Alekhine rocks the Philidor Defence

by Stephan Oliver Platz
11/10/2020 – Attacking artist Alekhine playing the Philidor Defense, an opening that is reputed to be slightly passive? Really? Yes, indeed! Stephan Oliver Platz had a look at the games which Alekhine played with the Philidor and concludes that the 4th World Champion was very successful with this opening!

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After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Black can spoil White's intentions to play the Ruy Lopez, the Scotch Game, the Giuoco Piano or the Evans Gambit  by answering with 2. ... d6. The price he pays is a somewhat cramped position, because the pawn on d6 prevents the bishop f8 from getting out. The impressive record of World Champion Alexander Alekhine with this opening, however, clearly shows that this doesn't mean much. How did Alekhine play the Philidor and why was he so successful with it?

The strange statements given by "Modern Chess Openings"

When I recently took a look at the first German edition of "Modern Chess Openings" by Walter Korn and Larry Evans from 1967, I was struck by the following astonishing statements:

"Philidor has never played the Philidor Defence! Nimzowitsch (of all people!) thought it was too eccentric! And Alekhine more than once experienced the worst when he played it." (a)

That does not sound very promising. If you really believed the authors, Philidor seems to have had so little confidence in his own opening that he never played it himself. And Alekhine, oh dear, it must have really hurt him when he used it. But I am skeptical by nature, and here as elsewhere I like to adhere to a useful principle established by the Russian master E. A. Znosko-Borovsky, which is: "Do not believe everything you are told, but examine and consider it yourself! (b) Let us therefore ask ourselves: Is all this true?

Did Philidor play 2. ... d6?

The composer and musician André Danican Philidor (1726 - 1795) was considered the strongest chess player of the 18th century. He preferred a positional playing style and paid particular attention to the correct handling of pawns. Therefore he claimed: "The pawns are the soul of chess". In terms of combination he was not on the same level and sometimes missed favourable tactical opportunities. Against the King's Knight's Game 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3, he recommended the defence 2 ... d6, which he considered so strong that he advised not to play 2.Nf3. Should he really have never played his own opening?

In the Mega Database from ChessBase I found a total of 39 games in which Philidor had Black. Unfortunately 27 of them are games with odds. In most of them Philidor played either with one piece less or without the pawn f7. This was a common practice at the time to compensate for differences in playing strength. This leaves only 12 regular games, none of which were opened with the King's Knight's Game. Five times we see the King's Bishop's Game 2.Bc4, three times the King's Gambit 2.f4. Three times Phildor used the Sicilian Defence 1.e4 c5, and once the Queen's Gambit Accepted 1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4 was played.

But to conclude from this sparse data that Philidor never played his own defence seems to me at least somewhat bizarre. Philidor certainly played much more than 12 regular games with the black pieces during his long career, most of which either were not recorded or at least have not been preserved. It is very probable that there were quite a few or even many that started with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6. In his book "Analyse du jeu des Echécs" (Analysis of the Game of Chess), published in 1749, he gives four sample games, all of which ended with a victory by the second player, but without stating by whom they were played. (c) I would not be surprised if he had taken his own games as a basis for his explanations.

Alekhine's different opening strategy

When we look at Alekhine's handling of the Philidor Defence and compare it with the one recommended by Philidor, we notice a fundamental difference. Philidor played 2. ... d6, followed by 3. ... f5 attacking the White centre. Modern opening theory knows that this is too risky, because f5 not only weakens the King's flank, but Black, as the second player, is also a move behind. Such a stretegy can only work out well if White does not find the strongest continuation, which certainly happened frequently considering the level of chess players at that time.

Alekhine, on the other hand, avoided an early f5 and defended his pawn on e5 by playing Nd7 instead. Thus Black can hold on to the centre with some difficulty. This approach in connection with the following moves c6 and Qc7 was originally recommended by the American J. M. Hanham (1840 - 1923). It is thus far more defensive than Philidor's original plan. If we regard this as the "modern" approach, it is more likely that Philidor never played the Philidor Defence (in its present form). Why?

At first sight the position resulting from 1. ... e5, 2. ... d6 and 3. ... Nd7 looks like a bad joke. Black voluntarily locks in both bishops, only to maintain a pawn in the centre. The chess players of that time would hardly have taken such a cramped opening seriously, since they wanted to have a free game and attack the opponent. Considering that Alekhine faced considerably stronger opponents than Philidor in his time, it would not surprise anyone if he "more than once experienced the worst when he played it". But when you look at his games, the picture is completely different.

Alexander Alekhine | Photo: Wikimedia

Alekhine crushed his opponents by playing 2. ... d6

I don't know if grandmaster Aaron Nimzowitsch (1886 - 1935) considered the Philidor Defence as "too eccentric". According to the Mega Database from ChessBase he played it  (at least) 13 times with the black pieces in tournaments and matches and achieved a result of +4  -3 =6. But World Champion Alexander Alekhine was even more successful: In the sources available to me (4 books by Alekhine, Mega Database and ChessBase DVD "World Champion Alekhine" by Robert Huebner) I found a total of 15 games in which Alekhine used the Philidor Defence, ten of which were played in tournaments and matches. Of these ten tournament and match games Alekhine won seven, drew two and lost only one. Such a result of 80% is quite impressive! And Alekhine won all of the remaining five games, including two correspondence games, an exhibition game, a simultaneous and a blindfold game.

After I had written this article one of our readers  found another game which the 15-year-old Alekhine lost in Moscow in 1908 against Vladimir Nenarokov. This game seems to have been played in the "Autumn Tournament" of a Moscow chess club which began in 1907 and ended in 1908. (d) Thanks to this finding Walter Korn was in fact right when he claimed that "Alekhine more than once experienced the worst" when he played the Philidor Defence. Well, twice is more than once, but that's not so bad after all and certainly no argument not to play the opening. In total we have 12 wins by Alekhine with the Philidor, two draws and only two losses. The other loss occurred when Alekhine was 17 years old playing against the number 2 player in the world. We will come back to this game a little later.

Alekhine's beautiful win against Blumenfeld

Let's take a look at a typical Alekhine game from a match played in Moscow in 1908. The master and chess theoretician Benjamin Blumenfeld (1884 - 1947), originally from Poland and later resident in Moscow, all of a sudden became the victim of a surprising mating attack culminating in a queen sacrifice:

 

Blumenfeld was not a weak player. In Moscow in 1906 he finished second behind Georg Salwe, tied with grandmaster Akiba Rubinstein. He invented the pawn sacrifice 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 c5 4.d5 b5!? ("Blumenfeld Gambit"), which Alekhine himself played successfully against the German grandmaster Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch in 1922.

Alekhine's loss against Schlechter

In 1910 Alekhine actually lost with the Philidor Defence against Carl Schlechter:

 

An interesting game, which nicely shows how to make use of positional weaknesses (dark squares, 8th row). Modern theory, as we have seen in the analysis, has meanwhile found a reinforcement for Black. Anyway, Alekhine did not need to grieve too much about this defeat, because the Viennese grandmaster Carl Schlechter (1874 - 1918) played in the form of his life at that time. In the same year he drew a match for the world championship against Emanuel Lasker, even leading 1-0 with 8 draws before the final round.

11-0 against the Moscow chess elite

In December 1919 Alekhine took part out of competition in the Moscow Chess Championship. He achieved a phenomenal result of 11-0 and not a single one of his games ended in a draw! His game  against Boris Lyubimov was very exciting. Once again the Philidor Defence was played:

 

How important is the opening?

Why was Alekhine so successful with the Philidor Defence? Because of himself or because of the opening? If you consider that in 1927 Alekhine defeated the Cuban World Champion José Raúl Capablanca (1888 - 1942), who was widely regarded as unbeatable, by 6-3 with 25 draws and won countless other tournaments and matches, the right answer might be that a strong player can be successful with any halfway decent opening. Even the German World Champion Dr. Emanuel Lasker (1868 - 1941) often played opening variations that were considered to be unfavourable. The Dutch International Master Hans Bouwmeester dealt with this phenomenon in his book "Chess as a profession: bridge towards professional chess":

"Standing a little better or worse - what is that actually? - is not so important for a strong player, says Lasker. Most games are won by careful attention and accuracy in the critical phases." (e)

The same probably happened in the games of Alekhine. Especially in the complicated and confusing positions that arose after the pawn e5 had been defended by d6 and Nd7, he found his way better than most of his opponents.

Alekhine (left) and Capablanca | Photo: Wikimedia

Everything worth knowing about the Philidor Defence and about World Champion Alexander Alekhine can be found in the following DVDs:

The Philidor Defence

The modern form of the Philidor Defence arises via the move order 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e5. Then after 4.Nf3 Nbd7, Shirov has introduced the pawn sacrifice 5.g4!? into practice — and achieved excellent results with it.

The Black Lion — an aggressive version of the Philidor Defense

Looking for an interesting, exciting, aggressive and flexible opening to play against 1 e4!? Then the Black Lion is just the opening for you! The Lion gets ready to roar after 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e5 4.Nf3 Nbd7 5.Bc4 Be7 6.0–0 c6 – and now Black wants to attack with an early ...g5. Grandmaster Simon Williams suggests a simple to learn, yet deadly system of development for Black. He explains the main ideas of this opening in an easy and entertaining manner, using examples from such maverick players as Baadur Jobava. In what other opening do you get a chance to attack White’s castled King with an early ...g5? Let the Lion roar and the fun commence!

Know the Terrain Vol. 5: The Philidor Structure

The Philidor structure (White pawns on d4 and e4, Black pawns on d6 and e5), is a fundamental position in the open games. In his new training course, IM Sam Collins shows you just how much explosive power is packed into this apparently simple structure.

Master Class Vol.3: Alexander Alekhine

On this DVD GMs Rogozenco, Marin, Müller, and IM Reeh present outstanding games, stunning combinations and exemplary endgames by Alekhine. And they invite you to improve your knowledge with the help of video lectures, annotated games and interactive tests

The Mega contains almost all available games by Philidor, Alekhine, and Nimzowitsch:

Mega Database 2020

The ChessBase Mega Database 2020 is the premiere chess database with over eight million games from 1560 to 2019 in high quality. Packing more than 85,000 annotated games, Mega 2020 contains the world‘s largest collection of high-class analysed games. Train like a pro! Prepare for your opponents with ChessBase and the Mega Database 2020. Let grandmasters explain how to best handle your favorite variations, improve your repertoire and much more.

References:

(a) Walter Korn, "Moderne Schacheröffnungen", first German edition, Hamburg 1967, p. 112. Grandmaster Larry Evans must be regarded as a co-author, because his English edition was the basis for the German translation.

(b) E. A. Snosko-Borowsky, "So darfst Du nicht Schach spielen", Duesseldorf 1986, p. 17 (English title: "How not to play chess")

(c) A. D. Philidor, "Analysis of the Game of Chess", London 1777, p. 32 – 48

(d) http://edochess.ca/tournaments/t1170.html

(e) Hans Bouwmeester, "Der Weg zur Meisterschaft", Heidelberg 1980, p. 23 (English title: "Chess as a profession: bridge towards professional chess")




Stephan is a passionate collector of chess books and for yours has been successfully playing as an amateur for his German club. The former musician and comedian works as a freelance journalist and author in Berlin and in the Franconian village Hiltpoltstein.
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zooogle horch zooogle horch 11/10/2020 01:50
he could open with f3, h4, h3. still would have won. after all alekhine is alekhine.
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