by Steve Lopez

The Philidor Defense?? Hmmm...

Regular readers of this column know that I'm a fan of offbeat chess openings. But I'll freely confess that I've never been a big fan of the Philidor. I always thought that it was kind of a weak opening for Black. However, conversely (and seemingly paradoxically), I've also always believed that you can get away with any opening as long as you know its ideas better than your opponent does.

That's the whole point of the new CD by GM Alexander Bangiev, Phildor Defense -- to acquaint you with the opening's ideas, so that your opening knowledge will be better than your opponent's. All ChessBase's opening CDs will instruct you on the opening's ideas, but the Philidor Defense CD takes the "explanation" concept to a new level. If you carefully study this CD, you're almost guaranteed to know more about the Philidor than your opponent.

The instruction begins right away, with the introductory text chapter. Bangiev hits you with the strategic ideas right out of the gate: "The squares c7, d6, e5, f6, g7 shall guarantee Black's important space, therefore these squares are from great importance for Black, we'll call them: the strategic squares. Analogous White's strategically important squares are g2, f3, e4, d5, c4, b3, a2, because they ensure White's important space. These considerations should help us to find in respective situations the correct ideas and moves, which meet the demands of the position best." And then he goes on to elaborate on these themes, as well as introduce new ones.

Why the Philidor? Bangiev explains it nicely in the "About the Author" chapter on the CD:

I would like to explain, what [made me actually work] on this Opening.

In my profession as a chessteacher, I very often meet players who look for an uncomplicated Opening. They are looking for something where they don't need to know a bunch of theory and where not every single day a new game is published which you absolutely have to know. In other words - an Opening where there is just a slightly personal effort. When I was looking for such an Opening, I came across the Philidor-Defence, which serves those demands and in addition has a few more pleasant advantages:
1. There are just a few tactical tricks you have to know.
2. The basic strategic ideas are pretty easy to understand (even for beginners).

What's not to like, given those criteria? (And, by the way, GM Bangiev is an active Philidor player and goes on to explain his reasons on the CD).

So what's actually on the Phildor Defense CD? First up are eighteen text chapters, explaining the ideas of the Philidor, with links to relevant games. Among these chapters are entries on pawn play, ideas for both White and Black, the importance of the f7-square, ten chapters on specific Philidor variations, and a chapter on gambits in the Philidor. This was of particular interest to me, speaking as a guy who can be prevented from sacrificing a pawn only if all eight are epoxied to the board at the game's start. The emphasis in these texts is very strongly on ideas, not rote memorization of variations, so the Philidor is ideal for players who don't have the time or desire to memorize great heaping gobs of variations.

The database on the CD contains over 13,000 games -- over 300 of which are annotated -- indexed with an extensive opening key. The CD also contains an opening tree for the Philidor, which can be used for straight statistical analysis or as an opening book for Fritz (or our other chessplaying programs), forcing Fritz to play nothing but the Philidor -- a great training tool. Speaking of training, the CD also contains a separate database of eight games containing timed training questions designed to test your knowledge of the Philidor Defense. And, as usual, the CBReader program is included, so no other software is required (although owners of ChessBase or one of our playing programs will certainly want to use those instead of the somewhat handicapped Reader).

Two things really set this CD apart from most opening books/CDs/monographs/screeds: the emphasis on ideas over variations, and the fact that play for both sides is discussed on the disk. Whether you plan to play this opening as Black or expect to face it as White, there's plenty of instructional material for you on this CD. And the text is clear and easy to understand for players of any level. While I doubt that many loftily-rated players will be terribly interested in this opening, anyone rated roughly 1200-1800 USCF should have no problems understanding the instruction on this CD.

Is the Philidor a good opening for Black? I'm firmly on the fence here. As I said, I think you can play any opening if you're more familiar with it than is your opponent. There are certainly much worse openings than the Philidor out there, that's for sure. It's sound, at least, and if you closely follow GM Bangiev's instruction on the Philidor Defense CD and learn the ideas therein, there's no reason you can't be successful in this particular opening. I'll confess that I'm suddenly intrigued by the Philidor and plan to give this CD some further study -- then I'll try the Philidor in some games against computer opponents, then possibly against real-life over the board or correspondence opposition.

I recall a heated Interrant discussion on the Queen's Gambit Accepted from a few years ago. Much ranting, little discussion -- but the main point of debate was the soundness of the opening. Is it sound?

C'mon, man -- there's nothing wrong with the QGA, as long as you remember that as Black you can't hold the pawn. In fact, you want White to blow a tempo playing Bxc4; then you kick the Bishop back and there goes White's first move advantage clear out the window.

So why don't more Black players adopt this opening? White does rate a 57% with it in the opening tree, but this is natural for many openings (typically, White can expect to score 55-57% in most major openings). So what's with the QGA? Beats me. Nigel played it a bit back in the 90's (even in a Candidates match against Karpov). Garry trotted it out twice in his World Championship match against Kramnik. And He Who Must Not Be Named (a certain American ex-world champ) played it in his 1992 Yugoslav match against Spassky. It was a great favorite of the elder Polgar sister back in the 90's as well.

So I don't understand the argument at all. What I do understand is that Queen's Gambit Accepted by Boris Schipkov gives you more QGA games than you can shake a stick at -- nearly 21,000 -- and some fine annotation efforts by a variety of analysts, including Hubner, Schipkov, both Gureviches, Karpov, Kasparov, Korchnoi, Wolff, Timman, the irrepressible Ftacnik, and a host of others.

Unlike the Philidor CD, Queen's Gambit Accepted doesn't offer loads of ideas explained in text form. Schipkov (a noted chess author and theoretician) chooses the more traditional approach of breaking down the opening into main variations. These are presented in sixteen separate text chapters with links to illustrative games. After briefly explaining what to look for, the links take you right to games showing the idea in action. These are typically annotated (mostly in Informant notation), but if the game is unannotated, it's usually a short game in which the concept in question is near-instantly apparent.

The CD also contains an opening tree (usable as a Fritz opening book), as well as a training database of thirty games, all of which contained timed training questions enabling you to test what you've learned. The main database also has a comprehensive opening key. And the CD comes with CBReader, making it a standalone product (no other software is required to use the databases or tree).

A bit of pre-existing chess knowledge is required to get the most from this CD. Shipkov doesn't spoon feed the ideas to the reader -- this is not a Reinfeld treatment of the QGA. Consequently, I'd recommend this CD to USCF Class A or higher players. Lower-rated players (down to about Class C) can certainly learn a lot from this CD, but you'll need to exercise some skull sweat to grasp the concepts -- familiarity with symbolic notation will be a big plus. Shipkov typically gives an idea in one short phrase, then links you to games illustrating that concept. It's then up to the reader to spot that idea in action and, most importantly, figure out how to apply that idea himself. Basically, if you think Nimzovich's books are tough going, you'll want to give this CD a pass. But if you're willing to put in a little extra effort, a careful study of Queen's Gambit Accepted will reap dividends in your results in games using this opening.

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes.