Review: Smerdon's Scandinavian
It's been a while since I've written a serious chess book review, but I felt I had to make an exception for Smerdon's Scandinavian by GM David Smerdon.
The reason is simple: I've played this variation of the Scandinavian, also known as the Portugese Variation, the mainline of which arises after 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6 3.d4 Bg4, since the mid-nineties myself and scored some very good results with it.
I always felt that these gambit lines, while risky, were seriously underestimated and have a lot of potential, and it's heartening to read that Smerdon is of the same opinion: his conclusion is that it's still a dangerous weapon. In fact, he writes in his Preface that "surprisingly little has changed with regard to the chess literature on these gambits."
Smerdon's Scandinavian, published by Everyman Chess, is basically a classical "repertoire book" in that it focuses on buidling a repertoire for Black, but contains sufficient objective thoughts, inspirational games and novel ideas for it to be more than that: it's just a lot of fun! Smerdon himself writes that he's picked his variations based on the following three fundamental considerations, of which the third one is key:
1. Practicality. "The idea that proponents of the black side know the resulting positions better than their opponents is one of the key weapons behind the repertoire (...)"
2. Theoretical soundness. "Our repertoire, to the best of my extensive computer-aided analysis, is theoretically sound in the send that I have found no clear way for White to get anything beyond a slight (but manageable) advantage (...)"
3. Enjoyment. "(...) When given the choice between two options of relatively equal merit, I usually opt against safe, passive equality in favour of double-edged murkiness with counter-attacking chances for both sides."
It seems to me this is exactly the right approach for treating a gambit such as this!
So, let's have a look at some of the lines Smerdon is analysing in his book. As it consists of almost 500 pages, it's difficult to even give you a basic idea of the vast richness of his recommendations, but I'll give it a shot.
The first thing that everybody with ambitions to start playing this line must know, is that after 4.f3 Bf5 5.c4 e6! 6.dxe6 Black must play the active 6...Nc6! allowing White to take on f7 with check.
"This is the position that inspired me, and I'm sure many other club players, to take up the Portugese. Black shows a complete disregard for material, initiating a double pawn sacrifice to prioritize rapid development. Engines already evaluate our compensation as being completely sufficient, Black has a tremendous score in practical play, and you're actually likely to get it about once in every 25 outings against 1.e4. Furthermore, it's incredibly fun to play. Need I say more?"
I won't go into more detail on this variation here (Smerdon calls it 'The Banker'), but suffice it to say the author convincingly shows that this line isn't the solution for White and allows Black way too many strong as well as 'fun' ways to play. I myself have played one of my most entertaining games ever with this particular variation, and it's an honour for me that Smerdon has actually picked Dworakowski-Moll, Groningen 1997 (0-1, 36) as one of his 'inspirational games' and extensively analyses it in his book.
Of course, most white players will not go for this crazy line and prefer something more quiet. 4.Nf3 is probably the most common-sense move and Smerdon rightly calls it 'The Classical' variation. I've often struggled with this move myself because Black has to choose carefully where to put his queen once it's chased away by either c2-c4 or Nb1-c3. A clear example is given by Smerdon in the very first line he analyses (note the comments on Qh5 and Qf5):
Smerdon goes on to analyse this variation in great depth (White's best option in this position is 8.c4!) but let me briefly comment on his remark that the transpositions are to Black's advantage, as I'm not sure I agree! Yes, Black is more familiar with the lines, but certainly for me playing the Black side of this line, it has always been a pain to remember all these lines (whereas White doesn't!) and, to a certain degree, a source of worry as well, as I was constantly doubting whether to put my queen on f5 or h5.
Obviously, theory in this variation has advanced since I last played these lines myself and the subtleties are a lot better understood than in the nineties, but it remains undeniable Black has to have a good memory in order to not get confused early on in The Classical himself.
In my view Smerdon dismisses this concern a bit too lightly. Take the line after the innocuous-looking 5.Nbd2 (instead of 5.Be2), where after 5...Nc6 6.c4, Black must remember to play 6...Qa5! but after 5.Nc3, must go 5...Qh5! when 6.Be2 Nc6 7.h3 "will most likely now transpose into variations already considered. For instance, 8.Bf4, 8.Be3 and 8.0-0 now transpose into lines C1, C25 and C3, respectively." Eh, ok.
An additional complication, actually handled superbly by Smerdon, is the so-called 'Modern Treatment' which arises when White doesn't play 3.d4 but instead develops his knight immediately to f3:
I like this fragment, short though it is - and not only because of the Christina Aguilera quote. It opens a whole range of new ideas in this variation I was previously unaware of (having always responded with 3...Qxd5 to White's third move) and for once it's crystal-clear why the queen must go to f5 and not to h5. Simple, indeed.
What else does Smerdon write about? One of the great things about Smerdon's Scandinavian is that the author doesn't restrict himself to just the Portugese Variation - which has been done before and doesn't offer a complete repertoire at all - but also analyses related gambits, such as the Icelandic Gambit, which arises after 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.dxe6 Bxe6. As Smerdon rightly remarks, "now we have a real gambit!"
I've always suspected that in this line, Black is taking much more risk than in the Portugese. One problematic example from my own practice goes as follows:
5.Nf3 Qe7! 6.Qe2 Nc6 7.d4
Now I've played the obvious-looking 7...0-0-0 on several occasions, but this is actually a mistake according to Smerdon. (Another example of why it's not always that easy to understand theory of this opening complex!)
Indeed, after 8.d5 Qb4+ 9.Nc3 Bf5 10.dxc6! there is simply not enough compensation for Black even though I've successfully played this position in blitz games and it's not at all easy yet. With correct play, however, White should be on top.
Smerdon instead recommends the surprising 7...Bf5! and writes: "An extremely rare move in practice, but it offers Black the best chances. I had been waiting for several years for an opponnent to allow me to unleash my analysis on this move, when my attention was brought to a 2008 article by Michiel Wind in the German magazine Kaissiber. His excellent analysis supported my conclusions about 7...Bf5, and yet this line is still played only infrequently today - perhaps because Wind's article was never translated into English. In any case, there seems little doubt that the Icelandic Gambit's reputation depends on the evaluation of the lines that follow this move. (...)"
The main line of Smerdon and Wind goes as follows: 8.Qxe7+ Bxe7 9.a3 Na5! 10.Nbd2 c5!
I can recommend having a good look at these variations if you intend to play this way. My own conclusion is Black does seem to have enough play but there's definitely room to find novelties in my humble opinion.
The really good news is that for those readers who are not prepared to enter this jungle - and I suspect there are many - Smerdon also analyses the move 3...c6 which after 4.d4 cxd5 leads to an 'ordinary' Panov-Botvinnik Attack of the Caro-Kann Defence. In my view, it's such kind of 'bonuses' which distinguish good opening books from very good ones. After 5.Nc3, Smerdon recommend the somewhat unusual 5...g6!? as a perfectly viable alternative to main line theory.
As if this weren't enough, Smerdon also analyses the 'annoying check' 3.Bb5+ very extensively. I've personally always hated this line, which is why I found it interesting to read that Smerdon has "never understood its popularity." He goes on to say that "there is some basic logic to developing the bishop outside of the pawn chain before defending d5 with c2-c4. However, after 3...Nbd7 Black will usually be able to exchange off this bishop for her knight in a couple of moves, when her own light-squared bishop can turn into a monster. (...)"
While this is certainly my experience as well, I think one of the things Smerdon is underestimating here is that White doesn't have to - and often doesn't want to - go for lines that involve c2-c4. These would indeed play into Black's hands. But what if he simply steers the game into a Alekhine Defence kind of game? Then, Black's options of stirring up things look rather bleak. For instance, instead of 4.c4, what if White simply goes 4.d4 Nxd5 5.Nf3 as I've faced myself a few times as Black?
Smerdon writes of this position that it's "a solid choice, again utilizing the temporary pin on the d7-knight to prevent Black's typical activity until White is safely developed and castled. For that reason alone, this moves deserves to be more popular."
True to his style, Smerdon does also analyse the more natural looking alternative 3...Bd7. After 4.Be2, Black will need to try his luck in the line 4...c6!? 5.dxc6 Nxc6 6.d4 e5! which certainly promises a lot of practical chances if nothing else. However, a pawn is still a pawn and the analysis Smerdon offers suggest that White might well up end on top.
In my opinion, Smerdon's Scandinavian is one of the best books on the Scandinavian Defence to have ever appeared in print. It's detailed, instructive, candid and, often, wildly funny. The Portugese Variation, which is the main subject of the book, is certainly very much alive and there's plenty of room for improvement and creativity on both sides in the sidelines that Smerdon gives. His book will remain the standard reference guide in this opening for a long time to come.