Refuting the Philidor Counter Gambit
By Michael Goeller
The Philidor Counter Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 f5) was Philidor's own method of playing the opening that bears his name. The man who said that "pawns are the soul of chess" always tried to use his pawns to claim control of the center. In his view, White had made a mistake with 2.Nf3 in blocking his f-pawn's advance! Theory offers several "refutations" to the PCG, but the one I find most convincing is 4.exf5! -- the subject of this article -- which doesn't even try to win a pawn (which may explain why it is not more popular). The goal of this move is positional and it puts Philidor's own principles into practice, as the White Knight leaps forward after 4.exf5 e4 5.Ng5 to clear the way for the advance of his own f-pawn (with 6.f3!) to battle for central squares. This method is also in keeping with contemporary GM practice against counter-gambits, where White typically does not try to hang onto the pawn but surrenders it for the control of key squares. Therefore it is not surprising to find GMs (including Dvoirys and Charbonneau) choosing this method. As Bent Larsen said of this line: "It's all so simple that it's difficult to find an improvement for Black."
I wonder what that great defender of the PCG, Life Master James R. West, has in mind as an improvement over his play in the main game below? I see from his blog that he still plays the line and that he has had to face 4.exf5 on several occasions -- but never from players familiar with the plan of f3 as employed by Dvoirys. I include a PGN of my analysis for any who want to go searching for NM West's presumed improvement; but I think that the more you look at the line, the more you will agree with Larsen that "it's difficult to find...."
GM Semen I. Dvoirys (2562) - NM James R. West (2213) [C41]
New York Open/New York, NY USA (1) 2000
Is there any improvement for Black at any turn? Here Black has no alternative to this move, as he is in immediate trouble after 4... Nc6 5. Bb5 Bxf5 6. Qe2! (6. dxe5 dxe5 7. Qe2 e4 8. Nc3 Bb4 9.
Three alternatives are available, only the first of which is worthy of attention:
a) 5... Bxf5
After this White should break immediately with...
...when Larsen is correct that "It's all so simple that it's difficult to find an improvement for Black." Two alternatives for White are not as strong:
(a) 6. Nc3 d5 (6... Nf6 7. f3 Qe7 8. Bc4! exf3+ 9. Kf2 Qd7 10. Re1+ Be7 11. Qxf3 Nc6 12. Ne6)
7. f3 e3! 8. Bxe3 h6 9. g4! hxg5 10. gxf5 Bd6 11. Qd2! Bg3+ 12. hxg3! Rxh1 13.
Black has several alternatives, but White gains a clear edge in every case:
(b) 6... d5 7. fxe4 dxe4 8. Bc4 Nh6 9.
(c) 6... e3!? is the Kosten idea again 7. Bxe3 Qe7 8. Kf2 h6 9. Ne4! Bxe4 10. fxe4 Nf6 (10... Qxe4 11. Bd3 Qe6 12. Re1 Nf6 13. Bg5)
11. Nc3 (11. g3? Qxe4? 12. Bh3 Be7 13. Nc3 and while computers think White is practically winning, it was tough in 0-1 Dobre,C (2362)-Pessi,E (2221)/ Sarata Monteoru ROU 2011/[Goeller] (34))
11... Nc6 12. Qf3 (12. Bd3 Qf7 13. Qf3 (13. Kg1)
13... Ng4+ 14. Ke2)
(e) 6... Nf6 7. fxe4 Nxe4 8. Bd3 Nxg5 9. Bxf5 Qe7+ 10. Qe2 Qxe2+ 11. Kxe2 Nf7 12. Re1 Nc6 13. Kd3+ Be7 14. Nc3 Nb4+ 15. Kc4 d5+ 16. Kb3 c6 17. Rxe7+ Kxe7 18. Kxb4 a5+ 19. Kb3 b5 20. Bf4 Kf6 21. Bd3 Nd8 22. Bd6 1-0 Mrdja,M (2435)-Egreteau,E/Chatellerault 1995.
Returning to our main line, we follow a high-level encounter which continued:
7. Qxf3 Qe7+ 8. Kd1! Qf6 9. Qxb7 Qxd4+ 10. Bd3! Qg4+ 11. Nf3 Bxd3 12. cxd3 Ne7 13. Qxa8 Nec6 14. Qb7 Be7 15. Rg1!
As usual, White should not wait to play this move. There are two less successful moves that are nevertheless more frequently played:
(a) 6. Ne6?! is a frequent error that hands Black an easy game after 6... Bxe6 7. fxe6 d5 8. c4 Bb4+ 9. Nc3 Nc6 10. a3 Bxc3+ 11. bxc3
(7... h6 8. Ne6 Bxe6 9. fxe6 Bb4 10. fxe4? (10. Bb5+! c6 11. Be2
10... Bb4 (10... h6)
Kosten awards this move a "?" without explanation, but I do not see a sound alternative:
A very logical and safe move, reinforcing White's claim on the light squares in the center and the critical e6 square. However, in a classic game with this line White tried an even more dramatic method of dominating on light by eliminating the Nf6 and Bg4 all in one blow. Unfortunately, White lost his way in the complications that followed:
(White has to quickly complete his development in order to capitalize on his strategically dominating position, e.g.: 15. Nc3 Na6 16. Be3 c6 17. Qd3 Kf7 18. Qf5 Nc5 19. Bxc5 dxc5 20. Ng5+ Ke8 21. Qg6+ Kd8 22. Rd1)
18... cxd5! 19. N4g5+ Kg8 20. Rf1 Rh6 21. Nf3 Nxb4 22. Nfd4 Nc6 23. Qf3 Ne5! 24. Qe3 Rh7 25. Rf5 Rc8 26. Qg3+ Kh8 27. Rxh5 Bf8 28. Rf5 Bh6 29. Rxf6 Rg8 30. Qb3 Qe7 31. Rf1? Qh4! 32. Rf2 Qe4 33. Kf1 Be3 34. Rf3 Bd2 35. Ne2 Rxg2 36. Qd3 Qxd3 37. Rxd3 Rhxh2 38. Rxd2 Rf2+ 39. Ke1 Kg8 40. Bxe5 dxe5 41. Nd8 e4 42. Rxd5 e3 0-1 Vitolinsh,A-Arhipkin,V/USSR 1975. An unfortunate conclusion to what should have been a great victory for White.
The tripled majors on the f-file symbolize White's complete domination of the position. You can also simply compare the pieces on the two sides, especially Black's Bishop that is hemmed in by the pawn at d6 vs. the White Bishop at d2 whose pawns are on light squares. Consider also White's tremendous space advantage and complete control over e6. White may not be up a pawn, but his positional advantage is overwhelming. White now works systematically to remove all barriers to break through on the f-file.
The simplest approach. There are multiple ways for White to win, of course, including 23. Rf4!? Nxe6 24. dxe6 Qxe6 25. Re1 Qh6 26. Qd5+ Kh7 27. Rfe4 c6 28. Qf7 which more thematically exploits White's control of the f-file.
27. e7! would force immediate resignation, but Dvoirys's method has its own beauty, especially as a culmination of his f-file domination.
Game in PGN
Copyright © 2012 by Michael GoellerFor details on sources, please see my Philidor Defense Bibliography.