Thursday, November 09, 2006

NM James R. West


West-Kernighan, Hamilton 2006
White to Play and Win

After publishing a few losses (here, here and here) by NM James R. West on our blog, it seemed only fair to share some of his better games, along with a profile to add to our growing gallery of New Jersey masters, who include FM Steve Stoyko, FM Tom Bartell, NM Peter Radomskyj, NM Mark Kernighan, NM Evan Ju, NM Victor Shen (also here), and (formerly of our state) NM Tyler Cowen.

Asked to name his most memorable games, West suggested his 2005 Hamilton Quad victory over long rival Kernighan (see diagram above), which included a nice Queen sacrifice, and two games with the Philidor Counter-Gambit, a line which he has championed for many years.

Jim West has been one of the most active New Jersey chess players for at least three decades. A Life Master, he can be found playing rated games practically every weekend and sometimes during the week as well. He is a member of the Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan, a frequent visitor to the Polgar Chess Center in Queens, and a ubiquitous contestant in weekend quads and swisses throughout the tri-state area. When I asked what drives him to play so frequently, he could only say, “it’s better than staying home to watch sports. At least you get out of the house and meet people.”

West works at a large law firm where he specializes in asset location, mostly for purposes of judgment recovery. This involves a lot of research and problem solving, but he refused to accept my suggestion that his skill in researching and playing chess had in any way contributed to his choice of career. “Work and chess are two totally compartmentalized parts of your brain,” he said, though he granted that chess “trains you to be disciplined in your thinking” which is good in any line of work.

As a chess player, West looks back most fondly upon his team victory in the U.S. Amateur Teams East in 1999. His most salient individual achievements include a clear first place in the 1990 FIDE-rated NJ Futurity tournament in Elmwood Park, which unfortunately came during a year when the Atlantic Chess News (which gave extensive coverage to other Futurity events) stopped publication due to Glenn Petersen taking on the editorship of Chess Life. He also tied for first at the New Jersey Open of 1985, but the trophy went to Ken Potts on tie-breaks.

Outside of the competitive arena, West is best known for his many publications on the Philidor Counter-Gambit, in Atlantic Chess News, the Virginia Chess Newsletter, and in two books: The Philidor Countergambit (Chess Enterprises 1994) and The Dynamic Philidor Counter-Gambit (Chess Digest 1996).

I asked him how he became such a strong believer in the Philidor Counter-Gambit, to which he responded, “It’s not a matter of belief. I don’t know how it got its bad reputation to begin with,” though he suggested it probably had “some connection to criticism of Morphy” who played the gambit in the 19th Century, at the peak of Romantic chess, and whose games are often seen as flawed by modern standards. “Back in the 1970s when I first tried out the line I was told by someone, ‘How can you play that—that isn’t chess!’ I think that’s intellectual snobbery. There is a coffeehouse reputation to the opening, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good.” In West’s opinion, the PCG is no less viable than other sharp Black openings. “I played the Sicilian for 15 years, and that’s no picnic either for Black.” In the introduction to the 1994 edition of his book, which I own, he writes something similar: “Where it once seemed madness to play into the unclear complexities of the [Philidor Counter Gambit], it now seems foolhardy to play the Sicilian Defense, when even Class C players know the first fifteen moves from memory.” Meanwhile, with the PCG, his opponents have to think for themselves, sometimes spending as much as an hour by move 4!

According to West, the opening is quite principled…at least, according to Philidor’s principles, anyway! As Philidor famously wrote, “the pawns are the soul of chess,” and when White plays 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 he is practically inviting Black to play …f5 since exf5 invites ….e4! kicking the Knight and gaining space. Some may see the PCG as wasting time—it seems to involve too many pawn moves in the opening. But for Philidor, you had to develop your pawns as well as your pieces.

So what is the best move against West’s system? Well, he’s not about to reveal it. But in the only game I’ve seen where West himself played White against the line, he chose 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 f5!? 4.Bc4, which is encouraging for a Bishop’s opening fan like myself who might reach this position by transposition. On the black side of that line, West usually has played Morphy’s odd looking 4…Nc6!? which suggests that he does not fully trust the standard 4….exd4. Food for thought!

We welcome the games and stories of other New Jersey masters, and perhaps over the coming years we can profile all of them. Appropriately for our game of 8x8 squares, they currently number 64.


Anonymous Kevin Kane said...

I have West's book (I think the second edition) but I have a huge problem! He did not discuss 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 f5!? 4.Nc3 fxe4 5.Nxe4 d5 6.N(e)g5! (i.e. 6...e4 7.Ne5 +-)

It has kept me away from the PCG for 2 years! If you see West, you got to ask him about this, as 6...exd4 7.Nxd4 +/- is just too comfortable for white. Why has no one played it against him? (or play it against him yourself!) :/

I very much enjoy your blog!

Thu Nov 09, 07:02:00 PM EST  
Blogger Newvictorian said...

Thanks for another great post Michael, which I have linked to.

Thu Nov 09, 08:36:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Bruce Till said...

See my game Till-West, 1996 NJ Open for an example of what can go wrong for Black in the main line of the PCG.
The article is entitled "He Wrote The Book On This Opening".

Fri Dec 25, 03:20:00 PM EST  

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