Mihail Marin, The English Opening, Volumes 2 & 3. Quality Chess 2010. €35.99 for Volume 2, €32.99 for volume 3 (hardback prices). 432 & 275 pp., respectively. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
The Romanian GM has a well-earned reputation for writing great chess books, and these are no different. They complete a trilogy on the English Opening based on 1.c4 followed whenever possible by 2.g3. The first volume looked at the reverse Sicilian (1.c4 e5), and volume three presents the Symmetrical English (or “Double English”, as he calls it, as the symmetry after 1…c5 rarely lasts for long). Volume 2 covers everything else, and might be thought of as including everything Black might play when he doesn’t want to play against the English: Queen’s Gambit Declined-style approaches, Slav-type systems, attempts to play a King’s Indian, Dutch, Grünfeld, etc., etc. In all of these cases Marin does his best to keep White’s solutions within the realm of the English, which is doubly commendable. First, it doesn’t force the poor reader to spend another $20-30 on another book to fill in the gaps. (And after already buying three volumes on the English!) Second, it will annoy those opponents who are hoping to transpose to their favorite openings. The English is a rare enough opening that many players try to find some transposition to their preferred anti-1.d4 systems, and Marin won’t let them get away with it.
As always in Marin’s books, you’ll find lots of prose, a clear sense that the man loves to teach, and a ton of original analysis. More than any other chess writer I’ve come across, he’ll go on minor sidetracks that are illuminating and downright interesting, but there aren’t so many sidetracks that you wonder if the book you have is the one you paid for.
The quick conclusion is this: if you have any interest in playing the English at all, this series is well worth your money. In the remainder of this review I’ll point out some of the things that caught my eye; I’m sure you’ll find many others when you see the books for yourselves.
I checked a number of lines I’ve investigated over the years, and browsed the rest of the material, and in every case (as you’d expect) he had something new and illuminating to say. I’ll present three points (of many) of interest.
(1) Symmetrical (“Double”) English with …Nh6. Two or three years ago I grew interested in this line with Black, and did reasonably well with it from a theoretical perspective. Magnus Carlsen himself trotted it out recently, but it seems from Marin’s work that this line, despite its logic, is in trouble. Here’s the idea: 1.c4 c5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Bg2 g6 4.Nc3 Bg7 5.Nf3, and now the …Nh6-f5 plan looks good in theory but not in practice. If Black plays …Nh6 right away, then 6.h4! takes advantage of Black’s inability to play …h5 and the fact that White’s rook is still on h1.
Ok, suppose Black makes a waiting move first: 5…d6 6.0-0 and now 6…Nh6. Better? Nope: 7.d4! is very strong. After 7…cxd4 8.Bxh6 Bxh6 9.Nxd4 Marin makes a convincing case that Black is in trouble after either 9…Nxd4 or 9…Bd7. Against Luke McShane (in London 2010) Carlsen tried a new move – 9…Ne5 – but after 10.Qb3! McShane was better and went on to win a fine game. (More about this game here.)
(2) The Tarrasch: Some players like to use the Tarrasch as a one-size-fits-all response to non-1.e4 openings. Marin allows the Tarrasch against his suggested repertoire, but Black doesn’t get to reach the standard tabiya. After 1.c4 e6 2.g3 d5 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Bg2 Be7 5.0-0 0-0 6.d4 c5 White doesn’t play 7.cxd5 exd5 8.Nc3 Nc6, transposing to the starting position of the Rubinstein Tarrasch, but 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.a3. Delaying the capture on d5 inconveniences Black relative to the standard version, and the attempt to avoid the isolani with 8…dxc4 has its drawbacks too. Black – as Marin explains very clearly – has a difficult time developing his queenside in anything like a harmonious fashion.
Nevertheless, I dare to disagree with Marin’s assessment of one of the lines. After 8.a3 dxc4 9.Qc2 Nc6 10.Qxc4 Be7 11.Nc3 e5 12.Rd1 Be6 13.Qb5 he considers two moves: 13…Qc7 and 13…Qb6, concluding in each case that White is slightly better. I think he’s right about the latter, but after 13…Qc7 14.Be3 he quotes Veingold-Illescas, Zaragoza 1991, which continued 14…Rac8 15.Ng5 Bf5 16.Rac1 h6 17.Nge4 Nxe4 18.Bxe4! Bxe4 19.Nxe4, with a slight edge to White. (His analysis continues a bit further, but this is enough for our purposes.) It seems to me that Black can improve with 14…h6. This keeps the bishop safe on e6 and impedes the Ng5-e4 maneuver. True, White can play 15.Nd2, but Black looks to be in good shape after either 15…Rfd8 or 15…Nd4. The slightly odd-looking 13…Qb8 may be good too, e.g. 14.Ng5 a6 15.Qb6 Bd8 16.Qc5 Be7 and now 17.Qb6 repeats while 17.Qe3 allows 17…Bb3.
(3) A (Nearly) Symmetrical English Endgame. As noted above, Marin prefers to speak of the “Double English” because the symmetry, pace the name “Symmetrical English”, tends not to last very long. The following line is somewhat of an exception. 1.c4 c5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Bg2 g6 4.Nc3 Bg7 5.Nf3 d6 6.0-0 Nf6 7.a3 0-0 8.Rb1 a5 9.d3 Bd7 10.Bd2 Ne8 11.Ne1 Nc7 12.Nc2 Rb8 13.b4 axb4 14.axb4 Nxb4 15.Nxb4 cxb4 16.Rxb4 b5 17.cxb5 Nxb5 18.Nxb5 Rxb5 19.Rxb5 Bxb5 20.Qb3 Qd7 21.Rc1 Ba4 22.Qb4 Qb5.
Many of us would dismiss such a position as drawish – assuming we managed to stay awake here – and even if we felt that White had a little pull we’d make some cursory comment to that effect and leave it there. Not Marin, and it’s to his credit! He first takes a careful look at the game Bagirov-Suetin, Baku 1962, and demonstrates some of White’s deep ideas in this endgame. Then a little later, he comes back to the ending and improves on Bagiro’s 23.Qxb5 with the new move 23.Rc4. This takes away a resource Suetin had in the game, and when he finishes his analysis a couple of pages later the reader not only knows how concretely to play the position, he also knows, from Marin’s analysis of the Bagirov game, what general plans ought to be tried as well.
Incidentally, in case anyone gets the wrong impression from the last two examples, these volumes are full of ridiculously sharp variations too. If Marin has a stylistic preference for either crazy or technical positions, you won’t discover which it is from these books. That puts a big burden on the reader, as he takes the analyses where the positions take it and not in the direction of a one-size-fits-all approach. Marin aims to make chess players out of his readers, not efficient zombies! So if you’re willing to work, then these books may be for you; if you’re looking for something quick and simple, probably not.
Finally, I was fortunate to receive hardback copies of these volumes from the publisher. They are superb from a physical standpoint as well. The books are highly recommended.