23 March 2012

Petroff Defense: Early History

The Petroff Defense (or Russian Defense) has an ancient lineage. It is found in several of the oldest books on modern chess, including the works of Luis Ramírez de Lucena, Pedro Damiano, Rodrigo (Ruy) López de Segura, and Giaochino Greco. These early works present model games that are more a record of analysis than a record of play. In these model games, the Petroff often appears as an opening that cannot be recommended. However, there may have been some veneration of this opening much earlier than commonly thought.

Lucena's Repetición de Amores y Arte de Ajedrez con ci Iuegos de Partido (1497) does not seem to have influenced subsequent writers. According to H. J. R. Murray, A History of Chess (1913), "W. Lewis was the first writer to give an account of the work from the point of view of chess, in his Letters on Chess from C.F. Vogt, translated by U. Ewell, 1848" (787). This work was no translation, but a work that the author refused to acknowledge as his own (see Edward Winter, "A chess Watergate" C.N. 4337).

In contrast to Lucena's lack of influence, Damiano's Questo libro e da imparare giocare a scachi et de li partiti (1512) was printed in several countries in the sixteenth century, and had a clear influence upon the work of Ruy Lopez. Several of the games in Libro de la invencion liberal y arte del juego del axedrez (1561) follow those in Damiano's, but diverge in the last few moves. Games from these texts then appear in Greco's work, although carried forward a move or two further.

Such is the case for the oldest Petroff Defense game found in the ChessBase database. In Big Database 2011, game 57 is attributed to Greco, but matches one copied from Damiano by Joseph Henry Sarratt. One needs access to the archives of the world's best libraries just to see copies of the texts of Lucena, Damiano, and Lopez. However, Sarratt, The Works of Damiano, Ruy-Lopez, and Salvio, on the Game of Chess (1813) is widely available even as a free ebook because Google Books scanned a copy from the New York Public Library. Sarratt asserts that he "has frequently and attentively played and examined" the games in the texts of these authors, and he, "is strongly impressed with the belief that they are calculated to assist in a material degree unpracticed players" (xv). Sarratt's reputation has suffered due to his reputation for errors in his texts. Murray notes:
[Sarratt] introduced his generation to the work of the older masters, Damiano, Lopez, and Salvio, in a series of translations. That, as we now know to be the case, these translations were careless, inaccurate, and incomplete, did not rob them of their value at the time they were made, though this discovery has had a very damaging effect on his reputation as a writer. It is unfortunate that the badness of this portion of Sarratt's literary work should have prevented his successors from recognizing the importance and real merit of his other services to chess.
Murray, A History of Chess, 874.
Among Sarratt's contributions cited by Murray was his advocacy that stalemate should be a draw. Through this advocacy, the London Chess Club adopted a rule that was already standard in other countries.

The Games

Sarratt's notation reflects the state of chess notation in English in the early nineteenth century. It is awkward, but readable to the modern reader. The first game in Sarratt's The Works is presented as two variations (1-5). It is Damiano's record of the Petroff as it may have been played in his day. Damiano's two games show hazards that may befall a careless player of the Black pieces. Greco's sole Petroff carries the first of these games two moves further. Lopez's games 35-37 present three variations that are equal or better for Black (Sarratt, 136-141). Lopez's game scores would seem to suggest that the common belief that Black's 2...Nf6 was held in low regard until the mid-nineteenth century may not be fully accurate.

Below are the game scores from these five early studies of tactics in the Petroff (a name the opening would take on in the nineteenth century when it was revived as a viable alternative for Black). The comments are attributed by Sarratt to Lopez.

(1) Damiano,Pedro [C42]

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 Nxe4 4.Qe2 Qe7 5.Qxe4 d6 6.d4 f6 7.f4 dxe5 8.dxe5 Nd7 9.Nc3 fxe5 10.Nd5 Qd6 11.fxe5 Qc6 12.Bb5 Qc5 13.Be3 +-

(2) Damiano,Pedro [C42]

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 Nxe4 4.Qe2 Qe7 5.Qxe4 d6 6.d4 f6 7.f4 dxe5 8.dxe5 Nd7 9.Nc3 fxe5 10.Nd5 Qd6 11.fxe5 Qc5 12.Be3 Qa5+ 13.Bd2 Qc5 14.b4 Qc6 15.Bb5 Qg6 16.Qxg6+ hxg6 17.Nxc7+ +-

(3) López de Segura,Rodrigo (Ruy)  [C42]

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 Nxe4 4.Qe2 Qe7 5.Qxe4 d6 6.d4 f6 7.f4 dxe5 8.dxe5 Nd7 9.Nc3 fxe5

White to move

10.Nb5 Nf6 Black has the best of the Game

(4) López de Segura,Rodrigo (Ruy)  [C42]

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 Nxe4 4.Qe2 Qe7 5.Qxe4 d6 6.d4 f6 7.f4 dxe5 8.dxe5 fxe5 9.fxe5 Nd7 10.Bf4 g5 11.Bg3 Bg7 Black will regain his Pawn

(5) López de Segura,Rodrigo (Ruy)  [C42]

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 Qe7 4.d4 d6 5.Nf3 Qxe4+ 6.Be2 Bf5 7.c3 Nbd7 8.Nbd2 Qc2 Black has the best of the Game.

It is curious that in Lopez's first game, he reaches the same position as in Damiano's games. But, in Lopez White plays differently. Inasmuch as the move given by Damiano appears stronger, it raises a question that can be answered through examination of the original Lopez text. Did Lopez include also the variation that is favorable to White, and Sarratt exclude it to avoid duplication?

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