Saturday, November 9, 2019

The French Connection: Volume 26

Hello and welcome to the twenty-sixth edition of The French Connection. In this one, we are going to look at a line in the Closed Tarrasch, a line that hasn't been featured much in my columns, mainly because I still to this day view the Tarrasch as nothing more than a draw attempt by White, and because I find 3...c5 to be the automatic equalizer for Black. That said, I occasionally will play the Closed Tarrasch, and did so here as I was playing someone that I have played numerous times before, and was looking to change it up on him. That said, while I do see 3...c5 as Black's strongest response to the benign 3.Nd2, I'm here to show you that Black has very little, if anything, to be afraid of with 3...Nf6, and we will be discussing a little Closed Tarrasch theory.

The other reason I am featuring this game is to talk about a topic that French players must always be on the lookout for, as the Colle System and the French Defense are the two most frequent cases where this tactic can be found, in both cases against the Black King. It is a well-known tactic known as the Greek Gift Sacrifice. The Greek Gift Sacrifice is a sacrifice of the Bishop on h7 against the castled King (h2 if Black is executing it), usually followed by the Knight going to g5 followed by the Queen coming in on d3 or h5. We will talk in more detail about this when we get to the position in the game.

So without further ado, let's see what we have here.

Tuesday Night Action 57, Round 1
W: Vishnu Vanapalli (2122)
B: Patrick McCartney (2018)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 f6

This is a well-known position in the Closed Tarrasch. Sure there are early deviations, like White can play 5.f4, or Black can play an early 7...Qb6, but this position will occur in probably 90% of Closed Tarrasch games. While White plays the main response here, I'm about to show you why I don't play the Closed Tarrasch often. White has a sideline here, namely 9.Nf4!?. This line, in theory, isn't supposed to cause Black any issues if he knows it, but there are numerous places where Black needs to know the precise move or else he is worse, he won't be able to castle, and really only one spot that he can even think about deviating. The whole idea of why this line is ok for Black is the big pawn center he achieves, but after 9...Nxd4 10.Qh5+ Ke7 11.exf6+! (This should be played first before grabbing the exchange) Nxf6 12.Ng6+ hxg6 (12...Kd7 13.Ne5+! and 12...Ke8 13.Qh4! are both significantly worse for Black) 13.Qxh8 Kf7 (Another critical move - all other moves are significantly worse for Black) 14.Qh4 e5 15.Nf3 and here is the only spot where I think Black actually has a choice:

  1. The main line is 15...Nxf3+ 16.gxf3 Bf5 17.Bxf5 gxf5 18.Bg5 and this is supposed to be equal, but again, Black has to find a lot of moves just to hold on. After 18...Qa5+ 19.Kf1, the move 19...g6 is a critical move to find. After 20.Bxf6 Qa6+ 21.Kg2 Qxf6 22.Qa4 (White has no interest in trading Queens here) Qc6 23.Qb3 Bh6 (Another move that must be found by Black) 24.Rad1 Rd8 25.Rd3 Kf6 (Another critical move for Black) 26.Rc3 Qd7 27.Qc2 d4 and only now can one safely say that Black is ok. In the game Miroshnichenko - Firman, Alushta 2002, the game finish with White giving perpetual check after 28.Rc7 Qd5 29.Rh7 Bg7 30.h4 Qg8 31.Qc7 Re8 32.Rc1 Qxh7 33.Qd6+ Re6 34.Qd8+ Re7 35.Qd6+ Re6 36.Qd8+ with a draw.
  2. The one sideline option for Black, and probably the line I would be inclined to play if faced with this, is 15...e4 16.Nxd4 Bb4+ 17.Kf1 (17.Bd2 Bxd2+ 18.Kxd2 exd3 19.Kxd3 Qb6! 20.b3 Bf5+ 21.Nxf5 Qa6+ 22.Kc2 Rc8+ 23.Kb2 Qe2+ 24.Ka3 Rc6! and White can't avoid the perpetual) exd3 18.Bg5 Qb6 19.Bxf6 Qxf6 20.Qxf6 gxf6 and the unopposed Bishop pair, extra Pawn, and slightly better King now that the Queens are gone should compensate for being the exchange down.

This just feels like a lot of theory to know just to survive. In correspondence chess, this is a non-issue, but over the board, I would prefer to avoid this headache. Here is a prime example where the best move theoretically may be different than the best move in a practical manner. The move played in the game is the "main line", but I find 9.Nf4 to cause far more unnecessary headaches for Black than the main line, and this is the main reason why I advocate 3...c5 more than 3...Nf6. I think that the above analysis proves that I make no claim that Black is ever worse in the 9.Nf4 line of the Closed Tarrasch, just that it leads to too many headaches and sleepless nights for Black. In the grand scheme of things, I fully agree with Evgeny Sveshnikov's assessment that 3.Nd2 is vastly inferior for White compared to 3.Nc3 or 3.e5, but that doesn't mean Black task to prove it is simple, unlike in the Exchange Variation where White gets nothing after a very simple defense by Black. It's this extra necessary theoretical knowledge that gives Tarrasch supporters the false sense of security that they can actually achieve something substantial with this line.

Going back to the position after 8...f6 (first diagram) ...

9.exf6 Nxf6 10.O-O Bd7 11.Nf3

Here Black has a decision to make.


The other main options are 11...O-O and 11...Qb6. After 11...O-O, the move 12.Bf4, trading off Black's good Bishop, is known to give White a slight advantage, but Black should still have enough to hold the position together after 12...Bxf4 13.Nxf4 Ne4 and there are a number of options for White here, but they shouldn't be too big of an issue for Black, and many French books will show you what to do here. The main downside to 11...O-O is that while it is solid, Black's winning chances are minimal. The biggest issue with 11...Qb6, while it does continue to pressure d4, is that the Queen is somewhat misplaced after either 12.Nc3 or 12.b3, both of which lead to a very strong score for White. Part of the problem is, even in the 12.Nc3 lines, the White Bishop is not tied down to the defense of the b-pawn as Black can almost never take it anyway. With the Knight able to go to b5, there are problems with threats of the Queen getting trapped and loose pieces, such as the Bishop on d6, hanging. Therefore, White can invite Black to take the b2-pawn, which is usually poisonous. Black, of course, doesn't have to take the Pawn, but then the Queen on b6 can get in the way of the other pieces along with the b-pawn.

With the move played in the game, Black's idea is to delay White's ability to trade off dark-squared Bishops for as long as possible, but he does have to make sure that he remains active. If Black starts playing passive moves, White will trade off the Bishops and then dominate the e5-square, and Black will end up with a miserable game.


I don't like this move for White. It feels extremely slow and artificial, and is only White's 4th most popular move here. To me, there are two moves that are far superior to the move played in the game, and one that is actually inferior, amongst the three more popular moves by White:
  1. The main line for White, and in my opinion, White's best move as well, is 12.Bg5. The idea is simple. White wants to contest the Bishop on d6 and trade off dark-squared Bishops, but since 12.Bf4 has been eliminated by Black's 11th move, White is intending to go Bc1-g5-h4-g3 to contest the Bishop. Black usually follows up with 12...O-O, and after 13.Rc1, Black has four main options. He can play a conservative game with 13...a6 or 13...Bd7, looking to simply complete development, or he can play one of the active Knight moves, which is what I would advocate. I think it is a matter of taste whether you would prefer 13...Ng4 14.h3 (14.Ng3 Qb6!) Rxf3! 15.hxg4 Rf7 or 13...Nh5 14.Bh4 and now Black can decide between 14...Rxf3 15.gxf3 Bxh2+ 16.Bh1 Bd6, 14...g6 15.Qd2 Rxf3 16.gxf3 Bxh2+ 17.Kg2 Bf4 18.Nxf4 Nxf4+ 19.Kh1, or simply taking a more positional approach with 14...g6 15.Qd2 a6, stopping Bb5 by White. In the last line, the critical thing is to fight for e5. Black may never advance ...e5, but he can't allow a White piece to settle on e5, especially a Knight. Which line Black plays is a matter of taste, but he should be ok in each of the options displayed.
  2. With the Queen on c7 instead of b6, hence protecting the Bishop, 12.Nc3 doesn't have the sting it has in the 11...Qb6 line, and I don't think this is a very good line for White at all. Black can stop all activity for White with 12...a6, and then proceed as normal after 13.Bg5 O-O 14.Bh4 Nh5 15.Re1 g6 16.Rc1 Bf4 17.Rc2 Qg7 et cetera. This points out another key defensive idea in the 11...Qc7 line that is not available to Black in the 11...Qb6 line. This idea of advancing the g-pawn to g6 and moving the Queen to g7 is a common defensive mechanism for Black. The Queen continues to eye e5 like it does from c7, but also gives more support to the Black King. Black should have no issues what-so-ever in this line.
  3. The other alternative for White is 12.g3, which I think is really his only other legitimate try aside from 12.Bg5. The idea again is to contest the Bishop on d6. After 12...O-O 13.Bf4, I like the exchange sac idea for Black. After 13...Ng4 14.Rc1 Bxf4 15.Nxf4 Rxf4 16.gxf4 Qxf4 17.Be2 Nf6, Black has sufficient compensation for the slight material investment.

12...O-O 13.Be3 Nh5

I like this move for Black here. It illustrates one of the major problems with advancing the h-pawn too early. When you advance a Rook pawn one square, it weakens the square that is a Knight's move away from that pawn. So here, the move h3 weakens the f4-square, mainly because it is hard to dislodge something like a Knight as then the h3-pawn hangs, and even if a different piece resides on f4, it weakens h3 and other squares around the King. With the pawn still on h2, a move like g3 is not difficult to execute. The same goes for the other Rook pawns, where a3 weakens c4, ...a6 weakens c5 for Black, and ...h6 weakens f5 for Black.

Therefore, these moves should only be made when there is a necessary reason for them. For example, in the Ruy Lopez (after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 O-O), the move 9.h3 is necessary because White wants to play d4 without the Knight on f3, a major supporter of the d4-push, being pinned by the Bishop, and so the h3-push there prevents the pin.

But here, I see no good reason for the move, and the only other game I could find with 13...Nh5 was Savinel - Hodot, France 1998, which was a game that Black won via 14.Nc3 Bf4 15.Ng5 g6 16.Nb5 Qe7 17.Nf3 Bd7 18.a3 a6 19.Nc3 Rf7 20.Qd2 Raf8 21.Rae1 Qf6 22.Ne2 g5 23.Bxf4 gxf4 24.Kh2 Kh8 25.Rg1 Qh6 26.Ne5 Nxe5 27.dxe5 Rg7 28.Nd4 Rfg8 29.f3 Rg5 30.b4 Qg7 31.b5 Rxe5 32.Nb3 Rxe1 33.Rxe1 e5 34.Qb2 Qg3+ and White Resigned.

Black should also be ok after something like 14.Nc3 a6 15.Rc1 Nf4 16.Bb1 g6 17.h4 Qg7 18.g3 Nh5.

But in the game, we are going to see White try a completely different idea on the basis that the Knight moved away from f6.

14.Nc3 a6


White goes for what is known as the Greek Gift Sacrifice. This is a sacrifice of the Bishop on h7 against the castled King with the idea of a quick mating attack on the Black King. In general terms, it is typically thought that for this to work, White needs at minimum two of the following five items to be going his way (though that isn't always enough, as is the case here), and three is almost always decisive:
  • A Dark-Squared Bishop on the c1-h6 diagonal to discourage ...Kh6 by Black.
  • A second Knight that can reach e4 or f4.
  • A Rook that can get to an open e-file or a semi-open f- or h-file.
  • A secure pawn on e5
  • A pawn on h4 that is backed up by a Rook on h1

Now there are other factors, like whether or not a Black Rook is stuck on f8 to guard f7, or if the Black Queen is on e7 blocking the King's escape (particularly in cases where White does not have the secure pawn on e5, along with other minor factors that are very specific to each position, but those five mentioned are really the big five, and the combination that most frequently leads to success is the first and fourth ones, the Dark-Squared Bishop and the secure pawn on e5 as the f6-square can be a vital escape square for the King, and so if the King can't ever go to f6 and it can't ever go to h6, it's often a dead duck on either the g6- or g8-square.

In this scenario, White does have two of the five bullets, but it's not the best combination. He has the Dark-Squared Bishop, and the c3-Knight that can get to e4. As it turns out, with correct play from both sides, this version of the Greek Gift Sacrifice should end in a win for Black, and so therefore, if White should probably try the 15.Rc1 line mentioned near the end of the note to Black's 13th move above.

15...Kxh7 16.Ng5+ Kg6

Clearly the only defense for Black in this scenario as going backwards to g8 hangs the Knight on h5, and even though Black can prevent mate by pushing his g-pawn, his King is too exposed and he has lost too much material to survive.


The correct move for White. After 17.Qd3+ Kf6 18.Qh7 Nf4 19.h4 Bd7 20.g3, the move 20...Rh8 is only enough to draw after 21.Nce4+ dxe4 22.Nxe4+ Kf7 23.Ng5+ Kf6 24.Ne4+ with a perpetual, but Black can rain on White's parade with 20...Rae8!!, threatening 21...Rh8 now that the Black King can walk his way to d8.


The correct move by Black as all other moves lead to problems after White's next move.


But after Black's last move, this move doesn't work. Slower moves like 18.Rc1 Bd7! are also no good for White.

The move that creates the greatest challenge for Black is 18.g3, but even here, if Black can get through the extreme complications, he should come out on top after 18...Bd7 19.Qd3+ Kf6 20.Rae1 Rae8 21.Bc1 Nf4 22.Bxf4 (22.gxf4 Rxh4 -+) Bxf4 23.Qf3 Nxd4 24.Qg4 Nf5 25.Rxe6+ Bxe6 26.Nxe6 Kxe6 27.Qg6+ Kd7 28.Qxf5+ Kd8 29.Nxd5 Qe5 30.Qd3 Bxg3 31.fxg3 Kc8 32.Qc4+ Kb8 33.Qf4 Re6 34.Kg2 Rd8 35.Qxe5+ Rxe5 36.Nf4 and Black can now spend the next hour playing through this won endgame as it's not a cakewalk, and so the odds that White resigns any time soon is slim. Black is going to need half a bottle of migraine pills and a really good night's sleep after this, but theoretically speaking, Black's still winning.

The move in the game reduced Black's pain from a severe migraine to maybe a dull ache.


And now Black plays the wrong move. The correct move is 18...Nf6 (Black can flick in the check first if he wants with 18...Bh2+ 19.Kh1, but either way, the Knight move needs to come next) and the White Queen can't stay on the g-file, and there are no tactics either. For example, 19.Nxe6+ Nxg4 20.Nxc7 Bxc7 simply drops another piece for a pawn, and simply going back with something like 19.Qd1 just lets Black consolidate. This is where the importance of 17...Rh8 comes into play. Without that move, White has the resource of 19.h5+, which would be winning for White, but with the Rook on h8, this move doesn't work either.


White has full compensation for the piece after 19.Rfe1, leading to problems on e6. With the game move, the best White can do is escape with a draw.

19...Ke7 20.Nxd5+??

This was last call for the draw for White. He had to harass the Rook with 20.Nf7 Rh7 21.Ng5 Rh8 22.Nf7 and a perpetual unless Black tries 20...Rf8, but then 21.Qxh5 Rxf7 22.Bg5+ Ke8 23.Rae1 Ne7 24.Bxe7 Bxe7 25.Re3 when both 25...b5 and 25...Qd6 are answered with 26.Rf3 with dynamic equality.


A sacrificed piece for an extra pawn and a massive attack against a stripped King is often more than enough, but here, Black has two pieces for two pawns, and this is just too much for White to be able to cope with. He lacks the fire power, and whenever necessary, Black can return a piece back to White, hopefully for a pawn, and with a bunch of stuff traded off, White won't have the compensation for the missing piece like he did at various points in the middle game.

In fact, it's the White King that gets mated 13 moves later.

21.Rfe1 Nf6 22.Bf4+ Kf8

The correct retreating square for the Black King.

23.Be5 Nxe5

Black gets to trade another set of pieces and yet win one of his pawns back? Of course Black is willing to comply!

24.dxe5 Bxe5 25.Rad1 Bg4 26.Qd3

Of course, White has no interest in the tricky trade as 26.Qxg4 Nxg4 27.Ne6+ Kg8 28.Nxc7 Bxc7 just trades off more material. Sure White can grab the d-pawn, but he's down 2 pieces and completely lost with less material on the board.


Of course, taking the Rook on d1 drops the Queen to a royal fork.

27.Rc1 Qd6 28.f3 Bh2+ 29.Kf1 Bd7

Re-routing the Bishop to the lethal b5-square.

30.Qg6 Bb5+ 31.Kf2

This leads to an instant mate, but even after 31.Re2 Bxe2+ 32.Kxe2 Re8+ followed by 33...Qd7, Black eliminates the cheapo mate and is completely winning.


31...Ng4+, moving the Knight first and mating with the Queen, is a move faster, but this works just as well. If you see a forced mate, there is no reason to go around searching for quicker mates. This was the first one I saw, and so this is what I played. Plus, the mate with the Knight is cuter!

32.Ke2 Qf4+ 33.Kf2 Ng4# 0-1

Except for move 18, a well-played defense by Black. This game illustrates a couple of important points. First of all, if you are looking to play the Closed Tarrasch, the analysis given on 9.Nf4 is critical for you to know because this is one of those lines where if Black doesn't know all the moves, he will get blasted in short order. But the other thing it does is illustrates that when an abnormality happens, like the Greek Gift Sacrifice, you can throw all general concepts, especially that of material count, out the window, and the topic of mating attacks comes into play instead. We saw here that White only had two of the five items on the checklist, which if they are the right two, it is often enough, but White probably had the worst combination of the two, and needed something extra to go with it that he didn't have. While this particular line was not a case where the Greek Gift sacrifice should work, notice that it takes extreme levels of accuracy in defense, especially if White plays all the right moves (See the note to White's 18th move). It should not be that hard to see the correct move on move 18 as calculation should be enough to realize that 19.Nxe6 doesn't work, and if the White pieces are driven away, especially the Queen, then consolidation of Black's position should be simple, and he would maintain the extra piece, and be winning easily. That said, you probably need to analyze the line given in the notes to White's 18th move thoroughly if you are going to play the 13...Nh5 line here. White shouldn't be going for the Greek Gift Sacrifice in this case, but in case he does, it's better to be prepared for it than not.

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

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