BOOK REVIEW by CARL PORTMAN
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.
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6K0zg1b5ETU
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.