REVIEW: Understanding the Queen's Gambit Accepted
by A.Delchev and S. Semkov
I recently got my hands on a couple of new opening books by Chess Stars, the Bulgarian publishing house perhaps best known for the Openings For White According to Anand series. After the subsequent Openings For White According to Kramnik range, the guys decided to branch out with their coverage, and now we’re seeing plenty of interesting and diverse opening titles. With author names such as Dreev, Beliavsky and Delchev as well as their ‘poster child’ Khalifman, there’s reason to take the new selection seriously.
For this review, I want to focus on the new title by Delchev and Semkov: Understanding the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. The QGA feels like it’s been around forever, but of late I’ve noticed more and more top GMs adding it to their repertoires, so much so that I’ve even added it to mine. So, being familiar with the latest trends in this opening, I was extremely curious to see how the authors managed to squeeze not just one, but two entire QGA repertoires into such a tiny book! With a mere 240 pages of A5, it’s about a third of the size of my own new release, which is on a far less theoretical opening. However, despite my initial scepticism, I have to admit that the guys have done a remarkable job, and that the book indeed offers complete coverage.
Delchev seems to be the main engine behind the repertoire, and so there are many valuable insights from a top GM’s own repertoire and practice. That’s one of the nice things about this book: It offers a practical repertoire that the authors themselves employ, so they offer first-hand practical advice for your own games. This is enabled by what I found to be a pleasant and intuitive structure. Each chapter is broken up into three parts: a wordy section on the key theme and ideas, a systematic (but not overly heavy) theory section, and finally some annotated games. This allows the club player to use the book either with or without a chessboard; the sections on ideas and games are ideal for light café reading, while the theory requires a little more concentration.
Furthermore, the book offers a repertoire based both on the Classical System (…Nf6/…e6 against 3.e3 or 3.Nf3) as well as Delchev’s preferred repertoire based on 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bg4 coupled with 3.e3 e5. The authors also offer some interesting, though less rigorous, analysis on the topical 3.Nf3 a6!? 4.e3 b5, as well as a brief discussion of the dubious 3.e4 b5?! (in addition to their preferred 3…Nc6). And again, yes, all in less than 250 pages! This gives the reader a lot of options as to how he or she uses the material to construct one’s preferred repertoire. For the slightly stronger reader, I can attest that one can digest an entire repertoire from scratch and feel prepared to play 2…dxc4 over the board after, say, only four hours with this book. Now that’s a serious achievement.
However, to cram everything in to this mini-masterpiece, the authors had to cut a few corners here and there. While I find this book incredibly practical in terms of what the reader could reasonably remember for one’s games, not all of the natural options for White are always covered. If you’re the sort of player who when learning a new opening often asks “But what if my opponent plays THAT?”, you might find this a little frustrating. Fortunately, the variations in Delchev’s main repertoire (3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bg4, and 3.e4 Nc6) are reasonably plan-based and less reliant on concrete lines than other options.
I particularly like how the authors often employ explanations of general strategic themes in between detailing complex lines. Somehow, this breaks up the workload for the student and helps one to keep a broader sense of the positions. The following excerpt is a typical example.
“Let’s compare this position with the standard set-up with Nc3.
Both sides are deprived of their most common plans. White can not [sic] play Nfd2, nor can he jump to c4 since the e4-pawn is hanging.
Black, for his part, lacks the option of …Nf4 [with the plan of ...Kh8, ...Rg8 and ...g5] due to the fork on e5 after Bxf4 and e4-e5 (White’s knights are connected so …Bxf3 does not help!). On the other hand, his “plan B”, which is based on undermining the centre with …c6, gains in strength because of the passive stand of the d2-knight. That transpires from variations like 12.Ne1 Bd7 13.Nd3 c6 14.dxc6 Bxc6 15.f3 Bb5…”
You’ll notice I cheekily highlighted a tiny grammatical mistake in this extract. [EDIT: It was pointed out to me that this is in fact not technically a mistake - my apologies!] I’m not trying to be pedantic, but simply want to mention that for those who are, there are a couple of funny little English slips in the text. Given that the book is written and edited by non-native speakers of English (in fact, I’m not sure there’s a native speaker on the Chess Stars team), this is to be expected, and the errors, like the one above, are hardly glaring. The language is simple, and the authors have chosen to replace verbosity for instruction. It’s not a book that will have you rolling in the aisles, but you’ll get every point the authors make. Moreover, in terms of typos (my personal bugbear when reading chess books), I couldn’t find any!
The book’s theory is really quite up-to-date (games up until mid-2015 are included), and the analysis has made use of engines as well as correspondence games. This really should be mandatory for all opening books but, alas, really isn’t, and so I commend the authors for this. However, readers should remember that the theory on these lines has been accelerating in recent years and so one should probably keep an eye on upcoming developments. For some of the variations (e.g. 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bg4) this is less important, but for, say, the current ‘drawing line’, 3.Nf3 a6!?, I’m sure we’re going to see plenty of theoretical action in the near future. After all, this line is either a forced draw or a forced win for White!
Another variation that certainly will soon have a definitive evaluation is the crazy 3.e4 b5?!. I’ve played this move myself, and I really enjoy these lines. How often does Black get to boldly sacrifice an exchange after only six moves?! So of course, this was the chapter to which I first jumped in, and I agree with Delchev’s assessment that the variation is ultimately unsound. However, it’s here that I’m for the first time going to criticise this book, as I feel the authors are too dismissive of Black’s chances, both practically and objectively. The refutations given rely on White playing incredibly accurately and remembering a string of only-moves deep into the middlegame, while deviation from the correct path is often fatal. Moreover, engines are also too sceptical of Black’s long-term counterplay after the sacrifice, which can lead to many analysts to settle for superficial rebuttals. For example, one of the key resources often underestimated by many from the white side (but, to be fair, mentioned by Delchev) is that a commonly reached endgame sees White with an extra exchange but Black with ‘four versus three’ on the kingside. These endings are rather trivially drawn, but are often the source of a computer giving an evaluation around +1.00 or so. But enough vagueness; let’s get into specifics!
But seeing how crazy these lines are, it’s no wonder that the authors chose to focus on more intuitive repertoire variations in their handy little guidebook. And despite my maniacal love of the positions after 3.e4 b5, I must say that I really like the analysis presented after the relatively rare 3.e4 Nc6, a Delchev speciality. And it’s certainly easier to learn.
There is one final point I want to highlight about this book. In addition to learning sections, theory, annotated games and multiple options for building a repertoire, the authors even managed to squeeze in a couple of final pages about how to handle alternatives to 2.c4. This is actually really important in my opinion, because one of the things that might put players off learning the QGA is the extra work required in learning extra variations to handle 2.Nf3, 2.Bg5, 2.Bf4 etc. I really appreciated Delchev’s simple yet logical solutions to these problems. I would have also appreciated something on the Torre (2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bg5) in addition to the Colle, Tromp and London systems, and I really would have liked to know Delchev's consistent recommendations against 1.Nf3 and 1.c4 – but I guess I’m just way too greedy! Hopefully Delchev and Semkov might consider producing a complementary title in the future to handle flank openings that works in with a QGA repertoire.[EDIT: In fact, the authors wrote to tell me that just such a book is in progress!] Given the excellent way they’ve handled the current material, I’d be one of the first in line. Four stars.