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Reflections on Opening Repertoire Books
Easy Guide to the Nimzo-Indian; John
Emms; 128 pages; Cadogan 1998
The Grünfeld for the Attacking Player, Bogdan Lalic; 223 pages; B.T.Batsford 1997
Given the number of new books I'm getting in, the above three may seem an odd choice of titles, since there is only one new title and two from last year. I promise to get more current soon! But I wanted to illustrate some trends in the particular type of openings book which recommends a set of lines for one color, i.e., a 'repertoire'. I have worked with each book myself (another reason for picking these ones), and will be looking at them not to give a complete review, but to concentrate on matters relating to their presentation and philosophy. This review is in part a response to the numerous emails I've been getting relating to what readers want in an opening book. Using that as an excuse, I will first hold forth a bit about my own philosophy of chess books, and then get down to a more careful look at the chosen titles. By the way, these are books from two of the leading English-language chess companies. But please note, publishers: I can read other languages as well, and have even translated chess books, so use the email address below and contact me if you want to get your books reviewed!
Okay, back to business. What do most readers look for in an opening book? Unfortunately, something that they won't get. TWIC readers, for example, apparently want pretty much what my own students keep asking for: a book which explains all the 'ideas' of an opening, but isn't cluttered up with all sorts of nasty variations which one will never run into over the board anyway. I'm sorry to report that this is just a fantasy. Learning an opening by accumulating abstract ideas is a little like learning a language by reading a grammar book. Worse, actually, because generalizations in chess don't apply with nearly the consistency or predictability of grammatical rules. If a chess opening could be learned by absorbing the opening's 'ideas' (whatever those might be), the opening phase of the game would be universally mastered and of little interest. The fact is, no verbal description of what squares are important or where the pieces 'usually' go can describe the dynamic interplay of tactics and positional factors in any major opening. Whereas, by contrast, the straightforward study of enough examples will lead to a nuanced and practical knowledge of how to play that opening. In addition, by studying in context, you will automatically get a much better grasp on how those important squares and typical maneuvers work than you would have from reading a general description.
I won't belabor the point; it's obvious that real understanding will take some work. Nevertheless, having said that, there a number of ways to guide a reader through the many variations he needs to look at in order to understand an opening. GM John Emms' Easy Guide to the Nimzo-Indian is a superb example of how a short volume with plenty of handholding for the variation-handicapped can still get its point across. The trick is to give numerous exemplary positions, complete with arrows emanating from the pieces showing potential moves, and then, when the reader is lulled into the idea that he's reading a pleasant adventure story, to sneak in a complex repertoire with the same 'boring' detail and laborious scholarship that any good, responsible book would contain. For example, although one would never think so from it's user-friendly appearance, Emms' repertoire is at one point split into 'D3321 13.b4; D3322 13.Qd2; and D3323 13.Qb3'. The lazy reader will still blanche, of course, but he can't say that great care wasn't taken with his feelings.
By contrast, Burgess and Pedersen's Beating the Indian Defences makes no pretenses. White is given row after row of variations and subvariations which, taken as a whole, give him a complete repertoire against all of Black's 'Indian' defenses. The latter encompass a very broad range of systems including, e.g., the Nimzo-Indian, Queen's Indian, Bogo-Indian, Dutch, Benko, Modern Benoni, Grünfeld, King's Indian, and a host of lesser systems! Thus, the very scope of the subject matter necessitates a no-nonsense approach. Emms only has to present a single solution to five or six main White systems versus the Nimzo, and something simple to play against the irregular lines. Burgess and Pedersen ('B+P') are providing mostly main-line solutions (i.e., those used by leading GMs), and in many cases offer alternative systems, a prime example being both 3.Nf3 and 3.Nc3 versus 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6. They not surprisingly omit both instructional game excerpts and arrows emanating from the pieces, and use smaller print and a lot more pages as well!
Both of these books are first-class. Their authors are three of the very best currently writing, and this shows in the excellent job they do of selecting and analyzing variations. They present complete repertoires without skipping variations, and both use established lines which will hold up for many years, assuming that the reader keeps up with new ideas. I would highly recommend Emms' book for the person who wants to take up the Nimzo-Indian or needs a refresher; my guess is that it would be most appropriate for the 1400-2200 range. Burgess and Pedersen's book is to my mind one of the very best in the past five years; anyone playing 1.d4 can supply a great part of his repertoire (or add good second systems) by using this book. In this case, the technicality of the material suggests a more sophisticated audience, perhaps 1700-2400. However, readers of all strengths will benefit by careful study of either book.
It's interesting to compare the point at which the two books overlap, namely, the 4.Qc2 line B+P recommend against the Nimzo-Indian. Emms, publishing later, had access to B+P's book and accords it due respect. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 0-0 5.a3 Bxc3 6.Qxc3 b6 7.Bg5, both books look at 7...Ba6 8.Nf3 d6 9.e3 Nbd7 10.Bd3 c5 11.0-0 Rc8 12.Qb3 h6 13.Bh4, and here Emms gives original analysis, suggesting 13...d5! 14.cxd5 (14.Qa4 cxd4! intending 15.Qxa6 Nc5) 14...Bxd3 15.Qxd3 c4!? 16.Qc2 exd5, which looks fine to me, since 17.Ne5 g5 18.Bg3 Ne4 can follow. This gives an indication of Emms' depth and originality, as do other insightful suggestions throughout his book. Moving on to the main line with 7...Bb7 8.e3 d6 9.f3 Nbd7 10.Bd3 h6 11.Bh4 c5 12.Ne2 Rc8, Emms finds it harder to challenge B+P's analysis. The latter recommend 13.Qb3, and this holds up well in the main line 13...cxd4 14.exd4 d5 15.0-0 dxc4 16.Bxc4 Nb8 (16...a6!?) 17.Qd3 (versus ...Ba6) 17...Qe7, when Emms doesn't dispute B+P's assertion that 18.Rfe1 Rfd8 19.Nc3 might favor White, as claimed by Sokolov. 19...Rc7 intending ...Rd7 might be an idea; but the White side looks more fun to play.
Since I am going to use GM Bogdan Lalic's The Grünfeld for the Attacking Player to illustrate some typical faults a repertoire book can have, I should in fairness make some compensating remarks. First, as with other Batsford productions, it is well-produced, with high standards of editing and typesetting. Moreover, at the time it was written, there was a definite gap in the literature of this opening, and as a reference book, it is undoubtedly useful. I myself check new Grünfeld games against Lalic's book as well as my databases. I would also point out that Lalic's excellent recent work, The Budapest Gambit (Batsford 1998), appears to be a much more careful and far better-researched book (his treatment of the line I play, for example, was extensive and accurate); so the problems I list below, although they are typical of many opening books, do not apply to this author's work in general.
Lalic makes it explicit that he is writing a Black-point-of-view book, with an emphasis on the second player obtaining winning chances. His method of presentation is the illustrative game, with sidelines given in notes. This contrasts with Emms (who uses the traditional tree structure), and corresponds in principle to what B+P do. But in fact, Burgess and Pedersen take almost obsessive care to list all of Black's serious options versus the White repertoire they are suggesting. I consider this a strength of their book because, if you play a game over the weekend and return to find out why the proposed system didn't work for you, the exact move order is very likely to be found with an example, or at least a suggestion. Lalic's presentation is much looser; he seems to mention the lines he is most interested in, or has a nice example for, but omits other important variations. In an earlier review, I identified this as a danger of the illustrative-game approach, i.e., that one can skip lines too easily. As an example (and there are others below), the first Grünfeld I glanced at for this review was in a recent magazine and began 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Be3 c5 8.Qd2 Qa5 9.Rc1. This formerly popular move is not as frequently seen as 9.Rb1, since the ending after 9.Rc1 cxd4 10.cxd4 Qxd2+ 11.Kxd2 is supposed to be okay for Black. But when I was studying this line about a year ago, I noticed a correspondence game which seemed promising for White, especially when I did some independent analysis. So wanted to see what Lalic said: alas, 9.Rc1 itself is missing from the book! At least, one would think that Grünfeld players would need to know how to play the Black side. Okay, it happens. Then I thought I'd compare the overlap between Burgess and Pedersen's book and Lalic's, as I had done above with Emms'. B+P (who had access to Lalic's book) recommend the above variation for White, but with 9.Rb1 b6 10.Bb5+ Bd7 11.Bd3!?, and quote various games from 1992 to 1997. Lalic doesn't even mention 11.Bd3 at all.
Next, I checked the line I myself have played for years as White, 7.Nf3 (instead of 7.Be3 above) 7...c5 8.Rb1 0-0 9.Be2, which is probably the 'main line' of the Grünfeld in contemporary practice. Here I found a number of problems. First, like too many authors, Lalic apparently adds no analysis whatsoever of his own to this chapter. Yet the reader has no way of knowing this, since he fails to attribute any of the dense notes to every game, although they are copied wholesale from Informant! These include notes by lesser masters as well as the likes of Shirov, Kramnik, and Leko. It is irritating and misleading to steal analysis in this fashion, and the reader has no idea if Lalic is just throwing out some ideas or whether this is the in-depth analysis of a player who actually played the game. Worse (from the point of view of forming a repertoire), the games cited in many variations come from 1994 and 1995, but the critical, tactically-based lines in those games were overturned by improvements which appeared well before Lalic's book was published. In fact, some of these improvements were listed in the same Informants from which he draws his games! This lack of research does a disservice to the reader, especially since many of these improvements are for the White side.
Then there are the gaps. In the main line after 9.Be2 cxd4 10.cxd4 Qa5+, for example, Lalic doesn't even mention 11.Qd2, which is not only the move a club player would tend to play (to protect the a-pawn), but it has a large body of games by top-level GMs behind it and requires very careful and accurate defense by Black. In most of the main games with 11.Bd2 Qxa2, furthermore, he curiously omits well-established moves for White, even though those are the ones which the player of Black needs to know about. All this might not be so bad had the author provided his own insight into the variations given. But at least in this material I looked at, several of the lines presented for Black are subject to rather easy improvements by White; in general, one feels that the author hasn't given much personal attention to the games. Overall, then, this chapter ends up being a jumble of misleading games with poor guidance.
My point is certainly not to denigrate this particular book, which is in any case a useful introduction to the Grünfeld for Black, or Lalic, who, as mentioned, has already avoided repeating these problems in his latest work. He writes well and instructively, and will certainly produce more fine books in the future. Instead, I am trying to alert the reader to the kind of thing one must watch out for in a repertoire or other opening book. To summarize this lengthy review, then: (a) openings can only be learned by study of numerous examples and variations, not by learning abstract 'ideas'; (b) books can use either the tree structure or the illustrative-game approach successfully, but the second choice often leads to the omission of key material; (c) watch out for books which fail to attribute analysis--there's a good chance that the material is copied from elsewhere; (d) before you purchase a book, if you get the chance, compare a few variations in it (preferably ones you play) with what you have in your database. If a simple collection of database games gives you more information than what's in the book, try to assess whether other qualities of the book (line selection, instruction, guidance) outweigh it's lack of original information. Barring that approach, your best bet is to go by the company's and author's reputation, and hope for the best!