Mastering the Chess Openings — Volume 1

John Watson

Reviewer: Randy Bauer
Gambit Chess
335 pages

There are few chess authors who consistently deliver fresh and challenging works on what are sometimes oft-covered subjects; John Watson proves himself up to the task, again, and it is fitting that it arrived just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. All I can say is “thanks, John” for making it a special couple of days.

Mastering The Chess Openings: Volume 1 is, in many ways, the opening complement to Watson’s earlier two volume middle game tour-de-force, Secrets Of Modern Chess Strategy and Chess Strategy In Action. Here the author takes deadly aim at the sorts of concrete bits of chess knowledge that an aspiring player must possess to master the first stage of the game.

While earlier “mastering” and “understanding” the opening works tend to stress fairly basic concepts and themes, Watson, as always, digs deeper, and penetrates further into the topics he presents. Far from presenting a “Cliff Notes” method for studying or playing the opening, this book challenges the reader in uncharacteristic ways. For example, Watson delights in identifying structures and themes that cut across openings – and these aren’t your normal “opening cousin” pairings either.

While we might expect to see similarities among, say, fianchetto defenses like the Pirc, King’s Indian, and Dragon Sicilian, Watson confronts us with pairings like the Pirc and Open Ruy Lopez.
This book concentrates on what are generally called the King’s Pawn Openings. Volume two will consider Queen’s Pawn Openings. It should be noted from the start that this is not an exhaustive examination of all variations – or even all openings – within this classification. The author has sought to cover those variations that best provide a forum for discussion of important opening topics. While I think this is a sensible approach (and given the author’s in-depth coverage, a necessary one), there are some disappointments along the way in terms of material that does not get included.

After a brief introduction, the book starts with three chapters that set the stage for the coverage of specific variations in the remaining 11 chapters. The book’s remarkable depth are on display in those early chapters, as Watson spends 76 pages covering basic issues like development, king safety, space, piece characteristics, activity and initiative, weaknesses, fianchetto themes, prophylaxis, and color complexes.

Perhaps the most useful and involved discussion comes in chapter three, which discusses important issues involving structure. Modern chess and its interpretation of the opening have focused much attention on the interplay between structure and activity, and this chapter provides excellent coverage of topics like isolated pawns (in particular the isolated d-pawn), pawn chains, doubled pawns, hanging pawns, majorities and minorities, and space.

One interesting discussion, which serves as a pre-curser for the book’s general approach, involves what the author refers to as “cross pollination” – situations where themes cross between openings that are not otherwise related. The author touches upon several, including examples of poisoned pawns, g-pawn thrusts, constructive semi-waiting moves in the opening, etc. This early topic discussion helps to cement the analysis that occurs in the following chapters.

As noted above, not all openings receive specific coverage (although many show up in cameo roles based on their topicality to discussion in other opening variations). The first section, which deals with 1.e4 e5 openings, specifically covers the Philidor Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6), the Giuoco Piano (2 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5), the Two Knights Defense (3…Nf6), the Ruy Lopez (3.Bb5) and the King’s Gambit (2.f4). Comprising 85 pages, this includes some fascinating discussion, particularly on the evolution of the Ruy Lopez.

While the examination of the development of theory is fascinating, I was struck by how well the author touches upon – and answers – fundamental questions. Why, for example, is the Ruy Lopez 3.Bb5 such a cornerstone of 1.e4 and opening theory – what, exactly sets it apart from the seemingly more aggressive and challenging 3.Bc4? Watson’s explanation is direct and to the point, and its fundamental truth was something I really hadn’t grasped after 30 years of serious opening study.

Not surprisingly, given its popularity, the largest single chapter (75 pages) is devoted to the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5). The author focuses on the open variations (2.Nf3 generally followed by 3.d4), in particular the Dragon (2…d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6), the Najdorf (5…a6), the Classical (5…Nc6), the Accelerated Dragon (2 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6), the Four Knights (2…e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6), Paulsen (4…a6), and Taimanov (4…Nc6). The author’s only major discussion of non-open lines concerns the Alapin (2.c3).

The book concludes with chapters on the Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6), French (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5) and Pirc (1.e4 Nf6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6). Of these, the Caro-Kann gets probably the shortest shrift, as it is represented only by white’s second move divergence with 2.Nc3 and the almost main line with 2.d4 d5 3.e5. The long accepted main lines, which go 3.Nc3 dxe4, are not covered. As might be expected, the French receives better coverage (Watson has written numerous books on the defense), with 41 pages covering the key lines after the main responses 3.Nc3, 3.Nd2. It is notable that the author also spends a fair amount of time on 3.e5 in his early chapter on pawn chains.

One of the things that consistently sets Watson apart from other openings authors is his willingness – nay, insistence – on challenging accepted theory. In any number of places, the author suggests improvements or areas for research that might alter current assessments. This, of course, should be the standard approach to openings discussion – time does not stand still. It is, unfortunately, not the norm among authors. Watson’s books are a refreshing reminder that chess is not played out, and there are many discoveries to be found, in all stages of the game.

I also appreciated the author’s ability to weave the recurring themes identified in the early chapters into a cohesive discussion in the following pages. In a work with this much depth and discussion of so many variations, it is easy to lose sight of key themes and concepts. Watson is the rare author who can present detail without overwhelming the reader.

Of course, there are a few disappointments along the way. In a book that stresses popular structures, I was surprised at the relative lack of coverage for important center-relinquishing lines in the French (such as 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4) and Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4). I also thought that the symmetrical Petroff structures (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6) deserved more attention. Finally, the Alekhine’s (1.e4 Nf6) and Scandinavian (1.e4 d5 2.exd5) Defenses are important and under-represented, although themes involving the Scandinavian …Qxd5 are discussed in the sections on the Sicilian Alapin and French Nd2 variation.

There are also a few minor irritations. The author goes to great lengths to remind the reader that the variations provided are representative of key ideas and not necessarily latest theory. The author has also sought to limit the discussion of the sorts of “random” tactical variations that don’t lend themselves to discussion of themes and ideas. This is understandable and laudable, but the author’s constant reminder of these facts gets tiresome and probably adds at least a page or two to the book’s overall page count.

That said, there are many “minor enjoyments” that outweigh the irritants. The book includes a useful table of contents, an extensive bibliography, an index of players and openings. The pages are large, the diagrams numerous, the printing clear, the text very readable, and the book opens flat for easy study.

I took this book with me over the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend. Even while fighting a cold and surrounded by far more relatives than my in-law’s house should reasonably hold, the weekend will be remembered fondly for the time spent with a great book that once again rekindled my love for chess and chess books. For that, I owe John Watson my thanks. My bet is that, after reading the book, you will too.

Also check out the reviews for Mastering The Chess Openings: Volume 2, Mastering The Chess Openings: Volume 3, and Mastering The Chess Openings: Volume 4.