Review: Winning with the Nimzo-Indian - Keene

Book review: Winning with the Nimzo-Indian by Raymond Keene. Batsford. 1991, 79+xv.

  I think I've bought my last book by Keene. The title that has prompted this decision is the subject of this review. It exemplified perfectly Phil Crocker's criticism of chess publishing in Kingpin No.22, to which Batsford, for some reason, felt the need to respond in No.23. As I remember, Phil's main gripes were:

  (a) shallowness: books are full of glib, vague or uncommittal commentary (e.g. "with compensation", no need to mention if it is adequate!) - only general and strategic comments, none cashed out in terms of variations

  (b) padding: complete games are included for no good reason at the expense of extra commentary or additional detail. I do get annoyed by large sections of games being quoted in 'double-column' format without notes viz.

1. d4 Nf6

2. c4 e6

3. Nc3 Bb4

  This uses three lines when only one is required. If you look at older Batsford books there are many part games and games in block text, squeezing the most chess and instruction on the page. No longer.

  (c) question-begging: books allow important questions about particular variations to be ignored, and only light notes are added to games

  (d) lack of originality/ no value added: analysis and comments by others are quoted freely, games are cited without their significance being explained.

  These were humorously put in the article, but clearly felt keenly - my guess being that PC has more than once spent the best part of [[sterling]]15 on various selections from the Batsford list. Let us look closely at Keene's book and see how it fares on these points.

  The book, of course, does not claim to be complete. The author says it is a 'companion volume' to another title, How To Play The Nimzo-Indian that he co-authored with Shaun Taulbut in 1978, although the relationship between the two (one introductory/one advanced? one historical/one recent?) is nowhere explained. None of the games in the earlier volume are given in this book, and there are no cross-references, nor even an index.

  I'll take one chapter for particular commentary - say, the one on the closed Samisch variation. I shall try to give enough detail to be fair to the coverage offered. I shall also give my reactions. This chapter should show Keene at his best - after all, he has made a special study of it for a previous publication cited in the bibliography, An Opening Repertoire For White [1]. Also, it is a 'fashionable' variation (Karpov, p.71) with, I would have thought, some considerable contemporary material available.

  The chapter contains half a page of general description with four complete games as its backbone, and seven additional games are mentioned in the notes. Eleven games in 11 pages is pretty light in my judgement, but quality and insight may compensate for this. Of the four games - Keene-Vella 1985, Polgar-Remlinger 1986, Johner-Capablanca 1929, and Yusupov-Karpov 1989 - the notes for two are 'based on' notes by others (Tartakower and Karpov). It may take a GM to find and reproduce the latter games, but my view is that any club player with a library and a photocopier (or a database) could do as much. So perhaps point (d), lack of originality, may be conceded. The half-page of description is nearly all general, and the basic variations and piece placements are not described here or later. A suspicion of shallowness may arise here, but let us look at the meat of the chapter - the quality of the two games which appear first and which bear Keene's own annotations.

  During Keene-Vella, after 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 c5 5. Bd3 Nc6 6. a3 Bxc3 7. bxc3 Vella continued 7...d6. Keene cites here a Plaskett game which continued instead 7...e5 8. Ne2 e4!?. In fact Keene quotes the whole of Psakhis-Plaskett 1985, which thus becomes the first game in the chapter, without a single real comment. (The !? mark is actually Keene's, and two further moves during the game are annotated ?! and !, but no support is offered for these judgements.)

  I think this is disgraceful, and exemplifies question-begging - point (c) above. What is the reader to make of Plaskett's line? Are there any precedents[2], and if so how does this game relate to them ? Does Keene regard the line as important? ...interesting? ...frivolous? Even a 'first impression' statement from our GM author would help. Is the line risky? ...dubious? ...playable? What are the plans for either side in this variation? How do these relate to the general Nimzo-Indian themes? Why is Keene-Vella the main game with Psakhis-Plaskett as the note, instead of the other way round? How can we see the general ideas given earlier shown or modified in this game? I am no wiser for seeing this game than if I had stumbled over it in a magazine.

  The Vella game is given some commentary, which I paraphrase below. 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 c5 5. Bd3 Nc6 6. a3 Bxc3 7. bxc3 d6 8. Ne2 e5 9. Ng3. "A theoretical novelty" says Keene, but the main line is not suggested. He adds that the move offers "a pawn for open lines", which is a shallow comment in the 'with compensation' class - point(a). 9...g6 ("to prevent Nf5...") 10. d5 Ne7 11. e4 h6 ("prophylaxis... against Bg5") 12. a4 Qc7 ("stronger is ...a5 followed by ...Kd7-c7") 13. a5 Kf8 ("? Black's king is exposed - here he should strive for ...O-O-O"). Keene wins with a nice K-side attack, and later comments that the doubled c-pawns offered a solid centre from which to launch the attack. Really the only lesson spelt out for players of either colour is that the Black King is safer on the Q-side. Now, I could accept this as a worthwhile lesson, except that in all four main games quoted Black's King is lodged on the K-side. Why did white's K-side attack work in these two games and fail in the other two, which Black won? Just what is the reader expected to learn from this game?

  I would suggest that Phil's point (c), about only light notes being given, is further exemplified here. What seem to me to be other key issues (when should White close the centre with d5? are Black's pawn moves g6/h6 OK with the King on the Q-side? was the a4-a5 manoeuvre important, given the K on f8?) are given no attention.

  The rest of the game after move 13 is given with two notes and two diagrams. It is not said in these two notes whether the attack was typical or not, nor whether Black made the most of the opportunities for counterplay, nor what alternative attacking or defending plans each side had available, if any. I believe all the latter part of this game (with the two diagrams) could have been omitted with no loss of understanding, and if it is to be included could certainly be set in a more condensed form than the 'double column' style.

  We are then given Polgar-Remlinger. After 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. a3 Bxc3 5. bxc3 d6 we are told that in three recent games Lombardy played 5...c5, Korchnoi tried 5...b6 (which transposes into the next chapter, although the reader is not so warned) and "also possible", as in Polgar-Stigar, is 5...O-O. The Korchnoi game is quoted to move 10 with the assessment '"good for Black'" and all 24 moves of a game Polgar-Stigar are given, which White won. Again, not a word of advice.

  There are many questions begged here. Why is the Polgar-Stigar game given in its entirety at all (see padding, (b) above) - was it particularly thematic, or is it interesting for other reasons? Is it worth playing over, and if so, why? Which of the four fifth moves is best, or do they all tend to transpose? What is the point of giving these alternatives if their importance, their different motivations and their worth is nowhere assessed? Why on earth was the transposition not spotted?

  The main Polgar game ran 6. e3 e5 7. Bd3 c5 8. Ne2 b6 9. O-O Nc6 10. e4 O-O 11. d5 Na5 12. Ng3. Now Black played 12...Ne8 which is marked ?! - another game is quoted with Ljubojevic using 12...Ba6 which still gave White "a fine position", so we still don't know what Black should have played. Polgar replied 13. Ra2 and Keene adds 13. f4 is "also possible". There are in fact over 20 legal moves 'also possible'. Black succumbed to a K-side attack, and though after move 29 it is only "a matter of technique" we are treated to the other 20 moves of this game in double-column format, yet no aspect of the technique is explained. Just padding again, I fear.

  In short, all these games have been merely collected rather than annotated - there is no value added and little interpretation given.

  Collecting and even organising recent (or ancient) games is easy for club players. What we can't do is sift the games, and discover what is going on in them. It's the difference between dictation and teaching, this illumination of the collected information. This is also the hard bit, requiring scholarship and effort, and on the basis of these two games in this chapter Keene has done none of the work required. The chapter, frankly, is a mere compilation with a bit of window-dressing. The chess public, and Batsford's, are poorly served by this sort of thing. When, for about the same price, you can have Nunn's depth of insight and detailed commentary, it is hard to know why mugs like me keep shelling out for Keene's potboilers.


[1] Again, none of the games from this book are offered here, which, given the lack of cross-reference and the fact that the earlier one is out of print, is a positive disadvantage. (Indeed all the 5 books mentioned in the bibliography were Keene's, perhaps overlooking books by Taimanov and Gligoric, which are doubtless inferior or out of date...)

[2] It took me just 5 minutes to find a Spassky-Tal game quoted in three other books and an InterNet games archive.