What we will be seeing here is an inferior fourth move by White, seeking transposition to the Closed Variation of the Tarrasch. While it is highly unpopular at the GM level because it's not very good at all, it's something that must be dealt with at the amateur level, and just because it isn't good doesn't mean that we don't need to know what to do against it. Therefore, let's take a look at the game, which happened to be in the final round of the event.
Washington Chess Congress, Round 7
W: Carissa Zheng (1796)
B: Patrick McCartney (2069)
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.c3
So it is actually pretty clear what White is seeking with this move. White is trying to steer the game into what is known as the Closed Tarrasch, which arises from the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2. The Closed Variation, which I don't advocate, is popular because there are very few deviations that White can play. For example, on move 7, he can instead play 7.Ngf3, which is known as the Korchnoi Gambit, a line that if Black accepts, he must tread water very carefully as he winds up far behind in development in return for the pawn. Otherwise, there are many ways to decline the gambit as well. However, outside of the main line, this really is about all White's got, and so many find it to be "simple" for Black. That said, White gets more of a nagging advantage in the Closed Tarrasch than he does in the Open Tarrasch, despite Black then having to decide which open line to play, whether that be 5...Nf6 or 5...Nc6 against 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.exd5 exd5 (4...Qxd5 is also possible here, leading to hundreds of additional pages of theory) 5.Ngf3, and then also having to deal with far more deviations from White, such as the move played in this game, or 5.Bb5+, which will be seen in The French Connection: Volume 16.
The key here is not to give in to White's desires. Because of the popularity of the Closed Variation, many players as White will face it with alarming frequency compared to the open lines with 3...c5. This "comfort level" is just what White wants, especially when talking about opponents at the 1800 level where it is highly unlikely that they know any opening inside and out.
All of that said, Black has to be careful as well. Not so much in terms of what moves are safe, but about move order tricks. In the article on the French Tarrasch referenced above, I recommend the 5...Nf6 line after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.exd5 exd5 5.Ngf3. That said, 5...Nc6 is perfectly fine as well, and still better in my opinion than the Closed Variation after 3...Nf6, but then you need to know what to do if it transposes to that. In addition, even in this game, Black should switch up the move order in order to avoid a potential line for White that could be annoying for Black.
The first thing to think about is why 4.c3 is inferior to the two more normal moves for White here, 4.exd5 and 4.Ngf3. Let's think about the Advance Variation. Let's say that White, hypothetically, was going to advance 5.e5 on the next move, even voluntarily without us placing our Knight on f6. We would be looking at a version of the Advance Variation where White has committed very early to Nd2. This is normally viewed as bad because in the Advance Variation, there is often the battle of White waiting for Black to trade on d4, opening up the c3-square for the White Knight, and so it often sits on b1 for a while, but here, there is no reason to wait on trading on d4. Therefore, White doesn't want to advance e5 if Black doesn't voluntarily play 4...Nf6 and walk into the Closed Tarrasch. So already we know that White doesn't want an inferior version of the Advance Variation. So what else might happen? Well, White often plays c3 in the Rubinstein Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7), and so in addition to us looking to avoid 4...Nf6, we probably also want to avoid 4...dxe4 as it also fails to prove the inferiority of 4.c3. Also, why would we want to remove the tension if we already know that White doesn't want to advance if we don't play 4...Nf6? So that leaves, realistically, two possibilities. Neither are "bad", but due to a move order trick, one is "better" than the other.
This move is better than 4...Nf6 or 4...dxe4, but it is not best. Due to the early commitment of the Knight, 4...cxd4 should come into consideration, and in this case, it is the best move. The reason being that the move 4.c3 does have some use in the line 4...Nc6 5.exd5! exd5 6.dxc5! Bxc5 7.Nb3 Bb6 (and here inlies the difference from the 5...Nc6 variation of the main line - In the main line, the Bishop prefers to go back to d6 instead of b6, which is possible because the d5-pawn is poisoned due to a Bishop check on b4 and the Queen is lost. Here, with the pawn already on c3, there is no check, and so 7...Bd6 simply drops the d5-pawn. In addition, notice on move 9 that White's Bishop is on d3 instead of b5 as it would be in the main line, which is a better spot for the Bishop.) 8.Nf3 Nge7 9.Bd3 and compared to the main line, where White's Bishop is on b5 instead of d3, pawn is on c2 instead of c3, and Black's Bishop is on d6 instead of b6, White has a better version here. Therefore, Black should have played 4...cxd4! here and only then 5...Nc6, virtually transposing to what happened in the game.
5.exd5 exd5 6.Ngf3
Leading right back to where we would be after 4...cxd4! 5.cxd4 Nc6 6.exd5 exd5 7.Ngf3. However, once again, 6.dxc5 could take advantage of Black's fourth move.
6...cxd4 7.cxd4 Bd6
For those of you that have read my repertoire article on the French Tarrasch from September 2017, this move might take some explaining. In the 5...Nf6 lines of the Open Tarrasch, we normally see the Bishop go to e7 instead of d6. The reason for that is that our Queen's Knight usually goes via d7, after a trade of Bishops, to c5 and then e4. During that time, with the Knight already on f6, playing the move ...Bd6 is too extravagant because checks down the e-file, with a move like Qe2+, become very annoying and if the Bishop then moves back to e7, we have lost a tempo compared to playing it there in the first place.
However, here things are different. We have already played ...Nc6. That is four moves away from e4, and so the Nb8-d7-c5-e4 idea is gone. At any point, if White really wanted to voluntarily give up his Bishop for the Knight, which he shouldn't do, he could play Bb5. So our Knight is committed now to c6. However, our Kingside Knight has not been developed yet. Therefore, we can answer any annoying checks with ...Nge7, and after a move like 8.Bb5, where the annoying check is still possible via 9.Qe2+, we would answer via 8...Nge7 rather than 8...Nf6. This in turn makes the King's Knight our passive piece instead of the King's Bishop. Black will castle to get out of any annoying checks on the e-file, and then the challenge is to activate the Knight without the rest of the army falling apart instead of trying to activate the Bishop. So either way, we are looking at two active pieces, which are the two Knights in the 5...Nf6 line, and the Queen's Knight and Dark-Squared Bishop in this line, and one passive piece, the Dark-Squared Bishop in the 5...Nf6 line while it is the King's Knight in this line.
However, this move isn't very good. Now, Black does not have to worry at all about any annoying checks on the e-file as the e-file is blocked by White's Bishop. Black only needs one more move before he can castle, and since White can't harm Black on the e-file, he can develop his King's Knight actively as well, giving Black the best of both worlds with his minor pieces.
8...Nf6! 9.O-O O-O 10.Re1 Bf5
So unlike the 5...Nf6 line, we have this Bishop to contend with. Yes, the position is open compared to, say, the McCutcheon or the Advance variation, but with a pawn still stuck on d5, this is still our "bad Bishop", it's just not "as bad" as in other lines. With White not taking over the diagonal earlier, Black looks to actively develop the Bishop.
11.Nh4 should be answered by 11...Bd7, when the White Knight has nothing better to do than go back to f3, either immediately or shortly thereafter. This doesn't appear like much, but in essence, Black will have played Bc8-f5-d7 in the time that White played Nf3-h4-f3, in essence getting the move Bc8-d7 for free. It may not look like much, but it opens up the c8-square for the Rook, which just that alone means something if you are getting it for free. Therefore, White saw no reason to chase the Bishop.
White must have been worried about annoyances on the c2-square if the Knight comes to b4, but instead a more active move like 12.Ne3, questioning the f5-Bishop and covering c2 as well, should be preferred. If you can attack and defend at the same time with a single move, and it doesn't fail to tactics, it's usually a good move.
White's last move has left a number of light squares very weak. Most notably, b3 and c4, and so Black tries to take advantage of this. There is a cheap threat, but the reason for this move has nothing to do with the threat. The threat, which is 13...Bc2 14.Qd2 Nb3, is merely an added bonus. If all this move did was pose a cheap shot threat, or a trap, and once defended, the move means absolutely nothing and the piece would have to return to its original spot, then the move would be useless. However, if it either forces additional weaknesses out of White, or if the Knight intends to move forward anyway, the latter of which is the case here, then the move has merit. Traps should never be the primary focus of a move. They should merely be viewed as added bonuses, and if White fails to pay attention, great, but don't bank on it! Of course, White sees fully well the threat Black has, and stops it immediately.
13.Ne3 Be4 14.Bd2 Nc4
It's a little too early for this move. Black should instead play 14...Re8, developing all of his pieces before jumping in. If White wants to trade the Bishop for the Knight, let him! Black's idea is that if White ever takes on c4, he gets a Queenside Pawn Majority and White is still saddled with the isolated pawn, but it's too early for this.
This move is a mistake, but the consequences are not as obvious as they initially look. Instead, White can maintain a level position after 15.Nxc4 dxc4 16.Ne5! or 15.Bxc4 dxc4 16.Ne5!
This move is "OK", but Black has better. Keeping the tension with 15...b5 is interesting as White can't take it because the tactical trick is no longer there once the Queen is off the third rank, and therefore, Black would win a piece after 16.Qxb5?? Bxf3 as the Bishop on d2 hangs and the Queen doesn't cover f3 like it does in the game after 17.Nxc4, and so Black nets a piece. Best, however, is 15...Bxh2+, winning a pawn. The idea is that in the game, after 15...Bxf3, White plays 16.Nxc4, and if 16...Bxe2, then 17.Nxd6, and it all just ends up an even trade. Of course, there is the line that happens in the game which is also an even trade. But instead of giving White the Bishop on d6 for nothing, Black can grab the pawn on h2, and after 15...Bxh2+ 16.Kxh2 Bxf3, now 17.Nxc4 Bxe2 wins a pawn for Black, regardless of whether White trades off or keeps the minor pieces on the board as there is no Nxd6.
Black had one more opportunity to play 16...Bxh2+ followed by 17...Bxe2. After the game move, it's actually White with the small advantage.
17.Qxf3 b5 18.Bg5
It is better to either block the dark squares with 18.g3 or else play a move like 18.Qf5, which is far more annoying for Black than the move played. Black will not go out of his way to avoid the doubled f-pawns. In return for it, back rank issues are resolved as Black will have the g7-square as a flight square.
Better is 19.Bf1, virtually forcing Black to give White the e-file with 19...Rxe1 20.Rxe1 as otherwise, the Queen is overworked, covering both e8 and f6.
This move is a little too extravagant and Black should not be able to get away with this. Instead, Black can take advantage of White's pieces not being well placed to coordinate with each other. The move 19...h6! leads to a level position after 20.Be3 Nd5! 21.Bf3 (21.Qxd5?? Bxh2+ -+) Nxe3 22.Rxe3 Rxe3 23.fxe3 Qe8 24.e4 Bf4 25.Rd1 Rc7. Note that White can ill-afford to go pawn grabbing as after 20.Bxf6? Qxf6 21.Qxa7 Qf4 22.g3 Qd2, Black has way more compensation than that of a pawn. White's pieces are scattered and his Bishop is threatened.
20.Bxf6 gxf6 21.Qd5
White misses the opportunity. After 21.Qd7!, White is better after either 21...Rcd8 22.Qg4+ or 21...Bf8 22.a4.
21...Bf8 22.Qf5 Rc6
Yet another error by Black that was missed by White. Once again, Black can equalize, this time with 22...Rcd8, pressuring the isolated pawn. The idea behind the move played was to cover f6, and at the same time, get ready to double up on the e-file and attempting to use the pin of the Bishop to his advantage. The problem is, both players overlook a major tactical flaw in Black's idea.
White misses the opportunity. He should get out of the pin immediately! Both 23.Red1 and 23.Rf1 lead to a clear advantage for White. The Bishop does not hang because after 23...Rxe2??, White wins with 24.Qg4+, netting the exchange. The move 23.d5 does, of course, prevent Black from doubling on the e-file, but it's only enough for equality.
23...Rce6 24.d5 Re5 25.Qxf6??
White does not have time for this. 25.Qg4+ Bg7 26.Rad1 or 25.Qf4 was necessary, preventing Black's next move.
25...Qd2! 26.Qf3 Qxb2 27.Rad1
Black was threatening 27...Rxe2. Slightly more resistant is 27.Qg3+ Kh8 28.Bg4, but after 28...Rxe1+ 29.Rxe1 Rxe1+ 30.Kxe1 Bxa3, Black is still winning after 31.Qb8+ Kg7 32.Qg3 Bb4+ 33.Kf1 Qc1+ 34.Bd1+ Kf6 35.Qf3+ Ke5 36.Qg3+ Kxd5 37.Qf3+ Ke5 38.Qg3+ Kf5 39.Qh3+ (39.Qf3+ Qf4!) Kf6 40.Qh4+ Qg5 41.Qxh7 a5 -+.
This wins, but far quicker is 27...c3! 28.Bd3 c2 29.Bxc2 Rxe1+ 30.Rxe1 Rxe1+ 31.Kxe1 Qxc2 with a cakewalk win for Black.
28.Qg4+ is more complicated, but it still loses after 28...Kh8 29.Qf4 f5 30.Qd2 c3 31.Qd3 Qb2 32.Rb1 Qd2 33.Rbd1 Qh6 34.Qxc3 Qxh2 35.f4 Qxf4+ 36.Bf3 b4 -+.
White banks on the Opposite Colored Bishop endgame to draw. However, I will reiterate, not all OCB endings are drawn!
Another prime example where an OCB endgame was decisive can be found HERE, where I won an OCB ending back in December 2017.
29...Rxe1+ 30.Rxe1 Rxe1+ 31.Kxe1
Black's three connected passers on the Queenside far outweigh the isolated passer on d5. Black will force White to use both his King and Bishop to stop the Queenside pawns, and then walk his King toward the Kingside Pawns. The fact that Black's Queenside pawns will be advanced on a5, b4, and c3 as opposed to say, a7, b6, and c5, also plays a significant role.
White forces the Black pawns onto dark squares in an attempt to build a light-squared fortress.
32...b4 33.Bb5 c3
Now White must cover c2 for the rest of the game. The moment that it is abandoned, Black wins. The promotion square being the color of Black's Bishop instead of White's is to Black's benefit.
34.Ba4 Ke7 35.Kd1 Kd6 36.Kc2 f6
Of course not 36...Kxd5? 37.Bb3+, netting White the f-pawn and giving White counter-play in the form of a passed f-pawn.
37.Bc6 Kc5 38.Kb3
This allows the Bishop on a3 to come out and take on a more active spot, but what else is White going to do? Black can always toggle his King between c5 and d6 to the end of eternity. Even if White advances the Kingside Pawns, he will eventually run out of tempi.
38...Bc1 39.f3 Bf4 40.h3 Kd4
Now that the Bishop covers d6, the Black King will come in. He can intrude on the Kingside, or if the White King does not retreat to c2, the King can come in on d2 and then deflect the King away from b3 with a timely ...a4+ and White will have to give up his Bishop to avoid promotion. Too many things that Black can do to stop all of them.
White tries to jettison the d-pawn in order to allow his Bishop easier access to guarding his f3-pawn and stopping ...c2 by Black.
Black of course should not allow White to advance it to d7. Sure, Black owns the Bishop that is of the color of the promotion square, but why allow such counter-play?
42.Be4 h6 43.g4 a5
This leads to instant victory for Black, but what else is White going to do? For example, if 44.Bc2, then 44...Ke3 45.Be4 Kd2 followed by 46...a4+ wins for Black.
White has no way to stop 45...b3+ and Black is going to promote one of his pawns, and so White Resigned.
So the following items should be learned from this article:
- When you face an unusual move, especially a passive one, reason out why it is not typically played at higher levels.
- Watch out for move order tricks. Black should have taken the pawn on d4 on the 4th move rather than allow White the opportunity to take advantage after her inferior 4th move.
- When dealing with Bishops of opposite color with all the heavy pieces on the board, one must always account for the fact that the player on defense is "virtually" down a piece as their Bishop cannot cover the color complex that the opponent is attacking on. White needed to aggressively hit the light squares after Black got a little too ambitious with his move 19...Qa5. Instead, White held back, and Black got his attack rolling on the dark squares.
- Always watch for tactical shots to get out of pins.
- Opposite Colored Bishop Endings are not an automatic draw. One must always account for other factors beyond just the number of pawns. The number of pawns could be the same and it might still be winning for one side or the other. In this case, the fact that Black had three connected passed pawns that were well-advanced played the major factor in his victory.
Next time, we will look at another minor sideline, namely 5.Bb5+, which is not nearly as inferior as 4.c3, but it also has its issues, which we will see next time.
That concludes this edition of The French Connection. Good luck in all of your French games, Black or White.