By Benjamin Frances
Like most self-respecting club players, I grew up meeting 1.e4 with 1…c5. I think the underlying cause was a desire to remain in control. If I could hide behind twenty moves of the latest theory of the Najdorf, then I couldn’t hurt myself. The result was that my understanding stagnated even while my knowledge grew. Soon my results reflected reality: as I started playing stronger players, I started losing more games. Eventually I realized that I would have to leave my comfort zone in order to improve. I decided to play classically, meeting 1.e4 with 1…e5. I knew almost no theory, but instead followed a couple of mental principles: if White offers a center pawn, take it; move every minor piece once; castle early; play …d7-d5 if at all possible.
To this day, I am amazed at how quickly my results improved. Although I had almost no sense of danger at all, I often found myself with a clearly better position right out of the opening. The inherent solidity of the classical openings, along with just a handful of general principles, worked wonders. Sadly, it isn’t possible to ignore opening theory forever. Many of the difficult decisions in the open games come about when two or more of the above principles conflict. In such cases, it is useful to have a guide at hand.
Ivan Sokolov’s The Ruy Lopez Revisited: Offbeat Weapons and Unexplored Resources is a guide I wish I had in those early days. The Ruy Lopez is characterized by the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5. It is the near-universal choice of strong grandmasters against 1.e4 e5, which gives an indication of how challenging it is for Black players to meet. In the book, Sokolov analyzes 3…f5 (115 dense pages), 3…a6 4.Ba4 f5 (13 pages), 3…Nge7 (25 pages), 3…g6 (11 pages), 3…Nd4 (25 pages), and 3…Bc5 (59 pages). In the Introduction, Sokolov makes a well-worn case for choosing sidelines: not only is Black under pressure in the main lines of the Ruy Lopez, but he also has to contend with early White deviations that are not so simple themselves. Why not deviate first and cut down on a lot of work? I must admit that I never bought this logic. In general, it justifies any number of sub-optimal openings. More specifically, the main lines of the Ruy Lopez are wonderfully rich and interesting to analyze for their own sake. I think a better argument would have been that the lines Sokolov analyzes have their own merits and leave plenty of room for discovery and imagination.
As an illustration, consider Bird’s Defense, 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nd4. I’ve always had a soft spot for this wonderful knight leap. After 4.Nxd4 exd4, Black gains a space advantage in the center and leaves White’s bishop misplaced on b5. White, on the other hand, gains an extra move for development and the chance to round up the bold intruder on d4, or at least undermine it with c2- c3. After 5.0-0 Bc5 (a serious grandmaster like Sokolov has no time for my old favorite 5…h5?!, but I was delighted to see that he considers its more mature cousin 5…Bc5 6.Bc4 h5!?) 6.d3 c6 7.Ba4 (After 7.Bc4 d5! 8.exd5 cxd5, Sokolov writes, “This is one of Black’s main ideas in Bird’s Defence: execute …d7-d5 and then recapture with the pawn, temporarily putting White’s light-squared bishop out of play.” This is an excellent explanation of an idea that many players have a hard time swallowing—who would voluntarily accept doubled, isolated pawns like that? After 9.Bb5+ Kf8!?, Sokolov continues, “It is important to know that this is a rather frequent thematic decision for Black in the Bird. His king is relatively safe on f8, the White bishop on a4 is out of play, Black has more space and the possibilities for a kingside attack.” Another wonderful explanation of a difficult concept.) 7…d6 8.f4! f5 9.Bb3!, theory considers White to be better even after the ingenious king hop following 9…Ne7 10.Nd2 Kd7!? 11.Kh1 Kc7 12.c3, as in Fressinet-Fontaine, France 2005. Sokolov agrees with this, and instead proposes 9…fxe4!? 10.dxe4 Nf6. He offers two and a half pages of original analysis with the tentative conclusion that Black is holding his own, although he acknowledges that more analysis and tests are required. One of my favorite lines continues 11.f5 d5!? 12.e5 Ne4 13.Qh5+ Kd7 14.Qg4 g6! 15.fxg6+? Kc7 16.Rf7+ Kb6, when, although his king is on b6, Black suddenly has a winning attack. I hope these lines give you an idea of some of the wonderfully interesting motifs of the Bird.
Another line that used to interest me is the Jaenisch, 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 f5. Recently it has seen something of a revival at the top level. In particular, Radjabov has championed its cause. One may question if it is a sideline at all, especially considering the 115 pages that Sokolov devotes to it. Still, Sokolov has packed so many new ideas into these pages that it is possible to build more than one repertoire around the Jaenisch alone. Each would require far fewer than the full 115 pages. Perhaps you would like to follow Radjabov’s interpretation of the Jaenisch. Then you would study the chapter on the solid 4.Nc3 fxe4 5.Nxe4 Nf6 (9 pages) and lines with an early …Bc5 against 4.d3 (about 10 pages). Or perhaps you prefer the incredibly complex lines arising after 4.Nc3 fxe4 5.Nxe4 d5 6.Nxe5 dxe4 7.Nxc6 Qg5 (37 pages of pure tactics—Nisipeanu recently used this to earn a comfortable draw against Carlsen). Maybe you’d like to build a truly offbeat repertoire, even compared to the main lines of the Jaenisch. Then you could try Shabalov’s 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.exf5 e4!? (5 pages—here Sokolov goes above and beyond in showing that Black more than holds his own in the established main lines, but then proceeding to show a remarkably narrow and subtle road to a White advantage) and Zviaginstev’s plan of winning the bishop pair with an early …d7-d6 and …a7-a6 against 4.d3 (3 pages incidentally, this seems to be the repertoire that Sokolov himself chooses when playing the Jaenisch). There is plenty of scope for originality here, and Sokolov does an outstanding job of pointing out the paths to follow.
Finally, I should mention that Sokolov is interested only in the truth. I used to also play the Ruy Lopez as White, and I was interested to learn that after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nge7, the relatively rare 4.Nc3! g6 5.d4! exd4 6.Nd5 puts Black under strong pressure. I also learned that the most accurate move to cut down Black’s options after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Bc5 is probably not 4.0-0, but rather 4.c3. There are many more ideas for White players to consider.
This book is a wonderful guide to the world of offbeat responses to the Ruy Lopez. Whether you are new to the open games or an old devotee of them, I recommend it without reservation.