A Philosophical Look At Chess - Part 1: Philidor's Defense

NM ih8sens
Apr 7, 2010, 10:24 PM |

Perfect! I spelled philosophical right! For some reason I always want to put an "i" where the first "o" is supposed to go.  Strange.

Today marks the beginning of a personal project.  Anyone interested in helping should send me a message via this site.  I'd really appreciate it!

What is this project?  Well, starting with this blog, and ending who knows when, I am going to take a hypothetical look at many of the openings I play.  There will be a brief discussion of theory, but the primary goal will be to take a strategic look at each opening in question and create a logical plan by which we can complete our development and play a sound middlegame.  This will all make sense by the end of this blog. 

Okay! Preamble over.  Let's take a look at the Philidor's defense.

First off, the reason I'm choosing this not-so-popular defense as my first matter of business is simply circumstances.  I lost the white side of a blitz game in the Philidor's at chess club this evening, and then had a few hours at work to think about the opening, without actually having a board available to experiment.  All this hypothetical thinking will go to waste without this blog, and so... here we are.

Okay, so, for those who are unaware, the Philidor Defense in its simplest form occurs after the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6.  Current theory basically proves a white advantage after 3. d4.  We won't talk about this defense right now (although it seems to be more popular below the master level than the move order we will talk about.)

Although this defense isn't a regular guest at the SuperGM (2700+ for the sake of my blogs) level, when the Philidor is seen, it is usually played via a Pirc move order.  Let's take a quick look at the opening moves.

1. e4 - Logical, controlling the center, preparing to develop the light squared bishop.  As our focus should be rapid development and control of the center (our hypothetical discussion will revolve around logic and basic principles), it makes perfect sense to play this move.  Personally, I feel Fischer's intuitive understanding of the game should not really be questioned.  If he said it is "best by test", then it is.

1. ... d6 - Not the most natural move, as it does nothing to prevent white from claiming the rest of the center.  The move does touch one of the central squares, however, and so cannot be considered a strategic error. 

2. d4 - Again, very natural.  Eyebrows may be raised after a third consecutive pawn move in the opening (as we must neglect development in favour of moving pawns), however two is usually acceptable.

2. ... Nf6 - A consequent move.  Black has already claimed the e5 square, and now takes aim at a second central square, namely e4.  This move also has the benefit of developing a knight (knights before bishops, right?!) to its ideal square.

3. Nc3 - In order to follow our basic opening principles, white needs to develop a piece here.  Of course, we can't afford to lose our e4 pawn and so our only choices were Bd3 and this.  Being as (keep in mind this is all hypothetical!) Nc3 is the ideal square, and Bd3 may not be.  This move can be considered 'forced' in the world of theoretical chess. 

3. ... Nbd7 - Preparing e5, an essential move from our hypothetical standpoint.  It is said that the side with a space advantage must first ensure that his opponent is left without counterplay against his central pawns, and should then look to gain the initiative (simply: begin an attack).  Conversely, the side with less space is very rarely in a position to begin an attack.  Instead, the side with a space disadvantage has but one plan: attack the opponents center.  Using this principle, black must play a pawn into the center. d5 loses time, as d6 was already played.  c5 is difficult to achieve on account of a few (obvious) concrete variations.  This leaves us with e5. 

Fantastic!  White is three moves into the game and has basically played three 'ideal' moves.  It's hard to challenge them to say the least.  It is now white to move in the following position:














Okay. Great. Now what?  After a long introduction, let's take a closer look at this position.  First, from a philosophical standpoint.



A quick look at this position reveals a few things.  One, black has developed one piece more than white.  Nevertheless, in order to develop further, black will have to move a pawn next.  Therefore white can be said to be at least equal if not slightly ahead in development.  Secondly, white has more space.  Lastly, neither side have created any weaknesses in their respective positions.  These three factors indicate that black hasn't quite equalized. 

Theory aside, what should white do here?  This is really white's first 'free move', and there is a lot of choice.  Once again though, let's look at the principles.  The side with more space may take the liberty of attacking his opponent, but only after we have stopped our opponent's activity (this is called prophylaxis). 

An excellent way to ensure ourselves a space advantage would be with the move 4. f4.  After 4. ... e5 5. Nf3, black would be forced to concede a central space advantage with the move 5. ... exd4.  This has the added bonus of developing our queen for us after 6. Qxd4.  With this clear space advantage it would make sense that white is better. 

Although it is probably true that white has some advantage after 4. f4, one of our 'rules' of the opening have been broken.  We have made an early and unnecessary pawn move.  Although we have a space advantage, these unnecessary pawn moves may have left us with weaknesses.  In this case, black will get some play down the E file, as moving the F pawn has left e4 slightly weakened. 

The most natural move for white, and using our 'rules', the best one, is 4. Nf3.  With this move we develop a piece to it's 'obvious' square (maintaining flexibility), gain further strength in the center, and concede no weaknesses.  Our first two jobs are well underway: maintain our space advantage and control the center. 4. Nf3 it is.

Black here has only one move.  4. ... e5.  Sadly, we were unable to prevent this with our fourth move.  Nevertheless, this position should still be better for white.  Let's see why:















There are a few key plusses for white in this position.  First off, with it being our move, we still have a slight lead in development.  Without something concrete, this may simply dissipate in time, and practice over many years has shown that this often happens.  Nevertheless, this can still be considered in white's favour.  More importantly, though, we have a space advantage.  This (again) is highly desireable, provided we handle it responsibly.  In fact, our space advantage has already caused black some trouble.  Because of the move order black chose (and in order to play the Philidor's defense in modern times, this move order is basically forced), his light squared bishop may have trouble finding a good square.  Part of our strategic plan can involve limiting this bishop, as our space advantage will gradually allow us to gain the initiative.  The dark squared bishop is even worse!  A concrete variation will force the dark squared bishop to e7, where it will do very little besides dampen the value of white playing Bg5 (which he may not play anyways).  On the other hand, white is having no trouble with any of his pieces.  

White should now play 5. Bc4.  Our plan of rapid development and central control is comfortably along.  In no time at all, we will be able to come up with a second (more creative plan), generating an attack!

After 5. ... Be7, which is essentially forced as Ng5 was a threat and h6 is not an entirely desireable move (as with most pawn moves, this creates weaknesses on the kingside for white to target; in this case, possibly with an eventual g4-g5, opening the G file for our rooks), both sides can castle.  6. O-O O-O

White's most popular move is now 7. Re1, and logically so.  As stated before, black has one, and only one, plan.  He must attack our space advantage.  As it is on an open file, the weakest point in our center is likely e4.  A quick count reveals that after something along the lines of Re8 followed by Bf8, black will be able to have two pieces (his Re8 and Nf6) attacking e4.  Our plan is to maximize the strength of our ideal center (with d4 and e4 pawns). We did have other moves which accomplished this goal, however Re1 seems like an 'obvious' square for the rook. 

Theory now suggests black play 7. ... c6.  Obviously, this isn't the end of the world for black, but our space advantage is starting to tell.  In order to develop his queen, he must make room on c7.  As with all pawn moves, we must look for weaknesses left behind.  In this case, b6 and (more importantly) d6 are the weakened squares, although this is still all hypothetical.  Nonetheless, something concrete could show up as black is forced to damage his own position!  Could this be considered some form of zugswang?














A new question arises.  What should white do?  We're almost out of 'center supporting' moves, and it's clear that the tension between d4 and e5 is frustrating black more than white.  As the saying goes: with a great center comes great responsibility (or something like that...).  White should continue to restrict black from carrying out any productive plan.  His space advantage will tell eventually.  Therefore, 8. a4 is a strong move, preventing black from gaining space on the queenside, and nullifying the scary idea b5-b4, removing the c3 knight and leaving our control of e4 weakened.  Clearly then, 8. a4 actually has something to do with our center (again!). 

Looking at the position now, it seems white has maintained some advantage.  8. a4 could leave b4 and b3 weak, but it is unclear how black intends to use these squares.  b5 would have been annoying anyways.  We must now take a look at black's play.  What else may black come up with?  Perhaps a Philidor expert has the answer to this question.  I certainly don't.  It is looking clear to me that black will have to consider giving up the center with dxe4 at some point if he wishes to generate any play.  Otherwise, white can consider starting an attack (perhaps on the kingside with something like Ne2-g3, although turning our positional/opening edge into something more concrete requires some creativity).

Black may now choose between one of three main moves (in order from least to most popular): Qc7, a5, and b6.  This has already been a long blog and I will end the philosophical analysis here.  Following basic principles has lead white to a position that seems visibly better for him.  Obviously the advantage (if there truly is anything that can be proven with concrete analysis) isn't significant.  I say that because superGM's do play this line from time to time. Nevertheless, simple chess has lead to a definite advantage.

Let me now end this article off with a fantastic game played by the attacking genius Shirov.  It beautifully shows one (of a few) possible plans for white thanks to his space advantage!


Ps: If anyone has any opening requests.  Please message me, or post a comment in any of my PLC blogs.