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Why Not the English?
by FM Stephen Berry
Grandmaster Repertoire: The English Opening Volume One (Quality Chess) by Mihail Marin
The English Opening by Nigel Davies. (DVD: Fritztrainer Opening – by Chessbase)
The Dynamic English (Gambit Publications) by Tony Kosten
The English is, to some extent, the Cinderella of the major chess openings. 90 per cent of all chess games begin by either 1 e4 or 1 d4, with opening literature firmly synchronised to this fact. Yet I maintain there are four opening moves of equal worth for White – 1 e4, 1 d4, 1 c4 and 1 Nf3 – and it’s time the last two got their place in the sun.
1 c4 was mentioned by Lucena and Ruy Lopez, the latter adding the comment that the move was so bad that no decent player would use it. At the dawn of modern chess, 1 c4 was played successfully by the English champion, Howard Staunton ( particularly in his 1843 match against Saint-Amant). It was therefore christened the ‘The English Opening’, but never matched 1 e4 and 1 d4 for popularity during the rest of the 19th century. The English revived before the First World War with Tartakower stating that it might be White’s best first move and the Hypermodern Revolution of the 1920s saw 1 c4 being played by both Reti and Nimzowitch. But still there was no take-off. After 1950, Botvinnik, Smyslov and Korchnoy championed the English and 1 c4 finally achieved respectability at the highest level. But it never became popular at club level.
I detected a change with the publication of The Dynamic English by Tony Kosten in 1999. This book advocated the moves 1 c4 and 2 g3 against any system adopted by Black. Kosten produced a well-written, succinct and punchy advocacy of this particular opening set-up. Nigel Davies followed with a DVD, also on the 1 c4 2 g3 system. Now, ten years after Kosten, the Rumanian grandmaster Mihail Marin has written a repertoire where he too champions 1 c4 and 2 g3 as a complete White system. The first volume of this two volume work has just appeared. In it, Marin deals with the White responses to 1 c4 e5. First, let’s look at how the Marin book is laid out.
Index of Variations:
Reversed Rossolimo 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg2 Bb4 5.Nd5
Botvinnik System 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.e4 d6 6.Nge2
19 3rd move alternatives
Reversed Dragon 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Nc3
20 Introduction and minor lines
Keres Variation 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 c6 4.d4
26 Introduction and Sidelines
30 Minor Lines
Accelerated Keres 1.c4 e5 2.g3
Odd and Trends
33 Minor Lines
Let’s first be clear on one thing: the claim, ‘Grandmaster Repertoire’, is not idle. This book is written by a 2600 grandmaster and will be read by other grandmasters. The analysis is very thorough, as might be expected with a book which is more than 470 pages long. Kosten’s book was only 140 pages long, of smaller page size and dealt with the whole of the English. In fact, Kosten covered the 1 c4 e5 lines in only 50 pages. I would recommend the club player to work through the Kosten book first, before turning to the much more detailed Marin work. That way, you should develop an overall impression of the English Opening and not miss the wood for the trees.
But you should not let the Marin book pass you by. It is an attempt to prove an advantage for White in every line whilst avoiding transposition to 1d4 lines at any point. As Marin says, “After more than one year of deep analysis with Valentin Stoica, I managed to make a step I had never dared to try before, by building a viable repertoire based on 1 c4 followed by 2 g3 irrespective of Black’s answer!” This is rather important as, apart from the search for chess truth, it’s handy to be able to adopt relatively unanalysed lines of the English without having to worry about the mountainous theory around 1 d4.
At the end of the introduction Marin writes, “I cannot anticipate how my understanding of chess will change in, say, ten years, but for the moment I feel confident that, after almost 20 years of research, I have finally found my Golden Fleece.” So let’s take a more detailed look at the Marin’s Golden Fleece, at the same time comparing it with the suggestions of Kosten and Davies.
What Marin calls the Karpov Variation begins 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg2 Bc5. Marin recommends 5.Nf3 with advantage, but looks at Kosten’s 5 a3 and Davies’s 5 e3. The verdict? 5 a3 allows Black to equalise, but 5 e3 may also make things tricky for Black.
With the Reversed Rossolimo 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg2 Bb4 5.Nd5, all the authors, Marin, Kosten and Davies are in agreement. Marin’s analysis is deeper and offers a number of new ideas.
All the authors are also in unison on the Botvinnik System 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nc6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5.e4 d6 6.Nge2. Again Marin’s coverage is more thorough, as one would expect with a book of over 450 pages. The Botvinnik system set up (with White or Black) is a tough nut to crack, as I found when playing the Closed Sicilian with White.
Regarding the third move alternatives after 2...Nc6 3.Nc3 the authors agree to diverge. After 2 … Nc6 Marin plays 3 Nc3 so that he can answer 3 … f5 with 4 Nf3. He then advocates an interesting and little played scheme which may involve putting the knight on h4 after, say, 4 …e4. Kosten plays 3 Bg2 f5 4 Nc3 Nf6 5 d3 to answer 5 …Bb4 with 6 Bd2. Davies simply seems to have forgotten about 3 …f5! I regard both the Marin and Kosten recipes to be adequate.
Against the Reversed Dragon 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 Marin plays the main line 5.Nc3. Typically, he devotes six chapters and almost 100 pages to this, again offering a number of new ideas. Kosten and Davies both opt for the sequence 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.0–0 Nb6 7.b3 Be7 8.Bb2 f6 9.d3 0–0 10.Nbd2 developing the knight to d2 rather than c3. I suspect that both approaches are valid. It is relevant to the club player that Marin’s preference for the main lines will involve him, here and elsewhere, with a lot more theory to digest.
In the Keres Variation 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 c6 Marin proposes 4.d4 rather than 4 Nf3 and Kosten and Davies concur. Marin pays special attention to 4 … ed 5 Qxd4 Na6 which was advocated by Richard Palliser in the book Dangerous Weapons: Flank Openings (Everyman Chess). We will look at this in more depth a little later.
Marin pays particular attention to lines after 2...d6 and even has a separate chapter for the line 1.c4 e5 2.g3 d6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Bg2 Bg7 5 d3 f5. The lines where Black does not develop a knight to c6 are much more comprehensively covered in Marin than by the other two authors.
Finally, Marin has a section on the Accelerated Keres move order 1.c4 e5 2.g3 c6. Marin is important here as there has been an improvement on the line recommended by Kosten. Again, it was Richard Palliser in the book Dangerous Weapons who recommended 2 … c6 as a way to combat the 1 c4, 2 g3 approach. Marin now believes he has proved an advantage here.
In this synopsis I have continually referred to the thoroughness and inventiveness of the Marin book. I will end by showing some examples of this which particularly impressed me. As already mentioned, Richard Palliser recommended 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 c6 4.d4 ed 5 Qxd4 Na6 as a way for Black to equalise easily. Let’s see in more detail how Marin deals with this line.
DIAGRAM A after 5...Na6
Marin recommends 6 Nf3 after which Black may play either a) 6 … Bc5 or b) 6 … d5, both of which got the thumbs up from Palliser.
DIAGRAM B after 9 … Nb4
9 … Nb4 was one of Palliser’s routes to equality, but Marin suggests the powerful 10 Nd4! Bc5 (10 … c5 11 Ndb5 Nc2+ 12 Kd1 Nxa1 13 Nc7+ Kd8 14 Nxa8 is better for White) 11 a3 Bxd4 14 ab with White better developed and enjoying a space advantage.
Alternatively, Black may answer 7 Qe5+ with 7 … Be7. After 8 O-O O-O 9 Nc3 Re8 Marin – contra Palliser – thinks the old 10 Qd4 is OK but suggests the brand new 10 Rd1!
DIAGRAM C after 10 Rd1!
Now 10 … Bb4 11 Qf5! (heading back to the nice square c2 after 11 … d5) 11 … Bxc3 12 bc Rxe2 13 Be3 Qe7 14 Qd3 Rb2 15 Re1 gives White a very promising position.
DIAGRAM D after 10 … Bc5
White has two promising continuations.
11 a3 Nbd5 12 Nxd5 Nxd5 13 Nb5!? O-O (13 … a6 14 e4!) 14 Bxd5 cd 15 Nc7 Bh3 16 Nxa8 Bxf1 17 Kxf1 Rxa8 18 Bf4
Here Palliser states that the diagram position ‘gives White nothing more than a nominal edge after 18 … Bd4’. Marin disagrees and gives the line 19 a4 b6 20 Rd1 Bxb2 21 Rxd5 h6 22 Rd7 claiming an advantage in the ending.
Marin also thinks that after 10 … Bc5 11 Nb3 is promising for White. After 11 … Be7 12 Bf4 O-O 13 Rfd1 Rd8 14 Rxd8+ Bxd8 15 Rd1 Bb6 Palliser wrote that Black is “ very solid and no more than a touch worse”.
Marin disagrees and thinks that 16 a3 Na6 17 Na4 Be6 18 Nxb6 ab 19 Nd4 Bc4 20 Rc1 Bd5 21 f3! preparing e4 would lead to much the better position for White and I think that he is right.
This brief sample of Marin’s lines after 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 c6 4.d4 ed 5 Qxd4 Na6 give a representative flavour of the book. There are startling tactics which will surprise an opponent who lazily assumes the English Opening to be a sleepy byway of chess. There are also lines which are taken deep into the endgame where Marin’s grandmasterly judgment is shown to best effect.
Volume two of this series will cover all Black’s replies to the English other than 1 … e5. I await with eager anticipation.
Grandmaster Repertoire: The English Opening Volume Two by Mihail Marin. Quality Chess, 432 pages.
Grandmaster Repertoire: The English Opening Volume Three by Mihail Marin. Quality Chess, 275 pages.