Book Review: “Playing 1.e4 e5 – A Classical Repertoire”(Nikolaos Ntirlis, Quality)
You’ve probably not heard of Nikolaos Ntirlis. But you should! Ntirlis may not have a FIDE rating (at least as far as I could tell), but he has quietly built up a strong reputation as one of the most thorough opening researchers around. His credentials include a strong correspondence rating and opening consulting gigs for several grandmasters and the Danish Olympiad team. This is a good sign, but it’s his collaborations with Jacob Aagaard that have impressed me, and particularly 2011’s The Tarrasch Defence. It was a class work, and their 2013 book on the French Defence was also well received.
I know from my friends and colleagues that there has been a lot of anticipation for this solo work by Ntirlis, which is a complete 1.e4 e5 repertoire for Black. This ambitious project has been undertaken by several authors over the years (e.g. Bologan, Davies…) so I was curious and also a little skeptical about seeing how Ntirlis would handle things. Could a correspondence player really offer a practical over-the-board repertoire for the club player?
The short answer is yes – for the most part. Ntirlis often advises against the strongest theoretical continuation (as championed in correspondence chess) in his repertoire, instead taking sensible practical considerations into account. A good example is the King’s Gambit. Instead of ‘taking it on’ with 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5, Ntirlis suggests an easy fix with 3…Nf6, the Schallop Defence. This is a really good idea in my opinion! As a KG player, I can assure you that use aficionados of the romantic gambit learn 3…g5 inside and out, which leaves little time to focus on the rarer, but still eminently decent, alternatives. Another example is in what Ntirlis calls the Improved Morphy Attack, 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.0-0. Despite having played this myself for two decades, I’d never even heard of his recommendation: 5…Nxe4 6.Re1 d5 7.Bxd5 Qxd5 8.Nc3 Qd7!?. This has only been played a handful of times before, but after analyzing it myself, I concur that it’s simpler and no worse than the main lines, and equalizes with little difficulty.
Ntirlis sticks quite close to his promise of a ‘classical repertoire’. He proposes 3.Bc4 Nf6, as I mentioned, and doesn’t shy away from the main lines here. The backbone of the repertoire, however, is the Breyer, perhaps the most ‘classical’ of Black’s Spanish options. I think this is an excellent choice. The reader gets the impression that in these chapters Ntirlis seems most at home, and indeed the author offers a lot deeper positional and strategic insights than in the non-Spanish sections. I was especially impressed to see Ntirlis dress Anand’s 8.a3! with an exclamation mark, as I believe this is one of White’s most promising routes to an advantage against the Breyer. He handles this topical and complex variation with distinction, although I don’t know how often most club players will face it, if at all. It’s more the sort of thing played by Anand, Svidler, Caruana, and even Wei Yi:
Of course, as the Breyer is a topical battleground even among the world’s elite, the theory will continue to develop. However, as opposed to sharper variations where the computers have more of a say, the Breyer is a defence where ideas and understanding is more important than being up to date with the latest theoretical novelties, and Ntirlis does a great job of preparing the club player to wield this weapon with confidence. For someone looking to build a solid, high quality 1…e5 repertoire with black, these chapters in particular are an excellent place to start.
I have to say, however, that Ntirlis does fall into one of the most common opening author traps in some of his non-Spanish chapters: He is too optimistic about Black’s chances. In fact, reading the seven chapters of the open games, one gets the impression that White is struggling to achieve equality if he doesn’t venture 3.Bb5, given how often one sees the evaluation “slight advantage for Black” at the end of a main variation. To be fair, Ntirlis’ assessments are usually very accurate; it’s just that one sometimes has to dig back through the sidelines to find White’s best continuations. In my opinion, it should be a cardinal rule of chess opening authorship that the best moves for both sides be given as the main line in a variation. As you can tell, this sin of variation ‘window-dressing’ is a bit of a pet hate of mine when reading opening books, so bear in mind that it may not bother you. And given that this is a repertoire book for the second player, it’s quite reasonable to allow some literary licence for the author to put a positive spin on Black’s positions, up to a point. But just keep this in mind as you go through the first half of the book.
For example, a first read of the 3.Bc4 King’s Gambit, the Four Knights with 11.Na4, and even the (Spanish) Exchange Variation chapters gives the impression that Black is better in the main lines. This could potentially be true for the KG, but even here, buried in a small note to move 10, Ntirlis gives an improvement for White that secures equality. And it’s surely not true for the other lines! Like I said, this is not a big drawback for the book (and a very common one for chess in general), but make sure you read the chapters thoroughly and don’t skip over the notes.
The repertoire is pitched at a high level, but perhaps not quite at the aloof levels of the Negi/Kotronias books. That will be welcome news to many readers, including the majority of those from chess.com . Having said that, it’s a guide that is both practical and theoretically robust, and it will be of interest to grandmaster readers as well as amateurs.
Overall, I found the book to be thorough, high-quality and surprisingly easy to read. I say ‘surprisingly’ because, as I mentioned, I half-expected Ntirlis’ correspondence background to hamper his efforts to recommend a practical repertoire, but he’s really done a good job. Despite having read several books on 1…e5, this is the first that almost convinced me to take it up myself. And who knows…!
Key to Symbols used 4
Foreword by Parimarjan Negi 5
Summary of Recommendations 11
1 Early Deviations and Gambits 13
2 Bishop’s Opening and Vienna Game 45
3 Four Knights – Introduction 63
4 Four Knights – 4.d4 and 4.Bb5 87
5 Scotch Game 110
6 Two Knights – 4.d4 and 4.d3 142
7 Two Knights with 4.Ng5 167
8 Exchange Variations 203
9 On the Road to the Main Line 238
10 The Trendy d2-d3 261
11 Breyer – 10.d3 and Sidelines after 10.d4 285
12 Breyer – Alternatives to 13.Nf1 309
13 Breyer Main Lines 341
Index of Main Games 375
Variation Index 377