Review: Black repertoire against 1.e4: Open Games

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Black repertoire against 1.e4: Open GamesOne of the less attractive features of many modern chess books is that authors tend to sound rather similar to each other. This is especially the case when the author in question is not an English native speaker and the publisher's editorial team is very professional. But in chess videos, where one can actually see and hear the chess instructor, the editor's influence is rather more limited. This makes chess videos (usually DVDs) a very interesting subject to study, and to review.

For quite some time now, ChessBase has been very successful publishing chess video DVDs featuring the very best chess players in the world. These DVDs are a perfect solution for people who don't have time to thoroughly read chess books but still want to keep up to date and enjoy high-level chess. The only downside that I can think of is that having stuff explained to you rather than doing it yourself on a board, might make you a bit lazy. Then again, life's busy enough as it is already, so relaxing with a chess DVD and idly watching a super grandmaster explain things to you might actually be a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

In my opinion, the highlight of the ChessBase video DVD series is probably the one on the Queen's Gambit Declined by none other than Garry Kasparov, from 2004. Not only is Kasparov arguably the planet's biggest expert on the QGD, but it's simply a huge treat to have him explain it to you face to face, hearing his voice and looking into his eyes and hands, noticing when he gets excited or enthusiastic over a particularly fascinating line or when he has to hide his disdain or boredom for some boring variation.

Not all chess video hosts, however, do equally well with a camera pointed at them. Kasparov, of course, is highly charismatic, speaks English effortlessly and fluently and radiates a love for chess that can be felt miles away. But some chess players, however strong, are rather more difficult to follow, for several reasons: a heavy accent, a monotonous voice or manner of speaking, or even an apparent lack of genuine interest for the subject at hand. I guess it just goes to show that expertise in one area (chess) doesn't necessarily imply expertise in another (chess instruction).

In my opinion, one of the best and most entertaining chess video hosts is top German player Jan Gustafsson, who recently released two DVDs on the Open Games called Black Repertoire against 1.e4. The first part is about the Ruy Lopez Marshall and anti-Marshall, the second about all other 1.e4 e5 openings. Since I know next to nothing about the Marshall, and quite a lot about some other openings after 1.e4 e5, I decided to watch the second DVD for this review. I was especially curious how a modern GM like Gustafsson would treat the more "romantic" sidelines, since I've often noticed a tendency in chess opening books to underestimate or dismiss these systems without sound evidence.

Black repertoire against 1.e4: Open Games

Gustafsson, or 'Gusti' as he's universeally called, combines deep knowledge of chess openings with a laconic sense of humour and a refreshingly crisp appearance on camera. (His German blog, arguably the world's best grandmaster blog at the moment, is also testimony of his wit.) On top of that, he speaks English fluently and has no difficulty clearly expressing his opinions on matters, even if they are sometimes rather provocative, such as when he confesses that the King's Gambit is "one of the gambits that never made a whole lot of sense to me, frankly."

The good news is that Gustafsson's comments, however thought-provoking or sobering for true romantics, are always well-founded, and his analysis is supported not only by variations but also by listing the plans and strategical ideas for both sides - even in sharp variations with lots of tactical possibilities. He's also not afraid to contradict the verdict of analysis engines when he feels it's justified. This is especially interesting in some of the ancient gambit lines which he analysed with the help of a computer. Decide for yourself how he deals with the alternative to the normal move 12.Bg5 in the Moeller Attack:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.cxd4 Bb4+ 7.Nc3 Nxe4 8.0-0 Bxc3 9.d5 Bf6 10.Re1 Ne7 11.Rxe4 d6

Black repertoire against 1.e4: Open Games - diagram 1 In this position, the computer insists on the move 12.g4 which I'm not sure has ever been played. The computer is quite excited about it at first sight, but it's not really a huge problem for Black either. The most sane way to handle this is 12...0-0. The idea is 13.g5 and now Black even has a choice. I think 13...Bf5 is fine, with the point 14.gxf6 Bxe4 15.fxe7 Qxe7 and it's an unbalanced, in my opinion probably about equal position. The simplest way is to play 13...Be5, give the pawn back and tell White: "What are you doing with your pawn on g5 anyway?"

I think this little fragment is typical for Gusti's approach on this DVD. He usually strives for maximum clarity and prefers common sense to beauty. He often concludes a line by saying "...and while I admit the resulting position is not the most exciting, there's absolutely nothing to fear." Being someone who has something of a fetish for romantic and incorrect sidelines, I find this very refreshing and instructive. Chess, for Gustafsson (and I guess most other top-GMs), is primarily about being efficient, objective and sober in your judgements. (In fact, I once played Gusti in a blitz game and was amazed he took a simple perpetual with Black in a winning position against me just because it meant I had to get up immediately and hand my seat to the next player in line. Now that's efficiency.)

The fragment also illustrates a minor drawback of how Gustafsson handles many of the more obscure lines, which is that he sometimes doesn't seem to have checked his database. For instance, The move 12.g4 has, in fact, been played quite a lot of times in the past and is therefore not a computer-move at all. (It remains dubious all the same.) Gustafsson also erroneously calls this line the Max Lange attack, which I'm sure will hurt some hardcore 19th-century theory lovers. (Even more hilariously, he calls Domenico Ponziani, of the Ponziano Variation, "probably some Italian dude".) To his credit, Gustafsson is perfectly aware of his forgetfulness and elsewhere advises his viewers to send their letters of complaint to the ChessBase headquarters.

As a matter of fact, Gustafsson manages to turn even this slight weakness into a very enjoyable running gag, looking doubtfully into the camera each time he hesitates over "The Scotch Defence" or "The Scottish Defence" or casually remarking at some point, "Is 'viable' a word? I think it is, I use it a lot." At the start of one video, he suddenly looks straight into the camera, saying:

In case you're wondering why I'm wearing a hat: I'm not sure myself, but the people at ChessBase all of a sudden weren't happy with my new haircut anymore, so they asked me to try this out for one video. I think I'll do it for one video but I'm not sure I'm gonna last for the whole DVD. It does look a bit silly doesn't it?

In case you're wondering if all this DVD has to offer is funny remarks, the answer is a firm: on the contrary. I've learned many interesting things even in lines that I know pretty well, such as that in the Evans gambit, after 4.b4 Bxb4 5.c3 Be7 6.d4 Na5 the infrequently-played move 7.Bd3!? may actually be White's best try. Gustafsson is also very good at giving general plans in positions that seem full of move-order subtleties. Here's his clear and healthy recommendation against the Guico Piano with 5.d3:

Basically Black can play ...a6, ...d6 and ...Ba7 no matter what White does in these moves. I don't like castling too early because then sometimes Bc1-g5 can be a little annoying. It's a matter of taste - there are people who prefer ...0-0 early, but after driving myself nuts with all these move orders, I finally decided that I'm gonna go a6, d6, Ba7 pretty much no matter what they do.

I was also very impressed by Gustafsson treatment of my own beloved Centre Game (1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.Qxd4), an opening that, in my experience, is often underestimated by Black but nevertheless leads to a good position with correct play. In fact, I now wonder whether Gusti perhaps read my column on ChessVibes about this line, since his conclusions are extremely similar to mine in that article.

The first set of videos on this DVD is devoted to Ruy Lopez sidelines and I learned a lot from them. For example, I never quite understood the difference between 5.d3 and 6.d3 in the Closed Variation (3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0), but Gustafsson's explanation makes it perfectly clear. In the 6.d3 line (where Black already committed himself to Be7), Black should play, after 6...b5 7.Bb3, the move 7...d6! in order to meet 8.a4 with 8....Bd7!:

Black repertoire against 1.e4: Open Games - diagram 2 The bishop is actually better placed on d7 than on b7, like often in these lines. On b7 it doesn't do a whole lot against the pawns on d3 and e4, while on d7 it establishes the connection between and the queen and rook, and, more importantly, it's on the right diagonal c8-h3, where it has more work to do, and it sort of covers the b5 pawn in advance. Black often wants to follow up with ...Na5 and then it's very useful to have the bishop on d7 protecting the pawn on b5.

Gustafsson treats the Exchange Variation with a lot of respect, remarking how he has struggled with this variation himself in the past, and is not at all sure what is the best way to respond to it. In the end, after White's main move 5.0-0 he recommends 5...Qf6!? ("The move I like best and wanna try in practice soon -don't tell my opponents, or dear opponents, please don't watch this DVD.") His main line then follows the game Leko-Carlsen, Moscow 2007, in which the following position was reached after 19 moves:

Black repertoire against 1.e4: Open Games - diagram 3 What I learned from this game is that in this ending if you keep the bishop and reach this structure, Black has absolutely nothing to fear. Which was a bit of a surprise since from childhood on we're taught: don't exchange too many pieces in the Exchange Spanish.

Gustafsson clearly didn't just record this DVD to teach his viewers something- he has picked up many things himself in doing so. And it shows in the final result: Black Repertroire against 1.e4 is simply a pleasure to watch, both because of the material that is presented and because of the host's sober-yet-enthusiastic and inspiring way of looking at the material. I've long concluded I don't like playing 1...e5 as Black, but after seeing this DVD, I might just give it one more try.