Review: The Alterman Gambit Guide - Black Gambits 1

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

Frankly speaking, I’ve never been fond of opening books where the author proposes dubious gambits to his readers. Nowadays the growing strength of the engines enables people to refute the recommended lines at a single touch. However, after reading the first couple of pages of The Alterman Gambit Guide Black Gambits 1 I sensed I’d have to adjust my biased opinion.

Next to Arne Moll and IM Arthur van de Oudeweetering, we've added a third reviewer to our team: IM Robert Ris, co-editor of ChessVibes Openings and ChessVibes Training. This is his first review for ChessVibes.

Boris Alterman is a strong Ukrainian-born Israeli GM who has more or less given up his personal chess career for life as a professional trainer. In the introduction to the book Alterman states:

As I gained more coaching experience I saw that, at the Beginner and Intermediate level, playing the opening correctly brings many dividends. Many of the games at that level are decided because one of the players (or both!) doesn't follow the basic opening principles, committing sins such as neglecting the center, making too many moves with the same piece, moving the queen too early in the opening, leaving the king in the center, trying to win material instead of developing, and so on.

That's what gave Alterman and Quality Chess the idea of publishing the Gambit Guide series of books. Since the first work in the series, White Gambits, was very well received, they decided to bring out another two-part repertoire for Black. The first volume deals with move-orders connected with 1.d4 and 1.c4, while the second concerns 1.e4 and is expected to be released soon. Rather than focusing on deep improvements upon established theory The Alterman Gambit Guide emphasizes the importance of becoming familiar with the opening and positional principles mentioned in the previous quote, as well as mastering tactical motifs and training yourself to evaluate typical positions. It’s a very challenging concept, and after reading Alterman's introduction I was eager to see how he'd manage to avoid disappointing his readers.

The 360-page book has been divided into five chapters, each of which deals with a specific opening (Benkö Gambit, Blumenfeld Gambit, Vaganian Gambit, 1.d4 Nf6 Sidelines and the English Defense Gambit). Using 58 model games the author aims to acquaint the reader with the typical ideas for Black. The book has clearly been written with the intention of building a black repertoire, though Alterman doesn't refrain from mentioning improvements which might give Black a harder life. The openings covered in this book are closely linked and in fact offer an aggressive gambit repertoire against the various move-orders possible after 1.d4 and 1.c4. It therefore makes sense to go through the book step by step, as certain positional or tactical ideas may return in other variations as well. 

Chapter 1, which takes up more than one third of the book, starts with the author giving a game he played as a kid during the National School Team Championship. Although White has committed several inaccuracies in the opening, Black's advantage might not seem that obvious at first glance. The following example is a real eye-opener for those who aren't yet familiar with this type of structure.

[Event "Ukraine"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "1984.??.??"]
[Round "?"]
[White "NN"]
[Black "Alterman"]
[Result "0-1"]
[Annotator "Alterman"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "rr4k1/3nppbp/1q1p2p1/2pP4/1n2PB2/2N2N2/PP2QPPP/R3R1K1 b - - 0 15"]
[PlyCount "11"]
[EventDate "2012.04.04"]
[SourceDate "2012.04.04"]

15... Qa6 $1 {'' This came as a great surprise for my opponent. The idea of
exchanging queens while a pawn down might seem counterintuitive, but in fact
it makes perfect sense. After the queen trade White loses all hope of any
meaningful counterplay in the center or on the kingside. Meanwhile Black's
queenside assault is in no way diminished. The weakness of the d3-square only
adds to White's troubles, especially in view of the unfortunate position of
his bishop.''} 16. Qxa6 Rxa6 17. Re2 Nd3 18. Bc1 {Diagram [#]} c4 $1 {'' White
remains a pawn up, but his pieces are virtually paralyzed. With his last move
Black cements the outpost on d3 and prepares to bring the other knight into
the attack. ''} 19. Kf1 N7c5 {'' Black has achieved everything he could have
wished for, and the game is almost over. ''} 20. Rb1 $2 {'' A blunder, but
there was no good defense against ...Nb3. ''} Bxc3 0-1

Did you already know that exchanging queens often favors Black in the Benkö? If not, then at least the author has succeeded perfectly in explaining the key plans for Black. That's exactly what I like so much about this book. Alterman writes for a large audience, as without delving too deeply and giving endless variations he manages to make the position comprehensible and fascinating both for novices and more advanced players.

Another positive feature of the book’s structure is the summing up of the key moments in every game in the ''What we have learned'' section. After going through the whole book the reader doesn't need to replay the games over and over again. By highlighting the main ideas it becomes much easier to remember different variations rather than memorizing particular moves.

Combinations of course feature among those key moments. In the book you’ll find plenty of tactical motifs which are typical of the openings. The following blow might inspire you to play the Benkö!

[Event "Cannes op"]
[Site "Cannes"]
[Date "1995.??.??"]
[Round "4"]
[White "Sadler, Matthew"]
[Black "Mestrovic, Zvonimir"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "A57"]
[WhiteElo "2575"]
[BlackElo "2415"]
[Annotator "Alterman"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "r1bq1rk1/4ppbp/3p1np1/1BnP4/1Q2P3/2N2N2/PP3PPP/R1B1K2R b KQ - 0 12"]
[PlyCount "8"]
[EventDate "1995.02.??"]
[EventType "swiss"]
[EventRounds "9"]
[EventCountry "FRA"]
[SourceDate "2012.04.04"]

12... Nfxe4 $3 13. Nxe4 {'' Other moves would leave Black with massive
compensation for the pawn, but the text allows Black to reveal the point of
his combination.''} Ra4 $1 {'' Brilliant! Now White must give up his queen. ''}
14. Qxa4 Nxa4 15. O-O Qa5 16. Bc6 {Diagram [#] '' Up to this point Mestrovic
has played magnificently, and from here either capture on b2 would have given
him a comfortably winning position.[...] ''} 1-0

So does that mean the critical main lines have been hidden away in favor of textual explanations? The Alterman Gambit Guide Black Gambits 1 aims to provide a repertoire that relies on Black's own dynamic chances without neglecting the soundness of the specific variations. That means the objective truth has to be brought to the surface. Indeed, Alterman has attempted to improve upon earlier publications, though evidently he found it hard to come up with an antidote to Boris Avrukh's Grandmaster Repertoire 1.d4 Volume 2, which is currently considered the chess bible for players opening with their queen's pawn. His win in a personal encounter against the Fianchetto Variation with 10.Rb1 at least shows that Black isn't without his chances!

It's not without reason that he concludes the chapter with the encouraging words:

[...] The long-term nature of Black's compensation helps to explain the enduring popularity of the Benkö Gambit. With modern opening preparation becoming increasingly demanding for players at all levels, there are stronger reasons than ever for adopting openings based on long-term positional features rather than excessive variations.

So what else can be found in the book? In Chapter 2 Alterman objectively sees 5.Bg5 as critical against the Blumenfeld Gambit, though he also gives plenty of resources for Black which could offer him a satisfactory position. The good news for Black is that White often accepts the gambit as well, allowing Black to seize the initiative at any moment he wishes. The main expert from the black side is Romanian GM Nisipeanu, who has regularly employed the variation with great success.

In case White isn't in the mood for entering the Benkö Gambit and opts for 3.Nf3, Alterman advises Black to employ the Vaganian Gambit (3...cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nb5 d5! 6.exd5 Bc5). Numerous splendid attacking wins have been included in the book and they all have one thing in common: the White king has nowhere to hide!

The remaining two chapters deal with some annoying sidelines and move-order issues. As these are usually an unpleasant weapon to face as Black, Alterman comes up with a psychologically interesting solution:

[...] I propose that we turn the tables, by choosing sound but slightly offbeat counterattacking systems. In doing so we can take the opponent away from his familiar battleground, and force him to make difficult decision early in the opening.

His choice against the Trompowsky indeed seems to make sense from a practical point of view: 1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5 e6 3.e4 c5 4.e5 h6 5.Bc1 Nh7!? when he adds:

This quirky retreat might well come as a shock to your opponents. The knight looks misplaced, but appearances can be deceptive.

Against certain systems it's pretty hard for Black to undertake anything, especially in cases when White isn't willing to play actively. Unfortunately the Alterman Gambit Guide doesn't help you, for instance, to find a remedy to the sleepless nights caused by the Colle System. Alterman devotes only a single page to that system, which is quite popular, especially at club level. It strikes me that he doesn’t give a model game to increase the confidence of the player with Black.

Last but not least, the English Defense Gambit has been given as a fully playable way of obtaining dynamic counterplay against 1.c4. Although I'm personally not 100% up to date on all the ins and outs of the opening, I have to confess that I'm pretty impressed by the analytical work and verbal explanations. The Alterman Gambit Guide has positively surprised me by making a clear, dynamic and sound repertoire accessible to a public rated between 1500 and 2500. Quite an achievement! Since I’m a 1.e4 e5 player myself I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of The Alterman Gambit Guide Black Gambits 2 when it’s released!



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