The Panther (Part One)
During my game with Tomkovich in the second round of the Kenilworth Chess Club Chapionship, in which I played the Black Knights Tango (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Nc6), FM Steve Stoyko pulled me aside to say, "After your game, remind me to show you a line I think you'll like. I call it 'The Panther.'" I was intrigued and wondered why I hadn't heard of this before, since a Black line with such a cool name would definitely be for me.
It turns out that Steve used to play my favorite Nimzovich / Bogoljubow / Kevitz lines himself for several years during the early 1970s ("until Keene's book on The Modern became available here" as he dated it). Along with his analysis partner NM Bill Freeman, he had explored a number of lines involving 1...Nc6 for Black against all White first moves. "The Panther" was one of them.
some time in the 1970s
Considered by theory to be part of the Old Indian system, The Panther (as Stoyko and Freeman played it) typically began 1.d4 Nc6 2.Nf3 d6 3.c4 e5 4.Nc3 Nf6!? (played in this move order Black also has options like 4...g6, 4...Bg4, or even 4...f5). I immediately saw the appeal of this idea, since I like the dark-square positions where Black gets an early ...e5 and I am comfortable in the Classical King's Indian (with 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 e5 6.Be2 Nc6 7.d5 Ne7) to which The Panther could obviously transpose. When White prevents Black from getting in an early ....e5 by playing Nf3, I have typically been transposing into the Chigorin (e.g.: 1.d4 Nc6 2.Nf3 d5) or lines recommended by the Tango authors.
Steve asked, "Take this Tango crap, for instance. How do you meet 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Nc6 3.Nf3?"
"And if he plays Kasparov's 4.a3?"
"Then you play a sort of King's Indian set-up with ...d6 and ...g6, as Bologan has shown," I answered to another frown and furrowed brow.
"Why let him dictate everything?" he asked. "With The Panther, you get the structure you want and there is nothing he can do about it. You could even play it 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Nc6 3.Nf3 d6! and if 4.Nc3 e5 you have The Panther."
"What about 5.dxe5?" an observer asked.
"How is that any different from 1.d4 d6 2.c4 e5 3.dxe5 dxe5 4.Qxd8+ Kxd8? As countless Grandmaster games have shown, this endgame is fine for Black." I recalled a little article by Joel Benjamin on those moves titled "Life without Queens" (Chess Life, June 1996) that had convinced me of exactly that point. Black has a good pawn in the center at e5 and White's c4 advance can present Black a target and some weakened dark squares. Soon after our conversation, I played a game on ICC that demonstrated that pretty conclusively. And, as Steve put it, "countless Grandmaster games" (including Akbarinia - Ermenkov, Dubai 2001) have shown the same. The endgame is at least equal for Black and not without play.
Steve showed us some ideas that are part of the most common line where White advances the d-pawn after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Nc6 3.Nf3 d6 4.Nc3 e5 5.d5 Ne7, including the theme of playing an important ...h6 advance that will sometimes aid the maneuver ...Nh7 and ...Bg5, exchanging the dark squared Bishop or gaining some piece activity on the kingside. (More on these lines in the next installment).
I was intrigued but still unsure that the line was for me. After all, Black's game was a bit cramped and required a degree of finesse that I do not yet possess. A few days later, though, I found myself looking for games in the databases. There were not many good ones to be found, though I noticed that IM Vytautus Slapikas played the Panther much the way Steve had described it, as demonstrated by his games. I presume it was an independent discovery on his part since it would be tough to imagine him seeing any analysis or games from us New Jersey folks. There was also not much in my library, at least on first glance, and what there was usually classed The Panther as a variation of the Old Indian--a name not likely to encourage followers. In Richard Palliser's Tango: A Dynamic Answer to 1.d4, there is only brief mention of the lines with ...d6 against White's Nf3. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Nc6 3.Nf3, Palliser gives 3...e6 as the main line and notes in passing that Black "can also opt for a kind of Old Indian with 3...d6. However, here the knight is committed to c6 a little early, and 4.Nc3 (4.d5!? Ne5 5.Nxe5 dxe5 6.g3 should also grant White the edge) 4...e5 5.g3! slightly favors White. Black might well wish that his knight was still on b8 so that it could come to the more useful c5-square (after ...exd4 and ...Nbd7) as he lacks counterplay against White's space advantage with it on c6" (p. 82).
Georgi Orlov's The Black Knight's Tango offers a bit more, noting that the Panther "transposes into a kind of Old Indian" with which "there is very little practical experience." The theory that he offers presumes that Black wishes to transpose to lines of the King's Indian Defense with a White Nf3 (including the Classial KID and the Fianchetto lines), so he gives very little treatment of lines where Black plays the true Panther, which he clearly considers inferior. However, Orlov does take the time to show how Black need not worry about an early d5 advance by White in the Tango move order. In the "Bozo-Indian" move order that Freeman and Stoyko preferred, with 1.d4 Nc6 2.Nf3 d6, White can cause a lot of trouble with 3.d5! Now Black either has to transpose to more traditional Modern or Old Indian lines (essentially a tempo down, as Palliser points out) by 3...Nb8 followed eventually by ...Nbd7 or play the somewhat risky 3...Ne5!? which is more complicated than I can follow, as demonstrated in the game Buscher - Philipps, Correspondence 1994. In the Tango move order with 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Nc6 3.Nf3 d6, Black can play the Knight forward on the d5 advance since, after 4.d5 Ne5! 6.Nxe5 dxe5, White's annoying Bb5+ is blocked by his pawn at c4 and Black has time to develop his dark-squared Bishop to c5 or b4 after Pe6. (I will take a closer look at these lines in future installments).
Not finding much in my sources, I gave Steve a call and asked if he had anything written down or any old games he could loan me. He said he didn't have anything that wasn't in his head. "I threw all that stuff out years ago," he said.
"You didn't keep a notebook for analysis? You don't have a single game with the line? Not even one game score?" I asked incredulously.
"No. On principle I don't hang onto my games once I'm done learning from them. You know, if I have a loss I review it to see where I went wrong. But if I win and win well, I carry that with me so there is no need to have the game scores. I usually throw them out. You see, philosophically I'm opposed to living in the past and getting all nostalgic over past success. That tends to stand in the way of future success," Steve said.
I knew what Steve said fit well with his sportsman's view of the game, where anything you did not carry with you to the scene of battle was pretty much beside the point, and if you did not retain your games in your head or abstract from them all the things that made up your chess intuition, then you were not likely to benefit from them later. For me, though --coming to chess more as a scholar than a player-- it seemed like something of a collective loss. I mean, here was a man who played an average of 100 master games a year for well over thirty years, and only a few survive in odd places like the Atlantic Chess News, The Dogs of War, or Popovich's book on Ukranian players in the U.S. And it wasn't just him. When you think about the hundreds of masters whose games vanish before they can be stored in our collective memories -- never to make it into the books or databases -- it seems as though we all had some collective leak that needs plugging.
For the rest of the week, I collected database games and did my research. Eventually, I discovered that the line received some significant treatment in Igor Berdichevsky's book on the 1...Nc6 lines and in the Convekta CD he did with Kalinin. But I still felt that something was missing if I did not have Steve and Bill's games. Steve had suggested that I try to track Bill down ("he lives somewhere in New Jersey" he said "but I lost touch with him years ago"). I had some contact with him when he had helped me put together my Urusov Gambit analysis for publication in The Castled King, precursor to the Atlantic Chess News (as I mention in the Acknowledgments on my site). I still remember his wonderful, calligraphic handwriting, with which he recorded things back then, before the widespread use of computers. I imagined a box of his hand-printed notes and old game scores stored away in his attic, gathering dust, not just on the Panther but on a number of other interesting lines he had analyzed and about which he had written in The Castled King and ACN. And when he passed away, I could see that box going rather easily into the dumpster, if it had not made its way there already. Steve gave me the impression that Bill had largely given up chess last they spoke, so he may have already let all those things go. But, unlike Steve, he was the type of guy to hang onto the past, so I could believe he still had it. And if he no longer played the game, I don't see why he wouldn't mind letting me have a look...
I know it was irrational and the odds were against it, but I suddenly had to save that box before it went into the trash!
I remembered how I had gone on a similarly quixotic quest years ago, when I tried to track down the games from the Dimock Theme Tournament of 1924 (of which only half survive), thinking all along that somebody somewhere must have had all the game scores at one point, that Edward Dimock himself must have kept them, at least, or Hermann Helms or the players, but all had since passed on and their possessions had been scattered to the winds. Maybe I could rescue some similarly interesting treasure before it disappeared... It was a crazy thought, I know. But it seemed worth a try. What was there to lose?
I did a little research. It turns out that there are well over a dozen William Freemans in the state and countless others throughout the U.S., many of whom do not have a listed phone number. So, unless a club member or a reader can help me out, I may be stymied in that search. And it may no longer be so critical after all...
I had done my little computer search for Bill just a few hours before going to the club the Thursday following my first hearing about The Panther. I arrived early and noticed that the club cabinet looked different. I remembered that several of our members had gotten together to install additional shelves and to repaint and repair it. I had even taken a picture of some of them in action.
I walked over to the closet and saw a stack of old copies of the Atlantic Chess News which were among the many interesting things that they had put into order in their cleaning. Picking up the first in the pile, it occured to me that Bill used to write opening articles for that publication. "Maybe he had put something together on The Panther" I thought to myself. I opened the page, and what should I find?
To be continued...