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The Complex Benko/Benoni Complex
The Benko Gambit; Byron Jacobs & Andrew Kinsman; 160 pages; B.T.Batsford/Chrysalis, 1999
Guide to the Benko Gambit; Steffen Pedersen; 176 pages; Gambit Publications; 1999
Die Komplette Moderne Benoni-Verteidigung, vols 1-3; Attila Schneider; 300, 224, and 196 pages; Reinhold Dreier, 1997-98
Modern Benoni (video); Chris Ward; 95 minutes; Grandmaster Video Ltd 1999
A70 Benoni; Boris Gelfand & Albert Kapengut; 200 pages; Chess Informant 1998
Since I've been doing some work with both the Benko Gambit and Modern Benoni recently, I thought I'd talk a bit about some works on those subjects which have appeared over the past few years. The two most recent books are about the Benko Gambit, one by Steffen Pedersen, which I've already mentioned favourably in this column, and the other by Bryon Jacobs and Andrew Kinsman. The latter book is a welcome indication from Batsford/Chrysalis that they are still producing quality works by fine writers.
The Benko Gambit is still used regularly in international chess. Following Benko's lead over 30 years ago, a set of GMs has always been interested in playing 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 (also known as the 'Volga Gambit'). Today, we find it used by leading GMs such as Topalov, Adams, Khalifman, Polgar, and Leko, indicating the respectability the gambit has achieved.
To my mind, despite efforts by Benko, Levy, Ravikumar, and Jacobs himself (1995), there has been a large and persistent gap in the theoretical literature on this popular opening, especially when we go beyond explaining the stereotyped ways in which Black tends deploy his forces and what happens in the ideal endgame. I feel that John Fedorowicz' 1990 book (revised 1995) remained the best treatment until the two books above appeared, but it was rapidly becoming too dated. Happily, both Pedersen's work and Jacobs and Kinsman's effort lay out all the variations, utilize large and relevant databases, identify which lines are currently critical for both sides, and add their own ideas and thoughts. Both books are excellent, and although most players can probably get by with just one of them, the true Benko fanatic will probably want both.
Although the Jacobs and Kinsman book appeared later, it was apparently held up in the publishing process, and neither book had the advantage of using the other. I also find it interesting that none of these authors (if I'm doing the database search correctly) has a large number of published games in this opening, although they do such an excellent job of covering it. Along those lines, Pedersen (henceforth 'SP') should probably reflect White's point of view better, whereas Jacobs and Kinsman ('J&K') might tend to favour Black, but this really tends to be true only in the rhetoric and mild cheerleading of the latter book, and not so much in the variations. IM Andrew Martin, by the way, contributed both the thorough Introduction to the Batsford book and the notes to five games.
I compared the books for various lines. My first test was the cruelest: recently the move 10.Rb1 has become popular in the Fianchetto variation (4.cxb5 a6 5.bxa6 g6 6.g3 Bxa6 7.Bg2 d6 8.Nc3 Bg7 9.Nf3 Nbd7). White wants to play b3 or even a3, and by not castling, he avoids 10.0-0 Nb6 11.Rb1 Bc4, recovering the pawn. Tisdall's ChessPublishing site has been raving about White's chances (reflected in an overwhelming winning ratio of late), so I wanted to see what these two books had to say. Of course, this is not very fair, since both sources to some extent seem to depend upon Black's idea of an early Nb6 to discourage Rb1, and White's delayed castling is a new idea. As it turns out, deprived of this trick, both books are quite objective and tend to show wins and advantages for White throughout their notes. Both give possible alternatives for Black, but not at all fleshed-out. Amusingly, J&K suggest Qc7 at a couple points, while Pedersen says 'I have never understood this positioning of the queen in the Benko', and gives reasons why he doesn't like Qc7 (e.g., it blocks off the Ne8-c7). In the end, Black still has a lot of work to do in this line, and it should prove to be a very handy White weapon.
I looked at some irregular fourth moves, e.g., 4.a4. In this case, both books seem to acknowledge the White advantage after 4 bxc4, and SP does a slightly better job of covering 4 b4, especially in his unequivocal rejection of 5.g3 e5(?) 6.dxe6! with Bg2 and Nh3 to follow. On the other hand, while SP gives more detail following 4.Bg5, the analysis is more to the point in J&K, who point out that 4 Ne4 5.Bf4 Qa5+ 6.Nd2 g5 7.Be5 Rg8 8.Qc2 Nxd2 9.Bc3, given by Seirawan and a bit better for White, is easily met by 8 Qxd2! instead. Both books' coverage of the topical 4.Nf3 lines is excellent. I think that J&Ks suggestions in the 4 Bb7 line show it to be better than its reputation, especially after 5.Nbd2.
Both books offer plenty of suggested improvements, and get high points for originality; but perhaps a bit too often, the suggestions are one-movers and not pursued. Pedersen's overall coverage of 4.cxb5 a6 5.f3 is generally better and more in-depth. In the line with 5 g6, J&K state that Black can't afford to take the time for d6, but they omit the line 6.e4 Bg7 7.d6, which SP calls 'underestimated', and seems very dangerous. One of the few times either book ignores an important line is when J&K don't cover the still-critical 5.f3 e6 6.e4 c4!? at all. On the other hand, J&K seem closer to the truth in the critical long lines beginning with 5.e6 6.e4 exd5 7.e5 Qe7 8.Qe2 etc., which are very important for an assessment of 5.f3.
On it goes. Having spent a lot of time with these books, I can tell you that they are both a quantum leap above earlier Benko books, and both examples of top-notch opening writing.
If you aren't up for 3...b5, you can hang onto your pawn and play 3 ...e6, the Modern Benoni. There is relatively little new material out there concerning this important and rapidly-changing opening, which is still played by many top-level players. Most sources naturally emphasize lines with Nf3 (without f3 or f4), because the most common Benoni move order these days is 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 c5 4.d5 etc.. I'm not going to go into Chris Ward's video in great detail, since a video on such a complicated system is bound to be selective and superficial at points, and its main purpose is to introduce a new player to the Benoni with specific move orders and a lot of ideas. For that purpose, I think that this video succeeds wonderfully. One could easily take up the Benoni using only Ward's presentation, and fill in details later as one gains practical experience. And, as I indicated in TWIC review #6, I think these videos are terrific teaching tools.
Of course, one cannot replace the depth of books. Ward begins with 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6 6.Nf3 g6 7.Bf4, for example, with the defence 7 Bg7 8.Qa4+ Bd7 9.Qb3 b5!; but he doesn't mention 6.e4 g6 7.Bf4, which precludes that defence and offers another set of difficult problems. He also devotes his efforts to avoiding the 'Modern Main Line', 6.e4 g6 7.Nf3 Bg7 8.h3 0-0 9.Bd3, quite properly recommending 7 a6 8.a4 Bg4, and against 6.Nf3 g6 7.h3, 7 a6 8.a4 Qe7. These are legitimate lines, for sure; but in the latter case, 8.e4 b5 9.Bd3, perhaps White's best try, goes unmentioned. More importantly, when Ward suggests 6.e4 g6 7.Bd3 Bg7 for Black, what is he planning on 8.h3? Now 8 0-0 9.Nf3 is the Modern Main Line, and 8 a6 9.a4 leads to variations of the Modern which are considered particularly unfavourable for Black. I also have problems with some of the lines he chooses for Black, and of course all the White side systems aren't covered, but that's the nature of a simplified repertoire. So to summarize: I think anyone starting out with the Benoni, especially from 1200-2200 but even a master-level player, could both enjoy and get great recommendations from this video. At some point, of course, you'll want to supplement it with something more serious.
Attila Schneider's massive 3-volume work on the Benoni (720 pages!) is the most recent comprehensive survey of the Benoni. It was translated from Hungarian into German and published by Reinhold Dreier, a quality publishing firm which I suspect many TWIC readers are unaware of (http://members.aol.com/DreierR/; in the U.S., I believe that most Dreier works are available from Chess Digest). Like other Dreier publications, these are solidly put-together hardbound volumes. The text is in German, but mostly consists of assessments which will often be comprehensible to the English-speaker, and introductory descriptions, which probably won't be. It is very much a variation-oriented book, however; and the openings fan who wants information rather than instruction should not let language be a barrier.
There are two contrasting features which most stand out about these books. On the one hand, Schneider thinks for himself, makes his own assessments, and is clearly not just copying older books, as many authors do. The negative side to his approach is an apparent ignorance of other's analysis and an over-reliance on the results of games to assess positions stemming from those games. As a result, they make intriguing reading for a Benoni veteran, and should appeal to anyone who consistently plays the Benoni as Black; but the inconsistency and sometimes low quality of the analysis makes this a mediocre general reference. If one is firmly committed to a particular way of play as White, one might consider getting the appropriate volume to help. In brief, Volume 1 covers non-Nf3 variations including the Four Pawns Attack, the Taimanov Benoni with 7.f4 and 8.Bb5+, f3 systems, Bd3/Nge2 systems, and (somewhat anomalously) the lines with 6.Nf3 g6 7.Bf4 and 7.Bg5, the latter only with e3 or Nd2 following. Volume 2 covers the Classical Main Lines (6.e4 g6 7.Nf3 Bg7 8.Be2), combinations of e4 and Bg5, and the Knight's Tour (7.Nd2 and 8.Nc4). Volume 3 includes the above-mentioned Modern Main Line with e4, Nf3, h3, and Bd3, including the ways for Black to avoid this (such as 7 a6 above), the line 6.e4 g4 7.Bf4, and the Fianchetto Variation (with g3).
Schneider's treatment of the Four Pawns Attack reflects his work as a whole, and shows how in these days, it is almost a necessity to have a good electronic database and analytical engine. If we compare his discussion with that of Vaisser Beating the King's Indian and Benoni (Batsford, 1997), we find their conclusions repeatedly in conflict in the 9 Re8 10.e5 lines, with, for example, Schneider ending lines in clear advantage to Black where Vaisser continues the analysis to equality, or Schneider missing improvements which dramatically change a line's assessment (just a few examples: pg 101, lines B&C; pg. 108, A2; pg. 125, main line; and just about every important position in the important 14.d6 c4+ and 14 Qxb2 lines of pgs. 126-128). There are also important differences in the 9..Re8 10.Nd2, with Schneider ignoring several strong moves which are in Vaisser or even in ECO (e.g., pg. 136, B; pg. 137, White's 16th, pg. 145, F3; main line of pg. 163); but in this case, he also knows of some legitimate games and ideas which escaped others' notice (pg. 157, note on 12.Nc4). More importantly, Schneider shows his independence by advocating the unusual 9 Nbd7'!' as virtually a refutation of the Four Pawns Attack (Ward also recommends this line, without the detail). With a load of original analysis, Schneider does a thorough job on the line 9 Nbd7 10.e5 ('the only meaningful move if White is to refute this variation') 10 dxe5 11.fxe5 Ng4 12.e6 Nde5!, intending 13.Ng5 c4!!, as occurred in one game; but again, there is no analysis of the critical 12.Bg5, when I think that 12 Qb6 13.e6! and 12 f6 13.exf6 are both very dangerous-looking. And right after 9 Nbd7, 10.0-0 Re8 11.Nd2 transposes to a known 9 Re8 10.Nd2 line (not even covered by Schneider without a6 and a4 in, by the way). This bypasses some of Black's better defences to 9 Re8 10.Nd2. Vaisser likes 10.0-0 Re8 11.Qc2 here, although 11 Qe7 12.Nd2 Nb6! looks okay to me, with the idea of Nfxd5!. It's fair to say that more work needs to be done here.
A comparison of Volume 2 with Psakhis' 'The Complete Benoni' (Batsford, 1995) is similarly favourable to Psakhis, who repeatedly shows (in advance) that Schneider's assessments are wrong, and suggests important improvements for both sides in critical games. This indicates clearly that Schneider didn't have Psakhis' book as a reference, and in general, one feels that a very modest analytical input would have avoided his frequent misassessments, which too often rely upon the outcome of a game. A comparable source for many of the lines in Volume 3 would be Gelfland and Kapengut's very specialized work 'A70' (details listed above), which is relatively recent (1998) and thus takes advantage of the explosion in the Modern Main Line. I haven't used Schneider's Volume 3 yet, but it appears to be more careful and more broadly-researched than the first two volumes.
The verdict? As a Benoni fan, I enjoy Schneider's works and am glad to have them on my shelf. But as trustworthy works of analysis and assessment, they seem quite poor, and reflect the lack of modern tools necessary to tackle such an immense project. I respect Schneider's originality and energy, yet would use these books only to scour for ideas, and then check them carefully. Ultimately, then, I can probably fairly recommend these volumes to hard-core Benoni players, and to players of White who want one of the volumes as a reference for their favourite anti-Benoni system.