Review: Mastering the Chess Openings 4

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Mastering the Opening Volume 4During my holidays I received a lot of chess books from various publishers. There's lot to look forward to! One of the most interesting books is the latest volume of John Watson's ambitious project to explain and analyse all chess openings. But the book became much more than just another opening manual.

Two years ago, I wrote a generally positive review of Mastering the Chess Openings Volume 3 (I also liked the first and second volumes), but in the fourth part of his series (published by Gambit), Watson goes a step further than he had gone before. In fact, he's returning to some of his favourite chess themes, which were also discussed in his most famous books Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy (1998) and Chess Strategy in Action (2003).

This fourth volume begins conventionally enough, with two very solid chapters on the Réti Opening and an excellent overview of black kingside fianchetto systems such as 'Tiger's Modern' and the Averbakh Variation (although I didn't know it was called that way) starting with 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.c4, but then Watson switches to a more experimental way of explaining openings. In the chapter called 'Modern Queenside Fianchetto', he discusses various (you've guessed it) queenside fianchetto systems from the perspective of both Black and White. This means he not only writes about the Owen Defence (1.e4 b6) and the English Defence (1.d4 e6 2.c4 b6), but also about Larsen's Opening (1.b3).

True to his style, Watson clearly explains the differences between playing the queenside fianchetto with Black and playing it with White. the author thereby takes a look at Ilya Odessky's recent book on 1.b3 (which I reviewed last year) as well and comes up with some sensible improvements. For instance, in the line 1.b3 e5 2.Bb2 Nc6 3.e3 d5 4.Bb5 Bd6 5.f4 (Watson: "This is certainly the usual continuation in both the Owen and the English Defences: when the f-pawn can't be captured, it makes sense to use it to break up the opposing centre.") 5...f6 Odessky gave 6.Nh3

a 'dubious' sign (?!) because of the line 6...Nge7 7.fxe5 fxe5 8.0-0 Bf5! after which 9.Qh5+ and 9.Bxc6+ are unconvincing, but following Watson's suggestion 9.c4 a6 10.Bxc6+ bxc6 11.d4!? with the threat c4-c5, White seems to be on top.

After this chapter, the book steers into even more broad-ranging waters, starting off with a chapter on gambits (in general) in which Watson discusses and explains gambits as diverse as the Göring and Morra Gambit, the Millner-Barry Gambit, various Wing gambits (both with b2-b4 and g2-g4), the famous Evans Gambit and, of course, the Benkö Gambit.

This chapter contains good stuff (although I don't think serious gambit-players or gambit-busters will find too much shockingly new in it), but I was even more intrigued by the book's next chapter, called 'f-Pawns and Reversed Openings'. I'm sure some people would dismiss it as too philosophical for an opening book, but many fragments - however digressive they may appear to the practical player - had me on the edge of my seat:

The study of reversed openings will increase your understanding of what can and cannot be achieved in openings. Many chess players are mathematically oriented, with a facility for logical thinking. So it's only natural to assume that there must be some way to make use of an extra move. After all, chess moves have value, and you wouldn't voluntarily give a move away under normal circumstances. However, as we've talked about throughout these volumes, the worth of an extra move isn't a straightforward matter. In reversed positions of the English Opening, for example, it's remarkable how seldom White can actually claim to have the better game. For one thing, any advantage is limited by the fact that he will usually be playing what are essentially defensive or counterattacking lines. In addition, there's a paradoxical benefit of not having to move, in that Black gets a better look at what his opponent is up to and is able to react accordingly. (...)

Stepping outside the practical realm, this difficulty (of converting a move into something of value) is also revealing about the nature of chess itself. The paradox of information applies to every move, whether in a reversed position or not. In some sense, however sound and logical a move is, it contains the risk of leaving you worse off! That enormously magnifies the complexity and subtlety of the game. If advantages and disadvantages were additive in some linear fashion, chess would be a minor game at best. But we have geniuses who do little else but study and play chess from the time they are five years old into their forties, and they make multiple mistakes in nearly every game, often quite serious ones! As an exercise, set up a reversed opening and try to find ways to make even modest improvements to your position without destabilizing something elsewhere on the board. You'll find that the most trivial-seeming change always seems to show up in one or another line of analysis where you're least expecting it.

Watson then goes on to explain the subtleties of the Dutch Defence and the Bird Opening (1.f4) in lucid fashion, but as said, he also discusses other reversed openings such as the Ponziani (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3) which Watson points out, after 3...f5!? is in fact "a Vienna Game (1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.f4) with reversed colours and as if Black had an extra ...c6!" Or what about 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 f5, which the entire world knows as the Schliemann or Jänisch Defence of the Ruy Lopez, yet is described by Watson as...

[A] Vienna Game (1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.f4) in which White has the extra move Bb5. Strange to say, this would hurt White if he tried the standard remedy to the Vienna position, which is 4.d4 fxe4 5.Nxe5?! (5.Bxc6 dxc6 6.Nxe5 Nf6 is about equal) as 5...Nxe5 6.dxe5 c6 (in the reversed position, White's bishop is still on f1, so this tempo-gain isn't possible) 7.Bc4 (having come this far, White normally tried the unclear piece sacrifice 7.Nc3 cxb5 8.Nxe4) 7...Qa5+ followed by 8...Qxe5 wins a pawn. (...)

OK, I can't resist one more example:

1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Bb4

Now we have a reversed Classical Variation of the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Bc5), with Black a whole tempo down. The Classical can be a pretty active system, so let's see if White can make good use of the extra tempo.

4.Nf3 (...) 4.f4 has White playing the Schliemann Defence to the Ruy Lopez but with the extra move Bc4. The problem is that this gives Black the tactic 4...Nxe4! Then if White follows the normal Vienna Game strategy of 5.Qh5 (...), Black plays 5...0-0!, a move unavailable in the Vienna Game. (...)

4...Bxc3 5.dxc3 d6

The last reversal: Black has played the Exchange Ruy Lopez, and apparently given White much better development than he gets in the reversed position. But in fact, Black doesn't generate many powerful attacks in the Exchange Ruy Lopez, and in this reversed position, White has nothing to be particularly excited about.

I could be wrong, but I don't think I have seen this funny perspective applied in Vienna or Ruy Lopez text books before. Similarly, the chapter 'Symmetry and its Descendants' offers a refreshing point of view to infamously 'boring' openings such as the Petroff and the Four Knights Game. The chapter on 'Irregular Openings and Initial Moves' continues in this vein. What are irregular or 'unorthodox' openings anyway? Watson points out that

[t]he Trompowsky Attack 1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5 has become popular and universally accepted, but one could argue that 2.Bg5 itself is not an 'orthodox' move; on the flip side, the form of the Torre Attack with 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bg5 is orthodox by the classical standards of development, but it isn't very popular any more. In a similar way, classically oriented openings such as the Ponziani Opening (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3) and the Hungarian Defence (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Be7) are orthodox in strategic terms, but rare in master practice; today, they could legitimately be called 'irregular'.

Apart from this terminology issue, there's what's Watson calls 'the appeal of the irregular':

You make counterintuitive moves, waste time, or sacrifice pawns, and yet some not-so-obvious factor is working in your favour to give you positive chances. It's a break from the drudgery of 'correct' play and following those tired old principles. Even if you don't secure the better game, you can at least irritate your opponent and present him with multiple opportunities to go wrong. The most entertaining irregular openings also contain tactical traps into which one innocent victim after another falls.

These are not trivial, run-of-the-mill observations. Many opening book authors and even chess-improvement books fail to mention these human and very recognizable aspects of chess openings, even though keeping them in mind might help avoid some well-known mistakes in practical play. Thus, for instance, the line 1.e4 Nc6 2.Nf3 f5!?

in the Nimzovich Opening, which is played by some fairly strong members of my local chess club and which Watson also mentions in his book, is not just 'irregular', 'ugly' and 'bad', but does contain some 'not-so-obvious factors' working in Black's favour. White should be aware of this or he will get tricked, as I've personally seen many times.

Actually, I was particularly interested in what Watson wrote about the Nimzovich Opening because I sometimes play it myself and because I've seen lots of crazy analysis over the past years from enthusiastic club members. Crazy analysis which are often not so bad for Black as they look on first sight! And indeed, to his credit, Watson doesn't dismiss the opening easily at all and calls it "one of the best of the irregular openings versus 1.e4."

One of the lines Watson analyses is 1.e4 Nc6 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e5 Ng4 4.d4 d6 5.h3 Nh6.

His nuanced look at even such an obscure line is characteristic of his approach:

Black has a pretty ugly position that nevertheless has some merits. His decentralized knight is an undoubting disadvantage, but he has prospects of chipping away at White's centre, after which that piece might be reintroduced by ...Nf5. Of course, White can hardly complain about his prospects, but he shouldn't expect too much from the capture Bxh6, which gives up the bishop-pair. 5...Nh6 introduces a wide a range of eccentric possibilities that are typical of irregular openings.

Watson now analyses no less than four alternatives for White, but in the end concedes that "Black's position is within playable boundaries". This is rather more realistic than my own initial opinion ("absolutely horrible for Black") of this particular variation! (To my defence, I pretty soon realized that things were not so simple once I started studying the line in more detail.) I hope this small digression shows to what lengths Watson is willing to go to illustrate the versatility of various lesser known opening lines.

The book's penultimate chapter on 'Choosing and Preparing Openings' is equally insightful, although some advices may of course sound familiar to readers who've bought other recent books on more general aspects of opening play. To my delight, Watson also quotes the great Korchnoi who "bluntly" said that if you want to improve your chess, you should play a new opening. Interestingly, Watson also recommends playing blitz games as a way of practising your opening preparation ("in sensible, non-addictive quantities").

Watson ends his book with yet another philosophically-inclined chapter on the future of openings. Unavoidably, there are some echoes from his earlier books here, but it's useful and entertaining all the same. Mastering the Chess Openings vol. 4 is a book any chess lover should have a look at - if not for its openings, then surely for its general awesomeness.


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