Book Review: Opening Repertoire: …c6

One interesting piece of advice I have come across more than once, which relates to creating an opening repertoire, is to use a particular player as your model. The idea is that they player has already done the hard work of constructing the repertoire, so we are not starting from scratch, but rather working with something that has been shown to work. This of course relies on picking the right player, as not all players’ repertoires are well worked out; also, some repertoires may simply be unsuitable if the openings are not to our taste or require more theoretical work than we are prepared to do. Over the years, there have been more than one effort to do this, with varying results.

Cyrus Lakdawala, assisted by Keaton Kiewra, produced a repertoire for Black along these lines in the form of Opening Repertoire: …c6 (Everyman Chess 2017). This is subtitled “Playing the Caro-Kann and Slav as Black”, which manages to be both informative and misleading, since the book in fact recommends the Semi-Slav, albeit through the Slav move order. The key points regarding the approach of the book are as follows:

  • The book has the interesting twist that the authors have chosen two rather than one player as the model for the repertoire: Alexey Dreev and Igor Khenkin. Lakdawala notes that this has the benefit that it reduces the theoretical gaps, so the proposed repertoire can be as far as possible based on the games of the model players.
  • The opening is presented in much the same style as the “Move by Move” series. There are a series of illustrative games, organised into chapters that represent the main variations or groups of variations.
  • In the “Move by Move” series, the annotator answers questions posed at key points, which are supposed to be the sort of question the average club player might ask. This book has these questions, but instead of being thought up and answered by the sole author, in this case we have a main annotator (Lakdawala) being questioned by his co-author (Kiewra).

Having read through the book, I have mixed feelings about it. The games are well-annotated by Lakdawala (albeit in his usual flatulent style), although I am not sure about the value of Kiewra’s contribution. The problem is that he is of similar playing strength to Lakdawala, so we do not have the same dynamic as the “Move by Move” series, where the questioner is clearly supposed to be the weaker player. His questions sometimes seem pitched at too high a level for this kind of book, or at least that was my general impression reading through it. I did however enjoy his comment in game 62 after the moves 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 Bf4: “I’ve already lost interest. How can any self-respecting chess player play the London System?”

The big problem I have with the book is its lack of rigour. What I would expect in a book covering a repertoire with numerous transpositions is a clear explanation of how these all fit together. While things are reasonably straightforward after 1 e4 c6, as play leads into the Caro-Kann, matters are more complicated after 1 d4, 1 c4 and 1 Nf3. It is possible for play, following these moves, to lead to the Semi-Slav Defence, but there are also a number of other possibilities. For instance, the following lines all lead to the main Semi-Slav position after four moves:

  • 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 Nc3 e6
  • 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Nf3 e6
  • 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 c4 c6 4 Nc3 e6
  • 1 c4 c6 2 Nf3 d5 3 d4 Nf6 4 Nc3 e6
  • 1 c4 c6 2 Nc3 d5 3 d4 Nf6 4 Nf3 e6
  • 1 c4 c6 2 d4 d5 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 Nc3 e6
  • 1 c4 c6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Nf3 e6
  • 1 Nf3 d5 2 d4 Nf6 3 c4 c6 4 Nc3 e6
  • 1 Nf3 d5 2 c4 c6 3 d4 Nf6 4 Nc3 e6

Now, it is possible to pick up the above from playing through the games, but, unless I have overlooked something, at no point does Lakdawala set the above out explicitly. My view is that there should have been an introductory section that covers this.

In addition to the above, there are move order issues where White plays 4 e3; the two basic forms of this are:

  • 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 e3
  • 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e3

To be fair to Lakdawala, he does discuss the former move order, and explain why he prefers 4…Bf5 to 4…e6, in chapter 7. However, while there is no particular problem with the latter move order, as Black can just play 4…e6, most probably transposing to the Meran Variation of the Semi-Slav, as far as I can see you are just supposed to pick this up from the games. It would have been better if both these issues were addressed up front along with the move orders.

Another issue is how Black should play after 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 or 1 Nf3 d5 2 d4. The solution for this particular repertoire is to play 2…Nf6, when 3 c4 c6 leads to the Slav, while other moves lead to various Queen’s Pawn systems. However, while these systems are generally well covered in chapter 12, there is one exception, which is game 60. This is supposed to cover the Colle System (3 e3). The most natural solution for Black, given the wider repertoire, is to play 3…Bf5, when 4 c4 c6 leads to the Slav, and other move are innocuous. However, game 60 stars with the moves:

1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 c6 3 e3 Bf5

This is simply inconsistent with the rest of the chapter, which is based on 2…Nf6. If White were to choose 3 Bf4 or 3 Bg5 instead of 3 e3, Black could not choose the solutions recommended after 2…Nf6. Also, the line in the game is no use against 2…Nf6 3 e3, as it is based on delaying …Nf6.

Regarding the general quality of the theoretical coverage, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the Caro-Kann part, but when it comes to the Semi-Slav, I was amazed, looking at the Bibliography, to see that Dreev’s two books on the Semi-Slav are not there. This remarkable on two counts: firstly, these books are among the best ever written on the Semi-Slav, and secondly, Dreev is one of the two model players. Wouldn’t it have been natural to see what Dreev himself though about the lines?

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