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Two High-Quality Opening Books
The Scotch Game; Peter Wells; 160 pages;
More opening books this week, as I finally begin to catch up with recent releases. The leading British publishers are still putting out the best in this genre (with, alas, prices to match!), and this week's two selections are prime examples of what authors should be doing when they take on complex openings on a sophisticated level. The books have somewhat different aims: Wells' is a part of Batsford's 'Opening Guides' series, which makes an explicit attempt to mix analysis with general themes and instruction; his book is organized by illustrative games, whereas Crouch's book follows what seems to be the almost-abandoned traditional format of the analytical tree, covering each variation in encyclopedic fashion. While Crouch has a friendly style and briefly explains the key ideas as he goes along, he doesn't engage in the longer strategical explanations which characterize Wells' book. Also, Crouch admits to writing 'from White's point of view'; Wells has played both sides of the Scotch and doesn't try to make a case for either color. It's interesting that both approaches lead to such high-quality results.
Peter Wells is a talented British grandmaster who has written several opening books, including a recent work on the Sicilian Rauzer. What I like about Peter's books is his generous use of original analysis and the care he takes to note precisely which variations he prefers and why. The Scotch Game, his latest book, is a much-needed study of 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4, an opening which Kasparov has consistently employed, stating that he considers it the only serious alternative to the Ruy Lopez (3.Bb5). When Kasparov speaks, the chess world listens, and any number of top players now regularly employ the Scotch. As Wells comments, this is a strategically rich opening, and I can't think of another weapon versus 1.e4 e5 which is sound, promises as much, and requires relatively modest preparation on White's part.
Since I have done some work on the Scotch with Tal Shaked, and since I recommend it to my students, I was able to assess Well's treatment of some of the critical lines. Tal and I checked a couple of obscure moves which were bothering us, and we were pleased to see that Wells had not only mentioned those moves, but had singled them out for attention. I found Well's analysis and explanation of the main line with 4...Nf6 5.Nxc6 (it's important to note that Wells doesn't examine 5.Nc3, which is a type of Four Knights) 5...bxc6 6.e5 Qe7 7.Qe2 Nd5 8.c4 not only accurate, but very enlightening. This is a real mess of a line, in which both White and Black apply completely different plans to positions which appear almost identical. Wells makes sense of these fine distinctions, explaining apparently paradoxical moves in language any amateur can understand. He seldom resorts to facile generalities (which don't apply very well to complex openings anyway), and his advice is firmly entrenched in the context of specific positions.
I also reviewed the chapters on 4...Bc5 5.Nxc6 Qf6 6.Qd2 and 4...Qh4 (the move I played as a youngster). Again, the analysis is excellent and original, particularly in the former line. Well's explanations are much more explicit and detailed than in other opening books I have reviewed for this column. I think that the improving player will be particularly pleased by the quantity and quality of verbal assistance. This is a luxury which is afforded by having a full-length book on a relatively specialized topic. On the other hand, although there is nothing missing, one can easily imagine more examples and deeper analysis at several junctures; it's simply in the nature of the book (and series) to avoid excursions into eccentric analytical byways. As a result, the reader has plenty to investigate on his own if he should so choose. One minor gripe: I had some trouble locating a few lines which can arise by transposition (e.g., in the main line with 4...Nf6 5.Nxc6, White can play b3, g3, and Nd2 in a number of orders); what ever became of the Index of Variations we used to see in opening books? Having to locate the end of all potentially-related chapters in order to scan through a 'Chapter Overview' is clearly less convenient. Once again, the organization of material by illustrative games has its drawbacks, although the breakdown of lines in the Scotch is more readily comprehensible than with many openings. As I say, this is really a minor complaint in what is generally a well-organized effort.
In conclusion, The Scotch Game is a genuine contribution to opening theory as well as a marvelously instructive book. I highly recommend it to players of all strengths on either side of this topical opening, as well as to those wishing to adopt the Scotch for the first time.
Colin Crouch is an experienced IM who has written about chess for many years. However, I don't recall him writing anything with the scope and originality of The Queen's Gambit Declined 5.Bf4!. This is a truly remarkable effort on what is, again, a strangely neglected topic. It didn't take me long to realize how much careful thought had gone into this book, and my feeling was confirmed by a lifelong 5.Bf4 player (IM) who was effusive in its praise.
Of course, this is a very different kind of book than The Scotch Game. Crouch takes an extra 100 pages, with much less strategical explanation, to cover a more specialized topic: White's play after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 Be7 5.Bf4 (with a mere two-and-a-half pages on 4...Nbd7 5.cxd5). What is filling all that space? Quite simply, Crouch examines just about every move which has been played in every variation after 5.Bf4. Fortunately, there's a good Index of Variations at the back of the book to sort out what's covered.
Since I don't play this line for White (I've always chosen 4.Bg5 or 4.cxd5), I decided to make a database of games played since this book came out and see what kind of guidance Crouch would give with respect to the new games. This is not a fair way to assess a book; after all, it might be the most instructive thing ever written and contain shockingly original analysis of currently unfashionable lines, but still fail to anticipate new events in the highly-specialized world of grandmaster fashion. Still, it's one indication, and, as it turned out, I spent a lot more time than I'd expected poring over 5.Bf4 games. Crouch consistently gave plenty of information on each line I examined, although once in while his overall preference for White (see the '!' in the title?) may have led him astray. More often, however, his own honesty and thoroughness tended to betray that '!'. For example, the very first line I looked at, 5...0-0 6.e3 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.Qc2 Nc6 9.a3 Qa5 10.0-0-0 Be7 11.h4 dxc4 12.Bxc4 a6, had recently won a game for White. Crouch, who is very enthusiastic about 11.h4, nevertheless devotes a full page of dense analysis to a line considered good for White, 13.Ng5 b5 14.Nce4 g6, and finds very interesting resources for Black. I spent some time trying to improve White's chances there, unsuccessfully. I know how it feels, as an author, when one has a favorite line and finds a problem with it that others aren't aware of; to his credit, Crouch duly presents the problem and suggests further research, rather than hiding behind current theory. Such honesty pervades the book, and advances the theory of the opening considerably.
In the variation of the last paragraph, Karpov recently played 11...a6 12.Ng5 Rd8 against Gelfland; the game went 13.cxd5 exd5 14.e4 Ne4!, a new move that Crouch had anticipated, and which he analyses in some depth in his book. That game was drawn, confirming Colin's analysis. Crouch himself gives 13.Bd3 ('probably best') 13...h6 14.g4!, and appends a great deal of analysis following 14...e5, after which White achieves a terrific attack. Although I haven't looked at it in sufficient detail, it seems to me that 14..d4! is a much better response, and I suspect that's what Karpov would have played. The point is, Crouch deserves great credit for both the excellent 14...Ne4! and the perhaps dubious 14.g4, because they both extend theory and point the reader in the critical new directions he needs to be looking at. On a side note, these two lines along with others might temper the reader's enthusiasm for the 11.h4 attack, and indeed, recent games have featured 11.Kb1 at least as often (whereas 8.a3 Nc6 9.Rc1 is another deviation being seen of late).
I can't resist giving another example of Crouch's objectivity. For some strange reason (the dictates of fashion?), the move (after 5.Bf4:) 5...dxc4!? has been almost unknown in grandmaster practice. Crouch recognizes this, and strives to discover why. In the course of his investigation, he concludes that 6.e4 b5! 7.Nxb5 Bb4+ is ultimately satisfactory for Black (based on a wealth of entirely original analysis) and that, furthermore, 6.e3 Nd5! seems fine for the second player as well. At this point, Crouch says: "So the delicate question arises: if Black is doing OK after both 6.e3 and 6.e4, doesn't this just kill off the 5.Bf4 system? If this were so, the author would have mixed feelings; a sense of pride at having busted a whole opening system, combined with horror at the thought of what effects this would have on sales of this book...Mercifully, though, there is a way in which White can play for an edge..."
He then suggests 6.Qa4+, giving a line after 6...c6 7.Qxc4 Qa5 which leads to a modest advantage for White. I think that seems fair enough, but Crouch's attention to 5...dxc4 still strikes me as a remarkable addition to theory. For example, after 6.Qa4+, Black might just play 6...Nbd7!?, intending ...0-0 and ...Nb6 or ...c5. Since 7.Nb5 Nd5 and 7.Qxc4 c5 and 7.e4 0-0 8.Qxc4 c5 intending ...a6 seem satisfactory for Black, Crouch's fear that he has discovered a real problem for 5.Bf4 may be true after all. I'll be curious to see if this idea leads anywhere!
Well, this review has gone on long enough. I can't emphasize enough what respect I have for the kind of research Crouch has done, and for Well's book, which is also original while being superbly instructive. Although these are relatively sophisticated overviews of openings and therefore may seem more detailed than the average player needs, I think that misses the point. These are the types of book which, if you put some time into their study, will teach you a great deal more about middlegame play than, for example a static examination of structures will. In fact, both openings lead to a rich variety of typical pawn formations in a tactically realistic context; thus, the reward of studying such books goes well beyond the narrow application of a set of opening moves to your club games.
Finally, who are these books for? Without excluding any potential audience, there's no doubt that Well's book makes more attempt to appeal to the developing player, and Crouch's will prove tough going for a less experienced audience. Neither is appropriate for the beginner, of course, but I would expect The Scotch Game to be valuable to anyone over 1400, and 5.Bf4! for somewhat stronger players, say, 1700 and above. As usual, I'm not confident about these strength estimates; but in any case, it's a pleasure to recommend both of these fine efforts.