Reviews | November 15, 2012 9:30

Review: The Alterman Gambit Guide - Black Gambits 2

The Alterman Gambit Guide - Black Gambits 2

After having enjoyed immensely reading the first volume in the Black Gambit series, I couldn’t wait for GM Boris Alterman’s repertoire book featuring the starting moves 1.e4 e5, covered in the second volume. His contagious style of writing, profound explanations and high-level analysis made me more curious about his view on variations which are part of my own repertoire as well.

By IM Robert Ris

However, by skimming The Alterman Gambit Guide - Black Gambits 2 very quickly I noticed that my own 1.e4 e5 repertoire doesn’t have many overlaps with the lines proposed by the Israeli GM. Whereas my own style is pretty solid – I prefer to avoid any opportunity entering unknown territory from sharp lines – Alterman’s recommendations seem to be quite the opposite, which is to be expected from a book about gambit play. Like in earlier works for publisher Quality Chess, it has been his aim to build up a clear repertoire based on quick development and activity, preparing the reader to sacrifice a pawn or two. In this volume Alterman goes a bit further and on various occasions he even invests more material for long-term compensation.

His work commences with the Marshall Attack, which indeed seems to be an obvious choice for black players dealing with the Ruy Lopez. After a short introduction of the initial moves, Alterman makes a first stop at the well-known starting point of this variation:

PGN string

At this point we must make an important decision. To begin with, I must acknowledge that 11...c6 is by far the most popular move, and the one that enjoys the best reputation amongst theoreticians. Black keeps the knight in the center, and prepares ...Bd6 and ...Qh4 in the near future. Unfortunately it comes pre-packaged with a truly mind-boggling amount of theory, including numerous forces drawing lines and pawn-down endgames in which Black can hold a draw but has little chance to play for a win. For this reason I decided it would be more interesting to focus on two less popular lines. Both of them contain a good deal of venom and are likely to come as a surprise to many opponents. Games 1-4 will focus on 11...Nf6?!, the move chosen by Marshall himself against Capablanca in a game that we will soon see.
 
One of the primary aims of my Gambit Guide is to help the reader improve his arsenal of tactical and attacking motifs. The 11...Nf6 line has these in abundance, and for this reason alone it was worth including it in the book. Despite its allure, I must make it clear that the 11...Nf6 variation is not entirely sound, and if White plays accurately then he should be able to obtain a clear advantage. Nevertheless I found some improvements for Black in certain variations that were previously considered unfavorable for him. Overall I would consider Black's system a dangerous practical weapon, especially against unsuspecting opponents. Forgetting about beautiful attacks and sacrificial combinations for a moment, we must also keep the theoretical soundness in mind.
 
For this reason I have covered the slightly unusual but still respectable 11...Bb7 in games 5 and 6. This move leads to a noticeably different type of game in which Black strives for positional compensation in the center and on the
queenside. Black's chances of scoring a quick checkmate are diminished, but he has good chances to maintain the balance even when White plays strongly. After reading through the chapter the reader will be able to select whichever option he finds more appealing to use in his own games.

Although his observations are pretty honest and factually correct, I believe many people will raise their eyebrows with his last sentence. After reading 46 pages not everyone would still like to make a decision which line best suits his own style of play, especially taking into account that the third and most reliable option 11…c6 has been omitted. Alterman has a good point of not incorporating the mass of inconceivable variations, but once you are pretending to provide the reader with a sound gambit concept it seems more appropriate to me to include the main line as well, which has at least as many tactical and attacking motifs as 11…Nf6?!.

The same point of criticism can be made about his suggestion to meet the Two Knight’s Game (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5) with the Traxler Counterattack (4...Bc5), which doesn’t have a great reputation at the highest level. Instead, with 4…d5 Black has a reliable possibility at his disposal which has been tested frequently by various top players. Alterman, however, seems to believe in the practical value of his recommendations, putting faith in the fact many white players rather focus on the main lines, while neglecting the tricky side-lines. His approach is worth considering, and players who are looking for some real excitement are in good hands with this renowned author. The following example must be a great source of inspiration for those who are intending to include this razor sharp opening into their repertoire:

PGN string

Such games, as this one played by the Czech inventor himself, aren’t often seen in practice anymore, even though they are quite encouraging. The increasing strength of computers enables people to find different improvements and/or refutations along the way, which is something the author acknowledges.

On various occasions Alterman has attempted to improve upon established theory, which might offer theoreticians new food for thought. Personally I found it interesting to see the variation with the remarkable 4…Nxe4?!!? as I wasn’t even aware of its existence before reading the book! To my astonishment it was played only a week ago in a friendly game between two of my 9 year old students! Despite the fact that they fully handled the position in gambit spirit, one can’t blame them for not knowing White’s best option 5.Bxf7! Ke7 6.d4! which leaves Black’s surprise weapon only suitable for blitz and/or rapid games, where the result of the game isn’t that important.

Another issue that strikes me is the fact that lesser-rated openings like the Traxler and Falkbeer Counter Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.f4 d5) are covered more extensively than the more respected Scotch, which has been classified in "Chapter 7 Other Systems after 1.e4 e5".

Alterman gives the following explanation for his choice of the provoking bishop sortie to b4 on the 4th move:

Finding a suitable system against the Scotch is not an easy task, as there are no reputable gambits. Objectively the strongest replies are the main lines of 4…Nf6 and 4…Bc5, both of which have amassed large bodies of theory, making them problematic subjects for a short section such as this.

Although the distribution of the variations over the book is far from perfect, I still believe its clear structure offers a practical repertoire and enables the reader to apply the gained knowledge in practice. The pleasant alternation between thoroughly explained ideas and spectacular variations makes the content accessible to a wide audience (I suppose 1600 rated players as well as grandmasters will acquire new information when going through the book).

At the end of every analyzed game there's a section ‘What we have learned’, providing a comprehensive summary with all the key ideas pointed out once again. I found this format very reader-friendly and undoubtedly it will contribute in storing the tons of information into the long-term memory of the brain.

The Frankenstein-Dracula Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Nxe4 4.Qh5 Nd6), favored by so many correspondence players, has been dealt with in 35 pages. Those who are obsessed with this labyrinth of variations will certainly find some joy from replaying the covered games. Newbies like me and/or players who are looking for a hypersharp battle may be slightly disappointed to see White can easily chicken out with 5.Qxe5 when a dull draw can hardly be avoided. Alterman answers:

It takes two to tango, and it will not always be possible to instigate a full-scale-fight – especially when playing with the Black pieces. When the opponent plays boringly, do not despair. Just play good moves, and if you eventually have to take a draw, then so be it.

His last sentence is a well-known topic of issue nowadays and it’s absolutely not my aim to initiate another discussion. The desire to read this book was partly based on the plan to sharpen my 1.e4 e5 repertoire, something I considered impossible if I wanted to keep in mind the theoretical soundness of the opening lines as well. After studying both volumes of the Alterman Gambit Guide, my view of the matter remains unchanged despite of the new load of opening information I’m enriched with.

Black’s gambit play seems more suitable against 1.d4, which must have something to do with the fact Black is able to sacrifice his a- and b-pawn in the Benko/Volga Gambit without having to worry about the safety of his own king. (I guess you can imagine the consequences missing your g- and h-pawn when attempting a similar wing gambit against 1.e4…) Although this conclusion seems rather obvious, I never thought like this before about my choice of openings. Answering White’s first move in a symmetrical manner opens new gates towards the black king as well, which might explain why Black found it still difficult to seize the initiative for the sake of a pawn (or more) without neglecting the objective strength of his operations.

Fortunately for real chess lovers this scientific approach doesn’t stand long and practical games remain still decided over the board. That’s why Alterman pays a lot of attention to the practical value of his suggested opening lines. I'm sure the readers will feel inspired after a thorough examination of this book!

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Robert Ris's picture
Author: Robert Ris

Robert Ris is an International Master, professional trainer and teaches in schools, clubs and individually. He is one of the editors of ChessVibes Openings and ChessVibes Training and from time to time also writes book reviews. Other interests: travelling, sports and Greek food.

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