Without further ado, let's take a look at the feature game.
Lockdown Cup 2020 - (Prelim Bracket 2)
W: Lester Weiss (2153)
B: Patrick McCartney (1900)
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.exd5 exd5 5.Ngf3 Nc6 6.Bb5
Some that may have followed this blog all the way back to 2017 when I wrote the French repertoire along with posts on chess.com might be wondering why I didn't play the line I preached, which is 5...Nf6 (instead of 5...Nc6) 6.Bb5+ Bd7 7.Bxd7+ Nxd7 8.O-O Be7 9.dxc5 Nxc5 10.Nb3 Nce4. I still play this line as well, but I play almost any line of the French Defense.
That said, the old main line, which is still played today, sees Black playing 6...Bd6 here, after which we see White trading on c5 with 7.dxc5 Bxc5 and then 8.O-O Nge7 9.Nb3 and the Bishop retreats to d6 (more popular) or b6. I still to this day have little interest in that line as Black.
However, Black has another interesting move here that caught my eye and is why I went ahead and played 5...Nc6 instead of 5...Nf6.
This might, at first glance, look like a dubious move, putting the Queen on the same file as the King. In the line with 5...Nf6, after 6.Bb5+ Bd7, instead of trading on d7, there is the line where White tries to grab a pawn, at least temporarily, with 7.Qe2+ Be7 8.dxc5. The major difference between that line for White and this line for Black is that Black has no intention of staying on e7 with the Queen, whereas the other line for White, he actually leaves the Queen on e2, trying to hold the extra pawn, and if Black finds the right response, he really has to let it go, but if he doesn't, White just ends up a pawn ahead, but that's a big if, and if Black does play it right, it results in a major waste of time for White.
Here, however, the idea is simple. Just like in the 5...Nf6 line, Black would really like to develop the Knight actively on f6 rather than the passive e7-square. In the normal main line with 6...Bd6, White's development flows smoothly. He hands Black the Isolated Queen Pawn. He makes the Bishop move twice, similar to the battle of the tempo in the Queen's Gambit Declined. He gets his Knight out of the way of the Dark-Squared Bishop with the gain of tempo by making the Bishop move a third time, and to avoid problems on the e-file, Black has to develop his Knight passively on e7. By giving this check, White's decisions are highly limited. Unlike the line where White tries to win a pawn mentioned above, in this case, the King's Bishop has already been developed to b5. Interposing with the Bishop doesn't develop the Bishop like it does for Black when White plays 7.Qe2+. It in some ways "undevelops" it. Forces White to move it to a more passive position. But it turns out, that really is White's only choice if he wants to try to maintain any sort of an advantage, and so therefore, the move played in the game was as such.
Other moves either get White nothing, or lose outright. For example, 7.Ne5?? f6 drops a piece, and 7.Kf1 just hems in the Rook. The only other practical choice is 7.Qe2. The problem is that it achieves absolutely nothing for White. After 7...Qxe2+, you've got 8.Kxe2 and the amateurish 8.Bxe2. The problem with the latter is that Black now has 8...Bf5!, a move that is ineffective if White immediately retreats with the Bishop as the Queen covers c2. Here, both 9.dxc5 Bxc2! 10.b3 Nf6 (taking the pawn is dubious as 10...Bxc5?! 11.Bb2 creates the dual threats of 11.Bxg7 and 11.Rc1, skewering the Bishops, forcing 11...Bf8, and after 12.Rc1, he must retreat his other piece, and the lack of development is worth the pawn, and so Black should leave it alone) 11.Bb2 Bg6 and 9.c3 cxd4 10.Nxd4 Nxd4 11.cxd4 Rc8 give Black no problems at all. That leaves 8.Kxe2, but now, Black can force White to surrender the Bishop pair with 8...a6!, when after 9.Bxc6 bxc6, White must play 10.Re1 just to maintain equality, forcing Black to play 10...f6, taking the desired square away from the Knight, and after 11.dxc5 Bxc5 12.Nb3 Bd6 13.Be3 with either 13...a5 or 13...Ne7, we have a dynamically level position. Black has an extra pawn island, but he also has the Bishop pair in a fairly open position.
There is absolutely no reason to be afraid of the Queen trade. However, now that the Bishop has been forced to retreat, Black is ready to re-locate the Queen.
The reason for playing this move immediately is the c5-pawn. If Black does not move the Queen now, then White can take on c5 and Black will have to take back with the Queen, which is undesirable. Now, if White takes, Black will take with the Bishop and develop yet another piece.
More normal here is 8.O-O Nf6 and only now 9.dxc5 Bxc5 10.Nb3 Be7, which the game transposes to after Black's 10th move. I mention this move order because the alternative to 9.dxc5 is the prophylactic move 9.Re1, which is supposedly the most challenging move for Black, and if I ever am faced with this line, I will likely cover it in another article, but this one here is all about the 9.dxc5 line, the only other options that poses any questions at all to Black's 6th move, along with earlier deviations and how Black should react to them.
8...Bxc5 9.Nb3 Be7 10.O-O Nf6
Transposing back to the main line. Now, the question becomes, where does Black want to place his pieces? In this line, the ideal setup is to get his King's Knight to e4 while the other stays at c6, temporarily brings out the Light-Squared Bishop to connect the Rooks, create a battery with the Rooks on the e-file, and then retreat the Bishop back, with a dominance on the e-file, as we will see here in the game.
11.Bg5 O-O 12.c3 Be6 13.Nbd4 Rae8
The right place for the Black Rook. This is more desirable than the passive 13...Rad8, simply guarding the pawn. Now the onus is on White to play the right move.
The correct move here! Taking either the Knight or Bishop will only help Black's pawn structure, and the dubious idea of trying to re-route the Bishop with 14.Bh4?! only backfires after 14...Ne4, removing all dreams of taking over the h2-b8 diagonal, and after 15.Bxe7 Rxe7 16.h3 Bc8 17.Qd3 Rfe8, Black has the perfect setup that we just talked about.
Now, we have an interesting position, and I came up with Black's next move, which I have yet to see be played anywhere.
This Queen check line was covered in New In Chess Yearbook 119 back in 2016 by Dejan Antic, a Serbian Grandmaster. Here, he cites the game Mladenov - Trella, Germany 2014 to illustrate the idea behind 14.Re1, giving 14...a6 15.Qc2 Ne4 (Here he recommends 15...Ng4 on the basis that if the Queen and Bishop are still lined up on d1 and e2, go to e4, but if one of them has changed diagonals, possibly going to g4 is better, which here he gives an exclam to 15...Ng4, calling it unclear) 16.Be7 (Here he points out that White can also play 16.Nxe6 fxe6 17.Bxe7 Rxe7 18.Bd3 with a small advantage and is probably why he favors 15...Ng4) 16...Rxe7 17.Bd3 Nxd4 18.Nxd4 Nf6 19.h3 Rfe8 20.Rad1 Bc8 21.Rxe7 Rxe7 22.Qb3 g6 23.Bf1 h5 24.Be2 Re5 25.Bf1 Kg7 26.a3 Bf5 27.Nxf5+ Rxf5 28.Be2 Re5 29.Bf3 Qe7 30.g3 with an unclear position.
This is all fine and good. However, I think he misses the ship completely. I do not believe 14...a6 is very good for Black at all, and that White should answer not with 15.Qc2, but 15.Nxc6!. Now after 15...Qxc6 16.Nd4 Qc5 17.Bd3, White is for preference as the freeing move 17...Ne4? drops a pawn for nothing after 18.Bxe7, and otherwise, Black's position is really bottled up while White is free to maneuver. Artificial intelligence also claims +/= for White. The other option, 15...bxc6, looks at first like Black should be ok since after 16.Bxa6, Black can play 16...Qb6 and force White to either give the pawn back, or else put his Queen on the dangerous open e-file with 17.Qe2. The problem is, the latter works thanks to Black's two Bishops being in the way, giving White just enough time. For example, after 17...Bd8, threatening discoveries on the Queen, White has 18.Be3! with a practically winning position. Of course, this is not all forced, but a pawn is a pawn, and while White might have to spend an extra move to re-group, the compensation Black gets for the pawn is nowhere near enough.
Therefore, I think Black should keep the a-pawn back for as long as possible, and hence my novelty of 14...h6. It kicks the Bishop back with tempo, and prepares Black's expansion that comes up shortly. He should not be afraid of a Knight or Bishop coming to b5. With the Knight, Black can simply retreat to b8 and then when the time is right, kick the Knight back by playing ...a6 with tempo. In the game, White never goes down that rabbit trail, and rightfully so.
There's the freeing move, getting the Bishops off the board and opening up for Black to double on the e-file.
16.Bxe7 Rxe7 17.h3 Bd7
It seemed like this square was better than going all the way back to c8. There is nothing to worry about on b7, and since ...a6 was not played, I over-protected the c6-square in case the Bishop thinks about coming to b5. It should also be noted that the abandoning of the protection on d5 is not a problem for tactical reasons.
18.Qb3 poses no threat to the d-pawn because Black has 18...Rfe8! where 19.Qxd5 can be answered by 19...Nxd4 20.Qxd4 Nxc3! and one could even argue a miniscule advantage for Black in this line.
Completing the mission of getting the Rooks lined up on the e-file. Next we will see Black start to expand on the Kingside.
Also possible here are 19...g5, and the more reserved 19...Qd6. Either way, the position should be dynamically equal. The important part for Black is to remain active. If he sits back for too long, what might be a teeny-tiny advantage for White will turn into a big advantage because of the isolated pawn. The player with the isolated pawn is the one that needs to stir up activity to compensate, and so Black is coming in to attack the White Kingside.
20.Rad1 g5 21.Re3 f5
So now Black has the space advantage, but he is still saddled with that weakness on d5. White can kick the Queen out with 22.Ne2, which might leave White once again with that "teeny-tiny" advantage that Black should have no real problems holding on to the balance. However, White sees two hanging pawns on b7 and d5 and plays ...
The only problem with this move is that it allows Black to force a draw immediately. Do you see how?
All other moves pretty much lose for Black.
Of course, 23.Qxd5+?? would lose to 23...Ne6!
And there is the dagger. All hopes of winning for White are gone!
White realized this now and offered the draw, which I accepted. Just to show the lines, let's say this game went on. First thing to note is that 24...Be6?? is losing due to 25.Rxe6!! Rxe6 26.Kxf2 Qe3+ 27.Kf1 g4 28.Ne5 g3 29.Qf3 and White is winning. If 29...Qxd4, then 30.Qxg3+. Moving the King anywhere also fails to 25.Rxe7 followed by 26.Kxf2. So 24...Re6 is forced. Now White has a couple of ways to draw, but taking the Knight loses. The following are White's options:
- 25.Kxf2?? loses to 25...Qxe3+ 26.Kf1 and now any type of Re1 move is not a saving grace for White like it is in line B because Black can take the Bishop with check, and so therefore, after 26...g4 27.hxg4 fxg4 28.Qxd7 gxf3 29.Qh7+ Kf8 30.Qf5+ Ke7 31.Qc5+ Kd8 32.Qd5+ Kc7, white only has one more check if he wants it or can take the pawn on f3, both of which win easily for Black.
- 25.Qxd7 does draw for White only because of one saving grace. After 25...Qxe3, White has the miracle draw with 26.Re1 and Black loses too much material if he doesn't take the perpetual, and White gets mated if he tries to avoid it. After 26...Nxh3+, both sides have to repeat via 27.Kh1 Nf2+ 28.Kg1 Nh3+ etc, as both 27.Kh2 and 28.Kh2 lose. After 27.Kh2 (with the Black Knight on h3), Black wins after 27...Qf4+ 28.g3 (28.Kxh3 g4+ 29.Kh4 g3+ 30.Kh3 Qg4#) 28...Qxf3 and White has to give up his Queen on e8 to prolong the game as 29.Rxe6 Qf2+ 30.Kxh3 g4+ 31.Kh4 Qh2# is mate. Instead, if 28.Kh2, where the Black Knight is on f2, then 28...Ng4+ 29.Kh3 (29.Kh1 Qxe1+ leads to a back rank mate while 29.Kg3 Qf4+ followed by 30...Nf2# is also mate) 29...Qf4 30.g3 Qxf3 31.Bc4 Nf2+ 32.Kh2 Qh5+ 33.Kg2 Qh3+ 34.Kf3 (Taking the Knight leads to mate in 11) 34...g4+ 35.Kf4 (Again taking the Knight is mate in 11) 35...Nd3+ 36.Bxd3 Rxe1 is easily winning for Black. Therefore, the perpetual would have to be taken.
- 25.Rde1 is the cleanest and most obvious forcing of the draw. Black can try 25...Nxh3+ 26.Kf1 Qg3 27.gxh3 Qxh3+, but it still only leads to a draw, or he can simply take the Bishop with 25...Nxd3, after which the draw is routine. White takes three times on e6, ending with the Queen, and Black can't get out of check as he has to move up to g7 or h7 to hold the h-pawn. After 26.Rxe6 Bxe6 27.Rxe6 Rxe6 28.Qxe6+, a silly move like 28...Kf8 allows 29.Qxh6+ and now White's winning, and so he must play 28...Kg7 or 28...Kh7 and the checks cannot be escaped, and so the result is a draw.
An interesting game that illustrates the dynamics of the 6...Qe7+ line of the Tarrasch when White plays 9.dxc5. Again, he does have one other alternative in 9.Re1, but pretty much all other moves cause Black no problems at all. A few things for Black to remember are to always move your Queen immediately after the check if White interposes with the Bishop so that you can take back on c5 with the Bishop if the pawn is captured by White, and that with the isolani, you do not want to passively defend the isolani with a move like ...Rad8, but rather, your ideal setup is to get the Knight to e4 and double the Rooks on the e-file. As the game proceeds, your number one priority as Black is to remain active! This will often lead to the dynamic balance between space and activity versus pawn structure.
This concludes this edition of The French Connection. Until next time, good luck in all of your French games, Black or White!