Reviews | February 08, 2009 1:00

Review: Mastering the Chess Openings Volume 3

Mastering the Chess Openings 3John Watson is one of the best chess authors around. Currently, he's writing a series of high-quality opening books, focussing (as always) on understanding and framing the opening in its proper context. I will take a look at the latest volume in his 'Mastering the Chess Openings' series, published by Gambit Books, which is about the English Opening. I was especially interested in this part, because I have almost no experience with this opening, yet have always found it extremely fascinating. So what's in it for people like me?

Mastering the Chess Openings Volume 3 is the third volume in Watson's series, which, according to the back cover, 'helps chess players achieve a more holistic and insightful view of the openings'. But why not a review of the first two volumes? Well, first of all I thought it would be a nice challenge for me to delve into an opening I knew next to nothing about. Secondly, the English is one of the most difficult openings to write about, and I was curious how Watson, who is very good at explaining ideas, did it. Finally, it was a nice opportunity to compare it to some other books on the English Opening, for example by Alexander Khalifman and Mihai Suba.

Let me start with a little experiment. More than a decade ago, I played in a local tournament where the move 1.c4 was compulsory. For this tournament, I decided to play the off-beat 1.c4 e5 2.Nf3!? which I supposed my opponents hardly knew anything about. I, on the other hand, was able to prepare some interesting 'novelties' in this line that was relatively unexplored. I have not seen many high-level games with this obscure variations since, but Watson calls it '[both] an independent variation and a transpositional tool'. After reading Watson's chapter about it (one of the first in the book), I was immediately inspired to look into this little side-line again, and this time with the help of some computer engines. Let's take a quick look at some of the things I found - not to show off, but to get the reader inspired as well!  

1.c4 e5 2.Nf3 e4 3.Nd4 Nf6 4.Nc3 This is a fairly basic position in this line. Apart from 4...c6, Watson also analyses 4...Bb4!? 5.Qc2:

At first glance, this doesn't look too bad for Black, but it turns out that defending his e-pawn is a bother. (...)  The gambit 5...0-0?! looks dubious after 6.Nxe4 Nxe4 7.Qxe4 Re8 8.Qf3.

dia1It's always funny to be on fresh ground after just five moves, so I decided to have a closer look. When I fed this position to Rybka, I was surprised to find the engine unimpressed by White's material lead. It suggested, among others, the funny 8...Qh4!? after which White must already return the pawn because 9.e3?? fails to 9...Qxd4. Also, 9.Nb5 Qxc4 10.e3 Qc2! is not clear at all. Before I knew it, I was looking at all sorts of crazy lines, for instance 11.Bd3!? Qxd3 12.Nxc7 Re6! 13.Nxa8 Bd6 etc. 

This may look to you like a side-line from a side-line from a side-line, but the real point is that this is one of the main reasons why the English is such a difficult, yet so interesting opening: the fight starts not at move 20, but at move 2 or 3! And this not only gives opportunity for finding novelties as early as move 8, but also touches on more profound issues. As Watson writes in his introduction:

I should warn the reader from the outset that in the English Opening, transpositions and questions of move-order abound, so much so that they will sometimes prove annoying to all but the most sophisticated players. Working out and drawing attention to these myriad issues is also no fun for the author. But I would be remiss to ignore transpositions that have a significant practical effect. Understanding move-orders means no less than getting the position you want, instead of one ou don't like or know nothing about.

Apart from move-order questions, which Watson explains in his usual clear and accessible-to-all prose, any opening book has to deal with with actuality - with incorporating new games and ideas. Even in an opening like the English, which is surely not as 'hot' as the Najdorf or the Moscow variation of the Slav, this can be tricky business. Take the famous Hedgehog variation. After you've explained its main ideas and possible move-orders, you have to choose which are going to be 'main lines' and which are to be the alternatives. My conclusion is that this simply cannot be done in the Hedgehog, which is why it's such a devilishly difficult opening to learn. I will try to illustrate this by comparing Watson's book to Alexander Khalifman's analysis in his book Opening for White according to Kramnik part 2.

dia2After 1.c4 c5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nc3 e6 4.g3 b6 5.Bg2 Bb7 6.0-0 Be7 7.Re1 we've reached the stem position of what Watson calls the 'Modern Line'. (Khalifman, by the way, reaches it by 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 b6 3.g3 Bb7 4.Bg2 c5 5.0-0 e6 6.Nc3 Be7, which already gives you an idea of the move-order problems to be dealt with!). 

First off, Watson strangely doesn't mention why 7.Re1 is played in the first place. True, it's rather obvious, but Khalifman at least informs us that White wants to play e2-e4. Black can easily prevent this both by playing 7...d5 and 7...Ne4, so to me, these would seem to be the main alternatives. However, Watson's main line is 7...a6 whereas Khalifman's is 7...d6. Here, it's Khalifman who fails to explain why Black wouldn't want to prevent White's main plan. Watson says of 7...d5:

7...d5 was one of the main reasons why 7.Re1 didn't catch on for so many years. Indeed, the rook move seems to have little role in this position. On the other hand, it can be argued that ...Bb7 and ...d5 often don't go that well together throughout the Queen's Indian/Bogo-Indian/Nimzo-Indian complex, so that White can hope for a pull by playing normal moves.

In my opinion, this explanation is absolutely essential for understanding what's going on, but unfortunately, this is basically all we get on this important line - and it's hardly enough to grasp the fine points. For one, the line has recently become quite popular with players like Carlsen and Aronian, playing it both with White and Black. Why is this?

dia3Also, comparing Watson's and Khalifman's main lines after 7...d5 we find that after 8.cxd5 Nxd5 Watson recommends 9.d4 while Khalifman prefers 9.e4. Both authors, however, do not mention the pros and cons of these two methods. Khalifman says that 'in case of 9.d4 Nxc3 10.bxc3 Black has 10...Be4!=' and Watson promises White a plus after 10...Be4 11.Ne5 quoting a recent game Carlsen-Aronian, Elista 2007.

Of course, improvements in recent games are a problem for all opening books - always - but here the problem is especially clear. Watson, somewhat mysteriously, also ascertains us that '9.e4 can be answered by 9...Nxc3 10.bxc3 with a big center for White'. Yes, and? Is that bad or good? Here we see the problem of reducing the Hedgehog to mere variations: by making a selection, by choosing a particular 'tree', confusion can't be avoided in such a positional line. It's simply impossible to draw general conclusions about the moves 9.e4 and 9.d4 in just one page without looking at a lot of games in detail.

Let me be clear, though: while I think both Watson and Khalifman fail to categorize the various aspects of particular variation in a clear way, it's impossible to hold this against them. I have never seen a book that systematically explained and elaborated on the subtle nuances of the Hedgehog. Even the acclaimed (also by Watson himself) The Hedgehog by Mihai Suba was mostly confusing to me, even though its enthusiam was highly contagious. Watson, to his credit, seems more aware of this aspect than Khalifman, who does try to categorize the line extensively.

In general, I liked Mastering the Chess Openings Volume 3 very much, and I've learned a lot from it - especially how much I don't know about chess yet. One of the reasons is that Watson gives a lot of practical advice that tells a lot about grandmaster practice as well. For instance, why would you want to avoid the King's Indian, for example by playing the Botvinnik set-up (1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 0-0 5.e4 d6 6.Nge2)? Well, before answering this question, which one would expect in your average 'Play the X System and Win!' opening book, Watson drily points out that

The majority of grandmasters who open then game with 1.c4 or 1.Nf3 are happy to transpose into the 1.d4 version of the King's Indian Defence if their opponents play the moves ...Nf6, ...g6, ...Bg7, ...d6 and ..0-0. Why? 1) There is a wealth of interesting systems to play against the King's Indian Defence. 2) There is no R?©ti Opening set-up (Nf3, c4 and double fianchetto) that promises a serious advantage versus the King's Indian.

Indeed, this must also be the reason why Khalifman recommends entering the main line of the KID in his series, but he doesn't explicitly say so. This is often the difference between Watson and other authors: Watson is not afraid to mention things that may be painfully obvious to insiders, but can be real eye openers to club players. For the same reason, I found Watson extensive explanation of the differences between 'real' Sicilians and 'reversed' Sicilians very instructive.

This book is not only essential for chess players who already play the English Opening, but can be a source of new inspiration for people who, like me, have always looked at it with a mixture of wonder, bewilderment and horror.

Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


vaughn's picture

what's the time of the games in moscow?

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