Lessons in Philidor's Defence
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 How many times have you seen played the following moves?
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3
What is Black's best reply?
2...Nc6 is undoubtedly the best reply, but sometimes you see others. Let's have a look at the move
What do you think of this? Looks rubbish? Looks OK? Your favourite? Never thought about it?
You should always think about alternatives to 'obvious' moves. Even if you play the move you first thought if, thinking helps you understand the position, and there is often a lot going on. Also, you sometimes come up with a nice surprise.
What do you think of 2...d6? What's the point? 2...d6 is called Philidor's Defence. Philidor was the strongest player of his day, so it's probably not a pointless move. But since Philidor, it has not been played much, so it might not be the best move (one or two Grandmasters today still play it at least occasionally).
What are the good points and bad points about the move?
How should White reply?
3. d4 This is a good move - White prepares to develop the Queen's Bishop, takes another square in the centre, and puts Black's claim to the centre under pressure. In fact, White now threatens to win a Pawn for nothing with
4.dxe5 dxe5 5. Nxe5
or even better
4.dxe5 dxe5 5. Qxd8+! Kxd8 6. Nxe5
How should Black meet the threat?
A Avoid: 3...exd4
B Block - can't block the attack of either Pawn or Knight
C Capture or Pin Knight - 3...Bg4
D Defend - 3...Nc6 3...Nd7 3...Qf6 3...Qe7
E Counterattack: 3...f5 3...Nf6
-  3...Bg4
-  3...exd4
-  3...Nc6
-  3...Nd7
-  3...f5
-  3...Nf6
Not obvious! Black has many choices. It's worth thinking through each if them to make sure you understand what is going on in this typical opening position. How can you decide? Well, position is a guide - but analysis is proof. However, definitive analysis not always possible - at some point you have to stop analysing and reach a judgement.
Let's see if we can pick off two quickly:
I don't know any way to prove a win for White here, but I'd suggest we can say straight away these moves are not good on principle. Black's moves block either the King's Bishop (Qe7) or King's Knight (Qf6). So, we can see some more awkwardness coming up for Black. Also, these moves bring the Queen within reach of White's pieces: moves like 3....Qe7 4. Nc3 threatens Nd5, making Black waste a move with 4...c6, and after 3...Qf6 white can gain time with 4. Bg5. So, only if everything else fails should you consider a move like 3...Qe7. It may be survivable, but is not going to be comfortable. The best you can hope for is to 'get away with it'.
Let's look at some others.
Black pins the Knight, so defending the threat, and develops a piece. So, this looks a bit better than the Queen moves.
This move was played in one of best-known games in chess history. The great American Paul Morphy was interrupted during a performance of the opera The Barber of Seville by two toffs wanting a game. They played in consultation, with poor Morphy sat with his back to the action. Morphy went through them like a knife through butter, winning in just 17 moves, so I hope he didn't miss too much of the opera. The whole game is appended, but let's see the start.`
Black is actually in difficulties here. How might you try and create problems for Black?
Always look at forcing moves first - checks and captures. If these do not win, or force an advantage, then you can turn your mind to slower moves with a clear conscience. But only look at non-forcing moves once you have checked to see you have no way of making trouble for your opponent right now. You may be winning, and not know it! We have no check, but we have a forcing capture:
This move indeed causes Black a problem, because the simple
4...dxe5 5. Qxd8+ Kxd8 6. Nxe5
loses a Pawn. So Black must play an in-between move before recapturing the pawn.
4...Bxf3 5. Qxf3 dxe5
Now White gets the advantage by playing
This is great for White. Six moves into the game and we can count
the two Bishops,
a lead in development and
in White's favour.
So, 3...Bg4 is probably not right.
This is not entirely logical, since Black having played 2...d6 to support the e-pawn on e5, now gives up the e5 point. However, it might not be entirely a bad move. Having opened up the centre, Black should try and castle quickly on the King's side. There are two lines, depending on how Black intends to develop the King's Bishop, currently residing on f8. The efficient but passive development of the Bishop on e7 is called Antoshin's Variation:
3...exd4 4. Nxd4 Be7
In the riskier but more active line played by Larsen, the Bishop is developed in fianchetto on g7:
3...exd4 4. Nxd4 g6
The game might go:
4.Nxd4 g6 5.Nc3 Bg7 6.Bf4 Nc6 7.Nxc6 bxc6 8.Qd2 Nf6 9.0-0-0
Another way to play for White (as in the famous fake game Adams-Torre) is
3...exd4 4. Qxd4
4...Nc6 5.Bb5 Bd7 6.Bxc6 Bxc6 7.Nc3 Nf6 8.Bg5 Be7 9.0-0-0 0-0 10.Rhe1
White has a healthy space advantage, although Black is cramped.
Well, if Black is trying to be consistent, perhaps Black should try to defend the e-Pawn.
How should White reply to this?
This renews the threat against the e-pawn.
Not satisfactory because of 5. dxe5, as in the Morphy game.
Not satisfactory for reasons we have already looked at
Not satisfactory because having decided to support our Pawn at e5, Black is now giving it up.
May be possible, in fact lead to the old Steinitz variation of the Ruy Lopez
Unpick our way back:
Stops the Bb5 idea
White's best is undoubtedly
How should Black reply?
Very carefully! Black, having played so safe and solid, is very nearly losing!
5. dxe5 dxe5 6.Ng5!
(5...Nxe5 6.Nxe5 dxe5 7.Bxf7+
wins a pawn, but not so straightforwardly as you might think at first: 7...Kxf7 8.Qxd8 Bb4+ 9.Qd2 Bxd2+ 10.Nxd2)
Or maybe 5. Ng5!
4-ii 4...h6 being safe?
5...dxe5 6.Bxf7+! Kxf7 7.Nxe5+ Kf6 8.Qd4 with a deadly attack
worth trying different defences and attacks here - very good teaching position
5...Nxe5 6. Nxe5 dxe5
Now the obvious line is
7. Qxd8+ Kxe8 8. Bxf7 +-
which is good for White, but we can make it a little better with
This is a common situation where we have two ideas: try them in a different order, and perhaps you will see something new. Sometimes the order
1 => 2
doesn't work at all, but
2 => 1
wins a Queen. In our example here, the better order just leads to an even better position for us. So, even if you see a good move - don't bash it out, sit on your hands and think for a little while, and perhaps you will find something even better.
Again, our favourite forcing move is strong:
Now the simple Pawn recapture is disasrous:
5...dxe5 6. Qd5!
Follow through forcingly:
6. Nxe5 dxe5
Now if we hope to win the pawn on f7 as in the 4...h6 line, we may be disappointed
7. Qxd8 Bxd8!
However, f7 is a little bit tender, and e5 is unprotected... can you see a move which gives Black two problems at once?
Wins a pawn.
This is the only way to survive, but White can still press hard.
For example, we can go forward with the natural
Now White should examine, but perhaps reject, the exciting sacrifice:
[6.Bxf7+ Nxf7 7.Ne6 when Black may fall for 7...Qe7? 8.Nc7+ Kd8 9.Nxa8: White has an exchange, but may lose the Knight - White has also managed to remove from the field of play the only two pieces that we had developed! So Black may start coming forward faster than we would like now, even if he falls into our trap.]
But having seen this, White can play a very good move:
This is obviously a decent idea if it stops Black gaining space on the Queen's-side with ...b5. However , White's move also sets a very subtle trap...
6...Be7 7.Bxf7+ Nxf7 8.Ne6 Qb6 9.a5
that's (partly) what the pawn move was for
9...Qb4+ 10.Bd2 Qc4
11.Nc7+ Kd8 12.b3
winning the Queen!
There's no guarantee that Black will allow this, so White may prefer to continue instead with
After 5...Be7 a well-known line goes:
[5...h6 6.a4 ! is the way to keep the edge. ]
6.dxe5 dxe5 7.Ng5 Bxg5
[7...Nh6 8.Ne6 ! wins e.g. 8...fxe6 9. Bxh6 gxh6 10. Qh5+]
[8...Qf6 9.Bxg5 Qg6 10.Qh4
+- Schlechter-Alekhin 1910]
9.Qxg5 Qxg5 10.Bxg5
This position is much easier to play for White, and when it has been reached White players have a huge plus score from here. White will play O-O-O and double rooks on the d-file.
The critical game here is Barden-Klein from 1950, which is appended.
So, following every twist and turn after 3...Nd7, we seem to find at least an advantage for White, and in some lines White wins quickly.
What have we learned so far?
It's surprising how close Black is to losing after these two slow moves, 2...d6 and 3...Nd7. So, if nothing else, we should have learned to be very careful before making such moves ourselves.
Also, we should now know to think rather carefully in the opening before replying - some quite good-looking ideas have led to absolute disaster for Black, so it's worth looking for outright wins from the very first moves.
Lastly, we have met a lot of nice tactical ideas, which occur in many different openings, not just Philidor's Defence. So, patterns we have seen here may well occur in your own games, even if none of your opponents ever play Philidor's Defence against you. For this reason, it's worth trying to see how many of these ideas you can remember (or work out again on a board) without looking at this sheet.
There is a lot going on in the opening, and you shouldn't play automatic moves assuming that you know what is going on. Sit on your hands and think!
If not  3...Nd7, then what?
This is Philidor's counter-Gambit - not for the faint-hearted! Again, although this is obviously risky, it is not obviously losing, and again we have several games on record where strong masters have tried the gambit. Even Morphy played it a few times! So, let's take it seriously.
White has tried many moves here: 4. Bc4, 4. dxe5, 4. exf5, but perhaps best is:
4.Nc3 fxe4 5.Nxe4 d5
Now, one idea is:
6.Nxe5 dxe4 7.Qh5+
Improved Hanham variation
This counterattack gives Black a moment to get organised while White defends the e-Pawn.
4. Nc3 Nbd7
(cf. Hanham: with B on c4 Ng5 wins.)
...and now we are into the main line theory of the Philidor defence.
6. O-O O-O 7. a4,
with a close battle ahead.
BCO gives here
The attempt to refute the defence, if it is refutable, is
(On 6...dxe5 then the aggressive 7.Ng5 0-0 8.Bxf7+ Rxf7 9.Ne6 Qe8 10.Nxc7 Qd8 11.Nxa8 ? seems to be a mistake because of 11...b5 12.Nd5 - may be it's not clear, but maybe White should do better. Again, we have managed to remove from the field of play the only two pieces that we had developed!)
Now Levy says here 7.Be2 ! should preserve a plus. Instead BCO prefers
when Black is far from refuted.
Another line giving white a simple small advantage is
4. dxe5 Nxe5 5. Qd5 Nc5 6. Bg5
Paul Morphy - Duke of Brunswick /Count Isuard 1858 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Bg4 4.dxe5 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 dxe5
Morphy had many contemporaries who could attack as well as he, but more than anyone Morphy knew how to create an attack out of the opening through accurate play. Here he already has a development advantage and the two bishops.
Keeping the initiative going
7...Qe7 8.Nc3 c6 9.Bg5
White needs only two more moves to complete his development - breathtakingly efficient work, and White has even moved his Queen three times!
Just the wrong sort of move - a loosening move, and a Pawn move, when a spot of solid development was overdue. White now rips open the position:
10.Nxb5! cxb5 11.Bxb5+ Nbd7 12.0-0-0
How forceful Morphy is: all captures, checks and threats. Now Black's pieces are treading on each other's toes, and White is threatening to win back his piece.
12...Rd8 13.Rxd7! Rxd7 14.Rd1
Bringing White's last piece into the attack with a nicely-coordinated crossfire of pins.
14...Qe6 15.Bxd7+ Nxd7 16.Qb8+
Barden - Klein, Buxton 1950 1. e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Nd7 4.Bc4 c6 5.Nc3 Be7 6.dxe5 dxe5 7.Ng5 Bxg5 8.Qh5 g6 9.Qxg5 Qxg5 10.Bxg5
This position is much easier to play for White, and when it has been reached White players have a huge plus score from here. White will play O-O-O and double rooks on the d-file. There is no way for White to penetrate further than d6, so once that is accomplished White must see about using the two Bishops to keep black under pressure on both wings. This is not an automatic win for White, but is a position Black should try to avoid.
10...Nf8 11.0-0-0 Be6 12.Be2 f6 13.Be3 Ne7 14.Rd2 Nc8 15.Rhd1 Nb6 16.Rd6 h5 17.a4 Nbd7
With the idea b4-b5 and White breaks through with the Knight.
18...a6 19.Na4 Rh7 20.b3 Re7 21.Nb2 Kf7 22.Nc4 Kg7 23.R6d2 Nh7 24.Nd6 Ndf8 25.Nc4 Nd7
The repetitions gain time on the clock.
26.g3 Rc8 27.Nd6 Rb8 28.Nc4 Rc8 29.f4 exf4 30.Bxf4 Ndf8 31.Bd6 Rf7 32.Ba3 Ra8
Black can only wait to see what plan emerges.
(33.Rd8 Rxd8 34.Rxd8 Bxc4 [else Nd6 and Rb8 picks up a pawn] 35.Bxc4 Rd7)
33...fxe5 34.Bb2 Kh6 35.Nxe5 Rf2 36.Bf3 Rxd2 37.Rxd2 Ng5 38.Bg2 Nf7 39.Nd3 Nd7 40.Re2
Black's pieces are in a mess.
An impulsive move at the time control hastens the end.
(40...Bf5 41.Re7 +-)
(41...Ng5 42.h4 ... 1-0;
41...Nd8 42.Bh3 Bf7 43.Bxd7)
42.b4 g5 43.bxc5 gxf4 44.gxf4 Bd7 45.Rxe8 Bxe8 46.Bh3 1-0
Adams - Torre [C62] 1920 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4 4.Qxd4 !? 4...Nc6 5.Bb5 Bd7 6.Bxc6 Bxc6 7.Nc3 Nf6 8.0-0 Be7 9.Nd5 Bxd5 10.exd5 0-0 11.Bg5 c6 12.c4 cxd5 13.cxd5 Re8 14.Rfe1 a5 15.Re2 Rc8 16.Rae1 Qd7 17.Bxf6 ! 17...Bxf6
( white has a tactical point available, an idea which when pursued wins him the game )
[18...Qxg4 19.Rxe8+ Rxe8 20.Rxe8#]
19.Qc4 Qd7 20.Qc7 Qb5 21.a4 Qxa4 22.Re4 Qb5
( the bQ has very nearly run out of squares to defend e8 from... )
[23.Qc6 Qxc6 24.dxc6 Rxe4 25.Rxe4 bxc6]
A wonderful game, but too good to be true, I'm afraid: Torre invented it as a present for his friend Adams.
Lastly, a game played at the Olympiad in 1976:
Miltzki - Sandrin,K 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Nd7 4.Bc4 c6 5.c3 Be7
( white to play and win )