Review: Modern Repertoire against the Italian Game by Boris Avrukh (Modern-Chess.com)
I've always wanted to write reviews for the books or articles that I like but never got around to doing so. Well, until today that is. Writing a genuinely good review is hard work as it means that the reviewer has to check the author's analysis carefully and exercise professional skepticism until the author wins you over. It was easy to do this for my first review as the article in question is of such high quality that I find it difficult not to write about.
I first came across Modern-chess.com and the afore-mentioned article when I saw Boris Avrukh doing a short advert on his Facebook. By now, most chess lovers would certainly have heard of Boris. While he is a pretty mean player (rated 2592, and often over 2600 in the past and hopefully the future) himself, he has made himself insanely famous with his groundbreaking work on a complete repertoire with 1.d4. In fact, I cannot think of another chess player apart from the late Mark Dvoretsky who really shot to world-wide fame because of the books he had written and this is a testament to how popular his books really are, even to players from the highest echelon of chess.
The famous Israeli Grandmaster Boris Avrukh - Photo extracted from www.modern-chess.com
As the Italian game is in my repertoire, it was easy for me to click on the link and I was immediately impressed with the layout and the structure of the article. The preview shows a summary of the lines that Boris is recommending and many diagrams were attached to illustrate the key positions of each chapter. There was also a pretty detailed description on what the reader can expect from each chapter. For example, Boris takes the effort to explain key move order nuances (and believe me, there are a ton of these in the Italian!) in a way that can be easily understood. For example, in this extremely popular position:
Boris has this to say:
"Historically, this move order became popular when White realized that the attempt to occupy the centre by playing c2-c3 followed by d2-d4 before completing the development doesn't work well. Now, he is intending to fight for the centre only after a long preparation. For example, before going for d3-d4, he usually makes the following moves: Re1, h3, Nbd2-f1-g3. Taking into account the White's slow play, we could understand why this line is called Slow Italian (Giuoco Piano)."
and he has this to say about the next diagram:
"We should pay a special attention to this tricky move order. White's main idea is to avoid the 6.c3 d5 line. As we already know from the previous chapter, White is trying to do the same by playing 6.Bb3. This move order, however, is even better since by playing 6.h3, White keeps open the option of expanding on the queenside by means of a2-a4 followed by the eventual c2-c3 and b2-b4. In such positions, the move h7-h6 would be useless.
The main position arises after the moves 6...d6 7.c3 a6 8.Re1 Ba7 9.Bb3 h6 10.Nbd2"
Not bad at all for a preview isn't it? This is the kind of introduction I like as it arouses my interest and while it is not a must-have, one can easily appreciate this type of effort.
I immediately asked Boris what his target audience is for this series and his reply was that the quality is the same as his books and he feels that even IMs and GMs can benefit from it. Given how popular the Italian game is these days, I am curious to see Boris's recommendations and compare them with recent resources such as Ivan Saric's series on Chess24.com and Bologan's book on the Open Games (published in 2014).
But before I continue, it is important to state my personal bias (similar to the introduction of Dave Smerdon's review of my own book - if you have not read it, do it here now!). I have worked with Boris intermittently for the last 5 years, and he is one of the main reasons why I managed to make my 2nd Grandmaster norm. Apart from being an inspirational coach, he has always been a very humble, helpful and pleasant friend but readers can trust that I will treat his publication with the same objectivity that I would with anyone else's work.
The survey begins with the starting position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 and it covers all the main and topical stuff except for the Evans Gambit and the 4 Knights Game. In the first chaper, Boris looks at the dubious Moller attack (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 cd 6.cd Bb4 7.Nc3?! and chooses the tried and tested mainline (7...Bxc3 8.d5 Bf6!). Not surprisingly, he proves that Black gains a small edge in all lines.
In chapter 2, Boris tackles the drawish line after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 cd 6.cd Bb4 7.Bd2!? where many White players have tried to force a draw against higher rated opposition with the famous sequence 7...Bxd2 8.Nxd2 d5 9.ed Nd5 10.Qb3 Na5 11.Qa4+ Nc6 12.Qb3. Incidentally, some players have tried 12.Qa3, a suggestion of Rybka many many years ago but all these are not relevant as Boris recommends 10...Nce7!? as a refreshing change from the widely established mainline.
....with the main reason that he had wanted to avoid a forced draw and that he feels this move is no worse than 10...Na5. I don't want to give away too much but you can take my word that his line equalises comfortably and the position offers some potential for Black to continue playing for the win. I personally feel that the line 7...Nxe4 8.Bb4 Nb4 9.Bf7 Kf7 10.Qb3 Kf8 11.Qb4 Qe7 also allows Black sufficient scope to play for a win but one really doesn't need to study too many things against a line that doesn't appear that often anyway.
Apart from this, Boris also analysed 10.0-0 0-0 11.Rc1 which was played in March 2016 between Harikrishna & Tomashevsky and he also demonstrated that Black had no problems there whatsoever. It is a good sign that Boris had covered all the most recent top level games even if the line is relatively obscure.
The first 2 chapters are relatively straight forward but the real meat of the survey starts from Chapter 3 where Boris gives a challenging line against what is termed by Bologan as "The Sveshnikov line", a line characterised by the move 6.e5. This move and the follow up 6...d5 7.Be2!? was extremely trendy in 2015 largely thanks to the effort of Baadur Jobava who scored many sensational wins with it. Objectively though, Boris proves equality with the very concrete 7...d3!? (he also analyses 7...Ne4 and gives equality there as well, albeit in a more complex manner) and White is more or less forced to continue with 8.ef6 de2 9.Qe2 Kf8! I was initially skeptical about Black's position given that White was about to wreck his kingside pawn structure but Boris shows everything is under control as long as Black remembers the important manoeuvre ...Bf5-g6.
The classical 7.Bb5 is the mainline covered in this chapter and here, Boris gives 9.h3 as the main line (he also covers the traditional 9.Nc3 in great detail), a move that has only been popular lately (again partially thanks to Jobava!) and was unsurprisingly not covered in Bologan's book. I checked his main recommendation that goes 9...0-0 10.0-0 f6! (the most principled according to Boris) 11.Bxc6 bc 12.Be3 and here, Jobava - Grischuk, Khanty Mansiysk 2015 continued 12...fe which Boris analysed to be absolutely fine for Black. One indication of Boris's work ethic can be seen in the following position:
...where he highlighted that 14...Qh4, a move that Komodo 10 gives a 0.00 score at depth 21, is potentially a mistake due to the novelty 15.Nf3! and white gains an edge in a few more moves. This is the kind of bullet-proof standard that one has come to expect from Boris's work.
Additionally, Boris also pointed out 12...f5!? as an interesting alternative and I quite like it especially when all 4 games I found continued with the dubious 13.Qc1
when 13...f4! 14.Bxf4 c5! gives Black a nice edge already. Interesting stuff.
Chapter 4 discusses the Max Lange Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.0-0 Nf6 5.d4!?) which was analysed extensively by Lev Gutman in NIC Yearbook a few years ago. As I had prepared and played this line many times myself, I have a lot of good things to say about Boris's analysis and that he has included some novelties allowing black to fight actively for the initiative. However, the review is getting too long and I want to go straight to the real mainstream stuff, that is the Italian Game proper. From Chapters 5 - 10, Boris presents an absolutely up-to-date overview of the state of affairs, including games that were played up to October 2016. Virtually every move order is explained in considerable detail so his notes allow me to remember certain move order nuances much more easily. For example, in Chapter 5, Boris recommends a quick castling after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.0-0 Nf6 5.d3 0-0, and the trendy 6.c3 d5!? lines.
Here, Boris covers no less than 5 critical moves and covers developments over the last couple of years. Here, 8.a4 is now considered the mainline and the game Anand - So, Sinquefield 2016 is analysed to some detail where it demonstrates that Black has no problems equalising with one or two precise moves. However, as this piece of work is mainly a review of the latest trends, certain lines that were once trendy may not be covered, such as the following line that I have plucked from my own analysis in 2012:
More move order nuances are explained in Chapter 6 as Boris explains why playing an early Bb3 is no longer played as the highest level but I'll not reveal too much here, except the fact that it loses flexibility. Chapter 7 is a particular intriguing one as we see a direct clash between Boris's recommendations and Ivan Saric's video series, "A New Look at the Italian (Giuoco Piano)" on the popular site chess24.com. Both grandmasters opined that the move order with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.0-0 (the most precise according to Saric) Nf6 5.d3 Nf6 6.h3!? is a particularly tricky one. The point is after 6...d5 7.ed Nd5, 8.Re1 presents a new set of problems for Black to solve. Here, both players concur that after 8...Be6! 9.Nbd2 (taking on e5 is not an option due to the typical tactic with ...Bxf2 - try to visualise this!) f6, the TN 10.c3! is White's best chances of an edge. Boris stops at this juncture, which is very reasonable as 6...d5 is not his main recommendation, while Saric analyses this position in some more detail.
Instead, Boris advocates 6...d6 and we quickly arrive at the following extremely popular position: