Learning a Nineteenth Century Opening Repertoire

By Michael Goeller

I used to wonder what it would be like to go back to the nineteenth century and play chess against the masters of the day. Would nearly two centuries of chess development and improved opening theory allow me to beat players like De La Bourdonnais, McDonnell, Staunton, St. Amant, Anderssen and Max Lange, or would I just be another "NN" amateur among them? When I play an error-filled game, I have to wonder. But then I am also assured by a book like Cary Utterberg's on the 1834 De La Bourdonnais - McDonnell match that my own errors are not much different from those of even the best 19th Century players. And both stem from a lack of knowledge. In building a nineteenth century opening repertoire, I have as much to learn as the players of the nineteenth century. But I have a lot more tools and resources than they ever did. So I'm confident that I will eventually get the hang of it.

Game One

Michael Goeller - John Moldovan [C00]

21st Kenilworth CC Championship/Kenilworth, NJ USA (2) 2011

1. e4 e6 2. f4 d5 3. e5 Nh6


A weird looking position, but all very natural for the McDonnell - Labourdonais Attack. White has not occupied the d4 square with a pawn, as in the Advance Variation, but d4 is still at the center of the contest and the Knight will be well placed at f5. Black usually goes for a set-up with c5, Nc6, Nf5, and Qb6. The main question as Black is whether or not to occupy d4 himself with d5-d4, when the pawn can be a wedge or a weakness. A game from the first round of the US Championship illustrates:

3... c5 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. c3 Nge7 6. Na3 Nf5 7. Nc2 d4 8. Bd3 Qb6 9. Qe2 Nfe7 10. Be4 Nd5 11. g3!? (a possible improvement is 11. Qf2! pressuring d4, when Black cannot play 11... Nxf4? 12. Ng5) 11... Bd7 12. c4 (12. Ng5) 12... Ndb4 13. d3 Nxc2+ 14. Qxc2 f5 15. exf6 gxf6 16. Nh4 f5 17. Bg2 O-O-O 18. Nf3 Bd6 19. Bd2 Rdg8 20. O-O-O!? h6 21. Rde1 Kb8 22. Re2 Rg6 23. Rhe1 Rc8 24. Kb1 a5 25. Ka1 Kc7 26. Nh4 0-1 Alexander Stripunsky-Hikaru Nakamura/Saint Louis USA 2010 (45).


4. Nf3 c5 5. c3 Nc6 6. Na3 a6

This standard French move here does not seem to serve much purpose or to fit with any plan. Very few games in this line ever include a6.


A similar idea to that used in the game was tried by Matt Pullin recently: 6... Bd7 7. Nc2 Qb6 8. a3!? (more normal would be 8. Ne3 or 8. d4) 8... Rc8 9. b4 Be7 10. b5 (10. bxc5!? Bxc5 11. d4 Be7 12. Bd3 Na5 xc4) 10... Na5 11. Rb1 O-O 12. Be2 Nf5 13. O-O f6 (13... c4+ 14. Kh1 Nb3 15. a4 a6 16. Ba3 Bxa3 17. Nxa3 axb5 18. Nxb5 Bxb5 19. axb5 Qxb5 20. g4 Ne7 21. Nd4) 14. Kh1 Qd8 15. d4 Qe8 16. g4 Nh6 17. Rg1 cxd4 18. cxd4 Nc4 19. a4 f5 20. gxf5 Nxf5 21. Ng5 Bxg5 22. Rxg5 Qd8 23. Bd3 Qc7 24. Qg1 Be8 25. Ne1 Bg6 26. Rxg6 hxg6 27. Nf3 Qe7 28. Ng5 Nb6 29. Qg4 Rxc1+ 30. Rxc1 Qa3 31. Rd1 Qxa4 32. Bxf5 gxf5 33. Qh5 Rc8 34. Qf7+ Kh8 35. Qh5+ Kg8 36. Qh7+ Kf8 37. Qh8+ Ke7 38. Qxg7+ Kd8 39. Qf6+ Kd7 40. Qf7+ 1-0 Pullin,M-Kosteris,D/1st NA Closed 2010 (40).


7. Nc2 Bd7 8. a3!?

A move I have tried with success in blitz play, but I now have my doubts about this slow method. However, I reasoned that with Black having wasted a tempo on a6 -- which also makes it less likely that he will spend another tempo to play a5 -- White seems to have extra time for such extravagence. White will play b4 before pushing forward with d4, trying to force the issue with the pawn at c5. If Black advances or exchanges the c-pawn, he will have less leverage against a White pawn occupying d4.


Perfectly playable, however, is 8. d4 Qb6 9. Bd3.


8... Be7

8... Na5!? 9. b4 Nb3 10. Rb1 Ba4!?


9. b4 b6!?

Standing firm in the center. I think this is a very good idea and often the best way for Black to meet a b4 thrust by White. Meanwhile, 9... O-O 10. d4 cxd4 11. cxd4 followed by Bd3 and O-O is the sort of thing I was playing for.


10. d4 cxd4?!

Inconsistent, since 9...b6 made it unnecessary to commit to anything yet. Better simply 10... O-O and if 11. Bd3!? c4! 12. Be2 b5 13. O-O a5


11. cxd4 Qc7 12. Be3?!

The beginning of a bad plan. The Bishop will be needed on the queenside to help guard the dark squares. Meanwhile, White loses time finishing his development and getting his king to safety. Simple and best was 12. Bd3 O-O 13. O-O. I have to learn to stick to the standard plans!


12... Nf5 13. Bf2?!

One bad move typically follows another. Not 13. Bd3? Nxe3 14. Nxe3 Nxd4 15. Nxd4 (15. Rc1 Nxf3+) 15... Qc3+ but necessary was 13. Rc1 Nxe3 14. Nxe3 to keep Black from invading with his Queen along the c-file, as in the game. I have a tendency to forget about my opponent's counterplay, especially where it appears that I have "the big clamp" going.




13... h5?

After this, White has time to pull himself together an maintain the edge. Black misses a shot: 13... a5! 14. b5 Na7 15. a4 Qc3+ 16. Nd2 (16. Qd2? Qxa1+! 17. Nxa1 Bb4) 16... Rc8 17. Ra2 and White is going through contortions to stay in the game.


14. Bd3 a5!

Better late than never.


15. b5

White really has to get his King to safety, even at the cost of a temporary sacrifice: 15. Bxf5! exf5 16. O-O! (16. Ne3!? axb4 17. Nxd5 Qb7) 16... axb4 17. axb4 Rxa1 18. Qxa1 Bxb4 (18... Nxb4 19. Nxb4 Bxb4 20. Qa8+ Qc8 21. Qxd5) 19. Nxb4 Nxb4 20. Rc1 Nc6 21. Qa2 O-O (21... Be6 22. Qa8+) 22. Qxd5. I considered this line but did not look far enough to see that Qa8+ can be followed by Qxd5.


15... Na7 16. a4

Perhaps instead 16. Rb1 Qc3+ 17. Qd2, which sidesteps the problems with Bb4.


16... Qc3+ 17. Ke2

Not 17. Qd2? Qxa1+ 18. Nxa1 Bb4 and Black wins the Exchange.


17... Rc8 18. Qd2

Similar is 18. Qb1 h4 19. Rc1 g6 and White sould play the critical 20. Nce1! Qxc1 21. Qxc1 Rxc1 22. Rxc1 Bd8 23. Ng5! etc., as described below.


18... Qxd2+ 19. Kxd2 g6 20. h3! h4?!

The point of 20.h3 was to induce this natural but potentially weakening move. Now the pawn at h4 becomes a target. Maybe Black should allow White to expand with g4 and simply retreat with Ng7 saying "come and get me" -- though one can hardly envy Black's cramped position after 20... Ng7 21. Rhc1.


21. Bxf5 gxf5 22. Rhc1 Kf8


23. Ne3

Shortly after this natural move, I started thinking that I probably missed winning chances with the seemingly more accurate 23. Nce1 Kg7 24. Rxc8 ( Fritz likes this better than my at-the-board idea of 24. Ng5 Bb4+ [24... Kg6 25. Nef3] 25. Kd1 Bxb5 26. axb5 Nxb5 and Black can probably cause some trouble) 24... Nxc8 (24... Rxc8!? 25. Bxh4 Bb4+ 26. Kd1 Nxb5 27. axb5 Bxb5 again with definite practical chances for Black) 25. Rc1 Bd8 26. Bxh4 Bxh4 27. Nxh4 Rxh4 28. Rc7 Bxb5! (28... Rxf4 29. Nf3 Ne7 30. Rxd7 Ng6 31. Kc3 Re4 32. Ng5 Re3+ 33. Kd2 Ra3 34. Rxf7+ Kh6 35. Nxe6 Rxa4 36. Rxf5) 29. Nf3!? Rh8 30. axb5 with excellent winning chances for White. However, though I had fewer options with 23.Ne3, you will see that it should have amounted to the same thing.


23... Rxc1 24. Rxc1 Bd8 25. Nc2

Admitting my earlier mistake. I should have spent more time searching for an alternative idea, when I might have seen:

White again has winning chances with the same sort of tactic discussed above: 25. Bxh4!? Bxh4 (25... Rxh4 26. Nxh4 Bxh4 27. Rc7 Bxb5 28. Rxa7 Bxa4 29. Ra6) 26. Rc7 Nxb5 27. Rxd7 Na3 (White has not gained material, but he has broken into Black territory and gained some positional trumps.) 28. Kc3! Bf2 (28... Bg3 29. Kb3 Nc4 30. Nxc4 dxc4+ 31. Kxc4) 29. Nf1! (29. Rd8+? Kg7 30. Rxh8 Kxh8 31. Nf1 b5) 29... Rh6 30. N1d2! Rg6 (30... Bg3 31. Kb3 Nc4 32. Nxc4 dxc4+ 33. Kxc4 Bxf4 34. d5!) 31. Kb3 Nc4 32. Nxc4 dxc4+ 33. Kxc4 Rxg2 34. Ng5.


25... Kg7 26. Nce1

Now I am back to pretty much the position I could have had if I had played 23.Nce1 earlier, with the only difference being the Black King position (whch turns out not to make much difference). However, I played this with a heavy heart, already convinced that I did not really have winning chances anymore. But close analysis reveals that the lost tempi make little difference and White can probably still win a pawn with the same "both sides of the board" tactical idea that I kept missing throughout this game.


26... Nc8

26... Kg6 27. Ng5!? Bxg5 28. fxg5 Rc8 (28... Kxg5 29. Rc7) 29. Rxc8 Nxc8 30. Bxh4 Kh5 31. Nf3 again echoes a line discussed above.


27. Ng5?!

White has one more shot at the key tactic: 27. Nxh4! Bxh4 28. Bxh4 Rxh4 29. Rc7 Bxb5 (either the Bishop or the Knight must drop) 30. Nf3!? (30. axb5 amounts to the same thing, but this move sets a trap) 30... Rh8 (30... Rxf4? 31. axb5 and wins the Knight) 31. axb5 Kg6 32. Ng5 Rf8 (32... f6 33. Nxe6) 33. g4 and White has some definite winning chances.


27... Ne7 28. Nef3

Low on time, I offered a draw since after 28...Ng6 White cannot make progress. After the game, we were informed that this was the first draw in the Championship tournament, which has otherwise seen only decisive games. That made me all the more disappointed at not finding something. But I'm learning.


[Michael Goeller]

Game Two

Michael Goeller - Ian Mangion [C00]

Casual correspondence/Chess.com 2007

I have had several chances to play the f4-French in casual correspondence games at Chess.com, including one against fellow Kenilworth player and club VP Ian Mangion. I find that one of the advantages of the f4-French is that, like the Bird and the Stonewall, it is practically an anti-computer weapon since it takes many moves for White's clamping plan to come to fruition, so any advantage lies outside the computer's horizon. Another advantage is that there is just not very much reliable theory or good games for opponents to follow. In our game, Ian appears to have been blindly following a couple previous games, not recognizing they lead to trouble.


1. e4 e6 2. f4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. c3 Nh6 6. Na3 Nf5

Black has also played the c4-advance here: 6... c4 7. Nc2 Bc5 8. b4!? (also possible is 8. d4 cxd3 9. Bxd3) 8... cxb3?! (8... Bb6 9. d3 cxd3 10. Bxd3) 9. axb3 d4 10. b4 (10. Bd3!?) 10... Bb6 11. b5 d3 (best may be 11... Ne7 12. Nfxd4 O-O and Black has some compensation for the pawn.) 12. bxc6 dxc2 13. Qxc2 bxc6 14. d4 c5 15. Ba3 cxd4 16. Nxd4 Ng4 (16... Bxd4 17. cxd4 Nf5 [17... Qxd4?? 18. Qc6+] 18. Bc5) 17. Qe4 Qd5 18. Qxd5 exd5 19. Nb5 Nf2 20. Nd6+ Kd7 21. Bb5+ Ke6 22. Rf1 Ne4 23. Nxe4 dxe4 24. Bd6 Kf5 25. h3 h5 26. Bc6 Be6 27. Ra4 Bb3 28. Bxe4+ Ke6 29. Rb4 1-0 Cicak,S (2490)-Maroto Borras,J (2258)/Lillet 1999.


7. Nc2 Bd7 8. Bd3! Nh4!?

The Knight sidesteps the Bishop to exchange Knights instead.


9. O-O c4?!

This advance is frequently played because it is superficially attractive. However, it seems ultimately to aid White because Black thus surrenders the d4 square without forcing White to occupy it with a piece or pawn that can become the target of a counter-attack.


10. Be2 Bc5+ 11. Kh1 Nxf3

11... Nf5?! 12. d4! cxd3 (12... Be7!? 13. Ne3 O-O 14. b3) 13. Bxd3 g6 (13... Nce7 14. g4!) 14. Bxf5! gxf5 15. Be3 Bxe3 16. Nxe3 Qb6 17. Qd2 Rc8? (17... O-O-O 18. Rfd1 Rhg8 19. c4!) 18. Rad1 Na5 19. b3 Bb5 20. Rg1 (Preparing a possible g4 break.) 20... Qc7 21. Nd4 Ba6 22. Ndxf5! ("Crushing Black's position!" Glek writes.) 22... exf5 23. Nxd5 Qc6 (23... Qd8 24. Nf6+ Ke7 25. Qe3 Glek) 24. Qd4 Qe6? 1-0, Glek -- Goudriaan, Haalem NOVA 2007 - White wins with 25. Nc7+.


12. Rxf3 f6 13. exf6 Qxf6 14. d3 b5

14... cxd3 15. Bxd3 O-O (15... d4 16. b4 Bb6 17. b5 Ne7 18. Nxd4 or 15... e5 16. fxe5) 16. Be3.


15. a4! cxd3

15... Na5!? 16. Be3 Nb3 17. Bxc5! Nxc5 18. axb5 Bxb5 19. Nd4


16. Bxd3 b4

I had expected 16... bxa4 17. Rxa4 O-O 18. b4 Bb6 19. b5 Ne7 20. Ne3


17. cxb4 Nxb4

No better 17... Bxb4 18. Be3 (18. Rh3!? Bd6 19. Qh5+ Kf8) 18... Bd6 19. b4!? Nxb4 20. Nxb4 Bxb4 21. Bd4 Qf7 22. Qb1


18. Nxb4 Bxb4 19. Be3 Qe7 20. Rh3 h6

21. Qh5+ Kf8

No better 21... Kd8 22. Bd4 (22. f5) followed by Rg3.


22. Bd4 e5

Slightly better was 22... Bc5 23. Bxc5 Qxc5 24. Rf1 Kg8 25. Qe5 Rf8 26. Rg3 but Black is probably lost in any event.


23. Re3 1-0

There is no way to save the center pawns, since 23...e4 24.Qxd5 is simply lost. I think I may get the hang of this opening yet.

download pgn

Games in PGN



Michael Goeller, The Labourdonnais - McDonnell Attack

Alexander Bangiev, White Repertoire 1.e4 (ChessBase)

Nigel Davies, 1.e4 for the Creative Attacker (ChessBase)

Igor Glek, "A 19th Century Weapon versus the French." Secrets of Opening Surprises #8 (New in Chess)

Cary Utterberg, De La Bourdonnais versus McDonnell, 1834 (MacFarland 2005)

Copyright © 2011 by Michael Goeller