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    Entries in Catalan (3)

    Friday
    Aug262011

    Bologan on the Catalan: A Review

    Viktor Bologan, The Catalan: A Complete Repertoire For White! (ChessBase DVD.) Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.

    With at least three books on the Catalan published over the last 2-3 years, including Boris Avrukh's magisterial 1.d4! Volume 1, it's not too surprising that the opening is now being covered on a ChessBase DVD (also available by download). Of course a video series on the Catalan can't cover as much material as Avrukh's book without running to about 100 hours, but the video format can have its advantages too.

    For one thing, the Catalan is a somewhat esoteric opening by club standards. It's not an open game, there aren't that many forcing variations, quick mating attacks are extremely rare and one doesn't see an awful lot of Catalans in the list of great classic games. Some of the development patterns are pretty unusual and the ideas that apply to one branch are often completely irrelevant to another (very much unlike, say, most of the lines of the Open Sicilian). So it's not surprising that it's largely neglected at the club level, but that also means there's an opportunity lurking about. Club players who are willing to take the time to learn this fascinating opening will not only expand their chess knowledge, they'll have an upper hand against the vast majority of their peers who have precious little idea of what to do against it.

    If learning this opening required the meticulous line-by-line study of Avrukh's book, it would be worth sticking to simpler openings. Fortunately, while that book is worth having, there are faster ways to get up and running. Viktor Bologan's presentations hit important specifics, but what he does particularly well is to present opening lines in a conceptual way. The danger of that approach is that it can over-simplify (and that's a reason why it's good to have further source material), but it's a great way to orient oneself in an opening. If I know what kinds of things I need to care about in a given line, and what the usual plans are for both sides, then I can often figure out what to do next - even if I can't remember the theory or my opponent deviates from my prep. As I said, Bologan does this well, as readers of his opening books have probably noticed, and that's a big plus for a video presentation.

    As noted, though, this can lead to oversimplification, and given the limited amount of material one can cover in videos there are bound to be gaps. In what follows I note some places where one might need to take a closer look and perhaps consult with other sources.

    (1) The Closed Catalan line 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Bb4+ 5.Bd2 Be7 6.Bg2 0-0 7.0-0 c6 8.Qc2 is quite important, and it seems that Bologan skipped a main line in this complex. From here he considers two moves: 8...Nbd7 and 8...b6. Both can reach the key position, but he doesn't get there!

    (a) 8...Nbd7 9.Bf4 b6 10.Rd1 and now 10...Bb7 is the main line, but here he only covers 10...Ba6.

    (b) 8...b6 9.Rd1 Bb7 10.Bf4 and now 10...Nbd7 reaches the aforementioned main line through a transposition of moves. The good news is that he mentions it; the bad is that he stops here and goes no further.

    (2) Having mentioned something he missed, let's note something he covers that isn't in Avrukh: 5...Bd6. It's a weird-looking move, but it is becoming popular (for instance, it was played in the high-level game Meier-Ponomariov, Spanish Team Championship 2010). So far it has scored reasonably well, so Bologan's coverage of this move is a feather in his cap.

    (3) Bologan deserves kudos for his coverage of 4...dxc4 5.Bg2 Bd7 - he does a nice job with 13.Rd6 in Gleizerov-C. Horvath, Budapest 1989.

    (4) Here's a place where he's a little too quick. In the line 5...c6 6.Ne5 b5 7.Nxc6 Qb6 he gives Korchnoi's ingenious 8.Na5! (Korchnoi) but doesn't cover 8...Qxa5. This is a mistake, because it's not quite as simple as 9.Bd2 and game over. Black has 9...c3, and now 10.Bxc3 b4 11.Bxa8 bxc3 is equal. White should play 10.bxc3! instead.

    (5) If the previous example is a simple omission, the following is a significant gap. 6...Bb4+ 7.Bd2 Be7 8.Bc3 (Avrukh gives 8.e3 "!") and now Bologan gives 8...a5 9.a4 Ra6 etc., but as Avrukh notes both 9...Nd5 and 8...b5!? (9.Nxc6 Nxc6 10.Bxc6 Bd7 11.Bxa8 Qxa8 12.0-0 0-0) are both reasonable alternatives for Black.

    (6) Still exploring this same line more deeply, I'm a little unsure about his coverage of 7...Qxd4 8.Bxb4 Qxe5 9.Na3 b6 10.Bd6 Qxb2 11.0-0 Nd5 12.e4 Nc3 13.Qg4. He's happy about White's position, but at the end of the line he gives from this point the computer claims that Black has a serious edge.

    (7) Bologan also covers 13.Qh5, which is his main move. He continues 13...Nd7 13.e5 Bb7 15.Qg5 f6 16.exf6 0-0-0 17.fxg7 Rhg8 18.Rae1 (given by both Goloschapov and Avrukh) 18...Nd5 19.Bxd5 exd5 20.Re7 Qf6 21.Qxf6 Nxf6 and now he gets confused. White should play 22.Rc7+ first (22...Kb8 23.Be5 Ng4 24.Bf4 Rde8 25.Rf7+ Ka8 26.Nc2 "and White's g7-pawn should be a decisive factor" (Avrukh). Instead, Bologan gives 22.Be5(?) Ng4(?) 23.Bf4(?). Black could play 22...Nd7= or 22...Ne8=, White should again have preferred Rc7+ on move 23, and Black in turn could improve with 23...Rd7-/+. This is the sort of error that sometimes happens when giving a video lecture that wouldn't happen in a traditional book or other text format.

    (8) Another omission: In the line 5...c5 6.0-0 Nc6 7.Qa4 Bd7 8.Qxc4 b5 9.Qd3 Bologan doesn't mention 9...c4, which is an important second option. (There are more than 100 games with 9...c4 in the database.)

    (9) 5...Bb4+ 6.Bd2 a5 7.0-0 0-0 8.Bg5 b5 9.Ne5 Ra6 10.a4 and here he only gives 10...bxa4 rather than Avrukh's main line with 10...c6. This is a minor point though, as it's a rare line and the only move played by Black on move 10 was in fact 10...bxa4.

    (10) 5...Nc6 6.Qa4 Bb4+ 7.Bd2 Nd5 8.Bxb4 Ndxb4 9.0-0 Rb8 and here Avrukh and Bologan apparently disagree. Avrukh thinks 10.Na3 is the best try and that the traditional main move 10.Nc3 promises nothing against best play, but Bologan advocates it all the same.

    Here it's worth a brief digression about Catalan and chess expertise. Boris Avrukh is an outstanding player and perhaps an even better theoretician, but it's worth remembering that Bologan is at the very least an even stronger player than Avrukh! That doesn't entail that he's a superior theoretician in general or Avrukh's superior when it comes to the Catalan, however (nor, obviously, can we deduce the opposite result). I'm sure there are lines Bologan knows and understands better than Avrukh, but it would be surprising if the reverse wasn't also true. The point is that both are outstanding players, and that one disagrees with the other (or seems to) doesn't imply anything about either man's competence. At any rate, while Bologan acknowledges the Avrukh book and seems to have used it more than once as a reference, his (unofficial) Catalan "guru" appears to be Vladislav Tkachiev. Budding Catalan aspirants thus have a third source at their disposal: Tkachiev's games, past and future.

    We finally come to the main line of the Open Catalan: 4...dxc4 5.Bg2 Be7 6.0-0 0-0 7.Qc2 a6 8.Qxc4 b5 9.Qc2. Before going further, it should be noted that 7...b5 has very recently become slightly popular, and isn't covered by Bologan. Before panicking, it's still an open question whether 7...b5 suffices for equality [look up the analysis in the latest CVO]. Better still, you can make it a non-issue by playing 7.Qa4, when Black seems to have nothing better than 7...a6, leading to an immediate transposition to the usual move order after 8.Qxc4.

    I haven't done a detailed check or comparison of all his analysis of the main line, but what I did check seems to pass muster. Further, I think his presentation of the main line is excellent, especially for amateurs/club players who are unlikely to be especially familiar with standard Catalan patterns. Bologan does a fine job of presenting the variations in such a way that the key ideas become clear like running motifs. Interestingly, some of these motifs are somewhat counterintuitive, and that makes their repeated appearance useful.

    For instance, White is often willing to surrender the bishop pair. Sometimes this happens by Bd2-g5xf6; sometimes with the dark-squared bishop on e3 or f4 getting captured by a knight on d5. (Note that in the latter case this not only entails surrendering the bishops but also taking on a seemingly weakened pawn structure after recapturing with the g-pawn.) Another slight surprise is that while White's most common idea is to prevent Black from playing ...c5, there are lines where Black achieves it and White is better anyway. As for preventing ...c5, it will look horrible to those new to the Catalan, but plans with Ba5 (once Black's queen's knight has committed to d7) followed by (a3 and) b4 are standard. The bishop is stranded on the edge of the board, and yet it often proves extremely effective there! Still another example: the Catalan bishop on g2 is a mighty piece, but White is often willing to exchange it, starting with Ne1. That knight is on the way to c5, and as a rule of thumb if White prevents ...c5 and has nice control over squares on the c-file (c5 and c6 [thanks to the rook on c1 and knights on some combination of b3, d3, a5 and e5 - not to mention their actually landing on c5 and/or c6]) and is sufficiently stable everywhere else he's likely to be better.

    In sum, I think the disk offers a very helpful introduction to the Catalan. Strong players will want to supplement Bologan's DVD with other standard sources (e.g. Avrukh, Mega Database with CBM, etc.), but even they can benefit from it as a quick tutorial to the opening.

    Ordering info here.

    Wednesday
    Mar312010

    A Short Review of Wojo's Weapons: Winning With White, Volume 1

    Jonathan Hilton and Dean Ippolito, Wojo's Weapons: Winning With White, Volume 1 (Mongoose Press, 2010). 408 pp. $29.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.

    Most club players - and not only club players - can go a lifetime without playing or facing the Catalan, but the last two years have made that increasingly difficult. While Catalan specialists Vladimir Kramnik and Boris Gelfand haven't won too many of their fans over to that opening, recent books by Boris Avrukh, Nigel Davies, and now the duo of Jonathan Hilton and Dean Ippolito may help change that. Avrukh's very advanced book has rightly received rave reviews, Davies' book is useful to a lower-rated audience, and the Hilton and Ippolito ouvre is worthwhile as well.

    As the title suggests, the focus is on the late Polish/Latvian/American GM Aleksander Wojtkiewicz's opening repertoire with the white pieces. Wojtkiewicz ("Wojo") died in 2006 at the young age of 43, and while he wasn't an elite GM he was consistently rated between 2550 and 2595 throughout his career as a GM. That's very respectable, but more to the point of the book, he was a regular in U.S. swisses, and as such cultivated a repertoire and style designed to make him an efficient fish-killer; that is, able to consistenly beat players 2400 and below with regularity and without too much work. That's a necessity for a GM to make a living here: too many draws, or too much energy spent on relatively weak players, and they'll run out of gas when it counts in the money rounds against their fellow GMs.

    Accordingly, Hilton and Ippolito (mostly Hilton, I think, at least as far as the prose is concerned) believe that following in Wojo's footsteps is a path to opening and tournament success. The key is to offer a combination of sufficiently deep theory and an understanding of how his repertoire works in practice, in terms of typical middlegames and endings. Still further, Hilton and Ippolito succeed in selling the Catalan. The reader is made to feel that the repertoire is safe, (relatively) simple and yet surprising to most opponents while offering good winning chances. What more could anyone want?

    Note: while I keep mentioning the Catalan, which they pursue via the move order 1.Nf3 d5 2.d4 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.g3, that's not the only opening covered in the book. It is the subject of the first 250 pages or so, but there's another 50 pages on the Slav (they recommend 4.Qc2), and then there are another 90 pages or so on various alternative Queen's Gambit lines (the QGA, the Tarrasch, 2...Bf5 lines, the Chigorin and 2...c5). (For King's Indian, Dutch and other non-...d5 replies, we'll presumably have to wait for Volume 2.) It's a pretty thorough work in its scope, and in other ways too.

    For instance, the authors are up to date with their sources, having examined Avrukh and Davies, the Informants up to 105 (106 just came out), and even cite some of my own analysis from a ChessBase presentation. Now that is thorough! The sources I mentioned are available in principle to everyone, but there's also private material from Wojo's lessons and other teaching sessions offering both specific suggestions and verbal explanation as well. Indeed, the authors do a fine job of explaining what to do, offering not only commentary within the variations but in summaries and conclusions after each game (much of the book features complete games), move order tips, "useful pointers" and so on. Finally, the authors admit when Black can equalize and don't try to spin it in a pro-White way.

    In short, it's a very useful book that I feel comfortable recommending to experienced players 1800-1900 and up. Kids should stick to more bloodthirsty openings, while lower-rated players will probably find the material too sophisticated. For those near 2000 (and up) looking to try something new, however, this is a fine place to start.

    Monday
    Dec282009

    A Review of Nigel Davies’ Play the Catalan

    Nigel Davies, Play the Catalan (Everyman, 2009). Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.

    Introduction:

    It’s rather odd, I think, that an opening like the Catalan has received so much attention by chess authors the past few years. It’s certainly an interesting opening (or at least it can be!), but it’s neither spectacular nor simple to play and understand. Worse still, it doesn’t lend itself to quick victories either, especially in its absolute main line. Yet despite this there have been a slew of books on the Catalan this decade. It started slowly with Raetsky and Chetverik in 2003, but it’s turning into a flood. In 2008, John Donaldson revised (with Carsten Hansen) his A Strategic Opening Repertoire, devoted in good part to the Catalan. In 2009 Boris Avrukh and Nigel Davies both wrote on it, and in early 2010 Jonathan Hilton and Dean Ippolito have a work on Wojtkiewicz’s repertoire coming out with the Catalan as the focus. This is good news for non-professionals who are diehard Catalan fans (both of them), but what about the rest of us? And aren’t we in danger of getting buried under this mountain of information? I’ll answer both questions in the remainder of this review.

    Part 1: Who Cares About the Catalan?

    It is possible to go through a lifetime as a chess player – even a very active chess player – and never have a Catalan with either color. (Or at least almost never. At the big time, Bobby Fischer had only one Catalan, and he was to blame for playing it with White, albeit at the age of 14. At the “medium time”, I too have only had one in tournament play.) But any of us who play 1…d5 and 2…e6 (or 1…Nf6, 2…e6 and 3…d5) are liable to face it, and that’s a pretty fair number of us.

    From the white side, it’s not a bad weapon to have on hand. It can be very solid, and those solid lines aren’t too tough to play. That makes it a useful choice against higher-rated players. Another benefit has been more than hinted at, and it’s that a great many people are wholly unfamiliar with it. That combination of solidity and surprise makes for good value. It’s true that not all the lines are solid, and the sharper lines will require some study. (It’s not clear why this ought to be a problem, as if everything in life should come easily to us – but of course, not to our opponents – but for some it will be. Go take up the Latvian.) Even so, once we’ve done our study and accrued some experience, we’ll generally have the better of those sharp positions.

    In sum, then, while it’s not necessary to learn the Catalan, many Black players should know something about it, while White players may wish to take it up as a weapon – both on its own merits and for the surprise value.

    Part 2: Why Davies’ Book?

    If you’re a strong player, then what you need is Avrukh’s 1.d4, Volume 1. That book is the Rolls-Royce of the Catalan (though it includes other openings as well), written for players up to and including grandmasters. It presents a very deeply worked out repertoire with a great deal of original analysis. When it comes to the quality of the material published, it’s one of the best opening books I’ve ever owned. It’s not for everyone, though, in part because it assumes a fairly high understanding of the game. Anyone can use the moves that are there, but Avrukh implicitly assumes that you’ll know what to do with the positions he gives you. (You won’t always, unless your level is near his.)

    Nigel Davies’ Play the Catalan aims at a less elite readership. While Davies offers some of his own ideas and opinions, he’s not trying to create his own theory but to give his readers an understanding of the broad lay of the land. By way of comparison, take what we might consider the absolute main line of the Catalan: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3 Be7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 8.Qxc4 b5 9.Qc2 Bb7. Avrukh considers only one move here, and that’s 10.Bd2. It’s the most popular move at the top, and Avrukh spends 39 large pages examining it. Davies considers it too, albeit only in a single, fairly short chapter. (I don’t know how many pages it is, since I have the e-book. My guess is that it’s about 15-20 [much smaller] pages long.) On the other hand, Davies also considers 10.Bf4 (which he thinks may be more suitable for club players) and 10.Bg5. Furthermore, he considers the very important alternative 8th move 8.a4, along with important deviations even earlier (on moves 7 and 6). All of this variety is quite unusual from a book written from one side’s point of view, but it’s welcome.

    Another manifestation of Davies’ flexible approach comes in an early chapter on move orders. Some players may prefer to avoid lines where Black takes and holds on to the c-pawn, and for them he offers several bits of advice as to which way – if any – they should enter a Catalan. I think this is an excellent feature of the book.

    The book is well-organized, and – appropriately – the vast majority of the main games are from 2007 and 2008, so Davies has done his research. Overall, my impressions of the book are positive, and I can recommend it to interested players under 2200. It wouldn’t be much fun if I didn’t have something to complain about, however, so here goes. (Let me preface this by saying that it doesn’t detract from the quality of the book’s purely chess material. I raise the following issue because it seems to represent a typical attitude I find both mistaken and harmful to those who adopt it.)

    [***WARNING: RANT ALERT***]

    One thing struck me in a funny way, and it was that Davies seems to suffer from a strange inversion of the gambit-writer’s affliction. Authors advocating garbage openings often do their best to ignore unpleasant moves and evaluations when they benefit the other side, preferring to perfume the dung heap with prevaricating puffery like “with lively play for the three sacrificed pieces” and “the Latvian Gambit will confuse your opponent” (ignoring that the confusion came about because he thought the other person preferred not to lose like a dog). Anyway (and exaggerating a bit), Davies almost runs screaming in the opposite direction, bending over backwards to find resources for the other guy and apologizing for what seem to be the best lines as far as current GM practice is concerned.

    For instance, about the 10.Bd2 line mentioned above and his coverage of it, Davies writes that “[f]rom a club player’s point of view this chapter should be seen as nothing more than fodder for building pattern recognition and as a point of reference from which to follow top-level Catalan games.” And later in that same chapter, he says that “10.Bd2 is not really suitable for club players with a life outside of chess, as there are subtle new developments coming through all the time.”

    Instead, he recommends 10.Bf4 and 10.Bg5: “Although the lines in this section may not have as much bite as 10.Bd2 at super-GM level, White should carefully consider the advantages offered by their relative rarity. Players at every level forget what to do against unfashionable lines, and as there are fewer games played, they require less maintenance.”

    Yes, 10.Bd2 is quite fashionable…at the top. But in club play? I doubt that most of the players at my club could even identify the Catalan, and if I showed up one week and saw them engaged in theoretical disputes over the 10.Bd2 line I’d probably conclude I was dreaming, had been drugged, or had somehow missed the start of the Millennial Reign. So rather than use the alleged advantage of surprise as an excuse to push secondary lines, why not encourage readers to play the main lines, especially given that there are unifying concepts among all the 10th move alternatives? In other words, why not say something like this:

    “The 10.Bd2 line is very popular at the super-GM level, and there are subtle new developments coming through all the time. To keep up with all the new material isn’t really suitable for club players with a life outside of chess, but that’s OK, you can play it anyway. Your opponents will also have a life outside of chess, so they’ll be even less likely to keep up with the new theory. (Why would they, when they probably won’t have a Catalan with either color, except against you?) Second, you will have a good understanding of the opening, so even if you’re faced with a surprise you can still find good moves and know what to do once the opening is over. Third, in this variation of the Catalan new ideas for Black only serve to equalize, but so what? Equality doesn’t mean it’s a draw, and once again, if you understand the positions better than your opponents – and you probably will – then “equality” won’t mean very much for them. Knowing an opening is much more than memorizing the latest and greatest sequence of moves. Finally, while you probably won’t be able to keep up with current theory (and shouldn’t try), your understanding of and experience with the 10.Bd2 line means that if you take some time a couple of times a year to check out what’s new in super-GM play, you’ll have a pretty fair idea of what it is they’re up to. You’ll know what White’s and Black’s main goals are, and can interpret new moves and ideas insofar as they promote those goals.”

    Certainly there are times when Davies’ policy is the right one. I wouldn’t recommend, say, the Botvinnik System to a club player, especially if he only reaches the position after 5.Bg5 once every 20 games. That would be a ridiculous waste of his time. But in the context of the Catalan, this discussion strikes me as rather funny. Does Davies think while club players will be taken by surprise with 10.Bf4 and 10.Bg5, they’re all rubbing their hands together in gleeful anticipation of 10.Bd2, waiting to unleash some 10-megaton bomb in reply?

    Here’s a possible reply: What I’ve said might be right for games featuring sub-2000 players, but as you move up the food chain and start playing experts and masters, one will find savvier, better prepared opponents. Fair enough. But then our “Catalaner” is also likely to be an expert or master, and thus more likely willing and able to spend a bit more time in prep, too. So again, why not spend a little time (not every waking hour) checking in on the latest 10.Bd2 theory a couple of times a year?

    Let me close on a conciliatory note. I don’t think Davies would endorse the idea that the reader shouldn’t do any further research, and I don’t think the amateur should spend hours each week mastering ultra-complicated and trendy variations which comprise only a small portion of his repertoire. We’re both somewhere in the middle, and the question is where to draw the line. Each reader has to decide that for himself, but I’m perhaps more inclined than Davies to push him in the direction of main lines, at least when doing so doesn’t require inordinate amounts of work.

    [***END OF RANT***]

    Overall, it strikes me as a useful book for club players interested in picking up the Catalan. Even masters can learn something from it, but their sights should ultimately be set on Avrukh’s masterwork. But the target audience is below that, and I think the typical club player can benefit from the book. Recommended.