A review of Knight on the Left: 1.Nc3 by Harald Keilhack

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Knight on the Left: 1.Nc3
by Harald Keilhack
Schachverlag Kania, October 2005, ISBN 3-931192-29-6

Knight on the Left: 1.Nc3 is a translation of Harald Keilhack’s original German work, revised and updated to August 2005. It carries the subtitle “Studies of an Unorthodox Chess Opening”, and this seems significant. For while the author is clearly an advocate for 1.Nc3 he is by no means a blind believer in the efficacy of all the lines and systems that can follow from it; he draws attention to the opening’s difficulties where this is warranted.

For a practical chess player, the crucial question to ask of a book such as this is: Can 1.Nc3 form the basis of an opening repertoire which is viable for White and testing for Black? Keilhack makes a good case that it can. Just under 100 pages are devoted to the Van Geet Attack, which arises after: 1.Nc3 d5 2.e4 d4 3.Nce2 e5 4.Ng3 (4.f4 is also interesting). This is the independent 1.Nc3 line that has been most explored and it leads to intriguing, interesting middlegames, some of which may feel familiar to those who play the Nimzowitsch Defence with .. e5 (1.e4 Nc6 2.d4 e5) or the Black Knights’ Tango. It holds up well. Especially impressive in Keilhack’s consideration of this line is Section 8: “Strategic elements of the Van Geet Attack”. A substantial section (25 pages), it presents a detailed examination of 10 key middlegame themes. This is an innovative approach and a model for other opening authors to follow.

After 1.Nc3 d5 2.e4 Black can respond with 2 .. c6, when one line given is 3.Qf3 (Goldman’s interesting move, rather than 3.d4 or Fischer’s old favourite 3.Nf3). If Black plays 2 .. e6, the author gives 3.Nf3 as one possibility (and of course 3.d4 transposes into a normal French); and there are other moves available to Black (e.g. 2 .. Nf6 is an Alekhine’s Defence). Keilhack writes that “the ‘perfect’ 1.Nc3 player needs an especially good general opening knowledge, due to the many transpositional possibilities”; and this is one of the strengths of 1.Nc3, its relation to other “respectable” openings. The transpositions that can occur are many and varied – e.g. 1.Nc3 can easily lead to either the Veresov (1.Nc3 d5 2.d4) or the Vienna (1.Nc3 e5 2.e4) – but Keilhack’s study focuses mainly on independent lines for White. As a rule, he gives a choice of two or three White systems, different in style, for each serious Black response.

The opening is illustrated with 99 main games, and there are myriad other complete games in the notes. There are victories on the White side by such well known players as Timman, Gulko, Larsen, Nimzowitsch (his victory against Alekhine at Semmering 1926) and Charousek, as well as games by many aficionados of 1.Nc3 (or “1.Nc3 riders”, in Aasum’s phrase). The most impressive games, to my mind, are those of the correspondence grandmaster Ove Ekebjaeg – a player new to me -and Larsen’s two games against Gheorghiu and Calvo from the 1960s are pretty superb too. But many of Ekebjaeg’s strategic victories, displaying subtle technique, are rather long, so here is something snappier, a miniature by the Estonian master Aarne Hermlin:

1.Nc3 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 2 ..d5!? is a worthwhile gambit to try, since 3.Nxe5 d4 4.Ne4? Qd5 wins a knight. 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Now we get a kind of open game (such as a Scotch) without e4 or with e4 deferred. Bc5 4 .. Nf6 5.Bg5 Bb4 is the “main line”, if there is such a creature here, and now 6.Qd3!? is interesting and virtually unexplored. 5.Nf5 In the analogous Scotch line 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Bc5 5.Nf5 Black gets good counter-play with Steinitz’s 5 .. d5! The same move just loses a pawn here. g6 6.Be3 Bf8!? 7. Nd4 Bg7 8.Nd5 Nge7? 8 .. Nf6 should probably be played. Now Black is lost.

9.Bg5! With the threat of 10.Nxc6; if 9 .. Nxd4 10.Bxe7 Bxd4 10.Qxd4! 0-0 If 10 .. Nxd4 11.Nf6+ Kf8 12.Bh6# 11.Nf6+ Kh8 12.Ng4+ (12 .. Nxd4 13.Bf6+Kg8 14.Nh6#) and Black resigned. Hermlin-Kaunonen, Karhula 2000.

Naturally, there are several offbeat lines that one might be extremely reluctant to play in a serious competitive game: 1.Nc3 c5 2.g4 or 1.Nc3 c5 2.Ne4 (Zvonimir Mestrovic’s provocative move) come into this category, for me. The latter is surely the chess equivalent of “extracting the urine”, and its sole purpose is probably to wind the opponent up. Certain other unusual suggestions, however, intrigue and tease the mind. One such is 1.Nc3 g6 2.h4; another is 1.Nc3 d5 2.e3 e5 (2 .. c5 3.Nf3 would be a Black Knights’ Tango reversed, I guess) 3. Qh5! leading to this position.

The great attraction of 3.Qh5! is that it is a hypermodern move: its purpose is not to mate on f7 but to exert pressure on Black’s centre pawns from along the fifth rank. It is an extremely neat idea, even though Black can probably equalize with 3 .. Nc6 (3 .. Nd7? 4.Nxd5) 4.Bb5 Qd6.

The book has been translated, by Keilhack himself, into a lively, idiomatic English prose that is more readable, engaging and didactic (in the best sense) than about 80% of chess books written by native English authors. The author’s strengths include a very definite voice and a wide chess culture, and he has fascinating and insightful things to say about UCO theory (the general unreliability of many judgments of positions and variations) and chess strategy (he seems almost to treat 1.Nc3 as a touchstone of modern chess, especially in the light of John Watson’s 1999 work Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy). He has a fine eye for beauty and “interestingness” in chess (sometimes the same thing) and there are digressions discussing a number of other openings. The English language does defeat Keilhack on a few occasions – e.g. “not to harmless” on p.339 (“too” not “to”) and “within or outwith” on p.365 (“outside” not “outwith”) – but the sense and meaning of his writing is always clear.

The author writes that he didn’t wish to name the opening after, or attribute it to, a particular player, and so his book’s chosen title, Knight on the Left: 1.Nc3, is meant as a neutral one. But the word “left” has its connotations too: left-wing (revolutionary, socialist), sinister; and perhaps Keilhack has inadvertently added to the opening’s cult status. “Crime is but a left-handed form of human endeavour”, a character in The Asphalt Jungle by William Riley Burnett remarks. And as for Aasum’s talk of “1.Nc3 riders”, well, maybe we’ll come to think of these players (and ourselves, if we come to play it) as outlaws too.

This is very much a superior opening book. It is intellectually stimulating, a rare virtue, and it presents a thorough survey of 1.Nc3, demonstrating that it gives realistic prospects of a White advantage. A comprehensive list of research materials used by the author – including books, periodicals, databases and internet sources (web pages and newsgroups) – rounds off the book nicely.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com