Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane
Batsford’s Modern Chess Openings, Fifteenth Edition
by Nick de Firmian
Bobby Fischer’s biographer, Frank Brady, relates an occasion when he asked his subject to tutor him in chess. ‘For your first lesson,’ Fischer supposedly told him, ‘I want you to play through every column in Modern Chess Openings, including footnotes. For your second lesson, I want you to do it again.’ It is a telling anecdote, which illustrates the high regard in which Modern Chess Openings (henceforth, MCO) is held. But the question might well be asked: is there still a place for a single-volume work on all the openings in this age of specialist opening monographs and mega databases?
One would have to answer with a guarded ‘Yes’. For with regard to the openings, one should strive to know everything about something (that is, to specialize) and something about everything (that is, to have a wide general knowledge that one can call upon when needed). And MCO fulfills the latter objective admirably; it is a good first port of call and it will be the one-stop-shop of choice for many.
Generally, MCO is a user-friendly book in the way that its content is organized, though there are a few quirks. The openings are set out in six sections. Sections one and two cover the open games (1.e4 e5) and the semi-open games (1.e4 and any reply other than 1 … e5) respectively and here the organization of material is quite straightforward. Sections three, four and five together cover the openings arising after 1.d4, but here the demarcation of material is somewhat fuzzy. So section three (‘Double Queen Pawn Openings’) covers all Black responses to the Queen’s Gambit (1.d4 d5 2.c4), except for the Albin Counter Gambit (2 … e5), which is given in section 4 (‘Other Queen Pawn Openings’). This seems anomalous and overall one could say that section four is something of a ‘sundries’ section, including as it does the Dutch, the Colle and the Polish, amongst others: these systems are quite unlike each other. Likewise, section five (‘Indian Openings’) includes all defences arising from 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4, except for the Budapest, which is again in section four (of course, one could argue that the Budapest is not an ‘Indian’ defence, but nor is the Catalan, and that is in section five). The final section, thankfully, is again straightforward; it covers the flank openings.
A sizable attractive feature of MCO is that it does not consist simply of language-free symbols. Each opening has an individual introduction that will typically outline its important strategic concepts, present some historical background (e.g. by mentioning the players who invented or popularized it) and summarize the options available for White and Black. Incidentally, most space is devoted to the Sicilian Defence (about 120 pages, all told); quite right too, as it is the opening that most often appears in practice.
While the treatment of the mainstream lines is thorough, the byways are less traversed. And there is one curious omission: The Black Knights’ Tango (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Nc6; henceforth, BKT), the brainchild of Vlacheslav Chebanenko (1942-1997), is not covered at all, or indeed mentioned in the index (the closest we get is column 12 on page 511, which could well arise from the BKT). This is especially curious because Joel Benjamin, Nick de Firmian’s fellow American Grandmaster, is a great advocate of the BKT; and has written about it online. Incidentally, another of Chebanenko’s creations, the fashionable Slav Defence line with 4 … a6 is well covered (with plenty of up-to-date references) on pages 482-483.
While it would now be an exaggeration to call MCO by its erstwhile moniker ‘The Chess Player’s Bible’, it remains the best one-volume work on the openings. Its ambition, to adequately map the whole terrain of modern opening theory, is a worthy one, and in a sense it comes down to a classic trade-off: what one loses in depth, one gains in comprehensiveness. Now nearly a century old – the first edition came out in 1911- MCO is still a necessary book to own, and it would be especially useful to good club players. The fourteenth edition came out in 1999, so this update – the first of a new century – is extremely welcome.
About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org