Saturday, 1 December 2012

Meeting 1.e4

The time arrived to start looking in detail at the opening.  I have always played 1...e4 in the past, but had trouble with the Ruy Lopez.  I looked at some books, and settled on Neil McDonald’s How to Play Against 1.e4:

This book advocates the French Defence.  Here is a helpful review by US NM Bill Geary:

He says:  “The book shares the look of the "Starting Out" series, but is definitely a cut above most from that series.”  This is indeed a Starting Out book in all respects, except that of the title.  Perhaps there was a change of mind, or perhaps Starting Out books were not selling well that month!   This book contains 240 pages in all.  The main sections are:

The Advance Variation (41 pages)
The Exchange Variation (21 pages)
The Fort Knox (25 pages)
The Classical 4.e5 Variation (35 pages)
The McCutcheon (42 pages)
The Tarrasch 3…Be7 (25 pages)
The King’s Indian Attack (21 pages)
Odds and Ends (10 pages)

The Fort Knox variation is included as an easy to learn option.  Choosing the Steinitz, McCutcheon and Tarrasch variations roughly doubles the workload.  The back cover says the book is suitable for improvers, club players and tournament players.  In England, club players and tournament players are the same people.  Improvers are mostly juniors - adult players usually worsen with age!  So in plain English, the book is aimed at juniors and club players.  That could include anyone from beginner to GM. The publisher’s name (Everyman) says it all.  They want to sell a copy to everyone!  In reality, this book is probably most suitable for chess players in the 1600-2100 range.

I wanted a book that would teach me a defence that was objectively good and easy to learn.  Just as importantly, I wanted a book that would teach me about chess rather than just opening moves.  It is widely held that studying the opening is bad for you, and studying games is good for you.  Books that teach you openings through the study of games are therefore an attractive attempt to convert vice into virtue.

I have now worked my way through McDonald’s book twice.  On my second pass, I found most of the games referenced in the notes, and played them though on my ipad.  I will have to work my way through the book again in due course, both to retain what I have learned, and to increase my understanding further.  I will also have to practice what I have learned.  Perhaps I will play some of the positions against Shredder on a subsequent pass. The greatest virtue of this book is that it provides me with a realistic learning plan.

I also looked at Nigel Davies’ Play 1.e4 e5!, and Javanka Houska’s Play the Caro Kann.

Davies’ book is based on illustrative games rather than strategic explanation, which is good, but it also has a mind boggling level of detail.  I decided that mastering the material in this book was too big a task for me.


Houska’s book provides strategic explanation and opening variations and few complete games.  I was not keen on this approach, but this book is admirably well researched and written.  I felt that this book was a practical option for me, but that studying games rather than opening variations would be a better use of my time.


McDonald’s book was the clear winner for me.  I needed a chess study plan rather than an opening study plan, and could not justify studying more material than this book.  I could have looked at other books, but that would have taken more time.


  1. I'm not really a fan of reading any opening books, but you might be better than me. I play 1. e4 normally, if you wanted to we could play several g/15 training matches to see where we're weak in our play on FICS?

  2. Studying opening books has a large element of futility for most players. Learning GM moves leading to GM positions does not help much if we cannot play those positions. On the other hand, some knowledge definitely helps. Thank you very much for your kind offer. It is difficult to fit it into my schedule at present. Nonetheless, I will have to get round to playing again sometime!

    You may use books and you have 7 days for your move

  4. I am inclined to think that makes matters worse. I would rather play the French against White players who do not know what they are doing!

    My objective is not to become a French expert - just to get reasonably equal chances against 2000 players OTB.

    Shredder can be detuned to have little opening knowledge. The ipad version does not play the critical lines anyway (certainly up to 2000).

    OTB 2000 players are likely to follow the repertoire books and avoid the main lines, or just play something in the small print that is not bad, and is tricky if you do not know what you are doing.

    My next pass through the book will be a minimalist pass. Review the main lines and main ideas.

  5. Thanks for the readout on the books.

    Neil McDonald is a consistently good author, so I'm not surprised he is successful at presenting a practical book on the French. Would be interested if you had any comments on the Fort Knox variation in particular, i.e. whether you think that could in fact be a "quick and easy" solution that works well enough for tournament play.

    As a Caro-Kann player, I'd previously looked at the Houska book's reviews, but so far haven't acquired it because it's a repertoire book and the choice of lines is not fully relevant for my own preparation.

  6. McDonald is also the French expert on Chess Publishing.

    McDonald used the Fort Knox “to keep strong opponents at arms length” when playing for GM norms. Karpov has played it. The downside is that you are less likely to get the full point against stronger players with it, unless they get too ambitious. It is fair enough as a stop gap, and perhaps you would take to it.

    The verdict on my past play is that I am very solid, and hard to beat. Nonetheless, I took points from 2200+ players only when they strayed into the few sharp lines that I did know (and they did not) or played optimistic gambits. The Fort Knox would probably just reinforce my negative tendencies.

    I have decided to learn the sharper alternatives. The McCutcheon is certainly interesting, and dangerous for both sides. I expect that club level opponents will mostly avoid the main lines, in which case I should not have too much trouble.