Columns | February 04, 2009 5:23

The wrong Philidor

PhilidorAll successful chess players are alike; every unsuccesful chess player is unsuccessful in his own way. I was eight years old and I was excited as any eight-year-old can be. My excitement was caused not by chess, but by the arrival of a book I had ordered, titled How to be a Spy. It was full of thrilling tips which could be used by our 'group' in school to fool and 'conquer' the group of a neighboring school.

Since I was the owner of the book, I was also the leader of the group. One of the tips in the book was to use 'code words' for certain phrases and commands. The book explained that these code words were most difficult to 'crack' if they couldn't be understood by your rival. And because at the time I had just started my piano lessons, I suggested we use names of famous composers as code words. Of course, in my excitement about his suggestion, I had not realized that my friends did not play the piano, and, like our opponents, hadn't the faintest idea what these nineteenth century names meant either. Not surprisingly, my idea that the phrase 'watch out, there's someone behind you!' would now be encoded by the simple, undechipherable word 'Beethoven!' completely missed its effect. I believe this was the first time that the 19th century had led me down. It wouldn't be the last.

A few years later, when I learned to play chess, one of the first books I got was a Dover edition of Morphy's Games of Chess by Philip Sergeant. It contained games written in old-fashioned (P-K4) notation. Of course, Morphy's rapid rise to fame captured my imagination and soon I had not only copied Morphy's opening repertoire, but I also wanted to play 'games at odds' with my father. I was especially fascinated by the fact that Morphy as a young boy travelled to Europe to meet other opponents, and so when I was on holidays, I always asked strangers to play chess with me, so that I could write these games down and include in my cahier the place where they were played. It looked Morphy-like to me.

I was in high school now and not only replaying games of nineteenth century chess players and playing music from 19th century composers, but also reading books from nineteenth century authors. I was a big fan of Tolstoy, Dickens and Emily Br??nte, and when I discovered Alice in Wonderland I was hooked on this century for good. You could say that my youth was basically formed by the nineteenth century. The was no doubt excellent for my literary and musical education, but for my chess, it turned out to be disasterous.


I first noticed this while playing the preliminaries of the Amsterdam Junior Championship. My equally chess-obsessed young opponents were all studying New in Chess Yearbooks and Chess Informants. I, on the other hand, spent my time reading the 1891 edition of Bilguer's Handbuch des Schachspiels (edited by Schallopp and Paulsen) , the first opening encyclopedia. I studied lines like 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 Be7 4.Bc4 Bh4+ 5.g3!? fxg3 6.0-0! gxh2+ 7.Kh1! which were very topical 150 years ago. I found many 'novelties' in these ancient lines, but alas, they were hardly relevant in my own chess practice. Also, my knowledge of the Muzio Gambit was not contributing to my success. Somehow, the 'usefulness' of studying the 19th century classics wasn't paying off half as much as it was in other fields!

But whereas studying the King's Gambit still had some practical benefits, my true obsession was a variation in the Philidor Defence where after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Black plays the highly risky but aesthetically nice-looking move 3...f5!? This move was actually Philidor's originial intention, and I remember looking up Philidor's original analysis (written in even more old-fashioned 'notation' than the Morphy book) in an ancient copy of Analyse du Jeu des ?âchecs in the Max Euwe Center in Amsterdam.

I also looked up the variation in an early 80s edition of the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings. After all, my chess friends had ridiculed me by quoting from that book a 'refutation' of the line I studied. I soon noticed that the line given in the Encyclopedia was in fact no refutation at all, at least according to Bilguer and Philidor himself, and I knew that I just had to study and this variation - no, to rehabiliate it. I, Arne Moll, rated 1734, would revive this beautiful line and make it famous to the world again! This was my plan. Unfortunately, even though I played it in the Amsterdam Junior Championship, on my local club and in other tournaments, nobody ever noticed. On top of that, I wasn't particularly successful with it. This was no doubt due to the fact that the line is actually rather easy to play against. When White refrains from crazy tactics and simply develops his pieces, he has a very pleasant position.

So while my more and more chess-addicted opponents (who became stronger and stronger) were studying the Yearbooks, Informants and theoretical novelties in the games of Karpov, Kasparov and other top players, I was working on long-forgotten gambits. I even had a new hobby: Chigorin's move 2.Qe2!? against the French Defence, which looked extremely mysterious and fascinating to me as well. It reminded me of the strange poems of the Russian Symbolists and Futurists, especially when after 2...c5 3.g3 Nc6 4.Bg2 Nd4 Chigorin played his Queen to the absurd (to me) square d3. Again, the fact that at my level the French was hardly ever played couldn't discourage me from analysing its merits (and without understanding it at all, needless to say). Most of all, though, I was studying this Philidor line, sitting in the Max Euwe Center for hours and searching smelly old volumes of Brittish Chess Magazine and Deutsche Schachzeitung for 'revelant' games in this variation. I told nobody about my secret ambitions.

L‚Äôanalyse du jeux des ?©checs

That year, I was playing the Open Dutch Junior Championships in Arnhem. By a twist of fate, in the first round I had to play against the highest rated player of the U20 with Black. Although I was rated 500 points below my opponent, I managed to stay alive in a Slav Defence and after 6 hours of play, the game was adjourned. Although my friends refused to analyse the position, claiming it was 'dead lost', I somehow found a way to continue, and, miraculously (and probably because my opponent was annoyed he had to show up in the evening for the resumption) I drew the game. In the next round I won against a weak opponent, so now I was on one of the top boards again. This time, I knew that my opponent, who was a promising junior, would play 1.e4. I also knew the national junior coach, a strong IM, would attend the round to spy on fresh talents.

Suddenly, I realized I had a real chance to show what I'd been stuyding for almost two years now. And when the round started, I couldn't believe my luck: my opponent went for the sharpest line, one of Bilguer's recommendations! At a crucial moment in the opening, of which only I knew 'theory' - theory from over 100 years old, that is - I noticed several spectators around the board, including the national junior coach. Surely he was impressed by what he saw? I saw a good move for Black, but I felt I should convince the coach of my unique talent in a more appropriate way. So I quickly sacrificed a whole rook which reminded me vaguely of a rook sac of Morphy I had seen once. As I kept watching the expression on the coach's face, my opponent played a couple of weak moves and then I was winning. The coach now looked at me, smiled, and walked away. It was the happiest moment of my chess career.

After the middle game, however, things were not that clear anymore. A difficult rook ending had arisen in which I was still pushing my rapidly-vanishing advantage. All of a sudden, the coach was back again at the board. Gone were the crazy opening tactics, the Morphy sacrifice, the months of preparation. I remember at the time I thought the endgame must still be a fairly easy draw so I started to play quickly which the coach was still watching. I played actively first, then too passive, then I lost a pawn, and then it was all over. After I resigned, nobody stood by the board to analyse with us. My opponent patiently explained to me that I could have held a draw with the so-called Philidor position. I had no idea what he was talking about. In all those years in the Max Euwe Center studying Philidor's opening ideas, I'd never bothered to look at Philidor's famous rook endings. I had studied the wrong Philidor.

The national coach - deaf to my efforts - had already gone home. I knew he wouldn't come back for me. I wanted to quit the tournament, no, to quit chess enitrely. It was as if I was standing on a platform, waiting for a train that would never stop for me. I felt ready to jump in its path - but even that same day I realized I loved the game too much. So I stayed - in the tournament, and in the world of chess. I didn't jump. How very unlike the nineteenth century!

Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Bert de Bruut's picture

Well Ron, if talent is infectuous, you still might get it. Stay close to Ivanchuk & breathe his coughs!

Arne Moll's picture

@monoceros4: I think taking this opening statement literally, and not within the context of the story, is about the same thing as claiming that a story that starts with 'Life is great' is 'almost wholly wrong' because in fact life mostly sucks! By the way, Vladimir Nabokov started his novel 'Ada' with a reversal of Tolstoy's words, so you seem to be in good company, although Nabokov meant it ironically :-)

@Frank: yes, the Center Game is an underestimated opening, although, like most 19th century gambits, it is also very risky.

Daan's picture

Indeed a great story!
Thanks a lot!


Janis Nisii's picture

This is an awesome article Arne, as usual. Thank you for sharing! I just love your style :)

C?t?lin's picture

Very nice Arne.Thanks.

jussu's picture

Nice story indeed. I also agree with "All successful chess players are alike"; at least from the patzer's point of view. The grandmasters play basically the same game, it is utterly impossible at their level to have noticable weaknesses (noticable to an amateur, that is). We only loathe some of the grandmasters and adore the others because stronger players have told us about the differences in their playing styles.

Mike's picture

Yes, most of chess players want to start studying and leaning by memory how to demolish and gamble opponents with opening fireworks and tatic's a la Morphy. But, as Capablanca, Nimzowitch and Karpov had said many times, to master the fundamental pieces and pawn moves and endings is the best way to become a good player, and, after that, a good master...Did you noticed the final position of the "Rook + a Pawn against White square Bishop" presented in the game Mecking x Kasimdzhanov in Corus 2009? Possibly many expert players are not capable to win a game that way...(I myself, a club player, never studied that type of ending...until that day...)

Mike's picture

Of course a typo mistake: "learning", and not "leaning"...

Jeans's picture

That was a very nice ending, with similarities with Timman-Velimirovic Rio de Janeiro 1979, and also v Wely-Radjabov Wijk aan Zee few years back.

Mecking (from Brasil, so I think he knew the Timman game) by the way showed he knew how to defend in a stubborn way. Giving away the a-pawn tot test if Kasim would play a4 which would spoil the win!

Saldy's picture

The story represents the case of the majority of chess players - playing chess by sheer passion....(unless talented enough to play for blood:-))

Ekkof's picture

I liked your story very much, Arne.
Lots of recognizable similarities.

landome's picture

"I was a big fan of Tolstoy" you tell us. And you are putting your readers to a test!

"All successful chess players are alike; every unsuccesful chess player is unsuccessful in his own way." (Arne Moll)

"All happy families are alike; but the unhappy family is always unhappy in its own way." (The very first sentence of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy)

Just to show you someone noticed ;-)

PP (NL)'s picture

Nice story. I liked it!

Ron's picture

Yes, we love the game like Ivanchuk. Did we only have a microbe of his talent...

Felix's picture

Btw., nice analysis (at least in many lines it's ok, but there is also some bad analysis in that book) can be found in Bauer's book "the philidor files". after reading that book I'm convinced that f5 leads to bad positions for black in all lines :) at least positions where white's nightmare is to make just a draw :)

monoceros4's picture

"All successful chess players are alike; every unsuccesful chess player is unsuccessful in his own way."

This is almost wholly wrong. Every great master has his own style. All bad players keep making the same mistakes.

Frank Str?§ter's picture

Nice story. A lot of chess players have similar histories, like Kramnik who learned chess by a book consisting of a collection of Karpov games (!), because he had no easy access to other chess books. I myself learned chess the wrong way by playing against an old DOS chess program around the end of the eighties, by lack of an human opponent (very small town), and I tend to still play "computer-ish"...

I noticed on a video of a speed chess tourn, you are still playing stuff like the middle gambit (I believe it was against GM van der Doel). I was wondering: was that just for fun or have you never really overcome your affection with 19th century chess openings?

Lauri's picture

This captures exceptionally well what is so fascinating about chess. Thank you very much.

Jens Kristiansen's picture

Yes, indeed a very nice story, Arne - keep it up!
But in fact I do not believe you chose a wrong approach as a very young chess player. Reti once claimed that (quoted from memory) a chessplayers development is parallel to the genereal, historical development of chess theory. From that you may deduce that very young players should investigate and play the ancient gambit and attacking lines. They simply need to know how to play that kind of chess - and how to defend against it - before they can take the next steps. To me it is quite obvious that many young players nowadays with their immidiate focus on the modern opennings are leaving wide gaps behind them in their development - gaps that will later turn out to be dangerous pitfalls.
About the genuine Philidor Openning with 3.-,f5!?: It could very well be that it is unsound, but it takes a very strong player (or chess programme) to prove that. Up to a rather high level of opponents it is quite possible to make use of it, I should say. By the way: The very young Jonathan Mestel (later a strong GM) made use of the openning at some quite strong junior championships in the 70es. He once showed me some intriguing lines from his analysis, and I was not at all able to refute them OTB. But that was of course in the good old precomputer era.
And one should not look down on the oldtimers analysis. They were in fact VERY good at it, and you can still find gems in the old books. And basically I believe it is a very good exercise to check these old analysis OTB. So - in many ways I think you did rightl as a young chess student, Arne. And from the game in question I suppose you learned that you also have to study endgames. Yes, indeed we have all had that experience.
But I still wonder who this dutch IM was - this national junior coach. I would have been impressed by such an independent attitude from a youngster.

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