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Second to Nunn?
The Ultimate Pirc; John Nunn and Colin McNab; 320 pages; BT Batsford, 1998
(1) A quick correction, noted by TWIC reader Chris Holmes: Horowitz wrote The Golden Treasury of Chess, not Chernev, as I said in review #8.
(2) It's obvious that I've been much too nice in these reviews recently, so I'm contemplating doing a list of the year's most disappointing books! Readers are invited to submit their candidates for this list. Help me sharpen my critical sense (which is obviously getting jaded), and tell me (briefly) why some chess book you've read was a lemon, or at least not up to snuff. I'm very curious as to what readers don't like, since they seldom tell me.
The featured work in this review is The Ultimate Pirc, by John Nunn and Colin McNab. The timing of this book couldn't have been better: Pirc players have precious little to rely upon in the way of recent books, and what's more, the Pirc Defense and the related Modern Defense (partially covered in this book as well) are doing rather well of late. I did a statistical survey of 1997-98 master games which shows the Pirc scoring somewhat better than Black does in general.
Before I launch into any criticism, I will grant that, because of its comprehensiveness (320 pages, almost all of it moves and notes), and because of John Nunn's prestige, this book instantly becomes the must-have reference for Pirc Defense fans. Unless you use only a database to study with and to keep your openings up to date, you will certainly want this book to guide your play with the Pirc. Of course, the authors' stylistic approach may not be to everyone's taste: in fact, Nunn and McNab provide a fairly extreme example for this column's ongoing 'ideas-versus-variations' debate, since they devote almost no space at all to general ideas, nor do they expressly lay out the typical strategic and tactical motifs of the Pirc Defense. What's more, they seldom justify a move or variation under discussion by verbal reasoning, but rather let the games and analyses speak for themselves. This is in the tradition of great Nunn books such as his earlier Benoni and Pirc works, as well as his classic Beating the Sicilian. This new book is also in the 'encyclopedic' mode exemplified by Nunn's massive Main Line- and Classical King's Indian Defence volumes; but in that case, perhaps due of Graham Burgess' co-authorship, there were also sizable 'strategic introductions' and lengthy prose passages about the history and features of various positions. Nunn and McNab cover their ground in similar detail when it comes to moves, but their effort represents a drier, more scholarly extreme, with only the barest 'conclusions' to express their overall preference in selected areas. That leads to my first criticism: these conclusions are simply inadequate. They appear only at the end of a chapter, and are normally stated in just one sentence. The authors should at least have indicated their opinions about the best path through the many extremely complicated subvariations which are attached to critical lines. Otherwise, the reader is left to sort his or her way through innumerable options with no guidance. Moreover, we don't know whose opinion we are reading: in contrast with the aforementioned King's Indian work, we aren't told how the work was apportioned between Nunn and McNab.
At this point, I should make clear that I believe this type of book to be both admirable and important, in order to extend the frontiers of theory. With the recent parade of books which cater to reader's desire to 'understand' openings in an abstract sense, it's important to have a serious high-level grandmaster grapple with the detailed truth of an opening. Mind you, I have already expressed great admiration for several more 'instructional' opening books (see my reviews of Emms' and Well's books in reviews #5 and #7, for example); it's just that we need to have authors doing in-depth work as well. Certain aspects of this book reflect the greater attention to detail which such an approach affords. For example, one thing often neglected in writing about a flexible opening like the Pirc/Modern is a precise explanation of what is good or bad about various move orders. Nunn and McNab do an excellent job of resolving these move orders, a feature you won't find in any other Pirc/Modern work I know of. The danger of more 'instructive' books is that they can leave us in the lurch when it comes to such details.
Having said that, a book such as this, to be considered great and not merely indispensable in a practical sense, needs to contain original ideas and important new suggestions. Certainly, that is the essence of what I like most about Nunn's previous work; in both fashionable and obscure lines, he always challenges authority and finds exciting new areas for investigation. The question is, does this new book do so? With the strong caveat that I'm haven't played the Pirc for 20 years or so, and that my time is limited to an admittedly superficial investigation, I would say no, it doesn't. When one thumbs through the book reading the notes, one gets game after game imbedded in traditional database fashion, complete with preexisting notes by other annotators, but with very little original analysis by the authors. What is original tends to be, as far as I can see, extremely brief and undeveloped. In some variations, I even fear that we may be treading close to the territory of the dreaded 'database dump'!
To test that impression and get a better feel for the book, I tried to examine some lines that I had either played or about which I thought I knew something. I used to play the idea 1.e4 d6 2.e4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Bc4 for White, a rather primitive line which is still very popular at the club level and among lower-level masters. One thing I noticed is that Nunn and McNab tend to retain the recommendations from Nunn's older books, which is probably a good thing in many such variations. As it turns out, new analysis and ideas aren't really needed to bolster Black's case after 4...Bg7 5.Qe2 Nc6 6.e5 Ng4, for example; Nunn has already done original work with that line, so the criticism in the last paragraph doesn't apply. But I remember that, for example, after 4...Bg7 5.Nf3, the move 5...Nxe4!? was always a bit of a problem for me. Older theory (Botterill and Keene) had given some very unconvincing, low-quality examples of 6.Bxf7+ Kxf7 7.Nxe4 Rf8, and I think that I could demonstrate that, with a minimum of care on Black's part, this becomes at least an interesting challenge to 5.Nf3. Indeed, a database search reveals modern games with 5...Nxe4 resulting in a reasonable success rate for Black. But the move is missing entirely from The Ultimate Pirc; and since this is a book which claims to serve both Black and White, I believe that it should have been considered.
Well, I grant that the foregoing is a marginal issue in an obscure line. Turning to a main line, I next looked at the Austrian Attack with 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Bd3, and now 6...Na6, which I used to play as Black. Theory has expanded greatly here, and having trudged through the whole chapter on 6...Na6, I felt that (a) Black was doing pretty well in this variation; and (b) there were very few suggestions for either side, and little indication which lines the authors thought were best. I was therefore surprised to read in the one-sentence, sweeping conclusion that 7.e5 held no worries for Black, but that White could 'claim an edge' after 7.0-0. But where was the evidence in the variations? The only slight hint of a White advantage was in the line 7.0-0 c5 8.d5 Rb8 9.Kh1 (according to the book, Black equalizes against six other White moves. The direct 9.f5 gxf5 10.Nh4 fxe4 11.Nxe4 c4 leads to a forced draw in the book, although 11...Nxe4 12.Bxe4 e6 13.Qh5 f5 looks worth a try to me) 9...Bg4, and now four moves (including the main, most-frequently-played ones) have allowed Black full equality, whereas 10.f5 Qc8 11.Be2 gave White 'attacking chances' in one short and unclear game excerpt. Furthermore, for those who have the book, Black seems to improve on that game rather easily by 16...b4 17.Nd1 Nb5 instead of 16...Ra8?!. I can't imagine where this 'conclusion' came from, or why there aren't more independent suggestions, especially of fairly obvious improvements.
Finally, in the other main Pirc line, the Classical Variation, I remembered a game of John Donaldson's from Hawaii this year (White against Florin Felecan), and decided to see what the book said. That game went 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Be2 0-0 6.0-0 Bg4 7.Be3 (by transposition thus far) 7...Nc6 8.Qd2 e5 9.d5 Ne7 10.Rad1 Bd7 11.Ne1 b5 12.a3 a5 13.b4 (John also won two games with 13.Nd3, featuring very similar ideas) 13...axb4 14.axb4, and here Felecan played 14...Qb8!, an important improvement upon 14...Ra3, as in the two games cited in Nunn and McNab. First of all, John points out, based upon his games, that the rook on a3 often loses an important tempo and allows White to win the a-file more easily. But even the authors' cited (blitz) game Thorsteins-Kasparov, St John 1988 is easy to improve upon: 14...Ra3 15.f3 Qb8 16.Nd3 c6 17.dxc6 Bxc6 (the book quotes Brunner as assessing 17...Nxc6 18.Nf2 Nd4 as equal, although White has a small positional edge after 18.Ra1 Rxa1 19.Rxa1 Nd4 20.Nf2 or 20.Bf1) 18.Nc1 Rd8 19.Nb3 d5 20.Bc5 Qc7, and here simply 21.Bxb5! would have been very strong, with a probably winning advantage.
After the better 14...Qb8!, John's game continued 15.f3 Rd8 16.Nd3 c6 17.dxc6 Bxc6 18.Nf2 Rd7?! 19.Ng4! Nxg4 20.fxg4 d5 21.exd5 Nxd5 22.Nxd5 Rxd5 23.Qxd5! Bxd5 24.Rxd5, and White had a very promising position. Better was 18...d5 19.Bc5 Qc7!, based upon 20.exd5 Nfxd5 21.Nxb5 Bxb5! 22.Bxb5 e4, which is tricky and unclear. Of course, Nunn and McNab could hardly be expected to anticipate a novelty like this or be responsible for every little nuance of so many complex positions. But in this case, they simply copied and sorted 12 games after 11...b5 without finding improvements or recognizing major positional themes (for example, Donaldson's point about the rook on a3, or his other observation that even in positions where ...f5 looks like a natural plan, it almost inevitably weakens Black more than it helps him). If the authors' analysis had correctly shown the way through this variation, such general observations would be unnecessary; but a lifeless listing of games offers neither accuracy nor guidance.
As indicated above, a real Pirc expert should test these criticisms; it's possible that this book contains more hidden gems than it seems to. Also, I may just not have the proper understanding of some of these complex positions, and if so, I hope that I haven't been unfairly critical. But in general, one feels that there's very little spark or enthusiasm in this book; not in the way of flashy verbal claims, which wouldn't fit the style of the book anyway, but in the analysis itself and the presentation of material. I seriously doubt, for example, that this book will generate any of the excitement that Beating the Sicilian inspired in its readers. Of course, I would still insist that any student of mine who played the Pirc buy a copy of The Ultimate Pirc. After all, we're talking about knowledgeable authors with massive database resources who have arranged all of this disparate material coherently; that's a task which might take a student a year or more! So sure, this book is certain to take its place as the definitive work on the Pirc Defense; I'm just disappointed that it doesn't seem to have the insight or vibrancy of previous works by Nunn.