Bird lives!

Ah, not Charlie "(Yard)Bird" Parker, whose untimely departure in 1955 prompted jazz fans to write this graffito all over New York, but Henry Bird, who left us two sprightly variations: the Bird Defence to the Ruy Lopez, and his very own opening, 1.f2-f4.  2008 is the 150th year since Bird died, and at this year's Paignton Chess Congress, there was a special prize for the best game played with his opening.  This resulted in a bigger crop of Birds than usual, as you might expect, and the prize winner was the following game (courtesy of Bill Frost at ChessDevon:

Because of the increased risk of the Bird, I reviewed what I knew about it in case someone played it against me... No-one did, so I thought I'd record the results of my review here.

" Having forgotten familar openings, I commenced adopting KBP for first move, and finding it let to highly interesting games out of the usual groove, I became partial to it." -- Henry BIRD

I first found out about Bird's opening (1.f4) in some random beginners' book, where the author dismissed it (as have many authors since) with the recommendation that Black play From's Gambit (1...e5 2.fxe5 d6 3.exd6 Bxd6 [idea 4...Qh4+ mating] 4.Nf3 g5!?), and noted that if the From turned out one day to be better for Black then White could dodge into the King's Gambit. 

That satisfied me for a while, but I became interested again when the opening kept cropping up in B.H.Wood's CHESS magazine in the 1970s.  That may have had something to do with the editor's own liking for the opening, but surely it was more than that: lots of players were happy to try the Bird (directly or by transposition) and you never saw a From.  Could it really be dismissed?  I rather suspected not, and that the From wasn't all it was cracked up to be: critical, surely, but if White knew what they were doing, perhaps they could keep the pawn and survive.

I was reassured when Neville Gill wallopped the Bird when winning the PCC Championship for 1976, then woken from my dogmatic slumbers when Jerry Anstead used the Bird to beat Gill (and others) winning the title in 1980.  Yet, Rumens and Bellin, both players of the Dutch defence, weren't above the occasional Bird while contesting the Grand Prix in weekend congresses.  Then I discovered Bent Larsen had been interested in it; not mere dabbling either, he took out Spassky with it in a crucial game:

"In this last game with the white pieces I played Bird's Opening, of which most masters have no high opinion, but I chose it for the very reason that they do not play it and do not know it. I know it quite well, have many original ideas. Now I challenge Spassky with it; let us see what ideas he has to show."

Since Larsen's heyday, IM Tim Taylor and GM Henrik Danielsen have both played and promoted the Bird extensively; it's also a familiar feature of club and county games in the Westcountry. So, there's more to this opening than is obvious in the books; in fact, it's an ideal club opening in many ways -- unbalanced, untheoretical and underestimated!  [And like all such openings, it will become better known, people will write books about it, and eventually it will become an opening like any other...]

Bird plays the Bird

Lasker bids for immortality

Larsen has ideas

Fischer transposes

Wood pushing

Dutch specialists turn the table


The biter bit

Bird spotting in Devon

A World Championship Bird

Defending against the Bird

This is really what I spent my time looking at.  There is no consensus in the books and comics about Black's best line: Gufeld recommends the From; Keene & Levy suggest 1...d5, 2...Nf6 and 3...Bg4 (but consider only 3.e3); Aagaard & Lund prefer 2...Bg4; and so on.  Perhaps all are adequate, but it seemed to me that the From would be no surprise, and that systems with ...Bg4 allowed White to play the sort of unclear attack with 1.f4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3 Bg4 4.h3 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 and 6.g4 that they were surely hoping for.

On the other hand, going for 2...g6 and allowing White to play the Dutch with a move in hand wasn't attractive either; all the various treatments that Black can adopt (Stonewall, Ilyin-Zhenevsky, Leningrad, Antoshin) have their counterpart in the Bird and all looked thoroughly playable for White, and, as I don't play the White side of the Dutch, I thought I wouldn't thrive a move behind.  As long as White avoids the various pitfalls known to theory (e.g. 1.f4 d5 2.e3 Nf6 3.b3? d4!) I imagine White would be pleased to play this way.

Actually, what am I familiar with?  I have a reputation for knowing a lot of opening theory, but, while I do find it fascinating, my actual over-the-board choices are usually driven by the desires to (a) avoid any theory, and (b) avoid whatever my opponent wants to play.  This rather negative philosophy led me to consider 1...c5 and 1...g6, both systems that I have played on and off against 1.e4 for years.  Checking with Tim Taylor's excellent monograph, I see he concluded that White cannot expect any advantage with standard Bird moves against 1...c5, and should instead transpose into either the Closed or Grand Prix variations of the Sicilian Defence.  As I am usually very happy to see White choose either of these when I play 1.e4 c5, I resolved on 1.f4 c5.  I have an idea that if Black were more recently rehearsed in the Modern and King's Indian than I am currently, then 1...g6 with ...d6 and eventually ...e5 would be an equally uncooperative yet satisfactory way to defend.

Chess Quotes

"A draw can be obtained normally by repeating three moves, but also by one bad move."

"The winner of the game is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake"