The Move 5 g4 in the Philidor Defence

As I wrote in my post about the modern developments in the openings the move g2-g4 shouldn’t surprise anybody anymore. Here I will tell the story of the origins of the move 5 g4 in the Philidor Defence.

If you check your database you will see that the first time the move was played was in the game Shirov-Azmaiparashvili in 2003. Shirov was lauded at the time for his creativity in the opening and aggressive approach. But nobody knew the real origins of the move, not even Shirov himself!

The story began in 1990 in a place called Fond-du-Lac in Wisconsin, USA. I was playing the World Championship Under-14 and as usual at tournaments there were a lot of books and magazines on sale. The first book I bought would revolutionise my black opening repertoire, The Najdorf for the Tournament Player by John Nunn, still one of my favourite books (a month after the World Championship I finished third in the Yugoslav Under-15 championship mainly thanks to some excellent Najdorf victories)! I bought a lot of other stuff, among other things this issue of Inside Chess (this is the only image I could find on the internet):

Yasser Seirawan won in Haninge in 1989

I no longer have the magazine, but I vividly remember reading and absorbing everything inside. Somewhere near the end of the magazine there was a game from 1970 by a certain Karpenko who played the move we are talking about:

5 g4! A shocking move!

Now that was something I immediately liked! There was no analysis of the game, just the moves, so I did the digging myself. This had the added benefit of the shocking nature of the move (back in 1990!) and it cut off large masses of Philidor theory. I analysed various options, but the opportunity to play it didn’t present itself for quite some time. In 1994 I played the qualifications for the individual championship of Macedonia, a swiss event where I managed to finish on shared 1st. In Round 5 I finally got the chance to play my surprise:

Far from a great game, and a disastrous opening, but I won! As Capablanca said, one should always play the openings and variations that bring good results. That same year during the summer I played a couple of open tournaments on the Bulgarian coast. In the first one I scored my first ever win against a grandmaster (GM Kirov from Bulgaria) and in Round 5 (again!) I got to play my move one more time. This time things went much better in the opening:

I won again! I started to believe in the good omen the move brought… The third time I played the move was in 2000 at the European rapid championship held in Neum, immediately after the European Club Cup. I played it against the very strong Grandmaster from Kazakhstan Pavel Kotsur. The opening was a great success and I won a good game. But that was the last time I played it, as people didn’t play the Philidor against me in the following years.

In 2002 I played the famous Corsican tournament in Bastia. In Round 1 I was paired on board 3 against Shirov. To my left there was Anand on board 1 and to my right there was Karpov on board 3. I was white, Shirov went for the Najdorf and I played the move 6 h3. I played that move a lot in 2002-2003 and it brought me good results, that is at least 6 years before it became fashionable! The game with Shirov was complicated but eventually I lost. After the game was had a friendly chat and we established good relations.

In 2003 Shirov played his game with Azmaiparashvili and the move 5 g4 became famous. That game was played at the European Team Championship in Plovdiv. I was visiting the tournament and as it happened I ran into Shirov some days after his game with Azmaiparashvili. I immediately asked him about the move 5 g4, whether he knew it from before, perhaps he knew some games with it. To my surprise he said that he didn’t know of any games and that he invented the move himself. Now imagine his surprise when I told him of the Inside Chess game and that I had already played the move 3 times!

There are many such stories with opening novelties and ideas and most of them never see the light of day. I was lucky to be part of at least one of such stories and the history of opening theory. Perhaps the move 5 g4 will always be remembered as Shirov’s move, but I will know that even though I wasn’t the first one, I was there before everybody else!

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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  • Joao Rita
    Jul 9,2017 at 6:39 am

    I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad result with this.

    Tremendously fun to play!

    • Alex Colovic
      Jul 9,2017 at 5:54 pm

      Indeed! 🙂

  • Aug 7,2016 at 10:31 pm

    Thanks a lot for the link! That is what Shirov also said, that Paco told him about the move. I contacted Paco via Twitter to share his version of the events, but alas, he never replied.

  • Anonymous
    Aug 7,2016 at 2:08 pm

    Interesting article about the invention of the move (in spanish)

  • Anonymous
    Aug 4,2016 at 4:26 am

    Fantastic to have Shirov comment

  • Aug 3,2016 at 11:19 pm

    Thanks for the clarification, Alexey! Time to contact Paco then!

  • Anonymous
    Aug 3,2016 at 10:38 pm

    Alex, your memory fails a little. I indeed knew nothing about your experience with that move but neither I claimed inventing it. Simply because I was shown 5.g4 by my teammate Paco Vallejo the evening before! Possibly it's time to ask Paco whether he invented it himself or he knew your games. 🙂 Best regards. Alexei Shirov

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