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    Dec152017

    Book Review: Fishbein's *The Scotch Gambit*

    Alex Fishbein, The Scotch Gambit: An Energetic and Aggressive System for White. (Russell Enterprises, 2017.) 125 pp., $17.95.

    Not interested in keeping up with the latest developments in the Berlin, the Marshall, and 50 other Ruy Lopez systems? The Italian Game isn't a good way to avoid theory anymore, and there's loads of theory on the Scotch as well. If you're a 1.e4 player who wants something that's sound, doesn't have a huge amount of theory, and still offers some chances for an advantage, GM Alex Fishbein suggests that the Scotch Gambit may be just what you need. And frankly, it's not a terrible suggestion.

    The Scotch Gambit - which like the Holy Roman Empire - isn't really a Scotch or a gambit - arises after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4. (On nomenclature, why isn't 4.c3 called the Scotch Gambit instead?) After the usual move, 4...Nf6, the game has transposed into a Two Knights (3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 exd4), and White will soon regain the pawn after 5.e5 d5 6.Bb5 Ne4 7.Nxd4. Alternatively, Black can play 4...Bc5, but after 5.c3 it's a Giuoco Piano unless Black greedily and wrongly 5...dxc3, which is met by 6.Bxf7+. White can also play 5.0-0 and after 5...Nf6 6.e5 d5 7.exf6 dxc4 it's the Max Lange Attack, which also typically arises through a Giuoco move order.

    So why not play the Italian Game? Fishbein doesn't say, and the only reason I can think of offhand is that after 3.Bc4 Bc5 (3...Nf6 poses no problems in getting to the book's material after 4.d4 exd4 5.e5) 4.0-0 (4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.e5 is another line covered in the book) Nf6 5.d4 and now 5...exd4 heads for the Max Lange Attack, but 5...Bxd4 is an important option ruled out by the book's move order. Another possible advantage is a psychological one. More players prefer 3...Bc5 over 3...Nf6 against the Italian Game, but 4...Nf6 is much more popular than 4...Bc5 against the Scotch Gambit. If you think your best practical chances with Fishbein's repertoire come against the Two Knights lines, then his move order is preferable.

    Is there a drawback to the book's move order? The only one that comes to mind is 4...Bb4+, and it's a relatively unknown line. Fishbein covers it briefly, and his suggested reply looks reasonable. So the decision comes down to whether one prefers the Two Knights lines or the Giuoco lines, and whether one is more afraid of 4...Bb4+ against the SG move order or 5...Bxd4 in the Giuoco/pre-Max Lange move order.

    Turning to the book's contents, most of the first three chapters focus on the Two Knights positions arising after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Nf6 5.e5 d5 6.Bb5 Ne4 7.Nxd4. Chapter 1 looks at the solid 7...Bd7, chapter 3 at the more vibrant 7...Bc5, and chapter 2 covers a miscellany of Black options on the way to the starting position of chapter 1 (4...d6, 4...Bb4+ [mentioned above], 6...Nd7, and a couple of oddities post-7...Bd7).

    Chapter 4 looks at 5...Ng4 and 5...Ne4, both very decent alternatives to the main option of 5...d5. That is relevant to the overall repertoire, of course, but chapter 5, presenting 5.0-0 Nxe4, is not. Quoting Fishbein himself: "5.e5 is not the only move for White. 5.0-0 is also possible. Theory has long held that this variation is toothless, and after I looked at it, it appeared to me to be even less promising for White than commonly thought." Then, after continuing with the moves 6.Re1 d5 7.Bxd5 Qxd5 8.Nc3, he says this: "Black now has three main moves, 8...Qa5, 8...Qh5, and 8...Qd7. Unfortunately for White, all of these moves are sufficient for equality, and the last two are very easy to learn for Black. In these lines, White has very little to play for and in fact must play carefully to maintain equality. Therefore, I cannot recommend 5.0-0 as a weapon for White, unless you are facing an opponent who is either not well prepared or needs to play only for a win.... I never advocate playing for a draw with White, even against a stronger player. In fact, I consider that a sin against chess."

    Quite the ringing endorsement! So why cover it? I don't know. It's true that Black can play 5...Bc5, when 6.e5 d5 7.exf6 dxc4 etc. is the Max Lange Attack, which thinks is worth allowing from White's point of view, but one needn't use this move order to get there: 4.Bc4 Bc5 5.0-0 Nf6 6.e5 d5 7.exf6 dxc4 does the trick. So this chapter could have been eliminated without any real sacrifice, though it's perhaps handy for any 1...e5 players to know what to do against it. Handy, but off-topic, and the critical comments could have been buried in a paragraph or two in the Max Lange chapter.

    Speaking of which, that's Chapter 6, where he helpfully emphasize that the problem for the MLA isn't the long main line starting with 8.Re1+, but rather 8.fxg7 Rg8 9.Bg5 Be7 10.Bxe7. This naturally leads to Chapter 7, what he calls the von der Lasa variation, where after 4...Bc5 5.0-0 Black prefers 5...d6 to 5...Nf6 (which invites the MLA). The VDL proper (Fishbein's coinage) only arises after 6.c3 Bg4 7.Qb3 Bxf3 8.Bxf7+ Kf8 9.gxf3.

    Chapter 8 considers Black's alternatives after 5...d6 before getting the full VDL. The main alternative is 6...dxc3, with the bad 6...Nf6 also examined and 6...d3 mentioned en passant.

    In Chapter 9 Fishbein turns from the very old to the very new, exploring Georgian GM Baadur Jobava's Giuoco line (through the SG move order) 5.c3 Nf6 6.e5 d5 7.Be2.

    Finally, Chapter 10 looks at Black's main alternatives on move 2: the Petroff (covered in four games) and the Philidor (one illustrative game). Against the first he recommends the now standard line 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3 Nxc3 6.dxc3 Be7 7.Be3; against the latter it's 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 6.g3.

    The book is anything but encyclopedic, and it doesn't purport to be. There are 61 illustrative games in this slim work, with short theoretical sections prefacing the games in most of the chapters. The style of the book is a trainer preparing an opening for his students, and as such it's big on general ideas, typical plans, and the occasional move-order finesse. Neither the theory nor the analysis is overwhelming. The book is aimed at the club level, but even pretty serious amateurs (e.g. 2000+) could benefit from it.

    Something I like about the book is that it doesn't overpromise. The Scotch Gambit is a minor opening, and it's a minor opening for a reason. Black has more than one way and more than one system to achieve equality. Fishbein does not pretend that White gets an advantage everywhere with best play, and that's good. Of course he's enthusiastic about it, and most importantly, he has (or at least had) skin in the game: he himself plays the SG, both against amateurs and fellow GMs. This enthusiasm often leads him to offer "Yes, but" evaluations; the computer says it's equal, but.... I'm not opposed to such evaluations in principle; I offer them myself. But some suspicion is in order that the "but" may not be as worrisome as he implies: Black's score against the SG is most satisfactory. I offer this as a mild caveat emptor, and note that since he plays the SG himself, the "Yes, but" gains in credibility.

    Something I didn't like so much was the organization of the material when I started digging into Chapter 1. Often the move order varied from the canonical version Fishbein recommended, and it would take a bit of care to figure out how to get back to the official repertoire. Sometimes along the way back to the repertoire some further analysis would take place. It might prove interesting and illuminating of the broad themes, but potentially confusing in terms of lining all the ducks up in a row. It would have been helpful and convenient to have put a tighter structure on the material, e.g. by changing the move order of the games (while noting the correct move order in the notes) to fit the repertoire.

    Overall, it's a useful book for those looking for a 1.e4 e5 repertoire for White with a manageable amount of theory. I don't think it's as promising as the main lines of the Ruy and the Italian, but for those looking for something that's more wash-and-wear, or as an occasional surprise weapon, you could do worse than to check out this book.

    For more info and an excerpt, here's the publisher's book page.

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