John Watson: Mastering Chess Openings

by ChessBase
12/23/2006 – Most openings books contain copious amounts of variations and analysis, but here is one that takes a radically new approach: John Watson's book, published by Gambit, is aimed to familiarise chess players with the ideas that underlie the opening, with detailed descriptions of the plans and emphasising the the interrelation between one system and another. Review with sampler.

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Mastering the Chess Openings: Volume 1

John Watson, Gambit Publications
UK £19.99; US $29.95

This is an opening book with a difference. Most opening books follow a common pattern, in which the ideas behind each variation are discussed to a greater or lesser extent, and then a great deal of detailed analysis is given. There are variations on this theme, for example some books give a complete coverage, while others take just one player’s point of view, but the basic concept doesn’t vary much.

Watson’s book offers a quite different approach, which is to familiarise chess players with the ideas that underlie the openings. Such a concept has been used before, but Watson takes it to a more sophisticated level, offering not only a detailed description of plans and ideas on an opening-by-opening basis, but also emphasising the interrelations between one system and another. We know we are in for something different when the first few chapters, up to page 86, describe the general principles of opening play without considering any particular opening in detail at all. Watson’s earlier books, such as Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy, have established a reputation for explaining fairly advanced concepts in simple terms, and that reputation will be preserved by these early chapters. We learn how opening ideas often apply not only to one particular opening, but across a whole range of openings, establishing a thread which Watson picks up at various stages of the book.

After these elementary chapters, we move on to cover each opening in more detail. This first volume covers everything after 1 e4; the second volume, due to appear in February 2007, will deal with all the other openings. In each chapter, the basic plans and ideas behind the particular opening are described in detail, sometimes using illustrative games. Some detailed analysis of critical lines is presented, but this is not intended to be comprehensive; rather it aims to show how the general themes play out in concrete lines.

The author: John Watson

There’s no doubt of the originality of Watson’s approach, but for potential readers the key questions are likely to be whether this book will improve their opening play and whether they can play an opening well based only on the material in this book. For most players rated up to Elo 2200 the answer to the first question is definitely yes. Even players above this rating may find something interesting in Watson’s holistic approach to the openings. The answer to the second question probably depends on the opening concerned and the depth to which the reader wishes to study it. For quieter openings based mainly on positional factors, Watson’s material is probably sufficient. However, even though the book weighs in at a chunky 336 pages and only covers half the openings, many lines in sharper openings are covered scantily and for these openings some supplementary material is probably necessary – for example, one of the many ChessBase CDs and DVDs dealing with specific openings.

This book is recommended for those who like to focus on understanding openings rather than memory work and those who have little time to study opening theory; just don’t expect detailed analysis of every line.

Here is an extract from the book, which amounts to about one-third of the book’s coverage of the Open Variation of the Ruy Lopez.

Open Variation

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 0-0 Nxe4

The starting position of the Open Variation of the Ruy Lopez. Now we’re leaving the realm of Black’s 1st-3rd rank manoeuvring in favour of staking a full claim to the centre. Perhaps because of this assertive posture, the Open Ruy has been the playground for some of the sharpest tacticians in history.

As always, you’ll have to be careful about the move-orders, which we’ll cover in the next few notes. For instance, the inverted moves 5...b5 6 Bb3 Nxe4?! can run into 7 a4!.

Instead, 7 d4 d5 transposes to the main line, and 7 Re1 d5 8 Nc3 Nxc3 9 dxc3 Be6 10 a4 b4 11 a5!? is a recurring tactical idea: White threatens Ba4 and then Nxe5. This is somewhat unclear but difficult for Black.

We’ve seen the power of a4 throughout the Ruy Lopez, and it especially applies to the Open Variation. After 7 a4, the play might go:

a) 7...b4 8 Re1 d5 9 d3 Nf6 10 a5!.

b) 7...Bb7 8 Re1 Na5 9 Ba2 and White has ideas of d3 or d4 and Ng5.

c) 7...Rb8 8 axb5 axb5 9 Re1 d5 10 Nc3!, and now, for example, 10...Nxc3 11 dxc3 Be6

12 Ra6 Qd7 13 Rxc6! Qxc6 14 Nxe5 Qc5 (14...Qd6 15 Bf4) 15 Nxf7! Kxf7 16 Qf3+ Ke7 17 Bxd5 Rb6 18 Bg5+ Kd7 19 Bxe6+ Rxe6 20 Qf7+ and wins.

6 d4.

6 Re1 provides another reason why delaying ...b5 until after ...Nxe4 is helpful: 6...Nc5 7 Nc3 Be7 and the a4-bishop is attacked. However, Black should steer clear of 7...Nxa4 8 Nxe5 Nxe5?? 9 Rxe5+ Be7 10 Nd5.

6...b5 7 Bb3 d5 8 dxe5 Be6

With these moves we have reached the principal variation of the Open Ruy Lopez. Black announces that he is playing dynamically and will steer clear of those protracted positional struggles that we have seen above (often with no exchanges in the first 20 moves). Nevertheless, the Open Ruy has a great number of consistent positional features, more so than the average attacking system. Already the fundamental question arises: tactics apart, what is each side playing for? In the positional phase, we have an answer that comes close to being universal: control of the d4-, e5- and c5-squares. Assuming that the e5-pawn isn’t captured or liquidated, the real battle tends to be around d4 and c5. That may seem too broad a statement, yet if you study this opening you’ll be surprised to see that games consistently come down to this theme, whether directly or in the background. If White can prevent Black from successfully playing the moves ...c5 and ...d4, he will generally have the upper hand. If Black gets one of those moves in without negative consequences, he’ll usually equalize or better. The reasons are relatively simple. From White’s point of view, securing an outpost on c5 can completely tie down his opponent and fix his backward pawn on c7 or c6. As for Black’s prospects, you can imagine the effects of the move ...d4: freeing his e6-bishop, activating his c6-knight, and cramping White’s pieces (or, in the case of cxd4, opening up the d-file). Since the opponents are usually very well aware how crucial these factors are, we’ll often see one of them switch to an attacking or tactical mode if it appears they are losing the d4/c5 struggle.

From the diagrammed position on the previous page, I’ll present game material with a series of different 9th moves. It will at least give you a start towards understanding how the Open Ruy should and should not be played by both sides.

Keres – Euwe
The Hague/Moscow Wch 1948

9 Qe2

This queen move has always been hanging around in the margins. White’s usual idea is Rd1 followed by c4, although he may just play Nbd2 depending upon Black’s course of action.


For example, 9...Bc5 is met by 10 Nbd2.

10 Rd1 0-0 11 c4! bxc4 12 Bxc4.

We have reached a well-known position. Black now enters a forcing sequence to salvage his d-pawn by means of a counterattack.

12...Bc5 13 Be3 Bxe3 14 Qxe3 Qb8!

Moving out of the pin and hitting b2. 14...f6!? is Black’s normal source of counterplay when pressured in the centre. Theory doesn’t like Black’s chances in the tactics that follow, but they seem to work for him; e.g., 15 exf6 (15 Qxe4?! dxe4 16 Bxe6+ Kh8 17 Rxd8 Raxd8 18 Nfd2 Nxe5) 15...Qxf6 16 Rxd5?! Qxb2 17 Qxe4 Bxd5 18 Bxd5+ Kh8 19 Bxc6 Rad8!. Unfortunately, simply 15 Nbd2! forces some kind of simplification with a small but definite edge for White.

15 Bb3 Na5 16 Nbd2 Nxd2?!

A single piece deserts the fight for c5 and right away new problems appear. Later it was found that 16...Qa7! was the best way to fight for c5 and the dark squares, as shown by 17 Nd4 Nxd2 (now this is all right) 18 Qxd2 Qb6! 19 Bc2 c5! 20 Nf5 Bxf5 21 Bxf5 Rad8 22 b3 Rfe8 23 Re1 c4 24 Qg5 Qc7! with equality, Kavalek-Karpov, Montreal 1979.

17 Rxd2 Nxb3 18 axb3 Rc8?!

Black doesn’t recognize how utterly decisive the control of c5 and d4 will prove. He should aim for both squares by 18...Qb6; e.g., 19 Rc2!? (19 Qxb6 cxb6 20 b4 is also interesting) 19...Qxe3 20 fxe3 Rfc8 21 Rac1 Rab8 22 Nd4. This looks good for White but his kingside pawns lack mobility and he may need a second theatre of action.

19 Rc1.

Here it is: White controls d4 and c5 and is ready to double rooks (or triple pieces) down the c-file. Euwe doesn’t want to be squeezed to death, so he tries to rid himself of the backward pawn.


Last chance for 19...Qb6, although this time it fails to free Black’s game after 20 Rc5.

20 Rxc5 Rxc5 21 Qxc5 Qxb3 22 Nd4!

White has painted the ideal picture of dark-square control contrasting with Black’s weaknesses. Note that Black’s bad bishop has never moved from e6. In the broader sense the rest is ‘just technique’, but it turns out to be instructive indeed.

22...Qb7 23 h3 Rd8 24 Kh2.

Preparing f4-f5.

24...g6 25 f4!

Even if you have wonderfully-placed pieces that are attacking weaknesses in the opponent’s position, you usually need to have threats on both sides of the board to break down his defences.


Versus g4.

26 Rd3 Qd7 27 Qb6 Ra8 28 Ra3 Qa7 29 Qb4.

29 Qxa7 will ultimately win, of course, but White doesn’t want any technical problems.

29...Qd7 30 Qa5 Bf5 31 Rc3 Ra7 32 Rc5 Be4 33 Qc3 Qe7??

A blunder. It’s worth showing how White wins anyway, due to his attack on two fronts: 33...Kh7 34 Rc8 Qb7 35 e6! f6 36 Rd8 Qg7 37 Qc8! and the idea of Rd7 closes things out.

34 Nc6 1-0.

[Click to replay]


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