This week's offering comes from IM Andrew Martin, a prolific writer and video/DVD presenter specializing in opening theory. He considers what he calls "Reprintsev's Surprise," a somewhat unusual line in the Center Counter:
1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 Qa5 4.d4 Nf6 5.Nf3 Ne4?! (my punctuation; his is '!?')
Martin comments that the move isn't as bad as it looks, and presents three games in some detail and eleven supplemental games. Black does quite well in the featured games, as one might expect, but is it the line that deserves the credit?
In the first game, White is the higher-rated player and loses in 20 moves, but he had the initiative and at least equality until blundering in a nice position on move 14. In games 2 & 3, White again loses but is outrated by about 334 and 278 points, respectively.
Turning to the supplementary games, the situation turns completely around: though White is on balance lower-rated than Black in the games, White's score was a creditable 6.5-4.5, which is especially noteworthy in light of Black's having the advantage of surprise with 5...Ne4. In fact, according to the Mega Database 2005, White's total score in this variation is +17-8=15 for an overly-healthy scoring percentage of 61%, well above the 54-55% norm.
Of course, a poor score need not mean all much: if the average White's rating were significantly higher than Black's or if some important theoretical discovery overturns what had been the conventional wisdom in the line, then the evidential value of the score is greatly lessened. However, in the games from Mega 2005 White's average rating was only 12 points higher than Black's; as for the analytical value of the line, let's take a very brief look at what seems to be the main line:
6.Bd3 Nxc3 7.bxc3 g6 8.O-O Bg7 9.Re1 O-O 10.Rb1 Nc6
and now instead of the needlessly cautious 11.h3 as in the game Strukov-Reprintsev, Moscow 1999, active moves like 11.Bg5 and better still, 11.Rb5 are far more to the point.
11.Rb5! Qa2 12.Qe2 Qe6 13.Qxe6 fxe6 (13...Bxe6 14.d5) 14.Ng5 Nd8 15.Ba3 Bd7 16.Rbb1 Bf6 17.Ne4 Rf7 18.Nc5 Bc8 19.Be4
with a clear advantage for White, or 12...e6 13.Bc4 Qa4 14.Rc5 Qa1 15.Bh6 Qa3 16.Bxg7 Kxg7 17.Bb5
also with a clear advantage for White, as Black's kingside dark squares are very weak and his pieces cut off from coming to help.
Does this analysis, if correct, mean you shouldn't play 5...Ne4? That depends. I think that at the club level, few players will even have the guts to try 6.Bd3 unless they're already familiar with the line, and it doesn't seem that White achives much if anything on the other 6th moves. Further, even if they find that but aren't generally familiar with this variation and you are, then too your chances for a successful post-opening position are likely to be decent.
On the other hand, it's not worth aiming for this unless you already play the Center Counter, as there are a number of respectable ways White can vary even up to move 5. I'd also like to add that if you're willing to take the time to learn how to defend the typical positions resulting from the 6.Bd3 lines, you could spend that time learning to play theoretically respectable variations as well, and then not have to worry about whether your opponent knows where the skeletons are!
In sum, whenever a chess author, myself included, is offering something a bit off the beaten track, you should immediately ask yourself why it's off the beaten track. It could be that it's new and hasn't yet been properly explored, it could be a matter of unjustified prejudice, and it might also be that the negative evaluation is based on a now out-of-date refutation.
Still, the author should try to tell you why it's not, and if he or she doesn't, be very, very careful. Look up the line in your databases, start analyzing, turn on your computer - whatever you need to do, do it, because the author isn't going to refund your purchase, restore your rating points or compensate you for the lost prize money!