Nikita Vitiugov, The French Defence: A Complete Black Repertoire (Chess Stars, 2010). 228 pp. No price given. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
The French Defense is a major opening, but it's perhaps a bit under-represented in chess literature. That makes the prospect of a brand-new book on the French, and by a young 2700-rated player to boot, all the more exciting for fans of the opening. Chess Stars generally puts out very good material (the Khalifman books on Anand's opening repertoire, for instance, and the new Kiril Georgiev book Squeezing the Gambits looks very good to me too, as far as I've been able to tell so far), so one would expect something really terrific here.
The book does have its strengths. For one thing, it's very up to date. Chess Stars is always great about that - somehow they manage to get their books translated and published with remarkable speed, and in this book there are games from earlier this year. Second, I think Vitiugov succeeds in directing the reader to the crucial lines, so if nothing else the reader will know where he needs to do further research for the future.
Third, the reader is always given several major alternatives to choose from. Against 3.Nd2, for instance, one can play the very classical 3...c5 4.Ngf3 cxd4 5.exd5 Qxd5 variation. If you want something a bit more avant-garde, he has a chapter on Morozevich's 3...Be7. And finally, if you're in a super-solid mood, there's Rubinstein's 3...dxe4. Likewise, you can choose Rubinstein's 3...dxe4 as well, but he also presents the Winawer (3...Bb4) and Classical 3...Nf6. This is a definite strength of the book.
Now let's turn to problems. In chess, it's sometimes difficult to tell whether an apparent weakness really is one. (For instance, a player might have a pawn that's isolated but absolutely inaccessible to the enemy pieces. In that case, despite its isolation, it's not weak.) Likewise, some readers of this book have taken Vitiugov to task for omitting or at least dealing in cavalier fashion with some lines - see especially the thread in the ChessPublishing.com forum dedicated to the book. Let's consider some of their complaints.
1.e4 e6 2.Nf3 d5 3.Nc3 d4. Vitiugov spends two and a half pages on 4.Ne2, but about 4.Nb5 he says this: "White has played 4.Nb5? too. Fortunately, this book is not an opening encyclopaedia and I do not feel obliged to analyze moves like this". One reader on the aforementioned forum, and he's not kidding, as far as I can tell (and I've re-read his remark several times to be sure!), finds Vitiugov's omission and attitude "intolerably arrogant".
Seriously? The preceding post is in large measure a parody of this objection. And maybe less of an exaggeration than you might think. There are 61 games in my database with 4.Nb5, and 36 with the ridiculous 2.Be2. So if it's "intolerably arrogant" to brush 4.Nb5 aside with the wave of a hand, isn't it at least objectionable snobbery to ignore altogether the noble 2.Be2? Even worse, some further research reveals a whopping 114 games in one of my databases with the move 2.c3. How in the world can Vitiugov even look at himself in the mirror, writing a book on the French without mentioning that move? Talk about hubris - this man would make Napoleon blush with shame!
Enough satire; let's make a serious point. If you include everything, you might as well tell the readers to buy the Mega database and wish them luck. If you include nothing, then there's no product. You have to make choices based on what you think is important in terms of relevance and instructional value, together with considerations of space and effectiveness. And all of this is going to be indexed by the reader's presumed abilities. It's simply impossible to cover every move, and at a certain point you have to have faith in your reader (and the reader needs to have a little faith in himself as well). If you're seriously concerned about a move like 4.Nb5, then you need to develop more as a chess player before you get a book like Vitiugov's. (I don't mean that 4.Nb5 is a blunder, only that it's nothing anyone should be worried about.) The same is true of my 2.Be2 "brilliancy". It has an idea behind it, but the previous post was at least 90% humor. It's very easy for Black to handle that move, and to obtain an advantage against White's extravagant play. (Black is probably somewhat better after 6...0-0 in the "main line", for instance.)
So I don't take this first example too seriously, but "Sleepy kitten" has a more interesting example. After 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Qb6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.a3 Nh6 7.b4 cxd4 8.cxd4 Nf5 9.Bb2 Bd7 Vitiugov covers 10.g4, which is the most common (and best) move, but doesn't so much as mention 10.Be2, which is also played fairly often - over 400 times, in my database. Shouldn't Vitiugov have covered this move?
Here I think the answer is a qualified yes. The reason White plays 10.g4 most of the time is that Black's knight on f5 is extremely strong, and once it's kicked it will take Black several moves to put it on a tolerable square still inferior to f5. It was worth a couple of sentences to explain that and to give a mini-plan of what Black should aim for after 10.Be2, but that's about it. 10.Be2 is not a good move, and Black has scored over 50% against it.
Next, another complaint from the first critic. In the Exchange Variation with 4.Nf3, Vitiugov prefers 4...Bd6 to 4...Nc6. The reason is that after 4...Nc6 5.Bb5 Bd6 6.c4 dxc4 7.d5 a6 8.Ba4 b5 9.dxc6 bxa4 10.0-0 Ne7 11.Qxa4 he thinks that "White does not risk anything while Black must still make several very accurate moves." The forum commentator finds this unacceptable too, noting that after 11...Rb8 Black has scored very well and has gone undefeated in the databases. He therefore thinks that Vitiugov owes it to the reader to show where White gets the advantage.
I wouldn't mind further details myself (if they can be provided quickly, without taking space from material Vitiugov thinks is important to his readers), but I disagree with the objection on two counts. First, Vitiugov didn't say that White was better. He said that Black would have to find some very accurate moves. In one sense you might think that means White is better, but if so it's not the same sort of "better" as += in ECO. As I interpret that symbol, it generally means that White has some sort of stable advantage; there's no clear-cut series of moves such that Black can prove that the game is fully equal. It's open-ended. As I understand Vitiugov, that's not the story. My impression is that if Black can successful clear some hurdles in the short-term, then White won't have anything.
Second and more importantly, I disagree that Vitiugov has any such obligation. He's responsible for what he does advocate for Black, not for what he doesn't. Unless 4...Nc6 is clearly the superior choice according to current theory, there's no reason why he should have to "prove" that it's actually inferior. And if he does need to prove it, then I demand an explanation why Vitiugov should even be allowed to write a book on the French unless there's analytical proof that 1...e6 is superior to 1...e5 and 1...c5!
That's enough by way of preliminary skirmishing. In part two of this review, we'll look at some serious theory.