc. Both options are covered in The Agile London, along with heterodox lines like the Jobava and Pereyra Attacks.

Here we see one of the main differences between the two books. The Agile London is encyclopedic in scope, offering readers a complete London-style repertoire, and often with multiple options. It consists of 71 densely annotated games leavened with both game and chapter summaries, making the intimidating-looking analysis slightly less frightful. 60 tactical and strategic puzzles are also included.

Winning with the Modern London System is a breezier, more personal book. Sedlak plays the London regularly and advocates for it here, using many of his own games along the way. Each chapter begins with a summary of repertoire choices, and the analysis is presented through complete games that are followed by ‘lessons to be learned.’

While I think both books good and useful, I suspect that different players might gravitate towards one or the other. Romero Holmes and de Prado have written an objective book that maps out numerous paths forward for the Londoneer. Sedlak’s book is an optimistic call to arms, quite suitable for new London players.

It might be argued that the only drawback to Sedlak’s book is his optimism. Sometimes he sees advantages for White where none exist. Take, for instance, one of the current main lines of the London – and one recommended by Boris Avrukh in Grandmaster Repertoire 11: Beating 1.d4 Sidelines.

[Note that an extended version of this analysis is available in replayable format.] 

After 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.c3 c5 5.Nd2 Nc6 6.Ngf3 Bd6 7.Bg3 0–0 8.Bd3 b6 (the key tabiya) 9.Ne5 Bb7 10.f4 Ne7 11.Qb1

Sedlak says this is White’s only chance for an advantage, but there are options. Most notably, White can play 11.Qf3 Nf5 12.Bf2 Be7 when Romero Holmes improves on Sedlak’s 13.g4 with 13.0–0!? Nd6 14.dxc5N (Avrukh only gives 14.Rad1) 14…bxc5 15.Qh3 Qc7 and the position is equal.

11…g6 12.Bf2 cxd4

12…Nf5!? looks reasonable, and Romero Holmes says 12…a5 13.0–0 Ba6 is equal, while Sedlak prefers White.

13.exd4 Nh5 14.g3 f6 15.Nef3

Following Grischuk-Wang Hao, Beijing, 2014. This position is evaluated as equal in The Agile London; Sedlak gives the moves but no evaluation. Either way, it’s hard to see how 11.Qb1 leads to an advantage.

Rage, rage…

Sadler, Matthew, and Natasha Regan. Chess for Life. London: Gambit Publications, 2016. ISBN 978-1910093832. PB 224pp. List $24.95, currently $18.63 at Amazon.

When a non-chess player sees a 10 year old playing an adult they feel sympathy for the child. When a chess player sees the same thing he feels sympathy for the adult.

– Brian Karen

Aging is, if we’re lucky, an inevitable element of human existence. On the whole we trade rapidity of thought for wisdom, but the hard fact of aging for chess players is that the trade is never equal. While we can play chess until we the day we die, the competitive nature of the game means that after a certain age, our results and ratings will begin to slip.

This is particularly true in the age of the machines. The concrete nature of modern chess practice tilts the playing field towards youth and their silicon-sharpened calculative abilities. Adult players could work harder to keep up, try to hone our dwindling skills as well as we can, but with jobs and children and all those responsibilities, this is an arms race that we cannot hope to win.

What’s a rapidly-approaching-middle-age guy to do? (Remember – research is me-search, folks.)

The subtitle of Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan’s Chess for Life is “understanding how chess skills develop and change with the passage of time.” It is also fairly illustrative of the book as a whole. In a series of interviews with, and case studies of, ‘older’ chess players, Sadler and Regan have written a thought-provoking and useful book for players of all ages. ‘Mature’ players will find it particularly helpful, however, as much of the material focuses on specific challenges faced by aging competitors.

Sadler and Regan are listed as co-authors of Chess for Life, but the preface makes clear that the division of labor was not equal. Sadler is responsible for the chess content and analytical work, while Regan crunched some of the data and worked over the prose. Both co-authors were involved in the ten interviews published in the book. You can see a table of contents, and therefore a list of interviewees, in this sample provided by Gambit.

The interviews are generally well done, and I can recommend most of them, excepting those with Judit Polgar, Ingrid Lauterbach and Sergei Tiviakov. These interviews are too cursory to do anything but scratch the surface of questions raised, although Tiviakov’s is partially redeemed by the case study that follows it.

Indeed, it is in the case studies, and in the manner in certain case studies augment the interviews, that this book shines. Sadler is a superlative chess writer – his book on the Queen’s Gambit is still among the finest available on the opening – and his analytical powers are on full display in Chess for Life. The study of Pia Cramling’s openings, for example, is a clear, concise dissection of how one builds a 1.d4 repertoire and how one tweaks it over time. The analysis of Tiviakov’s 3…Qd6 Scandinavian is painstakingly thorough. The discussion of Capablanca’s games – sadly the third World Champion could not be conjured for an interview – is as inspirational for us as Capablanca’s games were for Sadler.

The real star of Chess for Life is Keith Arkell; or, better put, Arkell as seen through the lens of Matthew Sadler. The interview is admittedly slight, but the two case studies that follow are outstanding. Sadler sifts through hundreds of Arkell’s games and teases out two key themes: his mastery of the Carlsbad Structure and his love of rook and pawn endings. In both cases Sadler does a superlative job of distilling the fundamentals of Arkell’s play and rendering them comprehensible for his non-GM readers.

If Chess for Life lacks anything, it is a concrete program for training or improvement by mature players. Most of the interviews are inspirational in nature, and while some of the case studies illustrate the building of opening repertoires, there are only two places in the book that we get anything resembling training tips or a list of best practices.

The first of these is in the interview with Terry Chapman, an amateur who took up chess with vigor in his retirement. Chapman is candid about the difficulties he faces as an older player – the errors in calculation, the blunders, etc. – and forthcoming with the training techniques he has developed to blunt them. Sadler and Regan compare Chapman’s account of his thought processes with that of Speelman, and I wish this aside had been a bit longer.

The second of these is the five page Conclusion that summarizes the author’s findings. The recapitulation of training strategies and tips on opening is useful, if brief. Sadler’s advice to play against engines on a mobile phone, however, left me cold. It might be good practice for a GM, but it would do nothing but demoralize an amateur player.

There are few books written specifically for the mature chess player, and even fewer that focus on the competitive challenges we face as we age. Chess for Life is a wonderful read for those of us who rage against the dying of our chess lights. Anyone who finds themselves dreading yet another game against ‘that hotshot kid’ would do well to check it out.

Enter the Dragon

This review has been printed in the March 2016 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Jones, Gawain. Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon, Volume 1. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1784830076. PB 320pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish at Amazon.

Jones, Gawain. Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon, Volume 2. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1784830090. PB 320pp. List $29.95, currently $24ish at Amazon.

Children love playing it. It appears as a plot point in the soapiest of Spanish telenovelas period dramas. The Chinese have even gone so far as to try to make it their own.

It’s gotta be the name, right?

Bobby Fischer famously claimed that he’d worked its defeat out to a science (“…pry open the h-file, sac, sac … mate!”) but the theory and practice of the Sicilian Dragon have come a long way in recent years. Not only are there new sub-variations to try – the Chinese Dragon, the Topalov Variation, the Dragadorf – but the traditional main lines have undergone extensive analysis and empirical testing. How can the Dragoneer hope to keep up?

Older one-volume introductions by Chris Ward and Mikhail Golubev are now dated. David Vigorito’s Chess Developments: The Sicilian Dragon (2011) is fairly current, but it does not cover every line. For a complete, cutting-edge repertoire, Dragon players should consider the new Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon 1 and 2 by Gawain Jones.

In theory few are better suited to cover this opening than Jones, a lifelong Dragon enthusiast with a rating in the mid-2600s. Of course Elo and experience are no guarantee of authorial talent, but after wrestling with the books for a few weeks now, I’m glad to report that Jones was up to the task.

The most critical lines in the Dragon emerge from this position:

image

White’s three main tries here are 9.Bc4, 9.g4 and 9.0-0-0. Jones treats the first two in Volume 1, and the third in Volume 2. He recommends 9…Be6 against 9.g4, and more than half of Volume 2 is devoted to sidelines. The bulk of the work focuses on 9.Bc4 and 9.0-0-0.

Against 9.Bc4, the traditional main line, Jones has two recommendations. His primary repertoire choice is the Topalov Variation (9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Rc8 11.Bb3 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 b5), and I take it as a good sign that Jones has continued to play the line post-publication. White can dodge the Topalov with 10.h4, leading Jones to also include coverage of the Soltis (10.h4 h5 11.0-0-0 Rc8 12.Bb3 Ne5) and Burnett (12.Kb1 Nc4 13.Bxc4 Rxc4 14.g4 b5 15.b3 b4!) Variations. Readers are thus presented with two options against the Yugoslav.

9.0-0-0 is perhaps the more critical variation in modern practice, and just under half of Volume 2 is devoted to it. After 9.0–0–0 d5 Jones analyzes 10.exd5 Nxd5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.Bd4 (the current main line of the Dragon; if 12.Nxd5 Jones recommends 12…cxd5 13.Qxd5 Qc7) 12…Bxd4 13.Qxd4 Qb6 14.Na4 when two repertoire choices are offered: the slightly offbeat 14…Qa5 15.b3 Be6!? and 14…Qc7. After 10.Kb1 Black should play 10… Nxd4 11.e5! Nf5 12.exf6 exf6!, and in case of 10.Qe1, Jones plumps for 10… e5 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.exd5 Nxd5.

[Here is a summary of these lines in replayable format.]

The repertoire presented in the two volumes of The Dragon resembles that of Peter Heine Nielsen on his recent two DVD set for ChessBase (The Sicilian Dragon for the Tournament Player), although they are not identical. Nielsen’s videos are very good in terms of explanation, but they cannot begin to match the density of information presented in Jones’ books.

And make no mistake – these are dense books. The analysis is comprehensive almost to the point of pedantry, as is typical for Quality Chess titles. Given the nature of the opening in question, such obsessive detail is perhaps warranted.

Some bones are thrown to those of us unburdened with photographic memories. There is a useful twenty page section on typical Dragon themes in Volume 1, and Jones is careful to point out standard motifs as they arise in his analysis. His notes are surprisingly verbose given how much ground he has to cover.

The two volumes of Grandmaster Repertoire: The Dragon provide a thorough and tested repertoire for the hardcore Dragoneer. You don’t need to be a Grandmaster to read them, but stronger players will surely derive more benefit from the sophisticated analysis. Players new to the Dragon might want to start with Nielsen’s DVDs.

Dealing with 1.d4?

This review has been printed in the December 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Schandorff, Lars. Grandmaster Repertoire 20: The Semi-Slav. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1907982941. PB 264pp. List 29.95.

Sielecki, Christof. Opening Repertoire: Nimzo and Bogo Indian. London: Everyman Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1781941096. PB 440pp. List $29.95.

Svidler, Peter. The Grünfeld According to Svidler (ebook). Available for $19.99 as a standalone product at chess24.com or as part of their Premium membership package.

In May I reviewed six books on the Sicilian, thus helping to put 1.e4 effectively out of business. (Ha.) But what about 1.d4? How can Black hope to respond to such a move? Fear not, dear reader: this month I look at three recent books which aim to help us with that very problem.

Grandmaster Repertoire 20: The Semi-Slav is Lars Schandorff’s latest book with Quality Chess. Taking the position after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 as a starting point, Schandorff offers a complete repertoire in just 264 pages. This is no mean feat, as he covers both the Botvinnik and Moscow variations along with the 8…Bb7 Meran and assorted sidelines.

Strong players are increasingly turning to correspondence games in their opening research. Schandorff’s coverage of the Botvinnik variation is inspired, at least in part, by the games of the ICCF GM Alexandr Efremov, and he uses some of Efremov’s innovations in blazing a path to safety for Black. His analysis runs well past move thirty in key lines. While he does not skirt the need for memory work, Schandorff offers readers sufficient and welcome signposts to assist in the task.

Because Schandorff is so concise in his analysis, a few details are missing. Some move order technicalities in the Botvinnik are glossed over, and readers must supplement the book with study of the Exchange Slav, Queen’s Gambit Exchange variation, or the Marshall Gambit depending on how they choose to get to his tabiya. Neither issue detracts greatly from the book, which lives up to the heady promise of its title.

Christof Sielecki is new to the chess publishing world, but he’s very well known to his twenty thousand subscribers on YouTube as ‘chessexplained.’ With his new book from Everyman, titled Opening Repertoire: Nimzo and Bogo Indian, readers are presented with a complete repertoire after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6.

In his introduction to the book, Sielecki explains his rationale for what follows. Most Nimzo repertoires have followed what he calls a ‘light-squared’ approach, where play in the center with …d7-d5 and fianchettoing the bishop with …b7-b6 are standard motifs. One might think of Karpov’s trademark approach to combatting the 4.e3 Nimzo as emblematic in this regard.

Sielecki, in contrast, tends to recommend lines that follow a ‘dark-squared’ approach, placing central pawns on dark squares. While not all of his repertoire choices follow this path to the letter – see the anti-Hübner lines (chapters 6 and 7) in the 4.e3 Nimzo as examples – many variations share strategic themes, making them easier to learn. The Bogo and ‘Catalan-Bogo’ lines share the same general philosophy.

My silicon friends and I spent some time checking Sielecki’s analysis in the two lines for White that I know best (4.Qc2 and 4.f3). I found his analysis to be comprehensive, well sourced and well explained. The variations occasionally become heavily nested, making things hard to follow, and I abhor the ‘French flaps’ that have become standard for Everyman paperbacks. Here again, the overall quality of Sielecki’s book greatly outweighs these small defects.

The final book under review this month isn’t really a book at all. For months after the 2014 appearance of Peter Svidler’s magisterial series on the Grünfeld for chess24.com, anxious viewers longed for the set of analysis files promised by Svidler. They were published earlier this year as an eBook, and they were worth the wait.

The eBook version of The Grünfeld according to Svidler contains all of the analysis presented in the video series along with much, much more. Take the very sharp position after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Bg5 Bg7 5.Bxf6 Bxf6 6.cxd5 c6 7.e4, for example. In the videos Svidler proposes the novelty 7…Bg7 while also briefly analyzing three alternatives for Black. The eBook contains a dramatically fuller account of 7…Bg7 along with complete analysis of the three alternatives.

There is no better guide to the Grünfeld than Svidler, and his analysis in this eBook borders on the astounding. The eBook can only be accessed in your browser, and – perhaps due to concerns over piracy – there is no easy way to save the text other than to copy it manually into your database. The effort, however, is entirely worth it.

Of the three books reviewed this month, Sielecki’s is probably the ‘simplest,’ suitable for the ambitious club player. Schandorff and Svidler present very sophisticated repertoires that require good memories and, in the most critical lines, very strong nerves. All three can be warmly recommended, but as always, readers should heed the Delphic oracle and know themselves when buying.

Six Sicilians

This review has been printed in the May 2015 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

—–

Amatov, Zhanibek and Kostya Kavutskiy. Modernized: The Open Sicilian. Los Angeleis: Metropolitan Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-0985628116. PB 568pp. List $34.95; currently around $31 on Amazon.

Kotronias, Vassilios. Grandmaster Repertoire 18: The Sicilian Sveshnikov. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-1907982927. PB 440pp. List $29.95.

Kozul, Zdenko, and Ajojzije Jankovic. The Richter Rauzer Reborn. Gent: Thinkers Publishing, 2014. ISBN 978-9082256604. PB 316pp. List $30.99; currently around $25 on Amazon.

Negi, Parimarjan. Grandmaster Repertoire: 1.e4 vs The Sicilian I. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. ISBN 978-1906552398. PB 360pp. List $29.95.

Rotella, Tony. The Killer Sicilian: Fighting 1.e4 with the Kalashnikov. London: Everyman, 2014. ISBN 978-1857446654. PB 464pp. List $29.95.

Sveshnikov, Evgeny. Sveshnikov vs. the Anti-Sicilians. Alkmaar: New in Chess, 2014. ISBN 978-9056915452. PB 272pp. List $28.95; currently around $21 on Amazon.

More than 20% of all chess games begin as some form of a Sicilian Defense, if my math and MegaBase are to be trusted. It’s no wonder, then, that so many books have been written about this opening. This month I look at six books on the Sicilian that have recently appeared in my mailbox.

The Richter Rauzer Reborn is the first title from Thinkers Publishing, a new chess publishing house headed by GM Ivan Sokolov and not to be confused with Bob Long’s longtime imprint Thinker’s Press. Written by GMs Zdenko Kozul and Alojzije Jankovic, the book consists of a Black repertoire after the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bg5 e6 7.Qd2 a6 8.0-0-0 Bd7. The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to what Alex Yermolinsky once called the ‘Kozul Suicide variation,’ which appears after 9.f4 b5 10.Bxf6 gxf6.

That this is a first effort from a new publisher is obvious. The cover features a chessboard that is set up incorrectly. The chapter structure and typesetting is confusing and hard to read, and the inconsistent editing does little to mitigate that fact. Still, those who hazard the Kozul variation will want this book because of the stellar analysis. Here’s hoping that future Thinkers Publishing titles feature the technical improvements necessary to do justice to the wonderful content their upcoming titles promise.

The Sveshnikov (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5) is among the most popular variations of the Sicilian today, having been essayed with Black by some of the world’s strongest players. With Grandmaster Repertoire 18: The Sicilian Sveshnikov, GM Vassilios Kotronias has written a complete and comprehensive repertoire book in the Sveshnikov, and brilliantly so.

Kotronias does not cover every variation in the Sveshnikov, skipping (for instance) 10…Bg7 in favor of 10…f5 after 9.Bxf6 gxf6 10.Nd5. What he does do is offer a response to every one of White’s key moves after move five. His analysis runs past move thirty in many instances, but I never found myself overwhelmed by it. The book is very well structured, as is typical for Quality Chess titles, and the conclusions at the end of each chapter function as useful summaries. Anyone who plays the Sveshnikov with either color needs to study this book.

Some potential buyers of The Killer Sicilian: Fighting 1.e4 with the Kalashnikov might dismiss the book because of its author. Tony Rotella does not have an international title. He’s not even a master, but a ‘mere’ expert in over-the-board and correspondence play. (Who does this guy think he is, anyway?!) Prejudice is never to be recommended, but it would be especially unfortunate here. Rotella has written an unusually fine book.

Much like the Sveshnikov, the Kalashnikov (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5) admits of varying treatments. Some variations are calm and strategic in nature, while others are of immense tactical complexity. In many cases Rotella offers his readers the choice of two continuations, one tactical and one more positional in nature. The analysis is excellent indeed, but what sets the book apart is its explanations. Rotella’s prose is clear and insightful, and each chapter ends with a set of “Key Takeaways” that sum up important positional ideas.

It should be noted that Rotella’s book also contains a complete repertoire against the Anti-Sicilians. His recommendations include: 3…Nf6 against the Rossolimo, 7…Nb6 in the 2…Nf6 Alapin mainlines, and the …g6 / …e5 / …Nge7 lines of the Closed Sicilian. Against 3.Nc3 – a problematic move-order for Kalashnikov players – Rotella recommends 3…e5.

If Anti-Sicilians concern you such that you desire a ‘second opinion,’ consider Sveshnikov vs. the Anti-Sicilians. This is the first title in a series of three from GM Evgeny Sveshnikov, the second being devoted to the Rossolimo and the third to the Kalashnikov. Sveshnikov is a pugnacious and self-assured writer, not in the least afraid of courting controversy. In Chapter One he claims to correct no less than Botvinnik and Dvoretsky, and in the Conclusion he argues that the Polugaevsky and Dragon variations will soon be unplayable!

Sveshnikov’s book, the bombast notwithstanding, is an interesting (if idiosyncratic) set of responses to some key Anti-Sicilian lines. It uses annotated games, unlike the other books discussed thus far, to impart Sveshnikov’s recommendations, and about half of the games are from Sveshnikov’s practice. Like Rotella, he advises 3…e5 against the 3.Nc3 lines, although they differ on move orders later on. Other recommendations include …g6 / …Nf6 / …e5 lines against the Closed Sicilian, three ideas (including transposing back to the Alapin) against the Smith-Morra, and 7…dxe5 in the 2…Nf6 Alapin.

Not all books on the Sicilian are written from Black’s perspective. Recently I’ve received two books designed for those of us who have to face the Sicilian with the White pieces. Both are very good, albeit for somewhat different audiences.

Modernized: The Open Sicilian is the second title from Metropolitan Chess Publishing. The complete repertoire proposed by IM Zhanibek Amanov and FM Kostya Kavutskiy tends to favor slightly more positional (and less all-or-nothing) recipes for fighting the Sicilian. Among them: 6.h3 against the Najdorf, 6.g3 against the Kan and Taimanov, and 9.0-0-0 against the Dragon. They offer lines against minor Sicilian variations as well, including the Grivas, the Nimzowitsch, and the O’Kelly. Using densely annotated games to carry the analysis, the book is well researched and the repertoire choices make sense for the practical player.

Grandmaster Repertoire 1.e4 vs The Sicilian I is a clunky title for a fantastic book. This is the second entry in GM Parimarjan Negi’s 1.e4 series, the first of which (1.e4 vs The French, Caro-Kann and Philidor) deservedly won the 2014 ChessPub.com Book of the Year award. In his new book Negi turns 6.Bg5 into a fearsome weapon against the Najdorf suitable even for his Grandmaster readers. This is a serious book for advanced players, one that will drive the theoretical discussion on the Najdorf for the foreseeable future.

I find it useful to study points of convergence between opening books, particularly those that advocate for different sides of the same positions. There are three such intersections among the books reviewed this month, coming from Modernized: The Open Sicilian for White and The Killer Sicilian and Grandmaster Repertoire 18: The Sicilian Sveshnikov for Black. I’ll close this column by looking briefly at each of them.

In Modernized… Amanov and Kavutskiy advocate the trendy 11.c4 against the Sveshnikov, with their main line being 11…b4 12.Nc2 0-0 13. 13.g3 0–0 14.h4. Here Kotronias advocates the pawn sacrifice 14…a4!?, and while his mainline is 15.Ncxb4 Nxb4 16.Nxb4 Qb6 17.a3 Bd8, he also discusses 15.Bg2 and 15.Bh3.

With the benefit of seeing Kotronias’ book before theirs went to press, Amanov and Kavutskiy recommend 15.Bg2 Be6 16.0–0 b3 and attempt to better Kotronias’ 17.Nce3 with the ‘novelty’ 17.axb3!. Their analysis proceeds: 17…axb3 18.Rxa8 Qxa8 19.Nxf6+ gxf6 20.Ne3 Nd4 21.f4! and White has the initiative. 17.axb3 does seem to improve on Kotronias, but unfortunately, it is not a novelty. Amanov and Kavutskiy do not refer to correspondence games in their book; if they did, they might have found Schramm-Jordan (corr. 2010) which anticipated their line in full.

There is more sustained overlap between Modernized… and The Killer Sicilian. Amanov and Kavutskiy propose that White play 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nb5 d6 6.c4 Be7 7.N1c3 a6 8.Na3 against the Kalashnikov, and Rotella analyzes both 8…Be6 and 8…f5. Their disagreement after 8…Be6 9.Be2 Nd4 10.0–0 Nf6 11.Be3 Nxe2+ 12.Qxe2 0–0 13.f3 Rc8 14.Rac1 Nh5 15.Qd2 f5 16.exf5 Rxf5 17.g4 Rg5 18.Kh1 Nf4 is minor. Rotella thinks that Black has fine counterplay after 19.Rce1, while Amanov and Kavutskiy assess 19.Rfe1 as +/=.

The divergence after 8…f5 is perhaps more interesting. After 9.exf5 Bxf5 10.Nc2 Nf6 11.Ne3 Be6 12.g3 Nd4 13.Bg2 b5 14.cxb5 axb5 15.Ncd5 Rc8 16.0–0 0–0 17.b3 Kh8 18.Nxe7 Qxe7 19.Bb2 Nf5 20.Nxf5 Bxf5 21.Rc1 we reach a position that deserves a diagram.

image

Both books argue that 21.Rc1 improves on an old Smirnov-Radjabov game, but they disagree on their assessment of the ensuing position. Rotella writes that “[a] better try for White might be 21.Rc1 Qd7 22.Qe2, though 22…Bg4 23.Rxc8 Rxc8 24.Qd2 Bh3 seems about equal too.” Amanov and Kavutskiy think White has “…a noticeable plus. The two bishops are clearly felt here, and the b-pawn remains a chronic weakness.” I think this is a little optimistic, and that Black is just fine here. But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise! Readers?

Guided by Structures

Flores Rios, Mauricio. Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2015. 464pp. ISBN 978-1784830007. PB $29.95, currently around $22 at Amazon.

One of the marks of the strong player, as opposed to the novice, is that she knows how to derive some of the positional traits of any given position from its pawn structure. Such knowledge comes from induction and experience, but precisely how one gains that knowledge… well, there’s the rub. A few books – most notably Andy Soltis’ Pawn Structure Chess and, to a lesser degree, Jeremy Silman’s How to Reassess Your Chess – have been written to that end. Now Mauricio Flores Rios has made a welcome and important addition to the literature with Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide.

Flores Rios’ book is a collection of 140 games and fragments divided by defining pawn structures. His rationale for writing the book, as explained by GM Axel Bachmann in a Foreword, is interesting. Bachmann explains that when he and Flores Rios were teammates together at UT-Brownsville, they discovered that they had very different approaches to studying chess. Bachmann writes that

Mauricio read books, analyzed his games and prepared openings. I did these things too, but in reality the vast majority of my time was spent looking over current chess games and playing. I was surprised when Mauricio told me he had written a book partially inspired by my training methods, and I was certainly interested to see what was in it.

We might say that Flores Rios’ approach is the classical one, not dissimilar from the methods used by all the great players in the pre-computer era. I imagine Bachmann, in contrast, downloading new issues of TWIC each week and playing through each and every game at high speed, turning on the engine to check a few things, and then retiring to ICC for blitz and some R&R.

Bachmann’s study method is basically that proposed in many places by Jeremy Silman over the years. Play through as many master games as possible, as quickly as possible, and you will begin to pick up typical themes as if by magic. But few people possess the sitzfleisch required to play through so many games, and there’s no guarantee that the conceptual osmosis will take place. So we might see Flores Rios’ book as a middle path, where the Grandmaster selects games that are particularly instructive for typical ideas, analyzes them, and distills them down to the most essential patterns and ideas.

We can break the typical pawn structures in Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide down in a few ways. There are five main ‘families,’ for instance: those that come from d4 and …d5, Open Sicilians, Benonis, King’s Indians and the French. Each of those five families is broken down further into 21 categories (with seven additional categories crammed into a ‘catch-all’ section). With each category the defining pawn structure is named and typical plans and ideas are discussed, model games are given, and summaries provided. A set of exercises and solutions round things out.

Let’s take as an example his coverage in Chapter 7 of the Grunfeld Center. It begins with a schematic diagram of the pawn structure in question, and we leave aside for now the question of why the g-pawn remains on g7.

image

As part of his introduction to each chapter, Flores Rios offers summaries of typical plans for each side. Here is what he says about the Grunfeld Center.

White’s Plans

  1. Create a central passed pawn with d4-d5, dominate the center, gain space.
  2. Create a kingside attack, which will probably include the moves h2-h4-h5 and e4-e5 to gain control of the f6-square, which is usually weakened when Black develops his bishop on g7.

Black’s Plans

  1. Create a queenside passed pawn, especially after some simplifications.
  2. Pressure the center, place a rook on the d-file and find tactical resources associated with the open position.

In general White will get pretty good middlegame opportunities since he dominates the center and has a little more space. This advantage disappears rather easily, as the position is open and Black has multiple opportunities to trade off pieces heading into a good endgame. One major factor in this position is control of the c-file. If White controls the c-file it will be easier for him to expand, to create a passed pawn, to neutralize Black’s play. Likewise, if Black controls the open file, White’s central or kingside play will face many difficulties. One may say that open files are always important, which is often true. But in this position the open file is even more important than usual – it is essential.

There are then a series of annotated games that are used to illustrate his main points. In the first of the five games in the Grunfeld Center chapter, Flores Rios makes a point so striking (at least to me) that it is worth another diagram.

image

The reader should examine this position carefully, as there is more than meets the eye. Players of all levels could glance at this position and say, ‘Chances are level.’ Even my engine agrees with this evaluation. In practice matters are not that simple at all. Black experiences some difficulties, as the e7–pawn is under attack, the a6–pawn is vulnerable, and White intends to take control of the c-file. Black could solve his problems by playing two moves in a row: …Qd7 and …Nc4 momentarily blocking the c-file. Having only one move, Kasparov failed to cope with his difficulties, and played…

21…Re8?! In the post-mortem, Kasparov referred to this move as a positional blunder, saying that after losing the c-file his position was ‘completely lost.’ He probably exaggerated, but the point is clear: fighting for control of the c-file is an essential task in this kind of position.

  • A better choice was 21…Nc4! 22.Bxe7 Re8 (22…Nb2? 23.Qd2 Nxd1 24.Bxf8 winning a pawn) 23.Ba3 (23.Bg5? Nb2–+) 23…Nxa3 24.Qxa3 Rxe4 25.d5 “when White’s position is somewhat easier to play, but Black should be able to hold with care.”;
  • 21…Qb7 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxe7 Qxe7 24.Bxe7 Re8 25.Bc5 Rxe4 “with level chances, though Black will need to be careful after…” 26.d5!?;
  • Black loses a pawn after 21…Qd7? 22.Qa3 Nc4 23.Qxa6

22.Rc1 += A logical decision, taking control of the essential c-file.

This note is typical of Flores Rios’ style and ability. He is very good at explaining what is going on to his audience, who are mostly non-grandmasters and who also tend to rely on engine evaluations a bit too much. These notes are backed up with concrete analysis, and in most cases he hits just the right note when trying to balance brevity and depth of analyzed lines. I also found some of the explanations of endgame positions very useful, with the discussion of the value of space in an endgame from the IQP chapter popping into my head during a few of my own games.

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Flores Rios was consciously trying to emulate his college textbooks when writing Chess Structures. Each game is tagged with a learning objective, and ‘final remarks’ are provided after each game as well. It seems that a lot of thought went into the pedagogical makeup of the book, and that effort has paid off grandly. This is among the best non-beginner works for learning chess that I’ve seen.

Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide is not a primer of positional play; for that, try Michael Stean’s Simple Chess, Herman Grooten’s Chess Strategy for Club Players, or Silman’s aforementioned How to Reassess Your Chess. Instead, you might think of Chess Structures as positional chess ‘finishing school.’ Flores Rios does an exceptional job of clearly describing the interrelation between pawn structure and planning, and he offers his readers a stockpile of typical plans and ideas in most of the major pawn configurations. Here’s hoping that this is not the last book we see from this young Grandmaster!