Monday, September 04, 2006

Chess' Loveable Loser -- The Philidor Defense

There’s a scene in The Untouchables where Sean Connery, playing a street-wise Chicago cop, and Kevin Costner, playing prohibition crusader, Elliot Ness, are standing outside of one of Al Capone’s many Chicago bootleg liquor factories. All that separates the two federal agents from the prohibited liquor is a small door and, of course, the fury and retribution that Al Capone and his army of thugs will reign down upon them for challenging the mob’s iron grip of Chicago.Sean Connery, reluctant, but ultimately willing to help bring down Capone, wants to make sure Elliot Ness knows what he is about to get into: “lf you walk through this door, you're walking into a world of trouble. There's no turning back. Do you understand?”

That’s how I sum up the Philidor Defense: once you take it up, your stuck with it forever. And that probably is not a good thing.

Be forewarned . . . .

Be advised . . . .

Be so told . . . .

The opening is not for everyone – indeed the the opening just barely straddles the line of respectability. You can play it at a chess tournament and not be laughed at, but I guarantee you your opponent will almost always be thinking to himself “Thank God, it looks like I am playing an idiot.” It’s amazing to me how many respectable chess authors and books do not even discuss the opening any more (choosing more popular(?) or successful(?) openings like the From). Worse yet, the commentators who do discuss it describe it as best an inferior alternative to 2… Nc6.

“By consensus, it seems that Philidor . . . [is] useful but that [2… Nc6] is preferable.” Charles Abrahams, The Pan Book of Chess (1983).

“The early twentieth-century greats Nimzovich, Tartakower, Alekhine and Marco used it occasionally, but the opening has been out of style since then.” Nick de Firmian, Modern Chess Openings (14th ed.) (1999).

“The Philidor Defense has a terrible reputation . . . . The only viable line is the one Larsen promoted [3. d4 exd4. 4. Nxd4 g6]. . . .” Eric Schiller, Standard Chess Openings (2000).

“[Regarding the Philidor Defense and the usual 3. d4] [b]lack has a sorry choice between giving up pawn control of the center [3… exd4], and maintaining Pawn control of the center [3… Nd7] – being burdened in either event with a congested, unpromising position.” Fred Reinfeld, The Complete Chess Player (1987).

If scholastic criticism wasn't bad enough, the poor Philidor has to deal with its horrendous track record. The chart below summarizes the Philidor under four different chess game databases. (White represents a white win; black a black win; and grey a draw). Not only does white win a lot, but black seldom wins.

But that is the good news . . . the charts above represent top-level games (involving top players). When one looks at the performance at the club/amateur level (the level 95% of us -- myself included -- play at), the defense looks downright pathetic.

With such a “rosy” endorsement from chess literature and a dubious looking track record, the obvious question begs itself: why on earth play it? My answer to this is the same as Tony Kosten’s, the opening’s major, present-day advocate: being able to immediately steer the course of the game. As Kosten states: “White almost invariably answers 3. d4 (whereas if you play the normal 2… Nc6 you have to reckon with the ‘Spanish Torture’ – 3. Bb5 – but also with the sharp Max Lange Attack, or the Scotch Gambit, or the positional Bishop’s Opening, in fact a whole host of different possibilities each requiring the memorization of a precise defense) and it is Black who chooses the battleground.” Tony Kosten, Winning With the Philidor (2001).

He’s right – sort of. Players (amateurs anyway) do indeed play moves other than 3. d4, but his point is sound: there are only a handful of variations of moves white has after 2… d6. I used to play the Petroff Defense (2… Nf6) (a much more respected defense for black) only to be frustrated by how many lines ensued after 3. Nxe4 or 3. d4 or 3. Nc3 (Three knights game). Whole books have been written on each. Here is the Philidor’s true beauty. After 2… d6, you will see two (and I mean almost always just these two) moves. 3. d4 or 3. Bc4. In 280 games, one of these moves has been played 77.4% of the time.

Ironically, in high-level chess even 3. Bc4 becomes a rarity (as Kosten suggests above) – despite its very common play in the amateur world. Very few of the books I have read on the opening ever seriously look at 3. Bc4 and instead 3. d4 is seen as the universally accepted “only legitimate reply” – the only one worthy of any real significant analysis. I personally find this aspect of chess publishing frustrating. You can find books (or sections of chess books) detailing the Sicilian Opening to the 12th or 14th move. In fairness, the Sicilian is one of the most popular and highly-rated openings in the world. But I can find only a handful (and I mean one or two) books that cover the Philidor after 3. Bc4. Why is that? Simple. Because grandmasters write chessbooks and they are smart enough to know never to play 3. Bc4 in the Philidor line. Fair enough, but what I never understood is that while chessmasters (albeit the authors) make up .001% of the chess playing population, amateurs (like you and me!) buy probably 95% of the chess books out there (in fairness, I am willing to bet the average chessmaster has two or three times as many chessbooks as the average amateur). It’s a real case, in my humble opinion, of authors not realizing who their audience is.

But, I digress . . .

If you have made it this far, you must really be interested in learning about the Philidor defense (sucker!). As a note, obviously space and time are limited. As mentioned, Kosten has written an excellent book on the Philidor defense – it is over a hundred pages long. I obviously don’t have the time, patience (nor frankly) skill to walk down the number of lines he walks down. If you really want to learn about the Philidor, I highly recommend you buy this book. In the meantime, the best I can do is take you down what I think are the most important lines for black to know.

Over the next couple weeks (read as: "months"), we’ll explore all the important lines.

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Awake From My Slumber

Much like Rip Van Winkle (see picture to the left), I feel like I have been asleep forever. I haven't been able to post in a month and a half. That represents a sad, pathetic record, but it also emphasizes the extent of how friggin' busy I have been lately. Between the new wife, new house, and new job -- life has been a little crazy the last couple months.

Bare with me. Chess postings will hopefully return to a normal level very soon.

I've missed this blog.