Category Archives: video

End of an Era

This review has been printed in the June 2019 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.

Readers may also be interested in an interview I did with Avrukh for Chess Life Online, where we talk about the book, his writing process, and look at a recent game of his from the 2019 Chicago Open.

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Avrukh, Boris. Grandmaster Repertoire 2B: 1.d4 Dynamic Systems. Glasgow: Quality Chess, 2019. ISBN 978-1784830465. PB 529pp.

With the publication of Grandmaster Repertoire 2B: 1.d4 Dynamic Systems, the fourth and final volume in his revised White 1.d4 repertoire and his tenth title published with Quality Chess, GM Boris Avrukh has announced that he is taking “a break” from book publishing. It is, at least for now, the end of an era.

When Avrukh published the first edition of his 1.d4 repertoire in 2008 and 2010, the effect was nothing short of revolutionary. He coupled astute opening choices with World Championship level analysis – Avrukh seconded Gelfand in the 2012 World Championship match with Anand – to create a professional, poisonous two volume repertoire that anyone could buy for $65.

Opening theory never stops moving, of course, and with the appearance of GM Repertoire 2B, Avrukh has completed the revision and expansion of his repertoire. What was two volumes is now four. Two – 1A (2015) and 1B (2016) – focus on 1.d4 d5, including the Catalan, Queen’s Gambit Accepted, the Slav, the Tarrasch, etc. Two more – 2A (2018) and 2B (2019) – treat everything else, including the King’s Indian, Grunfeld, Dutch, Benko, and so forth.

While statistics show that Catalan was already in ascendence when GM Repertoire 1 was published, Avrukh’s influence on the popularization of the opening cannot be overstated, and I would argue that it was his treatment of the Catalan that made his name in the chess publishing world. His analysis in GM Repertoire 1 reshaped both the theory and practice of the system, and again, we can see his influence in database statistics.

Avrukh’s original recommendation in the Open Catalan – 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Nf3 Be7 5.Bg2 O-O 6.O-O dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 and now 8.Qxc4 instead of 8.a4 – took a somewhat neglected move and reinvigorated it. The relative popularity of 8.Qxc4 spiked after GM Repertoire 1 was published in 2008, and then waned after Avrukh argued for 8.a4 in 1A.

Correlation is not causation, and Black improvements after 8.Qxc4 no doubt contributed to this shift. But the fact remains that Avrukh’s books have had a palpable effect on opening theory at even the highest levels. The same can be said for his Anti-Slav ideas. His move order against Meran-style setups – 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 e6 5. b3!? – was little known before he wrote about it, and today it is one of the main ways that White tries to eke out an advantage against the Slav.

While Avrukh tweaks his recommendations in 1A and 1B, he does not fundamentally alter his repertoire. There is the shift to 8.a4 in the Open Catalan, as discussed above, a move from 3.e3 to 3.e4 in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, and the replacement of 10.Nd2 in the mainline Fianchetto Benoni with 10.Bf4. The basic contours of his 1.d4 Nf6 and 1.d4 “varia” repertoires also remain the same in the revised GM Repertoires 2A and 2B.

Fianchetto setups are integral to Avrukh’s repertoire against the Grunfeld and King’s Indian in 2A. Against the “Solid Grunfeld” he offers 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 c6 4.Bg2 d5 5.Qa4!?, hoping to prevent Black from recapturing on d5 with a pawn. The “Dynamic Grunfeld” builds upon his GM Repertoire 2 analysis, and the bulk of the book (nearly 80%) is a revised and extended treatment of his ideas in the Fianchetto King’s Indian.

This leaves the sundry defences that many 1.d4 players dread – the Dutch, the Benko, and the Budapest, along with the odd sidelines that strong players trot out from time to time. GM Repertoire 2B offers remedies for all of these, and it’s worth spending some time looking at three specific prescriptions to get a sense of Avrukh’s style and analysis.

(1) One of Avrukh’s more prominent ideas in GM Repertoire 2 came in the Classical Dutch. After 1.d4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.c4 Be7 5.Nf3 0–0 6.0–0 d6 7.Nc3 Ne4 8.Nxe4 fxe4 9.Nd2 d5 10.f3 Nc6 and here Avrukh recommended 11.fxe4 Rxf1+ 12.Nxf1 dxc4 13.Be3 in GM Repertoire 2, but Simon Williams’ improvement 13. …Bd7! (Sen-Williams, Uxbridge 2010) led Avrukh to search for another path forward.

image

His new idea is 11.e3!? exf3 12.Nxf3, when “[t]he position resembles a Catalan, except that the f-pawns have been removed.” (2B, 78) This seems a canny choice, fitting with the larger contours of Avrukh’s repertoire: playing for a positional advantage and limiting the opponent’s dynamism. That Stockfish 10 approves it also doesn’t hurt! Avrukh analyzes two continuations.

[A] 12. …b6 is seen in a correspondence game: 13.Bd2 Bb7 14.Rc1 Qd6 15.Qc2 Rac8 16.cxd5 exd5 17.b4! (Oppermann,P-Prystenski,A, ICCF email 2016)

[B] 12. …Bf6 13.Bd2 a5 14.Rc1 Kh8 and now instead of 15.Ne1 (Schmid-Halkias, Wunsiedel 2014) Avrukh analyzes the novelty 15.Rf2!? with good prospects for White.

(2) The Benko Gambit is often dreaded by club players. Black sacs a pawn for what appears to be solid compensation and plays on ‘auto-pilot,’ making typical moves while White sweats her way through the middlegame, frantically clutching her extra pawn. Avrukh shifts in 2B from his earlier recommendation of the Fianchetto Variation to the now-trendy 12.a4 ‘King-Walk,’ and he also gives White a weapon against a new sideline in the Benko.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 4.cxb5 a6 5.bxa6 g6!?

Postponing the pawn capture is a new idea, and the subject of Milos Perunovic’s very interesting The Modernized Benko Gambit. Benko players have flocked to it, largely because of the current problems in the Benko proper.

Avrukh follows current theoretical trends in the ‘old’ Benko by recommending 5. …Bxa6 6.Nc3 g6 7.e4 Bxf1 8.Kxf1 d6 9.Nf3 Bg7 10.g3 0–0 11.Kg2 Nbd7 12.a4!. White is currently scoring very well in this line championed by none other than Magnus Carlsen (via transposition). See Carlsen-Bologan, Biel 2012.

6.Nc3 Bg7 7.e4 0–0 (7. …Qa5 8.a7!) 8.a7!

“The most dangerous idea for Black. White’s idea is clear: with Black’s rook on a7, he can always win a tempo with Nb5. Now we can’t play …Qa5 because after Bd2, White has the threat Nb5.” (Perunovic, 109)

Avrukh notes that we can’t play 8.Nf3 because of 8. …Qa5! when the pin and attack on e4 forces us to choose between 9.Bd2 and 9.Nd2.

8. …Rxa7 9.Nf3 e6

Perunovic’s recommendation. Black has a few alternatives: 9. …d6 10.Be2 Ba6 11.0–0; 9. …Qa5 10.Bd2!; and 9. …Qb6 10.Be2 Ba6 11.0–0.

10.Be2 exd5 11.exd5 d6 12.0–0 Na6

If 12. …Ba6 Avrukh likes 13.Re1, which provides “a [simple] route to an edge.”

13.Nb5 Rd7 14.Bc4 Bb7 15.Bg5

Perunovic analyzes this position out to move 18, saying that Black has compensation for the pawn. Avrukh extends that analysis to move 23 and thinks that White gets the better end of things.

(3) After recommending 4.Nf3 against the Budapest in GM Repertoire 2, Avrukh turns to a little-known sideline to justify his new selection, 4.Bf4.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e5 3.dxe5 Ng4 4.Bf4 g5

Avrukh had avoided this line in GM Repertoire 2, feeling that 5.Bg3 Bg7 was “quite reliable for Black.” He revises his opinion in 2B, having found a “powerful antidote… [that is] both easier to learn and objectively stronger, in my opinion.” (339, 340)

Note that White is said to get an advantage after the alternative 4. …Nc6 5.Nf3 Bb4+ 6.Nbd2 Qe7 7.e3 Ngxe5 8.Nxe5 Nxe5 9.Be2 0–0 10.0–0 Bxd2 11.Qxd2 d6 12.b4, preparing c4–c5.

5.Bd2!? Nxe5 6.Nf3 Bg7

6. …Nbc6 7.Nc3 d6 8.Qc2 Bg7 9.0–0–0 and Avrukh’s analysis runs to move 16, giving White a strong edge.

7.Nxe5 Bxe5 8.Nc3! d6 9.g3 Nc6 10.Bg2 Be6 11.Nd5 g4 (Dreev-Zwardon, Warsaw 2013) and now 12.Bf4 h5 13.Qd2 “with a clear positional advantage.”

What do these examples teach us about Avrukh’s work in 2B, and about his repertoire more broadly? Keeping in mind the impossibility of summarizing nearly 1800 pages of analysis, we can perhaps draw a few conclusions.

It’s clear that Avrukh has done his due diligence in these books. He cites all the relevant sources, and attempts to improve on each of them. Avrukh makes extensive use of correspondence games in his research, and he’s not ashamed to mention the (heavy) influence of the computer in his recommendations. Very few authors meet the standard of excellence Avrukh sets in these books.

What about the repertoire itself? My sense is that Avrukh’s recommendations tend to follow the Quality Chess shibboleth to “try the main lines.” There are no dodgy gambits here, but mainly concrete, positionally oriented variations that allow White to aim for a two-result game. This explains, in part, the use of the kingside fianchetto against the King’s Indian (and Grunfeld). His recommended lines minimize Black’s attacking chances, and force the game into more controlled channels.

Who should adopt Avrukh’s repertoire? Because it is concrete and positionally oriented, some of the key positions require serious technique to convert the small edge he claims. (I’m particularly thinking of his recommendations in the Catalan.) This is high-level chess, and it’s probably best suited for experts at minimum. That’s not to say that class players can’t learn something here, but the kinds of advantages that Avrukh aims for with White – sometimes just a “space advantage and bishop pair,” as he says in GM Repertoire 1 (11) – often barely register as advantages on the amateur level.

Because Avrukh’s analysis is so vast and detailed, some kind of “executive summary” of key recommendations would have been welcome. Some Quality Chess opening books – I’m thinking of Kotronias’ GM Repertoire 18: The Sicilian Sveshnikov in particular – have summaries after each chapter that, in themselves, could function as a first repertoire. The chapter summaries here are perfunctory at best, and it’s an opportunity missed.

As Avrukh steps back from book publishing, it remains to be seen what is next for the Chicago-based Grandmaster. One of his web projects, Chess Openings 24-7, discontinued its services as of April 2nd. He has authored an opening file for modern-chess.com as recently as March 16th of this year; see our May 2017 issue for a review of a similar effort. Will he continue in this vein? Will he keep writing at all? Like many fans of chess literature, I’ll be interested to find out.

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Instant Gratification

This review has been printed in the February 2019 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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Keene, Raymond, and Byron Jacobs. Carlsen v Caruana: FIDE World Chess Championship London 2018. London: Everyman, 2018. ISBN 978-1781945131. PB 208pp.

Konikowski, Jerzy, and Uwe Bekemann. World Chess Championship 2018: Fabiano Caruana vs. Magnus Carlsen. Eltmann: Joachim Beyer Verlag, 2018. ISBN 978-3959209816. PB 184pp.

Gustafsson, Jan, Peter Heine Nielsen and Laurent Fressinet. Inside the 2018 World Championship Match. video series, available at chess24.com.

What will chess historians remember most about the 2018 World Championship match? The smart money would appear to be on “the draws.”

With so many drawn games in both the 2016 and 2018 matches, and with players facing such difficulties generating chances with the White pieces, many pundits are proposing fairly radical changes in match structure and time controls. To me this seems slightly overwrought – two matches are a small sample, after all – but it mirrors a definite trend towards faster chess at the highest levels.

But perhaps the real story of the 2018 match will, in retrospect, have been the full arrival of chess as an e-sport. Today an ever-increasing number of major tournaments are streamed on YouTube and Twitch, including the US Open and US Chess National Scholastics, and some competitions (like the Pro Chess League) are now contested entirely online.

At least four major chess media outlets – chess.com, chess24.com, the Saint Louis Chess Club, and Agon / Worldchess – offered real-time English language streaming commentary on the Carlsen-Caruana match. Others, including chessbase.com, chessclub.com, and uschess.org, offered post-game wrap-ups and analysis. It’s worth spending a bit of time discussing the four competing live video streams, both to understand the novelty of their coverage as well as their limitations.

Danny Rensch and fellow Chess Life columnist Robert Hess hosted the chess.com coverage. Multiple guests appeared on the livestream, including Levon Aronian, Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Shankland, Wesley So, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and Hou Yifan. Shankland provided the majority of the post-game annotations for chess.com readers, and everyone’s favorite “Uncle Yermo” Alex Yermolinsky recorded the post-game video wrap-ups.

Chess fans were treated to a veritable Murderer’s Row of chess commentators at Chess24. Peter Svidler and Alexander Grischuk were joined by Sopiko Guramishvili (Games 1-8) and Anish Giri (Games 9-12 and tiebreaks) for the live analysis, and Svidler recorded the post-game summary videos.

The Saint Louis Chess Club’s “A-Team” of Maurice Ashley, Yasser Seirawan and US Chess Senior Digital Editor Jennifer Shahade returned to helm the Saint Louis coverage of the match. Here too guests added spice to the proceedings, including Viswanathan Anand, Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Kramnik. Frequent STLCC broadcaster and Caruana second Cristian Chirila checked in from London.

All three of these streaming platforms provided their video to viewers on YouTube or twitch.tv free of charge. None were permitted to use live footage from London. Another option – worldchess.com, the paid broadcast arm of match organizers Agon – offered exclusive video of the players along with commentary from Judit Polgar, Anna Rudolf, and on-site guests like Demis Hassabis, one of the creators of Alpha Zero. While the cost to view the Worldchess stream was a reasonable $20, early reports of website instability and login problems spooked me. So I ended up flipping between the chess.com, chess24 and Saint Louis streams on my Roku Player.

With competition comes choice, and I felt that the three free streams were aimed at somewhat different audiences. Chess.com pitched its coverage towards gamers and enthusiasts. Chess24 tried to capture more serious players and students of the game. Saint Louis was the natural destination for American fans and a broadly pro-Caruana audience.

Most of my time was spent with chess24, and in no small part because of their general no-engine policy. There is little I enjoy more than watching vastly strong players analyze, and getting to see how Giri, Grischuk and Svidler worked through difficult positions together was a most welcome treat.

If the various streams had a common weakness, it was a certain modicum of perspective due to the real-time nature of the medium. “Hot takes” are quick and easy, but perspective requires time and critical distance, as no less than Garry Kasparov learned when he tapped out this ill-fated Tweet after Game 12. Full disclosure: I may have enthusiastically retweeted this.

Kasparov tweet

It’s vitally important, today more than ever, to resist the equation of instant analysis with veritable truth. There’s a reason that good writing and commentary take time, particularly in chess. Engines provide the illusion of accuracy and understanding, but authors can only begin to peel back the surface of events by standing back from them.

Here is where match books have traditionally been important. The problem, as I noted in December 2017, is that such efforts are increasingly rare, and the titles that do appear are often slapped together to make a fast buck.[1] There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such books – authors and publishers have to eat too! – but the results are usually unsatisfying, the literary equivalent of a greasy fast food meal.

Everyman’s Carlsen v Caruana: FIDE World Chess Championship London 2018, released two weeks after the match closing ceremonies, is the definition of an “instabook.” Everyman editor Byron Jacobs teamed up with Raymond Keene, well known for his proclivity for borrowing texts both from his previous works and from those of others, to produce a thoroughly forgettable work.

Game annotations make up the bulk of Carlsen v Caruana, and while there are some oddities – playing an unforced Bxc6 in the Rossolimo, for example, was Chebanenko’s idea and not a Fischer invention, and Woody Harrelson’s accidental ‘king tip’ before Game 1 was a prearranged joke – they are serviceable if hardly groundbreaking. The book’s front matter, however, is another story entirely.

Large chunks of text in Carlsen v Caruana are recycled from previous Keene writings. The Introduction, “World Chess Comes to London,” is a verbatim reprint of his preface to the Summer 2018 issue of Synapsia, the house magazine for Keene’s Brain Trust Charity, and one of the final paragraphs reappears in his September 15th newspaper column. The “History of the World Championship” section is similarly self-referential, with many multiple paragraphs taken directly or closely paraphrased from previous Keene books, with The Brain Games World Championship 2000 being just one example.

Reusing one’s own text is not illegal or immoral, but the fact that the reuse is so blatant, and that Keene has made such a career of it, leaves something of a bad taste here. Couple this with the editing and spelling problems – “Kieseritsky,” “Vesselin Topalov,” and World Championship “Finallist” Nigel Short are but a small sample – and Carlsen v Caruana must be seen as something of a disappointment, failing to add anything new to the literature.

World Chess Championship 2018: Fabiano Caruana vs. Magnus Carlsen, written by Jerzy Konikowski and Uwe Bekemann for the German publisher Joachim Beyer Verlag, proves that a rapid-response title can be done competently. The translation is a bit wonky – for some reason “World Championship” becomes “World Cup,” “and” is occasionally “und,” etc. – but the authors generally succeed in creating an original, accessible account of the match.

Konikowski and Bekemann aim to offer readers a “complete picture” (8) of the players by sketching Carlsen and Caruana’s careers and analyzing a selection of their pre-match encounters. Artur Yusupov and Karsten Müller provide useful insight into the players, and Müller’s contribution of fifteen annotated games meets his usual standard of analytical excellence. Only the combination section, featuring 24 positions from Carlsen and Caruana’s practice, seems extraneous.

Notes to the match games make up more than half of World Chess Championship 2018. There is less ‘color’ here than in Carlsen v Caruana, and the notes (save the excessive opening citations) tend to be terser. Konikowski and Bekemann’s book is certainly preferable to Jacobs and Keene’s, although it too left me wanting more. So it is perhaps a sign of the times that, with no other match books on the horizon, the most insightful treatment of the Carlsen-Caruana match is – you guessed it – an online video series.

Chess24 series promo

Chess24 viewers were surprised when Jan Gustafsson, the public face of the website, was absent from the Game 1 coverage. While Svidler gamely tried to maintain operational security, we learned only after the match concluded that Gustafsson was holed up in Thailand, working remotely for Team Carlsen.

Over the course of nearly eleven hours of video, Gustafsson and fellow Carlsen seconds Peter Heine Nielsen and Laurent Fressinet walk viewers through the highs and lows of the match in Inside the 2018 World Championship Match. The result is an embarrassment of riches, the likes of which I can only begin to describe here, and the series stands as one of the most intimate accounts of a World Championship Match ever produced. Only From London to Elista by Evegny Bareev and Ilya Levitov can compare to it.

Impatient viewers – count me among them – might want to start with the final “Wrap-up” video, where Team Carlsen discusses the opening battles, Nakamura’s claim that Caruana dominated the Classical games, the question of whether Carlsen’s title was diminished by winning in tiebreaks, and how different team members worked during the match. Still, fascinating as the reflections on the match metagame were, the individual game analyses were better.

Chess24 Game Window

Take the coverage of Game 10. Gustafsson, Fressinet and Nielsen describe quite frankly how they missed 12.b4 in their preparation, discussing typical plans for both sides and citing Alpha Zero analysis. They speculate on the psychology of the moves leading up to the critical position after move 23, and Nielsen borrows a line from an Anand video to help us understand Caruana’s all-too-human 24.g3. The positions after 24.Bxb5, he says, are the sort where if the computer told you either White or Black were +1.5, you’d believe it. This is an important insight, and the emphasis on the human factor in the match is a key theme in the series.

Comparing books and videos is a bit of an apples and oranges endeavour. Books take longer to write – in most cases, anyway! – and there are production and distribution costs for print materials that do not exist for video platforms. Those considerations aside, it’s clear that Inside the 2018 World Championship Match is the best treatment of the Carlsen-Caruana match, and by some distance. At $14.99 it’s also cheaper than the Keene / Jacobs and Konikowski / Bekemann books. The series is a real coup for Chess24, and I recommend wholeheartedly.


[1] It’s worth noting once more, as I did in my December 2017 review, what a welcome departure from this practice Alburt and Crumiller’s outstanding book was.

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.

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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.

Learning Openings with Online Videos

This review essay has been printed in the August 2014 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate version of the review is reproduced here.  My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Frank Brady, friend and biographer of Bobby Fischer, tells a story about his asking the future world champion for chess lessons in 1964. “For the first lesson,” Fischer told him, “I want you to play over every column of Modern Chess Openings, including footnotes.” Brady, understandably shocked, asked Fischer what they’d cover next. “And for the next lesson,” came the reply, “I want you to do it again.”[1]

Was Fischer serious? Probably not. Still, the severity of his proposed methods makes clear the import he placed on the opening, on its study, and on the value of Modern Chess Openings in the pre-computer age.

There is, of course, still a place for the one-volume encyclopedia in 21st Century chess, but today we have more options for learning our openings. New monographs continue to be published at a steady clip and on increasingly esoteric topics. The Informant series and the New in Chess Yearbooks are locked in a battle for superiority and market-share. Those slightly ahead of the curve subscribe to ChessPublishing.com, which provides monthly theoretical updates in twelve opening sub-fields.

But most popular, especially with the younger crowd, are videos. I realized this when a local junior recently ventured the Colorado Counter-Gambit (1.e4 Nc6 2.Nf3 f5?!?) against me in a club game. Not knowing this particular pawn-push – it wasn’t in MCO! – I asked where he’d learned it. The answer, naturally, was an online video.

In this essay I’ll review five of the paid video sites in alphabetical order, focusing specifically on their offerings in the opening. Each site has content worthy of your time and money. The goal of this review is to point you in the right direction to begin your studies.

Chess.com

Chess.com, along with its sister site chesskid.com, is probably the largest chess website in the world by userbase. While many of its diverse features are free to all users, only Diamond members ($99/yr, $14/mo) can watch videos. The videos consist of a 2D chessboard with voiceover, and they stream in your browser or inside a chess.com mobile app. A few of the videos come with pgns for future study, but none are available for individual purchase or download.

There are many IMs and GMs among the chess.com stable of authors, and more than a few have produced video series on their pet systems – Keaton Kiewra on the Dragon, for instance, or Eugene Perelshteyn on the King’s Indian. Fans of Roman Dzindzichashvili will note his prolific output for the site, with many of his videos devoted to diverse topics in the opening. Ben Finegold, currently on the chess.com and chesskid.com staff, is equally busy with opening videos.

Searching for specific opening tabiya or series is a bit clunky, as tagging is haphazard, but time poring through the archives is well spent. Sam Shankland’s 2009 series on the Najdorf is worth your attention, and Gregory Kaidanov’s videos on a 1.e4 repertoire for White are great for class players.

Chess24.com

Chess24 is the newest of the sites under review, and while it remains a work in progress, its early days have been quite promising. The site is the home for the web coverage of the Tromso Chess Olympiad, and the Norway Chess 2014 event was broadcast there. Chess24 has also lured a number of top players to their studios to produce videos, including two former world champions (Kasimdzhanov and Anand) and multiple 2600+ players.

Much of the early advertising for Chess24 featured a video series by Peter Svidler on the Grunfeld, and with good reason: the videos are fantastic. Over the course of 12+ hours, Svidler gives viewers an in-depth look at his approach to the Grunfeld, and he holds nothing back in his analysis. All of White’s tries are covered, and lines against 1.c4 and 1.Nf3 are included. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

Videos stream in your browser, but not in the Chess24 mobile app. The presenter appears to the right of a 2D board, with the moves appearing on the 2D board in synchronicity with her words. The board and pieces are slightly jarring on first glance, but you get used to them quickly enough. Links to an opening database and an analytical engine appear beneath the board, and you can pause the video to try a move on the board and see the engine’s analysis. No pgns are available, but e-books for some videos may appear by the time of the Olympiad.

All videos are available to Premium members ($135.99/yr), or they can be purchased individually. Svidler’s series is available for $39.99. Other opening series of note include Jan Gustafsson on building a 1.d4 repertoire ($15.99), Sopiko Guramishvili on the Najdorf ($15.99), and Robin van Kampen on the King’s Indian ($24.99).

ChessBase

ChessBase is a behemoth in the world of chess software. They sell ChessBase 12, the database used by most every titled player in the world, along with analytical engines like Houdini and Fritz. ChessBase has turned increasing attention to chess videos, and given their prominence in the chess world, many strong European players record videos for ChessBase when they pass through Hamburg.

Videos from ChessBase can only be viewed from within ChessBase, the Fritz/Houdini programs, or the free ChessBase Reader. All are Windows only, leaving non-savvy Linux and Mac users out in the cold. Moves appear on the chessboard in synchronicity with the presenter video, and all of the features of the ChessBase interface are available to the user. You can check a move with your engine of choice while the video runs, and the analysis given in each video is nearly always provided for future study.

Most of the ChessBase videos are available to purchase via download. Prices range from €9.90 for the ’60 Minutes’ series of videos to €29.90 for current full-length DVDs. There is value at both ends of the spectrum. Super-GMs like Shirov and van Wely have made engaging videos in the ’60 Minutes’ series on the Winawer and the Najdorf, respectively, and I have given Henrik Danielsen’s video on the London System a positive review on my blog (chessbookreviews.wordpress.com).

Among full-length DVDs, Peter Heine Nielsen, former assistant to Anand and current Carlsen second, has recorded an impressive twopart series on the Dragon, with some of his analysis reaching into the endgame. I have also found the ‘ChessBase Tutorials’ series on the openings to be quite useful. Between the five DVDs in the series, nearly every major opening system or variation is summarized in about fifteen minutes time, making them handy for your next game against the local Grob fanatic.

Chessclub.com

I’ve been a member of chessclub.com – which I still call by its old name, ICC, or the Internet Chess Club – since it went commercial in 1995, and I still tend to think of it in terms of all-night blitz binges from college. In recent years, however, ICC has put a lot of time and effort into its video offerings, and it now competes on a fairly even playing field with all the other sites discussed in this piece.

There are multiple types of membership at ICC, ranging from the month-to-month ($9.95/mo) to the yearly ($69.95/yr), but all paid members are able to view all video content on the site. Three series are of particular interest as regards the opening: Ronen Har-Zvi’s opening videos, Boris Alterman’s ‘Gambit Guides,’ and – especially – John Watson’s ‘Sharpen Your Chess Sense’ series. (Disclosure: I have taken lessons from John and consider him a friend.)

In ‘Sharpen Your Chess Sense,’ Watson offers viewers opening repertoires specifically designed for club players, and for both colors. Recent series have focused on the Queen’s Gambit, the French, and 1.e4, among others. The videos are a deft mix of ideas and analysis, and players of all temperaments can find something to suit their needs.

While ‘Sharpen Your Chess Sense’ is still in production, you’ll have to dig into the archives to find videos on the opening from Ronen Har-Zvi and Boris Alterman. Alterman’s videos focused on opening gambits, and they served as the basis for his two books from Quality Chess on the same subject. Har-Zvi’s videos covered a broad swath of opening lines with his trademark enthusiasm.

Non-members are now able to purchase and download many of these videos, with prices usually running about $2.99 per video. Oddly there is no discount when buying a multi-video series. Some videos come with pgns, but the detail contained in the files varies greatly. All videos are viewable in ICC’s app for iOS and in your browser.

ChessLecture.com

Chesslecture.com is not the fanciest website around, but what it lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in content. There are 2300+ videos available as I write these words, giving Chesslecture.com one of the deepest archives of material around. Many of the leading video authors have recorded for Chesslecture or do so now. It is currently the exclusive home for two of the best video authors around: Dennis Monokroussos and David Vigorito.

The website is mainly text driven, but the search options are plentiful once you learn where to look. You can sort videos by author or broad category on the left side of the screen, and there is a search box at the top right that allows queries by title, keyword, ECO code or author. The indexing and tagging of specific videos leaves something to be desired, but you can generally find what you want without excessive difficulty.

There are a lot of gems hidden in the back catalogue. David Vigorito’s videos are consistently excellent. His early series on the Bb5 Sicilian and the Tarrasch Defense remain useful and, generally speaking, theoretically valid. Any of Vigorito’s series, quite frankly, can be recommended without hesitation.

Membership at Chesslecture.com begins at $99.99/yr or $12.95/mo; if you want to download videos, you must be a Gold member ($229.99/yr or $24.95/mo). Some videos come with pgns, but again, detail varies greatly. Members can buy custom DVDs with their choice of video content, and non-members can purchase some Chesslecture.com content in DVD format at onlinechesslessons.net. [Correction: You can also buy ChessLecture videos on DVD at dvd.chesslecture.com directly from ChessLecture.]

YouTube

Some readers might be looking at all the dollar signs in this review and wondering about free alternatives. They do exist, although – as is always the case with ‘amateur’ content – quality can vary greatly. Let me point out six YouTube users to whom you might want to subscribe.

Chessexplained: Christof Sielecki, a German IM, offers his blitz games, tournament recaps, and a number of series on opening repertoires.

GregShahadechess: These videos by Greg Shahade usually involve his talking through his thoughts as he plays online games or solves puzzles. Very educational, but the language can get a little rough for sensitive viewers.

GJ_Chess: Gunjan Jani is the source for the videos on the Colorado Counter-Gambit mentioned above. What he lacks in playing strength he makes up for in enthusiasm and self-promotion!

kingscrusher: Tryfon Gavriel is a prolific producer of video, with 5000+ videos on YouTube. Gavriel analyzes games and talks through his online blitz games.

STLChessClub: All lectures from the St Louis Chess Club are recorded and appear here. The lectures are by GMs and IMs who visit the club.

Zibbit: Icelandic FM Ingvar Johannesson focuses on game analysis in his videos.


[1] This story has been told by Brady in a few forms, the most widely known of which can be found in his classic Bobby Fischer: Profiles of a Prodigy (260). He dates the exchange in a speech in Dallas in November 2011.

Learning the (Neo-)London

Danielsen, Henrik.  Pressing Straight Away: The London System 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4Digital download available from Chessbase or your favored chess seller.  €9.90 at Chessbase.com; roughly $13.50 USD.

After the semi-debacle that was the US Open, I decided that I needed to change my opening repertoire and my approach to the opening.  I played 1.d4 years ago as a rank amateur (ha!) but turned to 1.e4 in recent years, thinking that I could force myself to play more actively with King’s Pawn openings.  (The jury is still out on that one.)  What I need, I now think, is some kind of basic opening repertoire that would be solid, stable, and trustworthy, all while keeping me out of immediate opening peril and letting me set the initial terms of the game.  This way I can spend more time working on my attacking skills and endgame play, and less time obsessing about opening preparation.  I can add new variations as I go and as time permits, keeping the ‘solid’ lines as a baseline.

Eventually, I decided to take up the Trompowsky against 1…Nf6 and the Neo-London against 1…d5.  This decision was, in no small part, prompted by the new Trompowsky book by Richard Pert, previously reviewed on this site, and also by Henrik Danielsen’s new video on the London available from Chessbase.

Steadfast readers will remember my admission of mixed emotions regarding chess databases, videos, etc.  I find it hard to read books on the screen regardless of the platform, with the odd exception of fiction on an e-reader.  (This difficulty may be changing, at least for chess books, with the introduction of E+Books; more on that in the coming weeks.)  The study of individual games, however, is not too difficult, and opening work is in fact easier for me in Chessbase.  I was therefore curious to test my reaction to videos viewed through Chessbase, and I thought Danielsen’s effort an interesting test case.

Chessbase has, wisely, added a line of ‘60 minute’ videos to their avalanche of DVDs and digital downloads.  The idea is that 60 minutes should be enough to cover a specific opening variation or, in two videos by Mikhailchishin, a strategic concept.  Most of the usual Chessbase authors appear in the series, and a lower price point makes up for the diminished content when compared to traditional Chessbase DVDs.  I tend to think that this idea is a real winner for everyone involved.  The price is better, the content is more focused, and busy players can spend their limited time learning exactly interests them.

Danielsen’s video sketches a opening system for White after 1.d4 d5.  There is no explicit coverage of 1…Nf6, save those variations where Black combines …d5 and …Nf6, and there are no Dutch lines, etc, so this is not a complete solution for players of the White pieces.  Still, what Danielsen manages to explain in just an hour is rather impressive, even if – as I will discuss – I have a few quibbles.

Danielsen’s fundamental premise in this video is that it is often advantageous for White to play 2.Bf4, thereby delaying Nf3.  This approach, the so-called ‘Neo-London,’ was first advanced by Vlado Kovacevic in the 1980s, and has recently been championed by ChessPublishing’s Eric Prié before his current sabbatical from the site.  (Kovacevic wrote a book on the London in 2005 with Svere Johnsen; see Prié’s less-than-thrilled review.)  Prie’s analysis at ChessPublishing.com is stellar, and anyone wanting to play this system would do well to sign up there and study it.

Over the course of seven short videos Danielsen manages to boil the Neo-London down to its essentials, communicating them clearly and concisely.  I was surprised at how much I was able to retain from the video presentation; for example, in this position

image

Black has two main moves: 6…Be7 and 6…Bd6.  Danielsen explains White’s responses to both in such a way that, even were I to forget the concrete analysis, I would be able to navigate my way to a playable position and perhaps even an advantage.  Danielsen makes good use of graphics on the board (arrows, colored squares) to illustrate his points, and he makes the ideas underlying his recommendations quite clear.

Danielsen packs an admirable amount of content into his allotted hour.  There are a couple of points, however, where he really should have offered viewers a bit more.  Take the key position that arises after 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 c5 3.e3 Nf6 (or 2…Nf6, 3…c5).

image

Danielsen recommends 4.Nc3!?, a controversial recommendation to say the least.  Johnsen and Kovacevic offer 4.Nf3 in their book, and Prié, for his part, rates 4.Nc3 as ‘?!’ and analyzes 4.dxc5 and 4.c3 at ChessPublishing.  The analysis of 4.Nc3 in the video runs for roughly five minutes, covering up to move seven in the main line and move 10 in one of the variations.  I’m not sure that this is sufficient coverage for such a central variation in the Neo-London, and I would really have like to have seen some additional analysis offered, even if only in a database file.

More analysis in the attached database – or, better, additional analyzed games – would have improved this product.  There is only so much that can be covered in an hour; even though Danielsen really packs a lot into that time frame, some additional study material would have been beneficial.

My experience of the video was, generally speaking, positive.  I was left feeling that I’d learned a lot, and that – after some additional analysis of a few positions like the one above – I could play the Neo-London with confidence.  The real test of the video, of course, is in the results.  How did I do in my games?  The answer is: surprisingly well.

My OTB (slow) rating right now is 1731 USCF.  In rated USCF quick and blitz games, my score with the Neo-London is roughly 80% against players from 1300-2000.  In three standard games, against players averaging roughly 1875, I am at 1.5/3.  The most recent of these games was a draw against former Nebraska State Champion Joseph Knapp, and I offer it (with light notes) below.

http://www.viewchess.com/cbreader/2013/10/31/Game6469096.html

Practical results aren’t everything, but they are something.  We study chess because it’s beautiful, but also because we want to win.  Danielsen’s video gave me another weapon in my arsenal to help me win, and along the way, I think I learned about the game and its nuances.  Seems well worth the price of admission to me.