Alexey Bezgodov, The Liberated Bishop Defence: A Surprising and Complete Black Repertoire against 1.d4 (New in Chess, 2014). 334 pp., $28.95/€25.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
This book doesn't quite offer a full repertoire against 1.d4 (after 1...d5 it has nothing to say about 2.Nc3, 2.Bg5, 2.e4 or a host of other moves, nonsensical though some of them may be), but what it covers will suffice for probably 98% of your blitz and tournament games after that first move. GM Alexey Bezgodov offers a very thorough repertoire based on meeting both 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 and 1.d4 d5 2.c4 with the move 2...Bf5. The latter is known - well-known - as the Baltic Defense, but as was the case with his book earlier this year on the Fantasy Variation of the Caro-Kann, Bezgodov appears strangely allergic to established nomenclature and prefers to invent his own names for opening lines. (In fairness, I'm not sure if 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Bf5 has an established name. I suspect most players would also label that as the Baltic Defense, but that may not be accurate.) Both in deference to generations of chess players and in protest at the horrible replacement term "Liberated Bishop Defence", which sounds like an apologia offered for an extremely liberal presbyter at an ecclesiastical court, I will henceforth refer to the Baltic Defense when 2.c4 lines are under discussion and the Pseudo-Baltic Defense for 2.Nf3 variations.
That preliminary grump aside, let's say a few general words about the opening, and then turn to the book. The Baltic (including the PB) is rare, but very well-motivated. In most of the openings or opening variations starting with 1.d4 d5 2.c4, Black has a basic dilemma: he must either lock in his queen's bishop with ...e6, hoping to get it into the game later via a fianchetto (as in the Tartakower QGD and some Semi-Slav variations) or a subsequent ...e5 (e.g. in the Orthodox QGD and in some other lines of the Semi-Slav), or he gets the bishop out but must surrender the center with ...dxc4 (as in the Queen's Gambit Accepted or the traditional main line of the Slav). The Baltic says "nuts" to that dilemma: Black plays ...Bf5 at the earliest opportunity and then tries to park his pawns on e6 and c6, and without playing ...dxc4 or even surrendering the bishop pair. Black wants to have it all!
Easier said than done, but as I said, it's a well-motivated idea. If Black can achieve the strategic aims of the Baltic (and the PB), he'll be in great shape. The question is of course whether he can achieve that, and White has two especially dangerous approaches against the Baltic, one of which also applies to Pseudo-Baltics with an early c2-c4. The one that applies to both lines is Qd1-b3, intending to show that the early development of Black's light-squared bishop will leave a target and weaknesses in its wake. The other idea only pertains to the regular Baltic, and that's 3.cxd5, snatching the d-pawn before Black can recapture with a pawn.
That, in a nutshell and in an extremely general way, is what the Baltic is about, for both sides. Now let's get to some specifics. If you're at a club where there's a severe outbreak of Baltic fever or play it yourself, you may have done some serious work on the opening. Chances are, though, that your experiences are like mine. I play 1.e4 more than 1.d4, but I play both moves (and occasionally 1.Nf3 and 1.c4 as well, but primarily the first two) on a somewhat regular basis. I was checking my blitz games on ICC over the past four years, and found 721 of them with 1.d4. Guess how many Baltics I faced? Exactly one. (I was better much of the way, but it finished in a draw.) So if your "mileage" is about the same as mine, you - again, like me - will probably crack open a reference book, a repertoire book, or look at your databases to get some idea of what to do next time. (Unfortunately you'll probably forget what you went over by the next time you face the Baltic, but hang in there - you'll remember it by the third or fourth time.)
For me, then, the interesting question is how Bezgodov's book fares against various White repertoire books. In fact, this is an important question no matter which side you choose to play. If you only face the B (or the PB), you'll want to know if your repertoire books will hold up, while if you want to play a la Bezgodov you should know what those White repertoire books say, as you'll probably get a steady diet of those lines whenever you face someone who has done his homework. I therefore took a look at three popular repertoire volumes: Larry Kaufman's eponymous The Kaufman Repertoire for Black & White, John Watson's A Strategic Chess Opening for Repertoire for White, and Lars Schandorff's Playing 1.d4 - The Queen's Gambit. All three were written in 2012, but unfortunately for Baltic fans none are mentioned in Bezgodov's bibliography.
Going in reverse order, Schandorff suggests meeting the Baltic with 3.Nc3 e6 4.Nf3, and it should be noted that this is a main line position in the Pseudo-Baltic which arises via the move order 2.Nf3 Bf5 3.c4 e6 4.Nc3. From here, Schandorff gives most of his attention to 4...c6. He offers a short paragraph on 4...Nf6 and most of a column on the "bizarre" 4...Nc6. Bezgodov isn't particularly sanguine about 4...c6 either, but thinks well of both 4...Nf6 and 4...Nc6, and even thinks Black is in good shape with 4...Bb4. All four moves have their own chapter, and his coverage of these four moves comprises 87 pages! I won't address 4...Bb4, as Schandorff doesn't mention it, and I'll skip over 4...c6 as well, as the players both agree that White is better there. But let's have a quick look at the other two moves.
After 4...Nf6, Schandorff gives 5.Qb3 Nc6 6.Bg5 as "simple and strong". His main line is 6...Na5 7.Qa4+ c6 8.Bxf6 gxf6 9.cxd5 exd5 10.e3 Qb6 11.0-0-0 0-0-0 12.Bd3, claiming that White has a slight advantage, as "Black has no compensation for his weakened pawn structure." Bezgodov reaches this position as well (albeit through a different move order), as it arose in a 2013 game between Ivanchuk and Morozevich (won by Black). Bezgodov's coverage is thorough, and in fact it seems that Black has more than one good response to White's plan and no disadvantage at all. In fact, I think that Bezgodov may be a bit too modest here about Black's chances - in my view he might even stand better after Moro's 12...Bg6.
As for 4...Nc6, Schandorff offers two ideas: 5.cxd5 (in passing) and 5.Bf4 (with some analysis). About the former, he says only that it looks fine, and that "[i]n such QGD Exchange structures the knight is usually misplaced on c6. That is true, of course, but only half of the story. The other half is expressed in the intro to Bezgodov's chapter on 4...Nc6: "Most of the time, sooner or later, White will exchange on d5, creating a structure familiar from the Exchange Variation of the Queen's Gambit. The fact that the bishop from c8 is already in play does Black no harm at all." As for 5.Bf4, Schandorff only covers 5...Nf6 and the subsequent development of the king's bishop to e7 or b4; not much use against Bezgodov's 5...Bd6, which he calls "[t]he simplest way to neutralise White's fifth move." I like Schandorff's repertoire books quite a lot, but it doesn't look they're going to be much help here.
Next up, Watson's repertoire book. Watson offers two ways to kill it. The first is the same line recommended by Schandorff: 3.Nf3 e6 4.Nc3, and like Schandorff his primary focus is on 4...c6. As noted above, Bezgodov isn't a fan of 4...c6, but offers and approves three alternatives: 4...Bb4, 4...Nc6 and 4...Nf6. Watson does consider the second of those options, 4...Nc6, and again echoes Schandorff in mentioning both 5.Bg5 (even repeating the comment about the resemblance to the Exchange Queen's Gambit after 5...Be7 6.cxd5 exd5 and so on and Black's apparently misplaced knight on c6) and 5.Bf4 Nf6 and so on. What we said above applies in this case too. Regarding the first argument, the knight may be slightly misplaced on c6, but having the bishop on f5 rather than buried on c8 is an important counterargument for Black, and regarding the second 5.Bf4 Bd6 is Bezgodov's antidote, unmentioned by Watson.
Watson does offer a second system for White, however: the traditional main line with 3.cxd5. He continues 3...Bxb1 4.Qa4+ c6 5.dxc6 (he also notes in passing and with apparent approval Bronznik's advocacy of 5.Rxb1 Qxd5 6.Nf3 Nd7 7.b4(!) as a very decent alternative) 5...Nxc6 6.Rxb1 e5(!) 7.Bd2 or maybe 7.a3. We'll come back to the Bronznik suggestion when discussing Kaufman's repertoire; for now, let's stick to Watson's suggestion. The first thing to note is that although Watson gives 6...e5 an exclamation point, Bezgodov doesn't even mention the move but suggests the direct 6...Qxd4 instead.
Watson also mentions this move, and his line continues 7.Qxd4 Nxd4 8.e3 Nc6 9.Bb5 Rc8 10.Bd2 (or 10.Nf3 e6 11.0-0 a6 12.Bxc6+ Rxc6 13.b4(!) 10...e6 11.Rc1 and now he looks at two game fragments, one each with 11...a6 and 11...Bd6, in both cases concluding that White is slightly better thanks to his bishop pair, or his ability to fruitfully exchange one of the bishops for some other advantage. Bezgodov looks at six games with the queen trade, five of which continue 8.e3 Nc6, and aims to show not that Black has full equality - he acknowledges in the chapter conclusion that White does enjoy a slightly superior position in this ending - but that Black has a wide array of resources that enable him to neutralize the White bishops. Kudos to both books on this line.
Finally, Kaufman. He gives 1.d4 d5 2.c4 Bf5 3.cxd5 Bxb1 4.Qa4+ c6 and now offers 5.Rxb1 in some detail and 5.dxc6 more in passing. Let's deal with the latter first. After 5.dxc6 Nxc6 6.Rxb1 Qxd4 Kaufman recapitulates the discussion in the previous paragraph: 7.Qxd4 Nxd4 8.e3 Nc6 9.Nf3, stopping here with the comment that "White has a clean bishop pair advantage, but the symmetric pawn structure makes it harder to exploit [than the advantage he claims for White in the 5.Rxb1 line]".
Now to 5.Rxb1. After 5...Qxd5 6.Nf3 Nd7 we reach the position mentioned in passing by Watson, who noted the Bronznik suggestion of 7.b4. Bezgodov says that this is "possibly the most dangerous continuation for Black", noting that Black would like to play ...e5 but can't safely do so against this move. I don't know how Bronznik's analysis continues, but Bezgodov analyzes 7.b4 very carefully and clearly treats it seriously. He also investigates 7.a3 - rejecting it - and takes a look at one game with 7.e3 (but that seemed to be little more than a transpositional option on the way to a 7.b4 line). What is not there is Kaufman's suggested move: 7.Bd2 (unless I missed it buried in a transposition, but I don't think I did). His analysis isn't encyclopedic but it is plausible, and White certainly stands better at the end of his variation. (You can replay most of the foregoing, with some extra bits besides, here.) Point to Kaufman.
By way of summary: Schandorff's book is no threat to the Baltic. Watson's book does offer a good challenge, though Bezgodov hopes to have shown the resilience of Black's position. Finally, Kaufman (unknowingly) reiterates Watson's challenge while offering a fresh one of his own (though it's not at all a novelty). Here Bezgodov's book is unfortunately silent.
In conclusion: Bezgodov and his publishers have not done his readers a favor by overlooking these pretty high-profile repertoire books. This is especially so for the Kaufman repertoire book, as it too was published by New in Chess! There is much to praise about Bezgodov's book, though: it's very user-friendly in the sense that there's a lot of helpful verbal explanation, and he offers plenty of fresh analysis. If you play the Baltic (or the Pseudo-Baltic) it's obviously a book you should have on your shelf. If you don't play it but only have to worry about facing it, I'd say don't bother. Look at Watson's or Kaufman's books if you have them, spend a few minutes looking at games in the relevant lines in the database to get a feel for how to handle them, and that should be good enough. Maybe Black will win if he's much stronger or White blunders, but most of the time the 3.cxd5 lines given above will lead to two-result chess: either White wins or Black holds a draw. That's good news for White, and not much fun for Black. So if you want to play the Baltic, use it as an occasional surprise weapon, but don't rely on it as your primary defense.