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Book Reviews by Sam Collins

Sam Collins How to Build Your Chess Opening Repertoire (Gambit, 143 pages, R.R.P. £13.99) by FM Steve Giddins is a book I’ve been awaiting for a while. There seemed to be a massive hole in the market where, despite innumerable books on specific openings, no-one dealt with the more practical concerns of how to select one’s openings, or how to work on them once selected.

And there’s certainly much about this book which deserves praise. It’s easy to read and contains a lot of pithy wisdom. The author deals in systematic and concise fashion with all the main concerns of selecting one’s openings, including how many lines one should play, whether main lines are a better idea than side lines, how important ‘style’ is in the selection of an opening, the pros and cons of reversed openings, the influence of computers, the importance of move orders and the circumstances under which changing one’s repertoire. He opens with a nice overview of opening play and ends with a light survey of various players’ repertoires, with an emphasis on the type of opposition they face, the goals they entertain and consequently the suitability of their chosen systems.

Sounds good, no? Indeed, I know many players (assuming that these random babblings I call reviews actually influence anyone’s purchases!) who will rush out and buy a copy based on the foregoing. I read it cover to cover in about five hours, and writing a chess book capable of being read in its entirety in one sitting is quite a feat.

But I need to express a tone of doubt with this book. The problem is that I don’t think I learned one new concept while reading it. Most of the examples are well known and several have been well covered by other authors, Nunn and Yermolinsky for instance. And while the book seeks to be comprehensive on the selection of openings themselves, I feel that more could have been written on how to master these lines once we’ve picked them. Should we buy encyclopaedic reference works or user-friendly collections of lightly annotated games? An interesting question, and one which has been lightly discussed by various GMs, but I couldn’t find an answer here. There was a lot of scope to explore this area in greater depth. For instance, IM Mark Quinn recently told me about a method he was using to study openings, involving extremely deep analysis of four or five key games; a very interesting approach which could prove beneficial for many players, particularly given Kramnik’s comment that he has devoted an increasing amount of time to analysis in recent years (considering that this has coincided with a world title and a jump over 2800, chess-players should probably pay attention to such offhand remarks!). Okay, Giddins can’t be expected to be fully familiar with Mark’s training techniques, and the fact that he doesn’t eavesdrop on all of my conversations with top Irish players is probably a good thing. But in Secrets of Practical Chess, a book to which reference is frequently made (sometimes un-attributed, such as the Chigorin example on page 54 which is reproduced pretty much verbatim from Nunn’s book; incidentally, the author doesn’t supply a bibliography, which makes it hard to judge what his sources are for individual points) and which clearly exercises an influence over many of the points made, Nunn suggests an interesting training technique involving searching Chess Base for the fifty highest rated games played in similar structures to your chosen opening, and playing through them quickly to become familiar with typical patterns. This is a fantastic idea, and I’ve no idea why it was omitted here.

Giddins states that our study should be based on well-annotated GM games in the given opening. But where should we find these games? The broken English of Chess Base? The languageless analysis of Informator? Or should we save up stacks of chess magazines and cut and paste the key games in our chosen lines?

I feel this approach is slightly naive considering the target audience… If club players can’t be bothered to read through a whole opening book, they definitely can’t be bothered to write such a book for themselves! Under this point, I’d also like to mention Sadler’s three point plan for mastering openings (faithfully reproduced in this book), which doesn’t say anything about memorising variations but mentions ‘Understanding Move Orders’. While this can be very useful (and a breath of fresh air to have such a plan pointed out by a 2650+, excellently-prepared GM), I have to point out that it can be grossly misleading. When club players think of move orders, they probably have in mind something within the first ten moves of the game. But if you play a sharp theoretical line (such as the black side of the 6.Bg5 Najdorf, as Sadler himself successfully did), then move orders extend for up to 20 moves. Some moves in sharp openings are too difficult or time consuming to work out over the board…whether you call them variations or move orders doesn’t really matter, but it’s clear that in some lines memorisation is essential. Either term merely describes the moves you need to know in order to reach your desired position (normally when theory ends or when the position stabilises), but (in the Botvinnik Semi-Slav, for instance) sometimes such desired positions can arise around move 30!

The main criterion on which a chess book should be judged is how much one can learn from it. I know that many people struggle to find the time to read such books, and when they do they want the process to be as painless as possible. But I think we have to look at the end result, at how many potential losses are being averted by our increased knowledge. This is where the real pleasure in chess lies, in the process of playing well and gaining competitive success, and if a book can’t help us achieve these aims I don’t think we should buy it. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t think this book is conducive to playing chess better. Of course, it isn’t meant to immediately boost one’s rating, in that it merely proposes a structure for working on one’s game rather than dispensing knowledge directly applicable over the board, but even in this aim I don’t think it has enough surprising material. Most players know most of the stuff in this book, and it took a well-written book like this to demonstrate why no-one has written a book in this field before! It’s because a lot of the knowledge is common sense, and the advances in the field are being incrementally, through articles and sub-sections in books (Nunn, Yermolinsky, Aagaard, Davies, Mednis, King & Duncan etc., to name but a few, all have interesting stuff to say on the topic), and perhaps this is a preferable approach. Not only does Secrets of Practical Chess have a very brief section on openings which is absolutely sensational and, in the space of a few pages, probably contains as much insight as Giddins’ whole book, but this is also contained within the context of a book discussing concepts which are applicable OTB, things which players need to know. That’s a book I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, because I’m confident it will make them a better player; I’m not able to say the same about this.

This has been my longest review ever. Sorry about that. But I really wanted to justify giving a relatively low mark to a book which, while well written, for some reason just doesn’t hit the mark, in my opinion. I’m sure some people will like this book; I’m afraid I just can’t recommend it.


Other reviews by Sam Collins

Review 1: Play the Open Games as Black, by John Emms
Review 2: The Human Comedy of Chess: A Grandmaster’s Chronicles by GM Hans Ree & Storming the Barricades by GM Larry Christiansen
Review 3: Open Ruy Lopez by Glenn Flear
Review 4: Main Line Caro-Kann by Neil McDonald
Review 5: Offbeat Spanish by Glenn Flear
Review 6: Excelling at Chess by Jacob Aagard
Review 7: Can You Be a Positional Chess Genius? by Angus Dunnington
Review 8: The Grunfeld Defence by Nigel Davies
Review 9: The Best of Chess Cafe
Review 10: How To Build Your Chess Opening Repertoire by Steve Giddins
Review 11: The …a6 Slav by Glenn Flear
Review 12: Starting Out: The Ruy Lopez by John Shaw
Review 13: Knockout Nimzo (video) by Tony Kosten
Review 14: My Great Predecessors by Gary Kasparov

All text Copyright Alexander Baburin unless otherwise noted