Igor Lysyj and Roman Ovetchkin, The Berlin Defence (Chess Stars, 2012). 276 pp.
Garry Kasparov may have been more popular than Vladimir Kramnik and the Najdorf more popular than the Berlin, but at the moment Kramnik's approach has carried the day. Many top GMs include the Berlin as a regular part of their repertoire, and while it has been a while since I've seen a new Najdorf book, I can think of at least five recent works that focus on the Berlin either exclusively or at least in large part.
The work under review is co-authored by a pair of Russian GMs: Roman Ovetchkin (2501), who works primarily as a trainer nowadays; and Igor Lysyj (2632), who is still fairly young (24 or 25) and trying to make his way in competitive chess. They have offered a very helpful book that to my mind strikes a good balance between detail and usability. Make a book encyclopedic and only professionals and addicts will get their money's worth; too simple and it won't be of much use against anyone but the weak and those who avoid all research.
As is customary with Chess Stars' opening works, each chapters comprises three parts: a "Quick Repertoire" section outlining the main paths and offering some general explanations, a "Step by Step" section that fills in the important details, and then "Complete Games". In some Chess Stars book the latter can also be used to fill in more theoretical details, but for Lysyj and Ovetchkin the games' function is clearly illustration.
At 276 smallish pages, there's enough material for the reader, but it's too short to be some sort of encyclopedia on the Berlin. Thus in the 95 or so pages devoted to the Berlin Ending (i.e. the one arising after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8) Black has many plans to choose from.
One fundamental question is what to do with the king: there are plans where Black plays ...Bd7 and ...Kc8, hoping later to play ...b6 and ...Kb7; and there are plans where the king goes to e8, often intending to connect the rooks after a later ....Ke7 (say, after White plays Bg5 and meets ...Be7 with an exchange).
Another question is what Black will do with the h-pawn. Sometimes it goes to h6, keeping both White's knights and bishop off of g5. (A bishop on g5 covers d8, preventing Black from achieving his common ambition of swapping off at least one pair of rooks, while a knight on g5 can harass or exchange Black's best minor piece, the light-squared bishop, when it comes to e6.) If the pawn is on h5, however, it restricts White's inevitable kingside expansion and clears h6 for a Black rook (or h5 in case the pawn continues to h4). This is useful and logical - if Black's king sits on e8 the queen's rook can often make it to d8 easily enough, but the king's rook can't get across to the open file if Black's king can't make it to e7.
There are other "parameters" as well, and since it's a repertoire book rather than an exhaustive survey the authors had to choose. The plan they recommend has for its tabiya the position resulting from the further moves 9.Nc3 Ke8 10.h3 h5. For those who remember my review of Leonid Kritz's ChessBase DVD/download on the Berlin, his main line for Black was 9.Nc3 Ke8 10.h3 and then 10...Be7, keeping White's bishop off of g5 and preparing to swap knights with ...Nh4. A drawback of sorts with that line is that after 11.g4 Nh4 12.Nxh4 Bxh4 Black can't realistically hope for more than a draw. Kritz feels comfortable enough about the ease with which Black can obtain that draw, but that isn't ideal for those who aren't in a situation where a draw is a fully satisfactory result. The Lysyj and Ovetchkin approach avoids the problem with 10...h5, in that 11.g4 is premature here: 11...hxg4 12.hxg4 Nh6 forces White into one awkward concession or another. (To wit: sac the pawn for inadequate compensation, give up the second bishop, or play the horribly anti-positional 13.g5.)
Naturally, this doesn't mean that everything is perfect for Black after 10...h5: it's a matter of picking one's preferences at the buffet rather than finding a needle in a haystack. Still, we can ask how the proposed repertoire fares nowadays and how it holds up against the challenges of other recent products on the market today.
As a representative example, let's have a look at Vassilios Kotronias' excellent, advanced work The Grandmaster Battle Manual (Quality Chess, 2011). It isn't primarily a book on opening theory, but the Greek GM does delve deeply from time to time. In the chapter "Beating the Wall-Y Structures" he investigates the Berlin from White's point of view (deeply - 42 pages' worth!), and from the tabiya after 10...h5 recommends 11.Rd1 Be7 12.Bg5. Lysyj and Ovetchkin don't examine 12.Bg5, but do look at 11.Bg5 Be6 12.Rfd1 Be7, which transposes to Kotronias' line after 12...Be6 in the latter's move order. At this point Kotronias considers three moves: 13.b3 (he thinks it's good for a slight edge), 13.g3 (allows Black to equalize), and his preference of 13.Rd2 (which he naturally thinks offers White an advantage). (Curiously, he doesn't so much as mention 13.Rd3, which he played against Mastrovasilis in a tournament in 2010.)
Turning to Lysyj and Ovetchkin, they cover those three moves, plus 13.a3, 13.Ne2, 13.Ne4 and 13.Rd3. In the case of 13.b3, their line doesn't quite match up with Kotronias's, but I think their suggestion is close enough at one key point and the approach they take is more sensible for Black than Kotronias's offer. 13.g3 isn't really a threat as far as Kotronias's analysis was concerned, but given its high pedigree (Grischuk, Svidler and Anand are among the players who have tried it) Lysyj and Ovetchkin give it a lot of attention. Their analysis immediately diverges from Kotronias's, but they likewise conclude that Black keeps equal chances.
Finally, 13.Rd2. Kotronias claims that 13...Rd8 is "box", i.e., forced, but Mssrs. L & O obviously disagree, as they offer the untested 13...Rc8!? as an improvement. They examine 13...Rd8 as well and agree that White obtains an edge, though on move 16 they offer a different route to that end. About 13...Rc8, they write this: "It is a nice prophylactic, since he protects in advance his c7-pawn and thus neutralizes the effect of White's doubling of his rooks on the d-file." (This slightly awkward prose is typical of Chess Stars - a little amusing but rarely an impediment to understanding.) There's about a page and a half of analysis; I'll offer only their main line, with their punctuation: 14.Rad1 f6 15.Bf4 Kf7 16.Ne4 Bd5! 17.Re1 b5! 18.Rde2 Bb4 19.c3 Ba5, with counterplay.
I noted above that of the book's 276 pages only 95 are devoted to the Berlin ending, leaving 181 on everything else. Happily, while I've seen other books cop out and avoid discussing 4.Nc3, Lysyj and Ovetchkin don't - it's covered here. There are 85 pages on the increasingly popular 4.d3, as ever more players with White prefer to avoid all the finesses of the ending and prefer to reach a "normal" Ruy position. The authors take the principled approach here, recommending 4...Bc5, but I'll leave further details to interested readers.
All in all, it's a very competent effort, and I can warmly recommend The Berlin Defence to those who play the Berlin or are interested in doing so, and many who face it could benefit as well. I think players around 1800 and up could use it profitably; for players below that point, there's probably too little forest and too many trees. As usual, Chess Stars has done a good job!