(Double) Book Review – “Attacking the English/Reti” (Delchev/Semkov) and “Beating Minor Openings” (Mikhalevski)
I recently read two opening books that deserve a joint review. Both of the above titles are aimed at providing a black repertoire against the ‘flank’ openings, which is a broad term that usually means anything except for 1.e4 or 1.d4. They made quite interesting reading, not least because, despite being released within a few months of each other, the two books propose almost exactly the same repertoire! If you plan on meeting the English with 1.c4 e5 (arguably the most principled response), then you’re in luck, as this is the backbone of both titles. Moreover, if 1.Nf3 d5 is your cup of tea, you’ll also find either one useful; if you prefer 1.Nf3 Nf6, Mikhalevski still has you covered.
To be honest, it’s not easy to make a direct comparison. Even though the topic is similar the material, audience and style are all quite different. I’ll save you reading the rest of this review with the crudest of contrasts: Mikhalevski’s book is a serious theoretical work for the professional, principled repertoire, while Delchev and Semkov provide an intuitive, dynamic read as well as an attacking quick-fix for the simple theoretician. Both are excellent.
Too crude? Fair enough. Let’s get into the details!
As it turns out, “Beating Minor Openings” (henceforth BMO) had the advantage of the second move and references the other book on occasion, so it’s a good place to start. There’s no question that Victor Mikhalevski is a brilliant theoretician. His columns on Chesspublishing.com are first-rate, and so teaming up with the Quality Chess team was always going to be a powerful combination. Such teams don’t always work, mind you; readers will know that I’m not the biggest fan of the Kotronias King’s Indian series, for example, which is too dense for my tastes. But this book is good, really good. I would go so far as to call it the highest-level repertoire book against irregular openings that I’ve ever read. This doesn’t help the average club player too much directly, but it does mean that, should you adopt the proposed repertoire, you can be comforted by watching many top grandmasters playing and building on your openings.
One of the reasons I like BMO is the philosophy. Mikhalevski advocates taking the centre with both pawns whenever possible, which in itself is nothing revolutionary. But he sticks to this even if it means playing a main opening with reversed colours a tempo down, and even if the player isn’t familiar with the orthodox system – something that few authors have had the courage to propose. For example, the main anti-English system involves …e5 and …c6, preparing …d5 and transposing to a reversed 2.c3 Sicilian with an extra tempo for White. And even if you’re a 1.e4 player, the book still encourages you not to shy away from reversed 1.d4 variations, such as tackling the Bird’s by transposing to the reversed Dutch with 1…d5. This is not only probably the objectively correct choice, but, as the author notes, isn’t anywhere near as scary as you might think. And it’s good for your chess.
The structure of the book can be broadly described as being three main parts. First, Mikhalevski deals with the real ‘irregular’ openings, such as 1.f4, 1.b3, and, well, literally all the rest! I have no idea why he decided to include 1.h3 and 1.a3, but they’re there. Then comes 1.c4 e5, which is the meat of the book. Finally comes 1.Nf3, in which the author covers 1…d5, 1…Nf6 with 2…b6, and 1…Nf6 with 2…g6 as three distinct repertoires. To understand this, it’s useful to know that BMO was initially borne out of an anti-Grünfeld book idea, and grew from there. So it’s no surprise that the 2…g6 section is the most impressive, and it also mimics Mikhalevski’s personal repertoire. This section is really very impressive. Personally, it would have made more sense to me to focus more deeply on just this proposed repertoire to 1.Nf3. Besides, it’s essentially useless unless you play the Grünfeld, in the same way that 1.Nf3 d5 doesn’t make sense unless you have some 1.d4 d5 system in your pocket. I suppose including the three options targets a wider audience, and it does mean that the book can ‘work’ for you regardless of your main 1.d4 defence. Nonetheless, in my opinion a Grünfeld player is definitely going to get the most of the theoretical goodies in the book.
In terms of the nitty-gritty of the repertoire, Mikhalevski’s suggestions are topical and principled. Against the English, he suggests 2.g3 c6, as does Delchev/Semkov. There’s a slight difference with the recommendation 2.Nc3 Bb4 3.Nd5 Bc5, a favourite of Anand. And Mikhalevski also proposes a more ambitious line against the King’s Indian Attack after 1.Nf3 d5 2.g3. While both authors like a setup with …Bg4 and …c6, BDO contains the immediate 2…Bg4 with ideas of …Nbd7 and …e5. This move-order has its own drawbacks of course, but it’s a nice example of Mikhalevski’s ‘central’ ideology in action.
Like most of Quality’s Grandmaster Repertoire series, the material is quite dense and there is an unretainable deluge of variations. Each release is something of a chess ‘textbook’, which is certainly needed in the modern chess world that grows ever more theoretical. But this style does make for tough reading to the uninitiated. In the attempt to cover such a wide range of openings with a theoretically watertight repertoire, the almost 600 page tome is light on intuition and explanations. This is understandable, and is a familiar warning that should come with this series for players under IM strength. But if you’re up for a challenge and willing to do the work, BMO is the perfect complement to your black 1.e4/d4 defences and promises some rich rewards.
After plowing through BMO, Attacking the English/Reti (Henceforth: AER) reads like a children’s book. I don’t mean that to sound like a criticism. Readers will know that I was a huge fan of Delchev and Semkov’s previous title on the Queen’s Gambit Accepted for its simple, intuitive exposition, and AER follows suit. At a mere 230 pages, this book is light enough – both physically and content-wise – to read on the train.
And, just like the QGA book, it’s a fun read. I really like the three-part structure of each section that first introduces the chapter’s Main Ideas, then gives a Step-by-Step variation guide, and follows up with Annotated Games. This way of breaking down a variation provides intuition and helps the reader retain the key ideas. An example of this is the reversed 2.c3 Sicilian structure I mentioned before, which can arise after (for example) the moves 1.c4 e5 2.g3 c6 3.d4 e4 4.Nc3 d5. In BMO, the reader is assumed to either already know the ideas of this structure or else be more concerned with concrete variations. On the other hand, in AER, Delchev and Semkov go to lengths to explain how Black’s best reaction to White going after the d5 pawn differs depending on whether the knight is on f6 yet, and how to handle the alternative plan of targeting e4 depending on how White times f2-f3.
You might sense that I’m a tad biased towards the latter approach, which is true. This is because I don’t have enough time to spend on chess in order to fully make use of the more theoretical approach of BDO, and so I find that I’m best able to play good moves if I understand the ideas behind them. But that’s a stylistic preference, and a player with the time and drive to fully absorb Mikhalevski’s information should prefer this route to get the maximum results out of the opening.
And of course, the drawback of AER is that it can’t hope to compete theoretically with the massive BDO and so some theory is inevitably going to fall through the cracks. At times it’s a simple omission, perhaps to save space. For example, after 1.c4 e5 2.g3 c6 3.d4 e4 4.Nc3 d5, the reader of AER might be a little shocked to face 5.Qb3!? over the board. One reason is that after 5.cxd5 cxd5 6.Qb3, the book recommends 6…Nc6! as 6…Nf6?! 7.Bg5 is very unpleasant. So what to do? I guess by a process of elimination the reader might be able to come up with the correct novelty 5.Qb5 dxc4!, as recommended by Mikhalevski, but the follow-up 6.Qxc4 b5!? isn’t obvious. Another example is in case White chooses 5.Nh3 h6 6.cxd5 cxd5 7.Nf4 Nf6 8.Qb3. AER gives the strong sacrifice 8…Nc6! and a few more moves of the seminal game Tikkanen-Grandelius 2013, but in fact the recent encounter Akesson-Smith 2016 shows that this line isn’t simple at all. BDO provides several pages of analysis to prove that an equal rook endgame ensues on move 28 with best play; readers of AER would need to muddle through this on their own.
Having said that, I couldn’t find any obvious holes in Delchev and Semkov’s analysis, despite the fact that they advocate exciting gambits in several variations. I must admit that it’s also comforting to know that a theoretical powerhouse like Mikhalevski supports their repertoire recommendations for the most part. In addition to a shallower load, you also won’t find the breadth of the BDO book, as the authors ‘only’ cover 1.c4, 1.Nf3 and 1.g3 (no 1.h3 this time!). But these are by far the most common flank openings, so this isn’t a big restriction. Possibly the major difference in terms of content is the sole focus on 1.Nf3 d5 in AER. There’s no doubt that the book was designed to be a complement to their Queen’s Gambit Accepted work, and the Reti section reflects this, allowing a transposition to 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3. This isn’t a big deal if you instead have the Slav, Queen’s Gambit Declined, Ragozin or Tarrasch in your repertoire, but it means a bit of soul-searching for the KID player, for example.
In summary, the choice here isn’t the same as one often faces when two books come out on the same opening, when it’s typically just a matter of working out which is better. Here it’s more about what suits you best. If you’re at master strength, a dedicated theoretician or just like having the best quality reference text in your library, then BMO is a perfect choice. On the other hand, for club players and enthusiasts, lazy students, or those pressed for either time or budget, I’d opt for AER (it’s about $8 cheaper). Both are excellent books in their own rights and do a fabulous job of combating 1.Nf3 and the dreaded 1.c4, and all authors and editors involved can be proud of their efforts. And hey, you could always get both. As one European parliamentarian said to another: Down with the English!
Both books: four out of five stars.