Review: The Ragozin Complex
As a life-long King's Indian player (not counting the occasional flirt with the Grünfeld), I've never been very enthusiastic about answering the move 1.d4 with putting my pawns on d5 and e6. In Queen's Gambits White always has a small but very annoying edge, the Nimzo & Queen's Indian complex somehow doesn't seem to suit my style and without my bishop on g7 all those London Systems (where White goes 2.Nf3 and 3.Bf4) and Torre Attacks (3.Bg5) seem so much harder to beat! The Ragozin Complex (New in Chess, 2011), however, gave me that final push over the edge and into unknown queen's pawn territory. I might just have lost that complex of having to start with 1...Nf6 and 2...g6!
Let me start by saying that in my view, Barsky's book belongs to the same category as classics like Understanding the Grünfeld by Jonathan Rowson (Gambit, 1998) and Queen's Gambit Declined by Matthew Sadler (Everyman, 2000). It's a wonderful guide to this more or less neglected opening system, with about as much attention to explanation as to the actual theory. On top of that, the author not only provides a lengthy introduction about Ragozin himself, but also the full translation of Isaak Lipnitsky's 'forgotten research' from 1956 on the Ragozin Defence, including his article 'How to Study a Concrete Opening'. All this together makes The Ragozin Complex more than just another opening book.
The Ragozin is basically the opening system that arises after the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d5 3.c4 e6 4.Nc3 Bb4. Naturally, a lot of games start with 1.d4 d5 or even 1.Nf3.
This defence, which at first sight looks like some kind of mixture of the Queen's Gambit Declined and the Nimzo-Indian, was introduced into practice by Viacheslav Vasilievich Ragozin (1908-1962), in his time a top grandmaster from the Soviet-Union, and also a well-known theoretican. He was a close friend of Mikhail Botvinnik and helped him in many occasions, including World Championship matches. Ragozin's best individual achievements include a 2nd place at the 1947 Chigorin Memorial ahead of Keres, Smyslov, Boleslavsky, Kotov and Gligoric, and winning the 1959 World Correspondence Championship.
The author of The Ragozin Complex, Vladimir Barsky, is an International Master himself, but mostly involved in coaching and journalism. For instance, at the moment he is also editor-in-chief of the website of the Russian Chess Federation. Besides, many of his photos appear on websites and in chess magazines. Opening lovers might know him for his The Modern Philidor Defence (Chess Stars, 2010) and, of course, for co-authoring The Chigorin Defence According to Morozevich (New in Chess, 2007).
Already in his introduction, the author reveals his love for the historical aspect of the game of chess. He quotes Alexander Alekhine, who at first is sceptical about putting the bishop on b4. In his article 'The Significance of the New York tournament (1924) for Opening Theory', Alekhine wrote:
...Still less can one recommend the development of the bishop to b4 on move four (as in the game Capablanca-Marshall), since then by the reply 5.Qa4+! White can force 5...Nc6, which makes it significantly more difficult for the opponent to achieve the important task of opening lines in the centre. It is remarkable that the world champion did not exploit this possibility.
According to Barsky, it was this remark by Alekhine that got Ragozin interested in exploring the position after 5.Qa4+ Nc6 6.e3 more. And in fact soon after, Alekhine softened his opinion. In his game against Colle at Hastings 1925/26, he played it as Black, and said:
Although, strictly speaking, this defence is not fully correct, it is not easy to refute. I chose it specifically in order to convince myself of the practical chances which can arise in the event of inaccurate play by White, and of those dangers which he faces, if White plays correctly.
In the 1930s the Ragozin Defence started to become more and more popular. In subsequent decades the opening setup with ...d5, ...e6, ...Nf6 and ...Bb4 never grew into a main-line, but it always kept its special place in 1.d4 theory. In recent years strong players such as Levon Aronian, Vladimir Kramnik, Alexander Grischuk, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Pavel Eljanov and Hou Yifan have played it more than once.
It's quite amazing that there hadn't appeared a book on the Ragozin before! The only substantial theoretical research ever published was a section in the famous book Questions of Modern Chess Theory by Isaac Lipnitsky (yes, the book that got Bobby Fischer to learn Russian, and... play the Ragozin!). A second edition of this book (the English translation was reviewed by us) was published in 2007, but the theoretical section on the Ragozin was replaced by a selection of Lipnitsky's best games.
Once a 'Russian schoolboy' himself, Barsky was lucky enough to become acquainted with Lipnitsky's book when he was young. Therefore, when he started to write a book on the Ragozin a few years ago, he decided that he couldn't do without Lipnitsky's research, even though it was more than half a century old. The result of Barsky's approach is a wonderful mixture of what you might call 'Soviet School of Chess analysis and explanation' by Lipnitsky, and up-to-date games and theory brought together by Barsky himself, all interwoven in one book.
The additional value is that Barsky makes clear that Lipnitsky's explanations and even variations haven't lost their topicality. Take, for instance, this brilliant game:
This game cannot be found in the Megabase 2012. And so it can happen that in a game from the 2009 Spanish team championship between two players rated around 2400, Black didn't play 8...Bd7!! but 8...0-0?! instead. Barsky tells the whole story, quoting from an article by Mihail Marin published in the German magazine Schach, called 'Old wine in new bottles'. The game itself is given later in the book by Barsky, where he combines, like in the whole book, quotes from Lipnitsky with personal annotations.
Let us give the microphone at least once to Lipnitsky himself, so that you can decide for yourself whether you can learn something from words and sentences written in 1956.
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 O-O 5. Bd3 d5 6. Nf3 Nc6!? 7. O-O dxc4 8. Bxc4 Bd6 9. Bb5 e5 10. Bxc6 exd4 11. Bxb7 Bxb7 12. Nxd4 Qd7
Black brings his queen into play and prevents the threats 13.Ndb5 or 13.Nf5. Either move would allow White either to eliminate the bishop on d7 or force the exchange of queens... Now Black has compensation for the pawn in the shape of greater freedom of action and two bishops, with White's queenside insufficiently developed.
Playing similar positions involves well-known difficulties. Black's compensation is of a temporary character and could evaporate quite quickly. White only needs to liquidate his development lag and ha can go over to a policy of exchanges or utilise his extra e-pawn in the centre. However one should not draw any hasty conclusions from this and start attacking the enemy king with all of one;s pieces, trying to mate him or else regain the pawn before he can develop, Such an approach can easily turn out to be a false trail. On the other hand, of course, if there is a chance of a successful attack on the king, one should exploit it.
But often such attacks can be easily repulsed, and in the process of defence, the underdeveloped pieces gradually come into play. The attacking side, having placed his pieces on the kingside, often lacks sufficient effectiveness in the centre and this can enhance the defensive possibilities in several ways: 1. by the exchange of the attacking pieces; 2. by driving them away; 3. by returning te extra material at the right moment, and taking key squares.
Thus, in this position, with the initiative for the pawn, to throw all one;s forces into an unclear attack on the king would be to burn one;s boats and play va-baque. A different method of play is correct - exploit the greater freedom of movement for further annexation of key points on the board, and the quickest possible mobilisation of the remaining forces. In doing this, it is important to prevent successful development by White.
The structure of the book is a collection of complete games (sometimes all the way up to a tablebase analysis of an endgame), which may not be to everyone's liking. This way it's not easy to get a good idea of the basic structure of the theory: what are the main-lines, which moves are important to remember, which not... However, the publisher put a lot of effort in creating structure around these games. The main chapters are named after the main alternatives White can play at move 5:
Chapter 1 - 5.Qa4+
Chapter 2 - 5.Qc2
Chapter 3 - 5.Qb3
Chapter 4 - 5.e3
Chapter 5 - 5.a3
Chapter 6 - 5.Bg5
Chapter 7 - 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Bg5
These chapter names are also shown at the top of each page (where unfortunately an error slipped in: Chapter 6 is called '6.Be3' on each page). Besides, at the end of the book there is an index of players, a games list, an index of variations and a bibliography so all this makes it more easy to get an idea of the different possibilities.
It's important to note that the book isn't especially focused on White or Black. It's not a repertoire book - in fact the subtitle is 'A guide for White and Black'. Therefore, it might take a bit more time to create your own repertoire if you decide to try out this system with Black. However, this can't be a real problem. I mean, for me the Ragozin would be something completely different, so I don't expect to be able to play it well after only a few hours of looking at critical lines! Barsky forces you to read about the history of the opening, and its development over the course of seven decades. But isn't that how new openings should be studied in the first place?
The Ragozin Complex is one of the better opening books I've seen in recent years. It's a highly interesting read for both opening theoreticians and lovers of chess culture and history.
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