Philidor's Ghost Is Alive and Well
Vivasyriaa (1651) – JoLou77USA (1259), chess.com 2011
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6
Ah, the Philidor Defense! There's a lot more to this interesting opening than most realize.
Gambit lovers occasionally try 3…f5.
The first recorded games with this move were between G. Atwood vs. J. Wilson, in London 1798 and London 1799. Mr. Wilson tried this in no less than 5 games vs. Atwood, and Black lost them all (the games were absolutely horrible). For those interested in that bloody bit of history, here’s one of those games:
The great Paul Morphy took up 3…f5 in 1858 and he won three and drew one of the four games he played. Of course, he won due to being Morphy, and not due to the opening line he chose. Here’s his prettiest win from those four games:
Nowadays, it’s known that the best reaction to 3…f5 is 4.Nc3! fxe4 5.Nxe4 d5 6.Neg5! (Grandmaster Christian Bauer, in his excellent book, THE PHILIDOR FILES, recommends this move, which he says, “…softly refutes the dubious idea initiated by Black’s 3rd move”. More popular is 6.Ng3, which Bauer says, “… leads to a game with better prospects for White, but his edge is reduced in comparison with 6.Neg5.” Bauer also mentions that 6.Nxe5 “… only offers black what he wished for” after 6…dxe4 7.Qh5+ g6 8.Nxg6 hxg6! 9.Qxg6+ Kd7 10.Qf5+ Ke8 11.Qe5+ Be6! 12.Qxh8 Nc6 when I’ll quote Mr. Bauer again: “The material balance clearly favors White, but Black has dynamic compensation, with …0-0-0 next on his agenda. White’s prospects seem better to me, but I also think that Black’s activity shouldn’t be underestimated.”) 6…h6 (6…e4 7.Ne5 Nh6 8.Nxh7! Ng4 (8…Rxh7 9.Qh5+ Ke7 10.Qg5+ Ke8 [10…Ke6 11.Qxd8] 11.Qg6+ Ke7 12.Bg5 mate) 9.Nxf8 Nxe5 10.dxe5 and White already had a winning position in S. Hautot – O. Stork, Belgium 1997.)
Though 3…Nf6 takes us into the meat and potatoes of the Philidor Defense, we’ll soon see that there is a problem with the Knight move to f6. Thus, some players prefer the simpler 3…exd4 4.Nxd4 when 4…g6 is Larsen’s Variation and 4…Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 is Antoshin’s Variation.
The most natural move in the world, and the main line for many decades. However, now it’s known that 4.dxe5! is rather annoying: 4…Nxe4 (4…dxe5?? 5.Qxd8+ Kxd8 6.Nxe5 leaves White with a safe extra pawn) 5.Qd5 Nc5 (5…f5 6.Bc4 Qe7 7.0-0 c6 would be fine for Black if White moved his Queen away and allowed …d6-d5. However, 8.exd6! gives White a clear advantage.) 6.Bg5 and theory (and there’s a lot of it!) has shown that, due to white’s lead in development, Black ends up with a slightly unpleasant position in all lines. Here’s an example:
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Nf6 4.dxe5 Nxe4 5.Qd5 Nc5 6.Bg5 Qd7 7.exd6 Bxd6 8.Nc3 0-0 9.0-0-0 Nc6 10.Nb5 Qg4 11.Nxd6 cxd6 12.Be3 Be6 13.Qxd6 Ne4 14.Qa3 Rfd8 15.Bd3 Nf6 16.Bg5 Nb4 17.h3 Qxg2 18.Rhg1 Qxf2 19.Bxf6 Qe3+ 20.Kb1 Bxa2+ 21.Ka1 Qb6 22.Rxg7+ Kf8 23.Rxh7, 1-0, S. Tiviakov (2635) – G. Barbero (2520) [C41], Imperia 1993.
Strong players pretty much relegated the Philidor Defense to the garbage heap due to 4.dxe5! However, the Philidor experienced a revival when various Russian players, who enjoyed the main Philidor positions but didn’t want to touch the position after 4.dxe5, found that 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 (3…e5!? is also popular since 4.dxe5 dxe5 5.Qxd8+ Kxd8 doesn’t offer White much of anything) 4.Nf3 e5 5.Bc4 Be7 6.0-0 0-0 was a better way to enter the opening and get the Philidor position we end up with in this game. As a result, some players tried to avoid this as White by avoiding 3.Nc3 and instead (after 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6) trying 3.Nd2 and 3.f3 and 3.Bd3, while 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 was also met (instead of the natural 4.Nf3) by 4.g3 (positional) and 4.f4 (violent) and even 4.g4!? (super violent) – I have to admit, though, that Black has a playable position against all these White alternatives (though you have to know the theory).
Some players (the tactical genius Shirov is its main proponent) have tried 5.g4!? Here’s a recent game:
1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e5 4.Nf3 Nbd7 5.g4 Nxg4 6.Rg1 Ngf6 7.Bc4 h6 8.Be3 c6 9.dxe5 dxe5 10.Qd3 b5 11.Bb3 (11.Bxf7+ Kxf7 12.Nxe5+ Nxe5 13.Qxd8 Nf3+ 14.Ke2 Nxg1+ 15.Rxg1? (15.Kd3 Nf3 favors Black) 15...Bg4+ and Black wins] 11...Qa5 12.0-0-0 Ba6 13.Ne2 c5 14.c4 bxc4 15.Bxc4 Bxc4 16.Qxc4 Qb4 17.Qxb4 cxb4 18.Nd2 g6 19.f3 Nb6 20.Kb1 Nfd7 21.Rc1 Be7 22.f4 exf4 23.Bxf4 Nc5 24.Be3 Rd8 25.Nd4 Nd3 26.Rc2 Bg5 27.Bxg5 hxg5 28.Nc6 Rd7 29.e5 Rh4 30.Nf3 Rc4 31.b3 Rxc2 32.Kxc2 Rc7 33.Kxd3 Rxc6 34.Nd4 Rc5 35.Rxg5 Nd7 36.h4 Nxe5+ 37.Ke4 f6 38.Rg2 Kf7 39.Rc2 Rxc2 40.Nxc2 a5 41.Nd4 Kg7 42.Ne2 Kh6 43.Ng3 Ng4 44.Kf4 Nf2 45.Ke3 Nd1+ 46.Kd3 Nc3 47.a3 f5 48.axb4 axb4 49.Ke3 Ne4 50.Ne2 Nc5 51.Nc1 Kh5 52.Kd4 Na6 53.Kc4 f4 54.Nd3 f3 55.Kd4, 0-1, Li Chao2 (2613) – V. Malaniuk (2582) [C41], Sydney 2010.
White has some scary alternatives here, but they aren’t anything to worry about IF you’re aware of them!
6…Kxf7 7.Ng5+ Kg8! 8.Ne6 Qe8 9.Nxc7 Qg6 10.Nxa8? (10.0-0! would give White some compensation for the piece) 10…Qxg2 11.Rf1 exd4! 12.Qxd4 (12.Ne2 Ne5 13.Nf4 Nf3+ 14.Ke2 Ng1+ 15.Rxg1 Bg4+ 16.Kd2 Qxf2+ 17.Ne2 Nxe4+ 18.Kd3 Nc5+, 0-1, M. Zelic  – D. Muse , Cvitanovic Memorial 2002) 12…Ne5 13.f4 (13.Qe3 Bh3, 0-1, M. Pepe – G. Laketic, Porto San Giorgio 2005) 13…Nfg4 (intending …Bh4+) 14.Qd5+ Nf7 15.Qc4 Bh4+ 16.Kd1 Be6 17.Qe2 Nf2+ 18.Rxf2 Bxf2 19.f5 Qg1+ 20.Kd2 Ne5 21.Nd1 and this takes us into a nice little test:
* 6.dxe5!? dxe5 7.Bxf7+ Kxf7 8.Ng5+ Kg6! 9.f4 exf4 10.Ne6 Qg8 11.Nxc7 Ne5! 12.Nxa8 Bg4 13.Qd4 Nc6 14.Qf2 Qc4 and white is in bad shape. However, 11.Nd5! seems to be a far stronger move. I’m sure this is analyzed somewhere, but since I don’t know where that analysis is, I’ll offer up some quick (perhaps incorrect) observations: 11…Bb4+ seems silly, but there’s an important point to it: 12.c3 Bd6 13.Nexc7 Nxd5 14.Qg4+ Kf6 15.Qf5+ Ke7 16.Nxd5+ Ke8 17.Bxf4 Ne5 18.Qg5. We could have this same position with white’s pawn on c2 (via 11…Bd6). In that case, White would stand extremely well. But with the pawn on c3, the d3-square is “loose” which means that 18…Nd3+ is possible with a huge advantage for Black. Pretty cool, but instead of 15.Qf5+, White can play 15.Nxd5+ Kf7 16.Bxf4 Nf6 17.Qh4 with a strong attack.
So, back to 11…Bd6 12.Nexc7 and now 12…Bxc7! seems critical: 13.Ne7+ Kf7 14.Nxg8 Rxg8 15.Qd3 Ba5+ (15…Nc5 16.Qc4+ Ne6 17.0-0 g5 might be stronger, when I like black’s 3 minor pieces vs. white’s Queen) 16.Bd2 (16.b4!? Bxb4+ 17.Bd2) 16…Nc5! (in the game D. Mione  – M. Scalcione , Corsico 2007, Black played the mistaken 16…Bxd2+ when 17.Qxd2 Re8 18.0-0-0 led to a White victory: 18…Nb6 19.Rde1 g5 20.h4 Nxe4 21.Qb4 Bf5 22.hxg5 Rac8 23.Qa5 Rc5 24.Qxa7 Nd7 25.Rd1 Rec8 26.c3 Ne5 27.Rhf1 f3 28.gxf3 Nxc3 29.bxc3 Rb5 30.Qd4 Rb1+ 31.Kd2 Nc4+ 32.Qxc4+ Rxc4 33.Rxb1 Bxb1 34.Rxb1 Ra4 35.Rxb7+ Kg6 36.Rb5 Rxa2+ 37.Ke3 Rc2 38.Rc5 Kh5 39.Kf4 Kh4 40.Rc6 Kh3 41.Rh6+ Kg2 42.Rxh7 Rxc3 43.Kg4, 1-0.) 17.Qc4+ Be6! 18.Qe2 (18.Qxc5?? Bxd2+ favors Black since 19.Kxd2?? Nxe4+ picks up the white Queen) 18…Bg4 19.Qc4+ Be6, draw, is a fair outcome.
* 6.Ng5 0-0 7.Bxf7+ Rxf7 8.Ne6 Qe8 9.Nxc7 Qd8 10.Nxa8
Though white’s won material, black is doing fine with both 10…b6 and 10…b5 (though you have to know a lot of theory to prove it!).
The main line, though White has also tried 7.a4 and 7.Qe2 in quite a few games.
A poor move that blocks his own light-squared Bishop. Instead, 8.a4 (stopping black’s …b7-b5 queenside expansion) is the approved move, when older moves for Black are 8…Qc7 or 8…a5, while the newer main line is 8…b6.
Interesting, though not the optimum reply. Instead, 8…Qc7 9.dxc6 bxc6 is comfortable for Black since White has (in effect) traded his nice central d-pawn for black’s rather sad b7-pawn (center pawns are usually worth more than wing pawns). Perhaps best is 8…Nb6 9.Bb3 cxd5 10.exd5 when white’s light-squared Bishop has turned into a tall pawn, while Black suddenly finds himself with a nice central pawn majority.
A passive move that shows White has no plan (he’s just a helpless, bobbing piece of wood in the ocean with no control over his own fate).
White should have tried to create a hole on d5 by 9.dxc6 bxc4 10.cxd7 Qxd7 11.Bg5! (preparing to exchange one of black’s key defenders of d5) 11…Qc6 12.Bxf6 Bxf6 13.Qd5 (13.Nd5 Bd8) 13…Qxd5 14.Nxd5 Be6 15.Red1 when Black has two Bishops while White has a powerful Knight on d5 and potential pressure against d6. This is hardly the end of the world for Black, but at least White would have been following a clear, constructive plan.
9…b4 10.dxc6 bxc3 11.cxd7 cxb2 12.Bxb2
Entertaining but worse was 12.dxc8=Q bxa1=Q when we can enjoy the rare spectacle of having four Queens on the board (though white’s down material and losing).
Of course, there was nothing wrong with 12…Bxd7.
There’s an old chess story that goes something like this: A boy’s father was dying and called his son to his deathbed. He said, “Son, we’re poor, and I was never able to give you anything. Now my time’s up, and all I can offer is this one piece of advice: Never, ever take an enemy rook-pawn with your Queen!”
The fact is, after 13.Rb1 Black has a very comfortable position since white’s Knight and b2-Bishop are hitting granite on e5, and the pawns on a2 and c2 are potential, long-term weaknesses. All Black has to do is develop his pieces so they eye those points, also keep an eye on the center (always an important thing to do!), and the position will play itself (something like 13…Qc7 14.Qd2 Be6 was simple and good). Instead, Black decides to go on an adventure and lose tons of time by going after a2 with his Queen.
Ah, if only Black had heard the old tale I gave after black’s 13th move! Instead, he should have targeted the c4-pawn (and gotten the rest of his pieces out!) by 14…Qxd1 15.Rexd1 Ba6 16.Ba3 Rac8 (note the team effort against c4) 17.Nxe5 Rfe8 when black’s fine.
Notice what Black has done: he has stuck his Queen in nowhere-land (where it’s very vulnerable), wasted time doing so when he should have been getting his undeveloped bits into the game, and now takes his Knight away from the center so that it can create a one move threat against f2.
White saw it (in fact, Black actually forced White to make this strong move)! Now what is black’s Knight doing on g4?
16…Qa6 17.h3 Nf6 18.c5 Qc6 19.cxd6 Bxd6 20.Bxe5 Bxe5 21.Nxe5
And, just like that, Black is losing the game. Did White do something brilliant to deserve this? Not at all. In fact, White played rather poorly until Black literally forced his opponent to develop his pieces with gain of time and beat him. So many games are lost by self-immolation, and this is just another good example of completely unnecessary chess suicide.
On the other hand, losses like these are invaluable learning tools! The key is to know why you lost so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over (there are plenty of new mistakes to be made!).
21…Qc3 22.Nf3 Rd8 23.Rd2 Nh5?
Black was lost, but this move speeds up the inevitable. Notice how white’s fully developed while Black’s a8-Rook and c8-Bishop are still sitting at home. Remember: chess is a team game! You need to get ALL your pieces into play!
Threatening to win the d8-Rook with Bxh7+ followed by Rxd8. The game’s over, though Black decides to play until he’s mated. White’s more than happy to make black’s wish come true.
Now h5, h3, and h7 are all hanging (and d8 is also ready to go). White could also have won in many other ways, including 25.Bxh7+ followed by 26.Rxd8 and the simple 25.gxh3.
25…g6 26.Bxg6 Qxd2 27.Qxh5 Qd5 28.Bxf7+ Kf8 29.Bxd5 Rd7 30.Bxa8 Bf5 31.Rb8+ Kg7 32.Ne6+ Bxe6 33.Qg5+ Kf7 34.Qf6 mate.
~ Lessons From This Game ~
* Don’t block your pieces with your own pawns! Fight to make them more active, not less active!
* Try and avoid exchanging center pawns for wing pawns unless you have a clear reason for doing so.
* Losing is usually a great learning experience, as long as you understand why you lost. If you don’t know why a game turned sour, you will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over.
* Remember: chess is a team game! You need to get ALL your pieces into play!