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|The Lesser Moves after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3|
|Other 2nd moves for Black|
After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3, the most common responses are 2...Nc6, 2...Nf6, and 2...d6. These three moves are the 'good' moves in the position after White's second move. What about the other moves? Should we even bother with them?
Other 2nd moves for Black
After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3, the most common responses are 2...Nc6, 2...Nf6 (Petrov's Defense), and 2...d6 (Philidor's Defense), as listed in the previous section. These moves have all been played many times, and some variations have been analyzed to 20 moves and beyond.
In our Chess Opening Tutorial, Unusual First Moves, we discuss classifying chess moves as good, bad, and ugly. The three moves in the previous paragraph are the 'good' moves in our current position. What about the bad and the ugly?
Looking again at the diagrammed position, Black's first priority is to meet the attack on the Pawn at e5. Two of the good moves defend the Pawn, while the third (2...Nf6) attacks White's undefended e-Pawn. When a piece is under attack, an attack on a piece of equal or greater value is often an adequate defense.
Black has other moves that defend the Pawn on e5 or that attack White's Pawn on e4. These moves are considered inferior for reasons that are not immediately obvious.
The bad: Moves that are unplayable.
The ugly: Moves that are playable, but awkward.
Why bother with these moves? The first reason is educational; the refutation of bad moves often involves basic tactics that teach a lot about the use of the pieces. The second reason is psychological; if you can't beat your opponent's bad moves, how can you expect to beat the good moves?
Some opening manuals point out bad moves and give reasons why they are bad, but few show the variations that refute the bad moves. Let's look at these moves more closely.
Our first 'bad' move looks logical. Black develops a minor piece, protecting the e-Pawn at the same time. The problem with 2...Bd6 is that it blocks the d-Pawn. The d-Pawn, in turn, blocks the development of the Bishop on c8. Black now has two ways to develop the light squared Bishop.
After 2...Bd6, White can continue to develop naturally with 3.Bc4 or 3.d4, waiting to see how Black will continue. One representative variation is 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 (threatening to win a piece) 4...Nc6 5.dxe5 Bxe5 6.Ng5 O-O 7.f4 Bd4 8.e5 Qe7 9.Qe2 Ne8 10.Bd5 Bb6 11.Nc3. Black still has to solve the problem of developing the Queenside Bishop.
With this 'bad' move, Black develops the Queen and protects the e-Pawn. What's wrong with that? The problem with the move is threefold:
The move 2...Qe7 has similar drawbacks. On e7, it blocks the Bishop instead of the Knight, but Black will still have to take special measures to develop the dark squared Bishop.
After 2...Qf6, a sample variation is 3.Bc4 (3.Nc3 is also good) 3...Qg6 4.O-O (or 4.d3 Qxg2 5.Bxf7+ Kxf7 6.Rg1 Qh3 7.Ng5+) 4...Qxe4 5.Bxf7+ Kd8 6.Nxe5 Nf6 (6...Qxe5 7.Re1) 7.Re1 Qf5 8.Bg6 Qe6 (8...hxg6 9.Nf7 mate) 9.Nf7+, winning the Queen. Note how the Queen gets into trouble in the few side variations that we've indicated.
Black ignores the attack on the e-Pawn by initiating a counterattack on White's weak point at f2. This might sound good, but the Bishop can't conduct an attack alone. Where are the other Black pieces that are going to join the Bishop, swarming into White's position? They are all sitting on their original squares. Better to develop a few other pieces before deciding to attack.
The move 2...Bc5 fails to address Black's first priority: defending the Pawn on e5. White plays 3.Nxe5, when there is no way to justify the loss of the Pawn. In chess, a premature attack is always beaten off easily, weakening the attacking side. An example here is 2...Bc5 3.Nxe5 Qe7 4.d4 Bb6 5.Bc4 Nf6 6.Bxf7+ Kf8 7.Bb3 Nxe4 8.O-O. White still has an extra Pawn, has moved the King into safety, and has stopped Black from castling. Black has no compensation. The game was lost on the second move.
Now we move into the realm of moves that are playable. Or maybe they aren't. Generations of players and of opening theoreticians have researched these moves and their conclusion is 'dubious'. They may deserve a '?!', instead of a '!?', but this doesn't stop some players from trying them. After all, a player who knows a dubious opening has an advantage over a player who knows nothing about it, especially where the refutation of the opening involves traps and other tricky tactics.
The move 2...f6 is respectable enough to have a name. It's called Damiano's Defense, after Pedro Damiano (d.1544). Damiano didn't even play the move himself. He wrote an early book about chess, where he condemned the move as inferior to Black's alternatives.
The most obvious problem with 2...f6 is that white can continue 3.Nxe5. If 3...fxe5, White plays the obvious 4.Qh5+. Now 4...g6 fails to 5.Qxe5+ Qe7 6.Qxh8. If you think Black can trap the Queen on h8, think again. If instead 4...Ke7, White has 5.Qxe5+ Kf7 6.Bc4+ d5 7. Bxd5+ Kg6, and the Black King is going to be overwhelmed quickly.
After 3.Nxe5, anyone who dares to play Damiano's Defense continues 3...Qe7.Now 4.Nf3 (not 4.Qh5+ g6 5.Nxg6 Qxe4+ 6.Be2 Qxg6) 4...d5 5.d3 dxe4 6.dxe4 Qxe4+ 7.Be2 Bf5 8.Nd4 Nc6 9.Nxf5 Qxf5 10.O-O Bd6 11.Bd3 gives White an easy game.
White doesn't even have to play 3.Nxe5 to get a good game. Both 3.d4 and 3.Bc4 lead to an advantage for White. The fundamental problem with 2...f6 is not that it can be refuted tactically. Its problem is that it interferes with the development of Black's King's Knight and loosens the squares around the Black King. Castling O-O with the a2-g8 diagonal already open to White's light squared Bishop is problematic. The tactics after 3.Nxe5 are just an example of what can happen.
This move also has a name: the Queen's Pawn Counter Gambit. Why is it called a counter gambit when White hasn't played a gambit? We have no idea. In chess, some opening names make no sense at all and this is one of them.
The move 2...d5 is sometimes played by very good players. Former World Champion Mikhail Tal used one example in his book Life and Games. Writing about game no. 58 (Tal - Lutikov, 1964), where the move was played, Tal noted,
I had never previously encountered in tournament practice Black's second move. My first task was to remember the name of the opening. At the board I did not succeed in solving this problem. The second was to recall any games previously played with this variation. With this second problem, I coped more successfully.
Tal played 3.exd5, when the game continued 3...e4 4.Qe2 f5. Here Tal noted that the move 'does not fit in with Black's basic aims in this variation. More in the spirit of the position is the rapid mobilization of the pieces together with Pawn sacrifices: 4...Nf6 5.d3 Be7 6.dxe4 O-O.'
After 3.exd5, another variation for Black is 3...Qxd5, perhaps followed by 4.Nc3 Qe6 5.Bb5+ Bd7 6.O-O Bxb5 7.Nxb5 Bd6 8.Re1. The premature development of the Black Queen again allows White to develop with a gain in time.
Another possibility for White is 3.Nxe5 3...dxe4 (3...Qe7 is also interesting) 4.Bc4 Qg5. Black throws caution to the wind in return for a counterattack.
The last of our lesser defenses to 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 is known as the Greco Counter Gambit or the Latvian Gambit. Despite periodic claims that it has been refuted, it has its staunch adherents who will not give it up unless every line has been worked out to a decisive loss.
The Latvian Gambit, as we prefer to call it since it was a Latvian player who first showed us the main lines, ignores the attack on e5 and initiates an attack on White's Pawn at e4. The variations are tactical, are not easily refuted over the board, and lead to positions where White keeps a positional plus.
After 2...f5, White's least effective move is 3.exf5. An example variation is 4.d4 e4 5.Ng5 Bxf5 6.Qe2 d5 7.Qb5+ Nc6 8.Qxb7 Nxd4 9.Bb5+ Nxb5 10.Qxb5+ Qd7. Better is 3.Nxe5. Now after 3...Qf6 4.d4 d6 5.Nc4 fxe4 6.Nc3 Qg6, White has several moves to keep the advantage, like 7.Bf4 and 7.f3. Best is perhaps 3.Bc4 3...fxe4 4.Nxe5. It is still a hard game after 4...Qg5 5.Nf7 Qxg2 6.Rf1 d5 7.Nxh8 Nf6.
The variations given in the preceding sections are only examples. Chess is too complicated a game to enumerate an exhaustive list of all possible variations after a move, even if it is a questionable move.
These moves were studied by the earliest chess masters. Some of our examples are from Howard Staunton's Chess Player's Handbook, written in the 19th century. The same lines have been investigated by subsequent generations of chess players, including the great Estonian grandmaster Paul Keres. With moves like 2...d5 and 2...f5, there is still considerable debate about best play, 150 years after Staunton.
If you think one of these moves suits your style, don't let us discourage you; give it a try. Whether you decide to play it in competition or not, you will learn a lot about tactics by studying it.