Review: Play 1.b3!

0 | Chess Event Coverage
Ilya Odessky: Play 1.b3!It doesn't happen often that a chess author makes me laugh, but Ilya Odessky is one of them. But that's not all. Many reviews of his new book Play 1.b3!, published by New in Chess, are also extremely funny. The point is, most reviewers assume Odessky wrote an opening book, which only reveals they haven't even read the book. This book is not about a chess opening at all. If I had to classify it, I'd say it was perhaps a postmodern novel.

Or maybe a philosophical work with a comical twist. Or something in the confessional literature. Or a detective with a moral. Or maybe just a love story. Every time I pick up Play 1.b3! and start reading it, I find something which forces me to re-evaluate the classification I've just made. The following quote looks like it's straight from the preface, but in fact it's how the fourth chapter starts:

I must ask your forgiveness. Almost all of the examples (whether confirming or refuting my analysis), I have taken from the Internet. (...) Not that this bothers me - it is just a little unusual, that's all. There is no choice about this. It has been a long time since I sat down to play a tournament game. And, I am interested in the opening b2-b3 and wanted to write a book about it. Those players who employ 1.b3 nowadays look at it differently from me. I do not find my ideas being used in their games. And my ideas seem to me to be more interesting. It is nice to be able to try them out, even if it is only on the Internet.

Apart from the unorthodox placement of such a statement, Odessky's free prose style reminds me more of a surrealist piece of work than a textbook opening manual. This unorthodoxy, by the way, is something the author clearly likes. Chapter 11 starts with the following motto, taken from a remark by D.D. Shostakovich to Sofia Gubaidullina:

I would like you to continue on your incorrect path.

Or consider the strangely minimalist end of Chapter 15, where Odessky sums up the conclusions about the variation 1.b3 e5 2.Bb2 Nc6 3.e3 d6:

All White's problems, I am sure, start with the move 4.c4. It loses a tempo, it loses the thread of the game, it loses the independence of b2-b3. One must play 4.Bb5. But I really don't want to. Maybe 4.Nf3!? I don't know what else to say.

Finally, look how on page 210, Odessky introduces Chapter 21, one of the last chapters in the book:

A righteous man dies, and quite deservedly goed to Heaven. Soon he starts to find life there rather boring. One day, as he is out for a walk a long way from his own cloud, he finds himself in Hell. And, to his surprise, he rather likes it - green fields, beautiful girls, lots of nice entertainment, etc. The Devil says to him, 'You see? All that propaganda about fire and brimstone, it's all lies. Why don't you move here permanently?' The man agrees, saying 'I just need to pop home and pick up a few things, and I'll be back.' Soon he returns, walks through the gate, which slams behind him, and all he sees is fire, and the air is filled with screams of tormented souls. 'But what happened to all the green fields and pretty girls?' he asks. 'Fool,' replies the Devil. 'Then you were just on holiday. Now you've emigrated!' The previous chapters of this book were also just a holiday.

Let me get that straight: after 209 pages, Odessky finally comes to explaining 'the basics' of the so-called Nimzowitsch Attack! Before that, we've just been on vacation - but what a great vacation! Not only has Odessky told us great tales, sometimes with a lot of sarcasm or deep philosophical insight; has he given us honest and sometimes painful insights in his own chess career; but he's also shown us fantastic chess concepts and moves that are characteric of the way Odessky is interpreting the move 1.b3:

1.b3 d5 2.Bb2 Bg4 3.f3 Bh5 4.e4 dxe4 5.Qe2!


5...Nc6?! 6.Qb5! Nf6!? 7.Bxf6 gxf6 8.Qxh5

White falls into a trap, or at least, a psychological pitfall. Having played a gambit, he is ready to sacrifice and attack, but now, instead, he has grabbed material and has to defend. It may be that Black's threats are not all that dangerous and, in any event, are not worth a piece. But in conditions of limited thinking time, White can easily go wrong. I have done so, several times. For example, in a game against Almira Skripchenko, I was already hopelessly place by move 15.

Such self-knowledge is rare in any chess book, let alone a book on a chess opening that the author loves so much! I chose this fragment not only to show some of the richness of ideas Odessky displays, but also of the objectivity with which he does so. He doesn't mind in the least showing great ideas for Black if it illustrates a point or tells a good anecdote. This is a huge difference with that other New in Chess opening book I reviewed some time ago: The Black Lion. Sometimes, this love for weird concepts goes rather far:

1.b3 f5 2.Bb2 e6 3.e4!? fxe4 4.Qh5+ Ke7

dia2This is a crazy and fascinating position to be sure, but it reminded me a bit of a variation I once encountered in an old book on 'gambits' and which ran 1.f4 f5 2.e4!? How likely is that to appear on the board in a lifetime? I'm not sure, but, contrary to the author of that book, Odessky explains the variations and ideas in such an entertaining way, that in my opinion he's easily forgiven for this extreme indulgence. In fact the author himself acknowledges his own handicap when he confesses he's 'a bit too fond of the sound of his own voice'. Well, I'd say that's a problem all writers have, and honestly, the only time I got a bit bored with Odessky's prose was when he went on and on about the pros and contras of internet chess. Been there, done that. In all other cases, I simply had a great time.

However, be warned. If you think Play 1.b3! is just a fun book with light and easily digestible crazy ideas, you're wrong. Odessky displays great erudition and knowledge of history and the chess classics. In great depth, he analyses the three games former World Champion Petrosian played with the b2-b3 system. In a chapter comparing the b3-system to the R?©ti Opening, he delves deeply into the history of opening concepts, quoting Nimzowitsch, Botvinnik and Mark Dvoretsky. Here it becomes clear that Odessky is not just a creative writer, but also an excellent chess instructor who combines crystal-clear prose with elegant objectivity. Here, too, Odessky seems not to be writing about 1.b3 at all, but about chess in general.

1.b3 d5 2.Bb2 Nf6 3.Nf3 Bf5 4.g3 e6 5.Bg2 Be7 6.d3 h6 7.Nbd2 0-0 8.0-0 Bh7 9.c4 c6 10.Qc2 Nbd7 11.a3 a5 12.Bc3

dia3This is a plan known from the R?©ti Opening, and almost 100 years old. But the most classic example of how White should play is not from R?©ti's own games, but from the game Capablanca-Lilienthal, Moscow 1936. White only needs to do two things - seize space on the queenside and exchange off unnecessary pieces. And those pieces that are needed can be counted on the fingers of one hand - the light-squared bishop, a rook and a knight. The main thing is: do not, in any circumstances, exchange light-squared bishops! The one on h7, which so terrorized White in the c2-d3-e4 pawn structure, is much less effective against the structure c4-d3-e2. It has nothing to do, and if it continues to loaf around on the edge of the board, then with every exchange, it will become clearer that Black is effectively playing minus a piece. (...) So what White should do here is clear. And Black? Here is the main example - the game Botvinnik-Smyslov (World Championship match 1958).
12... b5!? 13. cxb5 cxb5

Botvinnik writes some extremely interesting and unusual comments about this position. '14.b4... A serious mistake. White, by preventing the move b5-b4 in the most primitive possible fashion, obtains a weak pawn on b4, without any compensation at all, and the initiative passes to Black. (...)' Botvinnik's words remind me of the blows of a rubber ball, bouncing on the floor. The harder one throws it, the lighter it bounces. If one does not think about the bounce, and does not get out of the way in time, one will be struck in the face. So why bounce the ball at full strength? (...) The move 14.b4 is not a mistake, not a primitive attempt to prevent b5-b4, but the best move in the position. And after this, the initiative does not pass to Black.

This excerpt, by the way, is not even the end of it. Odessky next explains the position in even more detail, concluding that things are not so clear after all. It shows not only his love for the game, but also for the truth. In a way, Odessky combines the romantic and the rational aspects of chess, in an ideal way.

Odessky uses the infamous Nimzowitsch Attack itself (in which White automatically plays b3, Bb2, e3, Bb5, Nf3, 0-0, Bxc6+, Ne5, f4 and Rf1-f3-h3 'and mates') as an example to discuss the dogmas of this opening. It all looks very attractive for White, such as in the following position:

dia411...g6? 12.Qh5! Nf6 13.Ng4!!

But if Black defends well (in this particular case, by 11...f6), there is no mate, Odessky concludes, and the simplistic setup mentioned above is 'all a bluff'. The great Nimzowitsch realized this himself, of course, and developed his Nb1 first before starting the attack. This is less spectacular, but Odessky cleverly points out that resulting endgames in this lines are what White is really after. Thus, he ties spectacular (but often failing) sacrifices to chess history to modern endgame treatment. It's a great ride.

So, my advice is to go to the book store immediately and buy Play 1.b3! before it's sold out. It doesn't matter if you don't play 1.b3 or intend to ever play it. Don't read Odessky's book as an opening book: read it as an experimental novel, or a long essay on chess ideas, or a collection of cool chess-related one-liners. You can even it as a diary from Underground (in this case the Internet). This book is an instant classic.


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