Reviews | April 30, 2010 2:22

Review: Understanding the Marshall Attack

Understanding the Marshall AttackAdmit it: one of the reasons you're not playing the main line Ruy Lopez or even 1.e4, is that you're afraid of the Marshall Attack. I, for one, plead guilty to this charge. I've always avoided the Marshall Attack like the plague, not because I don't like exciting openings, but because I simply don't have the time to investigate all these hypersharp developments.

Of course, there have been publications in the past that dealt admirably with the Marshall Attack, such as Bogdan Lalic's 2003 book or Nunn and Harding's Batsford classic from 1989, but that was exactly the problem, wasn't it: these books are hopelessly outdated now, and there are so many new concepts that it's impossible to gain a proper overview of recent ideas. But now there finally is a new book on the Marshall: Understanding the Marshall Attack by IM David Vigorito, published by Gambit.

Subtitled "A layman's guide to the supergrandmaster's favourite gambit", this book is an excellent chance for cowards like me to get reacquainted with this great opening line. First of all, the chapter names already give you an idea of what to expect: "Elite Equaliser", "Refined Rook lift". Then there's the pretty elaborate bibliography, in which I couldn't spot any obivous flaws. (Yes, Anand's Chess Informant monograph is there as well.) The only thing I missed was a reference to ChessVibes Openings, which has dealt with the Marshall on numerous occasions. A missed opportunity!

Understanding the Marshall Attack is one of those rare objective opening books not aimed at either Black or White, but just intended to give amateurs a good, solid overview and practical tips. It's not as personal a book as Jonathan Rowson's Understanding the Grünfeld, but it's well-written and has a clever setup. I really liked the 'recommendations' chapter, which contains useful practical advice such as:

For the typical club player, I would start by going through Chapter 2, the Old Main Line. Although this variation has fallen out of favour, it contains an abundance of typical Marshall Attack themes. In the Old Main Line, Black burns all his bridges and must play for the initiative. The value of every move is high and one can learn a lot about attack, defence and counterattack by going through the lines in this chapter. Similar play can be found in the Pawn Push variations of Chapter 3. Although one may not want to play these lines forever because of their rather dubious theoretical value, I think the creative black player could get some mileage out of these systems if he picks and chooses his lines carefully.

Equally useful is the chapter on 'Typical Ideas'. Here are two instructive non-tactical examples, one for Black (on the two bishops ending) and one for White (on the exchange sacrifice), also indicative of the book's objectivity.

I. Gurevich - Benjamin
New York 1992
Understanding the Marshall Attack
Here we have a typical Marshall endgame. White has difficulty creating a passed pawn and Black's space on the kingside keeps White at bay as well.

28...Be2! 29.Nh2 If White plays 29.gxf4 Bxf4 his knight will only be able to move somewhere that will allow Black to head for a drawn opposite-coloured ending (30.Bd2 Bxf1! =).

29...Kf7 30.Kg2 Kf6 31.f3 h5! Taking away the g4-square (...)

In this small fragment, note how Vigorito doesn't avoid the oft-debated question of whether Black should or should not head for a simple draw in the Marshall sometimes: yes, he should!

Yakovenko - Zhang Zhong
Ergun 2006
Understanding the Marshall Attack
Even with the queens exchanged, White's central roller combined with the weaknesses in Black's structure can give White good chances.

21.a4! Before starting operations on the kingside, White creates the possibility of opening the a-file.

21...h6 22.Kg2 Rd7 23.h4! gxh4 24.e5 Be7 25.gxh4 Kg7 If 25...Bxh4 then 26.Nf3 wins the pawn.

26.axb5 The immediate 26.Ne4 was also possible.

26...axb6 27.Ne4 The knight is heading to g3 and f5. White has a powerful initiative.

David Vigorito is able to explain subtle opening ideas in a clear and easily understandable way. For me, and I suppose for many a club player, The Marshall Attack has often given me difficulty to grasp the precise nuances of certain concepts such as 12.d3 instead of 12.d4. I mean, isn't it just a more passive way of playing? Why would the pawn be any better placed on d3? If anything, it might become a weakness later on, and it doesn't control the e5 square, right? Of course, things are not that simple:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 c6 12.d3

Understanding the Marshall Attack

This is a more modest-looking continuation than 12.d4. At first glance it does not seem like this should be dangerous for Black, but White maintains control over the e4- and c4 squares, which allows for some tactical possibilities. White has not grabbed as much space, however, and the pawn on d3 may become vulnerable itself. White will often be more than willing to offer this pawn in order to fight for the initiative. It will all come down to the specifics of each position. Despite the similar appearances at first glance of this position to those we have already seen, the play is surprisingly different from that in the first four chapters.

12...Bd6 13.Re1
Understanding the Marshall Attack
Now Black faces an important decision. In this chapter we look at the most natural move, the direct 13...Qh4, while the next chapter considers the modern preference, 13...Bf5.

13...Qh4 Black continues as he does in the first few chapters. However, White can exploit a tactical detail that was not available to him in Chapter 4.

14.g3 Qh3 15.Re4
Understanding the Marshall Attack
This move is the point of White's play. He intends Rh4 often with Nd2-e4 to follow. Compared to the previous chapter [12.d4 followed by 15.Re4 - AWM], 15...g5 is not possible, because after 16.Bxg5 Qf5 the e4-rook is protected and White will remain two pawns up. Therefore Black must find another way to create counterplay. (...).

Aha! So that's why 12.d3 is such a useful little move. Very enlightening, and I think I will actually start playing this move once I've built up the courage to move the bishop just one square further on move 3. (Of course, I will have to study the 'elite equalizer' move 13...Bf5 to avoid a quick draw against an elite player!) The book is up to date until 2009, and contains a lot of mouth-watering recent supergrandmaster games by players like Anand, Aronian and Grischuk. On top of that, most of the main lines in the book are based on these games - always a sign that the author is not afraid of the 'real' hardcore stuff.

So, just in case you're still too afraid to enter these dungeons of adventure, the book also discusses the Anti-Marshall variations such as 8.a4, 8.h3 and some minor deviations on move 8 or 9. Here, too, Vigorito gives useful advice and sometimes an enlightening insight in what these top players might actually be considering when choosing a particular quiet line:

Understanding the Marshall Attack
10.a3 White's play is very flexible, but it is also very slow. I find it very difficult to believe that moves such as 8.h3, 9.d3 and 10.a3 can constitute any kind of threat to the 7...0-0 move-order. White now has two plans of development, depending on how he develops his queen's knight. It most often develops to d2, from where it will usually go to f1 and then either e3 or g3. The alternative is to develop to c3 with an eye towards d5, which often leads to exchanges. The knight may also go to g3 via e2, but this is less flexible than the Nd2-f1 route.

Finally, I must mention a few light points of criticism, too. Weirdly, there's no index of players - quite rare for a Gambit publication. Also, some diagrams are inconveniently placed in the wrong column. I also missed a bit of historical background to the Marshall Attack in general. Vigorito does mention Capablanca-Marshall, New York 1918 in the introduction, but that's about it. It would have been nice to have a little bit more context to some lines and especially their theoretical development. But then again, this is a practical book and so it's not a real issue.

It will be interesting to compare this book to Ivan Sokolov's recent book on Ruy Lopez sidelines, which I will discuss in my next review.


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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


john's picture

Marshall Attack is for whimps.

Alexander's picture

... and Aronian.

Rob from Sydney's picture

Most strong GMs opt for anti-marshalls and I'm sure it's not because they don't know the theory - quite the opposite. Respect it and avoid it.

midi's picture

Looks like a nice book, it's a shame that they didn't reference CVO, especially since your analysis was seen in recent top tournaments like Corus.

Arne Moll's picture

@Rob, of course they know the theory, but prehaps not the most cutting-edge developments. I do think one of the main reasons for choosing anti-Marshall systems is mostly practical, not 'principled'. Most probably, though, it's a matter of taste: you play the Ruy Lopez to slowly out- manoevre your opponent and play for initiative yourself, instead of allowing Black all the fun!

Thomas's picture

I think the main reason for the popularity of anti-Marshall lines is not black's attacking chances, but the fact that - de facto - the Marshall has become a drawing weapon: Black often cannot avoid, nor does he mind entering a slightly worse ending (usually still a pawn down) which he can hold quite easily.

jussu's picture

I admit that I do play main line Ruy Lopez, I never avoid Marshall, but my opponents hardly ever play 8...d5 :) Maybe I would not do it if I played at a decent level, though, because objectively Marshall seems to stand firmly these days.

Hugo van Hengel's picture

I recently bought the book "Fighting the Ruy Lopez" by Milos Pavlovic (2009) which is also focussing on the Marshall Attack for about 200 pages. I wonder whether there are any differences in quality of these two books. I get the impression that they are very much comparable.

buri's picture

I used to play the Marshall Attack years ago, but now I rarely play 1...e5 but only 1...c5. Though I love playing it as white, its fun :)

Arne Moll's picture

I'll try to get hold of it, Hugo, thanks for the tip!

Arne Moll's picture

Hugo, I had a look at the book you mention and it looks rather similar indeed. One difference is Vigorito's book is more recent and actually mentions Pavlovic's book in the bibliography. Personally I also like the layout of Understanding the Marshall Attack a bit better. If it's worth buying if you already own Pavlovic is another question! :-)

antichrist's picture

Next review, on Sokolov's book, please! Eagerly anticipating it.

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