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The Kibitzer by Tim Harding

What Exactly Is the Bishop's Opening?

The simple answer to that question is: 1 e4 e5 2 Bc4. However, like many simple answers to complicated questions, it does not tell the whole story by any means.

Bishop's Opening
[FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppp1ppp/8/4p3/2B1P3/8/
PPPP1PPP/RNBQK1NR b KQkq - 0 2"]

When I resumed playing chess after a two year lay-off due to postgraduate studies, I looked for an opening that would avoid the theory I'd missed and allow me to do some research of my own. I decided to play 1 e4 and if 1...e5 (more popular than the Sicilian in Britain in the early 1970s) then I could surprise opponents by 2 Bc4.

It certainly worked. Most of them blinked and then bashed out 2...Nf6 but after my third move (and I tries most of the possibilities) Black had to settle down to a big think.

As a reader in Oxford's Bodleian Library, I had access to the collection of chess literature bequeathed by Professor Harold Murray, author of the first big history of chess. I was probably the first person to look at much of this stuff with more than a casual interest. In particular, I copied everything that Philidor wrote about this opening, his favourite, in the English editions of his book. Philidor thought that 2 Bc4 was superior to 2 Nf3 because it left open the path of the f-pawn to advance to f4, after suitable preparation.

Later generations did not agree with him; 2 Nf3 seemed to put Black more on the defensive and the Evans Gambit became more popular. Then I moved on to the 19th century stuff and especially to what Jaenisch said about the opening in his New Analysis of the Chess Openings and to Staunton's view of the matter. In the second half of that century, the Ruy Lopez regained the pre-eminence among open games. The Bishop's Opening became a rarity. Finally I came to the great Schlechter edition of Bilguer's Handbuch des Schachspiels which really summed up chess opening theory as it stood at the start of World War I. At the same time, I studied more recent examples of the opening, such as they were. One theory book that was current at the time (by Horowitz if I recall correctly) only gave the name Bishop's Opening to 3 d4.

I played 2 Bc4 a lot in the 1970s, both OTB and in correspondence tournaments, and in 1973 my book Bishop's Opening first appeared, published by the Chess Player (Nottingham, England). One day I may totally rewrite that book, which was my first.

When White answers 2...Nf6 by 3 Nc3, the game tends to be classified as a Vienna, so half my Bishop's Opening book dealt with lines that most people call the Vienna. However, the Bishop's Opening is of much greater antiquity than the Vienna which strictly speaking is a name that should only be given to the lines with 2 Nc3 and 3 f4, or other lines following 2 Nc3 that cannot arise from the Bishop's Opening. That includes the 3 g3 lines and 2 Nc3 Bc5.

My great precursor in this research was, of course, grandmaster Bent Larsen. He had started playing the Bishop's Opening in 1964, at the Amsterdam interzonal. One of his rivals commented: "preparing for this tournament the other participants have studied Boleslavsky's latest innovations, but Larsen has studied Greco and Philidor!" The forgotten opening paid off, as he rapidly defeated Australian master B. Berger and Hungarian grandmaster Levente Lengyel while Svetozar Gligoric, one of the world's top players at that time, got off with a draw after a tough struggle. Let's start with the Berger game.

Larsen - Berger
Amsterdam izt, 1964

1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 Nf6

I'll return later for a discussion of the alternatives facing White at this point, and to Black's other possible second moves. Just note now that Larsen tried both 3 d3 and 3 Nc3 at Amsterdam.

3 d3 Nc6

If Black wants to avoid this, 3...c6 is the main possibility.

4 Nf3

This is not the Philidor way, but it can be effective. Now if Black plays 4...Be7 we have a kind of Two Knights Defence, a line that became fashionable later, as we shall see. If he prefers 4...Bc5 then a slow Italian Game (Guioco Pianissimo) arises. Thinking White is playing passively, Berger makes a naive reply.

4...d5?! 5 exd5 Nxd5 6 0-0

Bishop's Opening
[FEN "r1bqkb1r/ppp2ppp/2n5/3np3/2B5/
3P1N2/PPP2PPP/RNBQ1RK1 b kq - 0 6"]

Black now has problems about his e-pawn. In the 1970s some efforts were made to revive this line by sacrificing the e-pawn, Marshall-style, but they weren't very convincing. Berger went down rapidly against the Danish grandmaster:

6...Bg4?! 7 Re1 Be7

If 7...f6? 8 Nxe5 is already strong.

8 h3 Bxf3 9 Qxf3 Nd4!

The best move in view of 9...Nf6 10 Bg5+-. Now White could go wrong by 10 Qxd5 Qxd5 11 Bxd5 Nxc2 but Larsen found a simple way to win a pawn:

10 Qg4! 0-0

If now 10...Nxc2 11 Rxe5 Larsen intended to meet 11...Nf6 (11...c6 12 Qxg7 Rf8 13 Rxd5!) 12 Qxg7 Kd7 by 13 Bg5 Rg8 14 Qxf7 Rxg5 15 Rxg5 Nxa1 and now either 16 Qe6+ or 16 Nc3.

11 Rxe5 Nf6 12 Qd1 Bd6 13 Re1 Re8 14 Be3

The rest was a comfortable exploitation of White's material advantage.

14...c5 15 Nd2 Bc7 16 Nf3 Qd6 17 Bxd4 cxd4 18 Rxe8+ Rxe8 19 c3 dxc3 20 bxc3 Nh5 21 Qa4! Re7 22 Qxa7 Nf4 23 Qxb7 h5 24 Qc8+ Kh7 25 h4 1-0

In that pre-database era, this game was not particularly well known until 1970 when Bell & Son published the English edition of Larsen's game collection under the typically boring title (for those days) of Larsen's Selected Games of Chess 1948-69. This was just a straight translation of the original Danish title, whereas the German publisher had the right idea, putting out his edition under the title "Ich Spiel Auf Sieg" ("I play to win"). Not only was that a much better title from a marketing point of view; it also summed up Larsen's philosophy perfectly.

Equalise in the opening? So what, we play the middlegame! The middlegame exchanges to an endgame where White's advantage seems imperceptible. No draw! I like my position... Thus, Larsen won his instructive game against Lengyel at Amsterdam, which you can find in his book. If you just have it in a database without notes, try to work out where Black went wrong. Then get hold of the book!

The Bishop's Opening lends itself to this kind of two-pronged approach. White hopes either to win quickly by an early exploitation against someone who underestimates it or doesn't know the theory, or else he will play for a slow strategic/endgame win. It is rather like the way 1 Nc3 can work, as discussed in this column two months ago.

Let's go back to the position after 1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 Nf6 and see what White can do.

Bishop's Opening
[FEN "rnbqkb1r/pppp1ppp/5n2/4p3/2B1P3/
8/PPPP1PPP/RNBQK1NR w KQkq - 0 3"]

His e-pawn is attacked. One possibility is the counter-attack against Black's own e-pawn by 3 f4?! but 19th century analysts showed Black gets good play by 3...d5! rather than the older 3...Nxe4. If White wants complications then 3 d4!? is certainly possible. This usually leads to the

Urusov Gambit which will be the subject of next month's Kibitzer. There are two reasonable ways of defending the e-pawn, one of which (3 Nc3) gives Black the option of 3...Nxe4, usually leading to the Frankenstein-Dracula Variation and its offshoots. See Kibitzer 1, Kibitzer 21 and Kibitzer 22 for discussions of that line.

There is another way that Black can go after 3 Nc3 Nxe4, namely 4 Nf3!? but if White really wants to play that gambit he should use the move order (1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 Nf6) 3 Nf3!? Nxe4 4 Nc3 since it is more likely that Black will take the pawn after 3 Nf3 especially if you touch the king's knight "accidentally on purpose" so that you are obliged to move it. Then your opponent will think you've blundered when actually it's the Boden-Kieseritsky Gambit.

(Seriously, though, readers: that's gamesmanship and I don't condone that kind of behavior at all.)

The main line of the Boden-Kieseritsky Gambit goes 1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 Nf6 3 Nf3!? Nxe4 4 Nc3 Nxc3 5 dxc3 f6 (! "only move" said Steinitz) and now the 19th century English player Boden played 6 Nh4.

Bishop's Opening
[FEN "rnbqkb1r/pppp2pp/5p2/4p3/2B5/
2P2N2/PPP2PPP/R1BQK2R w KQkq - 0 6"]

Although 6 0-0 followed by 7 Re1 may be more sensible, this is not the kind of opening where sensible moves are likely to be effective. White:

a) is a pawn down;
b) has doubled pawns;
c) has moved his knight twice and stuck it on the edge of the board, which is supposed to be anti-positional.

However, consider at it from the other point of view. Black:

a) has zero development;
b) has weakened the white squares near his king so that Qh5+ threatens;
c) doesn't have the "freeing" ...d5 move since White can just take the pawn.

I know a few people who actually play this gambit and whatever theory says I would hesitate to take Black. However, there are ways to avoid it by returning the material, such as 5...c6 (instead of 5...f6) or 4...Nf6 or 4...Nc6 (and if 5 Nxe4 d5) which is the same as the Two Knights Defence line 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Nf6 4 Nc3 Nxe4.

In the 1980s the "Bishop's Opening" became fashionable again but not a line that I would call the Bishop's Opening at all. English grandmasters such as Nunn and Murray Chandler, for example, played many games with the line 1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 Nf6 3 d3 Nc6 4 Nf3 as Larsen did against Berger. However, if Black then played the more cautious ...Be7 or ...Bc5, White followed by moves like c3, Bb3 and a slow-build up rather similar to the closed Ruy Lopez with 5 d3 or 9 d3.

Personally, I consider this to be a variation of the Two Knights Defence. The only reason it was known as the Bishop's Opening is because it marked White's avoidance of the Petroff. The reason why this line was adopted is connected with the popularity of the Petroff Defence in that decade. White was experiencing difficulties in breaking down the Petroff and lots a of games were leading to draws. By playing 2 Bc4, White avoided all that Petroff theory and steered for Lopez-like positions. When Black learned how to handle the Nunn-Chandler line, and White found improvements against the Petroff, then the pendulum swung back and 2 Bc4 returned to obscurity.

An interesting sideline to this story was seen in the game Oim-Morgado, Axelson Memorial correspondence 1984-93; White was CC world champion and Black a previous world championship runner-up and a great Petroff Defence specialist. In this game the Estonian grandmaster opened:

1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 Nf6 3 Qe2!?

Bishop's Opening
[FEN "rnbqkb1r/pppp1ppp/5n2/4p3/2B1P3/
8/PPPPQPPP/RNB1K1NR b KQkq - 0 3"]

This sleepy move was a great favourite of mine in the early 1970s. Black has to start thinking for himself very early in the game. Morgado played 3...Bc5 4 Nf3 Nc6 (The Italian Game has arisen by transposition; the position after White's next move could also arise by 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Bc4 4 c3 Nf6 5 Qe2!?, a move which would never occur to most players perhaps.) 5 c3 d6 6 d3 a6 (Also playable is 6...0-0 as in Barua-Lev, London Lloyds Bank 1991.) 7 0-0 Be6! 8 Nbd2 0-0. Here White played 9 Bb3 and eventually won after inaccuracies on both sides. According to Oim, 9 Bxe6 fxe6 10 d4 exd4 11 cxd4 Nxd4 12 Nxd4 Bxd4 13 Qc4 Bb6 14 Qxe6+ Kh8 15 a4 would have ensured White a slight advantage.

Another possibility from the diagram is 3...Nc6 when White should not play the 19th century 4 f4?! because of Staunton's 4...d5! but 4 c3 Bc5 5 Nf3 transposes to Oim-Morgado, while 5 b4!? might come into consideration. Now that the Bishops Opening is unfashionable again, there is scope for surprise and new research once more. Larsen still plays it from time to time.

Bent Larsen - Nigel Davies
London (Watson Farley Williams tournament) 1989

1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 Nf6 3 d3 Nc6 4 Nc3 Bb4 5 Nf3

Prior to Larsen, White usually met this Pin Variation by 5 Nge2 or 5 Bg5. However, Larsen is willing to allow his c-pawn to be doubled and is not worried about 5...d5?! 6 exd5 Nxd5 7 0-0! because if 7...Nxc3 8 bxc3 Bxc3 White has 9 Ng5.

5...d6 6 0-0 Bxc3 7 bxc3 Bg4!?

Bishop's Opening
[FEN "r2qk2r/ppp2ppp/2np1n2/4p3/2B1P1b1/
2PP1N2/P1P2PPP/R1BQ1RK1 w kq - 0 8"]

This is a different approach than Larsen's 1960s opponents adopted. For example, Larsen-Lengyel, Amsterdam 1964, went 7...Na5 8 Bb3 Nxb3 9 axb3 0-0 10 c4 (This diamond-shape pawn formation was shown to be useful by Larsen on other occasions too) 10...Qe7 11 Nd2 Nd7 12 Qh5 Nc5 13 f4 exf4 14 Rxf4 Qe5 15 Qxe5 dxe5 16 Rf2 and White has a useful long-term advantage as Larsen explains in his book. So Davies avoids the exchange on c3.

8 h3 Bh5 9 Bb3 Nd7 10 Be3

10 g4!? is an alternative according to Larsen

10...Qe7 11 Rb1

The plan is to meet 11...0-0-0 by 12 Bd5, but 11 Kh2!? was preferable according to Larsen.

11...Nd8 12 Kh2 f6 13 Qd2!? Bf7 14 Nh4 g6 15 f4 Bxb3 16 axb3 Nf7

Also after 16...f5 17 Nf3 White has a clear advantage.

17 Nf3 0 0 18 Rf2 a6 19 Rbf1 Kh8 20 Kh1 Rae8 21 Nh2 exf4?! 22 Bxf4 Nfe5 23 c4 Rf7 24 Qa5! Rc8 25 Nf3 Nc6?! 26 Qc3 Kg8 27 Nh2 h5 28 Bc1 Qf8 29 Nf3 Qg7 30 b4 Nce5 31 Nd4 Re8 32 c5 dxc5 33 bxc5 c6 34 Nb3 g5? 35 Nd4 Qf8 36 Nf5 Nxc5 37 Ba3 Ned7

37...b6 would also have been met by 38 Qa1!. The point of this retreat is that d3-d4 can be immediately followed up actively since ...Na4 would no longer attack the queen.

38 Qa1! b5 39 d4 Rxe4 40 Bxc5 1-0

My final game shows that the old swashbuckling 19th century lines of the Bishops Opening can still be employed if Black does not reply 2...Nf6. The loser was a former CC world champion in one of his last tournaments.

A.A. Jensen - Vladimir Zagorovsky
Finnish CC 30-year Jubilee, second GM group 1993-95

1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 Bc5

If 2...Be7 White wins a pawn by 3 Qh5, although Black may get some short-term counterplay. Moves like 2...Nc6 and 2...d6 can be played but are not to be feared.

3 b4!?

Bishop's Opening
[FEN "rnbqk1nr/pppp1ppp/8/2b1p3/1PB1P3/
8/P1PP1PPP/RNBQK1NR b KQkq - 0 3"]

This move is a throwback to the past. Larsen played the Vienna-style 3 Nc3 and if 3...Nc6 then 4 Qg4.

3...Bxb4 4 c3

Alexander McDonnell used to play 4 f4 here but that seems rather extravagant.


4...Bc5 5 d4 exd4 6 cxd4 Bb4+ is known from G.A. MacDonnell-Boden, London 1869 while 4...Be7 also would be worth analysing further.

5 d4 exd4 6 Qh5 d5 7 Bxd5 Qf6

Zagorovsky varies from the messy 7...Qe7 8 Ba3 Nf6 as seen in the Dublin-Glasgow, intercity correspondence match of 1874.

8 Nf3 Bxc3+ 9 Nxc3 dxc3 10 Ne5 Ne7 11 Bxf7+ Kf8 12 Bb3

Black is still a pawn ahead but the pawn majorities are extremely unbalanced and Black's king looks insecure. Here Zagorovsky had to try 12...Bd7! (to meet 13 Bg5 by 13...Be8!). Missing this, he went down to rapid defeat:

12...Bf5? 13 Bg5 Bg6 14 Nxg6+ Qxg6 15 Bxe7+ Kxe7 16 Qe5+ Kf8 17 Qxc7 Nc6

If 17...Qxe4+ 18 Kf1 Qd3+ 19 Kg1 Qd7 20 Qc5+ Ke8 21 Re1+ Kd8 22 Rd1+- according to Cimmino in the CC Yearbook.

18 0-0 Qf6 19 Rad1 Re8 20 Rd6 1-0

If 20...Qf4 21 Rxc6+- so Black resigned.

Finally to answer the question in the title, it can be seen that the Bishop's Opening is not one opening but a complex of allied variations which gives White a variety of possible treatments of the position arising from 1 e4 e5 2 Bc4. The game can be quite and strategic or rapidly become wildly tactical. For all-rounders who are happy with either kind of game, it is still a good choice.

© All Rights Reserved. This article first appeared at in August 1998.

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