06 July 2013

Book completed: Win with the Stonewall Dutch

I originally began Win with the Stonewall Dutch (Sverre Johnsen/Ivar Bern/Simen Agdestein, Gambit, 2009) in 2011, getting through Chapter 6 (and the Stonewall Hero exercise) before putting it down for about a year.  I was fortunate enough to have the chance to play in a series of tournaments for the first time in a while, so decided to focus on preparing for that and concentrating more on middlegame studies, rather than on learning the Stonewall and trying to incorporate it into my play.  As I'm now in the middle of another extended break from tournament play, I decided to tackle the book again (from the beginning) and completed it earlier this week.

Although of course it is not perfect, the book is certainly one of the best chess books that I have read - in any category - and naturally is also among the top rank of my opening books.  The above-linked review provides a good overview of its contents, while here I would like to focus on its utility for both opening study and overall training purposes.  The bottom line for me was that it was good for my chess, not just as an opening reference.  This reflects the idea that learning a new opening should be for the goal of overall improvement, not just providing you with a new way to get to move 10 and leaving you with no idea what to do in the middlegame.

The fact that the book was the work of three practitioners at different skill levels - Ivar Bern an OTB IM and Correspondence GM, Simen Agdestein a GM and former Norwegian champion, and Sverre Johnsen a strong Expert-level writer - for me was a strength rather than a weakness.  They had personal experience with the opening for a number of years and brought that experiential knowledge, along with a willingness to research a wide range of alternative methods of play, to their analysis and presentation of the different opening lines.  Despite the book's title, this is not a one-sided tract for lovers of the Modern Stonewall, but a thorough and balanced treatment.  Although the authors are not completely objective, in the sense that they want Black to be able to do as best as possible, this does not appear to have affected their judgment of chessboard realities.  They also have a certain sense of humor, which I think helps to put evaluations of different possibilities in perspective, rather than taking everything deathly seriously.  This also feeds into a certain tolerance for unclear evaluations, which are part of the reality of chess.

The "real-world" approach of the book, which relies on a large number of annotated games to inform its theoretical sections at the end of each chapter, is designed to highlight practice before theory.  The main annotated games are also where a number of important concepts are discussed.  Most important for improvement and training purposes is the fact that the book challenges the reader, both explicitly and implicitly.  There are 12 exercises which require the reader to think for themselves, not just look over material, and include a variety of content such as middlegame combinations.  Some exercises are also deliberately designed to have a long-term effect on your chess training practices and studies, including analyzing a variety of move choices in a theoretically critical line as well as the aforementioned "Stonewall Hero" database and analysis exercise.

Another challenging and valuable aspect of the book is that it is not a repertoire book where only one recommended line is treated for Black.  Where the authors do have a preferred repertoire choice in some cases, they explain their reasoning and normally provide at least a description of the alternatives.  The book of course is not infinitely expandable, so judgment had to be used in terms of what was most important to include.  There is in fact a huge amount of material and the authors do not shy away from addressing things like move-order and transpositional issues, which adds to the complexity of the work but I think is both welcome and essential.

I went through the book using a full-size wooden chessboard and played through the vast majority of the book's lines, variations and sample games.  (The one exception to this was the chapter on playing the Dutch versus openings other than 1. d4, which I have no intention of doing.)  After having completed the book, I'm now going back over the material using my repertoire database and selecting my preferred lines, in the process doing additional research and analysis.  The book contains far too much material to be absorbed fully in one or even several pass-throughs.  Reading and playing it through once, however, gave me a great sense of the Stonewall in all phases of the game.  I expect return to the book repeatedly for study and reference purposes.

A few other relevant points:
  • The Classical Stonewall (with development of ...Be7 instead of ...Bd6) is not treated at all.  This means that the book cannot be considered a complete guide to the Stonewall.  This did not bother me too much, as I preferred that the authors focus more fully on one option or the other, rather than bouncing back and forth, which is what occurred in the otherwise excellent Starting Out: The Dutch Defence.
  • The main Classical Stonewall plan of developing the light-squared bishop to the kingside is given secondary treatment here to the modern queenside development options after ...b6, although in some lines the old plan is still necessary and is covered well.
  • Secondary variations in the main annotated games are usually quoted from other games, with light or no annotations, although with evaluations given in each line.
  • Coverage of the anti-Dutch lines, including the gambits, is more restricted in terms of Black repertoire choices, so the reader will need to do additional research if they want more choices.

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