Sunday, September 29, 2019

The French Connection: Volume 25

Hello everyone and welcome to the twenty-fifth edition of The French Connection. The featured game of this article comes from a fast time control tournament - Game in 60 minutes with a 5 second delay - during the weekend following the long road trip that the previous 10 articles, and those of you that read all 10 will know that I have been involved in some very topsy-turvy chess of late. See in particular rounds 2 and 5 from the Des Moines Open. So if this game features more of the same wildness, why am I featuring it? Well, it makes a lot of points that are contradictory to many of the stereotypes that are given to the French Defense, and in particular, the Advance variation. I hear many French players utter that the Advance Variation is overly simplistic for Black. They don't believe that White is busted, but that their own play is very easy. I hear many non-French players, depending on their strength and maturity in chess, uttering a wide range of things, all the way from the French being a tough nut to crack to the French being boring because the center is blocked and there is no immediate blast for White to the French is one big annoying minefield with traps everywhere that must be avoided, all the way down to the French being a terrible opening that loses because of that horrible Bishop!

Well, this game is going to put the kibosh on all of that nonsense, except maybe the one point about the minefield and traps, which in some ways is actually true. We will see in the game below the advantage wildly going back and forth between White and Black, which will disprove the stereotyped "simplicity" in the Advance French, and we will see at one point which Bishop it really is that Black should be keeping, at least in some cases!

Without further ado, let's take a look at the featured game.


Master Trek CXLV, Round 2
W: Patrick McCartney (1996)
B: Craig Jones (2251)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Qb6 5.Nf3 Nc6

Here we see Black using the move order that I advocate, playing the Queen before the Knight to avoid the 5.Be3 option for White and at no cost to Black provided his intention was to play the 5...Qb6 line all along.

6.a3 Nh6 7.b4 cxd4 8.cxd4 Nf5 9.Bb2



Again, we have one of the main positions of the Advance French. Black has to make a choice here. Which Bishop to develop. For those of you playing White, here's the main thing to remember:
  • If Black plays 9...Be7, the Bishop covers h4, and advancing the g-pawn is feeble as after 10.g4?!, Black can reply with 10...Nh4, trading pieces, which typically favors the player with less space. That said, White should instead take the opportunity to develop his Light-Squared Bishop actively with 10.Bd3 because the d4-pawn is poison since after 10...Nfxd4?? 11.Nxd4 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 Qxd4, White has the Bishop check with the discovered attack on the Queen.
  • If Black plays 9...Bd7, he is preventing White from developing the Bishop actively on d3 because the d-pawn now really does hang because the Bishop on d7 prevents any checks to the Black King. However, it does nothing to cover h4, and it is here that White needs to play 10.g4, forcing the Knight to a passive position, either on h6 or e7. Anything other passive move, like 10.Be2, would allow Black to have the best of both worlds and play 10...Be7 with at worst, equality.

9...Bd7 10.g4!

The correct move based on the above checklist.

10...Nh6 11.Rg1 f6

This has always been considered the main response for Black. That said, a more modern idea that I would be more inclined to play if I'm Black is 11...Rc8 12.Nc3 Na5 13.Na4 Qc6 14.Nc5 Nc4 15.Bc1 Ng8 16.Bd3 Bxc5 where now Moskalenko in his book "The Even More Flexible French" only mentions 17.dxc5 b6 and claims that Black has the advantage, which in this case is accurate, but White can maintain the advantage by taking the other way with 17.bxc5 instead. The position is by no means winning for White and Black's position is still manageable, but White is still able to maintain that small edge that he gets for going first.



12.g5?

In certain situations, this move can be useful when Black tries to undermine with ...f6, the idea being to deflect the f-pawn away from White's center and keeping the intact permanently since the g-pawn also attacks the Knight, forcing Black to capture away from the center. That said, in this particular situation, it doesn't work because White ends up too far behind in development and Black gets a raging attack at the d-pawn and down the f-file. Instead, White should play 12.exf6 gxf6 13.Nc3 Nf7 14.Na4 Qc7 (14...Qd8 is worse - 15.Nc5 b6 16.Nxd7 Qxd7 17.Rc1 Ncd8 18.h4 Bd6 19.Rc3 with a clear advantage for White) 15.Rc1 Qf4 16.Nc5 Bxc5 17.dxc5 Nce5 18.Nxe5 Nxe5 19.Rg3 with advantage to White.

12...fxg5 13.Nxg5 Nf5 14.Nf3 Be7 15.Nc3

White's last move is desperation more than anything, but it doesn't come without its tricks.

15...O-O

This move is ok, and Black still maintains a clear advantage, but even stronger is to take the d-pawn, but you have to capture correctly both times. For example, 15...Nfxd4? is pretty much losing on the spot after 16.Na4 and White has a clear advantage after 16...Nxf3+ 17.Qxf3 Qc7 18.Rxg7. Note that neither 17...Nxe5 18.Qh5+ nor 17...Nd4 18.Qh5+ g6 19.Rxg6 Nc2+ 20.Kd1 Bxa4 21.Rxe6+ Kd8 22.Rxb6 Nxa1+ 23.Ke2 axb6 24.e6! work for Black at all. In the latter case, just about everything of Black's is hanging, including the Rook on h8, Knight on a1, and Pawn on d5.

That said, 15...Ncxd4! works for Black, and after 16.Nxd4, once again Black must execute the correct capture, which is 16...Qxd4!, and after 17.Qxd4 Nxd4 18.O-O-O Nf5, Black is basically up a Pawn for nothing and winning. That said, once again, taking with the f5-Knight is losing. After 16...Nxd4??, White has a winning advantage with 17.Nxd5! as Black again has too many pieces hanging. For example, 17...Nf3+ 18.Qxf3 exd5 19.Rxg7 and White's winning.

16.Na4 Qd8 17.Nc5



Now the moment of truth. Black to move. How does he keep his winning advantage?

17...b6?

Black goes from winning to dead equal with a single move. The d7-Bishop is often stereotyped as a bad Bishop, and many players are often glad to see it go. If Black can get the White Light-Squared Bishop for this Bishop, that is often good for Black, but here, he should not give up this Bishop for the White Knight. White gets an uncontested Light-Squared Bishop, the ability to add unnecessary pressure to e6, and let's think about the opposite scenario that is often seen in the French. White has a bad Bishop as well. It's the Dark-Squared Bishop on b2. In the French, Black often has to watch out for trades of the White Light-Squared Bishop for his Knight, often times the Bishop going to d3 and then capturing a Knight on f5, leaving Black with his bad Bishop being uncontested and instead White has a Knight that he will park on a dark square like d4, and the Black Bishop sits there like a tall pawn, often on e6, for the rest of the game.

Black here should have executed the same mentality, and played 17...Bxc5!, which leaves White with the horrible Bishop, and the Bishop was more in the way of Black's Queen from coming into action than anything else, and so trading off the Dark-Squared Bishop for the annoying White Knight was the correct approach. After 18.dxc5 (taking the other way hems in the Bishop even more) Nh4, Black's heavy pieces come in. If 19.Nd2, Black can respond with 19...Rf4 while a trade of Knights, whether on h4 or f3, allows the Queen to come in via h4 and Black maintains a winning attack.

18.Nxd7! Qxd7 19.Rc1 Nh4

Now a simple move like 20.Rg3 is equal. Instead, White plays an unsound sacrifice.

20.Rxg7+? Kxg7 21.Nxh4



What should Black play to achieve a winning advantage?

21...Rf4??

Once again, relinquishing his advantage completely! Correct was 21...Bxh4! Once again, getting his Bishop out of his own way, and leaving White with that rotten piece on b2. The Knight, however, needs to go. After 22.Qg4+ Kh8 23.Qxh4 Ne7 24.Bd3 Rf7 25.Bc3 Nf5 26.Bxf5 Rxf5, White has no compensation for the sacrificed material, and the Rook is far better than the Bishop and Pawn.

22.Ng2 Re4+ 23.Be2 Bg5 24.Rc2 Rf8 25.Qd3 Kh8 26.f3



Now it is a question of survival for Black. Black has to give back the exchange, but how should he do it? One move maintains equality and the rest are losing. What do you play?

26...Rh4?

The Knight is not Black's biggest problem. It's the Light-Squared Bishop! Black should take the Bishop on e2. After 26...Rxe2+ 27.Kxe2 a5 28.b5 Ne7 29.Bc1 Bxc1 30.Rxc1 Nf5 31.Rc6 Qg7 32.Ne3 Nxe3 33.Qxe3 Qg2+ 34.Qf2 Qh1 35.Qf1 Qxh2+ 36.Qf2 Qh1 37.Rxe6 Qc1 38.Rf6 Rg8 39.Rxb6 Qxa3 40.Re6 Qb3 41.Rd6 Qc2+ 42.Ke3 Qc1+ 43.Kd3 Qd1+ 44.Ke3, the position is equal.

27.Nxh4 Bxh4+ 28.Kd1 Ne7 29.Kc1 Nf5 30.Kb1 Bg5



Now it's White's turn to find the winning idea. Do you see it?

31.Bc1?

Remember Black's mistake on move 17, figuring it's such a great thing to get rid of the Bad Bishop? Well, White proceeds to make the same mistake here, looking to trade off his bad piece. That said, the Bishop was playing a vital role, especially after seeing White's idea, it holds together White's position by covering a3 and d4. White can, if he wants, continue the King walk with 31.Ka2 Bf4, but whether he decides to do this first or not doesn't alter the ultimate move that White needs to make, and that is b5! After 31.b5! (or 31.Ka2 Bf4 32.b5!), the idea is to bring the Rook in via c6, which after a move like 31...Qe7 or 31...Qg7, White would play 32.Rc6 with a strong position. The only way to avoid it is by trading Rooks, which may be Black's best line of defense as after 31...Rc8 32.Rxc8+ Qxc8 33.Bf1 Nh4 34.Bh3 Kg7 35.Qd1 Ng6 36.Qg1 Bf4 37.Qg4 Kf7 38.a4, White's position is clearly better, but it's not over.

31...Bxc1 32.Rxc1 Rg8?

Black should move his Queen to d8 or e7. The move played abandons the coverage of the Knight, and with correct play by White, Black will have to go back to f8.

33.Rc2

Both sides are in time trouble, though Black far worse than White, but the poor play shows. White should play 33.Bf1, keeping the Rook from coming in on g2, and preparing Bh3, attacking the Knight on f5, which will need the extra coverage and the Rook will have to go back to f8.

At this point, White has 12 minutes for the rest of the game. Black has 2 minutes.

33...Qe7 34.Qc3 Qh4 35.Bd3?

35.Rd2 would maintain status quo.

35...Nxd4 36.Rb2 a5?

The position is back to being dead equal. The only move that wins for Black is taking on f3, intending on going to e1, immediately. After 36...Nxf3 37.Qc7 Ne1 38.Be2 Qe4+ 39.Ka2 Nd3 40.Bxd3 Qxd3, Black is in the driver's seat being a Pawn up with no compensation.

37.bxa5 bxa5 38.Qxa5 Nxf3 39.Qc7 Ne1 40.Rb4 Qxh2 41.Qe7 Qf2??

At this point, Black had seconds on the clock to White's two minutes, and blunders a mate in one. Of course, White threatened 42.Qf6+ with mate in 4, and the only move that stops mate is 41...Qh6 when after 42.Be2 Qg6+ 43.Kh2, numerous moves now draw for Black.

42.Qxh7# 1-0


A roller-coaster ride of a game, but a couple of vital facts can be learned from this game. The first is that the Advance Variation is not a simplistic line for Black to defend. But more importantly, we saw multiple instances of playing being excited to trade off their Bad Bishop, but in both cases, Black on move 17, White on move 31, they were serious mistakes. A Bad Bishop can play a vital role in the position, especially from a defensive perspective. You do not ever want to enter an endgame with just the Bad Bishop, such as the dreaded "Good Knight versus Bad Bishop" endgame, but with heavy pieces still on the board, they can often be relieved from defensive duties if that "Bad Bishop" of yours is holding the pawn structure together. When White traded off that Bishop on c1, sure he got rid of what looked like his worst piece, but we saw how White's position started to collapse when the Knight took the Pawn on d4, and it was a pair of follow-up time trouble blunders by Black on moves 36 and 41 that won the game for White.

Watch out before you give away that Bad Bishop, and that goes for both Black (the Light-Squared Bishop) and White (the Dark-Squared Bishop).


That concludes this edition of The French Connection. Until next time, good luck in all of your French games, Black or White!

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