An Unjustly Neglected Opening
By Stephen Berry
Slay the Spanish! Weapons Against the Ruy Lopez (Everyman Chess) by Timothy Taylor, 288 pp. £16.99.
Have you ever felt that an author was tracking you? Timothy Taylor has written a number of entertaining books on the openings recently and his penultimate offering featured a repertoire in the Alekhine Defence. I bought the book and discovered to my surprise that Taylor and I were on the same wavelength much of the time. For instance, he recommends 1 e4 Nf6 2 e5 Nd5 3 d4 d6 4 c4 Nb6 5 f4 g6!? against the Four Pawns Attack on the grounds that the position then resembles a Kings Indian Defence that has gone slightly wrong for White. This had already occurred to me. He also suggests transposing into the Vienna Game after 1 e4 Nf6 2 Nc3 by 2 … e5 rather than the difficult 2 … d5 so beloved by the typical Alekhine player. Again, this is something which I have thought for many years.
Having dealt with the Alekhine to his satisfaction, Taylor has moved on to the Steinitz Deferred (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 d6) or Modern Steinitz (MS) as the author and I will call it from now on. Again, I feel caught out as this has been my main defence to the Ruy Lopez for the last 35 years. Much of what Taylor says in Slay the Spanish rings very true indeed.
Let me say immediately that until Taylor turned his eye to the Modern Steinitz, there had been precious little published on this opening in English, or indeed any other language. There have been books galore on the Marshall Attack, books on the Schliemann, Berlin, Archangel (modern and not so modern), Open Lopez and works devoted to the different lines that Black can choose when he reaches the move nine main position. In fact, the only really good treatment of the MS that I know of occurs in Pachman’s Moderne Schach Theorie: 1 Offene Spiele published in 1980. As Pachman played this opening and used it to defeat Fischer amongst others, his coverage is not of the usual “this is a sideline we must briefly cover before we move on to the 4 … Nf6 main line.”
The sections of Taylor’s book are divided as follows:
The pedigree of the MS, as Taylor makes clear in the introduction, is considerable. Most of the world champions have played the MS at one time or another and Taylor gives a number of high class games. The following (with notes mainly from Taylor) may serve as a brief appetiser.
But it is not a world champion who is the star of the Modern Steinitz. Taylor makes Paul Keres the “hero of his book. Keres played the MS throughout his chess life and made the impressive score of +27 =28 with only 4 losses.” Examples of Keres’s play and success occur throughout the book.
One of the advantages of the MS is that Black can play very sharp variations or choose a more solid line. In this review, I will cover the sharp lines first. When I first started playing the MS back in the 1970s, the sharp lines were the ones I wanted to play.
After 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 d6, 5 c3 and 5 0-0 are two of the three main lines which White will try against you. Both these moves may transpose into each other if you play the solid lines, so you have to be wary of move order – as Taylor is at great pains to point out in this book. Black’s sharp options have independent value however.
After 5 c3 Black may play, like Capablanca in the introductory game, the Siesta variation 5 … f5. I had some success with this move in the dim distant past and gained the distinct impression that many of my opponents were unprepared for a Siesta. Even the prepared opponent did not find it easy. For instance, I played the following game against Dr Charles Hunter, one time British Postal Chess Champion, in the days before postal chess was ruined by the growing strength of chess engines.
The lines where White played an early Qb3 never worried me. It was the line 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 d6 5 c3 f5 6 ef Bxf5 7 0-0 Bd3 8 Re1 Be7 9 Bc2!? which seemed to take the fun out of the Siesta, especially as I always seemed to end up with a slight disadvantage as Black. The good news from Taylor in 2011 is that this line is regarded as equal after 9 Bc2 Bxc2 10 Qxc2 Nf6 11 d4 e4 12 Ng5 d5 13 f3 h6 14 Nh3 0-0 15 Nd2 exf 16 Nxf3 Rf7! (directed against Qg6 or Bxh6). That, in a sense, is also the bad news. What Taylor calls the “BML (boring main line)” means that Black is playing the sharp Siesta with a draw coming at the end of all the complications. Shades of the Marshall Attack!
As Taylor points out, all this means that if White wants to play for a win against the Siesta, he has to play 7 d4. This move does lead to fighting chess, as the following game testifies.
The other sharp line in the MS occurs after 5 O-O and is 5 … Bg4 6 h3 h5?! which Taylor has christened the Yandemirov Gambit after the Russian Grandmaster who has done so much to revive this line.
It was good news that the Siesta variation was once more playable. I do not think we can say the same about the Yandemirov line however. Taylor’s analysis of 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 d6 5 O-O Bg4 6 h3 h5 7 c4 is a little suspect and does not do justice to Black’s possibilities as I once found.
But 7 d4! (after 5 O-O Bg4 6 h3 h5) is critical. It seems that the old main line is refuted. Short v Timman, Pamplona 2000, continued 7 … b5 8 Bb3 Nxd4 9 hxg4 hxg4?! 10 Ng5 Nh6 11 f4! When the critical variation would be 11 … d5 12 Bxd5 Bc5 13 Be3 Qd6 14 Bxf7+! Nxf7 15 Nxf7 Kxf7 16 fxe5+.
Yandemirov has improved Black’s prospects with 9 … Nxb3! 10 axb hxg 11 Ng5 Qd7 intending … f6. Taylor thinks that both 12 Qd3 (Gashimov) and 12 c4 leave Black struggling in this line and I believe he is right. All this means that when White plays 5 O-O, Black should switch into one of the quiet lines which we will now consider.
Around 1980, discouraged by 9 Bc2 in the Siesta and the harum-scarum existence of the lines in the Yandemirov Gambit, I decided to go solid in the Modern Steinitz. I was propelled in this direction by one weekend tournament game against Norman Littlewood. He seemed to do everything he shouldn’t have in the Yandemirov Gambit and still he made a draw after complications which suited him, but not me.
The good news about the Modern Steinitz is that you can choose positional lines and Taylor tells you how. He entitles two chapters:
Solid Line I: The Knight Defence
Solid Line II: The Bishop Defence
I will take the Bishop Defence first as this is the line I am most familiar with. Taylor has some valuable things to say about move order. After 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 d6 5 c3 Bd7 6 d4 it was quite common for Black to go 6 … g6 and I too followed fashion at this point. Taylor believes that White can get a plus by 7 Bg5 f6 8 Be3 here and supplies an impressive Capablanca game to back up this judgement. The correct move order is 6 … Nf6 and only after 7 O-O comes 7 … g6! Let’s take a look at a game which transposes to the line we have been talking about.
The Knight Defence goes 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 d6 5 c3 Bd7 6 d4 Nge7 or 5 O-O Bd7 6 c3 Nge7.
Taylor thinks that the Knight Defence is only playable in option two because of the game Topalov v Yusupov, Novgorod 1995 which went 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 d6 5 c3 Bd7 6 d4 Nge7 7 Be3 Ng6 8 h4! so I would not choose this move order unless you have an improvement ready for Black. And it would be a shame if you could play the Knight Defence only if White had castled kingside. Here is a game, not given by Taylor, which shows Black’s resources.
The following fine game shows what can happen if White castles. The notes are largely taken from the column Keres wrote for the American magazine, Chess Life.
A Tal special. But we should not forget that Black had a number of ways to equality during this game.
The third main line you will be likely to meet as Black is the Delayed Exchange Variation. This occurs after 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 d6 5 Bxc6+ bxc6 6 d4. For me personally, this chapter is the most valuable of the book. Taylor recommends 6 … exd4, but first let me say a word about his coverage of 6 … f6, the move I have always played.
Taylor does not like 6 … f6 and gives a couple of games by Yukhtman slaughtering this move. Unfortunately, Taylor gives inferior lines for Black and that is always the easier option. For instance, the game Yukhtman v Cheremisin, Moscow 1958 went (after 6 … f6) 7 Nc3 Ne7 8 Be3 Ng6 9 Qd2 Be7 10 h4 h5 11 O-O-O Be6 (I suspect that 11 … Bd7 is better) 12 dxe5 fxe5 13 Ng5 Bg8? 14 g3 Qc8 15 f4 and White won comfortably. But Taylor does not point out that 13 … Bxg5 is absolutely essential in that line. You cannot use this game to discredit the move 6 … f6.
Having registered this caveat, I must say that my experience of 6 … f6 is not wholly happy. The Black game is difficult to play mainly because the black king has no secure place. Generally, I have scored well if I got past move 25 – which thankfully was most of the time. But I have to confess that being at the wrong end of the odd miniature has always made me feel slightly nervous when playing this 6 … f6.
Taylor’s choice is 6 … exd4. After 7 Nxd4 c5 8 Nf3 Keres equalised against Spassky by 8 … Nf6 9 O-O Be7 10 Nc3 O-O 11 Re1 Bb7 in the USSR Championship, Moscow 1973. But White’s critical try is 7 Qxd4. Now Taylor takes as his model game Mecking-Keres, Petropolis 1973, which went 7 … c5 8 Qd3 Ne7! (better than 8 … g6) 9 Nc3 Rb8 10 b3 Ng6 11 O-O Be7 12 Nd5 Bf6! claiming equality for Black. I think that Taylor is onto something here. “The bishop pair in the open position will often give Black a pull all the way to the endgame …” I agree and have adjusted my repertoire accordingly.
I won’t comment too much about the chapters on the Duras variation and “White plays an early d2-d4” except to say that Taylor generally gets it right. Against 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 d6 5 c4 (the Duras line), 5 … Bg4 is a good and solid answer. Equally, 5 d4 has no teeth. Do remember the ‘Noah’s Ark’ trap which goes 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 d6 5 d4 b5! 6 Bb3 Nxd4 7 Nxd4 exd4 8 Qxd4? c5 9 Qd5 Be6 10 Qc6+ Bd7 11 Qd5, and now 11 … c4! is stronger than repeating moves with 11 … Be6. Over more than 30 years with the Modern Steinitz I have caught two people out with this trap, one being an ELO 2230 player who shall remain nameless.
If White plays the better 8 c3!? Black does not have to take the draw after 8 … dxc3 9 Qd5 Be6 10 Qc6+ Bd7 11 Qd5 Be6 etc. but can try 8 … Bb7 (criticised by Taylor) 9 cxd4 Nf6 10 f3 Be7 11 O-O O-O 12 Nc3 c5 13 Be3 and now 13 … Rc8 14 dxc5 dxc5 15 e5 Nd7 16 f4 c4 17 Bc2 Bc5 (D. Glueck-Berry, Oxfordshire v Middlesex 1991) leaves a balanced and interesting game.
In the chapter “Four Fishes” Taylor considers the sub-optimal moves: 5 Nc3, 5 d3, 5 Qe2 and 5 h3. One of Taylor’s good points is that he will look at inferior lines which club players will meet or, as he puts it, “I am not an advocate of such passive play by White, but you will face such moves as Black, as I have, and the following five games are a guide on how to deal with them.” I will limit myself to one of these games which shows the reader how to play against 5 d3.
In essence, this chapter completes the coverage of the MS. But Taylor wants to give the Black player a complete repertoire against the Spanish and thus the reader should know what to do after 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Bxc6. I remember choosing to play the MS because it seemed to be the first opportunity for Black to get interesting chess without having to learn the reams of theory which is the main line Ruy Lopez. I am sure that many readers of Taylor’s book will have been attracted to the MS for this very reason.
So what does Taylor have to say about the Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation? To cut a long story short, Taylor says two things. First, after 4 Bxc6, 4 … dxc6 is very drawish and boring. Second, Larsen played 4 …bxc6, he was a good player and this is the move Taylor is going to recommend. I won’t say too much about 4 …bxc6 except to note that it’s interesting and Taylor might have looked at 5 Nc3 d6 6 d4 exd4 7 Qxd4 Ne7 8 Bg5 or 7 … c5 8 Qd3 Ne7 9 Bg5.
But I have to protest at Taylor’s dismissal of the main line 4 … dxc6. For the ordinary club player there is plenty to play for here. Yet, as in his section on the Delayed Exchange (5 Bxc6+), Taylor simply avoids the issue and chooses games where players seemed all too intent on a draw. I would also make the point that even if your draw percentage were to increase with 4 … dxc6, this may not be sufficient reason to reject the move. The moves 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 allow the Petroff Defence, a notoriously drawish opening. But it should be clear that White makes a good score against the Petroff despite the increased number of draws. You might, for instance, think that two wins and eight draws against the Exchange Lopez with Black was a satisfactory score.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the lines covered by Taylor in his chapter on 4 …dxc6 against the Spanish Exchange. After 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Bxc6 dxc6 5 O-O Taylor gives a short draw between Adorjan and Keres in his main line 5 … Bg4 6 h3 h5. I myself, have always thought 5 … Bg4 more drawish than many of the alternatives for Black. For instance, the English GM Mark Hebden made a good living out of 5 … Bd6 for many years and 5 … Ne7 is also interesting. These two moves do not even figure in the book.
No matter, let us continue with Taylor. After the Adorjan game, “Keres claimed that 5 … Qd6 was ‘less boring’ than either 5 … Bg4 or 5 … f6.” Taylor then gives a game between Savon v Keres, Petropolis Interzonal, 1973, where Keres played 5 … Qd6 and drew after 6 d3 Ne7 7 Be3 Ng6 8 Nbd2 Be6 9 Qe2 Be7 10 d4 O-O 11 c3 Rad8 12 Nc4 Bxc4 13 Qxc4 Rfe8 14 Qb3 exd4 15 Nxd4 c5 16 Nf5 Qc6.
I agree with Keres that 5 … Qd6 is less boring and it has yielded me – and not just me – good results. Even the game Savon v Keres given by Taylor should be treated skeptically. For instance, instead of 7 … Ng6 by Keres Black might try 7 … c5 as in the following game. Notes are by Dr Victor Palciauskas, winner of the 10th World Correspondence Championship.
Taylor’s determination to prove the boring nature of 5 … Qd6 does not stop there. On page 261 he gives the game Larsen v Portisch, Rotterdam 1977 where after 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Bxc6 dxc6 5 O-O Qd6 6 d4 ed “for the rest of the game Black will have to contend with White’s superior pawn majority” (Taylor) 7 Nxd4 Bd7 8 Be3 O-O-O 9 Nd2 Nh6 10 h3 Qg6 11 Qf3 f5 12 Rad1 fxe4 13 Qxe4 Qxe4 14 Nxe4 White eventually ground Black down in the ending. Taylor uses this game as yet more ammunition to show that 4 … dxc6 is inferior to 4 …bxc6. But what he does not tell you is that Black can play better. My copy of Ruy Lopez Exchange by Panczyk and Ilczuk, Everyman 2005 recommends on pages 99-100 the improvement 13 … Nf5 14 Nc4 Bd6!? 15 Nxd6+ cxd6 16 c4 Rhe8 and the authors believe that Black may even be a little better here.
Taylor’s treatment of 5 Nc3 (instead of 5 O-O) is also cavalier. He gives a game Khachiyan v Taylor where Black suffers in the ending after 5 Nc3 f6 6 d4 ed 7 Nxd4 c5 8 Nde2 Qxd1+ 9 Nxd1. But first, if Black wants a fight why does he chop off into the famous ending rather than trying, for instance, 7 … Ne7. Second, as Black you might want to try (after 6 d4) 6 … Bb4 7 dxe5 Qxd1+ 8 Kxd1 Bg4!? As recommended by Marin in his recent book Play the Open Games. My point is that if you play 4 …dxc6 with the intention of a draw, then that is very likely what you will get. If you look for fighting chess, there are opportunities in the Exchange Lopez too.
But don’t let my strictures on the Ruy Lopez Exchange deter you from buying Taylor’s book. After all, the essence of the work is the Modern Steinitz and Taylor has written an excellent introduction to this rich and strangely neglected opening. The MS is suitable for both sharp and solid players and offers a variety of defences for Black. The only major line omitted by Taylor is 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 d6 5 c3 Bd7 6 d4 Nf6 7 O-O Be7 which has also stood the test of time for Black. But you can’t have everything.
Let me end by quoting Timothy Taylor from the book’s introduction.
“And one final note before we go to the World Champions’ games – how did I do with the Modern Steinitz myself? There are two answers to this: in preceding years I used to play the MS from time to time, without the benefit of any study, and my results were up and down as one might expect, hovering around 50%. Then I began to actually study the variation in preparation for this book, and aimed for the MS every time I had Black. I quickly discovered that few White opponents were prepared for this line (they were all booked to the gills against 4 … Nf6 of course). Meanwhile I was getting the advantage straight off; I was often better before move ten”
Well, I am not sure if this will be quite your experience, dear reader, but if you don’t fancy ploughing down the Ruy Lopez main line, the Modern Steinitz, (a.k.a. the Steinitz Deferred, a.k.a. the Improved Steinitz) is one of the earliest sensible deviations for Black. I don’t think you will be disappointed with the MS, whether you choose the sharp or solid lines.