Chess book reviewers tend to be a bigoted lot. We get excited if a famous player writes a book, while sneering at unknown authors. As a reviewer becomes acquainted with the work of various chess writers, he builds preconceived ideas about the merits of their work long before he actually looks at their latest opus. This allows us to pay attention to books that might have some value, while quickly weeding out the garbage that fills the bookstore’s shelves.
Of course, a seasoned reviewer quickly learns that a big name doesn’t guarantee quality. Conversely, some non-titled writers have become known as talented researchers and/or analysts who put their heart and soul into everything they do. Names like Burgess and Hilbert are just two of many that always offer the buyer good value.
When the name Steve Giddins appeared, my first thought was, "Who the hell is this?” In fact, I must admit that I didn’t even take a peek at his How To Build Your Chess Opening Repertoire for a couple weeks, convinced that it had to be another useless waste of paper. However, the fact that it was a Gambit Publications’ book forced me to reconsider (they almost always put out excellent material), and so I finally read it during walks with my cat. As a result, another name has been added to my "worthwhile chess author” list.
How To Build Your Chess Opening Repertoire is, to be blunt, an excellent book. It’s about a subject that many players always agonize over, it’s well thought out, it forces us to think, and it adds a dollop of humor here and there that makes reading this book a very enjoyable experience.
In Chapter One (The Keys to Successful Opening Play – 12 pages) we read something that immediately puts most players at ease: "Contrary to what one may think, memorizing variations is a relatively small factor in enabling one to play an opening successfully. It is far more important to understand the positional and tactical themes of the opening, and to appreciate what you should be aiming for in the given position.” Using personal experience and excellent examples from grandmaster play, Giddins proves his "understanding over memorization” statement over and over.
Other chapters prove that the author is anything but lazy, since he anticipates and answers opening-study questions like:
* Should the student stick to a narrow selection of openings, or should he embrace a wider variety of systems? This is explored in detail in Chapter Two (Variety – the Spice of Life? – 9 pages).
* Should playing style dictate your opening choices? Chapter Three (Stylistics – 17 pages) covers this nicely. I liked the following, which is something I’ve told people for years: "Another point to bear in mind is that playing style is generally of more significance, the stronger a player is. At the level of the typical club and weekend player, differences in style are not usually as great as most people imagine.” He then lists openings for positional players and for tactical players.
* Should one use main line openings or surprising sidelines? Chapter Four (Main Roads or Side-Streets? – 11 pages) delves into this important query in a balanced way, taking both sides of the argument by looking at good examples of offbeat openings ("For many club players, there is a temptation to avoid main-line opening theory and instead play offbeat openings. This has the great merit of avoiding one’s opponent’s theoretical knowledge and thus throwing him much more on his own resources.”), and also making a case for the use of eternally sound main lines ("The biggest advantage in sticking to respectable main lines in that you can rest assured that the opening you are playing is fundamentally sound, and is not likely ever to be refuted.”).
* Is an understanding of move orders and transpositions only for stronger players? Chapter Five (Move-Orders and Transpositions – 16 pages) answers this question in a no-nonsense manner: "Paying careful attention to move-orders and transpositional tricks is an essential part of building a successful opening repertoire.” After making this point, the author gives us a fascinating glimpse into the subtlety of move orders, and also shows how this apparently advanced concept can and must be implemented in every players repertoire ("Move-orders are vital to good opening preparation and should never be ignored.”).
* Are computers and databases useful or even necessary at the non-professional levels? Chapter Six (Use and Abuse of Computers – 11 pages) discusses this in detail, and though I don’t necessarily feel that owning playing programs and databases is important to players under 1600, his points are well taken and worth serious consideration.
* Are reversed openings (like playing a King’s Indian Defense as White via 1.Nf3, 2.g3, 3.Bg2, 4.0-0, 5.d3, etc.) worthwhile? Should one stick to similar structures as White and Black? Chapter Seven (Universalities – 20 pages) is devoted to these very important questions. "One particular approach to opening repertoire management is the use of universal systems, i.e., openings which can be employed both with White and Black, or against any particular opening move of the opponent. The use of such systems can enable a player to reduce the amount of opening theory he needs to study, and to reach positions of a type he is familiar with and enjoys playing. It is to the pros and cons of this approach that we now turn.”
I found this chapter to be extremely interesting, and the fact that he addresses his search to both White and Black (with looks at such club favorites as the Colle and Torre) will please players of all strengths.
* Should I sometimes leave my main openings behind if I think my opponent is well prepared, or if I am in a must win (or can’t lose) situation? Chapter Eight (Infidelity and Divorce – 14 pages) is yet another fascinating read. He looks at many aspects of this question and shares the opinions of several top names. However, his use of a Belov quote seemed the most clear-cut answer: "It is easier to win from an equal position that you have played before, than from a bad one you know nothing about!”
The book ends with a look at the repertoires of eight players: Fischer, Kasparov, Karpov, Kramnik, Adams, M Gurevich, Sveshnikov, and Hebden. It’s interesting to see how their choices conform to their styles and the kinds of opposition they usually meet.
How To Build Your Chess Opening Repertoire is a book that’s been needed for quite some time. Giddins took this original and difficult project and proved more than up to the task. He’s created something that is instructive, fun to read, thought provoking, and of great practical value. How To Build Your Chess Opening Repertoire will delight players from 1500 on up, and gets a very strong recommendation from me.