Hello and welcome to the twenty-third edition of The French Connection. Here we will be continuing with the third round of the Bottom Half Class Championship, and it will feature a line of the Advance Variation where Black goes out of his way to trade off the bad Bishop. The main difference between the offbeat line I gave in the repertoire against the French Advance back in 2017 and the line played in the game is that here, Black uses the Queen to cover b5 before playing Bc8-d7-b5, and so if White trades, Black has to take with the Queen. In the line with ...a6 instead of ...Qb6, Black gets the open a-file in return.
The line played in this game was once popular back about 20 to 30 years ago, but today it is thought of as being too slow for Black. White does not respond with one of the two main tricks that makes this line dubious, and part of it is situational. White was playing his third game of the day, and is coming off a painful loss in round 1 and a loss coming from horrible play in round 2, and is now facing an opponent that is almost 350 rating points lower, and so White takes a more conservative approach, figuring he can win via positional understanding, and after passive play by Black, White gets the attack in gear. The main thing to see in this game is that White's attack is not the traditional attack on the Kingside, as would normally be the case with the direction the central, blocked Pawns point, but rather, we will see White execute his attack on the Queenside. When Black plays overly passive in an opening where he starts out with a space disadvantage (normally Black's only real downside to the French Defense), it virtually gives White the entire board to execute his attack.
Without further ado, let's see what happens in our feature game.
2019 Bottom Half Class Championship, Round 3
W: Patrick McCartney (1996)
B: Ashrith Mathiyazhagan (1656)
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Qb6
I actually agree with this move order, even in the main line, which normally runs 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6, because it eliminates a possible sideline for White, namely 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 and now 5.Be3 and if 5...Qb6, then 6.Qd2. After 4...Qb6, Black can answer 5.Be3 with 5...Qxb2!. This is one of the few times that taking on b2 is not poisonous nor a move that allows White a forced draw. Instead, Black gets a pawn for nothing. I myself, when playing Black, also now plays this move instead of 4...Nc6, not that there is anything wrong with the Knight move. Of course, if you don't play the 5...Qb6 line, then 4...Nc6 is the way to proceed.
Here, however, Black is best off playing 5...Nc6 and returning to the main line. This line was once popular many years ago, but it is now viewed as too slow for Black.
There are four main lines here for White, and given the tournament situation, White goes for the most simplistic, but it should also cause Black the fewest problems.
This is White's main response. White has two other interesting responses here.
A) 6.a3 Bb5 7.Bxb5+ Qxb5 8.b4 cxd4 9.Nxd4 and now 9...Qd7 is unclear, though I personally would rather have White in this position, while trying to be more active with 9...Qc4 should backfire on Black as 10.Bb2 Nc6 11.Nd2 Qd3 12.Nxc6 bxc6 13.c4 gives White a strong attack.
B) 6.Bd3 may look like White is intending to play the Milner-Barry Gambit, but White gets an improved version compared to the dubious line after 5...Nc6 6.Bd3?!. Here 6...Nc6 is bad because of 7.dxc5! Bxc5 8.O-O and Black is forced into a passive position such as 8...Qc7 9.b4, with an attack for White, as 8...Nge7?? 9.b4 traps the Bishop. Another line that is dubious at best is 6...Bb5 7.dxc5! Bxc5 8.b4 and it is advantage White in all lines, including 8...Bxf2+ 9.Ke2!, 8...Be7 9.Be3 Qa6 10.Bc2!, 8...Bf8 9.Be3 Qa6 10.Bc2!, and probably the most realistic response from Black, 8...Bxd3 9.Qxd3 Bf8 10.Be3 Qc7 11.O-O Ne7 12.Na3 a6 13.c4 Nbc6 14.Bc5 Nxe5 15.Nxe5 Qxe5 16.Rfe1 with a dangerous attack for White. This leaves 6...cxd4, but rather than allowing Black to transpose to the Milner-Barry Gambit proper, White should play 7.Nxd4! where 7...Nc6 8.Nxc6! is better for White while trying to win the pawn is very dangerous for Black as he has to use the Bishop to do it in this case. After 7...Bc5 8.O-O Bxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.Nc3 a6 11.Re1 Bc6 12.Ne2 Qg4 (12...Qxe5?? 13.Ng3 Qc7 14.Qg4 g6 15.Qd4 +-) 13.h3 Qh5 14.Bf4 Bb5 15.Qc1 Nc6 16.Ng3 Qh4 17.Be4 Qd8 18.a4 with advantage to White.
The more challenging option for White is 7.c4! Here, Black can take either way, but White appears to be better in both cases. Almost nobody plays 7...dxc4 any more as Black runs into major problems after 8.d5! exd5 (8...Ne7 9.dxe6 +/=) 9.Qxd5 Ne7 10.Qe4 Qg6 11.Qxg6 Nxg6 12.Na3 Bc6 13.Nxc4 Bc6 14.Nxc4 Nd7 15.O-O Be7 16.Na5 Bd5 17.Rd1 Be6 18.Nxb7 O-O 19.b3 Ngxe5 20.Bb2 Nxf3+ 21.Bxf3 Rab8 22.Na5 Rb6 23.Nc6! Re8 24.Nxa7 Nb8 25.Be5 Nd7 26.Bc6 Nxe5 27.Bc6 Nxe5 27.Bxe8 Bf6 28.Rac1 Ra6 29.Nb5 Rxa2 30.Rxc5 Ng4 31.Nc3 Rb2 32.Bd7 Bxd7 33.Rxd7 h6 34.Nd1 Rxb3 35.h3 Ne5 36.Rdd5 and White proceeded to win the Exchange-up endgame, Szegi - Lyocsa, SVK-ch U18, 1999.
Far more common now-a-days is 7...Bxc4. Now after 8.Bxc4 dxc4 (8...Qb4+ 9.Nbd2 dxc4 10.a3 Qa5 11.O-O and White's massive lead in development more than offsets the pawn deficit), instead of the traditional 9.d5 that is most common here, though I find best only when the Bishops are still on the board, I like 9.Nbd2 for White! For example, after 9...cxd4 10.Nxc4 Qb4+ 11.Ncd2 Nc6 12.a3 Qb6 13.O-O Nge7 14.Nc4 Qc5 15.Nd6+ Kd7 16.Nxf7 Rg8 17.Be3 Nf5 18.N7g5 h6 19.Qb3! Nd8 20.Nxd4 Nxe3 21.Ngxe6! Qc4 22.Nxf8+ Rxf8 23.Qxe3 and White is two Pawns up for nothing with also the safer King.
That said, while the line played in the game may be the least challenging for Black, it is still better for White than the main line with 5...Nc6. Long story short, leave the c8-Bishop at home early on in the game.
7...Bxe2 8.Qxe2 Nc6 9.dxc5! Bxc5 10.b4 Bf8
Or 10...Be7 11.Bf4 h5 12.a4 with an attack.
11.Be3 Qc7 12.Nbd2
Unfortunately necessary as he is alarmingly behind in development. Trying to grab the e-pawn is no good. After 12...Nxe5?? 13.Nxe5 Qxe5 14.Qb5+ Kd8 15.Qxb7, Black's lost!
13.Bc5 Ng6 14.Bxf8 Nxf8
While White has not completely removed Black's castling rights, he has slown Black down from being able to do so, and he should now break open the center immediately.
Unnecessary! This was White's one main error in the game, but we will see Black fail to take advantage of the opportunity. After 15.c4! Ng6 (15...Nxb4 16.cxd5 is strong for White after 16...Nxd5 17.Ne4! or 16...exd5 17.Nd4! Rd8 18.Rad1 Nc6 19.Nb5) 16.cxd5 exd5 17.b5, White is better as Black can't take the e-pawn as 17...Ncxe5?? 18.Nxe5 Qxe5 19.Qxe5 Nxe5 20.Rfe1 f6 21.f4 drops a piece.
15...Ng6 16.c4 Rd8 17.Rfe1 O-O 18.Rac1
This was Black's one chance to take advantage of White's error on move 15. You need to have a clear positional understanding to see this one. White's main advantage is the Queenside majority. Black shouldn't let White either advance, or else exchange on d5 in circumstances that force him to take an isolated pawn. Black can eliminate both possibilities by playing 18...dxc4! and after 19.Qxc4 Qb8 20.Qc3, Black is slightly better as now it is now all centered around the e5-pawn, which in this case is more of a weakness than a blockading strength. Now White gains a significant advantage.
The only move that keeps the advantage. If White plays 19.c5 first, then 19...a6! ruins the party for White.
Now Black is in serious trouble on the Queenside.
White has no reason to rush here, and so he takes away the f4 and h4 squares from the Knight on g6.
21...Nf5 is probably better, avoiding White's next move.
22.Nd4 a6 23.a4 Rc7?
Black is walking right into a nasty trap. He needed to at least try to create some form of activity before getting suffocated by White. Relatively best was 23...axb5 24.axb3 Qa3, though White still has a significant advantage.
Just waiting for Black to self-capitulate by simply moving his worst-placed piece rather than trying to make a "loud" move.
Just the move White was waiting for. Relatively best was still to trade pawns on b5, but White has improved his position the last few moves, and Black has not!
Now that the Rook can't retreat to c8 as his counterpart now occupies that square, White wins material.
Black refuses to sacrifice the exchange with 25...Rc6 with the ability to block White's Pawns in return, but the move played is even worse.
This forces the break through. There is no way for Black to block the White Queenside Pawns now. If Black ignores the c-pawn with 26...Rdd8, then 27.c7! Re8 28.a5 leads to total paralysis for Black and all he can do is watch White destroy him. However, no matter how many times Black tries to take on c6 without taking via the b-pawn, White will eventually force the issue and the a- and b-pawns will destroy all hopes for Black.
26...Nxc6 27.Nxc6 Rxc6 28.Rxc6 bxc6 29.Nc5
Can you possibly think of a better square for a Knight?
29...Re7 30.Qxa6 Qxa6 31.Nxa6
The White Pawns cannot be stopped now.
31...Rb7 32.a5 Nf8
Not that anything else saves Black, but this officially drops the c-pawn as well. Black can safely resign here.
33.Rc1 Ng6 34.Rxc6 Ne7 35.Rc7 Rxc7 36.Nxc7 Nc6 37.a6 d4 38.a7 Nxa7 39.bxa7 g6 40.a8=Q+ Kg7 41.Ne8+ Kh6 42.f4 d3 43.Nf6 g5 44.Qf8+ Kg6 45.Qg8+ Kh6 46.Qxh7# 1-0
The main thing to get out of this game is understanding that the French Defense cannot be played passively, and attacking the French also cannot be done passively, despite the appearance that both sides have time based on the blocked center. It doesn't take much for Black to gain a positional advantage, and when given the opportunity, sometimes White needs to blow up the center immediately without hesitation. That said, aside from his one mistake on move 15, White took advantage of Black's passive defense. The line with 4...Qb6, 5...Bd7, and 6...Bb5 is already viewed as being under a cloud these days because of its passive nature, and so if you are going to play like this as Black, you have got to be alert and on the lookout for mistakes by White, which Black failed to do on move 15 - his one and only opportunity the entire game.
I would suggest those playing the Black side of the French ought to avoid this line completely, and those of you playing White must find active moves to keep the advantage as while 3.e5 blocks the Bishop in on c8, claims a space advantage, and is easier for White to play than the more theoretical lines with 3.Nc3, White must always remain active as his advantages are short term, not long term. Black, on the other hand, simply needs to remain active enough to keep the pressure on White's center and not allow White to roll him over with Pawns like he did in this game, but get some pieces off the board and eliminate his own weaknesses without getting his King demolished and Black will usually enjoy the better endgame in the Advance French. The only scenario that Black needs to avoid is a White Knight versus his Light-Squared Bishop and all other pieces traded off.
This concludes this edition of The French Connection. Till next time, good luck in all of your French games, Black or White!