Review: A Strategic Chess Opening Repertoire for White
Opening repertoire books are normally best avoided, but when John Watson attempts the genre, it’s time to give it another try. As I picked up Watson’s A Strategic Chess Opening Repertoire for White and noticed he happens to cover a surprisingly large part of my own repertoire as White, I decided it was time for a serious review.
John Watson, best known for his essential books Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy (1999) and Chess Strategy in Action (2003), has always shown a special interest in the strategic side of chess openings (in both above-mentioned books, his focus is clearly on the earliest phase of the middle game) and I have reviewed a few of his opening books in the past.
His latest book, published recently by Gambit Books, covers the major (and minor) 1.d4 openings starting with a chapter on the QGD and ending with a chapter on the Dutch Defence. His recommendation, in most cases, is to simply follow up with 2.c4 and strive for active and strategic play. Watson clearly isn’t trying, as most other ‘repertoire’ authors will invariably do, to sell dubious setups as promising; instead he takes the principled and mature approach that most strong players prefer.
What makes the book appealing (to me, at least) is that Watson, whilst concentrating on active play, doesn’t automatically recommend ‘main lines’. He explains this as follows:
[S]ome repertoire books instruct their readers to play ‘main lines’ because, after all, they consist of the ‘best’ moves. There are several problems with this, the most obvious being that, as any observer of modern chess knows, what is ‘best’ changes constantly, as openings and especially particular variations come in and out of fashion (and it is fashion, isn’t it?) as rapidly as you can set the pieces up. More importantly, these main lines tend to be dynamic and tactically-dependent, which requires a lot of memorization and then diligent monitoring of the latest developments, only to arrive at equality anyway.
This makes a lot of sense (though Watson is hardly the first to notice this aspect of opening study) and is precisely why I myself decided, some years ago, to ‘just’ start playing 1.d4 and 2.c4 without worrying too much about the theoretical stuff the super GMs are busy with these days. Just find an interesting, not too risky and relatively understandable setup and have some fun over the board – and that’s precisely what Watson, if slightly more elaborately, is suggesting in his book.
So what does Watson advise, concretely, against various openings Black can choose against this setup? To battle the Queen’s Gambit Declined, he suggests the Exchange Variation, both against 3…Nf6 and 3…Be7. This is the obvious choice even though it is a pity this means we don’t get to read Watson’s view on recent development in the Classical lines such as the Tartakower and Lasker Defences.
Against the Nimzo-Indian, Watson again takes the pragmatic approach and recommends the healthy Rubinstein setup (4.e3 and 5.Ne2). Sometimes Watson seems a bit hesitant regarding his favourite continuation, such as in the line 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 b6 5.Ne2 Ne4!?
This is an unambitious move which has a high percentage of draws at high levels of play and is supposed to reduce Black’s losing prospects. In fact, while the system is undoubtedly solid and objectively adequate, White has several ways to make things interesting.
He goes on to recommend 6.Bd2, but mentions that 6.Qc2 is, in fact, “still the ‘main line’”. He also says that, aside from the text move, 6.f3 is
the choice that most appeals to me (and hasn’t been seriously investigated).
(On top of that, he adds that 6.a3, often given a question mark, is “playable”, because after 6….Dh4 White has 7.Ng3! with unclear play.)
His main line after 6.Bd2 runs 6…Nxd2 7.Qxd2 0-0 8.a3 Be7 9.Nf4 Bg5!? 10.Bd3 Bb7 11.0-0
In this position Watson mentions 11…Bxf4 (his main move) and 11…d5. The latter was recommended by Ivan Sokolov back in 1992 and considered by him to lead to an equal position after 12.cxd5 Bxf4 13.exf4 exd5, but Watson rightly questions this, pointing out what my local engine agrees with immediately, namely that
White can use his superior activity by means of 14.Rfe1, with ideas of Re3 and doubling rooks or attacking on the kingside. (…)
What Watson unfortunately doesn’t do in this line – and this is a general drawback of many ‘repertoire’ books – is look for novel ways for Black to improve play. When I saw this line for the first time (I had never analyzed this particular variation before) I was struck by the slightly odd Bf8-b4-e7-g5xf4 to capture one of White’s knights. And sure enough, while entering the moves in my chess program, my engine immediately suggested, instead of 8…Be7, the plausible 8…Bd6!?
It’s hard to believe Watson, who is usually a great fan of such seemingly ‘unorthodox’ ideas, wouldn’t have spotted this move had he been writing any other type of book. (The bishop is surprisingly flexible at d6 and makes White's pieces look rather clumsy. In fact, after some minutes my engine comes up with the equally unorthodox 9.Ng1!? to regroup the knight!)
I was especially interested in Watson’s recommendation against the Tarrasch Defence, which I have played for over a decade and which I think is still one of Black’s most solid options against 1.d4. I was pleased to see him mention Aagard&Ntirlis’ excellent recent book on the opening, which I reviewed on this site some time ago. Integrating the most recent developments and publications in one’s own book remains a difficult task for many authors, but Watson, of course, isn’t among them. (I was also pleased that his final conclusion of the Tarrasch complex is that White is still struggling to get a substantial advantage in this opening.)
Readers may be slightly surprised by Watson’s repertoire against the King’s Indian: 5.h3
This so-called Makogonov Variation (though Watson doesn’t mention this name for some reason) is not to be underestimated and steers the game into purely strategic waters – just as the author promises. In fact, 5.h3 is a purely prophylactic move, as Watson explains:
White’s first and most basic idea is to prevent a black piece from arriving at g4, that is, preventing …Ng4 to secure a square for his own bishop on e3, and eliminating the pin …Bg4 once Nf3 has been played. Importantly, 5.h3 supports an advance by g4, which can be used for attacking purposes, but also serves as a strong disincentive to Black’s …f5. When you consider that …f5 is the foundation of Black’s play in many King’s Indian variations, you can see how significant its prevention can be.
After 5…0-0 Watson discusses both 6.Be3 and 6.Bg5 at great length. Being a King’s Indian Avoider myself, I sometimes couldn’t quite make out the subtle differences between the various move-orders that can be adopted by both players in these lines. Watson himself acknowledges the problem, for instance when he says things like
I’ll use this move as the way to reach our two main lines
because the alternatives
often lead to the same positions but [the text] produces more unique subvariations than any other move, so it’s a good pivot point.
Well, I’m glad that’s sorted out! Seriously, though, this is stuff that requires effort and concentration to understand, and Watson clearly feels at home in these positions – though I wonder how many simple-minded active chess lovers will follow his advice – I’m sure I certainly won’t!
A much more likely candidate for inclusion in my own repertoire is his recommendation against the Gruenfeld: the Exchange variation with 7.Qa4+ (he also analyzes 7.Bg5), often followed by Qa3 or Qb3. These positions are open and appealing, and Watson’s treatment of them is lucid and instructive. The same goes for his suggestions against the Benko and the Dutch, in which White just tries to play simple and healthy moves and gain a slight positional advantage.
In general, Watson manages to avoid the main pitfalls of many an opening repertoire book, namely to ‘bet all your money on one horse’ (as we say in Dutch) and to resort to obscure computer analysis to rescue an equally obscure recommendation. Instead, he comes up with pragmatic and down-to-earth suggestions that most readers will find useful if not inspiring.
I found the book a tiny bit one-sided at times, but that’s only natural in a book where the reader is supposed to play with White. Nevertheless, A Strategic Chess Opening Repertoire for White is an enjoyable and instructive book and consists of both quick wins and long term opening repertoire building blocks.
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