The difficulty of being Black

In a recent review of Nikos’s and my book Playing the French (on ChessVibes and, the reviewer Arne Moll expresses some doubt about our understanding of practical chess. You can read the review if you are interested in the detail of the argument and in my reply (given below). But I wanted to give a little thought to the difficulty of being Black in general.

As most of you will have noticed, playing an inferior position is perilous. A mistake in a slightly better position can be annoying, but a mistake in an inferior position can land you in trouble you cannot solve. I will write more about this in the near future, but for now let us just continue as if this hypothesis is indeed a fact.

When you are Black your games will in general fall into two categories. Either your opponents will play sidelines or mainlines. This leads to two different challenges.

Mainlines have a tendency to lead to positions where accuracy is important. New ideas will exist in most positions, but mainlines are popular because of the pressure they put on Black (and Black’s success in neutralizing it). For this reason we often need a lot of theoretical knowledge to defend the black side. It is either this or risk your life in variations where you are worse and the problems you have to solve are harder to solve (because deciding between two inferior positions is harder than deciding between a decent and an inferior position).

Sidelines tend to offer you a number of decent options, all of them leading to decent positions. Unless White has played something problematic, he will not be worse either. In such situations exact knowledge usually decreases in value. Unless we play correspondence chess, it is almost impossible to anticipate what sidelines you will face in your next few tournaments, so extensive knowledge has a tendency to be overkill. Working on your problem solving abilities will be more likely to help you once you end in a respectable sideline.

This is the approach Nikos and I chose for our book. This is the philosophy behind it. It is absolutely up for debate, but our approach is not random.

For the full review of Playing the French, go to: review

Reading this review, I felt it was one long question, asking: why did they offer this line? This post below is my answer, not meant as a criticism of the reviewer.

I do not necessarily think our choices are better than those Arne would have made. I just think the debate is interesting – and I am quite interested in the feedback here on the blog to this article.

Looking at the various lines debated in the review, we can say honestly that the first line was probably missed (it is Christmas Eve and I really do not want to check right now).

Regarding 4.b4 – our suggestion is brief, practical and solid. We could fill in moves that no one has played and which remembering would not make sense. Regarding computer evaluations in the opening: they are notoriously inaccurate; it is too early in the game. White’s compensation for the engine in this position consists mainly of the fact that the black king is in the centre. But White cannot create an attack before the black king escapes to the kingside and Rybka cannot calculate far enough to see this.

To me engines are useful, but, every time they are wrong, I do not want to explain why.

The Advance Variation. White has compensation. Here I do not grasp the argument of the reviewer. Why should we recommend a position where White has compensation and an advantage, rather than the line we have suggested, where we say that “White merely has compensation”?

4…Qxd5 or 4…exd5. This is a big debate. I understand the argument the reviewer gives and don’t want to say it is wrong.

However, there are two arguments the other way:

1) White is better there and it does not make a lot of sense preparing for being worse, imo.

2) What would the review have been like if we had suggested a variation leading to an inferior position?

Finally, the McCutcheon: Equality is not easily accessible for Black in this critical line. Originally this is stuff Nikos found to challenge Black. It took him a very long time to find this solution.

Should we have suggested something where Black is on his heels? Or not included the McCutcheon at all?

We have not written a long book about how to avoid opening theory. We have not written a book on how to be worse with Black. We have definitely not covered all the moves that people would find relevant (a theme for another post for sure!).

We have done a lot of work on the French, which is a very sharp and theoretical opening and tried to give a realistic view of a great repertoire for Black. Most of our readers like opening theory; those who want to opt out quickly tend to go for books by other publishers or no books at all.

There is one thing I want to add at the end, because I think no one has mentioned this fact in either the debate on or on, where Arne’s review has been posted: The analysis in this book is in our opinion better than the main competitors out there. I think it would be unfortunate if our book had presented us as jerks, if we had given a constant list of how the competition fails. This is something for the 1.e4 books.

I understand that it is a daunting task for a reviewer, but actually it is not so difficult to vet if a book is well-analysed or not. It just takes some patience, because those books that have been written a bit too quickly will fail all over the place. All books have occasional mistakes, but many books have consistent problems. One of the most popular books on the French of the last few years collapses quickly in every line that I have investigated. Sometimes they even lead to straight out lost positions.

I hope our analysis holds up to deeper scrutiny and thus refutes Arne’s fear that a novelty will ruin an entire variation in the near future. Obviously there is no certainty, theory does move on, but hopefully we have managed to advance the black side quite a bit with our book.

57 thoughts on “The difficulty of being Black”

  1. Jesus de la Villa elaborates his philosophy of repertoire construction in the Introduction to Dismantling the Sicilian very well. It’s actually the one that would work best for me.

    That said, Quality Chess’ byline gives you a pretty big hint about what to expect from their books. Their approach might not suit me perfectly, but it’s hard to be surprised by it – they are a ridiculously predictable publisher.

  2. Seems like a fair review by Arne. There have been what, ten or so French Defense Repertoire for Black books in the last few years? Those who do not like the Aagaard/Ntirlis choices can easily look elsewhere: Vitiugov, S.Williams, Watson, Berg, Antic, Eingorn, Giddins, Moskalenko, McDonald, not to mention all the video series and DVDs suggesting the Black side of 1e4 e6. A book has to justify its own existence in this crowded marketplace. That may mean it has to choose options that the previous authors avoided. Every option appeals to different tastes and preferences, so there is a book out there for everyone. What I took away from the review is that Arne’s personal preferences do not align with the Ntirlis book. Meanwhile there is a real scarcity of practical 1.e4 books on the market… Probably because they are so difficult to write.

  3. I (ELO ~2050) have Ntirlis book, I spent hours with it, I think it’s a great book! I used to play the French, but I dropped it a year back after obtaining Vitiugovs book (the first version, not “reloaded”), as the variations he gives (e.g., in the classical exd4 instead of MacCutcheon) are boring and black has to navigate very carefully just to reach equality without active play. I went on to try out 1. … e5 instead, but never got anywhere. Reading “Playing the French” I learned a lot of new ideas/variations, and now I’m back playing the French 😉

    I know it’s the wrong place to write here, but anyway: Arne’s review is a bit bad. Ntirlis gives a decent alternative in the gambit line after Nbd2 (black plays Nxf3+), and black’s quite ok afterwards (drawish, I’d call it) – that’s the problem with many openings for black, white can quite often get into a drawish line. Does white usually want that? No. Can black avoid it? Yes, but usually not without concessions.

    Oh, and yes, I am one of those people that Jacob mentions: “Most of our readers like opening theory”. I know I have to improve elsewhere, and I even know where and how, but reading good opening theory books is a great bed-time lecture for me. Not that anything sticks, but it’s almost always as good as reading a novel 🙂 (And yes, I do practice opening theory the “right” way as well, sometimes). And then I want to read sound and interesting lines, not dubious stuff. Thanks, QC!


  4. I’ve been debating whether to buy this book. If anything the review would make me more inclined to take the plunge, rather than less. (What holds me back is the two volumes of Berg I have on my shelf, following Watson, Williams, and Moskalenko, plus the possibility that my club library–currently with 21 Aagaard books!–will get it.)

    katar hit the nail on the head: the unstated premise of all these books is that they’re providing a repertoire that’s different to those in previous books. This is where older books were usually much weaker than today’s. Taking one example at random, Suetin’s book on the French (I have the 1988 Batsford edition) gave a solid enough write-up of the theory of the day. But the bulk of the book consisted of the conventional wisdom of the time, with many places in which the same line was given as in previous books, stopping at the same place and giving the same evaluation. Not to criticize Suetin: that was accepted and typical of books then. (There were outstanding exceptions.) If you want something that covers side lines, what’s wrong with that book, or half a dozen others?

    So personally what I’m looking for is some significant original work, including both new lines not considered elsewhere and different evaluations/viewpoints/ideas in standard lines. (The places with a significant divergence of opinion are often the most interesting.) And of course analysis that doesn’t fall over when fed to an engine.

    I gather from the review that Arne Moll is looking for something different. However he deserves credit for writing something substantial that has detail and that distinguishes the book from others, rather than something uselessly vanilla that could fit any recent book.

  5. Gilchrist is a Legend

    I am circa 2330 ELO, and Playing the French has taught me very much about the opening; the explanations give insights whereof I had never previously before thought. I have been an almost lifelong Sicilian (usually Najdorf) player, but the book has convinced me to start making the French my main defence now, which is not always the case with other opening books. I usually play other openings without making them my main defence, but this book, in my opinion, I like better than all of the other French books I have. After reading some of Berg’s books, they are extremely high quality, so I place this and GM14/15 on the top of the list of best French books, compared with others. All of the lines do not need to include every sideline, as it is not a GM Repertoire, but GM Guide. I feel that the analysis is more than other GM guides, but I do not mind this; it still seems overall balanced.

  6. Hi Jacob,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, which is much appreciated.

    I was a bit surprised to see some reactions on this blog mention my *personal* preferences for certain lines so let me re-iterate that my personal taste has nothing to do with it. As a reviewer, I try not to allow my strictly personal view of chess (openings) get in the way of my evaluation of the book.
    There is indeed a part where I am critical about the practicality of the repertoire offered in Playing the French, and I agree that it’s very difficult to build a consistent repertoire with Black in general.

    But this criticism is not because of my own personal taste (I like sharp openings!) but because in my experience, most (French) players with level 1900-2300 don’t like these hyper-sharp lines where White has ‘mere compensation’. Instead, they prefer to call the shots themselves (probably more likely to happen in the Winawer which feels more ‘creative’ to me somehow), or go for somewhat more quiet, positional lines (which is, after all, what the French is traditionally known for.)

    However, the other part of my criticism was about the incompleteness of some (crucial) lines. For example, my main problem with the lines given in the MacCutheon isn’t so much the fact that it’s sharp or risky, but that it’s not worked-out or explained sufficiently.

    Take this endgame after 6.Bc1 that I mentioned in my review. Why not give some sample lines there and explain what’s going on rather than just say that both players have their chances? That seems a bit too easy to me. After all, if you’ve made the brave decision to go play the MacCutheon as Black, this is what you’ll end up getting if White ever plays 6.Bc1. Doesn’t it deserve a bit more substantial explanation?

    Likewise for the 4.b4 gambit line: I fully appreciate the engine’s evaluation might well be wrong, and what you write above about why that’s the case sounds reasonable enough, but the one concrete plan you give in the book isn’t very helpful in the sense it doesn’t alter the engine’s evaluation (in fact, after carrying out this plan my Rybka likes White’s position even better!) and don’t explain or show why White’s compensation isn’t sufficient.

    In general I agree that the practicality of a repertoire is in the end the reader’s personal choice. If he likes to go for the hyper-sharp and sometimes risky stuff in the French, he has my blessing. But I do know many people prefer other, less risky lines and that’s what I wanted to point out.
    In the end, I still don’t really understand why 250 pages of potentially very usesful and interesting analysis and explanations were left out. It really feels like a missed opportunity.

    Best regards,

  7. @Arne Moll
    Obviously we have a different idea of what practical means. To us it clearly includes having a decent position and to have more theoretical knowledge in the lines that are forcing and have a lot of critical moments. For example, I think your mentioning of 17.Qe3 in the Tarrasch is far more relevant than the Wing-Gambit stuff. In a position where White can play just about everything, memorizing variations is not practical in my view.

    I do think that one of my main points stand: it is impractical to have a bad position – especially when it is worked out how White should play. To mention the possibility that the lines might not stand the test of time, is in my view unfair. Either you know why/how they do not work, or you accept that they seem to work.

    There have been a lot of opening books where novelties are refuted by the engines in 15 seconds, so I understand the skepticism. We are trying to do our books right, so it does not seem to be the case with QC books very often.

    Regarding the McCutheon: You consistently ignore the fact that there is an annotated game with this stuff in the book; giving the impression that it all ends there. Nikos felt a bit hurt by this (as it was not a difference of opinion, but misleading) and it seems that you have not looked again and realised that there is a full page with what you are saying isn’t there (p. 385).

    Regarding the line in general; it is really complicated. You cannot be “practical” and play like this. Still it is a very popular line – so maybe people might not play the french in the same way your friends do. But certainly you can argue that we have not chosen the easiest to remember line in the French. But it is the only one that equalises!

    Your idea that you are objective is of course flawed, as you will certainly know. Yes, I try to go in that direction as well, so I know what you mean. It does sound as if your friends are similar people, which is no big surprise, as about 60% of my friends are Liberal, but the country is shaped differently. We talk through our experiences and preferences and it is interesting to compare them when they are not the same, but everyone are being civil. I don’t like it when people say they are being objective, because what this implies is that they say they are right. Just in the same way as I did not like your statement in the comments on your site that what you had said was “a fact”.

    But most of everything, I want to thank you for debating this with us and being positive. I think we are much better off in our time, with the ability to debate things publicly (online) and widen our horizons/strengthening our convictions.

    NB. To all others: I am not debating the value of the book; only the underlying principles. It will be up to others to say if they think the book does what it tries to do or not.

    NBB. The cut out material: It is additional lines, it is not really details in the chapters. There were times when we cut out details, but honestly, this is not what Arne is missing, nor anything that added value. This book became better with that stuff cut out; mainly it was noise and additional lines, making this less of a repertoire book. The final product IS the directors cut and Nikos is very happy with it.

  8. What i’d like to add is that “perfect” reviews like the ones we had for the Tarrasch book while they were extremely pleasant to read didn’t make me (i cannot talk about Jacob ofcourse as he is FAR more experienced) a better author, while reviews like the one by Mr Moll (thank you!) do help into that direction 🙂

    About the review specificaly, there were some arguments in and but also at other places (i found out another forum with a very hot discussion about the review) that the reviewer didn’t mention for example that instead of the McCutcheon there is a whole bunch of chapters dedicated to the Classical Variation, or that the author (me in this case) mentioned that before he writes the chapter about the Wing Gambit he intended to meet the gambit by declining it with …a5 and he doesn’t think that at this level you need more than that etc (indeed, me and my students have never met this gambit in club level in 10 years except from some blitz games and i guess that the probability facing it in more serious level is even less). I know about my book so i understand perfectly the arguments of Mr Moll which are reasonable indeed, but what conclusions someone will make that has no idea what this book contains? Maybe it would have been better to present an overview of the material before going to critisize some particular areas so not to give the reader the wrong impression that there is nothing more than that.

    Also there was not mention of the Diagram Preview thing which was a great idea in the Attacking Manual books, but it is far more usefull in an opening book. Trying to solve the positions as exercizes helps you remember the right solution even if you got it wrong at the first place. Also it helps to quickly overview the critical areas of the theory before a practical game for example. This was added for helping the readers specifically at a practical level and many loved it (as i receive from the reader’s feedback) but the reviewer didn’t mention it at all while he critisized the writters for not taking into considerations the problems of practical play.

    Indeed the book would have been different if there were not that many French books already at the market. Having in mind how Watson, Moskalenko or Eingorn etc covered this or than line guided me to make the presentation in this way for many of the chapters. I’d like to hear Mr Moll’s opinion about the other French books on the market and how this book compares with them.

    I am indeed very happy with the final cut with the exception of one place, which as i understand would have made the reviewer more happy and many of the readers as well. There was a chapter ready on

    1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 c5 4. exd5 Qxd5 5. Ngf3 cxd4 6. Bc4 Qd6 7. O-O Nf6 8.
    Nb3 Nc6 9. Nbxd4 Nxd4 10. Nxd4 Be7

    instead of the critical 10…a6! We had looked at this line with Jacob during the Istanbul Olympiad and we concluded that Black is slightly worse. I tried to repair this line afterwards and found a quite nice idea i think which might offer Black only a very slight disadvantage if any. Jacob decided that this line should not get into the book as we are already much beyong the planned 300 pages we agreed upon at the first palce, and maybe we can offer it later as a free material at site later. Maybe the insertion of this chapter could indeed have been a better desicion as it is much less theoretical and offers a sound alternative of 10…a6.

    But again, 10…a6 is fascinating, rich, objectively better and Jacob had a really beautifull idea (that …h6!!) of making the line playable again, so i cannot but understand his desicion.

    About the cut of all the other lines i had absolutely no problem at all.

  9. My copy is not here yet, but I have been a keen reader of QC books since I rediscovered chess, but do I want books that are filled with deeply analyzed content? Yes. I too own the Moskalenko books, the latest edition of Watson, and the first Berg volume, and some older things. But any good research takes into account past discoveries. It would be interesting to hear Moll’s evaluation of the other sources. Happy New Year!!!

  10. Hi Jacob & Nikos,

    It’s great to see your reactions to be honest, this is something most authors wouldn’t be capable of after a critical review. I have not much to add to what you write but I do have two questions.

    1. Where do you mention that the Wing Gambit can also be declined with …a5? This was also mentioned in a comment but I don’t see it anywhere on p. 452? Have I missed something?

    2. In this MacCutheon line with 6.Bc1, do you consider the endgames arising after 14.Bc2 and 14.Ne2 to be similar? The reason I didn’t mention illustrative game 53 is because in my opinion Black’s position in that endgame is simply much better than the one after 14.Bc2 and therefore can’t be compared. That’s why I was so surprised you do extensively analyse the endgame after 14.Ne2 but not after 14.Bc2. But perhaps my understanding of the position is not correct.

    Finally, a confession. Reading your comment about not including the diagram previews, I suddenly realized that my review should really have included one more paragraph, on your treatment of the Chigorin (2.Qe2) variation. I was actually very pleasantly surprised by this chapter and having studied this line in some depth myself (see my article on Chessvibes from a couple of years ago), I was happy to see 2…Be7 as your main recommendation which is indeed Black’s strongest reply.
    Now, the reason this paragraph wasn’t included in the final version is actually quite embarassing: my original draft of the review was lost halfway because I forgot to save it timely, and as a result I had to reconstruct more than half of all the text from memory at the last minute. The (positive) fragment about the Chigorin was lost in the process which would have shifted the balance of the review somewhat. To compensate for this, I will make a note of this in the review.

    Best regards,

  11. Oups! My mistake! In page 453 i see me mentioning the possibility to decline the gambit with 4…c4 and giving the line 5.c3 a5 (so first 4…c4 and then 5…a5) 6.b5 Nd7 7.d3 cxd3 8.Bxd6 f6 “with clear similarities to some of the lines examined in the Advance Variation chapters”. My intention was that to be seen as an alternative to the main recommendation which i liked more. To be honest, my theoretical knowledge was up to move 5 (the …a5 move) before i wrote this chapter. Also we mention that this move can be found analysed in Williams and Watson.

    As for the Mc Cutheon endgame it starts with a novelty at move 14 (the new idea 14.Bc2!?N) and the analysis ends at move 20 with that endgame where frankly i think that Black is for choice with Rook and 3 pawns against the two Bishops. Indeed this could have been analysed further, or some guidelines could have been offered, but don’t forget that we are talking about a novelty for White suggested in a book for Black and ending at a position where the “forced” variation have ended after 6 moves with both sides having lots of alternatives at each move at this point.

    Have a nice new year’s day guys!

  12. First of all i would like to mention, that i appreciate critical book reviews, as most reviewers simply praise the book or dvd, even it is complete crap.
    As a keen buyer of chess books i dare to say, that many opening books are not really serious in the way that the presented repertoire can really be played on a higher level. With a couple of exceptions only chess stars has some good books which can in part compare to quality chess.
    Regarding the book on the french, i liked it very much. Even i had no intention to play it with black , which may change btw, i think it is one of the best books in the last year ESPECIALLY because it is a very practical book. It is theoretical of course, but a serious work must be theoretical. But there are many interesting suggestions, it is clear the authors have put a lot of work into the book, there are many verbal explanations, the critical tries by white are very well covered, i like the completed games and the chapter preview and still the size is managable. Lets not forget that you have to play a little bit chess after the opening
    Nevertheless arnes reviews are very interesting, as he is critical (you donot have to agree every time) .
    In my opinion it is a very interesting question how much information you need to play an opening, in our time it is not difficult to fill 100s of pages with game references and computer generated analysis in even the most obscure lines, so one of the most important task of an author is also to present the relevant information, in as much detail as necessary

    Keep up the great work and happy new year

  13. Gilchrist is a Legend

    To me the book of the year, at least the opening book of the year, incidentally is Playing the French. I really enjoy this book.

    2014 starts in two hours, so, Gelukkig Nieuwjaar, Feliz Año Nuevo, Godt NytÅr, Bonne Année, Gott Nytt Är, looking forward to GM16, GM17, and all the great QC books for next year.

  14. Καλή Χρονιά! We have already 2014 in Greece! Thanks Gilchrist, always with the nice words. I’d say you are the supporter of the year of Quality Chess!

  15. Gilchrist is a Legend

    @Nikos Ntirlis
    Ευχαριστώ. I have bought QC books since 2004, and they have all served me well, and QC have been my favourite publisher since. Also coincidentally I played against one QC writer in the World Youth Championship several years ago, but did not notice it until recently. I think that the French Defence had a good year in 2013. It would be nice to see more opening books with the Ντιρλις/Aagaard authorship–I would not hesitate to pre-order. Νάσαι καλά.

  16. I think this debate has been very positive and I would like to thank Arne and everyone else for their contributions. As said, the idea was not to all be in agreement, but to learn from the different perspectives. I feel that I have done so, I hope others have the same experience.

    I probably do think opening books too much in the quality of the analysis and forget that for a lot of people the presentation is more important.

  17. Mr Moll, this one ( is a wonderfull article i had read with a lot of interest few years ago. Sadly i didn’t include it in the bibliography, nor i consiously remembered it during the writting of this chapter, but subconsiously i think it was there :-).

    My interest in the old writtings, especially those of Dr Tarrasch, Dr asker and (Dr?) Alekhine has increased in the recent years. Especially the way Tarrasch teaches chess all the way from the after-i-learnt-the-moves level to the medium-club-player level in his book “The Game of Chess” is outstanding and very usefull for any teach teacher. I recall a Watson review of this book where he thought that while chess has evolved a lot, the chess pedagogy (the way to teach) since Tarrasch time has not! Curiously only untill recently i came to read this part of the book as i was mostly interested in the other parts. Also his other book you mention, about the 300 games, i always never really wanted to read it after the critique i read in Nimzowitch’s My System (or was it in Chess Praxis?), but when i finally did it (not thoroughly yet) i was very happy i decided to do it. By the way, this shows the hurt that can be caused by a bad review or a critique to a mind of a reader :D.

  18. Happy new year everyvbody! By the way, I guess you could see the review also as a complment since the bar for QC has maybe been raised to stellar hights by books such as GM Reportoire Tarrasch :-). Compared to other publishers QC is light years ahead in my opinion, both with repect to quality of the content as well as presentation of the material. But of course it’s good to keep on trying to improve even more, since the competition will be trying to catch up. So, keep up the splendid work and I will keep on buying your books!

  19. @Ray
    Thank you. Somehow we always want to satisfy everyone, though it is not possible of course. Still, this way to think about what you are doing will certainly push you to do better.


    I have few suggestions for Grandmaster Guide books, even though nobody from Quality stuff doesn’t want to comment:

    I) Openings for Black

    – Playing the 1…. e5: based on Open Games and including Spanish Exchange (improved Marin’s earlier book)

    – Playing the Tarrasch or Slav: excellent companion to the GM Repertoire, just like Open Spanish and Berg’s books on French

    – Playing the Sicilian: some Kalshnikov or similar line with a bite!

    II) Quality Chess Flash Card Book

    – comprised of Yussupow training books

    I agree it would be nice to have a GM guide on 1…e5 (and if I remember correctly the QC people have affirmed somewhere that they agree as well :-)), but what would be the added value of a GM Guide on the Tarrasch? Isn’t the GM Reportoire book on the Tarrasch enough? I am curious what you would like to see in a GM Guide on the Tarrasch what isn’t there already in the GM Rep book… Anyway, there are some other books which should in my opinion have a higher priority, such as books on the Nimzo, Semi-Slav, and for white of course the 1.e4 books. And then there is of course Kotronias on the KID – I’m very much looking foward to volume two :-). It looks anyway that 2014 is again going to be a very good QC year!

  22. I was interested in this sentence:
    “It is either this or risk your life in variations where you are worse and the problems you have to solve are harder to solve (because deciding between two inferior positions is harder than deciding between a decent and an inferior position).”

    Which doesn’t seem to match my experience. I’ve not made any sort of scientific study of this, but I can certainly think of plenty of occasions when I’ve been relieved when the position has resolved and I’ve been clearly worse, because at least then I know what’s going on and what I should be aiming for. And conversely I’ve had good positions that I felt I was going to lose just because of the challenge of keeping the good position.

    I’d have said that the difficulty of solving the problems comes down to the number of plausible candidate moves, the difference in evaluation between the moves and how well hidden that difference is.

    So if you have an inferior position with two candidates, one of which loses the queen to a two move combination your choice is quite simple, while if you have a superior position with eight candidates, seven of which give equality or worse after ten move thickets of variations while one leads to a winning position after another ten move thicket then that’s a much harder problem to solve.

    I can’t see an a priori reason why inferior positions should be harder to play than good ones, if anything you might get more candidates in good positions, so I’d be interested to know if this is just a personal quirk or if other people’s experience matches mine?

  23. @Ben Hague

    I have had this experience myself. Bad postions with only moves are very easy to play and good postions with a lot of options can be really hard to play. I have lost a lot of games in good positions with many alternatives. On the other hand I have won a lot of games with lousy or lost postions.

  24. Gilchrist is a Legend

    Unfortunately I lose from both good and bad positions often, even ones wherein I almost have a decisive andvatage. A bit like England in the current series against Australia…

  25. We have done some limited statistics on this. Once you are a in a worse position, you are much more likely to crack. Being worse is a bad strategy if you are a strong player.

  26. @Jacob Aagaard

    I agree with what you are saying. A strong player will in most cases find the way to exploit the advantage even when there is a lot of options. At a lower level I would expect more wins from bad positions.

    It really depends on the type of position at hand. A passive position without or with little counterplay is of course bad in both the theorethical and the practical sense. A position with an incorrect sacrifice which is hard to refute is only bad from a theorethical sense and not from a practical perspective. This was the way Tal played in his glory days.

  27. @Bebbe
    Actually, Tal exploited that even strong players were not calculating brilliantly at the time. I don’t think they do so today either. Actually, studying chess has made me realise just how weak humans are at chess. It is a relatively simple game to understand, but near impossible to play well.

    Regarding opening theory: if you are happy to have a bad position with Black, why do you need opening theory at all? Actually, I think it is a perfectly plausible strategy to focus all your work on improving the middlegame and endgame and only deal with openings once you are ready for IM-norms. This is not the sort of audience we wrote the book for; as this audience do not buy opening books at all :-).

    I don’t think there is an audience that want to buy an opening book with original analysis that does not take long to learn and is easy to prepare against, as it leads to a slightly worse position. Sure, there are an audience for Move by Move/Starting Out or whatever books; but I have not really seen many of these books that made me think that someone had coined it.

  28. @Jacob Aagaard

    I’m not happy with bad positions from the opening as black. That’s why I study opening theory. I like your books a lot and have many of them. It was Quality Chess that rewoked my interest in chess litterature. The latest is the Kings Gambit book which is really awesome.

    My point is that there are different types of bad positions. Either bad positions without prospects or bad positions with practical chances.

  29. Aagaard/Ntirlis’s book is a 467-page repertoire, with pretty small print. Whether that is practical depends on a person’s individual tolerance or obsession with opening theory. Personally I am not a French defender and probably won’t become one, but I got McDonald’s How to Meet 1e4 for $7 and it is a splendid little book that I would use if I ever felt the need to play the French. Everyman books can be little gems at times–usually depending on the passion/expertise of the author. I absolutely identify with Jacob’s comment that some readers value presentation above substance. I have a fast CPU and a database with 1.7 million games– when i have a question i can figure it out myself. What I need from an opening book is a bird’s-eye-view map just to get my general orientation in an opening. Schandorff’s books accomplished this extremely well in my opinion. A short book is harder to write than a long one! The space limitations inherently force the author to prioritize information thus creating value for the user. This is not the “GM Repertoire” creed, unless GM stands for “Grandmother.” In fact I would prefer a “Grandma’s Repertoire” series that even my grandmother could figure out. Those are just my opinions based on buying lots of books. Peace and love to all.

  30. Gilchrist is a Legend

    I love the QC styled detail, and Avrukh’s GM1/GM2 series is one of my favourite series in all of the books that I own. Berg already has circa 640 pages on the French, and that is only the Winawer aspect of his GM Repertorie series, but if he wrote 5 volumes, e.g. two on the Winawer, one on the Tarrasch, one for the Advance, and one for all others, I would enjoy that. For me, there is never excessive detail. If it means anything, I am circa 2330 ELO, and my main goal is to obtain norms, not to play to avoid theory.

  31. @Gilchrist is a Legend
    My main goal is not to obtain norms (my rating is way too low :-)), but I too prefer the QC style detail. I think it’s great that there’s a publisher who aims specifically at people like me; for the ‘Grandma reportoire’ type of people there are already plenty of books around, such as the starting out and move by move series. I guess the only thing missing in the QC GM reportoire books is an ‘executive summary’, i.e. the bare minimum you need to memorise in order to play the opening with confidence over the board :-).

  32. @Ray
    I disagree. It is already there. It is the moves given in bold. Actually, I have often recommended students<2300 to put those moves into a personal database that can quickly be refreshed. It is a fantastic way to prepare the essentials.

  33. I agreed with katar’s previous comment but have a different perspective on the most recent one. Nobody can command an entire broad opening repertoire at the depth of some of these books, so certainly there’s a place for broader but less detailed material–The Bluffer’s Guide to the Caro-Kann, or Winging it with the Wing Gambit, or whatever. But to me it seems it’s worth knowing a core set of openings in significant depth, the more detail the better. The benefits go beyond the opening itself: you get a sense of the difference between a superficial treatment/understanding and a deeper one, and see how often a convincing-sounding explanation turns out to be shallow and flawed.

    To specifics: Berg’s second volume, which I received a week ago, is very good indeed. (Of course the first volume is also excellent, but the subject material of the second is much more interesting.) It takes time to absorb this amount of material but in everything I’ve looked at so far there’s a noticeable difference with most recent French books in depth.

    I have to say that there’s one exception (leaving aside Aagaard/Ntirlis,which I don’t have). I found Watson’s PTF4 to be very good. I’ve seen some comments on QC that some preferred Vitiugov, or Moskalenko. But to me Watson also dug deeply in every line I looked at. (Not more deeply than Berg, just to clarify: but there wasn’t the same clear gap.)

  34. @Master McGrath
    I perfectly agree that general opening books also make sense. We have done this with the Schandorff repertoires and will do so also with the 1.e4 books by John. But obviously this is not the purpose of every book.

  35. Gilchrist is a Legend

    The detail is something whereto I look forward in QC books–2200, and especially FMs and other titled players need what seems like extreme detail to succeed in the opening, unless of course they are someone who simply has the immense talent to avoid that, like Carlsen, but that is rare. Berg spent 304 pages on just 7. Qg4, which is almost as much as some other repertoire books that consider the entire French as an opening–quite remarkable to me. It is similar to how Nunn used to write books in the 1980s and 1990s that were small font with deep analyses. I still have the book where a big massive volume was dedicated to the 6. Bg5 Najdorf. Berg might will have produced 1000 pages on the French–then combined with Playing the French, that is almost 1500 pages of QC French material–never too much for me, but then I must admit that I like openings a lot.

  36. @Jacob Aagaard
    Great, so the bold moves are the bold minimum – sorry if this is new for me, somehow for Kotronias’ book I have the feeling that I could do with less than the bold moves :-). Thanks for your advice!

  37. @Ray
    Yeah, I think Kotronis’ book is an exception. But even then you will find that although you do not remember everything, you can revise just the bold moves and be fine.

  38. Gilchrist is a Legend

    I suppose that is better than what I attempted when I bought GM2–in addition to reading literally every word in the book except the Index of Variations and Bibliography, I attempted to memorise not only the bold moves, but the notes as well. Obviously, I learnt that that was not ideal. But the bold moves should suffice.

  39. I find that generally the bold moves suffice, but I’d also emphasize that it’s more useful to go beyond them, merely to understand why the bold moves are best! Constantly investigating and asking “why not this?” is not just a good habit but necessary, as opponents will never simply walk down the main line. Learning why the main line is the main line implies that you understand the upsides and downsides to other moves and have a good grasp of the actual demands of the position.

  40. I just purchased the French Defense book being discussed and it seems to me that the reviews and subsequent comments by the Quality Chess authors has greatly contributed to the standards for quality in all future chess books. Too often, in my opinion, reviews are written like bad poetry, not at all seeking to delve into the book’s substance, thus harvesting its potential for greater understanding. Well done to all!
    As someone who has suffered the pains of stifling symmetry when playing the Exchange Variation, I am quite pleased to have ‘discovered’ the chapter covering 4…c5! So perhaps we can agree that most books offer something great to various chess lovers!? As always, this book by Quality Chess is first rate and well worth a deeper study by all who find the venerable French Defense as fascinating as this appreciative student of the royal game.

  41. Gilchrist is a Legend

    I still sustain that Playing the French, at least in my opinion, is book of the year of 2013, just like how I feel that GM2 (Awrukh) is book of the year of 2010. I would also recommend French players to consider using Berg’s GM14/GM15, and soon to be published (hopefully) GM16, in tandem with Playing the French. Alternating between the Classical and Winawer may seem like much work, but after playing more than one decade of the Najdorf, that combination really does not seem very cumbersome.

  42. @Carl Berg
    Once, when sharing cocktails with Mickey Adams, he confessed that he looked in all the books that were sent to him for reviewing, as “even Everyman books have something in them I can use”. When people talk about a book with no content, I think of a book by David Beckham with only photos :-).

  43. Jacob,
    Indeed, but a picture book with Kate Upton and no words…oooooh-laa-laa!
    And by the way, I do hope it is understood that the rest of the French Book is likewise considered top notch. I always turn first to the chapter / section discussing the dreaded Exchange Variation, because this has been a bit of a nemesis for me.
    Another bang-up job guys! Worth every penny, as always!

  44. I saw Mr Moll’s review on, as a 1622 who falls into the “Fort Knox” (hopefully) only after a diversion from aiming at the Dutch (1.d4 e6 2.e4 arghhh) I am in no position to say anything on the merits. I would like to commend GM Aagaard for intellectual honesty and courage in posting a somewhat negative review for all to see, and responding to it in an even handed and non-vindictive manner. Indeed, Messrs. Ntirlis and Moll were equally civil, fair minded, and without acrimony. This exchange was so refreshing to read. Thank you.

  45. @Mark Moorman
    Thank you. Really there is no reason to be unpleasant, just because you do not have the entirely same opinions. Actually, it is hard to learn from people who think entirely the same way as you do!

  46. I dabble in the world of academic philosophy, and have spent my entire adult life (52) studying philosophy (including an MPhil from that side of the pond— from Cambridge in the History and Philosophy of Science). I am currently editing and contributing to a festschrift for a former mentor. I mention this simply because even (sadly, maybe especially) in the world of academic philosophy the “examined life” of reason is so rarely lived—pettiness, vindictiveness and acrimony, in the face of anything less than a glowing review, are the norm. So, this was nice to see!

  47. @Mark Moorman
    I have seen this very often. In chess and other places. The sad thing is that people do not understand that the very fact that someone cares enough about what you say to comment on it, means that it was valuable and interesting. The rest from there on is just a bonus. At times it can spark an interesting discussion; at other times you do not feel that what other people say is interesting or important enough to comment back!

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