Saturday, May 12, 2018

The French Connection: Volume 5

Hello and welcome to the fifth edition of The French Connection. This time, we are going to look at a game featuring the Steinitz Variation. You might recall that we saw a game between amateurs in the Steinitz Variation in Volume 2 where we saw White take advantage of the Good Knight versus Bad Bishop due to complete domination of the d4-square, a dark square, forcing the d5-pawn to sit on the light square, blocking the Bishop. In that game, White was not quick to trade, and offered the trade of pieces on his own terms, and at times, Black made the mistake of taking the trade, especially the Queen trade, when all it did was favor White.

Here, we are going to see some similar themes, but also we will see a major difference. What lead to me choosing this game to analyze is ultimately what happened in the blitz tournament back on May 3rd. In two of my games as White, I faced lower rated players that are both known for liking to play exciting, attacking, tactical chess. One of them was a King's Indian player while the other was a Grunfeld player. Well, both games started 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3. Now, a King's Indian player would continue with the typical 3...Bg7 while a Grunfeld player would need to play 3...d5 in order to have any hope at transposing after 4.d4 because 3...Bg7 can be answered by 4.e4 which specifically avoids the Grunfeld.

So the first game went 3...Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.d4 O-O 6.Be2 e5 7.dxe5 dxe5 8.Qxd8 Rxd8 9.Bg5, resulting in the first diagram below, and the second game went 3...d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.dxc3 Qxd1+ 7.Kxd1, resulting in the second diagram below. White went on to win both games.

An Exchange King's Indian

An Anti-Grunfeld

When you normally think about a typical King's Indian or Grunfeld, this isn't exactly what you would normally expect. Well, what happens in the game we are about to look at played between two players formerly amongst the top in the world is very similar to this. Black decided to play a line that forces early exchanges. Just like the two lines shown above for White, what Black played in this game is by no means unsound, but may be ever so slightly inferior to the main lines, but it has a psychological bearing on the opposing player. We will see in this game that most positional factors in the early middle game favor White, but the position will appear to be so dull that it psychologically messes White up, and we will actually see Black weave a mating net. I personally have been asked multiple times how on earth I've been able to make things out of nothing in my own games, and take positions that look highly drawn, and turn them into wins. It's because of studying games like this one.

Without further ado, let's take a look at how Black goes from dull to decisive in a matter of less than 20 moves!

W: John Nunn
B: Victor Korchnoi
World Team Championship, Luzern 1985

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 cxd4

Those of you that have gone through the repertoire that I posted back in the fall of 2017 will know that I personally advocate 7...a6 here, but 7...cxd4 is considered the other main option for Black, and until about 20 years ago, 7...cxd4 was ultimately deemed THE main line and was far more popular than 7...a6. Now more players are playing either 7...a6 or alternative options.

8.Nxd4 Bc5 9.Qd2 Bxd4

This leads to a number of forced exchanges and an early endgame. If Black wants more of a middlegame type of position, then he should play 9...O-O.

10.Bxd4 Nxd4 11.Qxd4 Qb6

Forcing the trade of Queens as b2 is also under attack.

12.Qxb6 Nxb6

So if we look at the position, we will see that White will have control of d4 and that his Kingside pawns are mobile, espeically with the Queens off the board. One might think that White has a significant advantage, but Black has his trumps too! First off, Black's only real weakness is the dark squares, and especially d6, but with no Queen and no Dark-Squared Bishop for White, is this really a major issue? Black also has the semi-open c-file to work with. This position should probably be deemed as a very slight advantage for White, but with best play by both sides, this is likely a draw. That said, John Nunn was known for being an attacker, and for players like that, even at the top level, dry positions with long and tedious endgames are often a problem for these players, and Korchnoi takes full advantage of it!


A few years later, during the 1990s, it was figured out by Kasparov that 13.h4 is a stronger move here, getting the Kingside attack rolling immediately.

13...Bd7 14.Bd3 h5

For this move, I'm going to directly quote what Korchnoi had to say himself. "Black takes measures to make it difficult for the opponent to advance his kingside pawns. In so doing he loses any possibility of gaining counterplay. Here some players have preferred to prepare play on the kingside by ...h7-h6 and ...g7-g5." - Victor Korchnoi in his classic "My Best Games, Vol 2: Games With Black", a book in which this game can also be found, specifically Game 24 in that book. It can also be found in the update of this classic as it includes the original 100 games from his original two books on his best games as White and his best games as Black plus 5 more of each color, but I couldn't site specifically which game number it would be there as I don't own that source.

15.Ne2 Ke7

With the Queens and half the minor pieces off the board, there is no reason for Black to castle, and so instead he keeps the King in the center and simply lifts it up to the 7th rank in order to connect the Rooks.

16.Nd4 g6


Those that have seen White's Queenside play in the Petrosian King's Indian will know immediately what White is doing here. White wants to push f5. In order to play f5, White needs to get in g4. In order to get in g4, White needs to get in h3. That said, the immediate 17.h3? would be a mistake because of 17...h4!, which eliminates all possibilities of g4 for White as long as Black doesn't allow White to win the h4-pawn as black will chop the pawn via en passant. Because of this, Black would have total control of the f5-square.


And here is the real start of the theme I brought up at the start of the article. The ability to play long, drawn out positions that at first glance appear to be extremely dull. One would normally expect Black in this position to bottle up the position like he has done on the Kingside, play ...a6, re-route his Knight via b6-c8-a7-c6, and make White either move his Knight from his excellent d4-outpost or else allow Black to trade it off, in which case Black is clearly playing for a draw as he then has a completely static position with Black having the bad Bishop and White the good one, which means it would be Black looking to set up the fortress and White trying to break through, which would be very tough to do, but because of the 2-result endgame rather than the 3-result endgame that would arise, White would be slighly better only because he's the only one to have anything to play for.

Well, with the move that Black played here, at first site, it doesn't look like Black is doing much of anything, but there is a very concealed trap that White must be on the lookout for. This is where the psychology comes into play. You are sitting down at the board and have been playing this dull position for at least a good half hour now and likely longer, and you get into this lull that nothing is really happening, and it causes the brain, in some ways, to shut down. I guarantee you that all of you amateurs out there have done it before. I guarantee you that there are times that I have done it myself! And the fact that a well known grandmaster like John Nunn proceeds to fall into this trap as well just goes to show that anyone that denies this ever happening to them is simply lying.

Another prime example of this theme can also be found in my opposite colored Bishops article (Click here to go to that article) from December 2017. In that one, White overlooks how lethal it was to allow the Black King to walk into White's camp of Pawns on the Queenside without proceeding to take action on the Kingside, thinking he could just sit back and do nothing and eventually Black would get the clue that there is nothing on the board because the position is too dull for there to be anything, right? Turned out White was wrong there too!

18.Rde1 Nd7 19.c3 Rag8

White's mentality by a player that has been lulled to sleep by the dullness of the position:

"Ok, so now we know what Black is up to. He must be setting up his pieces for the anticipated White f5-break. He is waiting for h3 and g4, which he then trades on g4, and then when we play f5, he'll trade again on f5 and then figure his counterplay is down the h- and g-files, but only after I am ready to break everything open. So I'll just set everthing up so that I am ready to play f5 and maybe even f6 and then potentially sacrifice the Knight on e6 or Bishop on g6 at the right moment to remove the f7-pawn and get my f-pawn promoted. Might take 50 moves to do, but Black's got nothing anyway."

Not saying this was precisely John Nunn's thought process, but this could very easily be the thought process by an amateur playing White in this position, and regardless of whether or not this was actually John Nunn's thought process, he proceeds to blunder in this position, clearly not seeing what it really was that Black was up to.


What you are about to see is a complete slap in White's face!

20...g5! 21.f5

If White plays 21.fxg5, then he has conceded the g-file to Black and his plan all along of breaking through with f5 would be completely extinguished. Black should be extremely happy with the resulting position. That said, Black knew White wouldn't do that, and that he would advance the f-pawn. It was the plan that Black had against this specific move that White clearly overlooked back on move 20.


Only now do we see what Black was setting up back on move 17, and what White had to do on move 20. The idea, all along, was to break open the h-file. The Bishop move was simply to get out of the way of the Knight so that it could go to d7, eyeing e5, which forces a White Rook to babysit the pawn on e5 if he ever were to play f5. Black forces f5 early out of White and now proceeds to pry open the h-file, which even if there were to be a Rook still on h1, Black takes over the h-file as either White would have to trade on h8 or else move away from the h1-square as allowing Black to trade on h1 would drag the Rook away from the e-file and the e5-pawn would fall, hence why it was critical to shuffle the minor pieces first before going with the Rooks to the Kingside and break through with the Pawns.

This also tells us now what White had to play on move 20. That move would be 20.h3! What it would do is allow White to shut down the g- and h-files the moment that Black tries to play either ...g4 or ...h4. But here, with the White pawn on h2, there is no way for White to avoid the opening of at least one file on the Kingside, and here it ends up being the h-file, and this is going to cause more headaches for White than he ever imagined back on move 17.

22.Re2 h4 23.b4 hxg3 24.hxg3 Ba4 25.Kb2 Rh3 26.Rg1


A stereotyped move that in this situation is simply wrong. Black should play 26...Rc8 here which gives White absolutely nothing to work with. Black will be able to take his time building up his attack. Instead, he allows White one more chance to get off the hook.


With the Rook already on c8, this move would be impossible as it would simply drop a pawn after 27...Rxc3+ 28.Kxa4 Rxd3, and the g-pawn would likely be the next to go.


A move too late, but probably the best Black has at this point.


This puts White right back into the position he would have been in had Black played the correct 26th move. Instead, White should take the Bishop here. After 28.Kxa4 Rxc3 29.Bc2! Nb6+ 30.Kb5 and Black has to settle for a draw after 30...Kd7 31.Bb3 Kc7 32.Ka4 Nc4+ 33.Ka4 Nb6+. Note that trying for more loses via White giving up a piece after 30...Ra3? 31.Bb3 Nd7 32.Ba4! a6+ 33.Ka5 b6+ 34.Kxa6 Rxa4+ 35.Kb7 and White wins. For example, after 35...Ke8 36.Rc1! Nc5 (36...Rxg3?? 37.Rc8 Ke7 38.f6 mate) 37.bxc5 bxc5 (37...Rxd4 38.c6 and it's going to cost Black at minimum a Rook to stop promotion) 38.Nb5 and the extra pawn or two is not enough for the piece.

28...a6 29.Rgg2

Intending Rh2 in order to get rid of one of the active Rooks.

29...Bd1 30.Re3?

And this is officially the straw that broke the Camel's back. White had to play 30.Re1, after White Black would have nothing better than 30...Ba4, which would still keep Black in the driver's seat, but trying to force the issue with something like 30...Bf3 31.Rf2 Rxg3 32.fxe6 fxe6 33.Bf5 gives Black nothing.

30...Nb6 31.Rf2

Black to Move and Win

So on move 12, we had a very dry, dull, boring looking position, with the appearance of there being nothing to play for and that the game was going to automatically be a draw, especially at the grandmaster level. But look at what we have now.


A Mating Net! In literally 19 moves, we go from a dull, static position with a micro-advantage for White to a full blown mating net weaved around the White King!

32.fxe6 fxe6 33.Rf1 Na4+ 34.Kc1 Rxc3+ 0-1

White resigned as he is about to lose way too much material.

Black won this game on psychology alone. White was lulled to sleep in a dull position, and even when there appears to be nothing, you have got to keep your eyes pealed at all times as there is often lots of play in these positions, and until you are down to a position that is a known book draw, like a King and Pawn each, or Philidor's Draw, you can't lay back and get lazy as it will cost you as we have seen here. Again, you can see another example of this in my opposite color Bishop endgame article from December, the link to which is in the notes to Black's 17th move above.

I would like to conclude this article by pointing out that I am often active and post a lot on Those that have followed the forums on may have noticed that a lot of beginners and players rated 1200 to 1800 are often asking for openings that guarantee a tactical game or an active position. Every time, I respond that there is no such thing. Many openings are stereotyped to lead to a tactical or positional game. I have played roughly 2700 tournament games of a standard time control, meaning not quick or blitz, and I have seen it all. I have had extremely wild games in openings that have a reputation of being extremely positional. For example, I recall a game I played years ago against Sulia Mason in a Slav Defense where I had Black, and he played the 5.e4 gambit line, and while I won, it was a game that was littered with wild tactics, something you don't normally see in a Slav Defense. I have also had many dull games in the Sicilian Defense.

The French Defense has the "reputation" of being the second-most aggressive and tactical defense to 1.e4 behind only the Sicilian Defense. That said, there is no cookie-cutter approach to chess that guarantees anything, and abnormal things are going to happen, and playing a dull game in a French Defense is very well going to be one of them at times. In fact, people stereotype the Exchange Variation to be dull, and there are numerous examples of the Exchange French that have lead to extreme active play, and yet we saw 3.Nc3 here, considered White's most active response to the French, and it was a true test of one's ability to play technical chess rather than a test on tactics.

So I am going to say the same thing that I've said numerous times online. There is no such thing as being a Tactical Player or a Positional Player. You are either a Chess Player or you are a Nothing. A Chess Player must be able to play the position at hand, and do what is right for the situation. It might mean having to watch out for tactics that are 10 or more moves deep on every move, or it might mean shuffling pieces to better positions and finding the hidden gems in what otherwise doesn't look to be much of anything.

I can assure you that in this series, not every game will be like this, but they will crop up again, and even in an active and aggressive defense like the French, you have to be ready for games like this one.

Till next time, good luck in all of your French games, Black or White!

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