Monday, June 29, 2020

The French Connection: Volume 39

Hello everyone and welcome to the thirty-ninth edition of The French Connection. Back in The French Connection: Volume 9, we looked at what Black should do when facing what I referred to as "Garbage Lines". Well, we have another one here, and so this article will mainly be of use to players that play specifically the Black side of the French Defense. While going through the game, take a look not at what the material count is, but rather, which pieces are actually doing something on the board. We will see one piece in particular being utterly useless for virtually the entire game!

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

2020 Lockdown Cup - (Prelim Bracket 2)
W: Steve Malone (Unr)
B: Patrick McCartney (1900)

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

We saw this same move played in The French Connection: Volume 37 as well. The difference is in that game, we saw the normal follow-up where White goes after Black's weak g7-pawn in return for opening the center. In the current game, we are going to see some very weird play by White, and it is critical to understand why White's moves are inferior, and why simply "memorizing lines" is insufficient.

4...dxe4 5.g3?

The only good move for White here was 5.Qg4, as seen in Volume 37. Another bad move is 5.Nxe4 as Black simply answers with 5...Qxd4! and White has no compensation for the lost pawn.

But now what? What does 5.g3 do? Why would White play this move? Well, clearly he wants to play 6.Bg2, where the Bishop would be attacking e4 along with the Knight on c3. Can White really get away with this? The benefit for Black behind the 5.Qg4 line is that it takes White a number of moves to get the Queen back into the game after she grabs the g7-pawn, and those extra tempi are what keep Black in the game as that line is very tricky, as we saw in Volume 37.

So if we give White the pawn back without making him waste time, he will likely be better. So the first thing to realize is that Black cannot give the pawn away to White that easily. So the next couple of moves should be fairly clear to understand.


Protecting the e4-pawn.

6.Bg2 Bxc3!

Yes, Black is giving up the Bishop pair voluntarily, but it is the only way to continue to make White work to get the pawn back.


Now there is no good way for White to attack the d5-square, and so if necessary, Black can always put his Queen on d5. Of course, here, there is no threat at all, and so Black takes the time to castle.

7...O-O 8.Ne2 b6

Preparing to put the Bishop on b7, adding another defender to the e4-pawn.

9.O-O Bb7 10.Qd2

Other than connecting the Rooks, what has White achieved? The answer is basically nothing! The Bishop on c3 lacks scope. The e4 pawn impedes the g2-Bishop. The Knight on e2 is passive. The Queen on d2 isn't doing much. And then which files does White intend to put the Rooks on?

Black has a more clear cut plan. He needs to develop his Knight, but he also has the semi-open d-file, which clearly screams for a Black Rook. Therefore, he gets the Queen out of the way.



This is a classic case of forcing your opponent to do what he wants to do anyway. The c-pawn wants to expand to c5. The reason Black hasn't done it yet is that he wants to get his pieces ready before opening the position for the White Bishops. By going to b4, White is wasting time just to force the issue. Better would be to attempt to impede Black's expansion with 11.b4, giving the Bishop the b2-square if it needs to retreat, and at the same time, making ...c5 not look all that attractive for Black.

11...c5 12.Ba3?

Ok, the first think to ask is why did White not play 12.dxc5? It is the only move that makes sense, opening up the long diagonal for the Bishop where it can return to c3, and giving White isolated a- and c-pawns. Black is still winning in this line, but it still requires work. With his Queen on e7, Black can answer 12.dxc5 bxc5 13.Bc3 with 13...e5! and Black has a winning position. That said, at least White is trying to put up a fight.

With the move played in the game, he does nothing to weaken c5, and where is the Bishop going? It is now going to take multiple moves just to get it back in the game. For the moment, White is "virtually" down a full piece!

12...Rd8 13.c3

Putting yet another White pawn on another dark square.

13...Nc6 14.Rad1

So now let's look at the position. Both sides have one very inactive piece. For White, it's the a3-Bishop. For Black, it's the a8-Rook. The difference is that all Black has to do to activate the Rook is lift the d8-Rook and then move the a8-Rook to d8. Problem solved.

White, on the other hand, has a major issue. The Rook has moved from a1 to d1, so if White wants to lift the b-pawn and bring the Bishop back to c1, he needs to play b3, Bc1, and move the Queen out of the way somehow, just to bring life to the Bishop. Three moves. The d-pawn is pinned by the Black Rook to the White Queen, and playing b4 to try to crack the c5-pawn is highly risky. Therefore, White's best hope is the plan of b3, Bc1, and moving the Queen.

So with that said, this calls for an attack by Black. If Black slow-plays it, the Bishop comes back into the game and White is alive. So three quiet moves allows White to give scope to the Bishop, and a fourth quiet move will allow the Bishop out to an active location. If Black doesn't make a lot of quiet moves, he will virtually remain up a full piece as until it comes out, the Bishop on a3 is utterly useless.


Using the pin on the d4-pawn to threaten an incoming wedge on f3.


This does nothing to stop it, and so therefore ...

15...Nf3+! 16.Kh1

No better is 16.Bxf3 exf3 17.Nc1 e5 18.Qxe5 Qd7 19.Nd3 Re8 20.Qg5 Ba6. Even if White somehow grabs the f3-pawn after something like 21.Qf4, all that will do is open up the diagonal for the Black light-squared Bishop, and in this case, White would have no Bishop to contest it, and the long diagonal would be fatally weak.

16...e5! 17.Qc1

What does this do other than further impede his own Bishop on a3? The answer? Pretty much nothing! That said, even after 17.dxe5 Rxd1 18.Rxd1 Nxe5, Black is winning. With no pawn on d4, there is zero pressure on the c5-pawn, forcing the Bishop to take the back door route to get out.

17...exd4 18.Bxf3

Now the automatic reply would be 18...exf3, and that would of course win for Black, but Black went for a more sophisticated approach. By taking on f3 and allowing White to take on d4, White could potentially open up the long diagonal and work on getting the Bishop to b2 to activate it.


Two White pieces are under attack, and so Black will regain the piece eventually. Even if it does cost Black a pawn, he was already two pawns up, and the advanced pawn will force White to spend more time stopping it instead of getting his Bishop back into the game.

19.Nf4 d2!

Forcing a White piece onto a dark square.

20.Rxd2 Rxd2 21.Qxd2 exf3

And now it is finally time to take the piece back.

Black is still up a pawn, and the Bishop on a3 is still there, and it still will take 3 moves to activate. The diagonal to do that on has changed, and now the three moves to activate the Bishop are c4, b3, and Bb2. We will see that White gets ONE of these moves in.

22.Re1 Rd8!

Black uses tactics to activate the Rook. White can trade the Queens if he wants, which Black would not object to at all, but he doesn't have time to take the Bishop due to an unusual back rank mate as instead of the King being blocked by all White pawns, one square is instead guarded by the Black pawn on f3.


White of course preserves the Queens, but it has been chased off of the open file to an inferior square.

23...Qd7 24.c4

Black used a quiet move to save the Queen, and gave White his first opportunity to work on getting the Bishop out. He still needs to find two more moves to get the Bishop out.

24...Ne4 25.h3

Now, of course, Black can take on f2 and he'd be completely winning, but Black wants more.


This move is extremely strong. It eliminates any back rank issues, freeing the heavy pieces to do as they need. The Knight can't be moved anywhere other than 26.Ne6, which Black can easily take as the Knight on e4 guards g5, giving Black just enough time to take the Knight without having to worry about White's Queen taking on g5 and annoying the Black King.


White, of course, doesn't move the Knight, and tries to block the route for the Queen.


And so now Black takes the pawn with check.


27.Kg1 Nxh3+ is even worse.


Pinning the attacked Knight to the King, which in turn blocks the Queen from attacking the pawn on g5.

28.Kg1 Nxh3+ 29.Nxh3

This allows mate in 2, but even after the best move, 29.Kf1, White is getting mated in 8 moves instead of 2.

29...Qg3+ 30.Kf1 Qg2# 0-1

So what we saw was pretty much a debacle. The 4.Bd2 line of the French is not popular, but it's also not busted. However, White must be willing to take time to regain the pawn in the form of the g-pawn, not the central pawn, and the Queen goes out in the open early. Here, White tried to get the central pawn back, and tried to do it only developing minor pieces initially. To understand how one must react to this unusual idea, you have to think about what it is that White was trying to achieve, and realize that you cannot just blindly allow it. Otherwise, you lose all those gained tempi that you get in the main line with the Queen out there in the open. So Black started off by doing what had to be done to hold on to the extra pawn, despite having to give up the Bishop for a Knight. Then White does nothing to pressure e4, and goes completely the wrong way about activating the uncontested dark-squared Bishop, and instead it ends up locked on a3. Black must now realize that it will not be locked for ever, and that he needs to play very actively, and so he got his Rook instead of his Queen onto the d-file, used the pin to get the Knight into White's territory, took the opportunity to remove the possibility of cxd4 for White with the in-between move, 18...d3, and then used tactics against the White Knight that was at first overworked and then pinned, and Black kept the foot on the gas, playing only one quiet move that gave White time to get only one of his three needed moves in to activate the Bishop, and so while "officially", White played the bulk of the game down a pawn, in reality, he was playing down a full piece!

When your opponent plays garbage in the opening, compare the threats of the weird move to what Black normally gets from White's "normal" threats after a "normal" move, and use that to determine what must be done against the weird move. In this case, it was to keep the pawn, and things fell apart after that for White. In another case, it may be something else, like taking control of a square, or eliminating a certain piece. Always make sure you understand the strategy of the opening you play and not just memorize lines.

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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