"The Complete French" by Lev Psakhis
When I introduced this column I mentioned that I probably wouldn't be covering many opening books. However, I decided to write a review of this fairly old book on the French by grandmaster Lev Psakhis from the "Complete..." series. Why?
Well, first of all, this was one of the first books on chess that I owned. I think it had a big role in my understand not just of the French Defense, but of chess in general. Yet this is a book of theory, with many game quotations and, while there are general assessments and explanations, there are not as many as in middlegame books or even other kinds of opening books. Nevertheless, I think I gained a lot from the games which are presented along with the relatively terse notes and many game quotations.
I also wanted to use the opportunity to discuss opening books in general. I haven't really bought many recently-published opening books, but sometimes when I have found myself in a book store (a new book store, i.e. Barnes and Noble) I have browsed the chess section. I have seen that the new opening books differ quite a bit from the ones of the past. They tend to have a lot more explanations and a lot more of the author's own analysis. Some of them even have quizzes for the reader, summaries of general "key points" and so on. I understand why this is - before there were chess databases (The Complete French was published in 1992, before chess databases were widespread) an opening book was essential. And most opening books back then simply showed key master-level games in the variation, picked out by a strong player with his assessments. Nowadays everyone can easily have a chess database and look for themselves at the games. They don't get a grandmaster's assessment of the positions - but they can look at the result of the game, and also assess the position for themselves. Therefore publishers know that a modern opening book needs to have something more. Additionally, with many more amateur-level players studying opening theory than in the past, publishers know that books that are more of the "reference" type will be over many reader's heads.
However, personally, somehow the modern opening books kind of annoy me. First of all, there is a lot of the author's own analysis. This is fine and it might be useful, but the problem is that many of the book authors are not top-level players, so you can't necessarily trust it. And if the author is a top-level player, in many cases he doesn't want to give away his secrets! Additionally, I know that people doing chess analysis for publication can be a little bit careless. You don't get paid a huge amount, even if you publish a book, so you need to just get it done relatively quickly. I would much rather see what strong players actually trusted enough to play on the board.
Additionally, I find some of the explanations by the authors to be kind of tiresome. I suppose I would like to hear how a really strong player describes the position - but again, really strong players nowadays don't usually write opening books. I think some of the more recent opening books are a little too commercial.
Thus, for me - personally - books more like The Complete French would be reasonable nowadays, if I were just learning an opening. I can see all the games in the database, sure, but here it is organized and selected by a strong player (Lev Psakhis was a two-time Soviet Champion and was in his prime as a player at the time). Here, instead of analysis by some IM with Houdini, you have a very strong player's selection of the critical lines, leaving it up to you to decide what to play. Of course other people might have a different opinion, but I think there is always a virtue in keeping it simple.
Finally, about opening study in general - you might have heard many times "understanding the opening is more important than memorizing moves". This is true - if you understand the opening better than your opponent, you will win even if he knows a lot of specific variations. However, understanding is not conferred simply by an author telling you, e.g. "White is trying to push the pawns on the queenside". In order to really understand the variation, you need to look at specifics and study actual variations. In fact, by learning actual variations in the right way, you develop a better understanding - then you might forget the specific moves, but the understanding will remain. The key, of course, is that when you study the opening, you should try to understand the moves that you are learning, not just memorize them.
Where I got it
I don't know - I think probably through a catalogue. I think I got the book some time in 1994, and I started playing chess in 1993. The book is completely falling apart with none of the pages connected to the cover and most not connected to each other, either.
What's good about it
I mostly answered this above. These kinds of books were very important before databases were widespread - without them a player needed to do a lot of individual research, collecting tournament bulletins, Informants, and magazines, and selecting the games from those. I find it interesting that the players of the sixties, seventies, and eighties could play the opening quite well despite the difficulties with gaining information. Quite often I look at the old games and see that they played better, with much clearer, sounder, and more creative ideas. Somehow I think that the excess of information muddles people's minds.
I do like simplicity and in this book at least I know that everything is factually accurate. The majority of the moves contained therein were actually played on the board by strong players. Very important is that the book contains entire annotated games - not just theoretical lines. I think this is better. Learning an opening is not just about the first ten moves - you need to understand the character of the position, which often persists until the end of the game. Psakhis did another "The Complete..." series book, The Complete Benoni - however there he did not give entire games, and I think that book is far worse.
Of course, this book does much more than just quoting games. There are general assessments and descriptions of the character of various ideas. The writing is pretty good, and Psakhis - a long-time practitioner of the French Defense - clearly feels for the opening. For example, in the preface he says "The French is like a proud woman who does not give her heart away easily. In order to master this difficult opening, it is not enough to know a few variations. You have to put your 'heart and soul' into it, you have to love it, and only in this way will you understand its mysteries. "
How it impacted me
The French played a big part in my opening repertoire from by beginnings as a chess player until 2008. Nowadays I only play it occasionally. Somehow I find it unaesthetic to play the King's Indian against 1.d4 and the French against 1.e4. However, the French was my main opening until 2008 and I did reasonably well with it, considering that I was a much weaker player than I am now for most of that time. I think this book helped to shape my early understanding of the French. Yes, there are no special diagrams with arrows showing the pawn structure and summaries such as "Black should attack the base of the pawn structure by ...c5..." but I think showing is better than telling anyway.
I am not going to type out reams of variations from some opening lines, and you probably don't want to read them without context. So I will instead provide some short excerpts from different points in the book.
Biel IZ 1985
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2
This move is far from new. As far back as the 1920s, it was played from time to time by that chess innovator, Aron Nimzowitsch. Later, at the end fo the forties and in the early fifties, it became known to a wide circle of players and was incorporated in the repertoire of Botvinnik and Petrosian, but never became really popular. In recent years, the attention of theorists has been attracted much more strongly by other possibilities for Black, and 3...Nc6 has remained a 'poor relation' in theory and practice. It can occasionally be seen in the games of Vaganian, Rogers and Kovacevic, but it is only Drasko, an International Master from Yugoslavia, who risks playing this way constantly. To be perfectly frank, 3...Nc6 is a move I don't much like, since in many variations of the French the most natural and effective counterplay for Black consists in undermining White's strong pawn centre with ...c7-c5; and 3...Nc6 means, at best, that this possibility must be left until later. However, among the positive features of this variation we may count the complexity of the resulting positions and the relative lack of study devoted to them. White usually replies with 4.c3 or 4.Ngf3, both of which promise him an opening advantage... (page 44-45)
A wonderful melee arose in Kosashvili-Ulibin, Santiago 1990: 17.Nxh2 Bxh2+ 18.Kh1 Bf4 19.Qh5 (White seems to be on the point of success, but...) 19...g6! 20.Bxf4 Rxf4 21.Bxg6 Qe7! (the key move! The rook threatens to go to h4, and the white king suddenly finds itself in an unpleasant situation; in addition the pawn on d4 is en prise, and one may question what the knight is doing on such an out-of-the-way square as a4) 22.Bd3?! (it was essential to play 22.g3 Rxd4 23.Nc5 e5 =/+) 22...Rh4 23.Qe2 e5! with a strong attack. (page 86)
The main downside is pretty obvious. This book was published in 1992, and opening theory advances quickly. On the other hand, the French is not so susceptible to the winds of theory. It is interesting that there are probably plenty of opening books published in 2007 which are already out of date, but this book is still reasonably useful. I don't read it anymore, because I don't play the French much and I am pretty aware of most of the stuff in it already. I'm not saying to go out and buy this book (if you can find it), I just decided to review it because it was an influential book on me, and also it gave me the opportunity to discuss opening books in general.
What you should eat/drink while reading this book