Review: The Black Lion

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The Black LionIt's clear that the New in Chess publishers are experimenting. In the past, they have mostly published high-quality opening books for the serious chess student, written by famous grandmasters such as Morozevich and Bologan. With The Black Lion, written by Dutch amateur club players Jerry van Rekom and Leo Jansen, they're obviously sticking out their necks. Admittedly, the book already was a huge success in The Netherlands, precisely because it appealed greatly to fellow amateur club players, and the new edition also seems to sell very well indeed.

First of all, let me say that for someone who is used to reviewing opening books written by such extremely strong grandmasters, it's not easy to review The Black Lion. You simply have to adjust your expectations. Players like Morozevich and Bologan are extremely good at explaining what chess is about: they can logically arrange their material and distinguish between relevancy and irrelevancy; they know how to explain differences between similar positions and ideas; they know when to go for dynamics and when to go for strategic lines, and they can explain highly complex tactics in terms of what's going on from a general point of view.

These are talents that Van Rekom and Jansen are lacking. They have compensated this handicap by collecting a huge amount of games (also from their own practice, and from their local club) and (historical) analysis. Most of all, The Black Lion is a highly enthusiastic book. It's clear from the many games they have played that both authors just love their system and it shows in their writing. We're obviously looking at a lifetime of work here.

'The Black Lion' is a system that is characterized by the following moves:

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7

Black can also play 3...e5. The setup is similar to the Philidor Defence, but the authors make it clear that the Black Lion is in fact a separate system. Black's idea is much more aggressive: to delay castling and quickly go for h7-h6 and, if possible, g7-g5, often combined with the typical maoeuvre Nd7-f8-g6-f4. This also means the authors do not treat 'regular' Philidor positions where Black goes Be7 and 0-0. (In fact they do analyse Be7, but only if white takes on f7 at some point!)

From the start it's clear that the authors are very positive about the system. This is always a good thing (remember, Morozevich was also positive about the Chigorin!), but in the case of Van Rekom and Jansen, their enthusiasm tends to lead to subjectiveness: while it's certainly a funny idea to have all diagrams from Black's perspecive, the authors also tend to evaluate equal positions as 'slightly better for Black' and positions slightly more pleasant for White as 'equal'. Take, for instance, the following line:

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 4.f4 e5 5.Nf3 c6 6.dxe5 dxe5 7.fxe5 Ng4 8.e6 fxe6 9.Ng5 Ne5 10.Qxd8+ Kxd8

diagram 1The authors comment upon this position as follows:

This 'Sliedrecht position' has become one of the most important basic variations of the Black Lion in Leo Jansen's view. Black has lost the right to castle, but his monarch will be excellently placed on e7. Moreover, the black weakness on d6 is gone, and he has the d5 square under control. The Bc8 remains a problem child, though. White has more space in this position, and he can still castle kingside.

To be honest, I find it hard to become enthusiastic about Black's position. Yes, the 'weakness' on d6 is gone, but what about e6? According to my database, White has scored tremendously in this position, winning 9 games against just 2 losses, with 6 draws. Surely a rather meager result for one of the 'most important variations' of the Black Lion, but, of course, results don't mean everything. Let's see what the authors have in store for Black players:

11.h3 Nh6 In this position, the author's main line is 12.Bf4 which in the end leads to equality. One of their sidelines, however, is Stefan B?ɬºcker's move 12.Be2 which leads to a clearly better position (+/-) after both 12....Be7 and 12...Nhf7. This is odd, to say the least. If 12.Be2 leads to a good position for White, how can the authors consider the position after 10 moves so important for the Black Lion?

But even after 12.Bf4 it's difficult to believe Black can obtain equality so easily. Van Rekom and Jansen follow up with

12...Nhf7 13.0-0-0+ Ke8 14.Nxf7 Nxf7 and now their main line goes on with 15.Bc4 but they say 15.e5 "is an interesting alternative". Indeed this move looks very strong and consistent, so let's check it out:

15.e5!? g5 16.Be3 Bg7 17.Ne4!

The authors now quote a correspondence game Storani-Geus, 2000, where Black erred with 17...Bxe5? 18.Nxg5 Nxg5 19.Bxg5 and "White had the best of it". Their alternatives are 17...h6 and 17...Nxe5 18.Bd4 Kf8, but they don't give an evaluation of the position. In fact, 17...Nxe5 loses instantly in view of the simple move 18.Be2! while 17...h6 18.Nf6+ is clearly bad for Black: White has two bishops and attacking chances, while Black still has the weak e-pawn and a passive position. My computer engine even rates it as +2.0 for White and although this may be a bit too extreme, it's clear that for such a 'basic position', this is all rather depressing for Black.

In general, reading this book has taught me two things:
  1. The Black Lion is not such a bad opening as many White players think.
  2. The Black Lion is not such a good opening as the authors think.
The first point is illustrated by the fact that so many (strong) players have failed to 'refute' the Black Lion by playing agressively against it. In general, Black seems OK when White goes at it too fast or too recklessly. For instance, the authors show convincingly that Bxf7+ tactics do not work against the Philidor setup (although they waste a lot of space analysing dubious alternatives for Black). I had always believed that possibly White's best way to combat the Lion is a kind of 'English attack' setup (called 'Anti-Lion system' by the authors) such as the following:

1. e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 4.Be3 e5 5.f3 Be7 6.Qd2 c6 7.0-0-0 Qa5 8.g4 b5 9.Kb1 This line has been played by two very strong White players, Judit Polgar and Lazaro Bruzon Bautista, so it can definitely be considered critical. Black normally plays 9...Nb6

diagram 2The authors note:

This move is intended to create extra pressure on the queenside, but it also serves to vacate the d7-square for the Nf6, in case White advances his g-pawn.

Polgar now played 10.b3 to prevent Na4 and start an attack of her own, but as the authors show, after the correct reply 10...b4 11.Ne2 c5 (they even claim Black is better after 11...0-0) 12.dxc5 dxc5 as played in the correspondence game Carroll-Vanhamme, 2004, Black has a lot of counter chances. This seems one of those typical cases where Black suddenly is fine after White pushes too hard. However, the authors are completely silent about what Bruzon played in this position:

10.a3! (Ignoring the threat of Nc4, this is also the computer's suggestion) 10...Nc4 11.Bxc4 bxc4 12.g5 Nd7 13.d5! This positional approach (White intends to play f3-f4 and expansion the king's side) definitely looks (slightly) more pleasant for White (Bruzon-Miles, 2001).

Which illustrates my second point: although Black surely survived the opening, he is still slightly worse after correct play by White. One can't help thinking that if only the authors would have looked up this position in any database, or checked it with any reasonable engine, they would have noticed, too, and their book would have been a lot more useful for the serious chess student. Now, though, it becomes tempting to even look at the sharp lines (where Black is usually OK) with a critical eye. When I noticed the following diagram in the book, for example, I couldn't help checking it against Rybka:

The diagram shows the game Kuijf-Seret, Lyon 1990 after White's 19th move. It looks pretty dangerous for Black, doesn't it? White has the bishop pair, open lines, a lead in development, a safe king... But the authors say that...

...White has minimal compensation for his pawn in the shape of his bishop pair and the attack on Black's king, and in this position the knight on c5 is under attack as well. (?¢‚Ǩ¬¶) Black continued with 19?¢‚Ǩ¬¶Ne4? where 19?¢‚Ǩ¬¶Ne6 would have been in order. In the game, the aspiring adherent of the Black Lion escaped to a draw with: 20.Bxf7+ Kxf7 21.Qh5+ g6 22.Qxh7+ Kf6 23.Rhf1+ Bf5 24.g4 Nc3+ 25.Ka1 Nxd1 26.Rxf5+ gxf5 27.Qxf5+ Kg7 28.Qg5+ Kf7 29.Qf5+ Kg7 30.Qg5+ 1/2-1/2.

Unfortunately, there are several things wrong with this. First of all, in the quoted game White missed a beautiful win with the quiet move 23.Bg3! after which Black is defenseless. This means that 19...Ne4? simply loses, instead of drawing. Secondly, although 19...Ne6 is indeed better, it is certainly not 'in order', since White's initiative is still horribly strong after both 20.Qf5 and 20.Qh5! (Rybka evaluates the position as +1.28 for White, despite being a pawn down.) All this means that this whole line appears to be bad for Black, implying that White can obtain a good game pretty much by force after 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 4.f4 e5 5.Nf3 exd4 6.Qxd4 c6 7.e5 which is how this game started. I don't believe the authors will agree with this conclusion, but I'm afraid it does follow logically from the way they present their material.

To be fair to the authors (and the editor), The Black Lion is intended for an audience that is not likely to counter-check all lines with a chess engine or a database. The book is meant to be read by amateur club players from say level 1600 to 2100. The big advantage of the Black Lion for club players is clearly that many White players will overestimate their chances. Another practical advantage of the setup is that it can be played against both 1.e4 and 1.d4 (although of course with considerable differences). Also, once you know what Black should strive for, it's relatively easy to study this opening and memorize lines (provided you skip all the tactical nuances!). On the surface, these look like good arguments, don't they?

Well, I'm not sure. Isn't it patronizing to imply that club players are not interested in seriously checked variations and objective evaluations? Isn't it misleading to illustrate variations with games played on local clubs and simultaneous displays and to ignore serious games played by top grandmasters (even though the authors claim they have incorporated more GM games in this edition)? Isn't it the duty of the chess opening analyst to search for the truth, rather than to love a system so much that it clouds his objectivity? And isn't it also just a litttle bit shallow to reduce the entire first phase of the game of chess to a simple scheme that can be played against any setup by the opponent - with both colours, on top of that? These are some questions that came up in my head while reading this book.

I am told that The Black Lion already is a huge success, both in The Netherlands and abroad. To me, this is surprising. True, the amount of games and analysis presented by the authors is very impressive - but the quality is not. More importantly, I am greatly puzzled by the following paradox: if the Black Lion is such an appealing system to club players because it's so simple and easy to learn (as claimed on the back cover), then why would you buy a 250-page book about it - filled with countless variation branches (numbered etc.) and complicated analysis of dangerous-looking piece sacrifices? And finally, if the opening has such surprise value, then why does the book feature so many dull endgames, where even the simplest moves by White guarantee him a completely sound position, if not a pleasant edge?

Perhaps I'm being too critical. Maybe this book really does appeal to club players who are completely unlike myself. Maybe they just like it that the variations have such funny names, and that there are so many amateur games in it, instead of being scared away by the usual high-level grandmaster games - even though these club games are often hardly sound or relevant.

Yes, this seems highly likely. Therefore, I want to end this review on a positive note. The story of the authors and their chess club is really a kind of rags-to-riches tale. There's still hope for amateur chess lovers! If you have a pet system, keep playing and analysing it: who knows, a major chess publisher may one day make a bestseller out of it.

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