Keeping up with theory is a thankless task: there's so much to learn, and what's worse is that “helpful” chess publishers support your side today before rearming your opponent tomorrow. It hardly seems fair, but that's our plight. As long as we play chess, we must make our peace with the situation and decide what to do.
When we're young and ambitious, we're ready, willing and able to jump on the treadmill without a second thought. It's fun, it comes easily to us, and we're rewarded with great positions against many of our theoretically unsophisticated elders.
At some point, however, unless we're professionals, we can't keep up. (Another, subtler problem is that we must not only continue to assimilate new information, we must unlearn what we thought was true but wasn't. That's a discussion for another day.) So we might react in one of several ways. We can try to keep up, but only in a limited sphere. (Even Garry Kasparov did this, when he decided he couldn't maintain a suitable standard of preparation for both the Najdorf and the King's Indian Defense, and bid the latter goodbye.) We could start hanging out on sidestreets, looking for variations that are sound but a bit off the most beaten paths. Or we could go even further on the path to obscurity, playing and specializing in dodgy lines. Or, finally, we can decide not to worry about it, play what we want, and simply do our best. Occasionally we'll lose badly (see the preceding paragraph), but most of the time we'll get a playable position against our peers and the better player that day will be successful.
Of course, publishers have no interest in seeing us reach that final stage, and will do their level best to persuade us that opening success is just one more book away. There are books (and DVDs and other media) that are bold: “Winning With the ____”. Other books have more modest titles, but the marketing prose on the cover and the website offer similar promises. And then still others promise resurrection – or is it a sort of reincarnation? - by bringing you back to the starting line. “Tired of bad positions? Try the main lines!”
Many of these are excellent works in their own right. But really, can an author legitimately promise that we will win with a certain opening? And what are we to do, a year or six months or three months later, when another author (or sometimes even the same one!) writes a tome promoting the other side? It's wonderful that chess is so rich that even the combined efforts of hundreds or thousands of authors and their electronic henchmen can't send it into extinction, but the question remains: what are we to do? To learn fully “responsible” openings takes an awfully long time, and by the time we've succeeded our knowledge is out of date.
Fear not, trusty publishers have another solution. Rather than presenting second- (or third-, or fourth-) best openings with manageable amounts of theory or first-rate openings in encyclopedic fashion, there's another way: very carefully narrowed presentations of first-rate lines. Maybe those lines will go out of business in a year or two, but no matter: the time investment is small and you can get another quick fix then. It's a lot faster to build a raft or a canoe than on ocean liner, and while the canoe might capsize there's no guarantee that the Titanic will complete its voyage either.
So let's have a look at a couple of rafts, or maybe we should say one raft (Kritz's work) and one canoe. Both examine the Berlin Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6, which often heads for the Berlin “Wall” endgame after 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8), with Leonid Kritz advocating it for Black and Alexei Shirov advising its opponents.
We'll start with Kritz's work, “Being Safe in the Berlin Defence”, which exemplifies the sort of approach mentioned two paragraphs ago. Kritz, a strong German GM originally from Russia, attempts to offer a short and simple repertoire for Black. It's one in a series of DVDs by ChessBase offering repertoires in (about) 60 minutes. Breadth and depth are sacrificed, but in return the material is very manageable. After a very short introduction (two minutes), Kritz first examines 4.d3 (about 14 minutes), then 5.Re1 (about 18 minutes), various 6th move alternatives (approximately 12 minutes) and finally the Berlin Endgame (about 18 and a half minutes). Thus in just over an hour the key lines are covered and the viewer is ready to go out and play the Berlin.
Bearing in mind that Kritz is not offering encyclopedic coverage, we can evaluate the material on three levels. First, is it easy to master the material he offers? Second, are his lines sound, as far as they go? And third, how likely is it that you'll get the positions he offers?
To question one, I think the answer is a clear yes. Kritz does a good job of keeping the quantity manageable and the ideas clear. So far, so good. Likewise on question two: Kritz plays the Berlin and plays the system he advocates, and so do many other titled players. Nor have I found any path to a significant White advantage against his proposals. Finally, while there are some gaps in his coverage of the sidelines, he hits the main moves in the endgame. Further, because the system he recommends is largely conceptual – do x, y and z – the need for encyclopedic coverage is reduced. Much of the time, though not always, it's enough to evaluate White's moves by how they try to interfere with Black's plans.
On the opposite side in more ways than one is Alexei Shirov's DVD, strangely titled “Beating the Berlin Defence”. I say “strangely” not because of any personal attachment to the Berlin or because I believe it's impregnable, but because the optimistic title doesn't seem to reflect Shirov's attitude or stated position; indeed it's not even clear that he believes White can obtain an edge. It's not for want of trying, as Shirov spends nearly four hours on 11 clips (10 games plus the intro) on the Berlin ending. I wouldn't say that he despairs of finding an advantage, but nothing in what he says suggests that he has found one. The title is likely the idea of ChessBase's clever marketing people and not Shirov's fault, and while I understand the temptation to label products with terms and expressions like “Beating” and “Winning With”, it's both ridiculous when it comes to mainstream openings and, in the case of this product, a misrepresentation of what Shirov is doing.
This isn't Shirov's fault, and it's not by itself a reason to avoid this product. But given that Shirov doesn't yet have the ultimate refutation of the Berlin, is it a waste of time and money for Ruy Lopez players to get this? I don't think so. One doesn't get the key to the Rosetta Stone, but Shirov presents a large number of diverse plans – for both sides – and as a result players on both sides will understand the Berlin far better than they did before. And that, I think, is more valuable than a transient novelty that promises White a slight edge today and nothing tomorrow.
Let me offer some specifics about both products. First, on Kritz. There are many ways to play the Berlin endgame, and his choice in the video is for 9.Nc3 Ke8 10.h3 Be7. Black's aim is to play ...Nh4, exchange a pair of knights, exchange a pair of rooks on the d-file, bring the king to e6 and live the good life. It sounds too simple to work, but it's a standard plan, it has fared pretty well, and in fact Kritz himself had good results with it. There is a downside, however, and it's that it's a pretty drawish setup. Levon Aronian once famously said that he played the Berlin when he needed a win (as opposed to his other main 1...e5 system, the Marshall Gambit), but the setup Kritz chooses offers practically no winning chances against certain standard White plans, e.g. after 11.g4 Nh4 12.Nxh4 Bxh4 13.Kg2.
Likewise, Kritz seems content with many positions in the 5.Re1 variation being “drawn”, but admittedly it's hard to give good advice there. Those positions are pretty flat, and at the GM level there would have to be a significant disparity in strength for one side to win. On the other hand, let me offer my readers some hope. To test all the Berlin products I've received lately, I've been trying to play it online at almost every opportunity. Since the Kasparov-Kramnik match, I've found the Berlin endgame remarkably rich, and after a few years off from the “Wall” I was looking forward to trying some new and unfamiliar plans. I'd love to tell you how it went, but all I see is 4.d3 and 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.Re1 – alas! Anyway, while there are some razor sharp lines in the 5.Re1 variation (many of which completely backfire against White) I've generally seen the dry as dust lines. My results have been excellent, so don't worry too much about weaker players using 5.Re1 to get a cheap draw.
In some ways, it's akin to the Exchange French. White is admitting failure from a theoretical standpoint, and often from a competitive standpoint as well, implicitly accepting a draw as the height of his ambitions. Thus Black is starting from a good position both theoretically and competitively, and more than that, by heading for an endgame, at least in the Berlin, White is entering Black's territory. Berliners are endgame players “by occupation”, so for Black it's business as usual, while White has forfeited his hopes of avoiding what he perceives to be the Berliner's rut. So be not afraid: once you've gained a little experience you will start obtaining a plus against the anti-theoretical approaches.
The 4.d3 line is another story – I wouldn't call that anti-theoretical, just anti-endgame. And speaking of this line, you'll see it an awful lot if you take up the Berlin, and it should be noted that there's a gap in Kritz's coverage. After his recommended 4...Bc5 (not the only option, but the one generally considered best by Berlin experts) 5.Bxc6 dxc6, Kritz suggests meeting 6.Be3 with 6...Bxe3 7.fxe3 Bg4. No problem – and that's one reason why 6.h3 is a pretty popular move. Alas, he doesn't cover it.
Now for a few words about Shirov's disc. He doesn't spend any time to speak of on lines other than the Wall endgame, asserting in the intro that neither 4.d3, 5.Re1, 6.dxe5 nor 6.Bg5 offers White any advantage and leaving it at that. So what you get is a series of long clips, featuring both his games and those of others (he was especially impressed by several of Vugar Gashimov's white games against the Berlin) trying to break down various Black setups. Were this a true “beating the Berlin” presentation, you'd expect one video for White per setup, but that's not what you get at all.
The first two videos (not counting the brief intro) examine the line 9.Nc3 h6 10.h3 Bd7 11.b3 c5 12.Rd1 Kc8 13.Nd5 a5 14.a4, with the first video exploring 14...Ne7 and the second 14...g5. Case closed, on to the next Black system? Not exactly! The third clip see White playing 12.Bb2, while the fourth presents 12.Nd5. Likewise, while the fifth and sixth videos show White meeting 9...Ke8 with 10.h3, he found Gashimov's 10.Ne2 interesting enough to show in a later clip. As you long as you consider the Shirov disc an education on the Berlin rather than a guide on how to beat it, you won't be disappointed. More importantly, you'll learn a lot, whether you play the white or the black side of the Berlin endgame.
A criticism of both products: when presenting a line, both Shirov and Kritz sometimes forget to promote a certain variation in the notation page. For those of you unfamiliar with ChessBase software, what I mean is this. Let's suppose you're entering your black repertoire against 1.e4 in a single database entry (we're keeping things simple), and you consider the Ruy Lopez the most important opening you have to face. What you would normally do is make 3.Bb5 the main line, and cover third move alternatives (3.d4, 3.Bc4, etc.) in parentheses. This is a general principle: the most important or best line should be outermost relative to less important or weaker tries. In general, both Shirov and Kritz arrange the games that way, but not always. Of course it's easy to tell what's what when you're watching the video, but if you want to come back to it later it's easy to be confused by the notation. (Worse still, though this only happened once or twice: sometimes a wrong move is accidentally entered, and then the presenter entered the new move without overwriting the mistaken one. Unless the user creates his own version, he might look at it sometime later and think that the unerased error represents another option.) So to my dear friends at ChessBase: please tidy up the players' notation and put the cleaned up version in a separate analysis entry! There you can organize things properly, put in the evaluations they state but don't insert, and in so doing really tidy things up and make the product more user-friendly.
The need to do this is a nuisance, but it's not a reason to forego either product. If you're curious about the Berlin, at least as an occasional weapon, Kritz's product isn't bad. If you're a stronger player who already has some familiarity with the Berlin on either side, Shirov's work is particularly valuable. Both are recommended. (Ordering info on the Kritz DVD/download is here, Shirov's is here. And a heads-up: I'll be reviewing more products addressing the Berlin very soon.)
Finally, let me come full circle in my discussion of opening theory. In the intro I presented the task of keeping up with theory as a burden and a nuisance. But there's another way to look at it. Rather than thinking of it as an odious and expensive task, one can view it as a chance to broaden one's horizons. It's fun to learn new things and visit new places – metaphorically in this instance, but the principle applies! Taken as a job or duty, keeping up with theory is a pain in the neck; as a small-scale adventure, it can be most pleasant. It can also help your chess in general, both by helping you to avoid the staleness that results from playing the same few openings over and over again, and by teaching you some new positions and thereby broadening your general understanding. So every now and then, dive in to a new opening, whether it's the Berlin or the Najdorf or something completely different.