Alright, enough of that rant. I've been following recent tournaments and games from TWIC and noticed a disconcerting phenomenon: The French has not been played by the top GMs for quite some time! Besides Grischuk and Kamsky (who seems to be losing all his French games), no one else seems to be vaguely interested in the French. Even the Russian maverick Morozevich and the Spanish maestro Shirov, both of which used to be huge adherents of the opening, have stopped playing it altogether. Could it be true then, that the French is not considered the most reliable opening at top level?
I recently came across a thread on the Chesspublishing Forum where there were debates on whether the French is viable at the top level (as compared to the Ruy Lopezs, the Berlins, the Petroffs the Sicilians & the Caros) and it seems to me that, for whatever reasons, the general consensus is no.
Maybe that is the truth, but then again, 10 years ago, one could hardly have imagined that the Petroff and the Berlin would have turned out to be "top-level" openings. Trends in opening theory come and go and not playing an opening at top level at the moment doesn't mean that the opening is not good enough for that level. It probably just means that it is not the right opening "at the moment". Conversely, a topical variation at any point of the time doesn't necessarily mean that it is "good"; it just means that it is good "at the moment".
For lesser human beings (everyone besides the elite 2700-type), all those debates about the viability of an opening are effectively thrown out of the window. The objective value of an opening is often of secondary importance. What is more important is that you know more then your opponents and that extra piece of knowledge can be enough to make the difference between a draw and a win. For this reason, the French will always remain "good enough".
For that matter, the French is certainly good enough for US GM Yuri Shulman who has scored impressively with the French in the last few months. We will take a look at, amongst others, some of his recent games which are theoretically important.
There has been a boom in this variation and I can understand why players of all levels love it. Especially while we have a 2600 + GM who consistently uses it, and beats all his opponents with it.
In Kryvoruchko - Shulman Reykjavik Open 2009, we look at the main line with 6.Qe2 which most authors seem to find the most threatening. Besides Morozevich's 6...Nc6 and 7...Nb4, the position after 6...0-0!? 7.Ngf3 a5!? is gradually increasing in popularity:
The game itself has several other games embedded in the notes and after several long hours, I've concluded that Black has absolutely nothing to worry about.
In another game, the top Filipino GM Wesley So chose 4.c3!? instead:
I have to admit that I initially thought this was just feeble but after going through some games, I realized just how poisonous this innocuous move could be. Despite going through Wesley So - John Paul Gomez, Battle of the GMs 2009 for some time, I can't quite get rid of the notion that White is just better! I would be grateful if anyone can send me a solution to Black's problems!
3.Nc3 Nc6 Hecht - Reefschalager
The famous Chinese prodigy Hou Yifan was recently in the headlines again but for all the wrong reasons. By now, many must have known of her infamous loss in the Chinese National Championships due to the Zero Start rule. I can only imagine how much distress she must have felt in losing in such a manner, after arriving in advance and was waiting for the game to start all along! Personally, I think a little common sense could be applied to this rule.
Before the Chinese Nationals, Hou Yifan also took part in the Men's section of the incredibly strong Asian Continental Championships and finished a creditable 7th, qualifying for the coming World Cup.
I couldn't resist following the live broadcast of the tournament (during office hours!) and one of the games which captivated me was Hou Yifan - Homayoon Toufighi, Asian Continental 2009, which featured a Hecht - Reefschlager. The game was not the most theoretical in this variation but was exciting in itself:
White now began a 10 move sequence with 32.Qe8+! which culminated with a charming quiet move that forces zugzwang.
After the usual opening moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3 6.bc Ne7 7.Qg4, Black normally plays 7...Qc7 if he wants to mess around with the Poisoned Pawn Variation. But I've noticed some recent games (as well as games from the Archives) with the move order 7...cd4!?:
In Friedel - Shulman, US Championships 2009, I've shown loads of examples where White tries to be frisky and plays something else other then 8.Qxg7.
I can't think of a better chapter then this idea for Dangerous Weapons, 2nd edition. :)
Classical Winawer - 6...Qa5 variation
While going through hundreds of games for this column, I've noticed a tremendous surge in popularity in the variation with 6...Qa5 and 7...Qa4. I can understand why this variation is popular across all levels. It is solid, easy to play, not as theoretically heavy as compared to other Winawer variations, sufficiently dynamic to play for a win and most importantly, carries the endorsement of several strong players!
After 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3 6.bc Qa5 7.Bd2 Qa4, I've broken down the material into 4 key themes. Themes 1 and 2 will be covered in this update while themes 3 & 4, in the next.
i) 8.Qb1!? c4 9.h4!?
The move 8.Qb1 with the not so subtle threat of 9.Bb5+ more or less forces 8...c4 which sidesteps Black's ideal plan of playing for ...b6 and ...Ba6. 9.h4 is arguably the most aggressive option in this entire variation and you can expect to face this more then a few times if you decide to take up this Opening.
In Modiakhi - Toufighi, Asian Continental 2009, Black turned out to be the aggressor on the Kingside!
Here Black played 21...g5! and never relinquished the initiative till the end. A great win by the youngster over a very experienced grandmaster.
ii) 8.Qb1!? c4 Ne2 and others
Play here is generally more peaceful and takes up a distinctly different flavor from 9.h4. White generally plays Ne2-g3-h5, provoking ...g7-g6, and thereafter tries to exploit the weakened Kingside dark squares.
In Caruana - Rusev, 41st TCH-Italy 2009, we see how a top GM handles this variation with the White pieces. As always, I've included several games in the notes and highlighted some critical ideas in this variation.
iii) 8.Qg4 g6/Kf8 9.Qd1!? & iv) 8.Nf3 will be covered in Part 2 next week.
That is all for this month's updates. I know I've received a few emails on certain queries and I do apologize if I've not replied here yet. I promise to do so in July's update (which I'm preparing now actually). Meanwhile, do enjoy your chess and I'll be back soon, hopefully on time (fingers crossed).
Do send me your comments and criticisms (politely please) to email@example.com, or drop me a PM on the forum and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Have fun with your chess!