Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Chess Reviews: 144

Mastering the Chess Openings
Volume 4
By IM John Watson
320 pages
Gambit Publications

IM Watson's famous series concludes with another large amount of material, essentially rounding up orphan openings and ideas which didn't find a niche in any of the first three volumes. To that end, we are presented with:

'...a mix of modern strategies, old-fashioned approaches, and unconventional schemes in the openings'.

The material starts off heavily orientated around 1 Nf3 but soon enough heads off to more uncharted territory, as the chapter titles clearly show:

Reti: Open and Closed Variations

Reti: Slav Variations

Modern Kingside Fianchetto

Modern Queenside Fianchetto


f-Pawn and Reversed Openings

Symmetry and Its Descendants

Irregular Openings and Initial Moves

Choosing and Preparing Openings

The Future of Openings

Long term Watson devotees will want to get this purely for his updated ideas on all things English-related (for instance, there are obvious transpositions after moves such as 1 Nf3 e6 2 c4 and 1 Nf3 d5 2 c4 c6) but the scope of this volume really is much broader than the previous ones.

'Gambits' is the chapter most casual readers will turn to first. Here we find discussions on gambits of different genres; there is a distinction between 'Primitive Gambits' (Danish Gambit, Milner-Barry Gambit etc) and 'Positional Gambits' (The Evans Gambit and other attempts to gain clear central control). 'The Ultra-Positional Benko Gambit' receives special coverage, as it is reckoned to be 'The most important true gambit in modern times...'

I learned that in this position, White can pose Black problems with 10 Rb1.

'It's remarkable how this simple move turned a previously humdrum line into White's favourite variation against the Benko Gambit. Granted, White's move is useful: it protects b2 and removes the rook from indirect attack from the bishop on g7. But the key factor is that White can play b3 at the right moment...' and the author goes on to explain the nuances.

Irregular Openings and Initial Moves has lots of interesting stuff. It's essentially a whistle-stop tour of all the weird and (occasionally) wonderful oddball openings. Some are more respected than others; for example, the author shows how start making a universal 1 ...d6 into a proper repertoire - but others are panned, such as 1 g4, 1 ...g5 and 1 ...a6.

'As far as I can tell, 1 g4 is competitive with 1 h4 for the honour of being White's worst first move. Against an informed or skilled opponent, it is simply masochistic.'

The final two chapters are completely prose and allow the author to give free rein to his own personal thoughts on the subjects in question. In other words:

'...I indulge in a bit of philosophy to round things out'.

The philosophy includes thoughts on what sort of opening would best suit players of a particular category of playing strength and general pointers how to improve one's opening play.

IM Watson's writing is never less than entertaining and thought provoking. 'Mastering the Chess Openings' is a fine and deservedly popular series.

Nunn's Chess Endings
Volume 1
By GM John Nunn
320 pages
Gambit Publications

This new, two-volume work on the endings picks up where GM Nunn's 'Understanding Chess Endgames' (reviewed here: left off. The reader, armed with a thorough grounding in elementary endgame matters, should be ready to plunge into much deeper and richer ocean of positions with reduced material.

The material is arranged in this fashion:

Conventions and Terminology

Introduction and Other Reading

The Three Key Endgame Skills

Pawn Endings

Knight Endings

Same-Coloured Bishop Endings

Opposite-Coloured Bishop Ending

Bishop vs Knight Endings

Queen Endings

The Introduction and Further Reading is an interesting 10 page exposition of the aims of this book and the forthcoming companion volume.

'What, then, is Nunn's Chess Endings? The main content is the careful analysis of hundreds of instructive endgames from practical play. by skipping the elementary parts, I have been able to go beyond standard endgame texts to consider more advanced topics and more complex positions.'

Along the way, there is some criticism of other endgame books. GM Nunn picks out few badly analysed examples and shows his improvements but not necessarily his forgiveness.

'It is harder to forgive errors in recent books where computer and tablebase assistance could have been used.'

'Books which claim to use computer-checking but evidently don't are a particular cause of irritation.'

One interesting aspect of this book is the lack of chess studies. Every example is from an authentic game of chess.

There is a problem with some modern books; the analysis may have been made more accurate by computers, but it isn't always presented in a user-friendly way. GM Nunn makes a serious attempt to steer clear of such a trap:

'Humans don't think like computers, and there's no point in simply giving computer output and expecting it to be helpful, so in these two books have made a big effort to explain in words the ideas underlying the analysis.'

Important summaries follow the subsections of each chapter, which succinctly sum up the key points of each endgame and older analysis is frequently overturned.

Here's a sample of what to expect...

Sefc - Averbakh
Dresden 1956

'The above position was used in Averbakh's endgame book and was reproduced in the Encyclopaedia of Chess Endings. In each case the view was that White could maintain the blockade, but in reality he cannot and the position is won for Black.

1 Ng5 h4 2 Nf3 Kh5 3 Ng5 Bd7 4 Ne4

As Averbakh points out, 4 Nf3 loses to 4 ...Bc8 5 Ng5 h3 6 Nf3 Bb7 7 Nh2 Kh4

4 ...Bc8 5 Nf6+ Kh6 6 Ne4

The crucial moment arrives.

6 ...Bf5?!

Although the position remains a win for Black, this is a step in the wrong direction. The winning idea is 6 ...Be6! 7 Ng5 Bd5, dominating the Knight. This appears to fail due to 8 Kg4, but then the tactical point 8 ...h3! kills White.'

Analysis diagram: position after the variation with 8 ...h3!

7 Ng5 Kh5 8 Nh7 h3?

This move finally throws the win away. Black could still have won by retracing his steps with 8 ...Kh6 9 Ng5 Bd7 etc.'

The game was drawn 13 moves later.


Bishop and two pawns vs Knight is generally won, but there are some drawn positions in which the pawns are o the-coloured squares as the bishop and are blockaded by the king and knight.

In some cases zugzwang can be used to lift the blockade and win, but whether this is possible depends on the precise position.'

I like the contrast between extended prose explanations and analytical lines. Despite the large size of the book and the impressive amount if material, this book is thoroughly accessible to club players and I'm sure that a serious study of the contents will indeed lead to a greater understanding of the techniques and trapdoors of endgame play.

Volume 2 is scheduled for October and will feature rook endings and endings with rooks and minor pieces.

Full details of Gambit books can be obtained from their frequently updated website:

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