Chess Tactics: A. Sokolov — Novikov, 1984

Andrei Sokolov
Andrei Sokolov in 1986. Photo: Lothar Karrer/ChessBase

Andrei Sokolov was born in 1963 in Vorkuta, Russia (then part of the USSR). A superstar in the 1980s, he is largely unknown by chess fans today because his career as a top player was relatively short.

Sokolov won the World Junior Championship in 1982, and captured the USSR Championship in his first appearance in 1984. At 21 years old, he was one of the youngest-ever Soviet Champions.

Still, he kept rising. A 3rd place finish in the 1985 Biel Interzonal (behind Rafael Vaganian and Yasser Seirawan) was followed by a tie for 1st-3rd place in the 1985 Montpellier Candidates Tournament (with Artur Yusupov and Vaganian).

Finally, there were Candidates matches. After defeating Vaganian (4 wins, 4 draws) and Yusupov (4 wins, 7 draws, 3 losses) in 1986, he faced former World Champion Anatoly Karpov in the 1987 Candidates Final. A victory here would have meant a World Championship match with Garry Kasparov!

Sokolov lost this match (7 draws, 4 losses). This is the same score Ian Nepomniachtchi managed in his 2021 World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen … and it’s also the same score Kasparov had against Karpov after 11 games in their 1984 match!

In 1987, Andrei Sokolov was ranked World #3 (with Yusupov, behind Kasparov and Karpov) at 2645, and he was just 24 years old. It seemed the sky was the limit.

Alas, the 1985-87 cycle would be the peak of Sokolov’s career — after 1988 he fell out of the Top 20, never to return. Since 2000, he has represented France.

 

Here we look at an early battle between Sokolov and Igor Novikov (born 1962) who would become one of America’s top players in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

White to play.

17. ?

 

Controlled aggression

Carlsen vs. Nepomniachtchi: A Brief Take

Maybe the Greatest?

Dubai skyline
Dubai’s stunning skyline. Image: LonelyPlanet

With Magnus Carlsen‘s dominant 7½ to 3½ victory over Ian Nepomniachtchi in the FIDE World Championship Match in Dubai, the 31-year-old Norwegian has already amassed one of the best records in title matches … maybe the best.

I remain heavily critical of Carlsen being declared winner of the 2013 London Candidates Tournament by virtue of having more wins than Vladimir Kramnik, and not through an over-the-board tiebreak. Even blitz or rapid would have been better!

But in the cauldron of a World Championship Match, Carlsen has proven invincible. In late 2013 he convincingly wrested the crown from Vishy Anand, and defeated him again in 2014 when the Indian legend surprisingly won the next Candidates Tournament.

Carlsen drew his next two matches against Sergey Karjakin (New York, 2016) and Fabiano Caruana (London, 2018), eventually subduing his rivals in rapid tiebreaks.

Carlsen Nepo 2021
Carlsen wins again. Image: chess24

With this victory, Carlsen has one win as Challenger and four title defenses as Champion; in five World Championship matches he has lost a total of just two games out of 56 played!

In tiebreaks? Carlsen has five wins and two draws in seven games!

Matches are shorter now than in the past, but I don’t think anyone in history can claim better.

I value longevity, so I’ve long said Garry Kasparov is the Greatest of All-Time, for now … but Magnus Carlsen has a an argument that gets stronger every year.

What happened to Ian?

Nepomniachtchi was not widely considered the strongest Challenger this time around, but perhaps he was less afraid of Carlsen than others. How would this dynamic affect the match? While unclear, I predicted a three-point Carlsen victory.

During the first five games, “Nepo” probably played as well as Magnus did.

I really think losing the a3-pawn in Game 6 was his undoing. Even if the engines say the resulting position should be drawn, it was always going to be difficult against a top player, let alone a notorious grinder like Carlsen.

A game behind, Nepomniachtchi had to take on more risk.

A poor Game 8 simply ended the match. There was no coming back down two games against Carlsen with six left. Frankly, I think Magnus would be unlikely to level the match if Ian had a two-game lead.

Nepomniachtchi knew this very well, and I think he simply couldn’t play at his best any longer: doing so would just delay the inevitable. So, I agree with the consensus view that he just collapsed.

Who’s Next?

Alireza Firouzja
The next Challenger? Image: Twitter (@AlirezaFirouzja)

Many chess fans expect Alireza Firouzja to be the next Challenger. I think there’s a decent chance of that happening.

The other favorites are Caruana and Ding Liren.

Still, Candidates Tournaments are arguably as grueling as a World Championship Match; but those eight players don’t have to face Carlsen to become Challenger!

Advice for New Chess Players, Part 1: General Tips

No matter why you decided to pick up chess, Congratulations, and Welcome!

I played my first chess tournaments in 1995-96. While I started teaching beginners as early as 1997 (when I was not much past 1000 USCF), I didn’t become a full-time chess teacher and coach until 2005 (I had surpassed 1800 by then).

I’ve seen and learned a great deal over the years, and I’d like to share some of my best advice.

 

How you perform against friends and family means nothing.

Just because you can beat your dad, your friends, or your co-workers in chess says absolutely nothing about how well or poorly you play the game. The only way to know where you stand in the pecking order is to play in official (rated) tournaments. And no, online ratings don’t mean anything either, whether you play on ICC, lichess, or anywhere else. Online is just practice.

 

Expect to lose a lot of games. A lot.

No one becomes a strong chess player without losing hundreds, no, thousands, of games. People who say otherwise are lying. The sooner you accept this, the better off you’ll be.

Related to this: genius is exceedingly rare in chess. Unless your name is Kasparov, Anand, Kramnik, or Ivanchuk, you are not a chess genius and your kid isn’t either. If someone tells you otherwise, they’re only after your money.

 

Academic achievement and chess aptitude? Probably unrelated.

I’ve already written about this here. I’m not a scientist or a researcher, but have worked with thousands of students over the years, age 3 and up.

 

Endgames are overrated.

Most games between non-experts (97+% of the chess population!) will be decided before the endgame is reached. You should know some basics, but don’t spend more than 20-25% of your study time on this phase of the game.

 

Openings are underrated.

Don’t listen to people who advise you to ignore openings! Effective opening study is well worth your time, even as a new player.

The opening gets a bad rap because it is often presented very poorly. That’s the fault of the material, not the phase of the game itself! I recently reviewed a book that presents the opening pretty well for inexperienced players.

I have also long believed that openings can drive your rating improvement, in large part because so many of your adversaries are too lazy to work at it.

 

Don’t Worship Your Chess Engine!

You can’t play like a chess computer 100% of the time, so a lot of its post-mortem suggestions will not help you in real life.

 

Experienced players: are there any other general tips I didn’t mention? Leave a comment!

Understanding the Caro-Kann Defense

The Best Book to Learn the Caro-Kann Defense

Understanding the Caro-Kann Defense was published way back in 1981. Amazon tells me I purchased it in March 2012, but I’ve only read it recently … and regret not doing so much sooner.

I have read a lot of Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6) books over the years, as I flirted with the opening for years and have now made it my weapon of choice against 1.e4.

I’ll start with the conclusion: I don’t think any other Caro-Kann title comes close.

Keep in mind: I lack chess talent, and need things spelled out for me in a to-the-point manner. This is why I love Max Euwe and Edmar Mednis so much. Your mileage may vary. There are other choices if you want wild, entertaining stories with your chess.

More About Understanding the Caro-Kann Defense

Understanding the Caro-Kann DefenseThe book has five co-authors: Raymond Keene, Andrew Soltis, Edmar Mednis, Jack Peters, and Julio Kaplan, with each writing two consecutive chapters.

All the main lines are covered, including 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6 exf6 (by Peters) which most contemporary books ignore completely. Soltis covers sidelines in the final chapter, which includes the King’s Indian Attack (2.d3), Two Knights (2.Nc3 d5 3.Nf3), and 2.c4 as expected, but I was surprised to see the Fantasy Variation (2.d4 d5 3.f3) discussed in a book from 40 years ago —and well-done, too!

The authors really take their time and discuss the ideas and key maneuvers available to both players in this opening. You really understand what both players are striving for, and their variations are helpful, not torturous.

The only place where the book really shows its age is with the Advance Variation (2.d4 d5 3.e5). It only discusses the old, not-topical line 3…Bf5 4.Bd3. Still, the coverage is helpful, as Keene explains this part very nicely, and the line still appears at lower levels!

I don’t read chess books very much any longer, but I couldn’t put this one down and finished it within a week. It was that helpful, easy-to-read, and confidence-building.

I would order a copy of Understanding the Caro-Kann Defense if you have any interest in this opening — from either side, as a player or a coach. Not only can the book be had cheaply, who knows how long copies of the old gem will be around at an affordable price?

Table of Contents

Understanding the Caro-Kann Defense CONTENTS

Other Images from Understanding the Caro-Kann Defense

Understanding the CK page 7

Understanding the CK page 31

Understanding the CK page 99

 

For Reference: Other Caro-Kann Books

If you want to play the line with 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5:

Grandmaster Repertoire 7: The Caro-Kann by Danish GM Lars Schandorff (2010) was widely praised, and contained the latest theory and games. Still, I felt something was missing. At least for me. It’s the type of opening book you would expect from Quality Chess.

There is also Caro-Kann: Classical 4…Bf5 by Garry Kasparov and Aleksander Shakarov (1984). The coverage is thorough, as you would expect from The Beast, and I suspect it can be a useful starting point even today.

I haven’t read Play the Caro-Kann: A Complete Chess Opening Repertoire Against 1e4 by Jovanka Houska (2007), but I remember it getting good reviews. Notably, she recommends answering the Advance Variation with 3…c5, rather than the much more common 3…Bf5. This line has gained in popularity at high level, and I might change to it myself!

Houska wrote a major update in 2015: Opening Repertoire: The Caro-Kann.

If you want to play the line with 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7:

I previously reviewed Opening for Black according to Karpov by former FIDE World Champion Alexander Khalifman. This book has been much more helpful to me, because it gives analysis and sensible reasoning for its moves and evaluations. It’s Caro-Kann coverage is not huge, because most of the book is devoted to defending 1.d4/1.c4/1.Nf3, etc.

More recently, there’s Caro-Kann: Move by Move by Cyrus Lakdawala (2012). Personally, I don’t like these kinds of books that contain too many words that try to be clever and don’t get to the point. (At the other end of the spectrum, I wouldn’t bother with Eduard Gufeld and Oleg Stetsko‘s Caro-Kann: Smyslov System 4…Nd7 from 1998).

There are other books, too, of course. But these are the ones I am familiar with.

Positional Chess Handbook: Strategy for All Levels

495 Chess Lessons in Your Pocket

Positional Chess Handbook
Positional Chess Handbook by Israel Gelfer

Positional Chess Handbook can be considered a strategy cousin to 1001 Chess Sacrifices and Combinations, the iconic puzzle book by Fred Reinfeld. Both are pocket-sized and ideal for studying on-the-go — but PCH is definitely the superior book.

I recommend Positional Chess Handbook to players (and coaches!) of all levels. Players rated from zero to at least 2200 will benefit. The book will give beginners ideas about strategy; it has much to teach club players; and it is a good refresher for the 2000+ crowd.

Originally published in 1991, it is filled with instructive game fragments from famous and not-so-famous players and composers. You’ll find examples from Morphy and Steinitz, as well as from Fischer, Karpov, and Kasparov. In all, there are 495 diagrams over 208 pages (plus index). I’m sure author Israel Gelfer (FIDE Master and FIDE Senior Trainer) spent many years compiling the examples that helped his students the most.

So what does it cover?

Positional Chess Handbook: Contents

Most of the 21 chapters isolate a certain positional feature, making it easy to reinforce understanding of a particular concept without distraction. A few sections are more general, but very instructive nonetheless. Of course, tactics are everywhere in this book, too — strategy cannot exist without them, right?

              1. Instroduction; Strong and Weak Pieces
              2. A Good Bishop versus a Bad Knight
              3. A Good Knight versus a Bad Bishop
              4. Bishops—Same Colour
              5. Bishops—Opposite Colour
              6. Knights
              7. Rooks
              8. Two Bishops
              9. A Rook versus Two Minor Pieces
              10. Choosing an Endgame; Some Aspects of the Endgame
              11. Key Squares—Strong Points
              12. Strategic Advantages
              13. Exchanges
              14. Cramped Positions, Restricted Pieces
              15. Pawn Structures
              16. Pros and Cons
              17. Active King; Central Supremacy
              18. Inducing Weaknesses
              19. A Diagonal
              20. Two Diagonals,
              21. Positional Sacrifices

            Index of Players and Composers

Images from the Book

Positional Chess Handbook, page 103 Positional Chess Handbook, page 81 Positional Chess Handbook, page 49

 

 

 

 

Positional Chess Handbook is one of the books I reread portions of regularly to keep my positional skills sharp. The others are Simple Chess and Judgment and Planning in Chess. You don’t need much else. Best of all in these tough times, each of these books can be had for under $10!

Have you read PCH? What are your impressions? Comment below!

The First Master Game I Studied

A Special Birthday

Today is the 65th birthday of the man who taught me how to play chess — my dad.

One Saturday night when I was eight years old, my dad was cleaning out the hallway closet of our family’s apartment. I noticed a folded chess board, similar to this one. I knew it was a chess set — I don’t remember where I was first learned what chess was — and asked my dad to teach me how to play.

That night and the next day, he did. I understood the basic rules plus castling and pawn promotion — later I realized that he didn’t quite understand en passant! We began to play.

Well … I am no Morphy or Capablanca! My attempts to win our early games went nowhere.

My parents, sister and I soon went to the now-defunct Coliseum Books near Columbus Circle. I was looking through the chess books and other things, and my dad saw this cool-looking book that had lots of colored arrows and diagrams! This was apparently not a common thing back then. The book was also written by a Grandmaster! It was …

Better Chess by David Norwood. It combined Advanced Chess and Chess Puzzles into one volume.

My parents bought me the book and I read it over and over and over.

I learned basic strategy and solved my first tactical puzzles.

I learned about a bit about four openings explored in the book: the Spanish Game, King’s Indian Defence (sic), Modern Benoni, and King’s Gambit.

And the cherry on top? Brief, fascinating bios of great players past and present: Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz, Jose Raul Capablanca, Mir Sultan Khan, Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, and Judit Polgar. I loved this book so much!

In it, I also found my first master game played by the author which I tried to make some sense of with the help of the annotations.

Today, it’s time for me to annotate this memorable game.

I didn’t become serious about chess until a few years later, but the foundation was set. With my second chess book, I was on my way.

Thanks, Dad.

Chess Tactics: Gashimov — Gelfand, 2009

Vugar Gashimov (1986-2014) was a top player from Azerbaijan who was dogged with ill health for much of his life. Despite this, he rose as high as World Number 6 in November 2009.

Vugar Gashimov
Vugar Gashimov. Photo: ChessBase

Gashimov reached a peak rating of 2761 in January 2012, the same month as Wijk aan Zee. As it turned out, this would be his last tournament … epilepsy and a brain tumor forced him to retire from chess at just 25 years old. He died two years later, only 27, reminiscent of Pillsbury, Charousek, and other top talents a century before.

His notatble tournament victories include the Cappelle la Grande Open (2007 and 2008), the FIDE Grand Prix (2008) in his home city of Baku, and Reggio Emilia (2010/2011). He also won the decisive last round game that clinched gold for Azerbaijan at the 2009 European Team Championship.

The Gashimov Memorial has been held annually since 2014 in Shamkir, Azerbaijan.

Gashimov wins a minature against the formidable Boris Gelfand. The Belarusian-Israeli legend was only the fifth player in chess history to achieve a 2700 Elo rating (after Fischer, Karpov, Tal, and Kasparov). He nearly reached the chess Olympus in 2012 when he drew a 12-game World Championship match with Viswanathan Anand (+1 =10 -1) but lost the rapid tiebreak.

 

White to play. How did Gashimov end the game quickly after Gelfand’s untimely castling?

11. ?

 

Not-so-Boring Petroff

Which Sicilian is Right for You?

I don’t believe that the Sicilian is necessarily the “best” opening, or that everyone should play it. I do believe, however, that any player who wants to answer 1.e4 with 1…c5 can find a system to their liking.

 

Choosing Your Sicilian: Like Ordering from a Diner Menu!

The menu at Sarge’s Deli, a New York City institution. Photo: TripAdvisor

I discussed the Smith-Morra Gambit and other Anti-Sicilians in passing in previous posts. When deciding to play the Siclian, however, the most important question is: which main system will I employ?

I’m talking about how to answer the Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3):

As you probably know, there is a huge array of options. Traditionally, they are grouped by black’s reply from the diagram: does s/he play 2…Nc6, 2…d6, or 2…e6 ?

Instead I’ll consider popular variations based on my opinions about they rank on two scales:

Aggressive — Neutral — Solid

and

Tactical — Neutral — Positional.

Mastering the Sicilian by Danny KopecOf course, white has a hand in which line is played also, so these won’t be 100% accurate, but I’ll characterize some popular lines.

If you want an excellent overview of the Sicilian mainlines and Anti-Sicilian setups, get Mastering the Sicilian Defense by the late International Master Danny Kopec (1954-2016). It is probably the best book I have seen on the subject: good prose, good examples, and sensible recommendations.

Kopec always shined as an author when discussing structural play in the opening and middlegame.

 

Okay, here we go:

 

Aggressive and Tactical

High risk, high reward! Probably the most aggressive line in the entire Sicilian universe is the Dragon Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6):

The “Dragon bishop” plans to breathe fire on the long a1-h8 diagonal. White’s most critical try is the Yugoslav Attack (6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Qd2 0-0): 

The first player will castle into an attack on the queenside, while starting one of their own on the kingside.

Despite this, I have never considered the Dragon super-tactical, because many of the sacrifices are standard and repeat themselves over and over again. Still, compared to other options, I will place it in this bucket.

Aggressive and Neutral

Najdorf Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6):

This may surprise some people, but I consider the Najdorf a blend of Tactical and Positional. Black doesn’t necessarily aim to attack the king, and often uses a “whole board” strategy. It is not as aggressive as the Dragon in a “kill the king” sense, but a positionally aggressive opening where black willingly takes on some risk. I learned how to play this opening from the first edition of The Sharpest Sicilian, one of the finest opening books I have ever read.

There are lines like the English Attack (6.Be3), but here white more or less forces black into a ferocious counterattack. Personally, 6.Bg5 annoys me the most: the late Ed Kopiecki shredded me with this a few years ago at the Marshall, in our only tournament encounter. RIP, Eddie.

Aggressive and Positional

Sveshnikov Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6):

Black seeks aggressive counterplay in this line, but the risks are more structural than anything else, with the potential outpost on d5. A knight ensconced here can be paralyzing. Still, neither side is too likely to get mated during a Sveshnikov battle, and the tactical play is relatively tame.

Neutral and Tactical

Taimanov Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6):

This is a dynamic, combative system with a large array of possible setups for both sides. Not only do both players need to be well-prepared and alert, some of the tactical motifs are strange. There are more solid lines a player can choose than the Taimanov, but more aggressive ones as well.

When I play 1.e4, it is my least favorite Sicilian to face because of its chameleon-like qualities. I should probably take a look at Emms’ book!

 

Neutral and Neutral

Scheveningen Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6):

I’ve given a traditional move order, but this exact position is now infrequent because of the strong Keres Attack (6.g4). Nowadays the Scheveningen is more often reached through the Najdorf: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 e6.

These positions are among the most balanced in the Sicilian, with something for everyone.

Dynamics of Chess Strategy by Vlastimil Jansa

For more than a crash course on the Scheveningen, get Dynamics of Chess Strategy (2003) by Czech Grandmaster Vlastimil Jansa. His most notable pupil is David Navara.

Jansa’s comments on the Scheveningen, Ruy Lopez, and other lines will help you understand these rich, maneuvering openings. Garry Kasparov, devoted Scheveningen player during his career, might also agree with Jansa’s recommendation against the Pirc as a “turkey shoot!”

This is one of the most underrated strategy books in many, many years. Get it if you can find it.

Neutral and Positional

Kan Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6):

This branch of the Sicilian is much tamer than, for example, the Sveshnikov or Taimanov. There are more solid or positional alternatives, however. Black’s play is restrained, but not plodding. White has very different ways of answering this opening, from the space-eating Maroczy Bind (5.c4) to the solid 5.Nc3 to the more aggressive 5.Bd3.

Honestly, this is a Sicilian I don’t like for either side! Of course, your mileage may vary.

Solid and Tactical

Paulsen Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 d6 5.Nc3 e6):

We saw just how crazy this line could get in Shirov — Polgar! ‘Nuff said!

There is some overlap between the Kan, Paulsen, and Taimanov systems. I think of a Sicilian as a Paulsen when black develops the king knight from g8 to e7.

Solid and Neutral

Accelerated Dragon (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6):

I’ll say it plainly: I don’t think the Accelerated Dragon is very good if white plays the Maroczy Bind (5.c4!) and doesn’t allow black to make a bunch of exchanges. I’ve never understood why this line is so popular in books/DVDs and with chess coaches. Can someone please explain it to me? Everytime I face it I feel like I’m shooting fish in a barrel.

Black has some tricks in non-Maroczy lines, but if white is prepared this defense will be a most welcome sight.

 

Solid and Positional

Classical Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6):

The polar opposite of the Dragon? I think so. Black hangs back and develops solidly, reacting to white’s ideas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you’re the kind of player who likes to bait the opponent into overextending themselves.

The Classical has some distinct advantages. Like the Dragon, there is only one really challenging line against it, the Richter-Rauzer (6.Bg5). Unlike the Najdorf or Taimanov, in the Classical you pretty much know what’s coming if your opponent doesn’t play an Anti-Sicilian.

An aggressive player might opt for the Sozin Attack (6.Bc4) and a very aggressive opponent will head for the Velimirovic Attack (6.Bc4 e6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qe2), but the prepared Classical player has nothing to fear in these lines.

Another benefit of the Classical is its flexible move order: black can play 2…d6 and 5…Nc6, or 2…Nc6 and 5…d6. That’s helpful when trying to get your preferred setup against Anti-Sicilians.

I hope this overview helps players considering playing the Sicilian for the first time or, maybe, a player considering a system change! Which Sicilian is best for you?

The English Opening: Playing 1.c4

The English Opening or …

I am by no means a specialist on openings in general, or the English Opening in particular, but I have opened with 1.c4, 1.d4, 1.e4, and 1.Nf3 in my tournament career.

As many before me have said, 1.e4 is the most straightforward first move, and 1.d4 can be very direct as well if the player intends it to be so.

A 1.Nf3 user often employs transpositional “games” against their adversary, aiming for certain openings or variations while avoiding others. Two defenses that regularly get frozen out in this way are the Nimzo-Indian and the Grünfeld, when white plays an early Nf3 and c4, but not d4.

Why 1.c4?

One of the main arguments for 1.Nf3 is that it avoids 1…e5.

In contrast, the 1.c4 player wants to play “English” positions; not just transpose into favorable d4-lines. Specifically, I’m talking about positions that arise after 1.c4 e5.

The 1.c4 player likes playing these positions since black has ceded control over the d5-square white hopes to clamp down on:

I began to like these positions after studying How to Play the English Opening (Batsford, 2007) by Anatoly Karpov. The ex-World Champion spends a lot of time covering the Four Knights Variation with 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.g3:

…mainly through his games against Garry Kasparov and other absolute top players. He also covers other choices on move 4 besides g3.

Game Changers

Kosten's famous book on the English Opening
I doubt Kosten imagined the influence his small book would have on the popularity of the English Opening!

Karpov’s book is underrated, but that likely has to do with the enduring popularity of The Dynamic English (Gambit, 1999) by Tony Kosten, and the authority Mihail Marin established with The English Opening (3 Volumes, Quality Chess, 2009-2010).

Kosten and Marin recommend the move order 1.c4 e5 2.g3. Kosten’s book in particular is very system-based, which appeals to many players. But with the explosion of chess information over the past 20 years, black players are more aware than ever how to deal with his main setup, the Botvinnik System:

That doesn’t mean white should hesitate to play this way if s/he enjoys the resulting positions. The strongest ideas in chess are those that are effective even if your opponent knows they’re coming.

But the “Old” English Opening was Popular for Decades!

1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 is less predictable: both sides have freedom to choose their preferred setup — black can even try 2…Bb4. Going into lines with 2.Nc3 is something to consider for a player who has more advanced positional skills than their peers and has reasonable hopes of outplaying them — though I wouldn’t recommend the English until a player is 1600, at least.

Flank openings are more structurally fluid than 1.e4 or 1.d4, but choosing 1.c4 over 1.Nf3 takes that to another level. If you can become a specialist in “pure” English positions, there are plenty of points to be scored simply through better familiarity of the terrain.

Should I Play Attacking Chess?

Studying tactics and checkmates is usually the first step for new chess players. Next comes classic. short attacking games: the miniatures. They’re exciting and more straightforward for inexperienced players than technical masterpieces.

What is an Attacking Style?

Sometimes, the position requires you to attack the enemy king. Even the most conservative players will launch an attack when it is clearly the right plan. Does this, then, make everyone an attacking player? Not quite.

An attacking player is one who most often chooses to attack when the best available plan is a matter of taste. In the same position, a different player might try to gain space, press a queenside initiative, or go for a promising endgame.

It’s more a question of a player’s mentality and approach to chess.

Let’s take a simple example from the Pirc Defense (1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6):

As I warned when challenging the idea that 1…e5 players need to worry about a lot of lines, while others have a much easier task: white has plenty of options against the Pirc, too.

Sedate players like Anatoly Karpov or Ulf Andersson would choose simple development with something like 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Be2 0-0 6.0-0 and play for central control:

Another treatment is the positional 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Bd3 favored by, e.g., Bobby Fischer:

An attacking player would not hesitate to pursue a kingside attack, for example with 4.Be3 Bg7 5.Qd2 c6 6.f3:

This was precisely the scheme Garry Kasparov used in his famous victory against Veselin Topalov at Wijk aan Zee 1999.

Garry Kasparov gets ready to play attacking chess against Veselin Topalov at the 1999 Wijk aan Zee tournament.
No one knew that one of the greatest games in chess history was about to begin.

Risk and Reward

Playing attacking chess in “borderline” situations increases the likelihood of a decisive result — either the aggressor breaks through or the defender repels the assault and winds up with extra material. You have to be willing to accept more losses with your wins.

There is also a greater burden on a player’s ability to calculate, even more so if they play sharp opening lines. We saw an example of this in Svidler — Vallejo-Pons. The player making the first mistake can lose outright. Some players love this kind of play, however!

What Kind of Player are You?

You have to play a lot of games and honestly assess what kinds of positions you feel more “at home” in. Does active play suit you…and how active are we talking? Do you prefer to initiate play or to play against your opponent’s ideas? Above all, don’t experiment too much in tournaments — that’s what online chess is for!

Another hint: which famous player’s games “speak” to you? It’s unlikely you’ll ever play as well as your hero, but finding a role model to emulate can be very helpful.

Don’t hesitate to keep tweaking your openings until you find a set of lines that you know how to play and actually want to play. If you would be happy to employ a line against a player rated 200 points higher than you, keep it in your repertoire!

What are your experiences? Please share!