Reviews | August 06, 2009 20:34

Review: Openings, openings, openings

5 booksOpening books and even more opening books: does it ever stop? Not likely, looking at the pile of opening books that have come out recently. In this review, I will look at a small selection of the sample from four different major publishers. But first I'd like to pose a question I have wondered about for as long as I can remember.

Suppose you dislike all this 'modern theory' discussions about the Najdorf Sicilian, the Marshall Defense or the Botvinnik Slav. Boring! You decide to play something 'fun', something 'off-beat'. Something 'creative, yeah! You pick an opening that looks like fun, say the Sokolsky (1.b4). (Why not?) Now what do you do? Here are two options: 

1. You look at some games from strong players, just to get a feel for the typical positions and ideas, and then without much further ado start playing it and have as much fun as possible.

2. You buy as much books as you can (well, at least one really good one) about the opening you selected and start to delve deeply into the intricacies of this new choice of yours, in order to be prepared as much as possible for all possible ways your opponent can react to your off-beat line.  

Personally, I've never understood why people would want to go for option 2. I mean, they wanted to be free from all these piles of theoretical knowledge, right? Isn't buying thick and well-researched book about off-beat openings something of a paradox? But fortunately, it isn't my job to tell you which option to choose, only to tell you which books are good and which aren't.

1.b4As you've probably guessed by now, these thoughts came into my head while reading Jerzy Konikowski & Marek Soszynski's new book 1.b4 - Theory and Practice of the Sokolsky Opening, published by Russell Enterprises Inc. - a very good book, in case you're wondering.

In almost 300 pages, Konikowski and Soszynski sketch a rather subtle picture of the Sokolsky opening, which is both not as silly as it looks and not as wild as many people think. The authors are enthusiastic and objective - usually a winning combination - and their book is also full of interesting historical games. They're also very honest about their approach (the book isn't meant for white players only), and open about the fact that just last year, another book on the Sokolsky (Play 1.b4 by Lapshun and Conticello, 2008) has appeared:

We did not have sight of it until May 2008, by which time we had virtually completed all our analysis for the present work. Twenty-six of our illustrative games (...) happened to be in their selection of main games too. However, very little in their book prompted us to change our own content.

Moving on to the actual analyses of the book, what I found interesting as a frequent 1.b4 player myself, is that the authors spend a considerable amount of pages on lines that I never considered to be worthy of serious analysis, such as 1.b4 e5 2.Bb2 f6!? which to me has always looked decidedly silly. After all, why weaken your kingside while you can also defend e5 with your d-pawn or take on b4 with tempo?

It's true that nobody has ever tried this move against me yet, but after reading this book, I think I might try it myself as black some day! The point is, as I should have realized a long time ago, that after 2...f6, Black threatens to take on b4, winning time to play d7-d5, building a strong pawn center as early as move 3. (The authors suggest the interesting pawn sacrifice 3.e4!?, but they're objective enough to acknowledge that black is probably fine if he knows what he's doing.)  Also, taking on b4 (2...Bxb4) doesn't only come with pluses, as the authors explain as follows:

Exchanging the b-pawn for the e-pawn should be in White's favour since it gives him a central pawn majority and increases the scope of his dark-squared bishop. However, Black counts on a development advantage and on mobilizing his forced aggressively.

This is just one example where 1.b4 - Theory and Practice of the Sokolsky Opening, has taught me something fundamental about this interesting line (and chess openings in general!) that I didn't know as consciously yet. If you like detailed analysis of both highly tactical and solidly positional ideas you can surprise your opponents with, this is definitely the book for you. For players who just like a general overview of the ideas before playing (or combatting) it, this book is also a fine choice, but it may be a bit too detailed. 

Chess Opening EssentialsTwo recent opening books that cannot be accused of being too detailed, are part 2 and 3 in the Chess Essentials series, published by New in Chess. In part two, all 1.d4 d5 and Queen's Gambit openings are discussed, while part three deals with Indian Defenses. Since both books contain just under 300 pages, a totally different approach has been taken by the three authors (Stefan Djuric, Dimitri Komarov and Claudio Pantaleoni). The audience they're writing for are 'club players who want to understand what's going on in the opening of a chess game'. 

To make clear the main variations, ideas and the most important players, the publishers have used a few interesting, less conventional methods. The key positions of each opening are displayed in red (yes, red) diagrams. The name(s) of the inventors are in a bold, red font, and references to other sources or sections of the book are also in red.  At first, I found this a bit confusing, but after a while I got used to it and actually found it very useful for finding my way around the books.  

So how do the authors explain 'what's going on' in each opening? As an example which will be useful in this review later on, let's consider the Dutch Defence (1.d4 f5) which they discuss in part two:

The idea of this move is to prevent 2.e4. Compared to the more natural 1...d5 or 1...Nf6, development will suffer. But in compensation, the advance f7-f5 lays the groundwork for an attack against the white king (which will almost always castle kingside) that is rarely offered by the more classical alternatives.

This is a pretty good start, in my opinion. Also good is that they recommend 2.g3! as 'without doubt' White's best reply: not only is it something which may still be something of a surprise to players who almost automatically push their c-pawn on move 2, but it also shows that the authors aren't afraid to take a firm stand when necessary.  (Both Karpov and Kasparov have occassionally played 2.c4.) 

However, in this kind of book setup, as the opening progresses and play gets more complex, the descriptions tend to become less firm als also less clear. The authors offer the following explanation for the Stonewall Dutch (which I will bring back to its essence for clarity's sake):

1.d5 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4.c4 d5

dia1Black can also play this move, which characterises the variation after ... Be7 or ...c6. Given that in recent times Black prefers the variation with ...Bd6, we will look at the move when it is played at this point in the game so as to maintain normal convention. 5.Nf3 is White's usual choice at this stage of the game, and we will discuss it soon. However, there is an important alternative that has an even better performance:


(...) Experience has taught us that the best configuration for the white knights is when they are on d3 and f3, from where they both bear down on e5; this placement is even more powerful after an exchange of the dark-squared bishops. In both cases [Nb1-d2-f3; Nf3-e1-d3 and Nb1-d2-f3; Nh3-f4-d3 - AWM] White needs 5 moves to get his knights to d3 and f3. However, in the second case, if Black plays ...Bd6 - as he so often does - White has the option to exploit the weakness on the dark squares with Bf4. Naturally, this is only the case if the knight is still on h3, from where it can take the black bishop without compromising White's pawn structure with gxf4 (...)

 5... c6 6.0-0 Black almost always proceeds with

6...Bd6 Given that this bishop is often exchanged on f4, the classical 6...Be7 has a certain logic. In this case, White can still seek to exchange off the dark bishops with 7.b3 0-0 8.Ba3 Bxa3 9.Nxa3, but then his knight finds itself away from the action.

7.Bf4 Be7!? Paradoxical-looking, but in reality logical: the f4-square is no longer available for the h3 knight. (...)

Several things can be said about this extremely interesting fragment. Let's start with a small point: there's a comma missing in the comment after 4...d5 between 'variation' and 'after', without which the whole sentence doesn't make sense. This adds to the confusion which is sure to arise in the next lines: why does Black prefer ... Bd6 in recent times when the main line the authors give leads to unclear play, and when 6...Be7 has 'a certain logic'? Why, if 5.Nh3 scores so well, are games where Nf3 is played so much more frequent? Aren't there some tricky move-order things going on here? What if White plays Nh3 (or Nf3) later, or earlier, and what happens to the 'normal convention' when Black delays the move d7-d5? There is an answer, but it's a complex one - too complex for this book, as it turns out: I will discuss it in the next paragraph. 

However, let's not forget the good things of the above passage: readers are made aware of the possibility of Nh3 instead of Nf3, the questions of when, whether (and how) to exchange dark squared bishops, they've learned a valuable lesson about how the post e5 should be occupied and, later on, they do get a flavour of some of the interesting complications that can arise in this opening. However, the explanations are increasingly shallow as the game progesses and this can lead to confusion or even annoyance. This is a necessary evil of such books, of course, and players who do not care for such trifles will find Chess Opening Essentials 2 and 3 to be valuable and easy-accessible guides to the basic ideas of all major chess openings.

StonewallIn case you're intrigued by the Stonewall problems mentioned above, I can heartily recommend Win with the Stonewall Dutch by Sverre Johnson and Ivar Bern, recently published by Gambit. This book is an enthusiastic and solid invitation to, as Vladimir Kramnik put it, 'one  of only a few openings where Black achieves an immediate advantage in space'.  It contains a detailed overview of the main lines (divided into 12 'lessons'), lots of illustrated high-level games and a lot of useful excercises. Move-order issues are handled with care - something such extreme much care, that new confusion arises! Regarding the Nf3/Nh3 discussion, it turns out to be inseparable from the c4/no c4 question - a question which is ignored altogether by Djuric, Komarov and Pantaleoni. If White goes c4 on one of his first moves, Black shouldn't play 4...d5 at all, but 4...c6 first, and only then decide whether to go ...d5 or ...d6:

1. d4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 e6 4. c4 c6! Black tries to discourage White from playing 5.Nh3 by indicating that he might go for ...d6 and ...e5 instead of a Stonewall structure. This plan takes advantage of the fact that Nh3 doesn't control the e5 square. (...)  

Please note that I don't want to show that Chess Opening Essentials is wrong, just that it's impossible to be precise and complete in such books. Anyway, there is no such thing as a perfect opening book, because Win with the Stonewall Dutch is also a bit unclear on some points, as I will try to show now. The authors discuss the inaccurate move 4...d5 after which they indeed recommend 5.Nh3. Their explanation of the question Bd6/Be7 starts off in a similar was as the previous one, and then adds important information to it:

4...d5?! 5.Nh3! c6 6.0-0 Bd6

dia2Black intends to meet 7.Bf4 with 7...Be7 and then try to prove that it is to Black's advantage that the f4-square is occupied by a bishop (taking the square from the h3-knight). However, 6...Be7!? is a logical alternative. (...) 7.b3 0-0 and now 8.Ba3 Bxa3 transposes to the main game, but 8.Bb2!?, intending to play for the classical set-up with knights on f3 and d3, is logical as it's harder for Black to prepare ...c5 with ...b6 and ... Bb7 when the bishop is on e7. (...) With the bishop on e7 it's hard to find a good square for the black queen. If Black plans ...b6 and ...Bb7 he needs something to protect the e6 pawn, which will be attacked by the knight when it reaches f4. (...)

7.b3!?This is one of the relatively few options which Black can avoid with the 4...c6 move-order. The ensuing play should remind you of certain themes from Lesson 1 [which discussed the variation 1.d4 f5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.g3 e6 4.Bg2 d5 5.0-0 Bd6 6.c4 c6 7.b3 - AWM] . White succeeds in exchanging dark-squared bishops on a3, but with the knight on h3 (instead of f3 as in Lesson 1), Black can create counterplay in the centre with ...e5. 7.Bf4 is the main continuation, transposing to Game 41 after 7...Be7 8.Qc2.

Although I couldn't find any flaws in the above explanation, I must admit the authors still lost me at some point. And when I saw that Game 41 starts off with 4...c6 5.Qc2 (instead of 5.Nh3), I realized I would have to put a lot more work into this opening before it all would make sense. Win with the Stonewall Dutch is not only an enthusiastic book about an interesting and fun opening - it is also a very difficult and high-level book for serious chess students who not only are interested in this particular opening but in chess strategy in general. Highly recommened.

bcoI started this review with a question, so I may as well end with one. Which do you think is heavier: the fiftheenth and latest edition of Batsford's Modern Chess Openings, or my new Sony Vaio laptop (without battery)? Well, it's a very close call, but the book still triumphs the machine, making it still slightly more convenient for the tournament player to pack your BCO instead of any light laptop with a database and opening book. Of course, BCO is more than just a digital book with lines and evalutations, but my guess is books this like won't be around for too much longer. This doesn't mean BCO isn't a good book: it's still an extremely well-researched piece of work which gives a both compact and detailed overview of the current opening theory.

It's impossible to do a proper review of this massive 700+ page book, so as a final excercise, let's look at what BCO has to say about the Stonewall and the Sokolsky. BCO doesn't delve into the discussion of whether to play c4 or not, and simply gives 1.d4 f5 2.c4 Nf6 3.g3 e6 4.Bg2 d5 as the tabiya of the Stonewall Defense. After this, both 5.Nf3 and 5.Nh3 are analysed. After 5.Nh3, they give both 5...Be7 and 5...Bd6 (but not 5...c6). After Be7,they analyse the line with 7.b3 and 8.Bb2 (instead of Ba3) - it's the same as Johnsen and Bern. 5...Bd6 (not mentioned by Johnsen and Bern) is 'a good alternative' according to BCO, leading to a position where 'White's edge is small' after 12 moves. I'm afraid it all leaves me in a state of utter bewilderment.

As for 1.b4, BCO's main line is actually 1...e5 2.Bb2 f6 after which they, too, suggest the pawn sacrifice 3.e4!?, though it does in the end lead to an advantage for Black. Confusing? Well, maybe one shouldn't take opening books too seriously. Sometimes it's much better to just play chess and worry about theory after the game.


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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Arne Moll's picture

@iLane, people are not playing for their own pleasure? For whose pleasure are they playing then?! I'm afraid I don't follow...

Anyway, a very good reason to study offbeat openings in-depth is, naturally, that they're often interesting in their own right. And this is also the case for the Sokolsky opening. At the same time, there's a reason why the Sokolsky is almost never played at top level and the popular ones in almost all: the latter lead to more complex play at much more levels, ultimately offering (I believe) richer and more interesting possibilities for both sides if you're willing study the details. That's the reason why I myself only play 1.b4 occasionally - in my opinion it gets boring pretty soon if you have to deal with the same problems in every other game. But I admit many people who always play the same lines, don't find this so.

iLane's picture

Asking your initial question (why people are go for option 2) you missed one point that maybe people are not playing off-beat openings for their own pleasure but to force their opponents to unknown territories. And that's where these opening books come handy - at least one player should know some theory otherwise why not play Chess960 straigh ahead? ;)

iLane's picture

What I try to say is that people are trying to win by different ways. One of them is to play off-beat openings preventing the opponent from playing book moves to move 20...
I'm playing the 3. Nc3 h6 French not because I think that's the best possible move but because my opponent isn't not prepared for that. But you can see the same approach at top level as well, OK not the Sokolsky but just to mention some recent examples Ivanchuk won with the Pirc or Carlsen with the Alekhine, etc...
Surprise is always an important factor in chess.

Meppie's picture

I did understand you iLane.
Surprising your opponent and not too much theory is a reason to play off beat openings (for me too).
What als counts for me: I don't have time to check every weak for novelties in my repertoire. From a good book of an off beat opening you have years of fun.

Arne Moll's picture

So, Meppie, if I understand you correctly, you're studying theory of an off-beat opening to avoid ... studying theory of main stream openings? I always thought the whole idea of playing off-beat systems was to be able to play chess without studying openings. Now you're telling me you DO study openings - just not main stream ones?

Meppie's picture

You have to study mainstream openings the whole year because there are new moves and new ideas all the time. And I don't have time for that.
You can do silly about it, but studying off beat openings costs a lot less time then mainstream. Apparently that's hard to understand. Who else buys all those books about off beat openings?

Now I have a rather small repertoire that suits my playingstyle where I know something about and it doesn't cost a day a week.

Jka97's picture

Amen! to that ilane!

iLane's picture

Those people who are REALLY bored by opening theory should play Chess960. If you decide to play classical chess you cannot avoid learning theory... and I agree with Meppie that off-beat openings are easier to learn. However I'm not sure that the success rate with them justifies the invested time - after all they are off-beat not without reason. :)

AljechinsCat's picture

"When playing etablished openings, you stand on the shoulder of giants." (A.Khalifman) - this approach appealed to me always a lot.. Through the understanding of strategic plans attached to opening "tabliays" - as far as I´m able to :) - I have the feeling to understand middlegame strategies much better. Therefore I regard theory as chess strategy, applied in a concrete context. Ultimately i have the impression that my playing style is rather enriched by playing the "mainstream". But this understanding process costs a lot of time, that´s true.

Arne Moll's picture

Okay, okay, I admit I've been teasing you a bit. Of course I understand what you're saying (although my own approach to chess study is quite different).
My initial comment was mainly aimed at people who claim to be bored by modern opening theory and then study their offbeat opening in the same (boring) detail. That seems kind of inconsistent to me.

Remco Gerlich's picture

I think many of them don't mind studying opening theory at all. What they want to avoid is their _opponents_ studying the theory of what they're playing.

Aronjanfan's picture

Chess is about common wisdom and creating new ideas during all parts of the game.
But imho it makes absolutely no sense to blame chessplayers for playing the opening they know (and like) best. That’s why Anand is playing the Slav and Kramnik the Catalan … and some mortals are playing the b or f pawn for the same reason and they don’t have to follow every tournament and chess journal to see what is happing in their opening right now at the moment. Where on earth is the logic to say to those mortal players “OK play b4, but don’t read a book and try to learn something about it!” Sorry I can´t get it!

If you like the Dragon or KID and its structures, motifs and concepts than just play it no matter what the “giants under your shoes” will tell you, because its you who is playing and the opinion of the giants changes during all those years in a great scale.

I don’t like any of Aronjans opening, but this doesn’t matter as long as I can get a glimmer of his uncommon and surprising ideas during the middle game.
Only very few b- and f- Pawnpushers really believe that their move is the best. But they are all very grateful -and this for years- if Moro, Larsen or Fischer is playing "their" opening.
And just in case … if somebody -to whom it may concern- is reading this … No 2600+ (or should I type 2700+ ?) grandmaster will receive as many credits for playing a Meran subvariation for 126th time or writing the 26th 300 pages book about it ;)

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