In 2004, Tiger Hillarp Persson wrote an influential (and excellent) book on the Modern Defense (1.e4/d4 g6 2.d4/e4 Bg7) entitled Tiger’s Modern. It remains one of a handful of books on this defense that deserve the ‘must read’ label; ten years later, Persson has actually upped the ante: while The Modern Tiger is another absolute ‘must read’ for any player of this defense, it is so well written, produced and crafted that it is literally a ‘must read’ book for any serious student or lover of chess.
The author burst onto the chess scene as an untitled player in the 1990s with a scintillating brand of no-holds-barred chess. He accumulated a number of grandmaster scalps playing his own version of the Modern Defense, which generally included an early …a6…b5…Bb7 set-up. This can lead to hair-raising complications for both players, and it certainly has merit. Besides helping to propel the author to the grandmaster title, in some lines (such as 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.Be3 a6), his ideas have become standard approaches for practitioners of the defense.
Given that set of circumstances, what do you do for an encore? In that rare case where the sequel outdoes the original, Persson has taken a fresh look at nearly everything in the earlier book, added over 40 new illustrative games and, perhaps most valuable of all, added a sense of perspective that comes with an additional 10 years at the forefront of the battle for acceptance of these black ideas. Indeed, what the author now presents seems much more like a ‘system’ for black that just might be able to stand the test of time.
While the book is written from the perspective of the black practitioner and is presented as a repertoire book, the author avoids some of the typical problems with this genre. First, it helps that Persson is an actual practicing grandmaster in the lines under discussion. Unlike some repertoire books that make a reader/player go ‘huh?’ from time to time, here the author’s knowledge consistently shines through. It is notable that, of the book’s 101 illustrative games, Persson plays black in 28 of them (and white in another). This experience shows up in numerous places – the author often points out important move order nuances and lessons learned from his own games (such as ‘there have been many games with 7…bxa4, but if I have to play this I would rather change my opening repertoire. Even the Petroff comes to mind’). As he points out at the end of one illustrative game that he lost, ‘this was not the greatest day for the Modern, but it was a good day for learning something. Nowadays, I am faster to challenge the c4 outpost in similar structures and would only – nah, mostly! – play …e6 after protecting the d6-pawn. I hope you will do the same.’
The book also avoids a common repertoire trap by, in many instances, providing multiple possible approaches against key lines (or instances where recommendations may be super-sharp or untested). This is taken to its logical extreme by the author providing two complete repertoires against the testing Austrian Attack, one that stays in the strictly Modern realm (1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.f4 a6) and one that steers play into main lines of the Pirc Defense (1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.f4 Nf6). Even here, in the Pirc repertoire, the author demonstrates a laudable practical perspective for a repertoire book; in the main line with 5.Nf3 he eschews the trendy 5…c5 (which can lead to a theoretical minefield in the main lines after 6.Bb5+) in favor of the older/more theoretically stable 5…0-0. As Persson points out, ‘Black can choose between many different systems against the Austrian, but the 5…0-0 set-up advocated in this chapter is the one that requires the least work to learn and continual updates will not be necessary.’
Finally, the author’s candor in presenting the repertoire is refreshing. First, the author is more than willing to admit that there are risks associated with some of the lines he advocates. When discussing the Modern versus Pirc approach to the Austrian Attack, he notes that ‘my belief in the …a6 system against 4.f4 has its own history of ups and downs. In my less optimistic moments I am disinclined to use it against a fellow grandmaster, unless I feel I will have the advantage of surprise. In my more optimistic moments I play it because I enjoy it (and playing what you enjoy is not a bad deal in the long run).’ The author and I share a common concern about using 1…g6 as an entire repertoire: after 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.c4 it is likely that black’s best option (at least theoretically) is to at some point transpose to the King’s Indian Defense (after, for example, 3…d6 4.Nc3 Nf6). In his typically witty way, Persson writes that ‘if someone woke me in the middle of the night and screamed in my ear, “what’s the biggest problem with the Modern?” I would probably mumble “3.c4, if you don’t play the King’s Indian. Now leave me alone.” After all, I would be too tired to lie and I would definitely want to be left alone.’ That said, the author does his best at presenting a repertoire based on 3…d6 4.Nc3 e5 – although, in one position, he readily admits that his recommendation ‘gives Black a safe albeit slightly dull position. This is the price you have to pay to avoid the King’s Indian Defense.’
As you may have gathered, I found Persson’s writing to be quite enjoyable. There are lots of useful nuggets of information that will help a player assimilate key ideas (such as his pointing out that ‘if there is a knight on c3, the pawn can go to a6. It is a simple rule that usually holds’) and know what to consider in certain positions (‘When I play the …a6 Modern, I always spend a few seconds, on every move, calculating the consequences of both e4-e5 and a2-a4. Whenever I am contemplating …Nd7, I also ask myself whether there is reason to be afraid of d4-d5 followed by Nd4.’). There is also a refreshing candor (‘This is ridiculous for White. First you build up a strong center and then you just throw it away? I cannot understand how Kramnik came to play this way.’), as well as a willingness to not take himself too seriously (‘I have included this game because of the many instructive mistakes I committed’).
This book was clearly a labor of love, and it manifests itself in many ways. The author reassesses many of the recommended lines from his earlier book. In some cases this is the result of tournament praxis (his own as well as other players), and in other cases it is because of follow-up analysis. While the author readily admits that in some instances this is because of better computer-aided analysis, it is clear that this is not simply a silicon data-dump. In many cases, Persson discusses computer analysis and takes exception with it – and is quick to explain why he does or doesn’t agree with the computer assessment. Besides this, the sheer depth of the analysis provided – with hundreds of additional game fragments and analytical suggestions included within the 102 illustrative games – over its 536 pages is staggering. My only real complaint was that over a ‘lost weekend’ doing little more than poring through its pages, I was only barely able to scratch its surface – it was akin to try to savor fine wine delivered through a fire hose.
Everything about this book is first class – from the writing and analysis through the production values. I have not enjoyed a chess book as much (particularly one that primarily focuses on a single opening or defense) in a long, long time.