Friday, 27 December 2013

Chess Reviews: 228

As a long-time fan of the French Defence, I have read virtually every English-language book on the subject. I was intrigued to see what Quality Chess could bring to the table with three new volumes on 1 e4 e6 (with at least one more to follow).

The French Defence
Volume One
By Emanuel Berg
324 pages
Quality Chess

The French Defence
Volume Two
By Emanuel Berg
304 pages
Quality Chess
The first two volumes of Emanuel Berg's trilogy on the French Defence offer a repertoire against White's best move, namely 3 Nc3. Nothing else tests Black's skill as much as this classical developing move. On the other hand, nothing else offers Black as much as fun and adventure either; it represents a true challenge for players on both sides of the board, especially if Black selects the Winawer Variation (3 ...Bb4) as recommended here by Berg.

Volume 1 looks at everything White can throw at Black after 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4, apart from the main lines with 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 Qg4, which are reserved for volume 2.

Make no mistake; the Winawer requires a lot of study time to keep afloat and this pair of books are by no means quick reads, aimed at getting beginners up and running as soon as possible. As is the norm with the Quality Chess Grandmaster Repertoire series, hard work is required to make the most of the material. As regards this pair of books, the hard work will be well rewarded, with the reader having a serious opportunity to develop a deep understanding of the Winawer.

The coverage is not encyclopedic; instead, a clear repertoire is on offer (sometimes with an alternative line in case the first doesn't appeal). The author has worked hard to select variations that test White at every opportunity and he hasn't just picked out the prime cuts from other books. For example, in volume 1 Black counters the slippery 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 Bd2 with the relatively unexplored 5 ...Nh6. Similarly, there's no point looking here for any sidelines for Black after 4 e5; fans of 4 ...Qd7, 4 ...b6 and other tries will have to look elsewhere as this repertoire consistently heads off on the road to the Winawer Poisoned Pawn lines and takes no deviations for the second player.

The h6 square is significant in one of the most important lines in volume 1. 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 7 Nf3

Black to play
The move 7 ...h6!? is given here, cutting out one of White's standard ideas of planting the king's knight on g5. A controversial choice - especially as Black usually castles kingside afterwards - but it should lead to fresh positions and cause opponents new problems.

The depth of both books is impressive and there is a fine blend of explanatory prose and variations. The author clearly does not want the reader to be left in the dark, scratching their head. For example, after 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 Qd3, the recommendation is 4 ...Ne7 and no fewer than seven White replies are considered. It should be apparent that the reader can expect to see plenty of analysis in these books that has not been seen anywhere before. There's plenty of novelties too, just waiting to sprung over the board.

Of course, it's no secret that Black should be happy against the early deviations in the Winawer. The most challenging work comes in volume, when one has to enter the stormy seas of 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 Qg4. Berg steers the ship straight into the eye of the Poisoned Pawn storm (albeit with 7 ...cxd4 rather than the more common 7 ...Qc7, to avoid some potentially problematic lines with 8 Bd3).

This is the given as the ultimate mainline of the Poisoned Pawn Variation.

White to play
The critical moves for both sides now are: 12 h4! and 12 ...d4!. If you like the idea of entering into this dangerous cauldron, then you will need an excellent guide to avoid a quick and messy defeat. I believe this volume (if studied very carefully) is definitely up to the task.

Readers who shy away from the sharpest of variations should not lose interest as there are two sections on 7 ...0-0, denying White the chance to snatch the g7-pawn. One section covers 8 Bd3 f5 and the other analyses 8 Bd3 Nbc6, so there are three major systems to choose when facing 7 Qg4.

Hopefully, this well-written pair of books will lead to a revival in the popularity of the fascinating Winawer Variation. Only with testing at a high level will the theory develop in a serious manner. I'm sure chess fans would rather see top Grandmasters pushing their black e-pawns just one square rather than two on the initial move. It always makes a nice change from seeing a Berlin or Petroff appear on the board.

Volume three in the series promises to cover everything else apart from 3 Nc3. I am very much looking forward to seeing what Emanuel Berg has to offer in those areas. He has played the French Defence since 1990 and I get the distinct impression that he is holding nothing back in his books on the subject.
Playing The French
By Jacob Aagaard 
and Nikolaos Ntirlis
464 pages
Quality Chess
Playing The French offers an equally combative approach. Eschewing the Winawer in favour of 3 ...Nf6, the backbone of the repertoire is the Classical Variation. Indeed, roughly half of the book covers lines arising from 3 Nc3 Nf6, with two options for Black after 4 Bg5: the traditional 4 ...Be7 and the potentially chaotic 4 ...Bb4 (the McCutcheon Variation).

All of White's other tries are covered, of course - from the eccentric tries (2 b3 and its stablemates) to the more serious lines (the Tarrasch and Advance). Black is consistently advised to challenge White as much as possible. For instance, an early and unbalancing ...c5 is the recommendation against the Exchange Variation.

There's an interesting new wrinkle against the Tarrasch, which appears after the standard moves:

1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nd2 c5 4 Ngf3 cxd4 5 exd5 Qxd5 6 Bc4 Qd6 7 O-O Nf6 8 Nb3 Nc6 9 Nbxd4 Nxd4 10 Nxd4  a6 11 Re1 Qc7 12 Qe2

Now the little move 12 ...h6 is given as Black's main recommendation. The third use of the h6 square in this column! Indeed, it is even awarded ''!!'' to highlight its perceived power. There are two immediate points: Nf5 - common in these positions - loses its effectiveness as the g7 point is still protected and Bg5 is prevented at the same time. It will be interesting to see if 12 ...h6 will receive some serious tests after being unveiled as the book's main anti-Tarrasch weapon.

Elsewhere, fans of the Classical French should be aware of the need to study the section on the Alekhine Gambit (1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5 Be7 5 e5 Nfd7 6 h4!?) very carefully, as there is clearly life in the old dog yet.

I like the diagram previews at the start of each chapter. Readers are advised to spend a little time studying each group of eight positions to prepare for the material that follows. It's a good way of setting the scene and getting the brain working on the topic in question.

A particular useful feature of all three of the books reviewed here is the way they are never afraid to reference books written by others (some publishers are reluctant do this as it may increase their rivals' sales). So here we find other French Defence experts quoted, with Watson, Williams and Moskalenko all making frequent appearances. This works very well and saves the reader time and energy by showing where and when to refer to other books. In short, it helps the learning process.

Yes, I have certainly seen a lot of books on the French Defence in my time. Yet these three consistently surprised me with what they had to offer, offering numerous interesting and intriguing ideas. I feel they are best suited to current fans of the French Defence who are already experienced in the art of 1 e4 e6 but would like to give their repertoires a major overhaul.

Books from Quality Chess are of a consistently high standard and rarely disappoint. These three are particularly impressive and I am certain I will continue to read them for some time after my reviews have been posted; a sure sign they have made an personal impact.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent reviews. I think they do an excellent job of representing these fine books. This is an essential service. Consider how disappointed a reader would be if he wanted a book on the Winawer and received a book on the Classical, or vice-versa.