Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Modern Tiger- A Review

It happened exactly six years ago but I remember it vividly. The date was 3rd March, 2009, and I had lost my second round game at the 4th Kolkata International Open against my city mate IM Aditya Udeshi. I was 0/2 and quite depressed at having bungled up an excellent position. But something that I do not miss is post game analysis with my opponent. I went to the analysis room with Aditya and played through the opening moves.

When I saw the person next to me I couldn't believe my eyes! It was GM Tiger Hillarp Persson! 

I read the "Tiger's Modern" before coming to the tournament and had decided to try it out in my games. I had played the exact same opening against my opponent a few hours ago and here he was, the author of the book, sitting besides me analyzing his game with his opponent. After he was done with his analysis, I told him that I loved his book. He thanked me and saw the position on our board. "Did you play the modern today?", he asked me. I nodded affirmatively. "And did you follow my recommendation?" With some pride in voice, "Yes I did!" And what was the result of the game? With a slight despair, I said, "I lost."
"Ok. let me have a look at your position." Tiger peeped over to the position on my board.

The game position after White's 13th move Rad1

"Everything looks pretty good until this move", said Tiger. "What did you play next." I moved my knight to c5.

My 13th move was Nd7-c5.

With an air of suspicion Tiger said, "The move Nc5 is very dangerous. In fact it should never be made on general considerations. It should be played concretely because the N on c5 does attack e4 but that is all that it does! On d7, it is more flexible while on c5 it can merely block the black pieces!" And he showed me an illustrative variation which went like this:

The above explanation along with the improvement convinced me of the deep understanding that the Swedish grandmaster possessed of this opening. Not that I doubted it, but it was quite amazing to see it live in action.
As he was about to leave he told me that he would include this point of not committing the knight to c5 too soon in the 2nd part of his book whenever it would be released.

Imagine my joy when Quality Chess published a revised and updated version entitled "The Modern Tiger" in December 2014.

The moment I got the book, I flipped open the page of contents and checked the chapter on the Fianchetto Variation to see if Tiger had really mentioned the point related to knight c5. I went over the 25 page chapter two to three times but could not find any mention of that move. Of course I knew six years was a long time and the chances of Tiger talking about this episode in his book were slim. Yet I hoped that I would have somehow made it to his book!
It was not to be! :)

The Modern Tiger contains improved and updated analysis of the book Tiger's Modern that was released in 2005. My acquaintance with Tiger's Modern happened in the year 2008. I was drawn towards the book thanks to its unusual name. And more so with it's unusual move order. The opening suggested by GM Tiger Hillarp Persson is for the black side after the moves 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3. Nc3 d6 and almost any White move now is met with 4...a6!?

Just about any White fourth move, be it 4.Nf3, 4.f4, 4.Be3 is met with the move 4...a6!?

First of all who gave the right to Tiger Hillarp Persson to name this opening after him as Tiger's Modern or the Modern Tiger? (On his blog Tiger writes, "I blame my editors for that name but I didn't resist it!) When I searched the above position in the games of Tiger I found that he has reached the position 109 times! Phew! (These are the recorded games in the Mega-database) And that too his opponents deviated on move 2-3 on many occasions! And what were his results? He won 68 games with 27 draws which makes it a result of 68.4% with the black pieces against an average opposition of 2361! Impressive! Don't you agree! I think based on his sheer experience and results we have to be fine if Tiger does call the variation with a6 as the Tiger's Modern. Now that we are fine with the name, let's check from Tiger's games what his opponents have played the most against him.

 Majority of the times his opponents went for 4.Be3 or 4.f4. 

I have played the Modern approximately 15 times in my games and I must say that this is the toughest move to meet for Black. Why do I say so? The reason is very simple. White makes a non committal flexible move. He intends to continue with 5.Qd2 and then he could launch a kingside pawn storm with f3, g4, h4 or just push his pawn upto f4 or just play the positional lines with 5.Nf3. Black has to be prepared to react against every system in the correct fashion and he mustn't waste time. Take for example, my game against Kapil Lohana from January 2009.

Kapil Lohana (1988)- Sagar Shah (2283), Jan 2009.
What should Black play?

In the game after much thought I made the non committal move 8...Rc8?! While it is not a blunder or even a mistake I would say that I didn't understand the value of each move in such positions back in 2009. Today I would have without doubt played 8...c5. It is important for Black to not waste time in getting his counterplay on the queenside. As things stood, my lack of feel for the "Modern" landed me in deep trouble right out of the opening and my opponent who was rated 300 points below me, beat me quite easily.

If you do study Tiger's explanation carefully, you will realize when exactly do you have to play Bc8 to b7 or when you must let your bishop remain on c8 in order to eliminate the knight coming out on h3. When must you first play Nf6 or when you have to let your knight remain on g8. This explanation is something which no computer engine can ever provide you with. This is the years of experience and wisdom which is poured into every page of the book. These lines with 4.Be3 constitute nearly 100 pages of the Modern Tiger.

Against the Austrian Attack with 4.f4 Tiger first gives 90 pages of analysis with 4...a6!? While these analyses are interesting, I must say that Black is often walking an extremely thin rope between coming out of the opening with a fine position or just being totally killed. And hence, Tiger recommends the move 4...Nf6 (instead of a6) transposing the game back into the Pirc. As Tiger writes in the introduction: 

"When I wrote Tiger's Modern ten years ago, I was a different chess player from what I am today, and more so than anything in relation to the opening that this book is about. Back then I thought, : Everyone should play the Modern- it's such an awesome opening!", whereas my attitude today is more along the lines of: " If  you like to set yourself a challenge then the Modern is for you. (it's such an awesome opening.)"

Of course, the experienced Tiger who has written this book after 10 years realizes that not everyone has nerves that are as strong as his own. Some people like to develop their pieces and get castled (maybe such people should not play the Tiger's Modern) and hence he suggests returning to the relatively solid Pirc 4...Nf6. After 5.Nf3 0-0 we reach the main position of the opening.

White has two main moves in this position 6.Bd3 and 6.Be3

To 6.Bd3, Tiger recommends lines starting with Nc6 and to 6.Be3 he suggests b6!? This chapter which contains nearly 50 pages was read from top to bottom by me. Basically this was my preparation in the last round game at the Al-Ain Open in December 2014 against WIM Khayala Abdulla (2299). I put all the analysis into a ChessBase file and checked all the analysis with Houdini.
I must say that I was thoroughly impressed. Along with perfect explanations, the variations go quite deep with novelties abounding in plenty. Andrew Greet who is now an editor of Quality chess books wrote a book entitled "Beating unusual chess defences: 1.e4". Against the Pirc he recommends the Austrian Attack with 6.Be3. He suggests an improvement in that book on move 11 for Black which has been never played before and still shows the way for White to get an edge. Tiger finds a novelty on move 14 for Black and suggests that black has excellent counterplay. To make things more clear here are the moves:

By the way I read and remembered the entire analysis of the chapter "4.f4 Nf6- Back up plan" and was able to win a very nice game in the last round of the Al-Ain Open. Here is the game:

One of the most interesting chapter headings in the book is the "Hippopotamus".

The structure with the pawns on h6-g6-f7-e6-d6-c7-b6-a6 is known as the hippopotamus, lovingly called the hippo! Mainly because it looks like a hippo.

The main advantage of the Hippo is that White has no pawn levers. White has reached the maximum level of activity and would now like to execute a move like e4-e5 or d4-d5 which would open the center for his pieces. But d4-d5 is met with e6-e5 and Black can prepare f5 break. And e4-e5 is met with d6-d5. after which Black can prepare the c5 break. All in all Hippo like the hedgehog is a dangerous creature which should not be messed with. And I almost forgot. Black usually cannot castle because is h6 pawn would be hanging. Therefore, he sometimes plays Kf8-g8-h7! And sometimes to put more pressure on e4 pawn he goes Qb8-a7, Rd8 and Qa8! Such are the wonders of this beautiful creature!

The rest of the chapters covered are 4.Nf3 which is the classical variation, 4.Bg5 which is named as Into the mid-air, 4.Bc4 -Mad dog variation, Fianchetto variation (which I have already described at the start), Lazy variation with c2-c3 and Unusual Lines. I have checked some of the analysis of the Fianchetto variation and also the 4.Bc4 Mad dog variation (Mainly because I like developing my knight to f6) and I think it is high quality.

The last chapter deals with the Averbakh System. Mainly these are the positions in which White goes with the move e4, d4, and c4 in any order. 

This is the starting position of the Averbakh system. According to Tiger, if Black plays anything other than the King's Indian from this position with Black it can be termed as the Averbakh.

Tiger reveals his displeasure for this variation with the following words, "If someone woke me in the middle of the night and screamed in my ear, "What's the biggest problem with the Modern?" I would probably mumble "3.c4, if you don't play the King's Indian. Now leave me alone."

So is the (Tiger's) Modern a bad choice for players who do not play the King's Indian? I do not think so. First of all Tiger suggests a fighting line with d6 followed by 4...e5.

The advantage of learning this system with Black is that you get an extra defense against 1.d4.

White has many ways to play in this position with 5.Nf3, 5.d5 5.Nge2. But one thing is for sure 5.dxe5 followed by the queen exchange is not something that Black players need to fear. True the right to castle is lost. But this is compensated by the weakness of the d4 square. If Black can soak in the initial pressure he usually has a perfectly acceptable game.
As a final confidence booster for all those who would like to try out this as Black, here is the proof that this line is fine for Black.

Tiger's main line in his book after 7...Nh6 is 8.dxe5 but he does mention 8.h3 and with a variation that ends in equality. Carlsen might have followed Tiger's analysis as this game was played in January, 2015 after the book was released. In any case against a theoretical expert like Giri, it was a very good result.


In Kolkata 2009, I did ask him why he was named Tiger and he gave me the explanation for the same but I just am not able to recollect it. 

The Modern Tiger is not an easy opening to learn. Do not harbour any illusions that you will be able to master this opening by just reading this book. This book can be a starting point of your journey and a constant guide which you can refer after every game.
However, it is an extremely complicated opening which requires good amount of practical experience. You need to play a lot of games on the internet, with your friends, or in tournaments and get a feel of this opening. You can say that Tiger has one of the best feels for this opening because he has constantly played this system in his tournament games, lost games, learnt from it and is always thinking about how best he can improve black's play. He now usually knows where his pieces belong in a specific position in this opening. You too can reach that level of expertise but for that you will need a huge appetite for not only hard work but also for taking in losses and learning from them. If you are looking for an exciting and original game of chess filled with complications and unusual motifs, then Tiger's Modern is for you!

I heartily recommend this book.
Writing this review and going over my past games of the Modern Tiger (or maybe the Tiger's Modern!) has left me itching to try out this opening! Oh wait! Someone has already played 1.e4 against me on PlayChess! 1...g6! Here we go!

                                                                              -Sagar Shah

You can buy the book Modern Tiger from the Quality Chess Website for 24.99 euros.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. thanks! great post!

  3. Line 4:
    When I saw the person next to me I couldn't believe my eyes! It was GM Tiger Hillarp in Persson!