Saturday, May 23, 2020

The French Connection: Volume 37

A Tale of Two Weird Winawers

Hello everyone and welcome to the 37th edition of The French Connection. As we continue to be stuck at home during this pandemic, correspondence chess and online blitz have taken over, and since the quality of online blitz chess is usually not good, I am continuing to cover correspondence games as they come to a close, and this week, I've had two games come to a close this week, and we will be covering both. Normally, in this series, we cover one game per article, but this time, like The French Connection: Volume 9, we will actually cover two games that fall in the same category. The first game we will cover an "Anti-Winawer". Yes, you read it right, an Anti-Winawer. Just when you thought it was only the Sicilian that had "Anti-" lines. There are many others as well, like the Anti-Colle, where Black brings his Bishop out before playing ...e6, or the Anti-Meran where White avoids 5.e3. The "Anti-Winawer", by definition, is any line where White does not play 4.e5 after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4. So this will be the first game we look at.

The second game we will see a very odd sideline. After 4.e5, Black will play 4...Ne7 instead of 4...c5 to avoid a highly theoretical line of the Semi-Winawer, namely 4...c5 5.Bd2. White still does have ways to avoid the main line. The most common are 5.Bd2 and 5.Qg4, ideas similar to the Semi-Winawer but where Black does not play an early ...c5. In the game we will be seeing, White plays a move that I will be honest, I have never seen before, is not mentioned in any book I've seen, and I own well over 20 books on the French, and in the database, out of 5390 games, White's reply was only played 65 times. So that will be the second game.

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

Game 1
Lockdown Cup 2020 - (Prelim Bracket 4)
W: Lee Edwards (Unrated)
B: Patrick McCartney (1900)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Bd2

This is actually called the "Fingerslip Variation". It got its name from the game Alekhine - Flohr, Nottingham 1936 where Alekhine had intended to play the Semi-Winawer via 4.e5 c5 5.Bd2, but inadvertantly played the moves in the wrong order.


The correct move here, and most popular. Other moves have been tried, such as 4...Ne7, and many responses by White will transpose to other lines, such as 5.e5 now would transpose to 4.e5 Ne7 5.Bd2, but the move 5.a3 can be a little annoying. It is hard to trust the retreat, 5...Ba5, without the center defined - White hasn't played e5 or exd5. I don't like Black's position after 6.Qf3. So Black must take on c3, and after the Bishop takes back, it may be best to then take the pawn on e4 anyway, so taking on e4 here really is the best approach.


The only move to maintain equality. 5.Nxe4? Qxd4 nets Black a pawn with no compensation at all for White. Other moves besides 5.Qg4 allow Black to hold on to the extra pawn.


With the d-pawn currently hanging, the Knight protected by the Queen even after White's grab of the g-pawn, and forcing White to run around the board with the Queen without being fully developed, it makes far more sense to surrender the g-pawn than the e-pawn.

6.Qxg7 Rg8 7.Qh6

Black now has a choice to make.


This is probably the most aggressive option, grabbing the pawn. Other options are:
  1. 7...Nc6 and now 8.Nge2 Nxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.O-O-O leads to an unclear position while 8.O-O-O allows Black to take a draw if he wants it. 8...Rg6 9.Qh4 (9.Qe3 Qxd4 10.Qe1 Bxc3 11.Bxc3 Qc5 and Black is slightly better) and now it is Black with the choice. He can take a draw with 9...Rg4 10.Qh6 Rg6 11.Qh4 Rg4 etc, or he can play on with 9...Bxc3 10.Bxc3 Qd5 with an equal, but unbalanced position.
  2. 7...Rg6?! though should be avoided. A move too soon. Now White has 8.Qe3! where after 8...Nc6 9.Nge2 Bxc3 10.Qxc3 Bd7 11.Qe3 Qe7 12.h3 O-O-O 13.O-O-O, White is for preference.


I don't like this move for White at all. Stronger is 8.Nge2 first and only after 8...Qe5 should White play 9.O-O-O Rg6 10.Qf4 with equality. Note that 9.Bf4 is going too far at chasing the Queen. After 9...Qf5, both 10.h3 Nd5 and 10.Nd4 Bxc3 11.bxc3 Qc5 are better for Black.

8...Bf8 9.Qh4

9.Qh3? fails to 9...Qxf2 10.Nge2 Bd7 and now Moskalenko points out that both 11.g4 Rxg4 12.Ng3 e3 13.Be1 Qf4 14.Bd2 Qh6 15.Qxh6 Bxh6 16.Bxb7 Bc6 17.Bxa8 Bxa8 and 11.Ng3 e3 12.Be1 Qf4 13.Bd3 Qh6 are winning for Black.

9...Rg4 10.Qh3 Qxf2 11.Be2 Rh4!

Giving the material back. Moskalenko claims that 11...Rg6 12.g4 leads to undue tactical complications. For example, after 12...Qc5 (13.Be3 was threatened) 13.g5 Rxg5 14.Be3 Qf5 15.Qh4 Rg6 16.Nb5 Na6 17.Rf1 Qd5 18.Kb1, White is better.

12.Qxh4 Qxh4 13.g3 Qh6 14.Bxh6 Bxg6+ 15.Kb1

Now that the dust has settled, let's look at what we have here. It appears as though Black is way behind in development, but reality shows that White has his g1-Knight and h1-Rook that will take time to get out as the Knight can't go to its most natural square. The material count is equal, but usually a Bishop and two pawns is better than a Rook in the majority of cases. Black also has the Bishop pair in a somewhat open position, and with no direct attack for White and the Queens gone, it's probably better to have your King in the center than on the side of the board. All told, Black has a clear advantage here.

15...Nc6 16.h4

16.g4 would do nothing but give White a weak g-pawn after 16...Ne5.

16...Ne5 17.Nh3 Ke7 18.Rhg1

Clearly, White is trying to force through the g-pawn to possibly create problems for Black, but he can't get enough pieces over there and there is no clear way to creating a passer for White on the Kingside either.


Putting the question to the Rook.


19.Rg2 isn't any better. Yes, it maintains the idea of advancing the g-pawn, but with the Bishop out of the h6-square, there are no pawn forks to worry about, and Black can simply proceed to complete his development with 19...Bd7 and a clear advantage.

The text move might optically look better as there could be a discovery on the Bishop looming, but there is absolutely nothing here for Black to be worried about.


Basically telling White that he has no real good discoveries with the Bishop.


But this move makes less sense than any move of the Bishop on e2. This just hangs the g-pawn, but Black needs to make sure he takes with the right Knight. Yes, White does get the pawn on e4, but the g-pawn is far more important for White than the e4-pawn is for Black. If Black didn't have another pawn on e6 to shield the King, it might have been different.


Taking with the other Knight would lose most of Black's advantage. After 20...Nexg4? 21.Nxe4 Bb7 22.Nxf6 Nxf6 23.Ba6 Bxa6 24.Rxe3, the bulk of Black's advantage is gone. The major difference is that by taking with the f-Knight, White has no Knight trade available to him to deflect the g4-Knight away from the Bishop.

21.Nxe4 Bb7 22.Neg5?

This does nothing more than get the Knight trapped.

22...h6 23.Nxf7 Kxf7 0-1

Sure, White could have tried to play on with 24.Bxg4 Nxg4 25.Rd7+ Kg6 26.Rxc7, but after 26...Bd5, Black has two Bishops straight up for the Rook and a completely dominating position. If this was being played over the board, White might continue, but continuing this is a correspondence game with engines is totally useless, and so White gave up.

In the second game, we will be looking at an even weirder line that at first glance looks really bad for White, but study it further and you realize that it's not so easy for Black to take advantage of White's ugly pawns.

Game 2
World Zone Individual Championship, Preliminary Round
W: Jamie Davidson (2099 - AUS)
B: Patrick McCartney (1920 - USA)

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 Ne7 5.Bd3

This strange move is one that I had never seen prior to this game. Even in my over 3000 blitz games on, it had never come up when this move was played back in mid-February. Since then, I have faced this line twice on, but both of them transposed to another line.


The most natural response, pressuring White's center.


In both the games on, White played 6.a3, when after 6...Bxc3+ 7.bxc3, we have a direct transposition to 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 Ne7 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 and now the offbeat 7.Bd3.

The move played in the game here leads to a very strange pawn structure.

6...d4 7.a3

Of course, forced as otherwise the Knight hangs.


By not taking the Knight, the pawn structure for White ends up looking very weird.

8.b4 dxc3 9.bxa5

At first glance, it looks like a complete beginner is playing White. How could White let his pawns get that way? Turns out, this position is not easy for Black at all. You have to look past the ugly White pawns and realize the following facts about the position:
  • White is a pawn up, though that doesn't really mean much here.
  • White has extra space and a much easier time developing his pieces. As Black tries to develop his Queenside, the pieces will be tripping over each other.
  • Black has some really weak squares on the board. The one that stands out most is d6.
  • Black can get at the pawns, but keep in mind that Black has no dark-squared Bishop, so while getting one of them back is simple, just thinking you are going to pick off the pawns one by one is dreaming.
  • White has the Bishop pair in what is basically an open position, not something you see every day in the Winawer, and especially lines where White actually did play 4.e5.

So Black has to be careful how to pick his battles here.


Probably the best move for Black. Black can also get an equal game with 9...Qxa5, but he has to be careful not to go pawn hunting with the Queen. After 10.Qg4, Black should develop either his Knight or his Bishop to d7. Note that 10...Qxc5? 11.Qxg7 Rg8 12.Qxh7! (this is even stronger for White than in the Poisoned Pawn variation where White's Bishop isn't already on d3) and now both 12...Qxe5+ 13.Ne2 and 12...Rxg2 13.Be3 Qxe5 14.Ne2 are very strong for White. The massive lead in development and Bishop pair on an open board along with the ability to gain tempi on the Rook and Queen far outweigh the extra pawn for Black. If Black were lagging in development with the minor pieces developed and the heavy pieces needing to get out, it might be a different story, but with only heavy pieces developed, this is a clear sign of possibilities for White to use them to gain even more tempi on his attack.

10.Nf3 Nxc5 11.Bb5+ Bd7 12.Bxd7+ Qxd7 13.Be3

So now the dilemma for Black. He can play a move like 13...b6 or 13...Rc8 to protect the Knight, but then he has to contend with a Queen Trade and then White gaining a tempo with the check. The alternative is to trade Queens and then resolve the problem with the Knight, which also develops the Rook for White. So either way, Black is either helping White develop, or retreating his own pieces, or in the case of the game, both! So don't get so excited about Black's position just because his pawn structure is better and he had regained the lost pawn.

13...Qxd1+ 14.Rxd1 Nd7

So Black's idea by retreating the Knight is fairly obvious. The position is open and White has the Bishop, so he has the best minor piece on the board. That said, with the Knight on f3, which is four moves away from the d5-square, and with White's remaining Bishop being on the dark squares, the d5-square is automatically where Black wants one of his Knights, both to protect the advanced c3-pawn, and to control some key dark squares in the center of the board. One of Black's Rooks will likely go to the c-file to also maintain the c3-pawn. If that c3-pawn falls, Black is likely worse, despite the ugly White pawn structure. The other Knight that just went to d7 is tying down the White Knight to the defense of the e5-pawn. So the real question is what will happen with the Rooks.


There is no reason for either side to castle in this position.

15...Nd5 16.Rd4 b6 17.Rg4 Kf8

This appears to hem the Rook in, but this is only temporary. The King will ultimately go to e7 once the issue with the g7-pawn is resolved.

18.Kd3 Rac8

Now we see the point of 16...b6, making it so that we can free up the a8-Rook to remove the duties form guarding the a-pawn.

19.Rb1 h6 20.h4 Rg8 21.h5 Ke7 22.Bc1

Now we have a critical moment. Black must assess the position carefully. The Knight on d5 is ideally placed and probably will not move any time soon barring a tactic available to Black, and it turns out this Knight sits here for the rest of the game. The Rook on c8 does a good job of holding the c3-pawn, a pawn that will also be there the rest of the game. There is a problem on the Kingside. The attack on the g-pawn is tying down the Black Rook to a severely passive square, g8. Also, it is tying the c8-Rook down to its defense so that White has no tactics on h6, using a pin to win a pawn. The Knight on d7 is also passive. The b6-pawn is also very well covered. So Black's position is solid, but a little too passive right now with too many things tied down to Black's g7-weakness. What Black must do is first of all accept that he will have a weakness of some sort no matter what he does. However, it usually takes 2 weaknesses to be defeated. If Black can transition the weakness to somewhere else where the defense of the weakness is dependent upon fewer pieces, it would be a great idea for Black, and so this is exactly what Black does.


So by attacking the e-pawn, and virtually forcing White to take on f6, Black will first off activate his d7-Knight. It will gain a tempo on the Rook and virtually force the Rook off the g-file. This will give Black the ability to advance the g-pawn where it will get traded off for White's h-pawn, and then Black's h-pawn and White's a-pawn will be equally weak where White can choose to defend his own weakness, or allow Black to take it in return for the remaining kingside pawn. That will leave Black with just one weakness, the isolated e-pawn, which is well covered by the King and hard for White to get to, and so instead of two Rooks doing the job of covering a weak pawn and a Knight as a result suffering in a passive position, just the King alone is enough to defend Black's only real weakness, and this is likely what nets Black half of the point.

23.exf6 N7xf6 24.Rh4 g5 25.hxg6 Rxg6 26.Ne1

The g-pawn was hanging if White tries to take on h6.

26...h5 27.g3 Kd6 28.axb6 axb6 29.Ng2 Rg4 30.Rxg4 hxg4 31.Ne3 Ra8

I had offered a draw in this position as there really is nothing either side can do. Virtually every pawn except arguably the g3-pawn is weak, and so White can decide to hold on to his own pawns, or pick away at Black's, but for every pawn he picks away at, Black is able to do the same to one of the many weak White pawns. White, however, decided to play on here.

32.Rb3 Kc6 33.Nxd5 Nxd5 34.Bh6 Rg8

With the idea that while White is possibly going after the c3-pawn, Black will go to g6, and then f6 to attack the f2-pawn.

35.Rb1 Rg6 36.Rh1 Rf6

Now White is stuck either retreating a piece to defend f2, or else play 37.Rh4 and trade f for g. Again, Black's rule simply is that for each thing that White pressures or attacks, if Black has an equivalent threat, he will draw this game. As it turns out in the game, White will get a passed g-pawn, but it won't be enough.

37.Ke2 Rf7

In anticipation of White wanting to play Rh4 and threaten the g4-pawn, Black cannot play passive defense, going back to g6 with the Rook. Instead, Black is ready to swing the Rook back to the a-file, and trade off g-pawn for a-pawn, and then start rolling his b-pawn forward.

38.Rh4 Ra7 39.Rxg4 Rxa3 40.Re4 Rxa2

If White now takes with 41.Rxe6+, despite it being check, after 41...Kd7, the c-pawn will fall.

41.Kd3 Kd7 42.Re1 b5 43.Rb1 b4 44.Bg7 Kd6 45.f4

And here inlies White's problem with being able to win the game. If he doesn't advance these pawns, what is he doing? If he does, they become weak.


Now all Black has to do is walk the King over in front of the passed g-pawn and then wait for g4, at which point he has a tactic based on the loose f-pawn that will allow him to simplify the position to a dead draw.

46.Bd4 Kf7 47.Be5 Kg6 48.g4

Now Black has a clever trick.


Now, if White doesn't take, Black will play ...b3 to force the issue.

49.Rxb2 1/2-1/2

Therefore, White took and offered the draw. After 49...cxb2 50.Bxb2 Nxf4+, the position is a dead draw. Sure, if you were playing over the board and one side was in time trouble, you could argue for playing on, but here, given the fact that 7-piece tablebases are used to declare wins and draws when a position gets down to 7 pieces or less, all that has to happen is one pawn goes away and either side can claim the result based on best moves, which in this case is going to be a draw.

So we saw two games here that did not feature the traditional closed position of the Winawer, but one thing was the same about these. Just like in the traditional Winawer, White's got weak pawns, and in some lines, Black also has weak pawns, and while weak pawns can often decide the game in a Classical, Tarrasch, Advance, or even Exchange French, the Winawer is a whole different ball of wax, and as we saw in both games, piece activity ruled both games. If either side spends their time defending weak pawns, they will lose! This is why move 22 was so critical in the second game. Black could spend the whole game using his whole army to defend the weak g7-pawn, or he can do what he did, converting it to a weakness on e6 that could be easily defended, and accepting the other weaknesses on the board, realizing that any attack on any of them can be countered by going after White's weak pawns. For example, we saw Black go after the a-pawn in return for White going after the g-pawn instead of having the Rook sit on the g-file and try to defend the g-pawn. White would eventually coordinate and break down Black's defenses, and so counter-attack is often the only option in this line. So just keep this in mind that if you are playing against a player that is always focused on his pawn structure, the Winawer can be your best friend!

That will conclude this edition of the French Connection. I'll be back when another game completes, which could be next week or it could be a few weeks later. Till then, good luck in all of your French games, Black or White!

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