Gustafsson: Black Repertoire against 1.e4

by ChessBase
7/7/2016 – Jan Gustafsson’s ChessBase DVD Black Repertoire against 1.e4: Open Games covers everything in 1.e4 e5 except the main lines of the Spanish (though it covers Spanish sidelines). "I believe that a basic knowledge of 1.e4 e5 from Black’s perspective is a kind of foundational knowledge for any strong player," writes reviewer Zhigen Lin. "I have no problem in saying that this is hands down the best openings DVD I have ever seen."

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Chess Game Improvement

Review of Jan Gustafsson’s Black Repertoire
against 1.e4 Vol. 2: Open Games – By Zhigen Lin

Over the last little while, I have had the pleasure of watching German grandmaster Jan Gustafsson’s DVD “Black Repertoire against 1.e4 Vol. 2: Open Games”. This DVD covers everything in 1.e4 e5 except the main lines of the Spanish (though it covers Spanish sidelines).

The Spanish Opening (Ruy Lopez) has long been the main way for top players to react to 1.e4 e5, most memorably in the Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov era. However, the last decade or two, probably with the help of our silicon friends, there has been a resurgence in a number of sidelines. I’ve lost count of how many times we saw the Italian Opening (Giuoco Piano) in the recent rapid and blitz events in Paris and Leuven, which both featured the top seven players in the world in classical chess. When we saw the legendary Garry Kasparov play blitz in Saint Louis earlier this year, he avoided playing the Spanish, instead preferring the Vienna and Scotch Openings! The Scotch had been his occasional secret weapon back in his prime, but the Vienna was a complete surprise.

In the past, I had preferred openings that were somewhat faster to learn, such as the French and the Scandinavian. Whenever I saw grandmasters playing sidelines as white against 1.e4 e5, it seemed to justify the fact that 1.e4 e5 was too tedious to learn. Having never learned 1.e4 e5 properly is something that I have regretted for a long time. Over the years, I came to the realisation that studying 1.e4 e5 deeply was worth doing.

I now believe that a basic knowledge of 1.e4 e5 from Black’s perspective is a kind of foundational knowledge for any strong player. In some sense, this is an unusual thought. In chess, you have complete individual control over your decisions, so learning 1.e4 e5 is strictly optional. Saying it is ‘foundational knowledge’ seems extreme. Despite the popularity of the Sicilian (and the French at club level), every top player seems to know how to play 1.e4 e5 and many have gravitated towards it as their main response to 1.e4. It really is the most classical and probably the most principled response to 1.e4.

According to Russian Grandmaster Alexander Khalifman, at his peak ranked number 12 and known for writing a series of books on Anand’s 1.e4 repertoire and Kramnik’s 1.Nf3 (followed by d4 and/or c4) repertoire;

When playing the main lines [in chess openings] you are standing on the shoulders of giants, repeating moves and ideas that were found by better players than you are, and that automatically elevates you to the next level. Main lines go deeper into the middlegame than side-variations, thus the final positions are easier to handle. When this happens, your higher-ranked opponent often faces an unpleasant choice between following a theoretical line to the end, where the final position would leave him with no chances to win, and stepping aside (could be dangerous) by making an inferior move in order to avoid simplifications.

Moldovan Grandmaster Victor Bologan, a well-known player with a peak rating of 2734, published two products on the Spanish in 2015. One was a DVD for ChessBase called “The Berlin Wall” on the Berlin Defence, an opening currently dominating the responses to the Spanish and which we also saw countless times in Paris and Leuven. Bologan’s other product was a book published by New In Chess entitled “Bologan’s Ruy Lopez for Black”.

According to Bologan himself in the book regarding the main line 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5:

Although it would be nice to reduce the required effort by playing something other than 3…a6, I’m convinced that when a player starts playing the Ruy Lopez, he should pick up the primary main lines, without trying to avoid the numerous sidelines with which White can try to surprise him. The knowledge accumulated by studying many different types of positions will only help the student to widen his repertoire by adopting interesting alternatives, such as the old-fashioned Chigorin System or the super-elite Berlin Defence, just to mention a few alternatives.

Bologan basically recommends learning 3…a6, despite there being a lot more theory to learn and despite the fact that we’re mostly seeing 3…Nf6 at top level now, bypassing the entire need for 3…a6. A similar thought process leads one to conclude that 1.e4 e5 is a worthy opening to learn for any player, even if they prefer the style of the French or Sicilian and even if there are a ridiculous number of sidelines.

ChessBase has two DVD’s on 1.e4 e5, one by Ukrainian Grandmaster Adrian Mikhalchishin and the other by Gustafsson. There are a number of reasons why one might pick one over the other. With regards to material, Gustafsson’s Volume 2 doesn’t feature the main line of the Spanish, though he helpfully covers the sidelines such as the Exchange Spanish, Delayed Exchange Spanish and 5.d3 lines. Hence, we cannot really compare the two DVDs on the basis of the suggested response to the Spanish. (Note: One could mix and match either DVD with newer material on the main line Spanish such as superstar Ukrainian Grandmaster Pavel Eljanov’s 2015 DVD on “The Ruy Lopez Breyer Variation”. This particularly fits in well with Gustafsson’s Volume 2 DVD since it covers everything but the Spanish main lines.)

The only other main comparison to be made is the line against the Italian and this is where the two DVDs differ. Mikhalchishin suggests 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6, while Gustafsson prefers 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5. I was familiar with some of the former lines in my short time playing 1…e5, so I thought I’d complement my knowledge by going with Gustafsson’s material. I also preferred Gustafsson’s presentation style from the sample videos of the DVD and respected chess historian Edward Winter has even noted him as one of the top five internet chess broadcasters. Though we cannot always attribute playing strength to teaching ability, Gustafsson is one of ChessBase’s higher-rated teachers with a peak rating of 2652.

Gustafsson’s DVD was published back in 2010 and is a little older than Mikhalchishin’s 2012 DVD. There was a risk that some newer ideas might have cropped up since 2010, but I could find no alternative DVDs and I don’t have the patience to read a book on the topic. In any case, lines in non-Spanish 1.e4 e5 lines are slow-developing and your positions tend to be quite sound – it is based on taking a near-equal control of the centre, after all – so you can rely on your fundamental chess skill even if you run out of book.

It seems like some chess authors prefer to start with the minor lines and build up to the main line, while others start with the main line first. The best method is probably unique to the individual viewer or reader, and in this case I decided to go backwards. Not only did I decide to watch Volume 2 first, but I started watching from the final video.

Part of the reason I did this is that, having played 1.e4 e5 as Black a number of times in tournament games, it was always the sidelines that prevented me from taking up 1…e5 as my main defence. The sidelines against 1…e5 seem particularly potent unless the player knows the correct way to respond and there are just so many of them – the more memorable ones being the King’s Gambit, Danish Gambit, Bishop’s Opening and Vienna Opening. Even 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.a3 can be difficult to react to when out of book.

Watch two or three videos from the DVD and you’ll realise that Gustafsson really is one of the top five internet chess broadcasters in the world. Gustafsson leaves no stone unturned, spending copious amounts of time going through all the alternative options that the reader might want to look into and gives detailed justifications for his choice of recommended lines. I have never seen this kind of effort put into opening videos before. It is like the visual media equivalent of a French Defence book by legendary author and American International Master John Watson.

Gustafsson doesn’t even read from a script – it seems that he has revised the material beforehand and records the videos based almost entirely off his memory (although he presumably has some memory markers). This gives his videos an engaging natural feel. He has an amusing presentation style, even making some occasional quips about the ChessBase staff.

While his material is detailed, it never goes overboard. He makes judgment calls on what to cut out from the video material but still deserves to go into the ChessBase database files that accompany the DVD. Subtleties of computer analysis that he cannot recall completely is always corrected and presented in full in these database files. Gustafsson strikes the perfect balance between practicality and detail, often recommending two possible ways to deal with main variations.

In conclusion, having seen a lot of chess videos in my time, I have no problem in saying that this is hands down the best openings DVD I have ever seen.

Sample video

Order Jan Gustafsson’s Black Repertoire against 1.e4 Vol. 2: Open Games here

About the author

Zhigen Lin (FIDE rating: 2142) has officially represented Australia in youth tournaments in Turkey, Georgia, Singapore and France. He completed a bachelor’s degree in commerce and science, majoring in finance and applied mathematics. Zhigen intends to study postgraduate software engineering. You can check out his chess website, YouTube channel and personal website.

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