19 February 2022

Quantity Chess

Ever since I started playing chess many moons ago, the year 2021 was the first year that I didn't play a single game using the traditional start position (SP518 RBNQKBNR). I didn't plan it like that; it just happened.

Every once in a while I encounter a reminder about why I no longer enjoy playing SP518. A few days ago it arrived in the February 2022 issue of Chess Life, in a book review titled 'Strong Coffee : GM Gawain Jones stirs the pot with his Coffeehouse Repertoire' by IM John Watson. The review started,

Of late we are seeing numerous opening repertoire books and electronic products by strong players. Most of these recommend variations within a particular White or Black opening, for example, a Caro-Kann Defense repertoire or a tome on "Beating the Sicilian." That’s difficult enough, but a few brave authors have taken on the more ambitious task of presenting a complete repertoire for White from the very first move, or a repertoire for Black versus all of White’s first moves.

You can imagine that with the increasing depth of established theory, such an undertaking has become an extremely daunting one. In his recent Coffeehouse Repertoire books, GM Gawain Jones presents a deep repertoire with 1.e4, and it takes two volumes and 1000 pages to complete the chore.

A thousand pages! Sounds like a lot, but what do I know? The review continued,

These are pages of the dense analytical detail that Quality Chess books are known for, with limited verbal explanation. That might seem excessive, but in fact, Jones can be commended for his efficiency. Quality Chess has already published two even lengthier multi-volume works devoted to repertoires with 1. e4. GM Parimarjan Negi’s brilliant and original five-volume series clocks in at 2280 pages (so far: he hasn’t even written about 1. e4 e5 yet!). And GM John Shaw’s three-volume Playing 1.e4 series consumes 1472 pages.

Finally, I should mention that GM Justin Tan’s recent book 1.e4! The Chess Bible (out from Thinkers Publishing in 2021) takes up the same challenge; so far, his first volume takes up 462 pages, to be followed by two more of presumably similar length. Such books are not for the faint of heart.

Let's summarize that:-

  • GM Gawain Jones; 1000 pages
  • GM Parimarjan Negi; 2280 pages, 'so far: he hasn’t even written about 1.e4 e5 yet'
  • GM John Shaw; 1472 pages
  • GM Justin Tan; 462 pages, 'to be followed by two more [volumes] of presumably similar length'

That totals more than 6000 pages ... just 1.e4. I have copies of ECO -- Chess Informant's 'Encyclopedia of Chess Openings' -- that I bought in the 1970s and that I still use occasionally as an easy reference. Here are page counts and year of publication for ECO's five volumes of the first edition:-

  • A: 1979, 476 pages
  • B: 1975, 398
  • C: 1974, 348
  • D: 1976, 404
  • E: 1978, 464

That makes less than 2200 pages covering all of White's first moves, starting with ECO A00's 1.h4? and 1.g4? (the '?'s were GM Bent Larsen's evaluation at the time). ECO volumes B and C covered all the 1.e4 responses.

Back to Jones, Negi et al, at whom are these books aimed? IM Watson suggests,

I should make clear that the two volumes of 1. e4 Coffeehouse Repertoire are ideally suited for experienced players or truly dedicated students. Many lower players will find the theoretical demands burdensome, and there’s very little verbal handholding of the "Why am I playing this move?" variety.

No verbal explanations? Sounds like pure engine analysis. As I write this, and as you read it, dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of super strong chess engines are crunching the data on the suggestions made by the four authors, attempting to render their conclusions obsolete and thereby gain a single point (1.0) in a game against their operator's unsuspecting adversary.

This way to the egress! It's clearly marked 'chess960'...


NB: None of this is meant to denigrate the efforts of Watson, Jones, Negi et al. John Watson is one of the best chess writers / book reviewers active today. The GMs are just trying to make a buck catering to a niche market while applying their expertise. That's the way it is for SP518 in 2022.