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MACA Chess Horizons Magazine Article
 Ivan Sokolov, The Ruy Lopez Revisited
 Nicholas P. Sterling, Ph.D.
  October 2010
Most general opening books, when presenting the Ruy Lopez, seem to follow the same pattern: they rush through variations that exclude 3. … a6 first, as if they are in a hurry to get them over with fast. They implicitly dismiss them as of course not really worthy of one’s time, in order to get to the “real” Ruy Lopez, the comparatively enormous and respected body of theory starting with 3. … a6. The consequence of such a narrow view is that there are a whole slew of sidelines that a persistent Black player can seize upon and surprise a White player who hasn’t taken time to prepare them.
In his 2009 release, Sokolov offers a full exploration of such sidelines in the Ruy Lopez: the Jaenisch or Schliemann Gambit (3 … f5), the Cozio (3. … Nge7), the Smyslov (3. … g6), the Bird (3. … Nd4), and the Classical (3. … Bc5). As he states in his Introduction, the advantage of these offbeat variations is that they may throw White off his prepared book as early as Move 5, forcing him into a long think earlier than he was anticipating. The question then is, are these variations objectively worthy of a Black player’s attention? Sokolov evaluates them to determine the current lines that White should use against them, and how Black will make them stand up, if he can.
The presentation of the variations is thorough and painstaking, and the work Sokolov has put into the book makes it an essential resource for Ruy Lopez players. Theory is an ever-changing matrix, and interests and trends evolve. If White understands that he can’t always rely on Black’s playing a nice predictable Chigorin, Zaitsev, Open, Breyer, or Marshall the way White wants him to, he will be better armed against these odd and fascinating variations.
Of the variations covered, the Jaenisch, covered in Part I – 3. … f5 4. Nc3 fxe4 (or 4. … Nf6) 5. Nxe4 d5 (or 5. … Nf6 or 5. … Be7) 6. Nxe5 dxe4 7. Nxc6 Qg5 (or 7. … Qd5?!) – receives the most favorable advocation from Sokolov. The impression I take away is that the Jaenisch may be the most misunderstood of the ones covered here. While it is generally rejected as too risky, Sokolov argues forcefully that it has hidden resources that make it much better for Black than its reputation suggests. He rejects the line 7. … Qd5?! because of 8. c4 Qd6 9. Nxa7+!, but he embraces the main line, 7. … Qg5 8. Qe2 Nf6 9. f4, by revealing an improvement at the 16th move, 16. … Rf8! The line arrives at equality on the 20th move and appears to head the game to a draw. There is an alternative 9. Nxa7+!? (instead of the usual 9. f4) that may need to be explored as a possible future main line, but Sokolov appears to think that Black has chances against this one too. All in all, the Jaenisch is a variation that can upset any White Ruy Lopez player’s repertoire. Although I have not played it myself (yet –maybe I will now!), I have faced it a few times, and been slaughtered, so I have felt firsthand its vicious bite. Sokolov, therefore, does well to champion it enthusiastically.
All the other Parts display as careful analysis as Part I. Parts II and III cover the Delayed Jaenisch and Cozio Variations, neither of which gets much enthusiasm from Sokolov. Part IV covers the Smyslov (3. … g6), which Sokolov calls “sound,” but with 4. d4 White comes away with “somewhat better chances,” in Sokolov’s estimate. Part V covers Bird’s Defense (3. … Nd4), which is objectively more favorable for White, but is “complicated” and difficult to figure out accurately over the board. Part VI covers the Classical Defense (3. … Bc5), with several sub-parts that demonstrate this variation’s high complexity.
Sokolov is consistent in presenting this exploration as work in progress. He shows a superb handling of his research and understanding of the thicket of intricate lines, and makes clear that there are many lines, such as the aforementioned 9. Nxa7+!?, that are cutting-edge and need further exploration. These spots will supply sedulous preparers of these variations with key resources that they may try out to find out their merits and demerits further.
If anything disappoints about this book, it’s that Black players against the Ruy Lopez who want to eschew mainstream lines but who dislike the Jaenisch (and its cousin the Siesta, which Sokolov doesn’t like much) don’t really have any conclusively favorable Black lines to choose from. Perhaps they will need to set themselves up for some hard knocks with Sokolov’s suggestions for further exploration to discover that a seemingly favorable line for White actually is really playable for Black.
That point notwithstanding, this book, in this reviewer’s opinion, is an outstanding companion to a reader interested in seeing the current trends in the Ruy Lopez and examining them further. It should become part of the chess library of every serious Ruy Lopez player.