Nikita Vitiugov, The French Defence Reloaded: A Complete Black Repertoire (Chess Stars, 2012). 360 pp. No price given. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
The book is a considerably lengthened update of Nikita Vitiugov's 2010 work on the French, which I also reviewed on this blog. (See part one and part two.) Both the march of time (and theory) along with various critiques have brought about a second edition that's more than 130 pages longer than the original. It's appropriate therefore to start by summarizing the repertoire options on offer, noting especially what's new in this edition. After that, I'll turn to evaluation.
The first two parts of the book deal with minor lines: part 2 addresses Chigorin's 2.Qe2 and the King's Indian Attack, while part 1 covers the Exchange Variation, Wing Gambit, 2.Nf3 d5 3.Nc3 and other rare options. (These were combined as one part in the first edition.)
Part 3 covers the Advance Variation, which he proposes to meet with 3...c5 4.c3 Qb6 5.Nf3 Nc6.
Part 4 offers the super-solid Rubinstein Variation: 3.Nd2 (or 3.Nc3) dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7.
Parts 5 and 6 offer two alternative ways of meeting the Tarrasch (3.Nd2): Morozevich's 3...Be7 (Part 5) and Korchnoi's old favorite 3...c5 (followed by recapturing on d5 with the queen).
So far, everything recapitulates repertoire choices offered the first time around. In part 7 Vitiugov presents Winawer's 3...Bb4 against 3.Nc3, and while he continues to propose 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne7 for his readers' approval, in the new edition he also proposes 6...Nc6 as a second option.
Part 8 is a big addition. In 2010 Vitiugov proposed that readers meet 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 with 4...dxe4 5.Nxe4 Nbd7, transposing to what he labeled a favorable version of the Rubinstein. He stands by that assessment and recommendation here as well, but this time has a chapter on the sharper and feistier MacCutcheon Variation with 4...Bb4. I think this is a good and important addition, as in all other cases Vitiugov offers Black choices for sharp play, so why should this one move order be an exception?
Finally, part 9 (and the last part of the first edition) covers the Steinitz Variation 3.Nc3 Nf6. There's a major addition this time around, as after 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 he presents 7...cxd4 in great detail. (As in the first edition, 7...Qb6 and 7...a6 are still covered, while 7...Be7 still isn't - or is covered even less! More on part 9, below.)
All the revised chapters are longer this time - some considerably longer.
There are some oddities about part 9 that merit discussion. First, there's the non-inclusion of 7...Be7 (after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3). He mentions it in the first edition, noting Carlsen's success against Karjakin from Wijk aan Zee 2010 and giving the game (without comment) through move 25. In the early edition he wrote that "7...Be7 has become very popular lately. Even Magnus Carlsen played this seemingly harmless move in this position. I will not go deeply into the intricacies of this situation, but it seems to me that after 7...a6, Black has more advantageous possibilities" (p. 217). Okay, fair enough. So what does he say in 2012?
"Attentive readers might have noticed that recently the author of this book has been regularly playing 7...Be7. I should like to leave extensive analysis of this variation for a future book of mine..." (p. 314). Good for me, but not for thee? Do as I say, not as I do? He has indeed been playing it regularly - six times in my database, since mid-2010, though without fantastic results: four draws and two losses (to Morozevich and Nakamura). Ironically, the one time he reached the position with White after 7.Be3, Potkin played 7...a6 and beat him last September in the World Cup. The game continued 8.Qd2 b5 9.a3 Qa5, which Vitiugov doesn't mention in the new work, offering 9...Qb6 as his main line and noting 9...g5!? and 9...Bb7 10.Bd3 g5!? as sharp alternatives.
Another oddity in part 9 is his reiterated advocacy of 7...Qb6. Vitiugov says in both editions that the reader "should make this move part of [his] opening armoury", but it's extremely difficult to see why. His main line is the old piece sac 8.Na4 Qa5+ 9.c3 cxd4 10.b4 Nxb4 11.cxb4 Bxb4+ 12.Bd2 Bxd2+ 13.Nxd2 which has long had a poor reputation for Black, and practically all of his analysis confirms it and then some. The main line of his analysis covers the game S. Zhigalko - Podolchenko, Minsk 2011 through move 28, when White was clearly better and went on to win. Before that he notes a White alternative on move 21 which also favored the first player (that was his mainline in the 2010 edition), a Black alternative on move 17 that saw Black eventually draw though "he was on the verge of losing throughout", and another Black alternative on move 15 ending with Black in "big trouble".
So this is what he recommends the readers? Well, if we go back to move 13, there may be some good news, but it's exceedingly hard to tell. Instead of the main move 13...b6 (which clearly should have been dispensed with) he gives two other moves: 13...g5 and 13...0-0!? The first suggestion is again a waste of time and space: 13...g5 appears to be bad. But it's a bit trickier figuring out 13...0-0. (Oddly, this is labeled "[a]nother possible try for White".) The main thrust of his analysis continues 14.Bd3 b5 15.Nb2 b5 16.0-0 Nc4 and now he starts with a close look at 17.Bxh7+.
After 17...Kxh7 18.Qh5+ Kg8 19.Nf3 he gives two lines: 19...g6 20.Qh6 Qc7, when "Black's position is so dubious that I am not sure that he can hold it, so this line cannot be recommended." Despite this, the game Quesada Perez - Cordova, Havana 2009 wound up drawn by perpetual, and Vitiugov doesn't censure any of White's moves. (He does gives 21.Nd3 as interesting, as opposed to the game move 21.Nh4, but that's it.)
The second line starts 19...f6 20.Nxc4, and now he has three things to say: first, that 20...bxc4 is dubious, and at the end of the variation he thinks Black's king is in trouble. Second, he says that after 20...dxc4("!") 21.exf6 Qc7 22.fxg7 Qxg7 23.Qb5 "White's slight initiative proves to be temporary." But then, third, he writes that White can avoid this line by exchanging on c4 on move 17, "when capturing with the d-pawn would not be so good for Black."
The next paragraph examines that very possibility, though seemingly without any awareness of the foregoing comments. Vitiugov writes this: "Recently the theoretical debates in this position has been focused on the move 17.Nbxc4," and then he only considers 17...dxc4 - the move he just said "would not be so good for Black" in the previous paragraph. The move isn't punctuated at all. After this, he gives 18.Bxh7+ Kxh7 19.Qh5+ Kg8 20.Nf3 g6 and so on. (Incidentally, the treatment of this line is confusing as well. The main line winds up with Black being okay, but on move 22 he gives a parenthetical suggestion for White that winds up giving him the advantage.) But why 20...g6, when 20...f6 transposes to the previous paragraph? And if it does, then what did White do wrong, since he claimed that White could avoid this by capturing on move 17?
So maybe there's good news there, maybe not. Who knows? But if we go back even further, to move 9, then at last there is something to make Black happy. Vitiugov offers analysis of both 9...c4 and 9...b6 that results in a good position for the black pieces - at least as far as his analysis goes. But couldn't he have just cut out the next three pages on 9...cxd4?
My overall impression of Chess Stars books over the years has been extremely favorable, as regular readers can confirm, but I have on occasion critiqued some (not all) of their authors' failure to interact with English-language sources. To be fair, there may be difficulties for some of the authors to procure the relevant literature, and perhaps some of them are unable to read English. (This work, for instance, was translated into English by Evgeny Ermenkov.) But one curiosity this time around is that Vitiugov doesn't interact with his Chess Stars colleague Denis Yevseev's book Fighting the French: A New Concept. The book came out in time for Vitiugov to work with it, and even if it hadn't the publisher could have given him a manuscript copy to work with.
So: if Yevseev's IQP (isolated queen pawn) approach is torturing you, you'll find a little help, though you'll have to go looking for it. won't find much help here. For instance, after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Be7 4.Ngf3 Nf6 Vitiugov barely mentions 5.Bd3, and after 5...c5 doesn't so much as mention 6.c3, while Yevseev has an entire chapter of his book dedicated to the variation. That sounds bad, but in Vitiugov's next chapter he looks at 4.Bd3, and after 4...c5 mentions 5.c3, adding that the continuation 5...cxd4 6.cxd4 dxe4 7.Nxe4 Nf6 8.Nf3 Nc6 transposes to material examined in the section on 3.Nd2 c5.
Once we're there, however, it turns out that the transposition doesn't exist. (Or if it does, I can't find it.) The only chapter that seems to get into the neighborhood is chapter 23, where we find the following: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.c3 cxd4 5.cxd4 dxe4 6.Nxe4 Nf6 and now there's a parting of the ways between 7.Nc3 and 7.Bd3. The problem is that while Vitiugov's analyses may be superb, in neither case does Black end up playing ...Nc6. Thus after 7.Nc3 he proposes 7...Be7 8.Nf3 0-0 9.Bd3 a6 10.0-0 b5, while after 7.Bd3 he suggests 7...Bd7 8.Nc3 Bc6 9.Nf3 Nbd7 10.0-0 Be7 "with an excellent version for Black of an isolated queen's pawn position" (175). He does mention 8...Nc6 in the second line, but notes that it would be less consistent (given that Black just played ...Bd7), citing Plaskett - Martinez Martin, Roquetas de Mar 2010, which continued 9.Nf3 Bd6 10.0-0 0-0 11.Re1 Nb4 12.Bb1 Qc7 13.Bg5 Nfd5 14.a3 Nxc3 15.bxc3 Nd5 16.Qd3, with the initiative.
In case you're curious as to whether Vitiugov has you covered via the 3...c5 move order, Yevseev doesn't offer any clear route to an advantage against it, but merely offers some possibilities - 11.Re1 0-0 12.Bc2 Rc8 (far worse is 12...Bb4?! 13.Qd3 Bxf3?! 14.Qxf3 Bxc3 15.bxc3 Qc8?! 16.Bg5+/- from Hamilton - Clark, Telford 2004) 13.Qd3 g6 14.Bh6 Re8 15.Rad1 Nh5 16.Bb3 "with a complicated fight, quite typical for this pawn-structure" [sic] or 11.Qe2!? Nd5 12.Bd2 0-0 13.Rad1, "with a rather complicated situation" which he goes on to analyze further in the complete game Arizmendi - Taboas, Madrid 2000.
Let me conclude with some praise. In part two of my review of the 2010 edition, point (2) in the ChessPub section noted an important hole in his analysis. That hole has been repaired: now he only gives 18...Ne3, and the suggested improvement 22...Qxh2 is given as well (but uncredited).
More pervasively, a quick scan through the main new material (7...Nc6 in the Winawer, the MacCutcheon section and 7...cxd4 in the Steinitz) reveals a higher proportion of hands-on analysis than I recall in the first edition. It struck me back then that when he dug in for himself, his judgments were pretty reliable, while sections that had more of a "database dump" feel were far less trustworthy. If that pattern holds this time around, then the new material should be excellent, as one would expect from an author with a rating over 2700. Even in the new material, though, the organization is still a bit iffy, and I think Vitiugov would benefit from a more experienced co-author or a heavier editorial hand.
In sum, it's still bound to be a book that any serious French player will want to have, but I would verify everything carefully before risking my rating on his suggestions - especially sections overlapping with opposing authors' works.