Saturday, March 28, 2020

The French Connection: Volume 35

Hello everyone and welcome to the thirty-fifth edition of The French Connection. This time, we are going to cover a game from this week's Friday night rapid event that the Charlotte Chess Center has been running since shutting down temporarily due to COVID-19. This was the final round, and we will be seeing another Advance French, but this time, Black goes with the 6...c4 line (most of what we've covered lately has been 6...Nh6). This tends to be the more positional approach, but after some questionable development by Black, White goes for an attack in the center. We will see the importance of the Knights in this line. Granted, what White did on move 19 was a little over-zealous, giving up a Rook for the second Knight after having his Light-Squared Bishop all set up to pop the other Black Knight the moment it moves into the line of fire, and this gave Black a chance, but it was too complicated for him to execute, and we will see the White Knights and Queen dominate.

Without further ado, let's look at the feature game. This was played on, and so the names are user handles, White being myself. In case you are wondering where I got the handle from, when I first joined 9 years ago, the other thing I did a lot of besides playing chess was read a lot of thriller novels, especially political thrillers and espionage. That lasted until about 2014 when I then spent a year or so reading Bizarro and since then have pretty much quit reading fiction all together, and so these days, the handle has no real meaning. The time control was game in 15 minutes with a 2 second increment per move.

Friday Night Rapid, Round 3
W: ThrillerFan
B: bcooke01

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.a3 c4

This is the main alternative to 6...Nh6. The idea behind it is that White has weakened b3 as a result of his last move, and so rather than attack d4, Black figures to leave White with the hole on b3 and the weak pawn on b2. If this gets down to an endgame, and especially if Black reaches it with the Bishop pair, White could have a really hard time stopping Black from attacking the pawn chain at the base. Black can also try to infiltrate through the a4-d1 diagonal. Black will typically castle Queenside in this line, and White Kingside, despite the fact that each player is likely to attack on the side in front of their own King. With the closed nature of the position, this is often possible.


So we have a position where it is critical that Black plays the right move. There are two factors here. The first is that we just talked about Black keeping control of b3. If White is able to play the move b3 at no cost, Black is probably dead. However, the good news for Black is that there are three ways to counter the b3-idea for White. The thing is, only one of those three works at this very moment, but as the game goes on, Black should keep all three of the following ideas in mind:
  • The first way to prevent b3 by White is to outright control the b3-square more times than White does, leading to it simply losing a pawn for White, and leaving the c3-pawn weak as well.
  • The second way to prevent b3 by White is to visualize that if the c4-pawn were to capture on b3, can Black invade the White position via the weak c3-pawn and break through with an overwhelming attack. Note that simply winning the c3-pawn is not enough if Black is going to get pushed back after that. All that would do is open up lines for the White pieces at the Black King, and so if Black is going to take this approach, he has to make sure that he has a full-fledged break through, and not just a grabbing of a pawn followed by a retreat.
  • The third way to prevent b3 is to set up a fatal pin along the a4-d1 diagaonal. If White has no moved his Queen yet from d1, or if he places it on c2, it can be difficult to get in b3 because after a capture on b3 with either the pawn on c4 or the Knight on a5, when White takes Black with his Knight on b3, sometimes a move like ...Ba4 can be the trick to wind up winning a pawn, opening up the c4 square for a Black piece or an infiltration along the f1-a6 diagonal, and White also has to worry about what is now a passed Pawn on b3. This is often enough to be winning for Black, and therefore making the push of the b3-pawn a blunder sometimes for this exact reason of the pin with ...Ba4. This is why the Bishop is usually developed to d7 fairly early in this line.

The second thing to keep in mind is that Black has to watch out for walking into cheap shot tactics. Here, the beginners move 7...Nge7?? would be a huge mistake, and White gets an overwhelming position by sacrificing his Bishop due to the Knight tricks that result from it. After 8.Bxc4! dxc4 9.Nxc4, the Queen is attacked, and after the Queen moves, White has 10.Nd6+ followed by 11.Nxf7 with an overwhelming advantage.

Therefore, to avoid this cheap shot, and to control b3 (the only way out of the three right now to stop White is the first bullet, controlling b3 more times than it's attacked), Black's next move is forced.


Now it is White that has to make a decision. There are two different ways to proceed. White can play 8.Be2 and 9.O-O, with the idea being to attack the center and Queenside, trying to break through with b3. The alternative, which we see in this game, is to play 8.g3 and 9.h4, and develop the Bishop on either g2 or h3, and attack the center and Kingside. White goes for the latter approach here.

8.g3 Bd7 9.h4 h5?

This move is a mistake. All it does is weaken Black's Kingside. Two alternatives are both improvements. The first is to simply go ahead and castle Queenside immediately and follow up with 10...f5. The alternative is to develop the Knight first with 9...Ne7 when 10.Ng5 should be answered by 10...h6!, driving the Knight back, and after 11.Nh3, only then castle with 11...O-O-O.

10.Bh3 Nh6 11.Rb1

This is a multi-purpose move. First off, it adds a piece to the threat of advancing b3. Despite the line chosen by White to attack the center and Kingside, if Black simply gives White the green light to play b3, he should still do it. Second, White plans to castle, get the Knight out of the way, and try to trade off his bad Bishop on g5 since White weakened the dark square already with 9...h5. Without this Rook move first, that would all result in the b2-pawn hanging. Lastly, White doesn't have to worry about any ...Nb3 tricks. Attacking the Rook by itself is not an issue, but if it allows the Knight a gain of tempo to then either infiltrate on d2 or sacrifice itself on d4 at a time when it would work, White doesn't want to make the tempo gain a possibility for Black.


I don't like this move for Black at all. The King should be going that way. In fact, Black should probably have castled here and now with 11...O-O-O.

12.O-O Be7 13.Re1

This move does solidify the White Center, and if Black ever plays something like ...f6, White can capture on f6 and the Rook comes to life. Also, any sacrifices on d5 or f5 could divert the e6-pawn away, and backing up the advancement of the White pawn on e5 is another possibility. But really for now, this move was to get out of the way of the Knight on d2, going to f1 to relocate itself.

13...Qc7 14.Nf1 Nb3

I'm not so sure that this move serves much purpose as the Bishop is now on the run, leaving the Knight out there to dry.

15.Bg5 Ba4

Quite frankly, I don't like what Black has done the last half-dozen moves or so at all. Before you knee-jerk and say that White has to get his Queen out of dodge, you must ask yourself, "Is Black actually threatening anything?", to which the answer should be "not much, if anything at all." Let's consider all the possible discoveries that Black may have at some point. For now, anything other than 16...Nc5 would outright hand the Bishop with check, but even we assume Black protects the Bishop first, what would that mean in terms of possible discoveries? Let's take a look with the assumption that the Bishop on a4 is protected when any of these discoveries occur:
  • 16...Nc1, 16...Nd2, and 16...Nxd4 are all just outright idiotic. In all three cases, White will simply capture the Knight with the Queen and Black has absolutely nothing for it.
  • 16...Na1 also seems pretty dumb. After a simple move like 17.Qe2, what is the Knight going to do? Return to b3? Go to c2 and risk getting the Knight trapped after something like 17.Rec1? That move makes no sense.
  • 16...Na5 - Sure Black can play this move, but is it anything more than a 1-move threat where White simply moves the Queen?
  • That leaves 16...Nc5, a square normally not available to the Knight, and so this is really the only move that we have to consider.

So since we determined that there is only one move to even remotely consider, again, if it were Black to move, what would 16...Nc5 achieve? The answer, truthfully, is not much. One could argue that Black intends to play 17...Ne4 next, but in reality, the Knight is not stable here, and Black must spend time making sure it doesn't get trapped. For example, if White moves the Knight on f3 to say, h2, away from everything, White has the immediate threat of pushing the pawn to f3, trapping the Knight in the middle of the board! Therefore, I can't see this being much of an issue.

Therefore, at least for now, we can outright ignore the threat of discovery on the Queen, and except for ...Nc5, we can literally wait multiple moves before even thinking about the other possibilities as right now the Bishop would hang with check. This concept of being able to ignore threats is a very important one. If you always knee-jerk to everything that has the appearance of being a threat, you will often miss out on some very strong moves made available to you in your games.

16.Bxe7 Qxe7 17.Ng5

Now going to c5 and e4 with the Knight would simply drop a pawn, and so the Queen continues to sit on d1 for now.


The h-pawn was of course hanging. The alternative, 17...Nf5, is actually not an option at all to Black. After 18.Bxf5! exf5 19.Ne3, Black is in serious trouble.

18.Ne3 Rc7


While there is a logical idea behind this move, it is going a little too far over the top for White. The idea is as follows:
  • The Bishop on h3 is waiting for the h6-Knight to move, either to f5 or g4. In both cases, White will snap the Knight with his Bishop.
  • The Queen and the two Knights will place pressure on the Black pawns and the light squares around the Black King, with one of the Knights sacrificing itself, especially on d5. Also note that if Black ever moves the h6-Knight to f5, and White captures, it's highly likely that Black will be forced to take back with the g-pawn, making h5 a target as well as d5.
  • The Rook on b1 will continue to guard b2 if need be, and if the Black pieces get distracted to cover the attack by the White Queen and Knights, then the b3 idea might still be in play.
  • With the Black pawn already on g6, and the Queen on e7, the likelihood of an ...f6 advance any time soon is almost zero. The sacrifice of a Knight might open up the e6-square for the pawn to advance, but that's a long shot. I decided that I didn't really need the e1-Rook, and that the elimination of the Black Knights was more important.

Now you might be wondering about that last bullet, and why I say that I didn't really need the e1-Rook. Isn't it the other one that's going away? Well, yes and no. While the capture by Black will be of the Rook on b1, White is simply going to recapture, where there is still a Rook on b1, and no Rook on e1, and so in reality, you are getting the Knight, and removing your own Rook from e1, and so you have to think about it this way. Sure, it's the e1-Rook that survives, but it survives by residing on b1 after capturing the Knight.

All of that said, it would have been better for White to play a simple move like 19.Ng2 with a clear advantage. The Knight will eventually go to f4, and the Queen will come in in due time. There was no need to rush the attack, and now, instead of being clearly better for White, it is unclear instead.


Black takes up the offer.

20.Qg2 Nxb1 21.Rxb1 Nf5

Already Black offers the other Knight as well. It probably would have been better to play 21...Kf8 intending to go to g7 with the King.

22.Bxf5 gxf5

Of course, 22...exf5?? loses pretty much on the spot. After 23.Nxd5 Bc6 24.Nxc7+! Qxc7 25.d5, White has an overwhelming position, and after 25...Bd7 26.f4, Black could safely resign.

So as we noted in the second bullet earlier, White now has the added target on h5.


Immediately heading for f4, combined with Qf3, to target the h-pawn.


This move is a complete waste of time. There is no threat to the h-pawn as there is a White Queen on g2, meaning that White would win a Rook if Black took on h4, and White is about to attack the h5-pawn, which there is no way to cover except via ...Rh8, and so Black's last move was non-productive.

24.Nf4 Rh8 25.Qf3

The h5-pawn is toast.

25...Qf8 26.Nxh5 Qh6 27.Nf6+

As it is, despite being up a Rook for Knight and Pawn, Black's position is possibly beyond salvageable. That said, Black manages to find the worst of the three squares that the King could go to.


The absolute worst of the three possible squares to put the King. White is still significantly better, but Black can at least continue to fight on after 27...Kd8, after which 28.h5 is an advantage for White.

From here, Black is going to lose, at minimum, another pawn and the Exchange, putting White up two clear pawns.


Black could resign here as 28...Kd8 (or 28...Kd7) 29.Nxc7 is completely winning for White, but here, Black does the unthinkable.

28...exd5 29.Nxf5+ 1-0

Winning the Queen and the game.

So we saw a game where the White Knights completely overwhelmed Black. Yes, Black could have defended better, and the sacrifice by White on move 19 was not the best, but the game still illustrates that the relative values that beginner books assign to pieces are exactly that, relative. In a completely blocked position like this, which is not at all unusual in the 6...c4 line of the French Advance, we saw what little value the Rooks and the Bishops held. It was all about the Knights combined with the Queen, two pieces that tend to work well in tandom to begin with, but with a pair of unopposed Knights and a Queen, combined with some shotty defense, it was enough for just those three pieces alone to overwhelm the Black King. While you should probably think twice before giving a Rook away for one of those Knights, I wouldn't blink an eye before giving away a Bishop for a Black Knight, especially the dark-squared Bishop, which in this game we saw was traded for Black's DSB, which at least is his good Bishop and White's bad one, but the value of each of the pieces was nowhere near what the beginner books will tell you. The Black Bishop on a4 was almost totally useless while the Rooks for both sides were not quite as bad as the Bishop, but they were still virtual bystanders.

The other thing that should be noted is that while White would still have an attack on the center and Kingside with the line he played, had Black castled Queenside, we wouldn't have seen the problems that Black had with his King as he would be tucked away safely at b8 or a8 (after castling and moving the King a time or two to get off the diagonal that the Bishop on h3 would be eying.

We will conclude this edition of the French Connection here. Until next time, good luck in all of your French games, Black or White!

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