Reviews | December 22, 2008 18:25

Review: The Black Lion

The Black LionIt's clear that the New in Chess publishers are experimenting. In the past, they have mostly published high-quality opening books for the serious chess student, written by famous grandmasters such as Morozevich and Bologan. With The Black Lion, written by Dutch amateur club players Jerry van Rekom and Leo Jansen, they're obviously sticking out their necks. Admittedly, the book already was a huge success in The Netherlands, precisely because it appealed greatly to fellow amateur club players, and the new edition also seems to sell very well indeed.

First of all, let me say that for someone who is used to reviewing opening books written by such extremely strong grandmasters, it's not easy to review The Black Lion. You simply have to adjust your expectations. Players like Morozevich and Bologan are extremely good at explaining what chess is about: they can logically arrange their material and distinguish between relevancy and irrelevancy; they know how to explain differences between similar positions and ideas; they know when to go for dynamics and when to go for strategic lines, and they can explain highly complex tactics in terms of what's going on from a general point of view.

These are talents that Van Rekom and Jansen are lacking. They have compensated this handicap by collecting a huge amount of games (also from their own practice, and from their local club) and (historical) analysis. Most of all, The Black Lion is a highly enthusiastic book. It's clear from the many games they have played that both authors just love their system and it shows in their writing. We're obviously looking at a lifetime of work here.

'The Black Lion' is a system that is characterized by the following moves:

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7

Black can also play 3...e5. The setup is similar to the Philidor Defence, but the authors make it clear that the Black Lion is in fact a separate system. Black's idea is much more aggressive: to delay castling and quickly go for h7-h6 and, if possible, g7-g5, often combined with the typical maoeuvre Nd7-f8-g6-f4. This also means the authors do not treat 'regular' Philidor positions where Black goes Be7 and 0-0. (In fact they do analyse Be7, but only if white takes on f7 at some point!)

From the start it's clear that the authors are very positive about the system. This is always a good thing (remember, Morozevich was also positive about the Chigorin!), but in the case of Van Rekom and Jansen, their enthusiasm tends to lead to subjectiveness: while it's certainly a funny idea to have all diagrams from Black's perspecive, the authors also tend to evaluate equal positions as 'slightly better for Black' and positions slightly more pleasant for White as 'equal'. Take, for instance, the following line:

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 4.f4 e5 5.Nf3 c6 6.dxe5 dxe5 7.fxe5 Ng4 8.e6 fxe6 9.Ng5 Ne5 10.Qxd8+ Kxd8

diagram 1The authors comment upon this position as follows:

This 'Sliedrecht position' has become one of the most important basic variations of the Black Lion in Leo Jansen's view. Black has lost the right to castle, but his monarch will be excellently placed on e7. Moreover, the black weakness on d6 is gone, and he has the d5 square under control. The Bc8 remains a problem child, though. White has more space in this position, and he can still castle kingside.

To be honest, I find it hard to become enthusiastic about Black's position. Yes, the 'weakness' on d6 is gone, but what about e6? According to my database, White has scored tremendously in this position, winning 9 games against just 2 losses, with 6 draws. Surely a rather meager result for one of the 'most important variations' of the Black Lion, but, of course, results don't mean everything. Let's see what the authors have in store for Black players:

11.h3 Nh6 In this position, the author's main line is 12.Bf4 which in the end leads to equality. One of their sidelines, however, is Stefan B?ɬºcker's move 12.Be2 which leads to a clearly better position (+/-) after both 12....Be7 and 12...Nhf7. This is odd, to say the least. If 12.Be2 leads to a good position for White, how can the authors consider the position after 10 moves so important for the Black Lion?

But even after 12.Bf4 it's difficult to believe Black can obtain equality so easily. Van Rekom and Jansen follow up with

12...Nhf7 13.0-0-0+ Ke8 14.Nxf7 Nxf7 and now their main line goes on with 15.Bc4 but they say 15.e5 "is an interesting alternative". Indeed this move looks very strong and consistent, so let's check it out:

15.e5!? g5 16.Be3 Bg7 17.Ne4!

The authors now quote a correspondence game Storani-Geus, 2000, where Black erred with 17...Bxe5? 18.Nxg5 Nxg5 19.Bxg5 and "White had the best of it". Their alternatives are 17...h6 and 17...Nxe5 18.Bd4 Kf8, but they don't give an evaluation of the position. In fact, 17...Nxe5 loses instantly in view of the simple move 18.Be2! while 17...h6 18.Nf6+ is clearly bad for Black: White has two bishops and attacking chances, while Black still has the weak e-pawn and a passive position. My computer engine even rates it as +2.0 for White and although this may be a bit too extreme, it's clear that for such a 'basic position', this is all rather depressing for Black.

In general, reading this book has taught me two things:

  1. The Black Lion is not such a bad opening as many White players think.
  2. The Black Lion is not such a good opening as the authors think.

The first point is illustrated by the fact that so many (strong) players have failed to 'refute' the Black Lion by playing agressively against it. In general, Black seems OK when White goes at it too fast or too recklessly. For instance, the authors show convincingly that Bxf7+ tactics do not work against the Philidor setup (although they waste a lot of space analysing dubious alternatives for Black). I had always believed that possibly White's best way to combat the Lion is a kind of 'English attack' setup (called 'Anti-Lion system' by the authors) such as the following:

1. e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 4.Be3 e5 5.f3 Be7 6.Qd2 c6 7.0-0-0 Qa5 8.g4 b5 9.Kb1 This line has been played by two very strong White players, Judit Polgar and Lazaro Bruzon Bautista, so it can definitely be considered critical. Black normally plays 9...Nb6

diagram 2The authors note:

This move is intended to create extra pressure on the queenside, but it also serves to vacate the d7-square for the Nf6, in case White advances his g-pawn.

Polgar now played 10.b3 to prevent Na4 and start an attack of her own, but as the authors show, after the correct reply 10...b4 11.Ne2 c5 (they even claim Black is better after 11...0-0) 12.dxc5 dxc5 as played in the correspondence game Carroll-Vanhamme, 2004, Black has a lot of counter chances. This seems one of those typical cases where Black suddenly is fine after White pushes too hard. However, the authors are completely silent about what Bruzon played in this position:

10.a3! (Ignoring the threat of Nc4, this is also the computer's suggestion) 10...Nc4 11.Bxc4 bxc4 12.g5 Nd7 13.d5! This positional approach (White intends to play f3-f4 and expansion the king's side) definitely looks (slightly) more pleasant for White (Bruzon-Miles, 2001).

Which illustrates my second point: although Black surely survived the opening, he is still slightly worse after correct play by White. One can't help thinking that if only the authors would have looked up this position in any database, or checked it with any reasonable engine, they would have noticed, too, and their book would have been a lot more useful for the serious chess student. Now, though, it becomes tempting to even look at the sharp lines (where Black is usually OK) with a critical eye. When I noticed the following diagram in the book, for example, I couldn't help checking it against Rybka:

The diagram shows the game Kuijf-Seret, Lyon 1990 after White's 19th move. It looks pretty dangerous for Black, doesn't it? White has the bishop pair, open lines, a lead in development, a safe king... But the authors say that...

...White has minimal compensation for his pawn in the shape of his bishop pair and the attack on Black's king, and in this position the knight on c5 is under attack as well. (?¢‚Ǩ¬¶) Black continued with 19?¢‚Ǩ¬¶Ne4? where 19?¢‚Ǩ¬¶Ne6 would have been in order. In the game, the aspiring adherent of the Black Lion escaped to a draw with: 20.Bxf7+ Kxf7 21.Qh5+ g6 22.Qxh7+ Kf6 23.Rhf1+ Bf5 24.g4 Nc3+ 25.Ka1 Nxd1 26.Rxf5+ gxf5 27.Qxf5+ Kg7 28.Qg5+ Kf7 29.Qf5+ Kg7 30.Qg5+ 1/2-1/2.

Unfortunately, there are several things wrong with this. First of all, in the quoted game White missed a beautiful win with the quiet move 23.Bg3! after which Black is defenseless. This means that 19...Ne4? simply loses, instead of drawing. Secondly, although 19...Ne6 is indeed better, it is certainly not 'in order', since White's initiative is still horribly strong after both 20.Qf5 and 20.Qh5! (Rybka evaluates the position as +1.28 for White, despite being a pawn down.) All this means that this whole line appears to be bad for Black, implying that White can obtain a good game pretty much by force after 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 4.f4 e5 5.Nf3 exd4 6.Qxd4 c6 7.e5 which is how this game started. I don't believe the authors will agree with this conclusion, but I'm afraid it does follow logically from the way they present their material.

To be fair to the authors (and the editor), The Black Lion is intended for an audience that is not likely to counter-check all lines with a chess engine or a database. The book is meant to be read by amateur club players from say level 1600 to 2100. The big advantage of the Black Lion for club players is clearly that many White players will overestimate their chances. Another practical advantage of the setup is that it can be played against both 1.e4 and 1.d4 (although of course with considerable differences). Also, once you know what Black should strive for, it's relatively easy to study this opening and memorize lines (provided you skip all the tactical nuances!). On the surface, these look like good arguments, don't they?

Well, I'm not sure. Isn't it patronizing to imply that club players are not interested in seriously checked variations and objective evaluations? Isn't it misleading to illustrate variations with games played on local clubs and simultaneous displays and to ignore serious games played by top grandmasters (even though the authors claim they have incorporated more GM games in this edition)? Isn't it the duty of the chess opening analyst to search for the truth, rather than to love a system so much that it clouds his objectivity? And isn't it also just a litttle bit shallow to reduce the entire first phase of the game of chess to a simple scheme that can be played against any setup by the opponent - with both colours, on top of that? These are some questions that came up in my head while reading this book.

I am told that The Black Lion already is a huge success, both in The Netherlands and abroad. To me, this is surprising. True, the amount of games and analysis presented by the authors is very impressive - but the quality is not. More importantly, I am greatly puzzled by the following paradox: if the Black Lion is such an appealing system to club players because it's so simple and easy to learn (as claimed on the back cover), then why would you buy a 250-page book about it - filled with countless variation branches (numbered etc.) and complicated analysis of dangerous-looking piece sacrifices? And finally, if the opening has such surprise value, then why does the book feature so many dull endgames, where even the simplest moves by White guarantee him a completely sound position, if not a pleasant edge?

Perhaps I'm being too critical. Maybe this book really does appeal to club players who are completely unlike myself. Maybe they just like it that the variations have such funny names, and that there are so many amateur games in it, instead of being scared away by the usual high-level grandmaster games - even though these club games are often hardly sound or relevant.

Yes, this seems highly likely. Therefore, I want to end this review on a positive note. The story of the authors and their chess club is really a kind of rags-to-riches tale. There's still hope for amateur chess lovers! If you have a pet system, keep playing and analysing it: who knows, a major chess publisher may one day make a bestseller out of it.

Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Matthieu Freeke's picture

Jansen en Rekom claim to be 'experts' on this 'system'. The book only shows how far this is from the truth. I think, especially for younger player improving, the amount of bad analysis and assesments do more bad to your chess then it does good.

1900 players shouldnt write books if they 'forget' to use Rybka. People shouldn't take them serious. I played the black Lion for about a week (a few years back); it did more bad things to my chess then improve it!

Dont buy this book; if you are interested in these kind of structures go study ganes of Philidor; read Bauers book or play exd4! and read 'Geheimwaffe Philidor'. This book S U X.

guitarspider's picture

Yes, Arne, it's really a shame how many players always play the same opening moves/a certain set-up. One member of my club always plays the London System. I can't understand how he can stand the same opening moves resulting in a very quiet position in every game he has white.

Richard DeCredico's picture

1. ...e5 is as water resistant as GoreTex.

Too bad it takes actual work and understanding to make it work.

Arne Moll's picture

Great discussion, guys, keep it going. I would like to add that in my opinion even if the Lion is perhaps not such a bad opening, it is really completely unlike the Pirc or the Alekhine. In the latter openings, Black tries to execute several strategic operations in response to moves by White, and Black definitely has a 'mind of his own' in these openings. But the Lion is actually the exact opposite in the sense that it is supposed to be played with the intention of IGNORING moves by White. Instead of a strategic approach, the Lion is merely a 'setup', a way to arrange your pieces in the first moves without hanging them or risking a fork or a pin. Have you ever noticed how subtle move orders are in the Pirc or the Alekhine, and how different plans for White result in totally different setups for Black? All this is a characteristic of 'real' openings (in Michael's definition) but not for the Lion. The Lion reduces chess to a cheap kind of one-size-fits-all and I'm sure this is the reason why so many chess lovers react so annoyed and even angry to this opening.

Frans's picture

Fully agree with Tim.
There is no such thing as a water-tight defense against e4. I also dont understand all the fuzz about the name-giving. Just play your moves and try to thinkout a tactic or make a plan. Who gives a **** wheter its called Lion, Pirc, Philidor or whatever. And indeed, the set-ups given in this book cannot be critical. But sure they are playable. Against a strong opponent however, someone who plays "REAL" chess, as Tim calls it, you will end up worse playing this. Or at least slightly worse against a nagging edge. Playing the "great" openings and following GM-scheme's surely is the way to go. But in my experience many chessplayers find GM-openings such as Slav or QG "dull" (a misconception) or they are afraid that they need to study a lot of books to be able to play them (another misconception). I used to play a lot of non-critical lines, such as Colle for white. But against "real" chess players, i didnt get any foot on the ground. Or worse: I already started cursing myself for playing this **** before we were at move 10.
It was only when I started to pick up the gauntlet and went for Nimzo's, Queens-gambits, Slav's etc. as white and threw my off-beat black-repertoire out of the window, that my own play come to a lift....
Especially against strong opponents this is the way to go! Dont play Lions, Colle's, Philidor's, Budapests etc. etc. against strong opponents. The will feel very comfortable playing against this, cause it's just not critical.

guitarspider's picture

Seems some of my comment was lost somehow. I just wanted to add that every good player has an opinion on different openings, and while your GM may find the Pirc difficult to play, others consider it very playable. Mikhail Umansky (he was correspondence chess world champion) for example, who plays 1st board for my club's 1st team, is a great fan of the Pirc.

Tim's picture

It's unbelievable that in this digital age it's still possible to publish a chess book that contains such obvious errors, even in the most critical lines. It might be written for the average club player, but that just sounds like a lame excuse for low quality. And tons of chess players fall for it, guessing (hoping?) that their opponents won't find the holes in their beloved system. Who's fooling who here?

There is no system that works against any first white move. The game just doesn't work like that. If you don't want to invest time in studying openings, it's more useful to try out an opening that is actually played by the top GM's and to learn to play it by practice. OK, you might suffer a few hard losses at first. But if you stick to it and are willing to take an honest look at your played games, you will slowly but steadily learn to play REAL chess.

guitarspider's picture

Michael, your GM is probably right at his level, although I don't think the Alekhine is unplayable. There are some difficult lines though. But I think we both agree it's much much better to play the Pirc or Alekhine than to play the Lion.

Michael's picture

Guitarspider, I admit I'm basically a very classical player and I might have too much disrepect for second-tier openings. However, let me just inform you that I happen to know a GM who has spent almost his entire life in the research of openings. He characterizes the Philidor as "passive", the Pirc as "very difficult" and the Alekhine as "simply unplayable". Still, it's true that not every player knows how to refute these openings. I've actually tried the Pirc myself and my results were not bad.

jussu's picture

I guess it is rather unusual to write a "black has better practical chances in every variation" treatice on a system that is actually solid enough to be playable. Shouldn't this thing be called a sideline of Modern Defence, though?

F3MDR's picture

This book is a waste of money. I rate it 0 out of 10.

Might be useful as a toilet paper roll, reminiscent of the times when everyone used old newspapers before toilet paper was invented.

Looks like the Black Lion just got flushed down the loo.

James's picture

lol F3MDR! I'm still laughing my *** off over that comment!

Arne Moll's picture

@lionkiller, as I pointed out in my review, Van Rekom and Jansen only consider systems with an early ..h6 to be part of the 'real' Lion. Your line is not mentioned, as far as I can see (although it's very confusing to look up lines in the book with all possible transpositions!).

guitarspider's picture

I don't really want to defend the Lion, because I too think club players (like myself) are better off playing main lines. But I disagree if you call the position after the 3rd move illogical. It is not. I also disagree with you on the Pirc and Philidor being illogical. Especially the Pirc is a very logical opening which rewards understanding of the underlying ideas. White may be slightly better in some lines, but so is White in the Ruy Lopez. Players like Topalov and Morozevich wouldn't play these opening if they weren't sound, because they can't get away with playing unsound or illogical openings. Don't confuse second-tier openings like the Pirc and Philidor with dubious lines like the Lion. The second-tier openings are perfectly sound, but are played less often at the top, because their minor defects (like the conceded space in the Pirc) may be enough for Kramnik to beat Topalov. However, like Rowson suggested, there is a set of theory for the elite and one for everyone else. While the Pirc may be risky at the very top, it is fundamentally sound and perfectly playable by everybody else. To quote Nigel Short: "The Pirc Defence is one of those openings that I find hard to take seriously: Black concedes the centre and allows his opponent to adopt just about any set-up he fancies. [...] And yet it must be admitted there is still something to be said for this flexible hypermodern system [...]. I for one am rarely able to demonstrate the inadequacy of a) Black's development or b) his neglect of the centre." Topalov can, because he has the skills, but if even a player like Short can't, the opening can't be called illogical or unsound. Do you think Carlsen is using the Alekhine because he likes to risk a loss? He plays it because he believes it is sound.
The Lion is certainly not such an opening and I am pretty sure that it will never be played by elite players.
Again, I totally agree that it's not good to play dubious lines like the Lion or "one size fits all" openings. I also agree that main lines are better than offbeat lines, but we disagree on the definition of mainline. I'd say every opening that is regularly issued by GMs can be considered main line. Not all of these lines are suited to the beginner, but none of them is illogical or unsound.
It seems to me that the fact that Black's moves don't make sense to you seems to lead you too much into one direction. Again, I'm certainly with you on your basic points.

Arne Moll's picture

Michael, of course developing two pieces in your first three moves can never really be 'bad chess'. I agree with you that it's neither inspiring nor ambitious to play these moves against all possible setups (it reminds me of the annoying 'premoves' of internet lightning chess), as I wrote in my review as well. But perhaps we just have to face the fact that many chess players don't have that much ambition as you and I, or are simply not inspired by the beauty and richness of chess.

lionkiller's picture

One of the problems for black is this variation:
1.e4-d6, 2.d4-Pf6, 3.Pc3-Pbd7, 4.Pf3-e5, 5.Lc4-Le7, 6.0-0-c6, 7.a4-Dc7, 8.Te1-h6, 9.b3-g5, 10.Lb2-Pf8 and now white has a simple win: 11.dxe5-dxe5, 12.Pxe5!-Dxe5, 13.Pd5 and now for example:
13... Dxb2, 14.Pc7 mate!
13... Db8, 14.Pxf6+-Lxf6, 15.Lxf6-Tg8, 16.Dd8 mate!

So his plan with h6, g5 and Pb7-f8-g6 is simply refuted. This means that he has to play more solidely with 0-0 instead of h6 and g5. In the first edition this variation was included. But it is left out of the new edition!

Michael's picture

Guitarspider, the fact that some strong players occasionally use a certain opening as a surprise weapon does not at all mean that they believe it's sound. This is just what many book publishers want to make us believe on their blurbs. Openings like the Philidor and the Pirc can, of course, be successful weapons in practice, because they usually lead to complicated positions with a lot of pieces on the board. Still, these openings are hardly logical and White must objectively be better. My view is that improving players should first learn to play "properly" from the beginning. When they've done that, they can still "break the rules" sometimes. However, I don't really see why one should play like a pig in the opening and switch to "real chess" at move 15, when you're already likely to have a dubious position. All the good trainers I know agree with this.

By the way, the Black Lion move order doesn't necessarily lead to the Philidor, because White has the strong move 4.f4, as well as the interesting 4.g4!? White isn't necessarily much better, but his moves make sense to me, while Black's don't.

Richard DeCredico's picture

Children, do not try this at home as someone could get hurt.

I guess NIC had beer-goggles on when they looked at this one. These types of books need to be disouraged.

What happens if someone tries to Zuke a Blck Lion?

The Four Horseman are saddling up and are ready to ride.

Michael's picture

There seems to be a widespread opinion that it's a good idea for amateurs to play "simple" openings which can be used "against anything". I think this is a huge mistake (which I've made myself!). If you have any ambition, you must learn to play good moves. Moves that make sense.

I've never played nor studied the Black Lion, but a quick glance at the position after three moves tells me that it doesn't make sense. What is Black doing? He concedes the centre, puts his queen's knight on a bad square and blocks his c8-bishop. How on earth could this be a good opening? This is not (hyper-)modern chess, it's bad chess. You can analyse such lines for a hundred years and they won't get any better. It's not a coincidence that no strong player regularly employs this opening and that Rybka finds good lines for White left, right and centre.

I've heard enough of these complaints "I don't have time to study opening theory". Theory generally consists of good moves which are based on sound positional principles. Make sure you understand these principles and you will find many good moves on your own. Play irregular crap with catchy names, if you really want, but then don't complain that you fail to improve.

Dave Bee's picture

Yes, I completely agree with Michael. I am just an ordinary club player, but I like to play main lines; what hope have you of improving if you restrict yourself to pet systems like this?

Also, some players of my level get an offbeat line and play it all the time. Fine as a one-off surprise - I've been caught out myself a couple of times in some trap. But the next time they play that line against me, I'm ready!!

I do believe that if you want to improve then you need to play openings which are accepted as good.

guitarspider's picture

While most of the above is true, I think club players can play almost any opening they want, because under the 2000 level it's not going to matter. The game will be lost or won because of different reasons. As long as the opening isn't downright unsound it's not going to matter. As far as I can see the Lion may not equalize, but it's definitely over the top to say it's unsound. It's not the BDG after all ;).

@at Michael: The position after the third move is actually a very common way to reach the Philidor Hanham and is certainly not bad chess. You will find several games by Morozevich, Azmaiparashvili and Beliavsky in this line. It is a MODERN move order that avoids certain white options and revived this Philidor line. The Knight supports e5, so Black is not conceding the centre, and it is very common in the Pirc, which has a similar structure, to "block" the c8-bishop. Take 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Be2 O-O 6.O-O c6 7.a4 Nbd7. That's even worse by your standards, and yet Mamedyarov, Topalov and Morozevich have played it and it's completely sound.

Felix's picture

"The book is meant to be read by amateur club players from say level 1600 to 2100."
As a ~2000 player, I wouldn't play incorrect lines. Even at that level it's difficult to survive unsound openings. Also I don't see a point in playing bad opening lines on a low level, this is not good for your chess I'd think.

Raven Lee's picture

Hi Arne, nice review, although a bit too bashy and sarcastic against the subject.

There are quite a few decent openings that are basically setups as you call them where one player ignores the other for the most part, unless they have a decisive threat building. Easy to play, able to get into the setup against most openings, gives you chances, creates imbalances, etc.

King's Indian Attack. Colle-Zukertort. Colle-Koltanowski. Torre Attack. Trompowski. The Barry Attack. The Black Knight's Tango. 150 Attack. Czech Defense. Modern Defense. King's Indian Defense. Tarrasch Defense. Tartakower Defense. Cambridge Springs Defense. etc. etc. etc. etc.

Many openings are also considered inferior, although they are not refuted and are highly playable. Morozevich has proven this with the Chigorin. Many GMs have used the Nimzowitsch defense. The Black Knight's Tango has been assayed by many GMs and IMs.

Many defenses are considered passive. Caro-Kann. The French Defense. Pirc Defense. But, none have been refuted.

If you can find a line for White that wins 100% against strong opposition against the Lion, that would indiciate that the opening is busted.

"Instead of a strategic approach, the Lion is merely a ’setup’, a way to arrange your pieces in the first moves without hanging them or risking a fork or a pin."

Rodrigo's picture

i looked for the position after: 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 in my database and give a 52.4% for white, wich is not a bad defense for black.
for example is better than sicilian-kalashnikov (52.6%) and french-classical (54.9%)

Rodrigo's picture

i looked for the position after: 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 in my database and give a 52.4% for white, wich is not a bad defense for black.
for example is better than sicilian-kalashnikov (52.6%) and french-classical (54.9%)

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