Play the London System (PTLS) by IM Cyrus Lakdawala continues the tradition of updating the “theory” of an opening whose main virtue is its supposed lack of theory.
With competition from homicidal titles about the London and its queen-pawn sister, the Colle System (the Colle Sister?), Lakdawala might have been forgiven for entering the nuclear arms race of naming chess books. I can only imagine how the marketing department might have tried to outdo rival queen-pawn titles that feature paratroopers, bombs, laser guns, and promise both to "make your opponents crumble!” and to turn the reader into a “chessboard assassin!”
A tough act to follow, to be sure, but I’ll take a stab:
Conquer The Sudetenland And Annex Europe
With The F*%#ing London System
Fortunately, Lakdawala’s effort dispenses with this sort of bombastic nonsense. The result is the most honest, credible, and personal chess book on any queen-pawn system that I’ve ever seen.
Let’s be honest. I am not a big fan of this opening, although I might wish that my most hated enemies have to face it. Why? The reason lies in the London’s notorious reputation—i.e., that it’s boring and that everyone but its practitioners absolutely hate it—which Lakdawala addresses very directly in the introduction.
“We don’t owe our opponents entertainment.” (p. 8.)
For me, this comment establishes the author’s credibility. He concludes the introduction with the borderline sadistic comment: “Good luck playing the London. May you use it to frustrate future opponents!” (p. 9.)
All of this begs the question as to whether you owe yourself entertainment. With the White pieces, you are entitled to go for Black’s jugular. Do you really want to confine your bloodthirsty White chess pieces within the “London” pawn triangle? But alas, certain individuals listen to talk radio, watch congressional hearings on C-SPAN, monitor their daily intake of dietary fiber, and yes, get their kicks by playing this gosh darn London System thing. We are not here to judge, so let’s get on with the book review.
Lakdawala’s book is smartly organized by complete games. The tree-format inherently emphasizes specific move-orders rather than themes and middlegame patterns. As a result, in a book on a flexible “system” like the London, the tree-format would impede thematic understanding and undermine the whole purpose of the repertoire. Yet the competing London tome by Johnsen/Kovacevic awkwardly strains to present variations in a tree format, even after noting on page 63 that “[a] major challenge when writing the book was the multitude of possible move-orders.” Sorting out these move orders is an even bigger challenge for the patzer readers, particularly where there a dozen transpositions at every move anyway. Lakdawala’s book avoids this “challenge” by presenting complete games, which incidentally showcases his brilliant knack for distilling middlegame instruction and strategic explanations into numerous three-pronged lists that populate the book. Compared to its rival, Gambit’s Win With, Everyman’s PTLS is, in my opinion, easier to study, more digestible, and more visually attractive besides.
The introduction reveals that Lakdawala was not conscripted to write PTLS, but pitched the book to his publisher after IM John Watson suggested that he write on the London. As a result, it’s apparent that PTLS is a highly personal effort and a labor of love. I was initially thrown off by the pet dogs and Star Trek references in the introduction, but later grew to appreciate Lakdawala’s charming and personable humor infused throughout the book. Some twenty (20) games of the author feature as main games in PTLS, and his thirty (30) years of coaching experience is apparent in the outstanding strategic explanations. Subject to the disclaimer that the London System’s nutritional value is the chessic equivalent of recycled cardboard, Lakdawala’s pithy strategic pointers and the complete games approach nonetheless combine to provide the book with a surprising amount of middlegame instruction.
Theorywise, the book is up to date, with five main games from London guru GM Eric Prie and more in the notes. Against an early c5, Lakdawala prefers to transpose to the Exchange Slav rather than push to d5, and he gives three illustrative games to this effect in the so-called Benoni chapter.
Although the London System is high in fiber, it does not qualify as a free lunch. There are counterintuitive yet critical lines and move-orders that must be memorized cold. For example, White must choose his move order precisely to avoid what might be dubbed the historical “mainline,” which is miserable for White.
1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bf4 c5 4.e3 Nc6 5.c3 Qb6 6.Qb3 c4 7.Qc2 Bf5 8.Qc1
Lakdawala also warns that the London is on thin ice against King’s Indian setups, particularly with Nfd7 followed by a pawn avalanche (e5, f5, g5), and that such lines must be learnt cold. The following variation and position are given as critical.
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.d4 O-O 5.Bf4 d6 6.e3 Nfd7 7.h3 e5 8.Bh2 Nc6 9.Be2 f5 10.O-O g5
These issues lead to the ultimate question: why play this not-so-exciting opening, if it turns out to require memorization in spots and may be exploitable by Black’s move-order shenanigans? Nonetheless, I think the London has a right to exist mainly as a backup option or as a killjoy against nationally ranked juniors and impatient, self-styled “attacking players.” Despite my reservations about the subject matter, the book is surprisingly well-done and probably the best London book around.