Konstantin Sakaev, _The Petroff: An Expert Repertoire For Black_. Chess Stars 2011. 292 pp.
The Bulgarian publishing house Chess Stars has been publishing consistently worthwhile material for more than a decade, especially in the openings. They get very high-rated players (e.g. Alexander Khalifman and Kiril Georgiev, to name just two) to write remarkably thorough but moderately priced books with a very speedy turnaround time from author to reader. Some opening publishers – even very high-Quality ones – are dreadfully slow in that respect, but Chess Stars is almost as fast as a weekly magazine. Even crazier, their books invariably need to be translated from Russian or Bulgarian into English, and they’re still incredibly fast.
Whatever their secret (I suspect their primary translator, GM Evgeny Ermenkov, is kept shackled in a dungeon, forced to work 20 hours a day), it works, and the prices are reasonable too. The books, as physical volumes, are serviceable and easy to read, and while the translations aren’t prose masterworks they’re good enough. As for me and my house, we’d prefer to know about the novelty a month earlier than to revel in a chess book’s Shakespearean cadences.
With that background praise offered, let’s turn our attention to a recent offering by GM Konstantin Sakaev on the Petroff. Sakaev is a strong-to-very strong GM (current rating 2609, peak rating 2677) whose reputation as a theoretical expert is even greater than his reputation as a player. His anti-Gruenfeld book received widespread praise several years ago, and this work, while somewhat less ambitious, should also receive a warm welcome.
The only problem is the subject matter: who wants to play the Petroff? It’s fine for super-GMs facing each other with the mission of drawing with Black and trying to win with White, but what about the rest of us? Even if there are a few occasions where it makes sense to play for, or at least be open to, a draw with Black, most of us aren’t looking to split the point with Black in practically every game. Here’s what Sakaev says:
“What are the pluses and minuses of an opening repertoire based on the Petroff Defence…? I can see only one drawback. If White is an experienced player with a good grasp of theory, and he is in the mood to draw, then he should be able to share the point without too much problem. Still, the same can also be said about almost every other opening, because in contemporary chess it is tremendously difficult to win with Black unless White makes a serious mistake. On the other hand, there is a great advantage to consider: you will not obtain bad positions from the opening. The Petroff Defence is particularly suitable for players with a positional style, since in a calm, quiet contest you can easily win the game if the opponent takes too many risks. You can see this illustrated in the Complete Games section.” (p. 7)
Having introduced the publisher, the author and the rationale for a book on the Petroff, let’s turn to the content.
First, there’s anti-Petroff material in the eight chapters (a little more than 60 pages) of parts 1 and 2. White can try on moves two and three to avoid the Petroff, so Sakaev examines the Center Game, the Danish Gambit, various versions of the Vienna, Four Knights and Scotch Four Knights (some of these can transpose into each other), the King’s Gambit and the Bishop’s Opening. All of these lines can arise for 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 players, so those who play that way with Black and are interested in meeting the Petroff with White can consider that an added bonus in deciding whether to buy the book.
Second, there are seven (short) chapters on Petroff lines starting 3.d4 Nxe4. There’s one chapter on 4.dxe5 d5 and one on 5.Bd3 d5 6.dxe5 Be7; the rest cover 6.Nxe5 Nd7.
Finally, more than half of the book covers the main move, 3.Nxe5, though perhaps part 4 could have been subdivided into more parts. There are no fewer than 14 chapters, of which nine deeply explore the traditional main lines with 3…d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Nc6 7.0-0 Be7. Of the other five, three are dedicated to relatively unpopular sidelines (4.Nxf7, 4.Nc4 and then 5th move sidelines after 4.Nf3 Nxe4 like Morozevich’s 5.Bd3) and two to the currently fashionable 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3. Interestingly, to judge by the book’s cover and the choice to make it the last chapter of the book, 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3 Nxc3 6.dxc3 Be7 7.Be3 is currently the main line of the Petroff.
I compared some of his lines with analysis from ChessPublishing.com and did some computer-checking as well, and the book came out very well. One spot where he might have been a little more thorough is the 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3 Nxc3 6.dxc3 Be7 7.Bf4 chapter. Victor Mikhalevski’s coverage of Topalov-Gelfand, Linares 2010 showed some interesting White tries not covered by Sakaev. I didn’t notice any major omissions, however, and there were plenty of spots where Sakaev’s analysis was broader and deeper than ChessPub’s.
If you’re a Petroff player, or a 1…e5 player who faces the Petroff, it’s a worthwhile book. There’s a reasonable amount of prose, but it’s aimed at reasonably sophisticated players, so I’d recommend it for interested players 1800-1900 and up.