Evgeny & Vladimir Sveshnikov, A Chess Opening Repertoire for Blitz and Rapid: Sharp, Surprising and Forcing Lines for Black and White. New in Chess, 2015. 459 pp. $29.95/€27.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
If you follow major rapid & blitz tournaments, you'll notice that most top players choose openings that they don't (or rarely) employ in tournaments with a classical time control. Players who despise the "boring" Berlin let their hair down and let their freak flag fly by employing the London System in blitz. (One is reminded of Bent Larsen's quip: "If you play the Caro-Kann when you're young, what will you play when you're old?") Systems with an early b3 (even on move 1) are also common, and as a general rule players experience more freedom to experiment with slightly offbeat lines in events with shorter time controls. Another strategy is to go in the opposite direction, looking for ideas in super-sharp lines that aren't the computer's top choice and may even be objectively mistaken. With a classical time limit, these tries might be punished; in rapid & especially blitz, that's much less likely.
This two-tiered approach isn't just for professionals; I'm sure that at least some of you have blitz (if not rapid) repertoires that are at least partially independent of your classical opening repertoire. (I even have a three-tiered system: one set of openings for classical games, another for blitz, and still another for bullet chess.) There is value in using blitz to test your repertoire for "real" chess, but there are, I think, two good reasons not to have your classical repertoire do double duty for blitz (rapid, at least "slow" rapid, is perhaps another story). First, it's a good idea not to make it too easy for your opponents to prepare for you. Second, it's fun to try and useful to learn new things. Blitz chess is great for experimenting, and helps a player stay mentally fresh.
Against that background, it makes sense to consider a book like this one, co-authored by the father and son team of Evgeny and Vladimir Sveshnikov (respectively). The father is a very well-known grandmaster, a successful tournament competitor in his own right best known for his massive contributions to opening theory in the 2.c3 Sicilian (sometimes called the Sveshnikov), the Sveshnikov Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5), the Kalashnikov (the first three and a half moves are the same, and then Black plays 4...e5; this variation could deservedly be named after him as well), and there are other openings (like the Advance French) to which he made significant contributions. His son, an international master, is less well-known both as a player and as a theoretician, but he has been making steady contributions to theory in his quieter way. In fact, many of the suggestions in the book are based on Vladimir's work and repertoire choices rather than Evgeny's, and the authorial "I" is almost always Vladimir's.
They attempt to provide a full repertoire for both colors, largely with secondary variations. With White, they suggest meeting the Sicilian with 2.b3, 1...e5 with the Vienna, and both the French and the Caro-Kann with the Two Knights variations. (They don't cover the Pirc, Modern, Scandinavian or more ephemeral lines.) With Black they propose meeting 1.e4 with Alekhine's Defense, 1.d4 with the Queen's Gambit Accepted (and with sidelines within that opening framework), and they also offer replies to 1.Nf3 and 1.c4.
I think it's safe to say the following about all of their repertoire choices:
- They are fundamentally sound, in the sense that White should do no worse than achieve equality and Black no worse than suffer a slight disadvantage.
- They all lead to interesting, complicated, and non-traditional positions.
- None of them is maximalist: Black is unlikely to equalize and White is unlikely to obtain a theoretical advantage against a well-prepared opponent.
This seems to me satisfactory for a blitz (and rapid - at least "rapid" rapid) repertoire. Certainly their choices can be tried in serious games as well, especially at the sub-2000 rating level, but for master chess caveat lector is the watchword.
There is lots of analysis and lots of explanatory text in the book; not surprisingly, given the book's length (over 450 pages). The authors even offer a bit of opening philosophizing, including a list of ranked principles for White and for Black in playing the opening:
When playing White:
1) seize the centre,
2) develop pieces,
4) attack weaknesses.
For Black the principles are similar, but are formulated differently and are in a different order of importance:
1) fight for the centre,
3) develop pieces,
4) defend and don't create weaknesses.
Note: White in the opening tries to seize the centre, and Black fights for it, so as to try to prevent the opponent from carrying out his plans. White should attack weaknesses, Black strikves not to create such weaknesses in his position.
Let's finish this review with a look at a bit of their analysis of the Alekhine. After 1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.Nf3 dxe5 5.Nxe5 they recommend c6. From here we'll consider the line 6.Be2 Bf5 7.0-0 Nd7 8.Nf3 e6 9.c4 N5f6, and now the focus is on 10.Nc3, which is indeed the main line. Vladimir, whose 2014 game with Hedinn Steingrimsson offers the skeleton for the analysis, says this:
Here White could already play 10.Nh4! In this case, it is clear, to my mind, that Black has problems, which will not be easy to solve. Admittedly, so far people have not realised what is going on, because Megabase has just one game in which this move was played. Everyone plays 10.Nc3, removing the knight from a possible exchange, and only then Nh4.
This passage is admirable in an important way, but also disappointing. Vladimir Sveshnikov gets full points for honesty; this is especially commendable in a book offering a slightly offbeat repertoire. The disappointment is twofold. First, it's fairly shocking that an IM working as a trainer and writing books would not know about and/or use ChessBase's online database. If he has the Mega Database (which does indeed have but one game with 10.Nh4) he presumably has ChessBase, and if he has ChessBase he almost certainly has access to their online database. (All that's required is to click the "Online" button within a game window.) This feature includes the games that are in Mega (albeit without annotations) and correspondence games as well. Click on the online tab after 9...N5f6 and you'll see not just one but 24 games with 10.Nh4.
Second, why not at least try to offer Black something in case White comes up with this move? If it were a White repertoire book I can see leaving off here and noting that White's position is promising. Leaving Black with this mess is more problematic.
Back to the game. White played the main move, 10.Nc3, and after 10...Ne4 11.Qb3 Nxc3 12.bxc3 Sveshnikov played 12...Qc7, noting that 12...b6 "was worth considering". I'll agree with that, though I think White maintains a pleasant edge there as well, but will focus here on 12...Qc7. White replied 13.Nh4, and instead of 13...Bh7 Sveshnikov says that 13...Be4 is stronger, and after 14.Re1 h6 15.c5 Nf6 16.g3 g5 17.Bf3 Bh7 writes that there are "mutual chances". I would say that White's chances are a lot more "mutual" than Black's, and after h4 (probably on the very next move) Black is in huge trouble. He has less space, lags in development and has a very unsafe king. (This analysis can be replayed here.)
This is a big book, and I do not want to generalize from a single example, even one which was found at random and initially chosen to praise the authors for their honesty. There are some lines I'm interested in and I'll use the book to explore them further. It seems clear to me, however, thumbing here and there throughout the book that the reader must be very careful and should use it as a start for one's research and not as its destination. I can recommend the book to players looking for something off the beaten track and who are willing to do some work on their own; to others I would suggest giving this book a pass.