Advanced Chess Books on Openings

Advanced Chess Books on Openings

| 28 | Opening Theory

Capltal asked:

My rating is 1130. For Black, I’m interested in both 1.c4 e5 and 1.e4 e5! However, both have many variations so I bought two books: THE MARSHALL ATTACK by Bogdan Lalic and THE PETROFF DEFENSE by Forintos and Haag.

Is it a good idea to buy (and study) opening books? If so, what books do you recommend for 1.c4 e5? 

Dear Capltal:

Those are two heavy/advanced/scary books you picked up. I once called the Forintos book one of the best opening tomes ever (which it was at that time – since then, other authors have copied Forintos and started adding interesting prose to the reams of opening analysis), but good or bad, such complicated memory-intensive books are really way over the head of most players under 1600 (and not online 1600, but serious over-the-board tournament 1600).

This is another topic I’ve talked about quite a few times on (check out my archives and you will often find answers to the questions you wanted to pose!). Why buy books that offer moves, moves, and more moves when: 1) You won’t be able to remember most of them; 2) You won’t know why any of those moves were played; 3) Your opponents will rarely follow the book recommendations, leaving you to your own devices.

In fact, trying to read a book that’s too advanced will, more often than not, simply depress you since you won’t understand any of it, and that will quickly crush any confidence you might have had.

Here’s part of a book review I did on THE MARSHALL ATTACK by Lalic way back in 2004:


When I was a 1.e4 player, the opening I lived for was the Ruy Lopez. The rich strategic situations attracted me, and its amazing age (Lucena first mentioned it in 1490!) made me feel like I was reliving a part of chess history. Thus, when my 1.e4 was met by 1…e5, I always felt a certain excitement. Of course, there is always a fly in the ointment, and in this case the bothersome “buzzing” appears after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 when, instead of enjoying the intricate maneuvering that occurs after 7…d6 8.c3, Black can try to take over the initiative by 7…0-0 8.c3 d5 (The Marshall Attack) 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 c6 followed by 12…Bd6 with a strong kingside attack.

To show the effect this can have on a player, I’ll relate what happened to me at the 1978 Lloyds Bank tournament in London. It was the first round and the game (I was White) had started 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7. Suddenly I decided that my opponent was going to meet 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 with 7…0-0. Getting angry, I thought, “He’s not going to push me around like that! I’ll surprise him with 6.d4 and see how he reacts when I choose the system!” Of course, I lost, and afterwards he made it clear that he had no intention whatsoever of playing the Marshall.

A couple rounds later this exact scenario was repeated. This time I “dared” my opponent to castle after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 and, of course, he did just that! Again I avoided the Marshall (by using one of the Anti-Marshall systems with 7.Bb3 0-0 8.a4 or 8.h3), again I lost, and again I had to experience pure frustration when another opponent told me he wouldn’t have played it (he intended to meet 8.c3 with 8…d6, transposing back into normal Lopez lines)!

Amazingly, this happened a third straight time when I had White again, and after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 I looked my opponent, Malachi, in the eye (thinking, “Enough is enough!”) and dashed out white’s main move 8.c3, sure that the Marshall was the farthest thing from his mind. Without hesitation, he slammed down 8…d5 (at that point I might have been the first person - long before Homer Simpson – to use the word “Doh!”). The game continued: 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 c6 12.Bxd5 cxd5 13.d4 Bd6 14.Re3 (The Kevitz Variation. The idea is to meet 14...Qh4, which is the main line, with 15.h3 when the e3-Rook prevents many potential sacrifices.) 14...f5? (A new and highly dubious move.) 15.Nd2 f4 16.Re1 Qg5 17.Nf3 Qh5 18.a4 g5? (Black’s already in trouble, but this attempt to overrun the kingside simply fails.) 19.axb5 g4 20.Ne5 f3 21.Qd2 Bf5 22.Rxa6 Rxa6 23.bxa6 Ra8 24.Qg5+ Qxg5 25.Bxg5 Rxa6 26.gxf3 gxf3 27.Nxf3 and I won easily. Go figure.

More recently, one of my students has had trouble facing the “threat” of the Marshall, mainly due to the fact that she wants to avoid the complications and memorization that is a crucial part of the opening as a whole. As a result, she always answers 7…0-0 with one of the two anti-Marshall ideas (Kasparov does the same thing): 8.a4 and 8.h3. This isn’t a bad choice, but should players with White really freak out to the extent that I did? Shouldn’t they hold their heads up high and enter the battle with a song on their lips and an extra pawn in their pockets? Now, with Lalic’s excellent THE MARSHALL ATTACK, you can answer this question for yourself.

Lalic’s book is a mix of the latest analysis, summaries, and clear text. One hugely important section covers the anti-Marshall systems, finally putting this material together in digestible form: chapters seven (8.h3), eight (8.a4), nine (8.d4), and ten (8.d3 and 8.c3 d5 9.d4). He also gives great coverage of lesser Marshall setups such as (after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5 9.exd5) 9…e4 (unsound) and 9…Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 Nf4 (sucks), 11…Nb6 (sucks), 11…Bb7 (quite interesting), and 11…Nf6 (Black’s original choice).

However, most interesting to me is the modern main line: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 c6 12.d4 Bd6 13.Re1 Qh4 14.g3 Qh3 15.Re4 (often sacrificing the Exchange on this square) when Black must know quite a bit if he wants to show equality (though Anand, as Black, did just that in a Linares/2002 game against Ponomariov). There is still a lot to be discovered here, and any player that enjoys doing some home analysis will be rewarded with good results from either side.


Okay, we’re back in the present and I’m forced to ask: “Are you guys seriously looking to play such cutting edge, memorize everything, opening systems?”

Let’s take a glance at another book review I did about the really excellent THE RUY LOPEZ: A GUIDE FOR BLACK (authors: Sverre Johnsen and Leif Johannessen
, Gambit 2007).


When one wanders about the tournament hall of any significant Swiss System event, you’ll see that 1.e4 is usually answered by 1...c5 (the overwhelming favorite), 1...e6, 1...c6, with just a few double e-pawns (1...e5) appearing here or there -- though to be fair, 1...e5 is the almost universal choice in scholastic tournaments (the position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bc4 Bc5 5.d3 d6 seems to be on every board!).

However, when you look at the games in the various “super tournaments,” you’ll see Anand, Topalov, Kramnik, Ivanchuk, Adams, Morozevich, Bacrot, Leko, Valejo, Aronian, Svidler, Radjabov, Carlsen, Ponormariov, and just about everyone else making occasional to constant use of 1...e5 as their defense against 1.e4. 

There are reasons why the world’s best often seek the battle-tested waters of 1...e5. Safety, soundness, flexibility, and positional complexity are just some of the perks that 1.e4 e5 offers to its worshipers.

I get a lot of requests for repertoire advice. And though I often recommend the Caro-Kann for those that want to put in minimal study and achieve a sound position, I must admit that double e-pawn openings like the Petroff Defense and the Ruy Lopez are also excellent choices. THE RUY LOPEZ: A GUIDE FOR BLACK is a great way to enter the black waters of the Ruy. It covers Black’s proper answers to the Exchange Variation, Delayed Exchange lines, and other ways White can avoid the Closed Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3). But its main focus is on the Closed, and here it does a stellar job. 

The first thing that impressed me was the preface by the Norwegian grandmaster Leif Johannessen. He describes how a study of the classics convinced him to give the Closed Defense in the Ruy a shot. Other topics in his preface are the preparation of two sound lines (“In order to be properly prepared, you need to know one, or ideally two, lines better than most opponents. Objectively there is no great risk in picking two random Ruy Lopez lines that are played at grandmaster level. The chances that they will be fully playable for the rest of your life are excellent.”), how to prepare your new opening, identifying critical positions, and the usefulness of finding chess heroes that play the same lines you do. These fifteen pages are pure gold.

Yet, after this epic preface, we still don’t get the expected reams of analysis because the introduction (all twenty-five pages of it!) takes us on another instructive “how to study openings” ride. Here we are treated to topics like, A Quality Opening, Classical Principles, On the Shoulders of Giants, Room for Creativity, A Modern Favorite, A Great Learning Tool, Closed Ruy Lopez Strategy, Some Closed Ruy Lopez Concepts, Ruy Lopez Overview, and ... well the useful information just keeps on coming!

 When we finally hit the masses of analysis (always filled with instructive prose that explains the ideas and plans), we are already on page 51. It’s at this point that the non-master might feel a bit of panic. The book’s main choice of Closed Lopez system is the Zaitsev, a dynamic line that often leads to some of the most complicated and insane positions ever seen. For example, on page 54 we’re given the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Bb7 10.d4 Re8 11.Nbd2 Bf8 12.a4 h6 1.Bc2 cxd4 14.cxd4 Nb4 15.Bb1 c5 16.d5 Nd7 17.Ra3 f5 (17...c4 is a whole other animal and is also analyzed in detail) 18.Nh2 Nf6.

At this point White can choose between 19.Rf3, 19.Rg3, and 19.g4!?, while alternatives on move eighteen are 18.Rae3 and 18.exf5. 

I must admit that, in my view, nobody under 2200 should ever touch this line. It’s too complex, demands too much memorization, and calls for a tremendous amount of tactical acumen. Don’t get me wrong, the Zaitsev is a fantastic system (and their treatment of it is magnificent), but it’s simply too much opening for a non-master to handle (just like a Formula 1 is too much car for the non-professional driver to touch).

Fortunately, the author’s save their lower rated readers a heart attack by offering alternatives: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 and now both 9...Bb7 10.d4 Qd7!? and 9.h3 Re8!? ensure a solid position for Black without the tactical meltdown (or necessary super-memory) of the main line Zaitsev.

 But the authors aren’t done yet. In case these don’t appeal to you, or if you want a second Ruy line for Black, 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Qd7!? is given a serious look.

 Here I have to digress a bit. Thirty-one years ago, I decided to answer 1.e4 with ...e5 as a surprise weapon. I looked at all of Black’s choices in the Ruy and then noticed an old, relatively unexplored creation of Smyslov’s: 9...Qd7!?

I analyzed the thing, decided it was pretty cool, and gave it a drive at the first opportunity:

Nick deFirmian - Silman
, Lone Pine 1976

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Qd7!? 10.d4 Re8 11.Nbd2 Bf8 12.d5 Ne7 13.c4 c6 14.a4 bxc4 15.dxc6

Nick wisely rejected the tempting 15.Nxc4 due to 15...cxd5! 16.Nb6 Qb7 17.Nxa8 dxe4 when 18.Ng5 runs afoul of 18...d5.

15...Qxc6 16.Nxc4 Be6

Black has come out of the opening with an excellent position.

17.Na5 Bxb3 18.Qxb3 Qc7 19.Bd2 Rab8 20.Qc3 Qb6 21.Nc4 Qc6 22.Qd3 Ng6

Also possible was 22...Nxe4!? 23.Na5 Nc5 24.Nxc6 Nxd3 25.Nxb8 Rxb8! (worse is 25...Nxe1 26.Nxa6 Nxf3+ 27.gxf3 when White’s queenside pawns are too strong) and Black is okay. I felt 22...Ng6 led to a richer position.


After this error Black grabs the initiative and never lets it go. Better was 23.b3 Qb7 24.Na5 Qa8 when the upcoming ...d6-d5 advance will guarantee Black good play.

23...d5 24.exd5 Nxd5 25.Rac1 Ndf4 26.Qg3 Bb4!

Calmly ignoring all White discovered attacks along the c-file. One line: 27.Nxe5 Qxg2+! 28.Qxg2 Nxg2 when Black will end up winning material. By trading dark-squared Bishops, Black creates certain tactical themes based on a Knight fork on e2.

27.Nf3 Bxd2 28.Nfxd2

And not 28.Ncxd2? Qxc1! 29.Rxc1 Ne2+.


Crushing. 29.Nxe5 is still met by 29...Qxc1!

29.Ne4 Nhxg2?

So far Black has played a perfect game. Unfortunately, this hasty move (time pressure!) throws away the win. Correct was 29...Qh6! when White can’t hope to successfully defend himself.

30.Ncd6 Nxe1 31.Nf6+?

White should have played 31.Rxc6 Ne2+ 32.Kf1 Nxg3+ 33.fxg3.


I could have turned the game into a nightmare by 31...Kh8?? 32.Nxf7 mate.


The final error. White could have fought back in a pawn down endgame by 32.Rxc6 Ne2+ 33.Kf1 Nxg3+ 34.fxg3 gxf6.

32...Ke7 33.Nf5+ Kd7 34.Rxe1 Qg6 35.Ng5 Qxg5!, 0-1.

If Black’s position in this game and the kind of play he got against White’s center appeals to you, then perhaps 9...Qd7, and this book,
 are right for you.

 Unfortunately, after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Qd7!? 10.d4 Re8 11.Nbd2 Bf8 12.d5 the retreat 12...Ne7 was shown to be wanting by Khalifman. Fortunately, THE RUY LOPEZ: A GUIDE FOR BLACK makes a good case for the untested 12...Nd8, and it indeed looks quite playable. The beauty of 9...Qd7 is that there’s very little to memorize. Instead, ideas and knowledge of typical structures and plans rule the day.


Okay, we’re back to 2011 again and I can sum up my thoughts in this way: Playing main lines is fine as long as it’s within your range. Embracing mega-memory variations that demand grandmaster tactics is pure folly, but stepping aside from that trap and instead giving “idea lines” like 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Qd7!? a try (as in the deFirmian game above) makes good sense.

In the last few years several really good books have appeared on 1.e4 e5. Here’s a short list (don’t forget the two excellent books I mentioned earlier!):

A SPANISH REPERTOIRE FOR BLACK by M. Marin (Quality Chess, 2007) – The author gives the ins and outs of a few positional Lopez lines from black’s perspective.

BEATING THE OPEN GAMES by M. Marin (Quality Chess, 2007) – If you want to play the Black side of the Lopez, you still have to worry about the King’s Gambit, the Scotch, and all sorts of other stuff. This book tells you what to do against all of them.

PLAY THE RUY LOPEZ by Andrew Greet (Everyman Chess, 2006) – A large book on all Lopez lines.

FIGHTING THE RUY LOPEZ by Milos Pavlovic (Everyman Chess, 2009) – An excellent book on the Marshall Attack.

ATTACKING THE SPANISH by Sabino Brunello (Quality Chess, 2009) – Covers the Marshall Attack and also the very dangerous Schliemann (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 f5).

UNDERSTANDING THE MARSHALL ATTACK by David Vigorito (Gambit Publications, 2010) – A whole book on the position that occurs after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 c6. IM John Donaldson recently gave it a rave review.

You also asked about 1.c4 e5. There are quite a few books on this too, but suffice it to say that a player in the 1100 range doesn’t need all this stuff! At this point in your development I would recommend you embrace a sound (non-memory intensive) opening repertoire by making use of both FUNDAMENTAL CHESS OPENINGS (FCO) by Paul van der Sterren (Gambit Publications, 2009) and MODERN CHESS OPENINGS (MCO) by Nick deFirmian (McKay Chess Library, 2008). FCO will give you all the ideas in the openings (which you really need to absorb!), and MCO will give you all the basic variations, which will make sense once you grok the ideas.

Creating an opening repertoire in this fashion will be both fun and fairly easy. And that will allow you to give most of your attention to the far more important issues of tactical training, positional training, and endgame training. Remember: the best openings in the world won’t help you if you can’t play well. Thus, improve your overall strength and the world will be yours.

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