The “Other” Bird

by admin on November 10, 2012

As many readers know, I have been a long-time advocate of the Bird Variation of the Ruy Lopez for Black (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nd4). Recently I’ve started experimenting with Henry Bird’s other major opening legacy, the Bird Opening (1. f4).

I’m not planning to go off the deep end with this — I am only considering it as an occasional diversion from 1. e4 and 1. d4. For one thing, it’s hard to argue with statistics. According to ChessBase, White scores about 53% or 54% with those moves. With 1. f4, White scores only about 48%.

There are two times in life when you don’t want to score 48%: in an election (sorry, Mitt Romney!) or when playing White in chess.

On the other hand, statistics don’t really provide us understanding, and that’s really the goal in chess. If Bird’s Opening is bad, why is it bad? And are there lines that are more or less okay?

Now I’m no expert, having played (to date) only three tournament games with 1. f4. The first two games quickly transposed into something else. The first one went 1. f4 e5 2. e4, and we were in the familiar ground of the King’s Gambit (and I eventually won). The second went 1. f4 d5 2. Nf3 c5 3. e4!? and we were in the familiar (for me!) territory of the Bryntse Gambit (a game I eventually drew).

So it wasn’t until last month’s Western States Open that I got to play an authentic Bird’s Opening against IM Ed Formanek. He beat me in very instructive fashion, and in the process gave me some idea how White can get into trouble.

I’ll get to the Formanek game in a little while, but I’ll start by saying that one problem with the Bird is that it does not achieve what it’s supposed to achieve. If there is any point at all to playing f4 on the first move, it’s that you want to take control over the e5 square. And yet there are a variety of ways in which Black can frustrate this goal and get in the pawn break … e5.

First of all, Black can play 1. … e5 right away. As we know, that is From’s Gambit. But as noted above, it transposes into a King’s Gambit after2. e4, and I am willing to live with that.

A second, less well-known way in which Black can defeat White’s objective is my own pet line against the Bird, which I came up with back in 2000 or so. It could be called the “From Gambit Deferred.” After 1. f4 Nf6, many White players will continue 2. b3, intending to continue the plan of controlling the dark squares. I would then play 2. … d6 and then, after 3. Bb2, I would surprise White with 3. … e5!

Position after 3. ... e5. The From Gambit Deferred.

FEN: rnbqkb1r/ppp2ppp/3p1n2/4p3/5P2/1P6/PBPPP1PP/RN1QKBNR w KQkq – 0 4

Unlike its better-known relative, which is a true gambit, the From Gambit Deferred is a gambit in name only. If White actually accepts the pawn, then Black is pretty close to winning by force. The position after 4. fe de 5. Bxe5? has only been seen three times in ChessBase. Interestingly, one of them was a game Szpisjak-Brooks from 1982, where Black was Michael Brooks, well-known American IM. So I’m not the first person to invent this line; perhaps it should be called the Brooks Gambit. After 5. … Ng4 Szpisjak continued 6. Bg3 Bd6 7. Nc3 Bxg3+ 8. hg Qd6 9. Ne4 Qd4 10. d3 f5 and Black wins material.

I played this idea twice against a class B player named Reuben Lenz and won both. He accepted the gambit the second time and the game went 4. fe de 5. Bxe5? Ng4 6. Bb2 Bd6 7. Nf3 Nxh2!

Position after 7. ... Nxh2.

FEN: rnbqk2r/ppp2ppp/3b4/8/8/1P3N2/PBPPP1Pn/RN1QKB1R w KQkq – 0 8

If White takes either way, he gets mated with … Bg3+. Lenz soldiered on with 8. Kf2 Ng4+ 9. Kg1 Bg3 10. Rh5 Nf2 11. Qc1 (White’s pieces are fleeing to the far corners of the board!) 11. … f6 12. e3 Bg4 13. Rb5 a6 14. Rxb7 Qd5!

Position after 14. ... Qd5.

FEN: rn2k2r/1Rp3pp/p4p2/3q4/6b1/1P2PNb1/PBPP1nP1/RNQ2BK1 w kq – 0 15

The hunt for White’s rook is only a sideshow. The real target is White’s king, which would perish after 15. Rb4 Qh5 16. Rxg4 Qh1 mate. This explains Lenz’s increasingly desperate moves, as the game concluded: 15. Rxb8+ Rxb8 16. Ne5 fe 17. Bc4 Qd6 resigns.

Well, this is great fun. In any case, it should convince you that 1. f4, 2. b3 and 3. Bb2 simply does not work as a way of preventing … e5.

For that reason, I made up my mind that after 1. f4 Nf6 I would not play 2. b3 but would instead play 2. Nf3. Only in case of 2. … d5 (or the reversed move order, 1. f4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6) would I continue with 3. b3. In that case I feel pretty good about White’s position. It’s basically a Queen’s Indian reversed where White has played a useful move, f4, with his extra tempo. I went to ChessBase and saw that GM Pavel Blatny has played this way a number of times.

But in my game against Formanek, I ran into the problem: What does White do if Black doesn’t cooperate by playing an early … d5? Mackenzie-Formanek went as follows:

1. f4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. b3?! (Playing this before Black has committed himself to … d5 is not recommended) Bg7 4. Bb2 O-O 5. e3 d6! (Sorry! No … d5 today!) 6. Be2 e5!

Position after 6. ... e5.

FEN: rnbq1rk1/ppp2pbp/3p1np1/4p3/5P2/1P2PN2/PBPPB1PP/RN1QK2R w KQ – 0 7

And once again Black has achieved his thematic break, … e5, with the utmost of ease. In this case it’s not a gambit, and it’s not even a pseudo-gambit. After 7. fe Ng4 the pawn on e5 is pinned, and so Black wins it back. Probably White should play this anyway, but I don’t see any problems for Black in this position. I played 7. O-O? ef 8. ef and suffered for a long time in a position where I was never able to generate any serious threats.

Interestingly, when I showed the game to Gjon Feinstein he knew all about this line and said it’s just good for Black. He didn’t think I made any serious mistakes after this, it was just a case of IM Formanek slowly and methodically increasing his positional bind.

But the picture is not all bleak for White. Gjon said that after 2. … g6 I just shouldn’t play 3. b3, the move that keeps getting White into trouble. After 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2 O-O 5. O-O we get to a position where White is playing what Jonathan Rowson calls “zebra chess” — he’s waiting for Black to commit to either … d6 or … d5. If Black plays 6. … d6 now, we can play 7. d3 and work towards e4. If Black plays 6. … d5, we can either play 7. d3 or we can play a move that I think looks intriguing, 7. c4.

But that will be a subject of another post (maybe).

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Aigner November 12, 2012 at 5:15 pm

I have experience with 1.f4 dating back to my days as an amateur. Indeed, I became a master only after expanding my white repertoire to include a more standard opening move, in my case 1.e4.

Against most black replies (excluding gambits), white’s second move should be an automatic 2.Nf3. The 2.b3 published in books is a load of bull. You may quote me. You accurately expounded on the main reasons for 2.Nf3.

However, the problem with 1.f4 is that black achieves equality in several ways, and frankly, white must take care not to be slightly worse! The best moves for black are c5 (play a Grand Prix Sicilian) and Nf6 (play a KID/Modern setup). Black should try to stay flexible, but without surrendering a big center (the pawn push c5, whether on move 1 or a little later, is critical). Both players should stay alert for transpositions, as many lines transpose into something more mainstream.

As a white player, I am most happy when black plays e6, d5 and e5 on the first move. Indeed, I find 1.f4 to be the ultimate anti-French opening, as French/Caro players will almost certainly play e6 or d5. The e5 gambit often leads to a lot of creative play, but all in all, I like white’s chances.

I have, for the most part, given up on 1.f4. These days, I play it occasionally, when I’m in a bad mood or if I know something about my opponent’s style.

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admin November 12, 2012 at 8:50 pm

It’s great to hear from the one strong player in this area who has a lot of experience with the Bird! (For those who don’t know, Michael’s Internet handle is “fpawn.”) But I had noticed this evolution in Michael’s openings, too. He played 1. f4 in the first game we ever played, when he was still an expert, and I won that game as Black. I don’t think he has ever played it against me again. Instead our subsequent games (when he had White) went 1. e4 e5, and he almost always won. I was curious whether Michael had given up on 1. f4 or whether he had perceived a weakness in how I played king-pawn openings.

The idea of Bird’s Opening as an anti-French or anti-Caro weapon is interesting. My primary reasons for being interested in it were (1) the possibility of transposing into some openings I already play; (2) the very attractive (for me) possibility of playing an opening where both sides will be on their own after move 10 or so; (3) getting some really different positions from what I am used to, which might force me to become a more “universal” player. None of these are very strong arguments in favor of it, though. The big unknown for me was how big a disadvantage I would be risking by playing it against strong players. The game with Formanek was one data point, and I will probably try to get a few more data points before I make up my mind.

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Michael Goeller November 13, 2012 at 10:40 pm

Dana — An interesting post! I was looking at 1.f4 a while back when I became interested in the Stonewall as Black and White (see my blog post: http://kenilworthian.blogspot.com/2012/03/stonewall-in-black-and-white-annotated.html). But with the Stonewall, you can just start with 1.d4. I think Tim Taylor’s book on the Bird is very good, by the way, and Henrik Danielsen’s “Polar Bear” concept (which Taylor discusses) is fairly attractive. Taylor does an especially good job of convincing me that the From is not to be feared, and I was especially impressed by Taylor’s refutation of my own favorite anti-Bird line 1.f4 e5 2.fxe5 (2.e4 Nc6 3.Nf3 f5) 2…Nc6, against which he advocates the simple 3.Nc3! with the idea of 3…Nxe5 4.d4 followed by e4 with advantage.

If you were to pick up the Dutch, too — following Aigner’s lead — you might find a lot of reversed-Dutch possibilities that were to your liking. And Taylor’s book explores several of these. It’s a creative approach.

Part of my interest in the Stonewall came out of the fact that I have also been picking up the French as Black, which goes well with the Dutch since it allows you to play a 1…e6 and 2…f5 move order and avoid a lot of anti-Dutch crap that most amateurs will throw at you. I have found Simon Williams’s “Killer Dutch” and “Killer French” DVD’s an inspiration. The Classical Dutch that he recommends reminds me a lot of the Grand Prix Attack and might also be to your liking.

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MNb November 20, 2012 at 5:32 pm

I own a booklet (28 pages) written by LM Picket on the Bird. It’s from 1975. Sure enough he gives 1.f4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.b3 Bg7 4.Bb2 O-O 5.e3 d6 6.Be2 e5! with a game stemming from 1951. So it’s not exactly new.
Picket prefers 2.b3 g6 3.Bb2 Bg7 4.e4 O-O 5.Qf3. He doesn’t remedy 2.b3 d6 though.

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Shawn February 16, 2013 at 8:28 am

I am rated over 2170 otb but have not yet made master. I am winning about 80% of my games with the Bird. I just checked my database – 78% over 121 uscf rated games. Against masters, my percentage is lower but that is true across the board and I have a good number of victories. I am playing other opening moves as well as I think it is healthy to vary one’s openings. I score fairly poorly with 1 e4. I score almost as well with 1 d4 as 1 f4. However, the sample size is much smaller and I feel much less comfortable with 1 d4. I score about 70% with black. I do not employ the Stonewall set-ups I have observed in some of Mr Aigner’s old games. It is fair to say that my stats are somewhat skewed in that a majority of my playing experience has been against players in the 1800-2100 range.

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