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