Review: The Complete Hedgehog vol. 1
Are chess books getting better? Take the first volume of The Complete Hedgehog by Sergey Shipov: although I've read many books on the Hedgehog system, I think this is the best one by far. It's more accessible, better explained, better written, it's much more interesting for readers who do not play the Hedgehog at all, and it's funny on top of that. Now, did they make such chess books in the 50s and 60s or even the 70s and 80s? I, for one, haven't seen them too often.
If chess books in general are really improving over time, it would be another example of the incorrectness of the widely held opinion that everything becomes worse and worse over time. (Here's a very interesting essay on the decline of violence over time.) One of the explanations for this in the world of chess books is, of course, that there are simply more chess authors around. Another reason is that chess education has improved a lot. Yet another is that it's much more important to write in an appealing, accessible style because of the arrival of new media such as chess videos and online lectures. I guess all are valid, and I think we should be glad that we're living in such interesting times. These days, it's possible to be extremely enthousiastic about a chess book almost every month.
The Hedgehog is surely one of the most difficult and fascination opening systems around, confusing and often frustrating thousands of chess fans around the world, not only club players but also strong masters. Still, grandmaster Sergey Shipov, editor-in-chief of the well-known Russian website www.crestbook.com shows that such ignorance can actually become a force and a source of joy once you're willing to embrace the principles of the Hedgehog with full conviction. The Complete Hedgehog, published by Mongoose Press, is one of those rare chess books that are both enthusiastic and completely honest.
So what is the Hedgehog? I've never seen a better explanation than the one Shipov provides in the introduction:
Bad Pistyan 1922
Observe: four of Black's pawns have lined up along the sixth rank (sometimes they are joined by the g- and h-pawns) and with their short, strong spines (thus 'hedgehog', not 'porcupine'!), they control the fifth rank in front of then. The hostile armies complete their reorganizations inside the space set aside for them. White has four ranks, Black three. The appearance of a pawn or a piece usually signals the start of sharp conflict, in which the winner will be the one who is better prepared. Besides the outward resemblance, these kinds of setups also resemble the woodland creature in the way they deal with an enemy who is superior to them in spatial measurement: Black spends a great deal of time in strictly defensive maneuvers [sic], under cover of his pawn-spines, in order to find the right moment to leap out suddenly and bite White. (...)
The possible permutations of the Hedgehog position are huge, many of them without any real theoretical significance. Thus, for example, I remember that in my school days, when facing weak opposition, I used to play the weirdest Hedgehog positions in blitz games. For instance, I might open a game as White with 1.a3, followed by 2.b3, 3.c3, 4.d3, 5.e3, 6.f3, 7.g3, 8.Bg2, 9.Ra2, etc., regardless of what Black played, reaching a very strange and non-viable version of the Hedgehog. (...) The Hedgehog is a garden of branching paths that suddenly can come back together as one. The problem of transposing or combining variations prevents us from describing these Hedgehog setups in encyclopedic fashion - that is, move after move. So the logical approach is to divide them up, not accordin to openings, but by the pawn structure that exists after the development of the pieces is completed.
This is a lengthy quote, but some very important things can be extracted from it. First of all, the reader will note Shipov's style: often personal and anecdotal, and he's not afraid to make lively analogies look more than just a play with words. In this respect, I was often reminded of Ilya Odessky's book on 1.b3, which I also reviewed and liked a lot. Is it me or are Russian authors often funnier than Western European chess book writers? Well, perhaps not: a second thing that becomes clear from the above excerpt is that Shipov adopts a completely different style than Alexander Khalifman's book series Opening Repertoire for White according to Kramnik, which also deals (Vol. 2) with the Hedgehog.
Khalifman's series - not exactly 'funny' but very good nevertheless - does use a rather 'encyclopedic' approach to explain openings, and from Shipov's explanation it becomes clear why, in my mind, Khalifman doesn't always succeed here. (By the way, Shipov's book unfortunately does not have a bibliography, so I don't know whether he was implicitly referring to Khalifman here.) At any rate, Khalifman in his book does not attempt to explain what the Hedgehog really 'is', anyway, primarily focused as he is on variations and moves. A book that does try to explain the system from a more conceptual, almost philosophical point of view is Mihai Suba's classic The Hedgehog. The main difference between Shipov's and Suba's book is, in my view, that Suba still doesn't go all the way in describing the Hedgehog as a holistic concept that can be applied to entirely different openings than just the English after 1.c4 or 1.Nf3.
To illustrate what I mean, here are two positions from Shipov's chapter 'Getting to the Hedgehog Opening Structure':
These are positions from the Paulsen Sicilian and the King's Indian Defence - both resulting in Hedgehogs. However, this is not the end of it. The fact that the Hedgehog can result from many different openings doesn't mean it should always be expected. In fact, even one of the players aims for a Hedgehog-type setup, this is not enough. As Shipov explains:
In order to reach the required structure, one only needs to exchange Black's c-pawn for White's d-pawn and allow White to occupy the center. (...) I should warn my young and impressionable readers that Hedgehog structures can occur only if both sides are willing; so there's no point in studying the Hedgehog with the aim of making it your principal system for Black, because 'wicked' opponents might not allow you to set it up at the board. (...) And so, obtaining the Hedgehog depends first of all on White's desire to attack Black's apparently passive and vulnerable position.
This is the kind of explanation that I missed in the book by Suba, who often seems merely overjoyed by the fact that the Hedgehog should appear at all in a game, and that it should always be the right strategy. Shipov himself dismisses such wet dreams best, when he reproaches his youthful self for trying to reach the Hedgehog at all times:
No, my friends - one should not make a fetish out of the Hedgehog, striving to set it up in every situation regardless of the consequences. (...) Chess is rich in possibilities, and can't be restricted to a catechism of spiny little beasties.
So what exactly are the characteristics of the infamous Hedgehog - in other words, what makes it such a feared, complex and respected system? Well, you should really read the entire chapter Shipov devotes to the 'Hedgehog philosophy', but here are a few of Shipov's main points:
- "In the Hedgehog, Black operates in guerilla style: avoiding direct contact, he hides in the bushes, observes his foe, waits, and then attacks at the most unexpected moment."
- Contratry to what common chess wisdom teaches about cramped positions, in the Hedgehog, "exchanges are bad for Black, because they decrease his fighting potential."
- "Right away, and with no regrets, I will tell you that, in the larger sense, the Hedgehog is a risky opening."
- In the Hedgehog, Black "sets up a solid wall of pawns, behind whose protection he can arrange a universal piece placement that's guaranteed to be a good one."
- Psychology plays an important role: "When [White] takes over the center without a struggle, he gets a feeling of superiority, regardless of his rating. (...) It's a drive that frequently leads to an unprepared attack."
- "The Hedgehog displays only an insignificant part of its possibilities. Its handlers must calculate many variations during the course of the game, and consider many nuances, the vast bulk of which never will turn into actual moves. (...) Literally at every move, the players must examine Black's possible breaks with ... b6-b5 and ...d6-d5, as well as White's active possibilites. (...) So time scrambles are an objective necessity for those who play the Hedgehog."
- "Those who feel uncomfortable in close quarters - in elevators, for example - should not be playing the Hedgehog. (...) The blood of the Hedgehogger must run cold as ice - at least, until a certain moment arrives..."
At this point, perhaps you think I am giving away the contents of the book already. Well, not exactly: all my quotes are from the first 20 pages only, and the book has over 500. The rest of the book, of course, is more concrete and deals with variations and moves. The main focus of these lines is on the so-called 'English Hedgehog', arising after 1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 c5 3.Nf3 e6 4.g3 b6 5.Bg2 Bb7 6.0-0 Be7.
The book then divides into two main chapters: the classical continuation 7.d4 and the more modern system starting with 7.Re1. And Shipov deals wonderfully with the relevant games and variations and especially its ideas. Here's an example of his clear way of explanations (and his talent for picking good examples):
Smederevska Palanka 1981
Let's study this position carefully. The knight on c5 is pinned, the c6 square is weak: the white knight is heading there. Black's king is far from the battlefield, so the invasion of White's rook at d7 or d6 could be very dangerous. In addition, there's a real weakness: the b6-pawn. White's knight is very strong on e5; he also has a pawn majority on the queenside, with the possibility of creating a passed pawn there. All these nuances, taken together, define White's advantage in this endgame as tangible and stable.
The most natural reply. Black unpins the knight on c5 and draws the sting from the white knight's leap to c6. In that case, Black would reply ...Rd8-c8 and the rogue would be forced to retreat.
17.Bxc5! Yet another unpleasant surprise!
17...Bxc5 On 17...bxc5 White would also answer 18.Na4!, when the weak c5-pawn becomes a permanent weakness. (...)
18.Na4! A very unpleasant sortie from Black's point of view. The 'b6+Bc5' construction is now under pressure.
However, a warning seems appropriate. The book is mainly devoted to systems where after 7.Re1, Black does not play the critical moves 7...d5 or 7...Ne4 but instead strives for a 'real' Hedgehog with the black pawn on d6. All we read about these lines is this:
The advance 7...d5 is the most logical move, from the standpoint of the principle of fighting for the center. After 8.cxd5, Black has two cardinally different paths. On 8...exd5 9.d4 0-0 10.Bf4 Na6, we have a standard Queen's Indian type of structure. This is a great theme for a different thick book, and would probably also be best handled by a different author. In the variation 8....Nxd5 9.e4 Nb4 10.d4, a sharp clash of pieces begins in the center, which you may get a first-hand look at from the classic game B.Larsen-S.Gligoric, Bled 1979.
About 7...Ne4 we get just one variation and the assertion that "the continuation 7...Ne4 may be labeled perfectly safe; but it still doesn't lead to a full-fledged Hedgehog. The positions it produces are empty and boring - like a dinner without salt and pepper: tasteless!" To his credit, Shipov is the first to admit that this selection is biased and decided by taste rather than objectivity. Still, I can imagine readers who want to know all inside-out details of the Hedgehog will be disappointed by this omission. Shipov hasn't written a compendium but a personal account, and readers who are more interested in objective variations only, should probably think twice before buying this book.
There are probably more things to this book that could be called a little odd: sometimes, the translation seems a bit forced ('the player of White' isn't really a conventional way of indicating players). As said, there's no bibliography and neither is there an index of variations (which is particularly impractical what with all the possible transpositions, although perhaps it's done on purpose to avoid the 'encyclopedia' image). Finally, I have been unable to figure our what we are to expect from part 2. Shipov mysteriously (or vaguely, depending on your state of mind) ends the final chapter Looking into the Future, with the words "Time will tell! And everything will find its place..." and his Conclusion with "Play the Hedgehog! More to come...". I honestly don't know what to make of this.
But frankly, it doesn't really matter. The Complete Hedgehog vol. 1 is a great book, probably the best ever on its subject. Shipov is a highly entertaining author, a true master in explaining ideas and the underlying stragies and psychology. And all this is written in an unmistakenly humouristic, erudite and personal style that distinguishes him from many of his predecessors; in short: Sergey Shipov is your ideal chess instructor. Now go buy his book and enjoy your holidays.
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