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Since this is my first French column, please forgive me if I chatter away for a while about general matters. First, I'm in awe of the work done by my predecessors in this column. Kevin Goh Wei Ming not only did a thorough job of presenting important games in context, but contributed a great many of his own ideas, in the process refuting received wisdom about established lines. He also shared a number of theoretically critical games that he has played, both over-the-board and online, to which we French fans might not otherwise have been exposed. You can't read Kevin's notes without realising how much care and time he put into them. Let's hope that we see more of his work in the near future.
As most of you know, Neil McDonald is one of the true heroes of the French Defence, having spent years playing and writing about it. His books have always been ahead of the curve, and written in the accessible style that marks his writing in general. I'm obviously prejudiced, but I found his columns to be the best on the entire ChessPublishing site, which says a great deal. All leading players of the French Defence, and all contemporary authors on the opening, have been influenced directly or indirectly by Neil's work.

Download PGN of November '09 French games

The French continues to amaze in its (nearly) infinite variety. With extraordinary frequency, supposed 'sidelines' of this opening are proving to be playable and interesting. For example, 10-15 years ago, one might have said that after 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nd2, the only truly 'serious' moves were 3...c5 and 3...Nf6, with a grudging recognition that 3...dxe4 was playable, if somewhat disadvantageous. Now the reputation of the latter move has improved, and a good case can be made that at least four other moves give full-fledged play: 3...Nc6, 3...Be7, and 3...a6, all previously known but with distinctly inferior reputations; and the clever 3...h6, with which I still see no serious problems. Just to emphasize the point, 3...b6 has also been played a great deal, and strong players have used both 3...g6 and 3...Ne7. One article made a case for 3...f5 (which is going a bit far, in my opinion), and when I was working on my book Dangerous Weapons: The French, John Emms, who is a great expert on the White side of 3 Nd2, mentioned that he thought 3...Nd7 was playable. That's 12 moves! You see this kind of flexibility in only a few defences, for example, the Sicilian (moves 2 and 3), or in exceptional structures (the Caro-Kann with 3 e5, for example). In a couple of queen's pawn defences, the King's Indian Defence and Nimzo-Indian, there's an early point in which the possibilities widen dramatically, but that's usually a few moves further into the opening.

I've also been thinking about how difficult it would be to write a legitimate and detailed French repertoire book these days without a forbidding number of pages, while still including a number of traditional main lines. We've had some wonderful books and DVDs on the French in the past few years (see my TWIC review column #92), but they have been eclectic. For example, I strongly recommend Viktor Moskalenko's The Flexible French; a treasure chest of ideas, but it has large gaps and doesn't pretend to be a repertoire. Viacheslav Eingorn and Valentin Bogdanov's excellent Chess Explained: The French tries to cover both White's and Black's options in 127 pages; that means giving short shrift to various lines; after all, Kindermann and Dürr wrote a book about twice that long about 7 Qg4 0-0 in the Winawer! Ari Ziegler's ChessBase DVD French Repertoire for Black is more than 6 hours long, but typically for a chess video presentation, it lacks the detail that a repertoire book has. Nigel Davies' repertoire on his recent video (1...e6: A Solid Defence) is somewhat shorter (and covers, for example, 1 d4 e6 2 c4 Bb4+). He simplifies matters by recommending 3 Nc3 Be7, still another example a previously irregular line that apparently has merit. To be fair, I don't have a feel as to whether 3...Be7 will hold up in the long run; but it's indicative of a trend when we realise that there's no accepted way to attack it.

When Neil McDonald's How to Play Against 1 e4 appeared in 2008, I was curious how he would approach the problem. At first glance, I was slightly disappointed, seeing that he had recommended the cheap-looking 3...b6 versus the Advance Variation (1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 e5). Clearly an attempt to avoid theory by using an inferior line? Well, sure enough, Neil shows that even this obscure move is quite playable. And to me, that's the point: you can play all sorts of counter-intuitive things in the French and do perfectly well. He also recommends the Fort Knox Variation, which deals with both 3 Nc3 and 3 Nd2, continuing 3...dxe4 4 Nxe4 Bd7 5 Nf3 Bc6. Like many players, I have always felt slightly uncomfortable with this line, but Neil has years of experience analysing it deeply, specifically in 47 ChessPublishing games! So I'm hesitant to judge, and inclined to take his word. In addition, Neil gives Black extra choices such 4...Qb6 in the Advance, 3...Be7 in the Tarrasch, and a 3 Nc3 Nf6 alternative to 3...dxe4.

The other great mystery, and the question I constantly get from students, is what to play against the French Defence. There's some promising signs here for White. At the top levels, he has consistently been able to pose new problems in main line variations such as the 7 Qg4 Winawer and 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Classical. I've put some time into these lines over the past few years, and believe that Black can gain equality with accurate play; in practice, however, things are not always so easy. And that's important, because a practical advantage is pretty much the best that White can expect out of most major openings these days. In the case of the French, as with many Sicilians, White's task often comes down to eliminating Black tries one-by-one, and adjusting continuously to new ideas and variants. I'll be identifying these partial victories as they occur, and suggesting ways in which to cause the second player maximum discomfort. For players looking to damage the French, I'd suggest getting Khalifman's Opening for White According to Anand, Volumes 6 and 7. Some of his lines are discredited, and the book is badly in need an update, but it's a good starting point for 3 Nc3. The Advance Variation is a bit stalled right now; you'll need some new ideas, and Sveshnikov's two-volume series is the way to understand the most common White strategies. For the Tarrasch, there's Tzermiadianos' How to beat the French defence: the essential guide to the Tarrasch; as you can see from my review #92 in TWIC, Black's systems as a whole aren't really in danger; but for one thing, White can get rid of a number of concrete lines that used to bother him. Unfortunately, there are more chess books devoted to upholding Black defences than to promoting ways to meet them, and the French is no exception.

Finally, a hearty thumbs up for the French Defence Forum! Over the past week, I've been greedily absorbing as many posts as I had time for. Their level of sophistication is amazing, and I'll be addressing them directly when new games arise and/or if I think I've got something to contribute.

So let's look at a few games, with a fuller coverage to begin next month.

Advance Variation

Although still in the minority, an increasing number of strong players are using 5...Nh6 as their answer to 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 e5 c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3. I'm quite a fan of this move, having recommended it in my Dangerous Weapons: French book, so I'll take the liberty of citing one of the few played in this month's batch of games. In Huebner - Van de Griendt, Ohrid 2009, the move order issues are quite interesting, but the players end up in a standard structure that also arises in other variations:

Black has no theoretical problems here, but when his renowned opponent played 10 b3 followed by Ba3, Black easily showed that the remaining position fundamentally favoured him. He later went seriously astray, but this is an example of how the concept of 'good' and 'bad' bishops in the French isn't very useful. The issues simply have to be examined on a case-by-case basis.


In Adams - Yemelin, Ohrid 2009, Black plays 3...Be7 and meets the 'universal' Bd3/Ngf3 system with 7...b6:

This move is undergoing a revival of late, undoubtedly because of Moskalenko's recommendation.

In the notes I talk about the tradeoffs in general of exchanging the light-squared bishop by ...Ba6 in the French Defence. On the one hand, it develops the queenside and leaves Black with a 'good' bishop. On the other hand, Black uses time and weakens his light-squares on the queenside. More subtly, but just as importantly, Black will have more trouble implementing an attack with ...f6; that is, a bishop on c8 or d7 facilitates that break by protecting e6.

Ni Hua-Zvek, Ohrid 2009, is another 'universal' system versus 3...Be7. This time Black plays one of the standard moves, 8...a5, and White chooses 9 a4, which is known but slightly unusual at this high a level of play:

White's idea is to stop ...a4 and win the b5 outpost. This seems a good practical choice, because White avoids early trouble and gets a game with possibilities of outplaying his opponent. While one might think that 9 a4 is slow enough that Black shouldn't have too much trouble equalising, the answer he chooses in most games (including this one) strikes me as inferior.

Classical Variation

The Hecht-Reefschlaeger Variation is tested in Swinkels - Zaragatsi, Bundesliga 2009-10. White chooses 6 Ne2, a move that we have looked at a great deal on ChessPublishing:

This time, Zaragatsi, a devotee of 3...Nc6, tries out yet an unusual method of play: 6...Na5!? (6...f6 is 'normal', and 6...Bd7 has been doing satisfactorily so far). Time will show whether White could have found a path to an edge in the opening; I suspect so, but it would be a minor one. As the game goes, Black actually gains the advantage, but is unable to convert it.

Winawer Variation

I haven't been a fan of the main line Winawer with 7 Qg4 Kf8, because I could never quite figure out how to get my rooks connected! But recently I've been coming around:

Although White won most of the early games versus 7...Kf8, some of those were by Kasparov and may have warped our judgment. As time has gone on, it has been looking like one of Black's safest options, and in my database of significant 2009 games (contested by reasonably strong players), Black has scored +3!

In Omarsson - Johannesson, Reykjavik 2009, I first make some remarks about Moskalenko's favourite 6...Qa5 7 Bd2 Qa4, which was analysed in Kevin's June and September updates. There are some extremely important 'new' ideas that I'll have to expand upon in the future. The Omarsson game goes 6...Ne7 7 Qg4 Kf8 8 Bd2 b6, and illustrates the typical structure after ...b6/...Ba6, with Bxa6 for White.

In Talla - Bartel, Lublin 2009, other themes arise, involving the move Bd3:

White refuses to trade bishops unless Black agrees to a favourable change of pawn structure. My impression about the opening in this game is that White has decent chances to gain a small advantage in various ways between moves 10 and 13. While the resulting play would remain within playable bounds, I think Black should look into skipping 8...Qc7 by 8...b6, as he did in Omarsson-Johannesson, to get his main ideas in more quickly and avoid certain concrete problems. Then White has to prove that he has more than equality.

Till next month, John

Please post you queries on the French Forum, or subscribers can write to me at if you have any questions or queries.