Saturday 11 February 2017

012. A Bust to the Bishop's Gambit

Black: tarby - thematic tournament,, 2015

I once wrote an article (again for the BCCA magazine) entitled “A Bust to the 7...Qc7 Winawer - ?”. It was based on my games with a home-made plan involving pushing the kingside pawns. My record over the board against the main line is indeed quite favourable: P41, W31, D9, L1 (grrrr). All the same, the title was a little joke, a nod to Fischer's famous “A Bust to the King's Gambit”, in which he proposed that 2...exf4 3 Nf3 d6! wins by force.

Actual busts of opening variations are pretty rare. Sooner or later someone usually finds a way to refute the refutation. In both the supposed “busts” above, theory has indeed moved on substantially. All the same, I think Black's position is objectively better against my line than White's position is against Fischer's – which is as you'd expect. Robert James Fischer, the 11th World Champion, was one of the strongest players in the history of chess. Naturally, therefore, his opinions (at least on chess) are going to be worth more than mine, a mere correspondence IM (SIM) with a current, rather specious OTB rating of 219 ECF (roughly 2350 Elo).

GM John Shaw is also much stronger than me, with a current ECF rating of 237 (roughly 2500 Elo), but he is not Fischer either. In his recent megatome The King's Gambit (Quality Chess 2013), Shaw includes a chapter “The Refutation of 3 Bc4?!”, in which he recommends 3...Nc6 and claims a definite advantage for Black. Subsequent investigators have disputed this.

The critical line in question runs 1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Bc4 Nc6 4 d4 Nf6 5 Nc3 Bb4 6 Ne2 f3! 7 gxf3 d5 8 exd5 Nxd5 9 0-0 Nxc3 10 bxc3 Bd6.

Here Shaw writes: “What is good about White's position? Nothing, unless you think four pawn islands versus two is a plus. The following game confirms Black's superiority.” That was Belanoff-Simmelink, correspondence 2007, which continued 11 Ng3 0-0 12 Ne4 Be6 13 Bxe6 fxe6 14 Rb1 b6 15 d5 Ne7 16 dxe6 Qe8 17 Nxd6 Qg6+ 18 Kh1 Rad8 19 Ba3 cxd6 20 Qe2 Rf6 21 Rbe1 Nf5 and “Black eventually converted his advantage”.

Shaw also comments that “The simple 12...Be7 maintains an edge”. As it happens, I had previously lost a game following that very move: 12...Be7 13 Kh1 Na5 14 Bd3 f5 15 Ng3 c5 16 Rg1 cxd4 17 Rb1 dxc3 18 Nh5 Rf7 19 Bf4 g6 20 Be5 Bc5 21 Rg2 Qh4 22 Bxc3 Qxh5 23 Bxa5 Be6 24 Qf1 b6 25 Bd2 Bd5 26 Rg3 f4 27 Rh3 Qg5 28 Rg3 fxg3 29 Bxg5 Bxf3+ 0-1 tsmenace-Carpo, 2005.

There is nothing new in chess. In his earlier book The Fascinating King's Gambit (self-published 2004), Thomas Johansson, too, had flagged 6...f3! as “Black's best option” and continued the line to 12 Ne4, which he assessed as unclear, writing that “White's pawn structure may not be the healthiest, but on the other hand White still has more influence in the centre and a half-open g-file.”

So who is right? In my game, White might improve with 19 Qe1 or simply 17 cxd4, intending 17...Qxd4 18 Bh6 Rf7 19 Nxf5, but I'm not keen on the position after 12...Be6. Instead, on the ChessPublishing forum, Stefan Bücker proposed 11 Qd2 and 12 Qg5, writing that “When the queens are exchanged, there is not the slightest reason why Black's fewer pawn islands should be a factor. White's center may well be more important.”

Which brings us finally to the game below, where I had a chance to test Stefan's idea out. As you'll see, Black kept the centre pawns under control, but didn't manage to do much else. And another 2016 correspondence game quickly ended in a draw too. So it seems that, while Shaw's recommendation leads to a position that you might not want to play over and over again, White is probably not worse here.

Unless, of course, you know different...


  1. Aye, I agree, I don't think White is any worse after the Qd2-Qg5 plan. I remember that when I first looked at the position after move 11 I was hopeful about White's chances of attacking down the half-open g-file (Kh1 and Rg1) but the practical examples of White attempting this plan are very unconvincing.

    I have generally met 3.Bc4 with 3...Nc6 (dating back about five years before John Shaw recommended the move). It has served me well at the club level; many opponents head into a Hanstein Gambit with 4.Nf3, which I believe is probably slightly better for Black with best play, although I've found that at club level the Hanstein is nothing like as harmless as its reputation!

    1. My basic philosophy is that all defences to the King's Gambit are good, if properly prepared. Up to 2005, on the very rare occasions that I ever faced 3 Bc4, I went for the standard 3...Nf6 4 Nc3 c6, which can be a bit dull. Since then I've mostly played 3...f5!? (following investigations into 2 Bc4 f5!?, where 3 f4!? exf4 is an unlikely transposition) – except, and for no reason that I can discern, for one game in 2006 with 3...Nc6. As it happens, that did continue 4 Nf3 g5, but then 5 Nc3?! Bg7 6 d4 d6 7 0-0 h6 and I won quite easily.

  2. Hey I've been down a rabbit hole recently trying to figure out whether Nf3 or Bc4 is better. A chessable course I just finished (550 variations) recommened to me Bc4. This course is more recent so it uses a stronger engine. The author set the engine to depth 35 and concluded that Bc4 was a superior move. Have you investigated any of your lines with more recent engines like stockfish 13 NNUE? Your insights are great but your comments are all 4 years old and i'm wondering if I can trust those evaluations.

    1. Hi Austin. No, I've not looked at this since. Doing so quickly now with Stockfish 14 (just out!), the engine likes 13...f6 for Black in Flude-Rekhtman. In general it seems keen to keep the queens on the board.

      Incidentally – or rather three incidentallies (if that's a word):
      1. Depth 35 is nothing. When I want to know what the engine really thinks about a position, I'll let it run into the high 40s, even early 50s.
      2. Stockfish 14 prefers 3 Nf3 at 35 depth, though it thinks Black has the advantage anyway.
      3. Given #2, I wouldn't recommend spending too long deciding between 3 Bc4 and 3 Nf3. Pick the one that leads to positions you like more and then just play it. The King's Gambit is essentially an improvisers' opening anyway. Whereas if you study it too much you'll just come to agree with Stockfish ;)