Thursday, 18 March 2021

Win with the Caro-Kann




Sverre Johnsen and Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen

Sverre Johnsen and Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen 

Win with the Caro-Kann

1st edition (softcover, 240 Pages) £18.99

Also available as an e-book and an app-book




Let me me perfectly clear. I do not play the Caro-Kann opening. I rarely have. This means that I am either the wrong person to review this book because I don’t know it in any depth, or the right person because it is an opportunity to learn something new. Whatever the case I admit that I have been thinking about adding a new opening to my repertoire and the Caro-Kann was one of those candidates. Therefore, this book has arrived at a very convenient time. Bring it on.

Chess openings are like marmite. We love ‘em or we loathe ‘em. There are French Defence aficionados and Ruy Lopez aficionados. Even amongst masters, the Caro-Kann provides a fascinating discussion point. On the one hand, we hear that it is a good opening but a bit boring at times, whilst others will say it is rich in possibilities. When I was a kid, it was Anatoly Karpov who played it so I guess it couldn’t ever have been bad but the question was always ‘why’ did he play it?

This book doesn’t cover every angle in the Caro-Kann (what tome ever could?) but we have the crucial main line theory with 4…Bf4 and 5…exf6 systems. Against the advanced variation there is the very topical 3…c5 (championed by GM Keith Arkell) and …g6 is played against the annoying Panov-Botvinnik attack. There is plenty of meat to feast on then.

There are five chapters, each containing several lessons and the final chapter does cover some deviations including the interesting ‘fantasy variation’ which the authors call Maroczy’s variation. They also look at the Steiner Variation (2.c4) which can be a very tricky customer if you don’t know it. I was delighted to see that it also covered Goldman’s 3.Qf3 for White, which I play often online. I am sad to see the authors describe it as ‘not such a good move, although it has been played by some strong players.’ They are very probably right of course, but this opening once appeared in a book called ‘New ideas in old settings’ and it is a very useful surprise weapon to learn, in my personal view.  Looking further, you can even find ‘The Hillbilly Attack’ here which goes 1.e4 c6 2.Bc4 d5 3.Bb3 dxe4 4.Qh5 which is all rather mad but surely great fun.

I was hoping to find something specific about a certain line in the book – but as with other books on the Caro-Kann it does not feature. Unless I have missed it, the ‘Gurgenidze Variation’ is not covered in the early deviations section. I want to learn more about that variation which goes 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 g6.

One interesting aspect of this book is the use of ‘Theory Magnifiers’. These are listed at the end of each of the 30 lessons, so as not to clutter the book and add supplementary detail to the text. They basically point you to the pages you need to go to for specific lines to save you flipping through.

What better way to show that you have actually read a book that you are reviewing than by playing one of the lines from it in an actual serous match. I used one opening line in a league game on lichess the Korchnoi Variation, which is actually the Tartakower Variation. It goes 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 de 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6 ef. See diagram below.


Coincidentally, this is the variation that Nunn chooses on the video and it leads to some very interesting play. As with all openings, it helps to know what pieces go where and what pawn structure to aim for.

A little further into my game at move 15, we arrived at this position.

Bear in mind that I had only looked at this opening in the afternoon, and it was new to me, or at least the main ideas were. But I am really happy that at my first attempt the pieces and pawns are roughly where they should be. That pawn on h5 is important. The knight on f8 is also.  There is much more to learn about the nuances of this position – and this opening line - but that’s what time, study and practice will allow for. I should not have my pawn on b6, for example. I will know that next time. Should I ever push the pawn on to h4 is another question. Further, is …g6 safe and when should I play it?

The game ended as a draw and I gained a few rating points, so thanks to the authors for that.

Of course, this is only one variation from the book. There are plenty more and we know that it depends upon what lines White chooses also. On the third move he/she might play an advanced variation or something else and I will need to be clear about what I want to play when that inevitably occurs. This book will provide that knowledge.

By way of balance, I would make a couple of comments. These are personal preferences, but I believe they are relevant. I would have liked an index of player names at the end. That’s usually a pre-requisite these days. Also, I still like books that have a couple of blank pages at the end to make reference notes.

As ever with new releases from Gambit, you can watch a short video by GM John Nunn, about the book. I find that these videos whet my appetite, and they are extremely instructive.

You can watch the YouTube video here:

It might seem an odd thing to mention, but I really like the cover design and concept. It evokes a feeling of getting away from the rat-race into a log-cabin somewhere with food, drink, a chess set and the solitude required to improve. On the subject of improving, I am of no doubt that the diligent, disciplined reader will do so after absorbing all or even some of this work. I know that I certainly have already. I actually feel much more confident about playing 1…c6 now. It has done what a good chess book should – give me the motivation to investigate further.

It also demonstrates the richness of our game. You can play chess for decades, as I have, and then suddenly something new and interesting arrives to pull you back into the depths of the ocean of chess once again. I love it.


The Caro-Kann is a rare beast among chess openings. While respected as a sound and safe way to start the game, it also avoids symmetry or simplification. This allows Black many ways to keep the game unbalanced and play for a win.

Two Norwegian opening experts provide a set of options that take full advantage of this flexibility. In the main line, you are given a choice between the 4...Bf5 and the 5...exf6 systems – but both strictly in their modern dynamic forms! In the latter, Hansen is a world-leading authority, with a wealth of experience to explain the typical mistakes White makes when facing this deceptively tricky line. By studying his material, you will be well ahead of the game in this rapidly-evolving system. For instance, the critical improvements over the Duda-Carlsen game in 2020 were already in Hansen’s files from two years earlier.

The other recommended systems for Black are also aggressive and very much the ‘21st-century Caro-Kann’. It’s 3...c5 against the Advance, in which Hansen is also an outstanding specialist. The Panov Attack is answered with ...g6 lines – strategically ideal, and nowadays backed up by amazing modern computer analysis. Against the Two Knights, we are offered an ...exf6 option as well as the ...Bg4 approach. The repertoire is completed with good sensible recommendations against almost every other conceivable move White can throw at the Caro-Kann. This extremely up-to-date book has an innovative structure, with ‘lessons’, model games and theory ‘magnifiers’.

Sverre Johnsen is a chess analyst, researcher, organizer, trainer and writer from Norway. He is co-author of Win with the London System and Win with the Stonewall Dutch, two of the best-selling openings books of recent years. Grandmaster Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen is also from Norway. He is one of the founders of the chess retail business Sjakkhuset and works full-time as a chess trainer. He was the first coach of Magnus Carlsen (in 1999) and has worked with three other players who went on to become grandmasters.


Thursday, 4 March 2021

Desert Island Chess Omnibus


Book Review by Carl Portman

                     DESERT ISLAND CHESS PUZZLE OMNIBUS               Wesley So  Michael Adams  John Nunn  Graham Burgess

Wesley So Michael Adams John Nunn Graham Burgess

Desert Island Chess Puzzle Omnibus

1st edition (softcover, 320 Pages) £18.99

Also available as an e-book and an app-book




Not another chess puzzle book! That is how I usually react when a new one appears on the market. I am clear that such publications range from fair to excellent. It should do what it says on the tin – and be a book of puzzles, but there is more to this. It matters what examples are used in accordance with the aim of the book and how the book is laid out in terms of puzzles and solutions. Sometimes it can be more challenging to find the solutions than it is to actually solve the puzzles. The beautiful thing about chess of course is the wealth of material that we can draw upon and of course if a puzzle book contains positions I have not seen before or that are very recent (or a combination of the two) then it usually works for me. If I see another Reti puzzle just one more time, I might scream. 

Some readers might think ‘Adams, So, Nunn and who? However, the discerning reader would know that Graham Burgess belongs amongst this esteemed group on merit. Not only is he a FIDE Master but a prolific (and excellent!) author in his own right. He has a head full of wonderful chess knowledge as any proper chess fan would know. Further, in my opinion he provides the most poignant line of any of the introductions in the book. He remarks that ‘It can be hard to strike the right balance in a puzzle book. The spectacular puzzles tend not to be instructive. The most instructive ones may not be too entertaining.’ This is profound.

The four authors each provide 100 puzzles ranging from fairly easy to difficult. Adams, Burgess and Nunn choose games from across a wide spectrum whilst Wesley So chooses 100 of his own games. These four chapters were (I believe) previously issued independently but GAMBIT decided to put them together as an omnibus offering which I think is a fruitful idea.

This is a historical chess book in a very strange way. In his introduction, Wesley So makes mention of the ‘Coronavirus plague.’ Who on earth a few years ago would have thought that such a shocking phrase would have appeared in any chess book? The plague? It is the first book (as opposed to magazine) that I have read that contains reference to the Coronavirus pandemic and quarantine, therefore it must occupy a special place in my collection.

I wanted to pick a puzzle by way of an example. I am not being lazy here but I see no reason why I should not use the example that John Nunn himself analyses in his online video (details further on) because it illustrates the beauty of chess and the possibilities available despite us not being able to see them. Nunn was White in the position below against fellow GM Mark Hebden and he played 55.Rxg5. The question asked of us is, was this the best way to win? Surely Black is threatening to play his rook to g1+ and if the king captures it then the pawn goes to e2 and the king cannot stop it from promoting to a queen. I shall not spoil it. I will leave it for the reader to play a few moves and have a go at countering this position and then they can check it out on the video. It's quite lovely, it really is.

You can watch the YouTube video here:

I am of the opinion that posting video samples from books is a masterstroke from GAMBIT Publications, because it provides a tantalising taster of what is to come. It also provides valuable insight into the mind of a world renowned, and hugely creative chess player (Mr. Nunn).

It is probably fair to say that Mickey provides the reader with the ‘easiest’ puzzles and it is a good thing that his selection appears first. After all we want to get into the rhythm of the book and solve a few puzzles to experience the feel-good factor, otherwise we might be put off and not venture further. That would be a shame because their is a rich seam of beauty running through the book. You have to be willing to dig and mine it. We all like to solve some puzzles in our heads, and only then move on to a real chess set and start moving pieces around when it gets too difficult. You can do that here, I am pleased to say. 

Some of the official blurb says.

If you had to choose a single luxury chess item to take to a desert island, then how about this – a superb selection of 400 puzzles to solve? Each author has carefully chosen 100 original positions, graded by difficulty and theme into four sections of 25. The emphasis throughout is on entertainment, instruction and inspiration. The solutions pinpoint lessons to be learnt and explain why plausible but incorrect solutions fail.

Wesley So presents 100 puzzles from his own recent games, many from elite events. They range from easily-overlooked but straightforward ideas to moves of great depth.

Michael Adams offers positions from his files that have inspired him over the years, and includes a section of ‘warm-ups’.

John Nunn challenges you to find beautiful tactics in recent games and studies, as well as some of his own career highlights.

Graham Burgess has scoured his work over the years for hidden unpublished gems, and includes themed sections on opening tactics and defensive ideas.

Did the book live up to the marketing? In my opinion, yes and I shall explain why. I like the fact that there is a combination of contributors – that works well. I also feel that there is a personal touch to the book and the puzzles really mean something to the players. We don’t all use computers or kindle to read our books (I never do) so having this as a hard copy book (you know, a real book) is a joy. It is currently in a very sacred place - the back seat of my car where I can pick it up and pass the time whenever I have to wait around, such as at hospitals where I am not allowed in because of Covid restrictions.

I don’t want to get too sentimental, but I suddenly realised that I have actually played Nunn, So and Adams in simultaneously displays and lost to all three! It was my privilege. As for Mr. Burgess, I wonder if he gives simuls? I need to make it a quartet.

On one comical note I also thought about was this. I like hard copy books because you can also get ‘the author’ to sign it. In this case I would have to hunt down four people, which might mean that the task is never completed. 😩

On a more serious note, there are two constructive comments I should make. This is a personal viewpoint only, but I do like to have two or three blank pages at the end of a chess book so that I might make any notes and comments. I would beg Gambit to do this if possible in the future.

My other point is this. Browsing through the book, I wanted to know which author belonged to which puzzle. Sometimes I had to flick back to the beginning of the chapter to confirm. Just putting the author’s name at the header of each page might have been useful but again that could just be me. It is not a flaw in the book – but something that I would like.

To conclude. If you like chess puzzles – well this is a chess puzzle book. It is well thought through, the layout is easy on the eye (and brain) and it is contains a more contemporary selection of original puzzles. It is the sort of quality publication that I have come to expect from Gambit. There is much to learn about opening. Middlegame and endgame positions here, so it is not just about solving the puzzles. There's more if you want it.

Would I take it to a desert island? Well at the time of writing we are still isolated in lockdown so in a way I already have. Yes, it is another chess puzzle book and one that you would do well to snap up quickly - lest lockdown returns to haunt us all again later in the year.



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