There is a well-known tactical shot that Black most notably must watch out for in the French Defense and Colle System, and that is something called the Greek Gift Sacrifice. The Greek Gift Sacrifice is where White gives up his Bishop on h7 to try to drag the King out and then mate the King with his other pieces. This is why a Knight on f6 (or f3 for White) is often viewed as the most valuable defensive piece, but in the French Defense, White often pushes his pawn to e5, removing the f6-square from Black, and this is why that sacrifice must always be something that Black pays attention to when he is castled Kingside. The game we will look at this time, played by a well-known advocate of the French Defense, will discuss what Black must look out for in this sacrifice, and how to read when the threat is artificial or fake.
W: John Van der Wiel
B: Viktor Korchnoi
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bxe7 Qxe7 7.f4 O-O 8.Qd2 c5 9.Nf3 Nc6 10.O-O-O Nb6 11.dxc5 Qxc5 12.Bd3
So now we reach a critical decision by Black. His King is pretty bare with not a lot of support around it to defend against mate. The first question he must ask himself is "Can White execute the Greek Gift Sacrifice?" One thing to note that is playing Ng5 first does nothing because Black can play the simple ...h6 in response, not allowing White to open the h-file, and so if White is going to try to break through, he must give up the piece. But is he really ready to do such a thing? The first thing is to understand what White needs in order for the Greek Gift Sacrifice to work. Generally speaking, White needs at least two additional assets amongst the following:
- The dark-squared Bishop with open access to h6. The reason for this is that in the Greek Gift Sacrifice, after 1.Bxh7+ Kxh7 2.Ng5+, Black has four possible squares for the King. You have g8, h8, g6, and h6. Generally speaking, h8 is rarely ever a good square for the King due to the opening of the h-file. If White has his dark-squared Bishop, say on c1, then h6 is typically not an available square for the Black King as fatal discoveries occur as a result of moving the Knight from g5. That leaves only g8 and g6 as available squares to the Black King. Without this Bishop, the h6-square must be considered as well.
- A second Knight that can easily reach e4 or f4 rapidly.
- A Rook that can easily be lifted to the third or fourth rank to reach the Kingside to attack the King.
- A secured pawn on e5, keeping f6 under control and not allowing a Black Knight ever to safely occupy f6.
- A pawn on h4 backed up by a Rook on h1. This is either to support the Knight on g5 where any capture of the Knight results in the Rook opening up on the h-file, or, if the Knight is protected in another manner or if tactics are available should Black capture it, then the h4-asset can also be used to advance h5, which if the King went to g6 in response to the Knight check, this would be with check and a gain of tempo.
So what do we have in this scenario? Well, White has no dark-squared Bishop. The Knight on c3 cannot access e4 or f4. The e4-square is controlled by the Black pawn on d5 while f4 is already occupied by White's pawn. There is no easy access via a Rook lift to get an additional Rook into the attack. White does have a secure pawn on e5. However, his h-pawn is not advnaced.
Therefore, Black only has one additional asset. In addition to being short an asset, with the White Queen on d2 rather than d1, then after 1.Bxh7+ and 2.Ng5+, White's only follow-up would be to check with the Queen on d3 as Qh5+ is not an option with the Queen on d2 rather than d1.
So all signs point to White's threat being artificial, and low and behold, Korchnoi ignores the threat and doesn't waste any time playing moves like 12...h6 or 12...g6.
Correct here is 13.Kb1. There is no need to rush the attack.
Before scrolling down past the diagram, see if you can figure out the correct defense for Black. Moving the King to h8 is almost never right in defending against the Greek Gift Sacrifice, and going to h6 is almost never right when White still has his Dark-Squared Bishop. However, with the Bishop gone, three candidate moves must be considered. 14...Kg6, 14...Kh6, and 14...Kg8. In this case, only one of them works. Korchnoi found the move that works here. Can you do the same?
Despite the lack of the Bishop, 14...Kh6?? loses on the spot to 15.Qd3 (threatening 16.Qh7#) 15...Rh8 (15...f5 and 15...g6 both fail to 16.Qh3+ followed by 17.Qh7#) 16.Nxf7+ Kh5 17.g4+ Kxg4 18.Qg3+ Kf5 19.Qg5#.
The problem with 14...Kg6?? is the location of the Black Queen. A fatal royal fork occurs as all other lines lead to mate after 15.Qd3+ f5 (15...Kh6 16.Qh7# and 15...Kh5 16.Qh3+ Kg6 17.Qh7# both die instantly) 16.exf6+ and now 16...Kf6 17.Nce4+ loses the Queen while 16...Kh5 leads to another mate after 17.g4+ Kxg4 18.Rdg1+ Kxf4 19.Qf3+ Ke5 20.Nxf7+ Rxf7 21.Qg3+ Kxf6 22.Qg5#.
However, what must be recognized in order to play a daring move like 12...Bd7 is that Black can get out with the move played in the game.
15.Qd3 Ref8 16.Qh7+ Kf8 17.Rhe1
So once again, before you scroll past the diagram, another multiple choice question. Which move should Black play here? 17...Qb4, 17...Nc4, or 17...Nd4?
The problem with 17...Nd4? is that Black has nothing better than a draw. I haven't seen a game where this is played but this was Stockfish's first choice, hence why I put it as an option. After 18.Qh5+ Ke7 19.Qxg7, Black has to play 19...Rf8 20.Nh7+ Rg8 21.Qf6+ Ke8 22.Ng5 and now the only options are 22...Rf8 23.Nh7, repeating, or 22...Qf8 23.Nh7 (23.Rxd4? Rg6 24.Nxe6 Bxe6 25.Qh4 Rc8 is better for Black) 23...Qb4 24.Ng5 Rf8 25.a3 (25.Nh7?? Nc4 -+) 25...Qc5 26.Nh7 Rg8 27.Ng5 and now the perpetual can't be avoided as after 27...Qf8 28.Nh7, the Queen can't go to b4 and actually threaten anything. Also note that after 19...Kd8 20.Nxf7+ Kc7 21.Nd6, Black is tied up and White is actually better here. Note also that simply trying to run with the King via 17...Ke7 leads to the same problem, only with the Knight passively placed on c6 rather than active on d4, but the White Knight will still park itself on d6.
The move 17...Nc4 has been played multiple times, but has has not ended in victory for Black. The point behind this move can be seen from the last part of the 17...Nd4 line. Black's idea is that with the Knight on c4, White can't park a Knight on d6, and so the line 18.Qh8+ Ke7 19.Qxg7 Kd8! 20.Nxf7+ Kc7 would actually be better for Black. However, the problem with this line is that White has an alternate solution that actually works. After 18.Qh8+ Ke7, instead of taking on g7, White plays 19.Qh4! and after 19...Rh8 (Repeating with 19...Kf8 may be Black's only move here) 20.Nh7+, the game Polgar - Somlai, Budapest 1991 saw White win after 20...Ke8 21.Nf6+ gxf6 22.Qxh8+ Qf8 23.Qxf8+ Kxf8 24.exf6 Kg8 25.Rd3 Kh7 26.f5 d4 27.Rh3+ Kg8 28.Re4 1-0. In Nielsen - Ulibin, Mamaia 1991, Black instead played 20...f6 where after 21.exf6+ Kd8 22.fxg7+ Kc7 23.gxh8=Q, White is ahead in material, but once Black captures the Queen, the attack on b2 is very awkward for White to meet, and so with the compensation, the game ended in a draw.
The move played in the game, with best play, should probably lead to a draw as well, but unlike 17...Nc4, Black does have actual winning chances as he can still maintain a slight edge and White must find a more round-about way to conduct the attack, and this is also where the human factor comes into play. We are going to also see an error made by Black later on, which goes to show that there is inherited risk compared to a quick draw, but would you call the draw we saw in the 17...Nc4 line "simple"? I wouldn't! Therefore, despite the risk, 17...Qb4 is Black's best move here.
18.Qh8+ Ke7 19.Qh4
Now 19.Qxg7? fails to 19...Qxf4! The point behind playing the Queen first instead of the Knight on move 17.
19...Kd8 20.Nxe6+ Kc8 21.a3 Qe7 22.Ng5
So Black now has a Bishop for two Pawns, but his position is awkward. His King separates the connection between the Rooks, and he has a number of weaknesses, including d5, g7, and even f7 (for example, if White were to play Qh7 at some point and Black answered with something like ...g6, to save the g-pawn, the f-pawn would be hanging). Can you find the best move for Black that would leave him with a slight advantage? Korchnoi was unable to do this. See if you can do better than him!
This actually hands the advantage over to White. Black can get a small advantage with the simple 22...Be6 =/+. There is no reason to get cute here. Black needs to buy whatever time he can get to re-arrange his pieces. The most likely way for this to happen is for Black to eventually play ...Kb8, ...a6, and ...Ka7, connecting the Rooks, but that requires time. The simple Bishop move covers the majority of the weaknesses, and if g7 is all Black has to worry about, he can probably get out of the entanglement alive, and possibly even better.
White fails to execute. White can get the upper hand by ripping the position open with 23.exf6 Qxf6 24.Rxe8+ Bxe8 25.Nxd5 Nxd5 26.Rxd5 Bd7 27.Qh8+ Kc7 28.Qxa8 Qxf4+ 29.Rd2 Qxg5 30.Qf8.
The move in the game does open things up, but it allows Black to keep the Queen in close proximity with the Rook on e8, not forcing a recapture with the Bishop if White were to take on e8 as is the case in the 23.exf6 line.
23...fxg5 24.exd7+ Qxd7 25.Qxg5 Rxe1+ 26.Rxe1 a6
Black now has time for the plan mentioned earlier of building the safe haven for the Black King on a7. In this case, it's not to connect Rooks, but rather to get that last buried Rook on a8 into the game. Black now has a winning position because once the Black King gets to a7, which really can't be stopped, the compensation White gets with the two pawns in return for being down a piece will be insufficient.
27.f5 Kb8 28.Re6 Ka7 29.Rg6 Re8 30.Rxg7 Re1+ 31.Nd1 Qe8 32.f6 Qe4 33.Qd2 Nc4 34.Qf2+ Ne3! 0-1
Black has the dual threats of the Knight on d1 and the c2-square. White can't save the Knight as 35.Qd2 Nxd1 still nets Black the piece and 35.Qxe1?? allows 35...Qxc2#. Therefore, White resigned.
So what have we learned from this game?
- While it is critical to always look for our opponent's threats, we must also always check and make sure that those threats are genuine. If we go out of our way to stop "fake threats", we are wasting our time that could be spent preparing our own attack. (See Black's 12th move)
- When you have a material advantage, but your pieces are uncoordinated, the last thing you want to do is go out of your way to break the position open, such as what Black did on move 22. White failed to execute, but the opportunity was there. Instead, do everything you can to bottle up the position until you get your King in a safe spot (i.e the a7-square in the case of this game), and only when your pieces are also ready to join the attack along with the King being safe do you want to bust open the position.
- It should also be noted that while the French Defense is often viewed as a "safer" defense than the Sicilian due to the pawn chain along the a2-g8 diagonal that the Black King often resides on, it does often require very strong defensive skills to succeed in the French. Particularly in the 3.Nc3 lines, White will often have a massive frontal attack on the Kingside, but if Black can stop mate, he will often have the better position in the endgame as Black will usually have most of the positional trumps, such as pawn structure, and Queenside pressure. In an endgame, the side away from the Kings tends to matter more than the side the Kings are on if both sides castle the same direction, and if the Kings are on opposite sides, Black's Queenside pawns are usually still intact, leaving very few entry paths for the White King to get at them, whereas White will usually have created some weaknesses of his own in order to try to get at the Black King. This game we looked at never really reached an endgame, but often times it will, and so the most important skills necessary to succeed in the French Defense are Defensive skills and Endgame skills. Outside of one error in this game that wound up not hurting Black, Black showed a strong demonstration of defense in this game.
Well, that concludes this article. Until next time, good luck in all your French games, Black or White!