Review: Fundamental Chess Openings

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage
Fundamental Chess OpeningsChess is interesting, and chess openings are interesting too. There is nothing scary about opening theory, but there is nothing sacred about it either. This is the message Paul van der Sterren wants to give his readers in his 468-page book Fundamental Chess Openings, published by Gambit. He succeeds wonderfully in bringing this message home.

A casual reader, superficially browsing through the Dutch GM's latest book, may easily get confused by it. Suppose he lands on page 296, where the Marshall Gambit of the Ruy Lopez is explained. After 14 moves, the following well-known position is reached:


Van der Sterren writes:
This position illustrates the character of the Marshall Attack very well. White's position is not exactly bad, but he will have to work hard to catch up on his piece development and for the moment his extra pawn has no significance. An opponent with a good eye for attacking chances is likely to put no end of obstacles in his way.

15.Be3 is the traditional move. Black then continues 15...Bg4 and after 16.Qd3 he has 16...Rae8 17.Nd2 and now 17...f5 or 17...Re6, to name just a few of the more characteristic ideas. In order to prevent this easy attacking plan, the ingenious 15.Re4 has been tried. This prevents Black from playing 15...Bg4 and gives him the opportunity of blundering his queen by 15...Bf5?? 16.Rh4. After the equally ingenious 15....g5 (based on 16.Bxg5?? Qf5) this too leads to a fierce and unpredictable battle.
And this is all the author writes about this tabiya of one of the most popular variations in modern chess. What are we to make of this? Well, before accusing Van der Sterren of lack of depth, we should read what he writes in the introduction. First, he states the perfectly obvious: that the amount of opening knowledge required really depends on your ambition and the amount of time you're willing to spend on chess. Then comes the interesting part:
But there is another aspect of studying opening theory to be mentioned. Anyone with even the slightest intellectual bent of mind (and which chess-player isn't?) may find getting to know a little bit about opening theory very interesting. Even without any ambition to improve your results and independent of your level of play, you may simply find the study of openings very enjoyable. You may also discover that this has absolutely nothing to do with memorizing variations or the need to occupy yourself with chess more than you want to. This sheer fun is in my view an essential element of studying opening theory.
I don't know about you, but this is music to my ears. Van der Sterren here expresses what I've always thought myself but were never eloquent enough to express, namely that the study of opening theory doesn't have anything per se to do with the practical aspect of playing chess. Don't listen to bores who tell you that studying chess openings is or is not good for your chess. That's simply irrelevant! It's just fun to know stuff about chess openings. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins (who said it about science), "chess opening theory is interesting, and if you don't agree, you can f*** off!"

Once you take on this state of mind and let go of any practical objections, leafing through Fundamental Chess Openings is a real joy. I've always stayed as far as I could from the Catalan Opening, but after reading what Van der Sterren says about it, I already feel I understand so much more about it that I might actually try it myself some day. (And even if I don't, I'll be able to enjoy Kramnik's games a lot more!) Let me quote one relevant part in some detail:
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Nf3 Be7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0


Black now faces the same choice again: 6...dxc4, 6...c5 or 6...something else; which is best?

6...c5 is again very likely to transpose to a Tarrasch after 7.cxd5 exd5. There is also the Closed Catalan, where Black develops his queenside without either taking on c4 or playing ...c5. This idea may be pursued with either 6...Nbd7 or 6...c6. The two moves often transpose. An important scheme of development is to play ... b6 with an eye to developing the queen's bishop to b7 or a6 depending on where White puts his queen's knight (Nc3 leaves c4 undefended, which makes ... Ba6 an attractive option.) After Black completes his development (for instance .... Bb7, ... Nbd7 and ... Rc8) the liberating ...c5 comes into view again. Another idea is to play ... c6 followed by ....b5. White's main plan is to open the centre by playing e4 at some point.

The Open Catalan approach is still available, although taking on c4 now is very different from taking on c4 two moves ago. In fact 6...dxc4 is one of the most popular variations of meeting the Catalan. The idea is to counter the plausible 7.Qc2 with 7...a6. This leads, after 8.Qxc4 b5 9.Qc2 Bb7


to a type of position that we have already encountered in the 4...dxc4 5.Qa4+ variation. Again, Black is aiming at completing the development of his queenside by playing ...Nbd7 and ...c5. White has tried to prevent this or at least to make it as unattractive as possible in numerous ways, the most direct being 10.Bf4 and 10.Bd2 Nbd7 11.Ba5. Still, hundreds of games at the highest level have shown that White must be a supremely good positional player to squeeze any advantage from this line. (...)
For me, an obvious ignoramus in the Catalan, the idea behind the manoeuvre Bd2-a5 was already a big eye-opener, while I also liked the way Van der Sterren links various ideas to variations encountered before in the book. The only problem I have with the way the material is presented is that the Catalan Opening actually does not have a chapter of its own: it's in the chapter on the Queen's Gambit Declined, with the move order 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3. This is slightly counter-intuitive to me, but perhaps I have been conditioned too much by old-fashioned opening manuals who treated the Queen's Gambit and the Catalan as entirely different complexes.

Van der Sterren himself seems aware of this, since he writes after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3: "This is the most popular way of introducing the Catalan, although an immediate 3.g3 is also not bad." However, it's somewhat confusing to read just one move further (after 3...Nf6 4.g3): "This, the basic position of the Catalan, is reached via many roads. Perhaps the most common one is 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Nf3 (4.Bg2 is equally sound and is likely to transpose after just a few moves.)" Well, maybe it's best to ignore this kind of confusions, although in my experience somebody's bound to take advantage of it sooner or later in a practical game.

Another minor point of criticism is also inherent to the book's concept: because it mostly lacks concrete variations, it's also not exactly cutting-edge. This is sometimes just a pity, because there's so much beautiful chess to show! To give just one example, in the Gothenburger variation of the Sicilian Najdorf (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Be7 8.Qf3 h6!? 9.Bh4 g5 10.fxg5 Nfd7) in my opinion it's really not an option to NOT mention White's sharpest and most famous move here, 11.Nxe6! (played for the first time by Keres, Spassky and Geller in 1955 in the city that in fact gave its name to the entire line) but there you go.

Fundamental Chess Openings is conspicuously called FCO on the cover, trying to build on the 'stickiness' of earlier book titles such as ECO (Encyclopedia of Chess Openings), NCO (Nunn's Chess Openings) and BCO (Batsford Chess Openings). FCO was first published in Dutch (a 3-volume series under the rather less hip name of The World of the Chess Openings) a few years ago. I think it's a good thing that it now has a broader audience, because the concept of the book is really charming and also somewhat revolutionary. Most opening books teach you how to play it and how to be succesful with it. Van der Sterren teaches you how to have fun. Which do you prefer?


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