Review: The Ruy Lopez Revisited

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage
The Ruy Lopez RevisitedTwo weeks ago I wrote about David Vigorito's new book on the Marshall Attack of the Ruy Lopez. In this review, I want to take a look at GM Ivan Sokolov's latest book The Ruy Lopez Revisited, published by New in Chess. I think both books have their charm, and in a way, they complement each other quite nicely.

In the introduction to The Ruy Lopez Revisited, Sokolov describes his switch from the Sicilian to the Ruy Lopez about twenty years ago, and how he "faced [a] huge amount of theory and deviations White had at his disposal." He writes how he made the practical decision to study and play early deviations instead of mainlines, and it clearly paid off. Now, he's written a book about these sidelines, which he calls a "practical opening guide to a tournament player who is willing to employ these variations, whereby he will often bring a fight to his opponent's doorstep as easy as move 6 or 7." And a very impressive opening guide it is, too.

Most attention is devoted to the Jaenisch Gambit (3...f5) and the Classical Variation (3...Bc5), but Sokolov also has a close look at lesser known systems such as the Cozio (3...Nge7), a line I have always liked (but never actually played) because it looks so entirely natural to defend the knight on c6. Sokolov, as always, is quite objective and writes that while it's an interesting move, "it does not equalize. I abandoned this variation in the mid-1990s and I am in no hurry to return to it."

One thing that struck me while looking at the variations that follow in this variation is that Sokolov doesn't always promote the best moves to mainlines. This strange habit is something I've noticed before in some New in Chess publications (e.g., The Black Lion) so I don't think the author is to blame. After 3...Nge7, 4.Nc3! is "the most unpleasant option" according to Sokolov, yet 4.0-0 is the Cozio's main line. The reason is probably that there's more theory on castling, but it's a bad reason in my view since it disrupts the flow of reading and indeed studying. Still, Sokolov's knowledge of this minor line is absolutely amazing. What I liked in this chapter in particular is his clear and useful explanations, such as the following:

Quinteros-Larsen Manila 1973
17...f6! A standard plan in this type of position - if White takes on f6, then he relinquishes his space advantage, while if he defends the pawn on e5, Black will at some stage take on e5 and get either control of the f-file - should White recapture with his f4 pawn - or mobile pawns of his own - should White recapture with his d4 pawn. Similar motifs we often see in the Open Spanish.

18.f4 a5! Taking some more space and provoking a white weaknesses [sic] on the queenside. 19.a3 a4 20.Kb1 Na5 21.Qd3 Nc4 22.Bd2

22...fxe5! The time has come: White is forced to recapture with his d4 pawn (otherwise 23.fxe5? Rf2) and Black now gets mobile central pawns of his own: 23.dxe5 Rad8 24.Bc1 b5 25.Rhe1 Rfe8 26.Qf3 c5 27.Rd3 d4 The black pawns roll easily, while White cannot push his pawns or create any counterplay (...)

By the way, if you thought this book was written for players on the black side of the Ruy Lopez, you'd be wrong: one of the great qualities of Sokolov is that he's able to look completely objectively at the lines even though he mainly has experience with them as Black himself. (This is already shown in the above mentioned section on the Cozio when Sokolov confesses he thinks 4.Nc3 is the nastiest reply for White.)

Sometimes, Sokolov gets so carried away in displaying his knowledge and ideas that he forgets to explain some basic stuff to players who are not quite of his strength. For instance, in the Jaenisch mainline - one of the most impressive chapters in the book - after the automatic moves 3...f5 4.Nc3 fxe4 5.Nxe4 d5 (Sokolov considers 5...Nf6 to be "fully playable" as well) 6.Nxe5 dxe4 7.Nxc6 Qg5 8.Qe2 Nf6 Sokolov seems so eager to get on with the dazzling complexities of it all that he completely fails to mention why the main move, 9.f4, is in fact stronger than the immediate 9.Nxa7+.

To me, the move f2-f4 in this position has always looked distinctly odd (somehow it looks as if the pawn can be taken in two different ways), but then on the next page Sokolov explains it in a slightly different line after all: 9.Nxa7+ Bd7 10.Bxd7+ Nxd7 and now, after 11.f4!, Sokolov does elaborate, explaining that f4 defends the g2-pawn which is obviously quite important. He writes:

The position is very complicated and unfortunately has not been seriously tested in practical (very few good games). I have analysed this position for a while and would like to share those analyses with the reader here. (...) Black is indeed material down, but the white king will be stuck in the centre for quite some tim, the white knight on a7 has to be brought back into play, which will cost time, and White still has to develop his c1 bishop and connect his rooks, which, again, costs time.

On general grounds Black should have good compensation here and therefore 9.Nxa7+ should be considered risky for White, but a rather serious analytical back-up for both sides would be rather helpful here - White can easily get into trouble with his king in the middle and his uncoordinated, under-developed pieces, while Black is after all two pawns down. I am surprised that this line has not been seriously tested in grandmaster practice.

This explanation, very useful in its own right, is just an introduction to over six pages of extremely detailed home analyses by Sokolov. It shows his determination in getting to the heart of the position and how the author is not just satisfied with an 'unclear' verdict. Unbelievable, unprecedented stuff and my only complaint is actually one of luxury, namely that this entire line really should have been given a separate chapter or paragraph, since now finding one's way through the wood of varations numbered C33312b and so on, might not be to everyone's taste.

Though I'm no expert of the Jaenisch myself, I must say Sokolov's thorough analyses of all these complex positions look very impressive indeed. I naively checked a few sharp lines with my engine running in the background, but couldn't find any holes even in what often look like rather speculative variations. Perhaps people who've played the variation all their lives will disagree with me, but I would be surprised if this book wouldn't be a valuable treasure not only for people who are considering to give 3...f5 a try, but also for people who know all the ins and outs of this intoxicating line.

One interesting (and, in my opinion, highly sympathetic) aspect of Sokolov's way of writing is that he isn't afraid to admit that he doesn't understand things. Here's how he introduces yet another early ...Nge7 line in the Classical Variation:

3...Bc5 4.0-0 Nge7 In this line Black develops his g8 knight to e7. Compared to the other moves after 3...Bc5 4.0-0, like 4...Nd4, 4...Nf6, 4...d6 or 4...f5 (after 4.c3), this continuation seems to me to be the least recommended for Black. That said, I have to admit that 4...Nge7 has always remained a bit of a puzzle to me because based on a number of logical and not very difficult variations White seems to be obtaining an easy opening advantage; namely, in the line with 5.Nxe5 as well as the main line (...).

Taking this into consideration, it is rather difficult for me to explain the fact that a number of very strong players, including Fischer (!), have played this line for Black. Unfortunately, in the game Tal-Fischer, Candidates' Tournament Curacao 1962, the by the ex-World Champion Mikhail Tal decided not to follow the main line, and so we will never find out what Fischer had in store and why Tal refrained from the main line. Over the years, I have spent many days analysing this position and wondering what idea Fischer may have had in store, but I failed to find a satisfactory solution.

For me, such a fragment is pure delight, not only because I always llike it when authors share their uncertainties with their readers, but also because it immediately triggers my imagination and makes me want to find out, too, what Fischer may have had in mind! So, naturally, I had a look at 5.Nxe5 and perhaps I've found something which I hereby share with my readers: 5...Nxe5 6.d4 and now Sokolov only mentions 6...c6, leading to a good position for White, but perhaps Black can play my engine's suggestion 6...Bd6? This move, as I found out afterwards, was tried once by Arhur Kogan in 1995 against Sergei Movsesian when they were both still 2400-players. In that game, Black didn't have particular problems so maybe, just maybe this is what Fischer had in mind?

The Ruy Lopez Revisited has already been praised numerous times, and rightly so. This is simply a great opening book, probably one of the best ever on the Spanish Opening. I can only hope Sokolov will one day decide it's time for another book on "offbeat systems and unexplored resources" (as the book is subtitled) from another opening in his repertoire to explain in such detail. What a treat that would be.


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