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


1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 f5 4. exf5 e4

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. O-O Bxc3 10. bxc3 is also fine for White) 6... e4 7. d5 a6 8. Nd4.

 

5. Ng5

 










5... Nf6

 

Three alternatives are available, only the first of which is worthy of attention:

a) 5... Bxf5

After this White should break immediately with...

 

6. f3!

...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. O-O-O and computers improve tremendously on Kosten here, though the attack might be difficult to carry through over the board.)

(b) 6. g4?! Bd7! 7. Nxe4 Qe7 8. Qe2 (8. Bg2 d5 9. O-O dxe4 10. Bxe4 Qxe4! 11. Re1 Qxe1+ 12. Qxe1+) 8... d5 9. Nc5 Bxg4 10. Qxe7+ Nxe7 1/2-1/2 Delgado,N (2526)-Ruiz,O (2216)/Santa Clara CUB 2003.

 

6... exf3

Black has several alternatives, but White gains a clear edge in every case:

(a) 6... Be7 7. Nxe4 d5 8. Ng3! (8. Nf2?! Nc6 9. Bb5 Qd6 10. O-O   Qg6 1-0 Viraf Avari-Paul Brown/India 1999/[Goeller] (41)) 8... Bh4 (8... Bg6 9. Bd3) 9. Bd3 Ne7 10. O-O   Bxd3 11. Qxd3.

 

(b) 6... d5 7. fxe4 dxe4 8. Bc4 Nh6 9. O-O  Nc6 10. c3 Qd7 11. Qe2 (much easier seems 11. Qb3! Na5 12. Bf7+ Kd8 13. Qd5) 11... Na5 12. Nxe4 O-O-O 13. Bd3 Kb8 14. Bxh6 Bxe4 15. Bxe4 gxh6 16. b4? ( White must first connect his Rooks with 16. Nd2!) 16... Nc6? (Black misses the equalizing shot 16... Bxb4! 17. cxb4 Qxd4+ 18. Kh1 Qxa1 19. bxa5 Qe5=) 17. Qb5 Bd6 18. Bxc6 Qxc6 19. Qxc6 bxc6 20. Nd2 Rde8 21. Rae1 Kc8 22. Ne4 Kd8 23. g3 Rhf8 24. Rxf8 Rxf8 25. Kg2 Kd7 26. Nd2 Be7 27. Nf3 Kd6 28. Re5 Bf6 29. Ra5 Ra8 30. Kf2 Bg7 31. Ke2 Bf6 32. Kd3 Bg7 33. Nh4 Bf8 34. Nf5+ Kd7 35. Ne3 Bg7 36. Ng4 Kd6 37. Kc4 a6 38. Rh5 1998 1-0 Malmqvist,G-Persson,A/ Rodeby.

 

(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) 12... O-O-O 13. Bb5 and Black is down a pawn and much worse as well.

 

(d) 6... h6 7. Nxe4 Bxe4 8. Qe2 (White still keeps the advantage of the two Bishops even after blundering with 8. fxe4 Qh4+ 9. g3 Qxe4+ 10. Qe2 Qxe2+ 11. Bxe2)

 

(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! O-O 16. Be3 and Black played on much too long a Rook down in 1-0 Charbonneau,P (2513)-Nakamura,H (2733)/Lloydminster CAN 2010 (31).

 

b) 5... d5? 6. Qh5+ Kd7 7. Ne6 Qf6 8. Nc3 g6 9. Nxf8+ Qxf8 10. fxg6 Nf6 11. Qe5 Nc6 12. Bb5 Qe7 13. Bg5 Qxe5 14. dxe5 Ng4 15. Nxd5

 

c) 5... Qe7? 6. Qh5+ Kd7 7. Bc4! Nf6 8. Be6+ Kc6 9. d5+ Nxd5 10. Bxc8

 

6. f3!

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 O-O 12. Be2 Qd6 13. O-O Qxe6= 1/2-1/2 Wagenmakers, E-Grotenhuis,G/Enschede (21).

 

(b) 6. Nc3 d5 7. f3 Bxf5

(7... h6 8. Ne6 Bxe6 9. fxe6 Bb4 10. fxe4? (10. Bb5+! c6 11. Be2 O-O 12. O-O Bxc3 13. bxc3 Qe7 14. fxe4 Nxe4 15. Rxf8+ Kxf8 16. Bg4) 10... dxe4 (10... O-O!) 11. Be2 Qd5 12. O-O   Qxe6 13. Bh5+ Kd8 0-1 Hayward-Kozlov/Elburg A 1994/ [Goeller])

 

8. fxe4 dxe4

(8... Nxe4 9. Ncxe4 dxe4 (9... Qe7 10. Bb5+! c6 11. O-O) 10. Bc4)

 

9. Bc4 Nc6 10. Bb5?

(After this, White loses his advantage. Also not good are 10. Nf7? Qxd4 or 10. Be3?! Ng4, but White is still winning after 10. Bf7+! Ke7 11. d5 Bg4 12. Qd2 h6 13. Be6 hxg5 14. Bxg4 Nxg4 15. Qxg5+)

 

10... Bb4 (10... h6) 11. O-O Bg4 12. Ne2 (12. Qd2) 12... h6 13. d5 Qxd5 14. Qxd5 Nxd5 15. Nxe4 O-O-O 16. N2g3 Nd4 17. Bd3 Ba5 18. a3 Bb6 19. Kh1 Rhf8 20. Bd2 c6 21. Nd6+ Kb8 22. Nf7 Rde8 23. Nd6 1/2-1/2 Strelis-Gaard/Elburg C 1992.

 

6... Qe7 7. Be2 exf3

Kosten awards this move a "?" without explanation, but I do not see a sound alternative:

a) 7... e3 8. O-O Nc6 (8... h6) 9. Bc4 d5 10. Re1.

b) 7... Bxf5 8. O-O Nbd7 (8... h6 9. Nxe4) 9. fxe4 Bg6 10. Nc3 O-O-O 11. Bg4.

 

8. Nxf3 Bxf5 9. O-O Qd7 10. d5 Be7 11. Nd4 Bg4 12. c4!

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:

12. Rxf6!! Bxe2 13. Qxe2 gxf6 14. Ne6! h5

(14... Qc8 15. Qh5+ Kd7 16. Qf5)

 

15. b4!?

(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)

 

15... Na6 16. Bb2 Kf7

(16... c6 17. Nd2 cxd5 18. Re1)

 

17. Nd2 (17. c4!)

 

17... c6 18. Ne4!?

(White's last chance for victory might have been 18. Ng5+! fxg5 19. Rf1+ Ke8 20. Bxh8)

 

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.

 

12... Bxe2 13. Qxe2 O-O

13... Qg4 14. Qe3! O-O 15. Nc3 Re8 16. Ne6

 

14. Nc3 Na6 15. Bd2 Rfe8 16. Rf4! Bf8 17. Qf3 Qf7 18. Rf1

 










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.

 

18... Qg6 19. Ne6 Be7 20. Ne4 h5 21. Bc3! Nxe4 22. Rxe4 Nc5 23. Nxc5

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.

 

23... dxc5 24. Re6 Bf6

24... Qh7 25. Qf7+ Kh8 26. Rf5 with a mating attack.

 

25. Bxf6 Rxe6 26. dxe6 Rf8 27. Qd5

27. e7! would force immediate resignation, but Dvoirys's method has its own beauty, especially as a culmination of his f-file domination.

 

27... c6 28. Qg5 Rxf6 29. Qxg6 Rxg6 30. e7

1-0

[Michael Goeller]

download pgn

Game in PGN

Copyright © 2012 by Michael Goeller

For details on sources, please see my Philidor Defense Bibliography.