(This review also appears at Amazon.com. You can read all of my Amazon reviews here.)
Not Just a Good Opening Book, a Fine CHESS Book
I have had Play 1. e4 e5! in hand for about three months and it has become one of my favorite chess books. I have periodically replied to 1. e4 with e5 in my 30 years of serious chess, but the vast majority of my games as black against 1. e4 have been Center-Counter (aka Scandinavian) (1. e4 d5), Sicilian (1. e4 c5) or Pirc/Modern (1. e4 d6). My reasoning has always been that 1. e4 e5 is "giving White what he wants," that is at my below-Master level a chance to play a sharp gambit. I just never felt comfortable playing against the celebrated King's Gambit, and it seemed that other gambits also required a lot more study time than I wanted to use to meet them. Of course, the Ruy Lopez is an enormous complex unto itself.
Since I like and respect Grandmaster Nigel Davies for his "Power Chess" books and his fine Chess Improver blog I thought I would give this book a go, partly based on the other, positive reviews. I am very glad I did.
Play 1. e4 e5! is a complete repertoire against 1. e4, with the exception (as others have noted) of Alapin's Opening (1. e4 e5 2. Ne2). I don't consider this much of an omission, since it probably gets played in about .1% of e4 e5 games. To be completely thorough, also not covered here are unusual second moves for white like 2. a3, g3 and c4. These do get trotted out occasionally, mostly at below-master level, and it's not a bad idea to have replies prepared for these rare moves. Some coverage can be found at the beginning of John Emms' Play the Open Games as Black which I think is a good book, but not as directly useful for me as the Davies. Emms' book, published in 2000, is in the bibliography of Play 1. e4 e5! and is cited in the text as well, but the repertoire there is more complicated (e.g. King's Gambit Accepted) and it doesn't touch on the Ruy. You have to get a whole different book for that.
The final difference is one referenced in my title for this review. A great strength of Davies' book is that it has 65 main, annotated COMPLETE games (plus more in the notes), and the annotations don't end after the opening. The author comments on various turning points throughout the games (in 14 of which he was the player of the black pieces) and close study of these games can improve your play in all phases. This is what puts Play 1. e4 e5! a cut above many other good opening books.