Review: The Chebanenko Slav According to Bologan

0 | Chess Event Coverage
Finally, a great chess player has written an entire book on one of the most fascinating opening variations of modern chess theory: Slav with 4...a6, or the Chebanenko Slav. And the author, GM Victor Bologan, is not just a great player, he's also a great analyst, as he proved last year with his excellent debut called Selected games 1985-2004.

By Arne Moll

And now, Bologan has written a tribute to his trainer and teacher, Vyacheslav Andreevich Chebanenko (1942-1997). Chebanenko must have been an inspiring figure in the Moldovan chess world, since many people (including Alexei Shirov, who wrote the foreword to this book) speak of Chebanenko in loving and admiring words. Bologan tells various funny and touching anecdotes about his teacher and he gives a good impression of what it was like to learn and analyse with Chebanenko. As it happens, Chebanenko was also the first strong chess player to seriously study the move 4...a6 in the Slav Defence.

A few words about the layout first. As usual with New in Chess publications, the book looks great. There are beautiful photographs, an abundance of clear diagrams and each chapters ends with a useful conclusion. Not unimportantly, the book has a good index and the editor has made sure the reader always knows where a quote begins and ends. One of the people quoted in the book is Gary Kasparov himself. Kasparov has written about the Chebanenko line in his own book Revolution in the 1970s. Here's what Kasparov says about the reception of the move 4...a6:

[...] 30 years ago, only a small number of players knew about it and it seemed quite an exotic idea. Chess ideas were still dominated by relatively classical principles, and the apparently pointless loss of a tempo had trouble being accepted.

Shirov says something similar in his preface:

When I saw those comments I distrusted everybody involved, as I dogmatically thought that a tempo could not be wasted like this. (...) Of course, the place I first met Chebanenko was his hotel room and we immediately started analysing the Slav with 4...a6 which I tried to 'refute', but in vain.

The picture we're getting is that even on great minds like Kasparov and Shirov, the early move ...a6 looked pretty weird at first sight indeed. Of course, we know that since they both frequently played it, they now think the move is perfectly sound. What had changed? Will Bologan finally reveal the secret...?

Before I proceed I have a small confession to make. Since the mid-nineties, I have often played the Chebanenko variation myself (and as I'm checking my database right now, I see I have a fantastic score with it, too), but ... I have never really understood why the move was so great! Sure, b7-b5 can often be a useful way to grab some space on the queen's side, but often Black does not play b7-b5 at all and just starts developing pieces. Indeed, after 5.c5 Black seems seriously restrained on the queen's side himself. This lack of true understanding has never prevented me from still adopting the system, but it did make me wonder time and again how it was possible that such an innocent little move could score so well, not only on my own level but on top class level as well. Anyway, I was especially curious if Bologan would be able to enlighten me in this almost philosophical matter. What's so good about this a6-move anyway?!

Bologan does reveal something at first. In his introduction, he talks about the line 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 a6!? which was another of Chebanenko's (half-serious) ideas. Bologan's interpretation is revealing:

Black gives his opponent the move, without clarifying the situation in the centre, and in answer to the most natural move 4.Nf3, he continues 4...Bg4. It may very well be by analogy with this that the move 4...a6 in the Slav was found.

It seems, then, that we're dealing with some cat-and-mouse play here. Prophylaxis. And it makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Just wait until you know what your opponent will do and you can act accordingly... but wait a minute! If this waiting game is so great, why doesn't it work with the move h7-h6? And why isn't 4...g6 (Schlechter's move, and a motive that we see very often in Chebanenko's line as well) equally successful? Clearly, 4...a6 is not just some waiting-move, but a very special one. But why? Surely, if a variation is adopted by almost all the great players in the world, there must be more to it? Okay, if Bologan doesn't reveal it in his introduction, perhaps he'll tell us about the hidden secrets of the move in between his variations.

In the book, Bologan has restricted himself for practical purposes to the line 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 a6. Understandable though this is, I must admit I also found it a bit disappointing. Bologan casually mentions that lines with an early 4.e3 (after which Black can also play 4...a6) are not part of the 'real' Chebanenko system:

After 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Black is best advised to continue 4...Bf5 5.Nc3 e6 6.Nh4 Bg6 after which he has a very solid position, which does not require deep opening knowledge. (...) The other way to avoid the Chebanenko System is by 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e3 after which Vladimir [sic] Andreevich considered the move 4...a6! as adequate.

Perhaps this makes sense to player of Bologan's strength, but to me, it is highly confusing. Why should Black play Bf5 with a knight on f3, and not with a knight on c3? Why not 4...a6 in both lines? I could guess it has something to do with the move Qb3 in some lines, but looking in my database, I see thousands of games played with 4...a6 both with knights on c3 and f3. There's clearly an unexplained move order issue going on here, which, in my opinion, the editor should have noticed. (Interestingly, in another recent New in Chess publication, The Fabulous Budapest Gambit by Viktor Moskalenko, this kind of move orders is often stressed by the author.) I will return to crucial differences in seemingly similar lines further on in this review.

In the variation chapters (chapters 1-22), Bologan gives us a highly sophisticated and (as far as I can see) up-to-date overview of the latest stuff in the Chebanenko variation. First, he deals with the move 5.cxd5 which transposes to the Exchange Slav. The move 5.h3!? (chapter 2) he describes as "a cunning move, in the spirit of the Chebanenko school". Particularly interesting is his comment that after 5...b5?! 6.c5! White is doing fine, because of 6...Bf5 7.g4! when h2-h3 turns out to be very useful. This is an interesting example where the idea b7-b5 apparently does not work for Black. It's hard to argue with Bologan's comment that with 5...e6! Black can enter a Meran structure, where "the move ...a6 will be more useful than the move h3"". To me, insightful comments like these are what's most enjoyable in any chess book, and the most important reason for buying them.

As I advanced reading The Chebanenko Slav, I realised how hard it must have been for Bologan to write this book. It's such a flexible system! One moment you're happily playing Ra8-a7 with Black, defending b7 from Qb3, the other moment it's simply bad to misplace the rook on a7. One moment including a2-a4 is good for White (for example when he intends to play a Catalan setup), on other times there are real disadvantages to it. It's almost impossible to explain when something's right and when not. In such situations, it can be helpful to just get rid of a lot of sidelines that you don't like personally, but unlike Morozevich in his book on the Chigorin Defence, Bologan does not do this. Though I admire him for refusing to be anything less that complete, at some point I simply lost threat and found all this completeness just 'too much'. When I see subsubvariations (variation B121, etc.) without any written words in them, and starting as early as move 6 or 7, I simply switch off and do not process the information anymore. Which is not to say it's not useful for players who really want to prepare thoroughly in this opening. (Perhaps we can say that this book is part of the 'professional' trend which also includes the books by Alexander Khalifman.) In general, the book looks extremely well-researched and written with a lot of passion, both for the system and its inventor. Still, I also detected some missed opportunities. Let me give two examples, mainly drawn from my own practical experience.

  • In positions arising after the solid 5.e3 b5 6.b3, a major issue for me has always been to decide when to play b5xc4, when to push the pawn with b5-b4, and when to leave it on b5. In post mortems, I have often had discussions with opponents about this. I suspect many players of my level struggle with similar positionals problems in this line, especially if you don't want to memorize everything up till move 20. Bologan, however, is completely silent about this.
  • Two of White's most popular ways of meeting the Chebanenko are 5.c5 and 5.e3 b5 and then 6.c5. Of course, there's a big difference between these two lines. In the first, White's aim seems to be to prevent b7-b5, while in the second, White seems perfectly happy to have allowed it! What's going on here?

    Bologan doesn't say much about this matter. He calls the immediate c4-c5 'strategic' and the delayed c4-c5 'space seizing', but he doesn't explain the difference. 5.c5 sure looks pretty space-grabbing to me, too, and for all I know, 6.c5 also looks like a rather 'strategic' concept. In fact, the whole Chebanenko seems pretty strategic. But, again, perhaps I just don't understand.

For me, reading this book hasn't helped me uncovering the secret of that incredible little a6 move. Perhaps I should cherish my ignorance like little kids cherish their believe in Santa Claus. Or perhaps there is no 'secret'. Perhaps the Chebanenko Slav is fascinating precisely because nobody, not even Bologan, can explain what makes it such a dangerous move. It hints at our deep ignorance of chess. We can try to explore the phenomenon with variations - and Bologan makes an absolutely heroic effort! - but we will never really understand what Chebanenko's intuition told him when he first proposed to seriously analyse this great variation.
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