Friday, March 30, 2007

Shibut's Review of Second Edition

Book Reviews, Excerpts & Sundry Digressions

by Macon Shibut

I reviewed the first release of New Jersey master Jim West's monograph The Philidor Countergambit in Virginia Chess 1995/1. Now we have a "revised 2nd edition", and no exaggeration that; the work looks completely rebuilt from ground up. Analysis is both updated and greatly expanded. New publisher Chess Digest has likewise upgraded the production quality, including slicker cover and binding. The word "Dynamic" has been inserted into the title.

To call 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 f5 "dynamic" is like saying Kasparov was "irked" at losing to DEEPBLUE. This is an intense tactical line. West is entirely justified in claiming it as his own. While "theory" may stigmatize it, West has honed his pet into a promising weapon by toilsome analysis and sheer will. "From February 1990 through...June 1996," he reports, "I have essayed the Philidor Counter-Gambit on 135 occasions. My record stands at 72 wins, 36 losses, and 27 draws." Singleminded devotion brings practical benefits. "Where it once seemed madness to play the unclear complexities of the PCG, it now seems foolhardy to play the Sicilian Defense, when even class C players know the first fifteen moves from memory....I recall how in [one] game my opponent (a master) spent one full hour on his 4th move!"

Even a crazy combinative mess like the Philidor Countergambit demands more than sheer calculation (try it out versus your computer if you want to test this assertion) and readers would benefit from West's seasoned judgment. Unfortunately the dearth of useful commentary - generalizations, strategic themes, etc. - is one aspect of the book that has not been improved since the original edition. Instead West offers copious analysis with terse assessments like "unclear" or "with a strong attack." On the other hand, the important lines with 4.exf5, shorted badly the first time around, now rate a full chapter.

He may not be verbose, but neither is West a mere peddler of database printouts. There is much original analysis here and the author takes nothing for granted, correcting many published lines. Certainly I did not sneak anything past him in the May/June 1994 Virginia Chess, where West found an oversight in my notes to the game Roush-Shibut, Charlottesville 1994. After 4...e4 5.Ng5 Bxf5 6.f3 d5 7.fxe4 dxe4 8.Bc4 Nh6 9.O-O Nc6 10.Be3 Bd6

West notes that instead of Roush's 11.Nc3? Bxh2+! White could have forced an advantage with either 11.Bf7+ Nxf7 12.Nxf7 Bxh2+ [or 12...Kxf7 13.Rxf5+ Kg8 14.Qg4 Qe7 15.Nc3] 13.Kxh2 Qh4+ 14.Kg1 Bg4 15.Qd2 O-O 16.d5; or 11.Nf7 [I independently discovered this some time after my annotations appeared] Bxh2+ [11...Nxf7 12.Rxf5 O-O 13.Qg4 is also +/-] 12.Kh1! Qh4 13.Bg5 Qg3 14.Bxh6 gxh6 and now West gives 15.Qh5! Bg6 16.Qxh2 Qxh2+ 17.Kxh2 Rf8 18.Nxh6 Rxf1 19.Bxf1 Nxd4 20.Na3 O-O-O 21.c3 Ne6 22.Nc4. For the record West also examines the less convincing moves 11.Qh5+ and 11.h3, as well as rehabilitates Black's play earlier by 10...Ng4 (he marks my 10...Bd6 with "?!") 11.Qd2 Nxe3 12.Qxe3 Qxd4 13.Qxd4 Nxd4 14.Nf7 b5 15.Bd5 c6 16.Bxc6+ Nxc6 17.Nxh8 [17.Rxf5? Nd4 Black wins] g6 unclear.

The Dynamic Philidor Counter-Gambit weighs in at 191 pages and bears a cover price of $17.50. Such a game is not everyone's cup of tea but those into this sort of thing will want the new book. They may also appreciate the following little nuggets, not to be found therein:

After 4.Nc3 fxe4 5.Nxe4 d5 6.Neg5!? [6.Ng3 was a famous Bird-Morphy game; 6.Nxe5 dxe4 7.Qh5+ g6 8.Nxg6 Nf6 (or 8...hxg6) is the main line, widely assumed to favor or even win for White. Needless to say, West begs to differ...]. West gives only 6...h6 7.Nf7!? [or 7.Nh3 Bxh3 8.gxh3 (Fedorowicz-West, New York 1996) exd4 unclear] Kxf7 8.Nxe5+ Ke7 9.Ng6+ Kf6 10.Qf3+ Bf5 11.Nxh8 Qe7+ 12.Be2 Qe4 13.g4 Qxf3 14.Bxf3 Bxc2 15.h4 Nc6 16.g5+ Kf5 17.Be3 Bb4+, Stepanov-Maliutin, Moscow 1992 (0-1, 47).

A game too recent for inclusion in The Dynamic Philidor Counter-Gambit varied with 7.dxe5!? hxg5 8.Bd3 Rh6 9.Bxg5 Be7 10.Bxh6 Nxh6 11.Bg6+ Kf8 (Adamec-West, 1997 US Amateur Team).

West discussed this in the March/April issue of Atlantic Chess News (his regular outlet for the latest Philidor refinements. "Although my teammates questioned my judgment after the game, I already think Black is slightly better. Sure, White has a rook and two pawns for two minor pieces, which in an endgame would give him good winning chances. But that endgame is a long way off. In the short run, Black's bishop and knight are stronger." (That one note, incidentally, is about 2 1/4 sentences more loquacious than the longest remark in The Dynamic Philidor Counter-Gambit). The game continued 12.Qe2 Nc6 13.O-O-O [13.O-O] Be6 14.h3 Kg8 15.Nh2 d4! 16.f4 Qd5 17.c4 ["White decides to jettison a pawn and eliminate queens rather than allow the mechanical attack after 17.b3 Ba3+ 18.Kb1 a5, etc."] Qxc4+ 18.Qxc4 Bxc4 and Black won in 60.

Going back, one must ask why Black avoids the natural 6...e4.

Presumably the reason is 7.Ne5 Nh6 8.Nxh7! and the knight is immune: 8...Rxh7? 9.Qh5+ etc. However, some time ago I had a conversation with West at a New York tournament and he suggested 8...Bb4+! (clearing f8 for the king) 9.c3 Rxh7 10.cxb4 and now 10...Nf5, 10...Bf5, and 10...Nc6 all promise interesting play. Grist for further analysis! Address your discoveries to the Editor....

{This book review originally appeared in Virginia Chess Newsletter in 1997}