Slav, Move by Move, The

Cyrus Lakdawala

Reviewer: Timothy Randall
Everyman Chess
414 pages

While considering how to spend your discretionary dollars on an opening repertoire book, if what you seek emphasizes prose versus variations, embodies innovative interactive “discussion”, provides thoughtful selection of complete games demonstrating both dos and don’ts, all within a well-written blend of enthusiasm and humor, then welcome longtime chess coach and newcomer author IM Cyrus Lakdawala who has spawned a 414 page tome on what he suggests is the most popular opening in the world: The Slav Defense.

The “move-by-move” format used in a series of opening books by Everyman Chess varies from that utilized by Chernev and Nunn, both authors of texts including that phrase in their titles. While not every move receives analysis or commentary, Lakdawala provides a journey of intimacy with …c6 that challenges the reader with mid-game exercises, multiple choice queries, homework(!), and question after thought provoking question. Here are some question samples:

Why give up the bishop pair in an open position?
Are there any guidelines when …c5 is playable and when it is not?
Why do you favor …Bg4 over …Bg6?
What are some of the differences between the two moves?
How bad can it be to take a pawn with check?
I don’t get it. If White chose Bf4 on his last move to avoid playing e5, then what induced him to play this move?
It looks like neither side accomplished too much in the past few moves. Is the game heading for a draw?
What are you getting me into? I am a Slav player and don’t understand such positions!

And some sneak previews of nuggets of chess wisdom:

It was Tal who once observed that if Black equalizes, then he stands better simply from the psychological boost he gains!
Chess is a kind of barter system where one must often give up something in order to get something else.
Remember most of us are not destined to face Krammik playing the White side.
Desperation is the mother of creativity.
I have seen chess writers make the declaration: “A bad plan is better than no plan at all.” I tell you emphatically as a three-decade chess teacher, this is patently untrue!
I am less than half-kidding when I declare to you that Reti, Nimzowitsch and Larsen are all card-carrying members of the axis of befuddlement.

Intrigued? Intimidated? Amused? Me too. Read on.

The author, a former literature major, invokes the wisdom across a spectrum of cultural icons including Winston Churchill, Al Pacino, Benjamin Franklin, Janis Joplin, King Louis XIV, as well as Pink Floyd to spice up the reading. Lakdawala also periodically imposes fantastical imagery upon the reader. While evaluating one position (page 181) he announces, “This is Pompeii, just moments before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Find the forcing sequence, which wins two pieces for a rook. (Beware, difficult!)”

In an obligatory and short introductory chapter, the author launches into the Slav discussion with a Zukertort-Steinitz battle from their world championship match. Lakdawala reveals no lack of historical appreciation for our chess forefathers noting, “Steinitz, like everyone had his flaws (judging from photographs, I’m pretty sure he didn’t own a razor) but closed games was not one of them.” This old chestnut from 1886, and the Reti-Lasker, New York 1924, are the only archaic battles chosen for this book, with 42 of the 50 remaining complete games from contemporary 21st century examples. At the end of each game the reader is given a game summary of varying length and detail.

The book devotes the next 100 plus pages to the Mainline Dutch Variation (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4 Bf5 6.e3 e6 7.Bxc4 Bb4 8.0-0), considered by the author to be the most critical line Black must face. The first of the book’s many checklists pops up detailing the plusses/minuses for both White and Black. Each game throughout the book is generously carpet bombed with questions, both ones that many readers would have liked to have asked as well as ones they may have not even thought! The book next propels us over 100 years from the first illustrative game to another world championship tussle, this time between Topalov and Kramnik. Within this game the author asks basic standard questions such as “Why can’t Black just win a pawn now by capturing on c4?” and “What is wrong with the solid 4…Bf5?” before delving into the complexities of a titanic battle listed as one of the author’s favorite Slav games. Please note, that the level of difficulty for most of these queries within the games increases as the book progresses.

In answer to White’s topical 6.Ne5 variation, the third chapter provides two options. For the testosterone enhanced we have “Tony’s Big Adventure”, 6…Na6, courtesy of the late GM Anthony Miles. Lakdawala confesses that when White meets the 6…Na6 with the natural 7.f3, the music from Beethoven’s “ode to Joy” flows through his head. Other replies incur a struggle difficult for both sides. Those adverse to classical music and virtual chaos theory note the author’s safe and sane alternative, 6…Nbd7, should be chosen if Black does not want to make life more difficult for her/him and White.

Next on tap: the author serves up coverage of the phonetically pleasing “Knight to the Right” 6.Nh4 met by the unorthodox 6…Bd7. (Cue applause by Lakdawala for this coinage by fellow Slav author/fanatic IM James Vigus). In the one illustrative position (page 177), the author inquires, “Does White really have full compensation for a pawn?” The evaluative checklist provided is typical for the book: “Let’s assess the plusses for both sides. For Black: 1. He stands a pawn up. 2. His structure is solid, and he owns d5. 3. White has lost his castling rights, which could leave the h1-rook out of the game for some time. For White: 1. He has a developmental lead. 2. There’s a threat of Bg5 trapping the queen. This threat increases his development lead. 3. He dominates on the dark squares and threatens to infiltrate d6 later on with a piece. 4. He virtually has a written guarantee of an attack to come on Black’s king. Conclusion: Black underestimates White’s compensation at his own peril. We must tread carefully for the next 10 or 20 moves, or risk punishment of biblical proportion.” Later during mid-battle of another illustrative game, the following homework assignment is provided: “Look up and study the Marshall-Capablanca, New York (match game 23) 1909…the greatest example of how to utilize a pawn majority in all of chess literature …compare his technique with Ivanchuk’s.”

Lakdawala has respectful contempt for the Geller Gambit, covered in chapter 4. He explains, “Psychologists tell us that most communication is non-verbal. If this is the case, then the opponent who plays the Geller Gambit communicates the following: ‘Prepare to die, Slav lover!’ There are three or four paths White can take against the Slav to reach an opening edge. The Geller Gambit is not one of them!” The author also offers the following sage advice, “Kasparov said recently that opening gambits are basically unsound in the age of computers. As an experiment, try the Geller Gambit against Rybka or Fritz, and they will gorge themselves on the pawn and crank out win after win. So we know in our hearts if we defend well the point should be rightfully ours.”

In the book’s next segment, readers learn how to handle The Quiet Line 5.e3. The author’s philosophy is clearly stated: “Our goal: win in 100 moves.” Slav fans also learn how to combat The Catalan Gambit reached via 5.Ne5 or 5.g3. Lakdawala claims the gambit is barely playable, but accompanies the following caveat, “Study it! There is no magic variation. It is up to you to try and understand it. If you go over a lot of games in this variation you begin to get a feel for how to set up a defense.”

While the author lists the Semi-Slav texts as sources in his bibliography, he avoids these lines when providing alternatives to White’s 3.Nf3 & 4.e3. A reversed London with …Bf5 (for which Lakdawala has great fondness) is the prescription as opposed to the Reversed Torre (…Bg4 by Black), advocated by Vigius, which is not covered. Lakdawala showcases a game where GM Alexi Shirov as Black counters White’s ambitions with 8……Ne4. During this game, Rybka displays an assessment of -33.36 (no easy task). The author muses, “I have never seen an assessment this lopsided and initially thought Rybka had gone mad. On top of everything, Black is down a rook. Perhaps it is time for the math police to step in and stop this game!” In one illustrative game the Chebanenko variation versus White’s 3.Nc3 is highlighted with a move order utilized to minimize study for Black. The reader is stopped to test her/his schematic thinking (page 284): “Find a plan for Black. What is the best arrangement for his pieces?”

The author’s contempt for White gambits again surfaces in chapter 7 as he dispatches with haste what he calls the Geller Gambit’s Evil Twin (foregoing a4 as White for early Qc2 or g3). After posing the question, “Why are we back to the Catalan Gambit? You’ve already covered it in Chapter 5”, the author thoughtfully explains the differences based upon White’s piece placement. After contemptuously acknowledging the subtleties involved, he nevertheless cautions us, “Black beware!”

In the penultimate chapter, Black is shown how to fight for winning chances in the dreaded Slav Exchange, but the author gives fair warning: “You may want to sit down before you read on, and I request that you don’t freak out on me. I am about to advice you to take a course of action most chess teachers frown upon: Go on a pawn-grabbing spree with you queen when behind in development!” …Qb6 anyone? Lakdawala dispels the common notion that the Exchange Variation is boring by applying “a little shock therapy on White.” (Disclaimer: the author always plays this as White when facing the Slav.)

The author goes above-and-beyond most Slav repertoire books in the final chapter, by providing almost 30 pages with substantial material to meet White’s attempt at playing the Reti or the robotic King’s Indian Attack with a Reversed Torre system. Besides me, do many readers review the bibliography? Those who do will nod appreciatively seeing among the dozen plus books cited, the Sadler classic, the epic Silman/Donaldson trilogy, the Burgess tome, et al, but some readers with an eye for detail may be surprised to find included the monolithic Podgaets & Karpov “Caro-Kann Defense, Panov Attack”, as well as Watson’s timeless “English: Franco, Slav, and Flank Defense”. The inclusion of these sources becomes clear after an illustrative game opens 1.c4 c6, and the author asks, “What does Black play on 2.e4?”, assigning (yet another) homework assignment: “Study Karpov’s games as Black in the Panov-Botvinnik. If you familiarize yourself with his games, you will be ok. Nobody understands it better than him.” While I would honestly wish for more, I understand space limitations imposed by publishers and do find this much more helpful than the usual “this surpasses the scope of our book” escape hatch used by many writers.

The author does not merely settle for teaching us the Slavic way, but also encourages us to expand other aspects of development as a player. Lakdawala makes frequent references to imbalances. In another position (page 47), he asks the reader, “This looks like a classic bad bishop versus good knight situation. What am I missing?” He also frequently stresses the connections of the game to endgames. In a later chapter he assigns more (!) homework: “Bobby Fischer won a hauntingly similar ending against his mentor IM Tony Saidy at the 1964 US Championship. Look up that game and compare Fischer’s technique with Sadvakasov’s.” (Somewhere, ChessBase author Daniel King smiles.)

Throughout the book, Lakdawala invites us to improve our chess intuition. He notes, “GMs never seem to defend anything which is attacked! …The best players carry a deep feel for initiative, which they value over material in most cases. …Notice masters tend to sac for the initiative, while the lower-rated players have a tendency to defend any time something is attacked.” While Rybka’s evaluations are sprinkled throughout the book, the author is not cowed to disagree with the silicone beast. In another illustrative game, Topalov plays an alternative move to one screaming to be played by “Captain Rybka”. Lakdawala cautions the reader, “Don’t believe it when they tell you machines are better than we are. There remain a few humans who, through accessing that mysterious force called intuition, are capable of penetrating a position deeper than the strongest machine. Our main trouble is we tend to hang pieces from time to time while machines never do – even in the morning rounds!” At the same time he earlier acknowledges the value of such help noting, “However, computers see through the fog and Rybka finds a path to a clear advantage for White.”

Reporting shortcomings leaves me hard pressed. Perhaps Lakdawala could have prescribed a short list of grandmasters who practice the Slav way, but this can be derived from the illustrative game index. Also, the author periodically cites rapid play games in sub-variations, but at least the participants involved are a few notches above your standard club play. I anticipate Edward Winters may take the author to task for several times citing Emmanuel Lasker as the source of the classic quote, “The threat is more powerful than it’s execution.” (No, it is not the effervescent scribe, Tartakower.) Lastly, I have concerns the book’s binding may not withstand the test of time.

Lakdawala has produced a roadmap for not just understanding a classical opening but towards self-improvement at many levels in chess; but be prepared to roll up your sleeves, as utilizing this book correctly is not a spectator sport.

For those who wish to work, learn, and laugh, this book is highly recommended.