Saturday, February 22, 2020

The French Connection: Volume 31

Hello everyone and welcome to the thirty-first edition of The French Connection. As you may recall in the previous four editions, we have been heavily covering the Advance Variation, and here, we are going to be digging very deep into the line with 9...Bd7 and 10...Nh6 with pretty much a full explanation of the ideas behind this line for Black. With this explained, readers will be able to understand why such an innocent looking 11th move for Black was not very good at all. It was a move played based on principles more than anything else.

In chess, most people are told to focus on principles over theory and specific lines, and many do that. What they often fail to do is follow the wisdom of starting with the Ruy Lopez and Queen's Gambit from both sides. The reason for this is that the theory of those two openings fall very much in line with opening principles to the letter. The same cannot be said about the French Defense. Just look at the Winawer Variation - 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne7. Fischer has always condemned this line, claiming doubt in it's soundness because it is anti-positional and weakens the Kingside. Black has voluntarily surrendered his dark-squared Bishop for what? Doubled pawns for White? It isn't until you fully understand the opening in depth that you appreciate the positives in the position over the negatives. If Black didn't have anything to offset the weakness of the dark squares on the Kingside, the Winawer would be out of business! I think we all know that that is certainly not true, despite Fischer's rant about it! The catch is that principles alone will not get through to survival. The French Defense is one of those openings where if White knows what he is doing, Black also must know what he's doing and must have a complete understanding of all the highly theoretical lines. If White tries to deviate, playing an inferior move, whether it be trying to pull a cheap trick on Black or playing something slow that simply leads to completion of development for White and nothing else, then this is where principles come into play. But the critical lines like the Winawer with 7.Qg4, Universal System in the Tarrasch, or Advance with 5...Qb6 6.a3, just to name a few, it is critical to know more than just principles when playing the French Defense.

Without further ado, let's look at our feature game.

Land of the Sky XXXIII, Round 4
W: Patrick McCartney (2087)
B: Rochan Bakthisaran (1897)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.a3 Nge7

This move can very much lead to the same position as 6...Nh6, and in this case does. The main difference is which sideline you want to deal with. 6...Nh6 allows White to play, if he wishes, 7.b4 cxd4 8.Bxh6 (instead of the immediate 8.cxd4) while 6...Nge7 gives White the added option of 7.dxc5. In this game, the main line is still reached, and is a fully viable option for White.

7.b4 cxd4 8.cxd4 Nf5 9.Bb2 Bd7 10.g4 Nh6 11.h3

For details on getting to this point, I refer you to The French Connection: Volume 28.

Now take a minute or two and think to yourself "What would I play here?". First thing you need to do is identify the situation. In The French Connection: Volume 30, we talked briefly about why early developments of the light-squared Bishop to d7 were dubious in the notes to White's 7th move. Why was that? The Bishop move allows White to get his King to safety and maintain the advantage. In the 5...Qb6 line, White cannot tuck his King away and be able to maintain the advantage. Well, this comes at a cost for Black as well. While White's issue is King safety, Black's is piece coordination. Sure, the Knight on c6, Queen on b6, and from a defensive standpoint, avoiding checks, the Bishop on d7 all work together, but what about that Knight out there on h6? These two factors should give a hint as to what Black should do here. There are two acceptable moves. See if you can figure out what one of them is before reading the analysis following the next move.


So what we have is a clash of King safety versus piece coordination. To continue with the lack of King safety, Black needs to continue to push on the d4-pawn and the Queenside, where it would come at a cost for White to get out of the mess, such as relinquishing his best minor piece, the Light-Squared Bishop, which we are about to see in the analysis here. The alternative is to focus on getting the rest of the pieces into the game. This will take time and allow White to get his pieces into the game as well, but at least Black is fighting with all of his army and not falling behind where all of his pieces get tied down, as we shall see in the game itself.

So the first option for Black is 11...Rc8. Black will continue to bombard the Queenside. After 12.Nc3 Na5 (We saw in The French Connection: Volume 28 why Black needs to wait to play this move until White has already played Nc3) 13.Na4 Qc6 14.Rc1 Nc4, we have a position with play for both sides. That Knight on c4 is a problem for White, and he is virtually forced to relinquish his Light-Squared Bishop for it. After 15.Bxc4 bxc4 16.Nc5, we have the following position:

Now Black must make a critical decision. White's idea is to break through with d5. Black has to figure out whether to block it, which would require the Queen to do that job, or allow it and weather the storm. I think Black's best off allowing the pawn advance with 16...Ng8 where after 17.d5 Qxd5 (17...exd5 is bad due to 18.e6 Bxe6 {18...fxe6 19.Ne5 is winning for White} 19.Nd4 Qd6 20.O-O and now Black has the painful choice of two bad lines, either 20...Nf6 21.Qa4+ Bd7 22.Rfe1+ Ne4 23.Nxe4 dxe4 24.Qc2 or 20...Rxc5 21.bxc5 Qd7 {21...Qxc5 22.Re1} 22.f4 Qc7 23.Kg2 Bxc5 24.Nxe6 fxe6 25.Qe2 Qd7 26.f5, both of which ought to lead to a win for White.) 18.Nxd7 Qxd7 19.Qxd7+ Kxd7 20.Ng5 Nh6 21.b5 c3 22.Rxc3 Rxc3 23.Bxc3 Bxa3 24.Ke2 Be7 25.Ne4 Ra8 (25...Rc8 26.Ra1 and Black has nothing better than 26...Ra8, handing White a free move) 26.Ra1 and the position is basically equal.

The problem with blocking the pawn is that after 16...Qd5 17.Nxd7 Kxd7 18.O-O f5 19.Qe2, White is better after both 19...fxg4 20.hxg4 Nxg4 21.Ne1 Nh6 22.Ng2 where Black cannot prevent White from forcing the Queen off of d5 and pushing through with what is now a Black King stuck in the center, and 19...b5 20.Nd2 Be7 21.Nb1 and once again, Black cannot prevent the Knight from chasing the Queen off of the blockading square.

The second option is to hit the White center from the front and get the Knight into the game with 11...f6 when White can't hold on to the center, and so 12.exf6 gxf6 is played, and now after 13.Nc3, it should first be noted that those tricks with sacrificing the Knight on b4 do not work here compared to what we saw in two recent articles because of the added defense to the Knight on c3 via the Bishop on b2. In those cases where it did work, the White Bishop was developed to e3 rather than b2. Therefore, Black should carry on with 13...Nf7 when 14.Na4 Qc7 15.Rc1 Qf4 16.Rc3 b6 leads to another interesting situation:

Now White's main break is g5, but which way should he go about it? Turns out that white has two roughly equal options. The first is 17.Bc1 when 17...Qd6! 18.c5 Nxb4! 19.axb4 Qxb4 20.Bd2 Qxa4 21.Qxa4 Bxa4 22.gxf6 is roughly equal. The second is 17.Rg1. Here, 17...Nxb4? doesn't work as White is clearly better after 18.axb4 Bxb4 19.Be2 O-O 20.Kf1 Bxa4 21.Qxa4 Bxc3 22.Bxc3, and so therefore, better is 17...Ng5 18.Bb5 Nxf3+ 19.Rxf3 Qh2 20.Kf1, when an unclear position arises. There is no way for White to trap the Queen, and if both players are stubborn enough, this could abruptly end in a draw by repetition. After any move by Black, such as 20...Bg7, White can harass the Queen with 21.Rg2, knowing that if Black doesn't want to retreat, you could end up in a repetition with 21...Qh1+ 22.Rg1 Qh2 23.Rg2 Qh1+ 24.Rg1 Qh2. That said, White is not forced to take this route, and he could even test Black once to see if he retreats, and then do something else after the 2-fold repetition. Both players just need to be aware that this is possible, just like the draw that is available to White in the Zaitsev Variation of the Ruy Lopez.

In the game, Black will soon see himself getting into major trouble. The problem is that this Bishop move doesn't really accomplish anything, and all it does it lose all flexibility. For instance, after the 11...f6 move, forcing the trade of pawns, the Bishop could be better off on d6, which would be a waste of a move by Black, or g7 or h6, squares which can no longer be reached from e7.

12.Nc3 f6 13.exf6 gxf6

Black had to take with the pawn anyway as after 13...Bxf6?? 14.g5, there is no desperado move to get out of the fork, and White simply wins material, and so therefore, again I ask, what did 11...Be7 accomplish?


So, in essence, compared to the 11...f6 line, White is a move ahead with a misplaced Black Bishop on e7.

14...Qd8 15.Nc5 b6


A player who lacks experience in the French would ridicule this move, giving up a Knight for a Bad Bishop in a position where he has a slight advantage in space, but here, it is correct. The Bishop acts as a key defender to e6. With the Bishop removed, combined with the b-pawn advancing to b6, many of the light squares, including e6 itself, become weakened by this trade. Retreating the Knight is vastly inferior. After 16.Nf3 Bd6 17.Rc1 Nf7, White is still better, but the Knight on d3 is merely getting in the way of the rest of White's pieces, and playing in this manner simply gives Black additional time to coordinate his pieces. Just like the Winawer mentioned in the introduction, the French is full of exceptions, and grabbing the "Bad Bishop" for a Knight is sometimes one of them. Keep in mind that you have to evaluate this trade on an individual basis. This trade is not always good, but here, it's the only move that leads to an outright winning position for White.

16...Qxd7 17.Bb5! Nf7 18.Rc1 Rc8 19.Qc2 Nfd8

So we have a position where three White pieces, the Bishop on b5, Queen on c2, and Rook on c1, tie down four Black pieces, the Knight on c6, the Knight on d8, the Rook on c8, and the Queen on d7, and so, in essence, White has an extra piece that is free to move. Now you might be thinking to yourself "sure, it's that horrible Bishop on b2", but that Bishop is doing a critical job. It covers e5! In fact, White's idea is to continue to dominate e5, and to use his pieces when he is ready and not before that. Besides using fewer pieces to tie Black down, it is White that can decide when to release the stranglehold, and will do so on his own time!

Knowing that White is trying to dominate e5, do you see his next move?


Removing the pawn from f6. Whether Black allows White to capture, captures on g5, or advances to f5, the e5-square will be weakened no matter what!

20...Kf7 21.Qe2

Now that the King has come forward toward the Kingside, White shifts his focus from the c6-Knight to the King.


This move serves little purpose. What is Black trying to do? Win a pawn? Does he not realize the danger of his King? As we will see in the game, White could care less about the b-pawn. There is no attack down the c-file for Black, and so he should probably have focused on trying to defend the King with a move like 21...Rg8. This should not work and White is winning no matter what, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

22.gxf6 Bxf6 23.Rg1 axb4

Black has just won a pawn. Does White care? Absolutely not! In fact, he hopes that Black will capture again on a3! With the Rook on g1, a Queen coming to h5, and a Bishop on a3 if Black were to capture a second time, the King is trapped in the crossfires. This extra pawn only means something if Black can reach an endgame, but reaching an endgame is absolutely hopeless for Black in this position. Every White piece plays a role, including the Bishop on b2. What is the Black Knight on d8 doing other than blocking his own Rook on c8 from coming into the game? Sure the h8-Rook can move to an open file, but that will take an extra move that Black does not have time for. The Queen is passive. Outside of being up a pawn, there is literally nothing positive that can be said about Black's position. White has no interest in slowing down, and is ready to blast the Black King!

24.Ne5+! Bxe5 25.Qh5+ Kf8 26.dxe5 Qf7 27.Qh6+ Ke8 28.Be2

This move, and virtually any other move that doesn't outright hang material, should win easily for White. That said, even stronger was 28.Rg7!, when after 28...Qf5 29.Qf6 Qxf6 30.exf6 Kf8 (What other move does he have? Black is virtually frozen!) 31.axb4 Rg8 32.Ba6 Ra8 33.b5 Nb4 34.Ba3 and Black is busted. For example, 34...Rxg7 35.Bxb4+! drops a piece.


Virtually forced to tactically prevent the pin of the Queen to the King.

29.Rxg8+ Qxg8 30.axb4 Ne7?

This move loses on the spot, but there is no mercy for Black, even after a move like 30...Kd7 as 31.Bb5 continues to tie Black down.

31.Rxc8 Nxc8 32.Bb5+

And now the only way to avoid instant checkmate is to jettison the Knight with 32...Nc6, giving the King the d8-square, but even then, Black's totally busted. Instead, Black fails to play this move, and is instantly mated.

32...Ke7 33.Qf6# 1-0

For anybody that is an advocate of the French Defense, myself included, this game can be very painful to look at. Yes, I had the White pieces in this game, and definitely consider this one of my better played games with the White pieces, but it is still painful as a French advocate to see Black go down like this. That said, if all you do when studying an opening is see the positive side of everything, you will never learn, because one learns a lot more from their mistakes than from their successes. We analyzed in depth Black's ideas at move 11, and rather than just some database dump full of moves, we reasoned it out in both lines, and with thorough analysis, we found the ways for Black to either equalize, or at minimum, create a highly unclear position, and the purpose this game served was to illustrate what could happen after a single move that conceptually looks fine, but turns out to be a very lazy move with horrifying after effects. Probably the biggest thing that you have to deal with in the French Defense, especially the Advance Variation, compared to say, the black side of the Ruy Lopez, is the lack of space, and when you lack space, accuracy becomes more critical. This is one of the main reasons why, when I wrote the 7-part Repertoire for White and Black on the French Defense in 2017, that I gave the Advance Variation as the line covered for White! The Advance Variation is more about understanding, and less about memorization, than say, 3.Nc3. However, actually understanding it, and not just memorizing it, is more critical here than in almost any other opening known to man kind, especially for Black!

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

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