Saturday, 14 September 2013

Chess Reviews: 223

The King's Gambit
By GM John Shaw
680 pages
680 pages on the King's Gambit! No wonder it took five years to write. What is there left to say about 1 e4 e5 2 f4, an antique opening that enjoys only the occasional outing from irrepressible free spirits? Quite a lot, it seems. The author has even omitted irrelevant lines; this is a repertoire book ''with more than enough material to build several repertoires for White.'' Defenders with the black pieces would naturally be advised to take a look too.

John Shaw claims the King's Gambit is not only playable over the board (but not in correspondence chess) but is ''effective at all levels up to and including 2800+'' although White is advised to ''duck and dive by varying his replies to the critical systems.''

First, the bad news: according to the author, the Bishop's Gambit, arising after 2 ...exf4 3 Bc4, is bad for White. Indeed, he can't even equalise after best play by Black, which starts with 3 ...Nc6! There's just one chapter on 3 Bc4?! and it claims to offer a refutation of White's romantic relic. It's a pity, but there you go.

If White wants to try and prove the worth of the King's Gambit it looks like 3 Nf3 is essential. After that, there are six chapters devoted to 3 ...g5 and eight dealing with Black's other moves (including Fischer's famous 3 ...d6).

Later on there are two chapters covering the Classical method of declining the gambit - 2 ...Bc5 - one  on the Falkbeer Counter-Gambit (2 ...d5), one on the related Nimzowitsch Counter-Gambit (2 ...d5 3 exd5 c6) and two rounding up the odds and ends. The depth of the work is confirmed by the inclusion of lines such as 1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Kf2?! although I couldn't the rare variation 1 e4 e5 2 f4 d5 3 d4, as played by Tartakower.

The critical material is given first. In the words of the author, ''If you can survive the first few chapters then the rest of the book will feel like a walk in the park.'' What do we find? Well, what would you expect to find from the critical lines of the King's Gambit Accepted? Lots of sacrificial attacks, plenty of wandering kings and a plethora of tactical melees. There are novelties (and so there should be, after five years of research and writing) and games of contrasting fortune: brilliant wins for White rub shoulders with successfully resilient black defence.

Here's a couple of sample positions I've pulled from the maelstrom, just to demonstrate the sort of chaos to expect.

Black to play
This position is from ''Section 5 - Flude Line'' and started life thus: 1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3 g5 4 h4 g4 5 Ne5 Nf6 6 Bc4 d5 7 exd5 Bd6 8 d4 Nh5 9 Nc3!?

What should Black play? 24 ...Qh4+ 25 Kg1 g3 is only a draw, according to the (remarkable) analysis given in the book. The ''best winning try'' is the amusing 24 ...Ke5; ''simple chess - defending the attacked piece.''

White to play
Another one from Section 5. A bizarre position comparable to many I see on my travels to primary schools. White's main options are 13 dxe3, 13 hxg3 and 13 c3.

It should already be quite clear that there is still plenty of scope for creativity in this ancient opening but now, more than ever, players on both sides of the board need to be well versed with the theory behind the moves. Imagine finding yourself on either side of the positions given above and not knowing the best way to continue. Indeed, the ethos the book is summed up by a comment from the author, who plays the King's Gambit to reach positions that are ''sharp, interesting and little explored.''

For the curious, Bobby Fischer's ''Bust to the King's Gambit'' - 1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3 d6 4 d4 g5 - is best met by 5 g3! (4 Bc4 is quite interesting also) with the intention of a favourable transposition to the Quaade variation (normally reached via the 1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3 g5 4 Nc3).

73 illustrative games augment the regular variations and they include several examples from the last three years.

It's an interesting book. Despite the high page count it retained my interest thanks to two major factors: John's concise, clear and eminently readable prose and the entertaining, enticing positions, which definitely catch the eye all the way through the book.

I doubt that the King's Gambit will become widespread again. Most players will throw up their hands in horror at the thought of having to play such wild positions and newcomers to the gambit will almost certainly find the size of this tome and the amount of variations - plus extensive analysis - prohibitive to their intentions. Yet those who already play either side of 1 e4 e5 2 f4 will definitely welcome this volume into their libraries. For those people this is book is an obligatory purchase.

Summing up, John Shaw has taken an ancient and currently unpopular opening and produced an entertaining and instructive volume clocking in at a little under 700 pages. A remarkable achievement!

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