The Campbell Report
Correspondence Chess
"On the Square" Article

Thanks to Senior Master Steve Ham of Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA) for writing the following book review. Thanks also to the author David C. Taylor (7th USA CC Champion) and the publisher and editor Rick Melton for supplying the book copies. It's always a pleasure to see a new publication written either for a cc audience or by a strong correspondence chess player. Thus it is with great pleasure that I publish this review.

It is not easy to review a technical book such as this, which is why I asked a strong player known for his exacting analysis to review it for me. For my part I consider it an excellent resource for anyone interested in the Ponziani. You can read a Senior Master's opinion below. Anyone who owns Rick Melton's own masterpiece "Secrets of a Chess Master" (1996) will find this book very similar in appearance and publication values. Taylor's interest in keeping readers up to date via the Internet is particular interesting and should provide additional value to the book. He has arranged to publish these updates at Ralph Marconi's Chess Pages in the future.

[19-April-2001 update: He has already published 19 updates. They are at the Gambit Chess Website at http://www.gambitchess.com/index2.htm]

J. Franklin Campbell

Steve Ham can be reached at his work email at: Steve.Ham@gecapital.com

Written by David Taylor
Published by Rick Melton
Reviewed by Stephen Ham (October 2000)

David Taylor is eminently qualified to write a book on this rarely played opening, beginning with 1.e4, e5 2.Nf3. Nc6 3.c3. He is the winner of the 7th USCCC, scoring a phenomenal 13½-½, and thus winning by the largest margin in this event to date over the 2nd-3rd place finishers. He used the Ponziani Opening three times during this event, but ironically conceded his sole draw with it.

Cecil J. S. Purdy, the first Correspondence Chess World Champion, wrote that opening books have an anti-Black bias. White is seen to have no problem obtaining at least equality while Black is seen to have all the problems. Yet the Ponziani Opening is generally not respected by the chess world. Why is this? Yes, Black is severely tested in facing the Ruy Lopez and the Scotch Opening, to name but two solid lines, while some ferocious gambits are available to White in the King’s Gambit and Goring Gambit, to name two more. So is it the availability of attractive white lines that causes the world to ignore the Ponziani Opening or is it a perception by Black that this opening is intrinsically tame? David Taylor states in his Introduction that the Ponziani Opening has “been classified as harmless and boring”. Probably this is because White eschews development to push a pawn via 3.c3, taking away the queen knight’s natural square. Regardless, this compendium of David Taylor’s improvements to existing opening theory seeks to change this perception.

This 81 page book (the pages are 8 ½”x11” with double columns) has non-glossy paperboard covers and a plastic spiral bound spine. Given the spine, the book’s title can not be displayed there. This presents a problem for those of you, who, like me have large libraries and thus have books stacked tightly onto shelves. One must therefore physically remove the book from the shelf in order to determine what the book’s subject is. Given the hefty price of $22, one needs to be assured that the contents of this book compensate for the poor quality packaging/presentation. One compensating bonus is that David Taylor promises to update the book’s buyers with corrections as they are discovered and with theory updates. This will be done via e-mail, snail-mail and bulletin board postings. While on the subject of opening theory, David’s search for Ponziani theory was eclectic, since his Bibliography interestingly included the opening book of MChess Pro, a computer chess program. Unfortunately the Bibliography failed to state which of approximately 8 versions of this program was consulted. It is also interesting to note what books/periodicals were conspicuous by their absence in the bibliography: NCO, the MCO’s, BCO 2, Chess Life magazine and Inside Chess magazine, all of which most Americans have easy access to. David told me that he did review Chess Life magazine, but all of the games he found there were already covered by other sources. The book was published in August 2000, so the contents are presumed to be current.

Besides the poor packaging, I have other complaints about the publisher’s work. His Preface, his column labeled "Comment", and his biography of David Taylor were written in an informal and inappropriately chatty style with overuse of hyphens and italics and the frequent slang expression that he spells "getgo". His writing style gives the strong feeling of a sales pitch rather than informing the reader about the book, the production effort, and its author. Typographical errors are common. One example is seen in Chapter 16. There, four different White 6th move variants are listed as A, B, C, and D. However, the following page shows three references to variant line E, but no clue is given as to what this variant was. Next I looked at the Contents-Variations page to orient myself. The first 13 chapters covered 3…Nf6 4.d4 lines. Next came a listing for chapters 14-17 labeled “White plays 4.d4”, covering more 3...Nf6 4.d4 lines. Why were the first 3…Nf6 4.d4 chapters segregated from the second group with this label? First impressions count a great deal when examining a book to buy. The above listed work of the publisher made an unprofessional first impression upon me, when instead I wanted a serious study of the Ponziani Opening.

The good news though is that David Taylor’s work is really excellent. Very few books have been written exclusively on the Ponziani Opening and those that have are already at least 20 years old, such as “Ponziani Opening”, by Smith and Ciamarra, published in 1980. Further, these older works were often a restatement of knowledge from games played by others. However, this book contains a great deal of original material from a master who has played the Ponziani Opening for a long time at the highest levels of American correspondence chess. The book consists of 36 chapters and finishes with 17 illustrative games. Let’s examine a few samples of Mr. Taylor’s labor of love.

The first line I examined was the one leading to the sole draw that Mr. Taylor conceded in the 7th USCCC. In that game, his opponent, Erik Osbun, found a major improvement upon theory, earning Black a clear advantage. That line is covered in Chapter 26. The line begins with 3...d5 4.Bb5. David Taylor prefers this move to the standard 4.Qa4, but doesn’t spell out his reasons for so doing. My guess is that while most lines transpose anyway, his move order sets more problems for Black, like that found in Chapter 20. Getting back to Chapter 26, we continue with 4.Bb5, f6 5.Qa4, Nge7 6.ed, Qd5 7.d4, Bg4 8.c4, Qe4+ 9.Be3, Bf3 10.Nd2, Qg6. In the game, Mr. Taylor played 11.gf?! but now prefers 11.Nf3 in his main line. However, this line also favors Black, so Mr. Taylor’s preference is now 5.Qe2!, covered in Chapter 27. This move is Mr. Taylor’s theoretical novelty and two full pages are given to the ensuing lines. It seems that Black is unable to equalize now; with best play White gains an edge. I gave the lines a quick check and am convinced that Mr. Taylor has indeed found a powerful novelty. This is a major improvement for the Ponziani and one that many players may need to be aware of. One complaint, though, is that this chapter is typical of the book in general; it is nearly devoid of explanatory text. As such, weaker players will struggle to understand concepts and plans. In addition, the lack of adequate commentary fails to explain why one side is better or why one side has or doesn’t have compensation for material. Instead, we are only given an Informant style evaluation symbol.

Next I spot checked Chapter 20 which covers the rare 3...d5 4.Bb5, Qd6 5 ed (given the diacritical !). Mr. Taylor wrote, “ I believe it wins against 4...Qd6”. That’s a strange statement given that his subsequent analysis merely shows a white edge with best play. Perhaps this overstatement merely speaks to the passion and confidence the author has for this opening. Regardless, I again believe Mr. Taylor has found a big theoretical improvement favoring the Ponziani. These two improvements are most impressive and illustrate the quality/quantity of Mr. Taylor’s original work.

In Chapter 25, Mr. Taylor, to his credit, found an improvement for Black, but then provided no assessment of the resulting position. He then suggested an earlier improvement for White. Just when things were getting interesting, the publisher next wrote a paragraph (entirely in italics) about how he caught an error in Mr. Taylor’s analysis that “rang my chimes”, so Mr. Taylor went “back to the drawing board with a grunt”. Fortunately Mr. Taylor found yet another improvement for White. Readers, however, simply want accurate analysis without such disruptive comments.

My compliments to Mr. Taylor for his honesty. In spite of his love for this opening, he didn’t write, “Winning with the Ponziani”. In Chapter 24, Black reaches a choice between a draw by perpetual check or an unclear position after best play by both sides. Unfortunately for this book, this chapter omits a key Black resource. Correspondence IM Tim Harding pointed out in his review of this book in Chess Mail the unmentioned 13...f6!, which is instead covered by GM John Emms in his book, Play the Open Games as Black. We look forward to David Taylor’s corrections/theory updates service to cover this move soon. However, I can’t finish with Chapter 24 without mentioning more sloppy work that the publisher should have caught. On page 41 in the right-hand column, the main line leads to a clear Black advantage. The recommended line has generally been the main line throughout this book (although not always, and this lack of consistency is irritating), so what’s going on here? Upon review, I think the solution is in a sub-note to White’s 16th move. This sub-note begins with a left bracket in bold print. However, there is no right bracket in bold print at the end, merely a right bracket. Worse yet, the first line inside that bracket also leads to a clear black advantage. Only by looking further do we see that the second alternative is supposed to lead to a White edge. Yet another example is that an “Author’s Caveat” was written for Chapters 23 and 24, but rather than placing it just before these chapters, it was inserted after Chapter 23 and before Chapter 24. Proper proofreading would have caught this mix-up and given us a more readable presentation.

Many strong players, such as former World Correspondence Champion Palciauskas, have played 3…f5 against the Ponziani, so what does the author recommend? David Taylor’s integrity is seen once again in Chapter 31 where the analysis ends with the comment, “The books have said [White] wins, but I only see perpetual check”. Then Chapter 32 shows White the proper path to an advantage with original analysis favoring 4 ef.

Since Mr. Taylor did not use NCO as a reference, I decided to compare this work to NCO’s lines. Chapter 1 and NCO run parallel through 3...Nf6 4.d4, Ne4 5.d5, Ne7 6.Ne5, Ng6 7.Qd4, Qf6. Here mention should have been made that 7…Qe7 transposes. Also there’s no coverage of 7…Nd6 8 Nd3, Be7 9 Bd3, O-O 10 O-O, f5 11 Be3, b6=, as found in Chess Mail 8/96. The main lines continue with 8.Qe4, Qe5 9.Qe5+, Ne5 until this book varies from NCO with 10.Nd2, d6 11 Nc4, Nc4 12 Bc4, Be7 13 O-O, O-O 14 Be3, Bf5 15 a4, Bf6 16 a5, a6 17 Rfe1, Rae8 18 f3, citing the game, Taylor-MChess Pro, 1993. White won in 53 moves. Unfortunately no mention is made of what the time control was, what computer the chess engine was mated to (i.e. Pentium III at 500 MHz), and what setting the chess engine was using. While commentary is given for White’s plan, no effort is made to improve Black’s play. While Mr. Taylor’s play was impressive in this game, merely citing a game versus a chess program (the version is unstated) under unstated conditions gives the impression of a lack of objectivity. Worse yet, a known game continued with 18…h5=, when White failed to make any headway in Harding-Padros, Corr. 1985.

Finally, since Chess Life magazine was not used as a reference, I wondered whether the line in my correspondence loss to Alex Dunne would be covered, since it was twice displayed there. This game is also found in many computer databases. Two databases were listed in the bibliography, but I don’t know if my game was contained in them. Chapter 14 covered 3…Nf6 4.d4, d5 5.Bb5, ed 6. e5, Ne4 7.Nd4, but first I only saw consideration of 7…Bd7. I did not find coverage of Dunne’s ultra-sharp 7...Bc5 until later. This illustrates another problem with the book’s lay out. Specific lines are often difficult to find since the differing variations within each chapter are usually unlabeled. Now, after 7…Bc5 8 O-O, O-O 9 Bc6 bc, the book gives only 10 Be3, which it correctly assesses as giving White an edge. The book can be forgiven for not covering my 10 b4?!, since it is an inferior line that grants no advantage to White. Again, 7…Bd7 is treated as Black’s primary line. Upon further review, much of the 7…Bd7 line is covered in greater depth/breadth in “Ponziani Opening”, by Smith and Ciamarra, published in 1980. Why wasn’t this important Black line updated here?

Chapter 15 covers 3…Nf6 4 d4, ed 5 e5, Ne4, which is often reached by the Goring Gambit. As such, published theory has shown several better Black lines than are covered here.

As mentioned, the book concludes with 17 illustrative games. While all of the games are quite interesting to play through, one wonders how they were selected. For example, game #6 is Estrin-Spassky, Riga 1951 which was a brilliant win for Spassky. But, while Spassky’s win was exceptionally beautiful, it has nothing to do with the book since Estrin deviated from recommended play as early as the 4th move!

Summary: This is a serious work by a devoted author who clearly made great efforts in finding numerous original theoretical improvements for both sides. In general, I’m impressed by Mr. Taylor’s work, but am surprised by the lack of coverage of certain Black lines, while other lines lack sufficient depth of coverage. Still, many White players armed with this book are going to earn wins against unprepared opponents. Black thus runs a serious risk of loss in playing against the Ponziani without first buying this book himself. Further, the additional promise of updates/corrections from Mr. Taylor means that White players may be well prepared for the foreseeable future. On the negative side, the publisher’s work was unprofessional and unbefitting of this serious work from the author. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether the stated strengths in content outweigh the publication weaknesses sufficiently to justify the $22 price. If I were still playing the Ponziani, I know that I’d buy this book. It is simply the most current reference source to date on this opening and is packed with theoretical novelties, unpublished until now. Further, the buyer is not merely buying a book. He is also buying an update/correction service from an exceptionally strong master who knows more about the Ponziani than anyone else. However, weaker players will not find sufficient value for their money due to the lack of explanatory text. Therefore, I think this book most appeals to higher rated OTB and correspondence players who will best understand David Taylor’s superb analysis.

19-April-2001 update: Rick Melton is no longer publishing this book. The book can now be ordered from:

David Taylor
1197 W Lotus Lane
Kankakee, IL 60901

email: ponz111@aol.com
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