Review: The Safest Grünfeld

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For more than a decade Grünfeld aficionados have been suffering from a scarcity of complete books on this major and exciting opening. But at last, GM Alexander Delchev and GM Evgenij Agrest wrote an elaborate, comprehensive, and pleasant-to-read book on the Grünfeld, offering a complete repertoire for Black while also covering many side variations. Robert Kikkert (2285), an experienced Dutch club player who's been playing the Grünfeld for many years, wrote an elaborate review for us.

A Dangerous Battle with The Safest Grünfeld

The Safest Grünfeld is an up-to-date book and offers great value, but do we agree with the authors’ choices for particular lines? Would it be wise to play according to Delchev & Agrest and avoid some popular lines? Are we - the black Grünfeld players - satisfied with slightly inferior but playable Grünfeld positions? Or should we just rely on our thorough and presumed superior understanding of Grünfeld strategy? Is this our genuine conviction or do we fail to admit that we just chicken out of most theoretical opening battles? By Robert Kikkert Recently, after I defeated a strong club member of my chess club for the second time in a Grünfeld miniature, the desperate white player sighed: “I don’t know where to start studying the Grünfeld defence, can you recommend a comprehensive book on this opening?” “Well”, I replied, “An expert book with a lot of emphasis on Grünfeld plans and strategy is of course Understanding the Grünfeld (1999; Gambit) by Rowson. For a general overview of variations and sidelines there is The Grünfeld for the Attacking Player (1997; Batsford) by Bogdan Lalic. For particular variations you may read Beating the Grünfeld (1992; Batsford) by Anatoli Karpov. Albeit antique, a classical Grünfeld bible and a must-have is Grünfeld-Verteidigung (1986; Schachverlag Rudi Schmaus) by Botwinnik & Estrin. Apart from these outdated books there are two highly specialised books on the Grünfeld exchange: How to Get the Edge against the Grünfeld (2004; Chess Stars Openings) by Konstantin Sakaev focuses on the Grünfeld exchange with Bc4 whereas Challenging the Grünfeld (2005, Quality Chessbooks) by Edward Dearing deals with the modern exchange. If you want to fight the Grünfeld defence with a fianchetto system you may consider 1.d4 Volume Two (2010; Quality Chess) by Boris Avrukh. Finally, there are Play the Grünfeld (2007; Everyman Chess) by Yelena Dembo and Chess Explained - The Grünfeld (2009; Gambit) by Valentin Bogdanov, two books I don’t like, but that may have some merit as well.” The plethora on books that only cover part of this opening illustrates the ever increasing complexity of the Grünfeld, as it has almost become impossible to write a book covering the entire opening. Therefore, the effort by Delchev and Agrest (D&A) to do this is much appreciated. The book is up-to-date until 1st of April 2011 and is categorized in 13 parts according to the pawn structures that result from the different methods of dealing with the Grünfeld. As with other Chess Stars books the different parts are divided in comprehensible and illustrative sections such as 'Introduction, Objectives and Move Orders', 'Basic Plans and Pawn Structures', and 'Typical Tactical Motifs'. After these introductory sections the reader is taken by the hand through the 'Step by Step' sections, with a section 'Complete Games' rounding up a part. This separation which focuses on particular aspects of a variation is very instructive, although it should be said that this classification for the minor side-variations is a bit superfluous: in the minor side-variations sometimes the 'Step by Step' section adds little value to the 'Introduction'. In part 1 the fianchetto systems are dealt with and fortunately D&A recommend systems for Black without passive c6 set-ups. Active play is what it is all about! Because hitherto I’ve not witnessed books that deal with the anti-Grünfeld fianchetto systems in a comprehensive and structured way, this part is very good and useful. Since the tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk 2010, the fianchetto approach against the Grünfeld experienced a revival. Where Avrukh in his 1.d4 series requires 35 pages to demonstrate all fianchetto variations including quite a lot irrelevant lines, D&A focus on the typical intricacies of this system in only a few pages. After reading this part you get “a feel” for this kind of positions, which makes it easy to understand what Grischuk did wrong in the very recent (May 2011) world championship candidate match against Gelfand. In part 2, 3, and 4, the respectively Bf4, Bg5, and e3 anti-Grünfeld approaches are covered. Good stuff. Lots of interesting ideas and variations. Black is always offered a safe variation but also a variation that leads to highly complicated positions with chances for both sides, exactly what a typical Grünfeld player is looking for. Interestingly, in part 5 D&A recommend the Nc6 system against the Qb3 system (after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Qb3 dxc4 6.Qxc4 0-0 7.e4 Nc6), a system I like very much and play myself, with good results. This particular line was also much promoted by Rowson, but it always felt a bit dubious to play this as I had the impression that Black was gambling and playing on tactical tricks. However, D&A elaborate on all variations to such an extent that after reading the book black players will feel very comfortable playing this line. Another asset of the book is that unusual set-ups from White are broadly covered. In part 6 rare systems such as the Bd2 (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bd2) and Na4 variations (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Na4) are analysed and in part 7 rare exchange Grünfelds are dealt with. So far, so good. But how are D&A covering the main lines? In part 8, the Be3 exchange Grünfeld is explained and here, your reviewer was a bit less enthusiastic about the book. The chapter starts out fine. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Be3 c5 the bifurcation 8.Rc1 versus 8.Qd2 arises. D&A assert that after 8. Qd2

“Most often Black answers with 8…Qa5, 9.Rc1 cxd4 10.cxd4 Qxd2+ Kxd2 when White’s king is quite active in the endgame.”

D&A recommend 8...cxd4 9.cxd4 Nc6 when White should play 10.Rd1 and Black replies with 10...0-0. Then 11. d5 Qa5 is judged satisfactory for Black after 12. Qxa5 Nxa5 Diagram 1 with the following comments:

“It becomes obvious that White's rook missed its best square - c1. The pawn centre also lost its flexibility and can be attacked now with f5, as in the event of 13. Bb5. Instead, Dumitrache-Vokarev, Bucharest 1998, went 13. Bd2 b6 14.Bb4. Here the thematic 14 ... f5 took over the initiative: 15. Bd3 fxe4 16.Bxe4 Bb7 17.f3. Now the simple 17...Bf6 would have fixed Black's edge.

Therefore, according to D&A, White should continue with 11. Nf3. Next, D&A claim that the position after 11…Bg4 12.Be2 Qa5 13.0-0 Rac8 14.Qxa5 Nxa5 15.Rc1 Bxf3 16.Bxf3 Nc4 17.e5 b5! 18.Bb7 Rb8 19.Bd5 Rfc8 20.e6 Rb6 21.exf7+ Kf8 22.a4 e6 Diagram 2 is equal. No variation is given and the analysis ends here. But what’s going on here? I’m inclined to say that a highly complicated position has arisen where it is utterly unclear how the position should be judged. For example, the line promoted by engines is 23. Bf3 bxa4 24.d5 Rbb8 25.dxe6 Nxe3 26. fxe3 a3 26. Bd5… with allegedly equal play. For sure I would like to have some advice as to how Black should play this position. If this is the best Black can get in this line I would not object to playing an endgame where White has his rook on the c-file... In the other Be3 Grünfeld main variation where White plays 8.Rc1 instead of Qd2 an even more complicated position emerges: 8.Rc1 Qa5 9. Qd2 0-0 10.Nf3 Rd8 11.d5 e6! 12.Bg5 f6! (an exclamation mark according to D&A, but I hate it when I have to play this ugly move) 13.Bf4 (the alternative analyzed by D&A also doesn’t inspire too much confidence for Black: 13.Be3 Nc6 14.Bd3 exd5 15.exd5 c4 16.Bxc4 Be6 17.Rd1 Ne7 18.dxe6 Rxd2 19.Rxd2 Qxc3 20.Bb3 with a murky position) 13…Qa4 14.c4 Nc6 15.Be3 exd5 16.exd5 Nb4! Diagram 3 with a remark on this critical position:

“Of course, the diagram position is far from clear, but Black’s threats are more direct and menacing.”

This bold statement is backed up with a reference to the game Sargissian-Svidler, Khanty-Mansiysk, 2010. In this complex struggle Black won, but it appears that White missed a series of chances. After 17.Bxc5 a5 18.Nd4 Re8+ 19.Be2 Qxa2 20.Nb5 Bf5 21.Qxa2 Nxa2 22.Ra1 Nb4 D&A analyse 23.Kf1 Nc2 after which the second critical position would have been reached. Diagram 4 and they claim that after 24.Ra2 Bd3 25.Be3 Nxe3+ 26.fxe3 Rxe3 27.Bxd3 Rxd3 28.Ke2 Rb3 29.Nc7 Rc8 30.d6 b6

White does not risk anything here with a strong passer and an active king.

In the foreword to the book Delchev states that

Even for our main lines, we aimed to focus (whenever possible) on positional sound and less forced variations.

I would say that this part failed to reach that objective. The positions are not very positional but are indeed extremely tactical. The black position is always a bit “smelly” and some White players may come up with a nasty home preparation. In the remainder of the game Sargissian-Svidler White produced a number of blunders before Black was able to collect the full point. At some point Svidler himself even commented:

White has such a healthy structure that if he manages to consolidate, even giving up a full exchange with check, then all the same I'd have a very difficult technical task."

Therefore, I’d like to stay away from this variation as the recommended lines have nothing to do with a “safe Grünfeld”. In part 9 the Grünfeld exchange with Nf3 is covered. In the Rb1 variation the bishop retreat to c7 is recommended (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Nf3 c5 8.Rb1 0–0 9.Be2 Nc6 10.d5 Ne5 11.Nxe5 Bxe5 12.Qd2 e6 13.f4 Bc7 14.0–0 exd5 15.exd5 Ba5). Although this line is playable it is not associated with a ”safe Grünfeld”. Black is playing a risky system and White has multiple methods of trying to get an advantage. As compared to the rest of the book, these variations are scantily elaborated. As an alternative to these hazardous lines an off-beat and non-theoretical system advocated and written by Agrest is presented. If one were to follow the main line (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Nf3 c5 8.Rb1 0–0 9.Be2 b6 10.0–0 Qc7 11.Bg5 Nc6 12.Qd2 Bg4 13.d5 Ne5 14.Nxe5 Bxe2 15.Nxg6 hxg6 16.Qxe2 Bxc3 17.f4 Rad8 18.f5 Kg7 19.Bf4 Be5 20.Qe3 Rh8) the resulting position Diagram 5 is commented upon with:

Black’s c-pawn might become the hero of the day

Although, I don’t like 19.Bf4 and believe White has better continuations, I do acknowledge that Black has more or less equalized. Nonetheless, the position is not very appealing to me and I regard the remark Black’s c-pawn might become the hero of the day wishful thinking. Thus, in the modern Rb1 exchange Grünfeld, I consider the book not satisfactory for Black. What about the b6 system promoted by Rowson? Or a sideline in the pawn a2-grabbing variations? As a typical safe alternative to ensure an equal position the modern exchange variation played in Bunzmann-Van Wely Bundesliga 2001 (0-1), Gelfand-Van Wely, Corus 2006 (½-½), and Gelfand-Shirov (0-1), Odessa 2007, might be considered (if you’re interested, please look this up yourself!). The 10th part is very interesting. D&A recommend the Qc7 system against the exchange variation with Bc4 (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Bc4 c5 8.Ne2 0–0 9.Be3 Nc6 10.0–0 Qc7 11.Rc1 Rd8). I never considered playing this because of the line suggested by Sakaev: 12.Bf4 Qd7 13.dxc5 Qe8 14.Bd5 Bd7 (what about 14…Pe5?) 15.Qd3 e6 16.Bxc6 [16.Bb3 is a very serious alternative that is briefly mentioned. According to Delchev & Agrest:

The knight is too jumpy while the white bishop has not good prospects anyway.

Especially because in the main variation Black gets compensation due to the bishop pair this statement seems a bit over-the-top 16...Na5 17.Qe3 Rac8 18.Ld6 La4 19.Rb1 b6 20.e5 Nb7 21.cxb6 Nxd6 22.exd6 axb6 23.Qxb6 is provided to put this verdict on 16.Bb3. Pfff, this is difficult. I see 100 alternatives for both White and Black] 16...Bxc6 17.Bd6. Here Sakaev continues with 17…e5 for Black and indeed the resulting positions are good for White. D&A do not block the Bg7 diagonal but continue with 17…b6. Here Sakaev stops and claims that after 18.Qe3 White is much better. However, D&A continue with 18…Bb7 19.e5 Qc6 20.f3 bxc5 21.Ng3 Qa4 and here D&A refer to the game Delchev-Ruck, Sibenik 2006 (see diagram): Diagram 6

Of course, White has the space advantage, but it is unclear how to make progress.

Let's see. 22.Rf2 Rac8 23.Rb1 Bd5 and according to Delchev he erred with 24.Bxc5 after which happened 24...Bxa2 25.Ra1 Rd1+ 26.Rf1 Rxf1+ 27.Nxf1 Qc2 28.Bxa7!? Rxc3 29.Rxa2 Qxa2 30.Qxc3 Qxa7+ 31.Ne3 Bh6 32.Kf2 Bf4 33.g3 Da2+ 34.Kg1 Bxe3+ 35.Qxe3 with a draw. Instead, according to Delchev, White should have played 24.Ne4 Bxe4 25.fxe4 Rd7 26.Rbf1 Qc6 27.Qf4 Bf8 28.Rd2 c4 with the following position and comment: Diagram 7

and White is still in control although he can hardly improve his position. For instance, after 28. .. c4 29.h4, Black could try 29…f5, or stay passive after 29.Kh1, Bg7 30.h4 h6.

Do we like this? Although the judgement of the position is correct, Black’s prospects are again not very enticing. Perhaps White has got nothing, but playing for a win seems out of the question for Black. So once more, I cannot feel enthusiastic about the D&A choice for a particular variation. Of course, D&A are fully aware of the up-to-date theoretical battlegrounds in the Grünfeld. That’s why they analyse in detail the latest development 10…Na5 11.Bd3 b6 in the Grünfeld exchange. The funny thing is: they do it awfully well and devote 7½ pages to this variation and even claim:

This system has become recently Black’s most popular weapon against 7.Bc4. Kamsky, Anand, Svidler, Shirov, to name a few, put their faith in it. Black did take some ferocious beating, but latest developments show that he is in good theoretical shape an the onus is on White.

So, the obvious question is: why not recommend this line for Black? Even though a book covering such a “hot” variation is likely to become outdated relatively soon. Still, I’d rather play this line than the fiddling with a Queen on e8 as in the previous variation. An asset of the book is that also SOS systems are covered. After reading part 10 you will never be surprised by these systems. Next, the 3.f3 anti-Grünfeld approach is covered. D&A chose to face this system with a Two-Knights-Tango-like approach: 3…Nc6!?. Perhaps Black is fine with this system, but I prefer to maintain the classical Grünfeld approach, in particular because Black is doing well in these lines. Finally, D&A provide an extra by covering some English anti-Grünfeld set-ups. Some games are interesting and provide themes I was not yet familiar with in the Grünfeld. However, this part is poorly elaborated and merely seems to function as illustrative material. Thus, to summarize, what can be said about this opening book? First, it is a good read. Lots of creative ideas and little or no tedious routine. For the experienced Grünfeld player the book provides ample opportunity to broaden his/her horizons. Second, its forte is also its weakness: it avoids main lines. Therefore, chances are that the black player will be better prepared, but he has to play worse positions. Although I do not like Avrukh’s 1.d4 series his subtitle is very much relevant for the book by D&A: Tired of bad positions? Try the main lines! In general I very much like the book. However, particularly in the main lines, the book exhibits serious deficits. Third, I regret that the book is not reflecting Grünfeld variation history, something Rowson in his book did very well. How can the Grünfeld be properly understood if the Karpov-Kasparov clashes in the Grünfeld are not even touched upon? Prins variation, Seville variation, Smyslov variation, they do not seem to exist. Perhaps it is not necessary for a good comprehension of the present Grünfeld defence, but I feel a necessity of placing the current book into perspective of established Grünfeld theory. At last, the book’s title: my chess club members and friends unanimously agree: it is ugly and does not reflect its contents. It is a very creative book with lots of ideas, however, Black’s safety seems to be of minor priority. Therefore the final verdict is: though a good read, it is a dangerous battle with The Safest Grünfeld. At last, good news for Grünfeld addicts! Since the 1st of July, also Avrukh has published his ideas on the Grünfeld in two 'GM preparation books' (GM Repertoire 8 - The Grünfeld Defence Vol. 1 covers lines such as the Fianchetto variation, Bf4 and Bg5 lines, the Russian variation, and all White's minor tries. GM Repertoire 9 - The Grünfeld Defence Vol. 2 covers all Exchange Variations). I haven’t had the chance to glance through these books, but I’m curious after the repertoire for Black recommended by Avrukh. My experience so far is that his books are theoretically sound but offer little to get “a feel” with particular positions. A hallmark of good chess books is that they discriminate between important and minor issues. Avrukh covers all variations, but somehow I seem unable to capture where Avrukh puts emphasis on particular concepts, strategies etc. It will be interesting to see to what extent D&A and Avrukh synergize, or alternatively, contradict each other.


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