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If I was going to write a book about a controversial opening like the London System, (the controversy because of the simple question: why has it been deserted by Grandmasters in recent years?) my first concern would surely be to try to establish its validity for someone at a 2200+ level and concentrate hard on the critical up-to-date variations.

Alas, this is not the case in the recent book Win with the London System by Sverre JOHNSEN and Vlado KOVACEVIC, kindly sent to me, for review, by the publishers GAMBIT.

Download PGN of February '06 d-Pawn Specials games

London 2 Bf4 [D00]

Their effort does not reflect the evolution of general opening understanding nor explain its current infatuation with the more natural Slav rather than the Orthodox, for instance.

Indeed, it is almost funny when you see the instructive games section, for instance, where they give 9 wins (!) by White, mounting nice, easy, instructive, attacks against Black playing ...c7-c5 but with his queen's bishop already locked inside the pawn chain with ...e7-e6, 3 less relevant games on other 1...d5 set-ups by Black and only one example of the acid test of the set-up with ...c5, ...Nf6, ...Nc6, with Black dubiously mixing this with the idea ...Nh5 !

The analytical section referred to is in the image of the games section: The critical information from the black point of view is watered down in a chapter favouring White, that is when it is not given rough commentary or simply omitted altogether!

Winning with the London System is not biased towards White strictly speaking. Considering the theoretical importance of the opening, I find it surprisingly honest in its statements, but the material provided knocks itself out trying to justify the title of the book.

Thus, the result is the equivalent of 2 useful pages in the front line of analysis out of a total of a hundred dedicated to 1.d4 d5!, at the end of which, those 2 pages, naturally, the estimation is invariably at least equal for Black...

Some examples : 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 c5 3.e3:

A "saner move" than 3.e4 according to the book. But there is something really strange about this statement: on one hand the authors look quite concerned by the preliminary question 1.d4 d5. 2.Nf3 c5 and that is why they recommend 2.Bf4 when apart from heavy and specific preparation it may concern only a minority of Queen's Gambit Accepted 1...d5 players (ready to meet the critical 2.Nf3 c5 3.c4! as Kramnik showed in his times) and on the other hand they cannot come to the general evidence that the major problem of the London system without a prophylactic c2-c3 is to allow Black a free liberating shot a White's d-pawn with ...c5 permitted by the placement of the bishop on f4.

Thus, the continuation 3...Nc6 4.c3 Qb6 5.Qb3 c4 6.Qc2 Bf5 7.Qxf5:

Normally, for instance with the extra moves Nf3 + Nf6, White cannot take this bishop (unless of course Black blundered allowing a Qc8 mate) but in this case the weakness of the black pawn chain on White squares modifies the perception of the exchange sacrifice.

Now 7...Qxb2 8.Qxd5 is interesting as illustrated in Game 1 (the anticipated reference, curiously eclipsed by the famous Miles-Minasian already commentated twice (!) in the archives, which shows that even in this line White may have serious problems), Game 2 (with its festival of inaccuracies making me say that without prep those kind of positions are not made for over the board play...) and Game 3 (with the new sacrifice 8...Nf6? 9.Qxc4 Ne4 10.Qb5! Qxf2+ 11.Kd1 only offering Black some nebulous compensation for the whole piece) and does concern one and a half pages of the book, including some hardly understandable analysis, meant to be favourable or at least pleasant for White, but is completely disproportionate to its practical utility!

Why? Because with 4...Nf6! Black can transpose here to the key main line 2.Bf4 Nf6 3.e3 c5 4.c3 Nc6! Here, the book, duly aware of the 'old' 5.Nf3 Qb6! 6.Qb3 c4! problem, instead advocates 5.Nd2 as the foundation of a system. Alas, once again this is not backed up by serious work.

The obviously critical continuation 5...cxd4 6.exd4 Bf5 (as played in Game 4) corresponds to the game fragment Kovalevskaya-Kadimova Moscow OLW 94 in the book, given as a small advantage for White without any explanation. According to me the final estimation is actually the opposite because of Black's superior pawn structure!

This is the same story in Game 5 where Black uses the same set-up with 5...Bf5! but without releasing the tension in the centre, and on 6.Qb3 Qd7 which "might be the toughest nut to crack" according to the book, and which should therefore have been worth more than a quarter of a page of sometimes curious analysis.

And, making reference to the book subtitle: "dynamic new approaches to make your opponents crumble!"... it is suddenly not the black opponent who crumbles but the whole house of cards built by White!

It is hardly given a face lift by 5.Bd3?!, either, hoping to hamper the development of the opponent's queen bishop outside the pawn chain which led to two short disasters after 5...Qb6!:

followed by 6.Qb3? c4 7.Qxb6 axb6 9.Bc2 b5 in Game 6 - this early queenside initiative does not necessarily require the support of the c8-bishop to develop very dangerously against White- or the better 6.Qc1 in Game 7.

In my opinion, the radical 5.Qb3!?, preventing Black's light-squared bishop moving out of the pawn chain, could be the only move for White in this position in order to achieve some stable equality and therefore rehabilitate the whole London System edifice.

In the introduction, I like very much the passage "Why play the London". I totally agree with the general opening philosophy it upholds which can be summarized by: "It is not so important to play equal positions as long as they are familiar to you, as this will give you good chances of outplaying your opponent later." This good intention, however, is not supported in the subsequent pages when confronted with the unsolvable problem for White in this Neo-London, which is not simply to be unable to prove any advantage after Black was allowed to use his c-pawn at the very beginning of the game, but how to avoid falling into the type of prospectless equality it keeps offering in almost every line where Black implemented this unique critical idea in his first 4 moves?

Thus, the biggest regret about the book, is not to have explored " due to space considerations" (a poor excuse, between us, when half of the book is devoted to those systems that play themselves - where Black shuts his queen bishop in with ...e6) the alternative 1.d4 d5 2.Bf4 Nf6 3.e3 c5 4.dxc5 which could have been a unique chance to save the opening if there was something to be found for White after 4...Nc6! (and not the only move mentioned, 4...Qa5+, and this for less than a quarter of a page) 5.Bb5 Qa5+! 6.Nc3 a6! As in the Rowson - Shaw game from December, or 4.Nc3 which we shall study in a couple of games next month, as a preliminary to the Veresov (to be put through the vegetable mill next!) , where White, very much inspired by some Baltic reversed play, uses the systematic combination of Bf4 and Nc3 with his pawn still on c2.

Unfortunately the authors have not realized that it was only, and I say only, the combination of these possibilities (4.dxc5 or 4.Nc3) with the exciting option of the Morris Gambit 2..c5 3.e4!? that has caused a (ephemeral I am ready to bet!) renewal of the London system, and not the old fashioned e3-c3 approach for which the recipe of the refutation is now widely known.

The fact that the Morris was given a hard time in Game 8 after 3...Nc6! 4.cxd5 Qxd5 5.Nc3 Qf5! 6.Qd2 cxd4 7.Nb5 e5 8.Nc7+ Kd8 9.Nxa8 exf4:

when Black eventually captured the knight in the corner, or in Game 9 after the interesting 3...Nf6!?, if only Black had played 4...Nd7 on 4.e5 imports relatively little in comparison:

The big and recurrent weakness of the book is that it fails to sense the critical lines.

Those lines where deep investigation is absolutely necessary; if only to answer the question: "Is The London System playable or not against 1..d5! and if so how?" As a result, the book grants space where it deserves none and skimps where it is essential.

Is it due to the level of the main Norwegian author - rated only 2162 on the 1st of January 2006? Undoubtedly this had some influence, but the main problem is of course the subject of the book itself. We have a saying in French which goes like this: "the most beautiful girl in the World can only give what she has" ("la plus belle fille du monde ne peut donner que ce qu'elle a") And it is true that the London System has little to give in promises of any advantage when Black plays the set-up that hurts. Am I being harsh and partial? Are my expectations too high, my standards too much tainted with perfectionism, for what is just an opening book amongst others ? Possibly... but one can hardly reproach me for knowing this system, from both sides, like the back of my hand, and making use of that knowledge!

Thus, if it is impossible to compete analytically with reality then better make the book as attractive as possible ...

And this book is really very attractive: full of words and tips with a pleasant presentation not overcharged with chess variations. It has even convinced me to play the system against Black's kingside fianchetto defences! But the reader has to be aware that above 2200, where prepared people tend "to know the music" with Black, he will face some serious problems EVERYWHERE against the ...Nf6, ...c5, ...Nc6 set-up with a free queen's bishop that the book will have scarcely prepared him against.

Fortunately enough, there is ChessPublishing and your servant having written his present e-book on the London system, re-establishing the analytical balance between practical and theoretical importance ... in one of his famous series "Lose with..." ;o)) Eric