Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Don't You Just Hate The French Defence?

Folks, I'm learning the French Defence and that means learning both sides of the French.

I find that most players in my club mistake the French Defence as a passive, boring defence much like the Caro-Kann but with the added disadvantage of Black's light-squared bishop being hemmed in (which as Korchnoi so lovingly puts it,"his problem child") and remaining inactive for much of the game.

However, the French is not a passive defence. I've found that it's a dangerous counter-attacking defence. Yes, counter-attacking. That means, you as Black don't sit back and let White squeeze you, you go straight for White's throat while White is messing around and shuffling pieces to break the f7-square.

The long-term strategy behind the French Defence is surprisingly simple. Break down White's center and then break White.

Why play the French Defence? I mean, no super GM plays it at the top level other than GM Morozevich and even then his results in the French as Black have not been spectacular. eg. see this tactical game where Morozevich was slowly but surely losing in this year's Linares (Topalov v Morozevich 1-0).

But less not we forget, openings change like the wind. A decade ago, the Sicilian Najdorf was the (and still is) the main reply to 1.e4 but its presence has been diminished with Kasparov's retirement. Instead, the Ruy Lopez (Anand, Kramnik), the Catalan (Kramnik), Petroff (Kramnik), the Slav/Semi-Slav/Queen's Gambit Declined (Anand, Leko, Kramnik, Topalov) are the rage these days.

In fact, the Ruy Lopez Berlin Defence is so tough to crack that I am now forced to switch openings. I was surprised to encounter it as White during one of my OTB games a month ago vs a 1700 player (which I won but only because my opponent blundered when he had the advantage) but who clearly knew how to play the Berlin Defence.

Anyway, here's a French Defence game I played recently on FICS.

We reached the position (I am Black) as shown 33. Rg4 (see 1st diagram on right).

White is trying his best to break down the position but I've got everything tidied up.

Now imagine the board without the Queens and the minor pieces. What do you see?

Bingo! Black has a strong central pawn majority and it is these pawns that will give Black an advantage in the endgame.

The isolated pawn on e5 will fall and I still have pawn triggers of f6 or g6 (at the opportune moment) to cause serious damage to White.

I therefore, not surprisingly, head straight for the endgame.

33. ... Rc4 (trading off the Rooks naturally)
34. Rgf4 Rxf4 35. Rxf4 Rc4 36. Rf2 (waste of time) Bc5 (even if White didn't move I am relocating my Bishop to c7 for reasons mentioned below)
37. Rf1 Re4
38. b4 Bb6
39. Rf3 (see 2nd diagram on right)

Now this is my plan. I intend to attack the e5 pawn - it cannot be defended because of the vulnerability of the back rank check (losing the Queen in the process). The dark-square bishop will slice through the b8-h2 diagonal.

39.... Bc7
40. Qh2 Bxe5

41. Bg3 Bxg3
(I was so tempted to do 42. Re1+! and then trading off his Queen for my Rook and Bishop but I feared the position might be complicated. I was thinking to myself. I have a winning position, I just need to keep my pieces on the board. Put more pressure and White will crack soon enough)
42. Qxg3 f6
43. Qh3 Re1+

44. Kh2 Qb8+

45. g3 Qe5
(see 3rd diagram on right) (now it is all over, my Queen threatens c3, e2+ and h5 and my Rook threatens e2. If White plays 46. Qg2 Qxh5+ 47. Qh3 Re2+ wins the Queen)
46. Rf2 Qxc3 (White's Queenside pawns will get gobbled up and the pawns simply march down to win) 0-1


  1. i used to hate the french, now i play it often...turns out, it's pretty deadly (if you know what you are doing, which i don't yet)...

  2. Hello,

    The French Defence is all based on a single coherent strategy.

    Break down White's central pawns. Put as much pressure as you can on it. Tie up White as much as possible so that White has to spend valuable time protecting the pawns.

    I don't play the Winawer (I don't like giving up my dark square bishop) nor the Burn variation (which usually involves opening up the g file).

    I find the most dangerous weapons against the French is the Tarrasch Var. GM Michael Adams is fond of the Tarrasch Var whenever he encounters the French OTB. It is important to know what Black has to do.

    The French experts on the Black side are Nigel Short, Mikhail Gurevich, Etienne Bacrot, Viktor Korchnoi and Evgeny Bareev.

    I would recommend looking for games from these top players.

    For books, John Watson's Play The French is a good book to study this opening.

    Hope this helps! :)