Beating the Philidor

Font Size
Bobby Ang

Chess Piece

I am sure most of our readers have seen the famous 1858 Morphy versus Duke of Brunswick game played at an opera house in Paris. It has been called the most famous game in chess history.

Morphy, Paul — Duke of Brunswick, Count [C41]
Opera House, Paris, 02.11.1858

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Bg4?

A bad move. We will discuss alternatives later. Bobby Fischer mentioned here that 3…Nd7 is the right move, but even that has been proven to be weak.

4.dxe5 Bxf3

Black loses a pawn after 4…dxe5 5.Qxd8+ Kxd8 6.Nxe5

5.Qxf3 dxe5 6.Bc4

Threatening mate on f7. The move is close to winning, but GM Larry Kaufman points out that 6.Qb3! was even stronger, for after 6…b6 7.Bc4 “White has a lead in development, threats, and the bishop pair, while Black has weakened his position with …b7–b6. White should win.”


Fischer tells the story that he played simultaneous exhibitions in Sarajevo and two of his opponents played 6…Qf6 “Maybe they were trying to lose the same way, as a joke or something” (Fischer). 7.Qb3 b6 8.Nc3 c6 (preventing Nd5) 9.Bg5! Qg6 (9…Qxg5 10.Bxf7+ Ke7 11.Bxg8 wins.) 10.Rd1 (I couldn’t castle: 10.0–0–0? Qxg5+) 10…Be7 (10…Nd7 11.Nb5! cxb5 12.Bxb5 Ngf6 13.Bxf6 the d7–knight is lost) 11.Bxe7 Nxe7 12.Bxf7+ Qxf7 13.Rd8+ Kxd8 14.Qxf7 both of his opponents reached this position and lost.


Attacking both f7 and b7 and he is winning one of them

7…Qe7 8.Nc3!

If he had taken the b7–pawn then 8.Qxb7 Qb4+ 9.Qxb4 Bxb4+ Black will survive to the endgame.

8…c6 9.Bg5 b5 <D>


10.Nxb5! cxb5 11.Bxb5+ Nbd7

[11…Kd8 12.Bxf6 Qxf6 13.Qd5+ Kc7 14.Qxa8]

12.0–0–0 Rd8 13.Rxd7! Rxd7 14.Rd1 Qe6 15.Bxd7+! Nxd7 16.Qb8+! Nxb8 17.Rd8# 1–0

Ok, we now know that 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Bg4 is a mistake. As mentioned above, Bobby Fischer commented that 3…Nd7 is correct. The idea is to support Black’s pawn on e5 with the setup …Nd7, …Be7 and …c6, the so-called Hanham Variation (apparently there was an American chess master many years ago named James Moore Hanham). This strikes a cord with me, for my very first chess book was “The Pan Book of Chess” by Gerald Abrahams and this was the line he recommended as well.

I mentioned GM Larry Kaufman in the notes up there on move 6. He is a respected name in chess engines and openings. He worked on the opening database of Rybka, and later on collaborated with Don Dailey and Mark Lefler on the development of world computer chess champion Komodo, especially on its evaluation function. As most of our readers know, Komodo is consistently ranked near the top of most major chess engine rating lists, along with Stockfish and Houdini.

GM Kaufman wrote a very good book on the openings in 2004 entitled The Chess Advantage in Black and White. A new edition came out in 2012 entitled The Kaufman Repertoire for Black and White, and an even newer edition was entitled Kaufman’s New Repertoire for Black and White (2019). I would suggest to my readers to get a copy as it is very informative and useful for amateur players like me who want to know a little bit about most openings but do not have enough time to comprehensively study the details. We have to ensure, though, that the little bit we know is the part that we will get to use in actual tournaments, and in that the book is just the right mix of theory and practice.

But I digress. Grandmaster Larry Kaufman notes that the Hanham Variation aims to maintain Black’s pawn on e5, analogously to closed lines of the Ruy Lopez, and opines that “it would be quite popular and on a par with the major defences to 1.e4, except for the annoying detail that Black can’t actually reach the Hanham position by force.”

Let us take a look at how the late GM Vugar Gashimov, a very aggressive player, attacks the Philidor.

Gashimov, Vugar (2585) — Managadze, Nikoloz (2430) [C41]
Athens Acropolis op Athens (3), 08.03.2005

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Nd7

Black can try another move order with 3…Nf6 hoping for 4.Nc3 Nbd7 5.Bc4 Be7 6.0–0 (You can also try 6.Ng5 0–0 7.Bxf7+ Rxf7 8.Ne6 Qe8 9.Nxc7 Qd8 10.Nxa8 b5 11.f3 [11.Nxb5? Qa5+ 12.Nc3 Nxe4 Black has strong compensation for the sacrificed material] 11…Ba6 12.a3 Qxa8 13.Be3 Black is doing fine) 6…0–0 7.a4 c6 this is the set-up that Black wants to get in the Hanham. But are all those contortions worth it? Take a look at the next game.

After 3…Nf6 though White can play more aggressively with 4.dxe5 Nxe4 5.Qd5! The Rellstab Variation 5…Nc5 6.Bg5 Be7 7.exd6 Qxd6 8.Nc3 White is better.


[4.Nc3 Ngf6 5.Bc4 Be7 6.0–0 0–0 7.a4 gives us the Hanham, but the text move is much stronger than 4.Nc3]



4…Ngf6 5.dxe5 (5.Ng5 is also good) 5…Nxe5 6.Nxe5 dxe5 7.Bxf7+ Kxf7 8.Qxd8 Bb4+ 9.Qd2 Bxd2+ 10.Nxd2 White is clearly better;

4…Be7 loses a pawn: 5.dxe5 Nxe5 (5…dxe5? 6.Qd5 White wins) 6.Nxe5 dxe5 7.Qh5! wins at least a pawn]

5.0–0 Be7 6.dxe5 dxe5

[6…Nxe5? 7.Nxe5 dxe5 8.Qh5]

7.Ng5 Bxg5 8.Qh5 Qe7 9.Bxg5

White has an edge due to his two bishops and his better development.

9…Ngf6 10.Qh4 Nf8 11.Bxf6 gxf6 12.Qh6 Rg8 13.Nc3 Bg4 14.Qe3 Ng6 15.f3 Be6 16.Bxe6 fxe6 17.Ne2 Rd8 18.Kh1 b6 19.f4 exf4 20.Nxf4 Nxf4 21.Qxf4 Rg6 22.Rad1 c5 23.h3 Kf8 24.e5 f5 25.Qf3 Kg7 26.Rxd8 Qxd8 27.Rd1 Qh4 28.Kh2 Kh8 29.g3 Qe7 30.Rd6 Rg8 31.h4 Rc8 32.Qb3 c4 33.Qe3 Rc5 34.Qh6 Rxe5 35.Rd7! 1–0

Just one more illustrative game.

Gashimov, Vugar (2730) — Bologan, Viktor (2690) [C41]
Poikovsky Karpov 10th Poikovsky (1), 03.06.2009

1.e4 d6

Bologan goes for the Hanham through a different move order.

2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e5 4.Nf3 Nbd7

If they had gone through the regular move order then white’s knight would still be at its home square of b1 and his bishop on c4 and now Ng5 would be very hard to meet for Black. In modern times, if you want to play the Philidor Defense, you have to start off with the Pirc!

5.Bc4 Be7 6.0–0 0–0 7.a4 c6

This is exactly the same position as my first comment, note B, in the game above. But even though Black has attained his desired position White still has the freer position and his pieces are active. Watch how Gashimov harnesses all his pluses.


A logical move here would be 8.h3 to keep off Black’s light-squared bishop from g4, but lately Black has discovered the move 8…Nxe4!? 9.Nxe4 d5 10.Re1 (10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.dxe5 dxc4 12.Nd6 Be6 13.Nxb7 Qc7 14.Nd6 Rad8 15.Qf3 Bxd6 16.exf6 Qxd6 17Bf4 1/2-1/2 Salgado Lopez,I (2618)-Baklan,V (2614) Drancy 2016) 10…dxe4 11.Rxe4 exd4 12.Bf4 Nc5 13.Rxd4 Qe8 14.Bd6 Bxd6 15.Rxd6 Qe7 16.Ra3 Be6 17.Bxe6 Nxe6 18.Rad3 Rad8 Sevian, S. (2580)-Indjic, A. (2542) Dallas 2016 ½ 23.

8…a5 9.h3 exd4 10.Nxd4 Nc5 11.Bf4 Ne8

The idea is to play …Ne6, which if played immediately will be met by an exchange on e6 followed by e4–e5.


Played so that after 12…Ne6 his bishop on f4 won’t be attacked and he can respond 13.Nf5.

12…Nxe4?! 13.Nxe4 d5 14.Ng3! dxc4 15.Ndf5

The knight’s position on f5 is untenable for Black and he has to find a way to get it out.


[15…Nf6 16.Bd4 Be6 17.Qf3 Re8 18.Nxg7! Qxd4 (18…Kxg7 19.Nh5+ Kf8 (19…Kg6? 20.Qg3+) 20.Bxf6 Bxf6 21.Nxf6 White is clearly winning) 19.N3f5 Bxf5 20.Nxf5 Qxb2 21.Rab1 Bd6 22.Nxd6 Rxe1+ 23.Rxe1 Black’s king is not secure]

16.Nxe7+! Qxe7 17.Ne4

Threatening Bc5.

17…Qd8 18.Bc5 Nf6 19.Bxf8 Qxf8 20.Nxf6+ gxf6 21.Qd4 Qd8 22.Qf4 f5 23.Qg3+ Kf8 24.Qe5

White’s game is completely winning.

24…Qg5 25.Re3 Qg7 26.Qd6+ Ke8 27.Rae1 1–0

Black’s woes can be traced to his intention of maintaining the strongpoint on e5. Why not just give it up and play solid? What’s wrong with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7, the Antoshin Variation? GM Larry Kaufman in “Kaufman’s New Repertoire for Black and White,” remarks that this line is a pretty reasonable choice for Black in a must-win situation, because although White is better, both sides have play, and the chances of a draw are fairly low. He then revealed that he selected this defense for Black repeatedly and successfully for the computer program Rybka in a match were it gave draw and White odds in every game to GM Joel Benjamin.

But there is something wrong with the Antoshin. That is what we will take up on Tuesday.


Bobby Ang is a founding member of the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) and its first Executive Director. A Certified Public Accountant (CPA), he taught accounting in the University of Santo Tomas (UST) for 25 years and is currently Chief Audit Executive of the Equicom Group of Companies.