The Panther (Part Three)
"In his general habits, he resembles the Panther, lying in ambush for prey..." Rev. William Bingley, Animal Biography (1802)
"Motionless now and in absolute silence, she awaited her doom, the moments growing to hours, to years, to ages; and still those devilish eyes maintained their watch." Ambrose Bierce, "The Eyes of the Panther" (1893)
The Panther has long been feared as an intelligent and patient carnivore, willing to wait for many hours in a tree above a watering hole or to stalk quietly in the darkness, hidden by its natural black camouflage, approaching its prey with slow and deliberate care. Only when it has the advantage of proximity and surprise does it leap forward from the dark with claws outstretched to ensnare and overwhelm its victim.
The Black strategy in the closed variation of the Panther (following, for example, 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 Nc6 3.Nf3 d6 4.Nc3 e5 5.d5 Ne7) is similarly careful and deliberate. For this reason, it is not an opening that will appeal to everyone, though it is not without its attractions even to the most vicious aficionado of attack. It just requires a mental adjustment, especially if, like me, you have always thought of yourself as a swashbuckling gambiteer of the Frank James Marshall mold.
As Jonathan Rowson puts it in Chess for Zebras, "...the openings we play are part of our chess identities. We invest time and energy in them because we want to bolster whatever sense of ourselves as chess-players that we have constructed" (37). In calling this line "The Panther," Stoyko and Freeman intended to emphasize to themselves its quiet aggression and to remind themselves that though they had to put up with a bit of a cramped game at first, their inevitable counter-attack would be quite bloodthirsty and satisfying. The "Crampy Old-Indian" was not something they were going to play. But "The Panther," now that was something with which to identify, practically as a chess totem.
Over twenty years after giving up these lines, though, Stoyko has his doubts about the strategy of "lying in wait" and prefers to play directly in the center with 1.d4 d5 or the 1.e4 e6. In reviewing my repertoire with me recently, he asked some probing questions about why I had chosen a 1...Nc6 repertoire as Black as opposed to, say, 1.e4 e5 and 1.d4 d5, with which I have also experimented. It was a tough question to answer. I knew that to say, "Because there isn't as much theory" or "Because of surprise value" would not get me very far, though he wouldn't consider those reasons completely invalid. As a principled player, however, who has chosen lines in which he thoroughly believes for the long-haul, Steve would want me to find a more legitimate reason -- one in which even I could believe. The most truthful answer I could come up with was that I see these openings as a way of growing as a player by learning about positional themes more related to space and position than to time and material. After all, my youthful chess career was spent copying the Romantics like Morphy and Marshall. I felt it was time to learn more about Nimzovich and Petrosian. I cut my teeth on the Urusov Gambit, but I know I have to try out different food if I'm to grow as a player. The Panther whets my appetite for meaty positions.
As Yasser Seirawan says in an interview: "You can without question change your style. I think that to a great extent your style is dictated by your choice of openings. For example, if you play the Dragon from a young age and you stay true to the Dragon, I'm sorry, but your style is going to be extremely sharp. You go from the Dragon to the Caro-Kann and your style will undergo a fundamental change" (Summerscale & Summerscale, Interview with a Grandmaster, 26). I think that The Panther is one way to round out my knowledge, not by changing my style completely but by adding new ideas to my reservoir of chess skills so that I'll be better equipped to handle any positions.
In Part One and Part Two of this article, I gave a general overview of themes and ideas in this line. The games in Part Three focus on the patient strategy of The Panther, "lying in ambush" and working up small advantages and sources of counterplay. Black has some clear strategies he can pursue, and that sometimes makes his task much easier than White's. After all, once you recognize the basic Panther behavior patterns, you'll know how to stalk your opponent. And he will be unnerved, not knowing how to escape.
Learning the common themes and motifs can give you an advantage in many situations, even if your position on the board is not really more favorable. In fact, when Bill Freeman and Steve Stoyko were first exploring 1...Nc6 lines together, they not infrequently tried them out in reverse as White by opening 1.Nc3 followed by 2.a3. Their main idea was to gain an advantage in both psychology and knowledge while risking very little. In certain tournament situations, that can be a powerful way to play.
I have had a few conversations with Steve about this, and in each he tries to remember what they called the White Panther, but no matter how much he racks his brains he cannot recall. Twice we have had the following exchange, more or less:
Me: "Was it the Cheetah? The Cougar? The Puma? The Jaguar?"
Steve: "No, it was some white cat."
Me: "The Snow Leopard? It had to be the Snow Leopard - as rarely seen, after all, as 1.Nc3 and 2.a3..."
Steve: "No, it wasn't the Snow Leopard."
Me: "The White Tiger?"
Me: "The Ocelot?"
Steve: "No, it was some sort of cat."
Me: "That is a cat..."
And on both occasions he has concluded by saying, "Maybe it was the White Elephant...." Somehow I doubt it, though. The White Elephant is just not something I can see Steve playing.