Review: The King’s Gambit
The King’s Gambit by John Shaw, published by Quality Chess, sets out to be the definitive modern reference of the classic romantic opening – and it does a very good job of it. The analysis is exhaustive, objective and vigilant, and the thorough coverage and fresh ideas make it a must-have for King’s Gambit aficionados. However, the lack of strategic explanations and the sheer density of the material will make it a hard slog for the casual reader.
By GM David Smerdon
My first thought as I sat down in a café with my copy of The King’s Gambit was, “What a mess!” There were too many variations, reams and reams of analysis without any clear structure, no guidance as to the author’s recommendations or how to construct a repertoire and practically no overarching strategic explanation of the opening themes. “Well, this review should be easy,” I thought.
But the more I read, the more I wanted to read. One coffee turned into two, and then three (that’s at least two coffees my local café owes John Shaw). It’s true that a beginner looking to take up the opening for the first time is going to struggle to make heads or tails of it from this book, but that’s not its intention. Quality Chess markets its material as of a higher, well, quality than most of the commercial literature on the shelves, and this work is no exception. The 680 page tome apparently took five years in the making, and consequently the analysis is as in-depth as you could possibly want.
Moving on to specifics, first let’s look at what I like about this book. What’s particularly impressive is the way Shaw has used computer analysis correctly (something rarer than you might think) in analysing the many sacrifices that make this opening so appealing to the romantics among us. A cursory inspection with an engine is usually quite dismissive of gambits like this one, so persistence, intuition and (above all) patience are required in order to guide the engine down sacrificial variations it initially despises. Shaw does this well, keeping a measure of impartiality in being honest about his assessments as well as indicating the practical evaluation of many gambits (e.g. “While objectively level, I would expect White to win most games from this position”; “The machine at first claims Black is completely winning, but let’s dive down the rabbit hole.”; “At top correspondence level I am not sure if White’s compensation would prove to be enough. However, at any level of over-the-board play I believe in White’s chances.”). In fact, Shaw spends a full chapter offering a convincing refutation of 3.Bc4 – something that I’m sure is going to get him a lot of hate-mail from devotees, but it’s definitely interesting and useful to know for the rest of us!
In the same vein, Shaw has chosen to display a number of lines that are hugely entertaining but unlikely to appear in actual practice, chiefly because they suit the spirit of the opening. Fans of the King’s Gambit are a unique breed, filtering back to the days of good old fashioned king hunts and blasé sacrifices. This is encapsulated in a sly jab on page 428: “If you don’t feel comfortable making such sacrifices, then might I suggest you take up the Reti or the London System?” This philosophy is evidenced by the amount of space Shaw devotes to the riotous complications of 3…g5 4.h4 – the first 136 pages – before he gets to the Quaade variation (4.Nc3), which seems to be his preference! However, 4.h4 leads to some of the most exciting variations in the open games, and I was particularly impressed with Shaw’s crediting of Australian amateur David Flude in naming one of my favourite variations the “Flude Line”. After 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5 4.h4 g4 5.Ne5 Nf6 6.Bc4 d5 7.exd5 Bd6 8.d4 Nh5 9.Nc3 Qe7 10.0-0 Bxe5,
White has the thunderbolt 11.Nb5!!. The complications are extraordinary, and the theory far beyond the scope of a human memory for over-the-board play, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
Speaking of variation names, despite Shaw’s claim that “Generally I take little interest in the names of variations”, he does a pretty good job of giving credit where it’s due – which, given the rich history of the opening, seems appropriate. One notable omission is the line 1.e4 e5 2.f4 Nc6 3.Nf3 f5!?,
the so-called Adelaide Counter-Gambit. Of course, I think it’s a shame that the Australian connection is left out, but it’s nice to see the line getting some reasonable coverage as it is certainly far better than first meets the eye.
In general, you can tell a lot of work has gone into the book, and I believe it will serve as the authoritative reference for the opening for years to come. However, while there are a lot of positives, a few basic additions could have transformed The King’s Gambit from a good book to a great book. Shaw draws on many sources: classic King’s Gambit works, analysis on ChessPublishing.com, personal communication, correspondence games and his own computer analysis, leading to a work rich in over-the-board novelties. However, there’s just so much analysis that it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. I can understand an author’s enthusiasm for including all of his or her hard-earned analysis in the final product, but in my opinion this happens far too often in chess literature. The chess publishing world should take a leaf out of academia and treat each chapter like a journal publication: Put your main recommendations and results up front, make sure the reader knows where they are in relation to the big picture, and cut out the irrelevant stuff that you find ‘interesting’, but is unlikely to materialise in practice. Sure, The King’s Gambit is not designed as a repertoire book or a how-to guide for the opening, but readers wanting these features should still be accommodated in some form. This is a problem I have with most opening books, to be fair, so it’s not a specific criticism of the current book, but this does hold back The King’s Gambit from being truly exceptional.
One small paragraph in the introduction is devoted to general themes, hardly a guide for new visitors to the opening; the book would be greatly enhanced by some thematic elaboration for each of the main variations. Shaw repeatedly reminds the reader of the Contents and Variations Index “to serve as a lifeline if you start drowning”, and indeed I quite often found myself having to refer to these to find out where I was within the lines of this monstrous tome. However, even with these guides, following the trail of variations is at times quite difficult. There’s simply so much material. I guess this was always going to be a problem with an opening like the King’s Gambit in which tactical considerations and concrete variations dominate clear structural divisions, but I would have liked to see some sort of roadmap or regular reminders of the big picture as I waded through the swamp. The conclusions to each section and chapter are very useful, I must admit – make sure you don’t skip over these, and I would even recommend reading them first before delving into each partition. However, at the very least, the Variations Index could be made a lot clearer – something of the old ECO table style would give readers a quick reference page to keep abreast of where they are in the overall scheme of the opening.
My final criticism, to which I’ve already alluded, is that the book doesn’t clearly signpost which lines are the author’s recommendation for a repertoire. Shaw himself points out that multiple repertoires are possible from the material, which is undoubtedly true, but a useful addition would be to include some sample selections of his own choosing from which the impatient reader can form a complete armoury against 1…e5. Again, this is not a critical omission, just a suggestion that I believe would have really complemented the work. As a proposal, after going through the book in detail, here is one reasonably simple repertoire that could be devised from The King’s Gambit and seems to meet with Shaw’s approval, while cutting out a lot of memorisation:
- The Quaade Variation (3…g5 4.Nc3) – Chapter 5, All Sections
- Quaade-style against Fischer’s Defence (3…d6 4.d4 g5 g3) – Chapter 7, Section 2
- Quaade-style against Becker’s Defence (3…h6 4.d4 g5 5.Nc3) – Chapter 8 ‘B’
- 3…d5 4.exd5:
o Minor lines on move 4: Chapter 9, Part 1
o 4…Nf6 5.Bb5+ c6 6.dxc6 Nxc6 7.d4 Bd6 8.0-0 – Chapter 10 Part 4
- Cunningham Defence (3…Be7 4.Nc3) – Chapter 11 Part 2
- Bonch-Osmolovsky Defence (3…Ne7 4.d4 d5 5.Nc3 dxe4 6.Nxe4 Nd5 7.Bc4) – Chapter 12 Game 40
- The Schallop Defence - Chapter 13
- 3.Nf3… Sidelines - Chapter 14
- The Classical (2…Bc5 3.Nf3 d6 4.Nc3):
o Sidelines – Chapter 16 Part 2
o 6…Bg4 7.Na4! – Chapter 17 Part 1 ‘B’
o 6…a6 7.Nd5! – Chapter 17 Part 2 ‘B’
- Falkbeer Counter-Gambit (2…d5 3.exd5 e4 4.d3 Nf6 5.dxe4 Nxe4 6.Nf3!) – Chapter 18 Part 3
- Nimzovitch Counter-Gambit – Chapter 19
- 2nd Move Alternatives – Chapter 21
By my count, that means a reader can focus on just 270 of the 650 pages of variations in forming a decent repertoire. Of course, there’s a lot to be gained by going through the rest of the lines and plenty of cross-over ideas and themes, but this selection at least enables a beginner to get started in playing the opening.
Overall, The King’s Gambit is a fantastic publication that is clearly the result of a tremendous amount of work by Shaw, for which he deserves immense credit. It’s not a book for passing the time on public transport, but if the reader is willing to put in the effort to really digest the analysis, there’s a lot to be gained. I’m very curious to see whether this publication will spark a revival of the once fashionable opening at the top level; I can confess that the book has inspired at least one grandmaster of dubious repute to add it to his repertoire…
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