Starting Out — Benoni Systems

Alexander Raetsky, Maxim Chetverik

Reviewer: Jeremy Silman
Everyman Chess
239 pages

In recent years there have been quite a few books appearing on the Benko Gambit and the Modern Benoni (several are listed below). However, anyone that plays blitz online will have noticed that many players as Black have embraced less common Benoni sidelines as weapons that 1) Take their opponent out of familiar territory; 2) Allow them to sharpen things up or tone things down, depending on their individual stylistic preference.

Starting Out: Benoni Systems, brings these extremely practical choices (as well as the more common Benko Gambit) to life without dragging the reader down into an endless abyss of variations (though I must say that the lines below are covered quite well). The systems explored are:

THE CZECH BENONI: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e5. This very solid line was a favorite of mine and of Yasser Seirawan when we were both kids. The closed nature of the setup allows the second player to maneuver slowly without fear of any immediate tactics, while also allowing for clear strategic plans to be mastered and employed. The following “backwards move” is typical of the variation, and always gave me a lot of pleasure when I employed them: 4.Nc3 d6 5.Bd3 Be7 6.Nge2 0-0 7.0-0 Ne8! intending both …Bg5, exchanging the dark-squared Bishops, and also 8…g6, when 9.Bh6 can be met by 9…Ng7 with a cool fianchetto of the Knight!

THE CLOSED BENONI: 1.d4 c5 2.d5 e5 3.e4 d6 — This line is rampant in online chess. However, the fact that White hasn’t wasted a tempo on c2-c4 allows him to sharpen things up with 4.Nc3 (4.f4 exf4 5.Bxf4 allows Black to fight for the e5-square by …Ng8-e7-g6. Instead, White holds off on f4 until Black blocks the e7-square with his Bishop) 4…Be7 (intending to exchange off his bad Bishop by Bg5) 5.f4!? (the more restrained 5.Nf3 is also fine) with a quick initiative.

THE BENKO GAMBIT (called the Real Volga Gambit in this book):
They call this the “real” Volga Gambit because it was played several times before Benko sank his teeth into its theory. They mention games like Rabar-milic 1955 and Golombek-Sefc 1949 and Szabo-Lundin 1948. All this is true and well known. However, the following comment doesn’t make sense to me: “We certainly acknowledge Benko’s achievements, but he was a pioneer neither in theory nor in practice.”

I beg to disagree! Though there were indeed several games making use of the b5 pawn sacrifice before Benko employed it, most people at the time thought it was nothing but an unsound lark, and any real, respected body of theory concerning this move order (with …b5 and …a6) didn’t exist. Instead of using it once as a surprise weapon (as those in the past did), Pal Benko studied it in a systematic manner and turned 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 into a serious opening system – one he successfully used over and over against strong competition.

Concerning the names of chess openings, one doesn’t usually name something after the first person that tossed it onto a chessboard. Instead, the name of the player who first enriched its ideas and made it his own personal weapon is the one that becomes forever associated with it – and rightfully so! This might come as a blow to those that whip out 1.e4 a5 once for Black and proclaim, “I hereby name this the Invertebrate Counter Attack!” Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way.

On a more positive note, this chapter makes it clear that the authors are not trying to pull the wool over their reader’s eyes. They assess things fairly, as in the following main line – 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 4.cxb5 a6 5.bxa6 g6 6.Nc3 Bxa6 7.e4 Bxf1 8.Kxf1 d6 9.g3 Bg7 10.Kg2 Nbd7 11.Nf3 0-0 12.Re1 Ng4 13.Bf4 Qa5 14.h3 Nge5 15.Nxe5 Nxe5 16.Qe2 Rfb8 17.Rac1 Qa6 18.Bxe5 Bxe5 19.Rc2. Their comment: “White has a small edge here. If you are not prepared to play this kind of position once in a while, then the Volga Gambit is not your cup of tea. However, White does not have great winning chances so objectively it is not a bad choice.”

The Benko Gambit is very popular, but that very popularity might prove counterproductive to those with Black who want something that’s a bit less explored.

THE BLUMENFELD GAMBIT: This old line (popularized by Alekhine’s brilliant win with it over Tarrasch in 1922) still has supporters to this day, and might well be nearing a comeback. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 c5 4.d5 b5 5.dxe6 fxe6 6.cxb5 d5 allows Black to take over the center, giving him serious compensation for the sacrificed pawn. Is this completely sound? I don’t know, but many players don’t like giving Black such a dynamic position and, due to this, moves like 5.e4!? and 5.Bg5!?, fighting for the initiative, are critical options. For players who, as Black, want to gain a quick and easy-to-play initiative against a potentially unprepared opponent, the Blumenfeld Gambit is something well worth exploring.

LINES WITH 2.Nf3: After 1.d4 Nf6 many White players use 2.Nf3 to avoid various annoying lines that Black might try to throw at them (i.e., 2.c4 e5 is one popular example). Starting Out: Benoni Systems thoroughly covers 2……c5 3.d5 b5!?, which can prove very effective if White isn’t prepared to meet it.

THE SCHMID BENONI: This is basically a normal Benoni where White hasn’t played c2-c4. In general it’s thought to be sound, but a bit better for the first player. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 c5 3.d5 g6 4.Nc3 Bg7 5.e4 the best move is 5…d6. Far riskier is 5…0-0, which also occurs after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 3.d4 Bg7 4.d5 Nf6 5.Nc3 0-0. The problem with this move order is that 6.e5 Ng4 7.Ng5! (a shocking reply) seems to be extremely strong for White since 7…Nxe5 8.f4 hasn’t turned out well for Black (and many fans tried to make it work out for Black for quite a long time).

THE BENONI/KING’S INDIAN HYBRID: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 d6 4.Nc3 g6 5.e4 Bg7 6.Bd3 0-0 7.Nf3 e6 8.h3 exd5 9.exd5 Re8+ 10.Be3 is a very popular position – I’ve had the White side in quite a few games. Both 10…Bh6 11.0-0 Bxe3 12.fxe3 (which favors White) and 10…Bf5!?, desperately trying for active play, are covered in adequate detail.

THE SNAKE (and other oddities): 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 Bd6 is for those that want to get out of theory right away, while also enjoying a system that allows them to make use of concrete ideas and setups.

One other oddity that this chapter explores is 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 Ne4. If memory serves, this was an idea of the imaginative Stefan Bucker, who titled it THE VULTURE. However, Raetsky & Chetverik don’t mention Mr. Bucker at all, so perhaps I’m imagining Bucker’s role and even the name! (ah, old age).

I like this book a lot! It gives nice discussions and lots of analysis on the Benko Gambit and various lesser known, but quite dangerous systems. In my view, 1.d4 players (from 1400 to 2400) will find this very useful, while players looking for sharp or fairly rare tries for Black will also want to own it. As for the price, it speaks for itself. It’s outrageously low, making this purchase a no-brainer!