Retooling the Black Repertoire

Sep 5, 2009, 3:45 PM |

In the Southern Open, which I played on August 1-2, I did myself the great disservice of losing for the SECOND time to Gregory Kimmel on the black side of the Scotch opening.  After examining many of the Scotch lines in detail, it appears black has a very narrow path to equality, although I certainly could have done a better job with my 4...Qh5 response.

Coupled with my success with the London, I'm convinced now is the time to find a more universal approach with the black pieces, something that I (like with the London) am assured of getting to 90% of the time and, even with best lines that tend towards equality, much of the battle centers around who is most familiar with the plans suggested by the position at hand.

LIkewise, with black, I could deal with a slight playable disadvantage against theoretically-prepared players, as long as I can equalize against those not, and have ways of complicating the position against lower-rated opponents.

I believe I have found the solution.

The core of my new black opening system will be the modified version of the standard Philidor Hanham setup dubbed "The Black Lion".  Ironically, this is the form of the Hanham espoused by Captain Hanham himself, which has generally become discredited in favor of the modern Hanham treatment.

The Black Lion positions are typically reached through the move order 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 Nf6 4. Nc3 Nbd7 5. Bc4 Be7 6. O-O and now 6...h6 (instead of the modern treatment 6...O-O) leading to the position show in Diagram 1:

Black's plan is the rather crude attacking scheme marked by ...c6, ...Qc7, ...Nf8, ...g5, and ...Ng6.  Black will generally reserve the right to castle kingside, queenside, or not at all depending on developments. 

The problem is the original move order given above are not the best moves for white.  Notably, 3...Nf6 is more actively met by 4. de! (instead of the cooperative 4. Nc3) Nxe4 5. Qd5 Nc5 6. Bg5, where all lines seem to give white an annoying edge.  Likewise, attempting to reach the desired position with 3...Nd7 creates issues for black after 4. Bc4 since both 4...Nf6 (allowing 5. Ng5) or 4...Be7 (allowing 5. dxe5 Nxe5 6. Nxe5 de 7. Qh5 dropping a pawn) are less than special.

Consequently, the "modern" way for black to reach the Philidor Hanham position is the more roundabout 1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 e5 4. Nf3 Nbd7 5. Bc4 Be7 6. O-O.  However, should white be the weaker player, this move order allows the inconvenient 4. dxe5 dxe5 5. Qxd8 Kxd8 where the queenless middlegame can make it hard for black to play for a win.

The good news for me is that I have a tremendous performance rating with 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 exd4 5. Nxd4 g6, referred to as the Larsen Variation of the Philidor defense.  While the positions can have great similarity with the Sicilian Dragon, particularly when both sides have castled on opposite wings, there are enough subtle dissimilarities that when white plays rote Dragon-style attacking moves, he can quickly find himself in hot water.  Move order in these lines is very important, and most white players are not equipped to deal with the differences.

One of the reasons I stopped playing the Larsen's was difficulty in getting advantageous positions against weaker players that played quieter moves than 3. d4, like the perfectly acceptable 3. Bc4.  In these lines, white typically plays d4 later, as black is not in much of a position to prevent it.  With both sides castled on the same wing, play becomes much less dynamic, and getting past black's space disadvantage requires more patience than God blessed me with.

However, with the introduction of The Black Lion into my repertoire, there is now a built-in way of mixing things up and keeping life in the position.  After such quiet 3rd moves, black can steer the game into the position shown in Diagram 1, and take up the standard Black Lion plan, particularly against weaker players.  There is an option of "going for the gusto" with the same idea against stronger players, or opting for sounder standard Hanham positions if white finds the right anti-Lion plan (which, for obvious reasons, I won't be talking about here) or straight into a Black Lion setup on inferior responses.

The other nice thing about the Black Lion, is a form of it can be played against 1. d4.  Play would follow 1...d6 2. c4 Nd7 (2...e5 is a fine option against stronger white players as well, since the queenless middlegame might then be welcome) 3. Nf3 e5 4. e4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Be7 6. Be2.  Much of the play is similar to the 1. e4 e5 version, however the pawn on c4 (instead of the bishop) can give white addition options based on the move c5.  However, my modest experience has shown me that as long as black doesn't overreact, it's normally nothing to be too concerned about.

Here is an example of a 1. d4 blitz Black Lion game from ICC.