Thursday, 1 September 2005

Chess Reviews: 3

Hello, folks! Thanks for dropping by. With the new season about to start it seems timely to take a look at some brand new opening books. You never know, one or more of these could be useful to freshen up your own repertoire….

Ruy Lopez Exchange
by Panczyk & Ilczuk

Players wishing to avoid the main lines of the Ruy Lopez yet still drum up good winning chances with 1 e4 would appear to have numerous options. However, a lot of the older, romantic openings are really struggling in a theoretical sense and it is extremely difficult to gain a serious edge against a 1 ...e5 exponent who knows his stuff. Indeed, seeing a King's Gambit or Vienna Game appearing on the board is more likely to come as a pleasant surprise than an unpleasant shock.

One attempt would be to try the Exchange Ruy Lopez. Naturally, one would have to have some knowledge of all the other Black defences after 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 but as 3 ...a6 is probably still the most expected reply then White can cut out a whole load of memory work by bypassing all the long and difficult main lines.
Emanuel Lasker showed it is possible to beat very strong players with this; his most famous games was of course his defeat of Capablanca in a key game of the famous 1914 St Petersburg tournament. Despite the best efforts of the second World Champion, it's popularity was never very high until Bobby Fischer shocked the world by winning three games with it in the 1966 Olympiad. Although the world had to take more notice of it after that, even Fischer didn't play it consistently so I don't think the theory developed particularly quickly. Nevertheless, it remained a good surprise weapon in the right hands and is still a very valid very to play.

At the base of White's strategy is the superior endgame he obtains by doubling Black's pawns so early in the game. The resulting structure theoretically gains in strength for White after each exchange. In a pure ending, White's Kingside pawn majority will be able to force the creation of a passed pawn but Black is very unlikely to do that with his crippled Queenside. Consequently, some Black players try to buck the trend at the earliest opportunity. Some try an early ...Qd6 and castle long; others stick by the older idea with an early ...Bg4 and then offer the sacrifice after h3 h5!? (which White should clearly decline).

The first chapter deals satisfactorily with the early sidelines for both sides and then quickly concludes that 5 0-0 is the only way to play for an advantage. The subsequent five chapters deal with all the positions following 5 0-0. First we see some unusual tries for Black, such as 5 ...Be6 and 5 ...Qf6 (neither as bad as they appear at first glance) and then we really get stuck into the main meat of the whole opening. Chapters 3 and 4 deal with 5 ...Bg4 and 5 ...Qd6 respectively and the final two chapters take a good look at the well established main line 5... f6 6 d4 followed by either 6 ....Bg4 (chapter 5) or 6 ...exd4 (chapter 6).

In most of these lines, White seems to retain no more than a slight edge and a lot of the illustrative games end in draws. I think you'd need to very confident about your technique to play in this way; there is often a major difference between the concept of heading for a superior ending and actually taking it to its desired conclusion. I played the Exchange Variation at the start of my time with Guisborough chess club in the early 1980s, but I simply wasn't up to the task of converting the advantage and shortly afterwards dropped it from my repertoire.

VERDICT: If you are wanting to take up an opening in which you are likely to have the better of the draw most of the time, then I would recommend this book to you as a very thorough guide. Best of all would be if you were willing to take on the main lines of the Ruy Lopez and wanted an occasional weapon to slip in from time to time. You could even exaggerate the threat by pausing for a few seconds after 3 ...a6, just to keep the opponent guessing.

The Scotch Game Explained
by Gary Lane

Another memory I have from my early Guisborough days is the way that Stuart Morgan made the Scotch Game look exceedingly strong. His harmonious play was well matched with the opening and a lot of his opponents simply didn't seem to have anything planned against 3 d4. At that time, the Scotch was considered an obscure opening but Kasparov brought its reputation kicking and screaming back into the chess world when he used it in his 1990 World Championship match with Karpov. Since then it has become a very respectable alternative to 3 Bb5.

Gary Lane's books have come in from a bit of criticism from some reviewers but I have always found his works extremely readable and suitably enthusiastic. His new book on the Scotch certainly lives up to his stated aim of 'providing a repertoire for White that requires low maintenance and can be learned in a weekend'. Lane runs through all the main variations and often gives them a slight twist to take play away from the main thickets of theory. For example, in the Mieses Variation he gives 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 exd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nxc6 bxc6 6 e5 Qe7 7 Qe2 Nd5 8 c4 Nb6 9 Nc3!? as his main line instead of the more common 9 Nd2 or 9 b3.

A bit of local colour is added when a couple of Eggleston games are referenced in the Scotch Four Knights chapter (although it doesn't say T. or D. - an omission chess books would do well to remedy sooner rather than later!).

I must admit that despite seeing a lot of Stuart Morgan's games all those years ago, the Scotch always was a bit of a mysterious uncharted country to me. Gary Lane's lucid explanations and cleverly chosen repertoire are helping me to plug the gap in my knowledge.

VERDICT: Of the three 1 e4 books this month, this is definitely the one I would choose to learn something new from and there is plenty of interesting material here for those already Scotching their opponent's intentions.

Italian Game and Evans Gambit

by Jan Pinski

The problem with studying old romantic openings such as the Italian Game and Evans Gambit is that one ends up thinking that everything is absolutely fine for Black (providing he knows his theory). As a decent alternative to the Ruy Lopez, these two lines are both sadly lacking. I was therefore interested to see what the author would make of them and how he would be able to inject some enthusiasm into the subject.

Unfortunately, I came away from the book struggling to find out how to create any sort of problems for Black. Typical comments by the author:

‘In positions like this you can beat even grandmasters. Obviously before this can happen, they will have to die from boredom…’

‘The main line (of the Moller Attack) is also completely harmless and the main problem Black needs to worry about is how to create winning chances’

Pinski concludes that White must play 5 d3 to try and win with the Italian Game and this is the subject of chapter 4, where after the very first diagram we read: ‘Black should always equalize without any real effort.’

So, in just over 50 pages we find that the Italian Game is not really worth playing for White, but of course you could still get away with it down at the club unless your opponent remembers to break with …d5 when convenient.

The enthusiasm is stepped up once we get to the Evans Gambit. This was an opening in slumber until Kasparov amazingly revived it with several wins against top-notch opposition, including Anand. However, once again it seems like Black’s resources are more than adequate and White players will really struggle to make an impression with this gambit.

The author’s sweeping statement that ‘although the Spanish gives more promise of a theoretical advantage, the Evans Gambit gives better chances of actually winning the game’ doesn’t really hold water.

I was also disappointed by the lack of historical context. In 1981, when Karpov successfully defend the world title against Korchnoy, he employed the Italian Game as a surprise weapon. In game 8 of the match there was a very interesting battle, one of the finest scuffles of the whole match. In game 10, Korchnoy equalized earlier and after that Karpov returned – with devastating effect - to the Ruy Lopez. What wasn’t known to Karpov and his camp was that Korchnoy had consulted with Italian expert Jonathan Mestel three years prior to the Merano match with a view to using the opening as a surprise weapon himself. This is a good bit of historical colour, but the whole Karpov – Korchnoy episode is relegated to a mere side variation.

Later on, we are treated to a couple of Chigorin – Steinitz clashes to demonstrate the Evans Gambit. The play of Steinitz doesn’t escape strong criticism, but here was an opportunity to add a little flesh to the story and explain the reason behind the telegraph match and Steinitz’s stubbornness. He had developed a very dim view of gambit play and challenged Chigorin to a short contest. ‘Let us play two games, you opening one and I the other. You will play the Evans Gambit in attack and the Two Knights Defence in the defence, and I will prove to you that the sacrifice of a pawn which these gambits entail will lose against the opposing game properly played.’

The First World Champion kept his extra pawn but it is clear that White has some compensation….

Steinitz lost the mini-match (played by telegraph) 0-2 and this led to their second World Championship match, in which he duly took revenge.
We do get some historical background to Captain Evans himself but this does come across as rather ‘cut and paste’.

VERDICT: All in all, this book is unlikely to win any new adherents to these ancient lines or even enthuse those who already dabble. It is best seen as a guide for Black and as such it could be useful.

Starting Out: Slav and Semi-Slav

by Glenn Flear

It is always a great pleasure to read an opening book written by an acknowledged expert on the lines in question. One of the first really good books on the Slav was Flear’s ‘The Slav For The Tournament Player’ back in 1988. In 2003 he returned to the subject with ‘The a6 Slav’, a line so new in 1988 that it was covered in less than five pages.

Back in 1988 he also included a chapter called: ‘Avoid the Semi-Slav!’ so he must have changed his opinion since then.

This new book covers both openings in good detail. After a brief introduction, the first 119 pages cover the various lines of the Slav, including the lines where Black tries the ….g6. Even though the …a6 lines remain very much the trend in modern chess, the more conventional lines are given excellent coverage too, as is the rarer – but solid – Schlechter system. Flear also covers the early gambit attempts by White and concludes that Black should be fine against all of them.

Any player wishing to take up the Slav as a winning weapon must be aware of the danger of White shutting up shop with the Exchange Variation. The author recommends an early …a6 to create some imbalance and also comments that the drawish statistics are a bit misleading, as the Exchange Variation is often chosen as a route to a mutually convenient rapid draw. As it’s been recommended in a few books over the years as a good way to play for White, Slav players should not be lulled into assuming peaceful intentions every time the opponent swaps off the pawns, so this chapter is particularly useful.

The Semi-Slav is covered in the next 100 pages. The complications arising from the Botvinnik Variation are legendary and it should come as no surprise that the games of Shirov are well quoted as examples.

Segunda – Vera, Benidorm 2002
White went on to win. If this sort of tactical mayhem appeals to you, perhaps you should take up the Semi-Slav!

However, the Meran System is also a very tricky beast and Flear quotes one game in which Kramnik played a novelty on move 29!

Illescas-Cordoba – Kramnik, Madrid 1993

Kramnik played 29…Kf8! as opposed to the older try 29…Bxd6 and drew 10 moves later.
Of course, such lines are unlikely ever to be relevant at club level, but Flear does a good job of explaining the early moves leading up these long lines.

Following a short chapter on early deviations - including the popular line 7 g4!? – the book concludes with 12 quiz positions to test your understanding of the material studied.

As is customary with the Starting Out range, the book likes to flash up the occasional ‘Tip’, ‘Note’ and ‘Warning’ and these often carry wisdom far beyond just the opening in question. For example, a good tip is: ‘Go through your own games (as soon as possible after you have finished) and get your opening sorted out for the next time. Don’t hesitate, do it straight away!’ and in an excellent note we find out that: ‘If the centre opens up in positions with opposite-side castling, flank attacks lose their potency.’

VERDICT: This is an excellent book for the reader wishing either to take up the Slav and Semi-Slav, or an existing Slav fan who wishes to increase his understanding further. The Grandmasterly wisdom is also much appreciated and such snippets of advice will stand the reader in good stead.

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Happy reading!
September 1st 2005

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