Saturday, March 24, 2007

Book Review by Macon Shibut

What's New in the Philidor Countergambit?

For one thing, a new monograph; also, an up-and-down game

by Macon Shibut

I've written in Virginia Chess about the notorious countergambit 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 f5!? on several occasions. The key move 3...f5 was Philidor's own method of handling the defense that bears his name. Today its reputation is close to a forced loss, but things are not that simple! I've had decent results with this opening, and feedback I've gotten from readers indicates that they've been entertained at least, and some were even emboldened to risk the variation themselves.

If you're among those hearty souls, you may want to check out The Philidor Countergambit, a new $6.50 monograph by New Jersey master James R. West (1994, Chess Enterprises, 107 Crosstree Rd., Moon Township PA 15108). West likewise claims a solid plus record with the variations against all levels of competition. "Not bad," he writes, "for a defensive system that has four supposed refutations!" Given the extremely sharp nature of the Philidor Countergambit and its poor treatment in opening references, his booklet is a must-have for anyone interested in the variation. West is no blind follower of authority. Virtually every page raises questions about some accepted judgment. For example, the Zukertort "refutation" 4.Nc3 fxe4 5.Nxe4 d5 6.Nxe5(!) dxe4 7.Qh5+ g6 8.Nxg6 Nf6 9.Qe5+ Kf7 10.Nxh8+ (also 10.Bc4+!?)

stems from an 1864 game that continued 10...Kg8 11.Bg5 Bg7 12.Nf7 Kxf7 13.Bc4+ Kf8 14.O-O-O with plenty of pawns and strong pressure to boot. Zukertort won by methodically handling the rook + pawns against two pieces in a long (71 moves) endgame. But West introduces 10...Kg7 (!) and cites one of his own games: 11.Bg5 (11.Bh6+ Kxh8 12.Bxf8 Nc6! 13.Qc5 Nd7 14.Qd5 Qxf8 15.Qxe4 Qb4+ -/+) Nc6! 12.Qg3 (if 12.Bxf6+ Qxf6 13.Qxc7+ Kxh8 Black threatens both the d-pawn and winning White's queen by ...Bd6. He's also okay, says West, after 12.Bxf6+ Qxf6 13.Qxf6+ Kxf6 14.Bc4 Nxd4 15.O-O-O Ne6 16.Rhe1 Bd6 17.Rxe4 Bd7 18.Rde1 Ng5 19.Rh4 Rxh8) Kxh8 13.d5 Nb4 14.O-O-O Be7 15.a3 Na6 16.Bxa6 bxa6 17.Rhe1 Rb8 18.f3 Bd6 19.Qh4 Be5 20.b4 Qd6 21.f4 Ba1 22.Re3 (22.Kb1 Bc3 23.Re3? Rb4+! -+) Ng4 23.Rh3 Bf5 24.Rg3 (24.c3 e3 -/+) a5 25.c3 axb4 26.h3 (26.axb4 e3 27.Rxg4 Bxc3 28.Rg3 Rxb4 -+) bxc3 27.hxg4 and 0-1 (27...Qxa3#), McDonnell-West, 1993.

The first 34 pages contain a dense web of analysis organized around four Morphy games from London 1858. Chapter 1 covers the traditional main line 4.dxe5 fxe4 5.Ng5 d5 6.e6 Nh6 (Staunton & Owen - Morphy & Barnes). Chapter 2 blankets the important offshoot 6...Bc5 (Barnes - Morphy). Chapters 3 and 4 cover White's 4th move alternatives 4.Nc3 (Bird - Morphy) and 4.Bc4 (Boden - Morphy, London 1858) respectively. The Morphy games are given in full and some of the analysis addresses points that are well beyond the opening proper. Others' games and fragments are embedded in notes. A significant omission is the neglect of 4.exf5, apparently for no better reason than nobody ever played it against Morphy.

Twenty "supplemental games" comprise the back third of the monograph. (4.exf5 does appear in two of them, so West doesn't ignore that subvariation entirely.) These games, all played by West, are presented with only the lightest of notes. A short bibliography and variation & player indices wraps up the book. Production quality is on the upper end of opening monograph standards, with clear text and diagrams, decent paper, a glossy cover (but what a boring graphic!) and a real binding instead of just a stapled spine.

The most likely reader complaint will be that The Philidor Countergambit offers minimal discussion of an extremely complex topic. The analytic section has almost no text save a liberal sprinkling of "better is..." and "Black can also continue..." West possesses uncommon practical experience with this opening and his impressions would have been valuable. What's the toughest line to meet? Where are the most fertile areas for further investigation? However, none of this outweighs the essential contribution of The Philidor Countergambit, which is to pull together an unprecedented concentration of material about an opening that chess literature has not handled well in the past. West demonstrates that the Philidor Countergambit has been widely underestimated and can be great fun.

{This "combined analysis and book review" originally appeared in Virginia Chess Newsletter 1995 - #1}