John Watson Book Review (92)
Opening Books en Masse, Part 3
IM John Watson - Saturday 28th February 2009
The books and DVDs featured in this column are about the French Defence.
In this column, as in the previous two, I begin with a review that contains considerable analysis, and then move to shorter descriptions other high-quality opening products. The books and DVDs featured in this column are about the French Defence, which is unusual in this column. I myself have written books on the French Defence and have felt a sort of conflict of interest about criticizing others' work on the subject. But over the last few years there have been a number of excellent books, articles, and DVDs on the French Defence, and it's easy for me to recommend several of them if only because of their originality and quantity of new analysis. Whether or not I agree with their conclusions, they are thought-provoking enough to stimulate new creative thought about old variations.
I should also point out that this selection is necessarily a subset of the extensive contemporary material on the French Defence.
How to beat the French defence: the essential guide to the Tarrasch ; Andreas Tzermiadianos; 320 pages; Everyman Chess 2008
The Flexible French; Viktor Moskalenko; 279 pages; New in Chess 2008
Chess Explained: The French; Viacheslav Eingorn and Valentin Bogdanov; 127 pages, Gambit 2008
How to Play Against 1 e4; Neil McDonald; 238 pages; Everyman 2008
Starting Out: 1 e4!; Neil McDonald; 200 pages; Everyman 2006
Chesspublishing: French Defence; Neil McDonald; Chesspublishing.com
Play 1...Nc6!; Christoph Wisnewski; 268 pages; Everyman 2007
Beating the French, Vols 1-3 (DVDs); Rustam Kasimdzhanov, ChessBase 2007
French Repertoire for Black (DVD); Ari Ziegler; ChessBase 2006
Opening for White According to Anand, Volume 6; Alexander Khalifman; Chess Stars 2006 [covers 3 Nc3 Nc6, 3 Nc3 Nf6, and 3 Nc3 dxe4]
Opening for White According to Anand, Volume 7; Alexander Khalifman; Chess Stars 2006 [Covers 3 Nc3 Bb4]
Dangerous Weapons: The French; John Watson; Everyman 2007
How to beat the French defence: the essential guide to the Tarrasch is one of those books that goes well beyond an intelligent ordering of current theory. Tzermiadianos takes his long experience of playing the Tarrasch (1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nd2) and tries to establish an advantage versus the many defensive systems that Black can choose from. In order to do so, he stuffs the book with thoughtful independent analysis; these are mostly of a technical nature, which are by no means insignificant; but from time to time he also offers us a dramatic move that calls previous theory into doubt or worse.
Now I don't think you can 'beat the French' with 3 Nd2, and in fact I think 3 Nc3 is objectively the best move. In that I have the opinion of a majority of leading grandmasters behind me, and most World Champions. Karpov is often cited as the premier 3 Nd2 player, although he switched to 3 Nc3 for a few years before abandoning 1 e4. Most of the world's elite today primarily use 3 Nc3, with Adams the truly notable exception who has played 3 Nd2 almost exclusively throughout his career. Without much high-level support, Tzermiadianos has his work cut out for him.
As discussed in my Mastering the Chess Openings (Volume 1), after 3 Nd2 White faces the fundamental problem that the knight on d2 blocks off White's pieces and yet has no clearly effective place to go. Hence the plausibility of apparently silly moves such as 3...Be7, 3...a6, and 3...h6. Nevertheless, the Tarrasch has proven an effective weapon in the hands of players with a certain degree of patience, and Black can hardly count upon any line to simplify and eliminate all imbalance. What's more, White can manage the play, at least initially, so as to minimize the possibility of disadvantage; of course, that sort of control tends to disappear in the middlegame.
The author begins his task by advising readers how to study openings. He recommends studying the classics, finding experts on both sides of the opening, studying typical endings, collecting information, and using the computer wisely. This chapter is written simply and clearly for the amateur. Another piece of advice has to do with adjusting your chosen variations according to style, which is something that applies mainly to more advanced players. All the more so when he tells you to deviate early from the main lines. 'It is very difficult to play a strong novelty on move 25...It's better to have a novelty around move 10 or 15, as then you will have a good chance to play it over the board.' Tell that to my students! Once in a while Tzermiadianos forgets his audience, who will seldom find themselves in theoretical positions on move 15.
The next two chapters have to do with standard middlegame and endgame themes, with an emphasis on pawn structure. They are all related to Tarrasch positions, most from the text itself, and should be very useful in orienting yourself to the material.
The heart of the book is the repertoire, very sophisticated and pitched at a professional level, but friendly enough for the average player to get a lot out of. The author places a proper emphasis on 3...c5 (87 pages; he uses a 4 Ngf3 move order, but transposes into the traditional exd5 lines next), 3...Nf6 (102 pages; one feels that he has the most fun in this section), and 3...dxe4 (51 pages). The Guimard with 3...Nc6 takes 6 pages, 3...a6 5 pages, and 3...Be7 12 pages. Like Avrukh's book from the last column, the analysis stands out for its detail and intelligence, and Tzermiadianos' research is much more thorough than in that book. His sources include the most important books, the absolutely critical ChessPublishing.com, and the standard databases, including correspondence games (although only the 2006 version of ChessBase's leading Correspondence Database; it's up to 2009, but that can hardly affect too much). It's interesting that Tzermiadianos' Bibliography doesn't include either of the two DVDs by Kasimdzhanov and Ziegler reviewed below. Since both products preceded his own by some distance, it's likely that his newer research has resulted in more advanced theory anyway; and in one case he had already found an ingenious solution to what Ziegler uses as a main line: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 f6 9.exf6 Nxf6 10.0-0 Bd6 11.Nf3 0-0 12.Bf4 Bxf4 13.Nxf4 Ne4 14.g3 Qf6 15.h4 g5 (thus far Ziegler), 16 hxg5 Nxg5 17 Kg2!!, an amazing pawn sacrifice that Tzermiadianos discovered in 1998 but never got a chance to play (he cites a later correspondence game). Impressive.
Let me examine a portion of Tzermiadianos' thought-provoking analysis, chosen because these are lines that I have been writing about or that my students are using. As a Francophile, I'm obviously interested in finding moves for Black, which is only natural when an advantage for White is being claimed. You'll see that our main differences are in assessments and minor ways of handling positions.
Let's start with the 3...Nf6 main lines and the extremely important 11...Qc7.
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.Bd3 c5 5.e5 Nfd7 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 f6 9.exf6 Nxf6 10.Nf3 Bd6 11.0-0 Qc7 12.Bg5 0-0 13.Rc1 Nh5!?
At this point Tzermiadianos suggests
'I like really like this move,' he says, daring Black to sacrifice the exchange.
Tzermiadianos' main line is 14...g6, and he calls this exchange sacrifice 'not effective', continuing
15.gxf3 Bxh2+ 16.Kh1 Bd6
I think that 16...Bd7 17.f4 Bxf4 18.Nxf4 Nxf4 19.Rg1 Rf8 is unclear.
17.f4 g6 18.Rg1!
and now he gives 18...Bd7 19.Nc3!. The point is that f5 is a threat, as well as Nb5 and kingside attacking moves. But this would not be the case had Black played 18...Qf7!, which is preferred by Rybka with an assessment of equal. That wouldn't be surprising given White's multiple weaknesses, and it's even slightly easier to play for Black, e.g., 19.Qd2 (19.Rc3 Bd7 20.a3 Ng7 21.b4 Nf5) 19...Bd7 20.a3 Rf8.
Another key variation begins
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.c3 c5 6.Bd3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 f6 9.exf6 Nxf6 10.Nf3 Qc7 11.0-0 Bd6 12.Bg5 0-0 13.Rc1 h6
Tzermiadianos also gives 13...Bd7 14.Re1'!', but then I think that 14...h6 15.Bd2 Rac8! looks best, e.g., 16.Qb3 Qb8 17.Ng3 a6 18.a3 Qa7!
Here he suggests
15.Bg6 Rxf3 16.gxf3
After 16.Bxh5, not mentioned, one possibility would be 16...Rf5 17.Bg6 Bxh2+ 18.Kh1 Bd6! 19.Bxf5 exf5 20.Nc3 Qf7, which gives Black a pawn, the bishop pair, and White's slightly exposed king as compensation for the exchange.
17...Nf4+ 18.Nxf4 Bxf4
An interesting line in the book goes 18...Qxf4 19.Bg3 Bxg3 20.fxg3 Qf6 21.Qd3 Bd7 22.Rfd1 Rf8 23.Bh5 Qg5 24.Rh1! Rf4 25.Qe3 Rxd4 26.Qxg5 hxg5 27.Rhd1. According to Tzermiadianos, White has 'a small advantage'. But Black has two pawns and active pieces, for example, 27...Ra4 28.a3 Kf8 29.Bg6 Ke7 30.Bd3 (30.Bc2 Ra5 31.Rh1 Kf6) 30...Kd6 with equal chances.
19.Bg3 Bd7 20.Rh1!
Here Tzermiadianos gives 20...Rf8?! 21 Rh4! with a small edge, which looks true. But I think that Black does better to attack in the centre or go after the d-pawn, for example, 20...Qd6! and
a) 21.Bb1 Qf8! and 22.Qd3 Bxc1 23.Qh7+ Kf7 24.Rxc1 Ke8 25.Rh1!? Nxd4 26.Rh4! e5 27.Bxe5 Qxf3+ 28.Kg1 Qd1+ 29.Kg2=, or 22.Rc3 Qf6 23.Qd3 Nxd4 24.Qh7+ Kf7 25.Bxf4 Qxf4 26.Qg6+ Kf8.
b) 21.Rh4?! Bxg3 22.fxg3 e5, hitting the bishop on g6.;
c) 21.Qd3 Bxg3 22.fxg3 e5 23.Bf5 Bxf5 24.Qxf5 Nxd4 25.Rc8+ Rxc8 26.Qxc8+ Kh7 27.Qxb7 Nf5 28.Qb3 ½-½ Trippe-Gullotto, ICCF email 2007. After 28.Qxa7 , Black has 28...e4! 29.Qf2 (29.f4 Qg6 30.Rh3 d4) 29...e3 30.Qe1 d4. And after the game's 28 Qb3, the play goes 28...e4 29.fxe4 dxe4 and White has some difficulty defending his king, but can bail out: 30.g4! Qd2+ 31.Kh3 Ne3 32.Rh2 Qe1 33.Qb5 Nd5!? (33...Qg1 34.Qe2 g5=) 34.Qxd5 Qe3+ with a perpetual.
Let's move on to a modern treatment:
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Be7
Some of the big guns play this move, brought into renown by Morozevich. It is also recommended by McDonald in his book discussed below.
4.Bd3 c5 5.dxc5 Nf6 6.Qe2 Nc6
McDonald suggests the sharp line with 6...0-0 7.Ngf3 a5 8.0-0 Na6 (8...a4 'is an untried alternative'. This is one of the few times that Tzermiadianos doesn't suggest a move for White) 9.e5 Nd7 10.c3 Naxc5 11.Bc2 b6 12.Re1 Ba6 13.Qe3 , and McDonald follows the 2008 game S Kristjansson-Caruana, Reykjavik 2008 (probably played a bit too late for Tzermiadianos' book): 13...f6 14.b4 (14.exf6 Bxf6 15.Nb3, and 15...Qe8! is better than the immediate 15...e5, when ...e5, ...a4, and ...Qf7 are all thematic ideas) 14...fxe5 15.Nxe5 (15.bxc5? Bxc5) 15...Nxe5 16.bxc5 Bxc5 17.Qxe5 Bxf2+ 18.Kh1 Bxe1 19.Qxe6+?! Kh8 20.Qxe1 d4! with the initiative. The French is a tough nut to crack!
7.Ngf3 Bxc5 8.0-0 Qc7 9.a3 0-0 10.e5 Nd7 11.b4
This is the suggestion in Tzermiadianos. According to theory, the sacrificial lines 11.Bxh7+ Kxh7 12.Ng5+ Kg6 13.Qd3+ f5 14.Nxe6 Qxe5 15.Nxf8+ Nxf8 16.Nf3 Qe4 and 11.Nb3 Bb6 12.Bxh7+!? Kxh7 13.Ng5+ Kg6 ends in disadvantage.
12.Bxh7+ Kxh7 13.Qd3+ Kg8 14.Nxd4
After 14.Ng5, 14...Re8 is good enough.
The author says that White 'keeps an edge' after 14...Nxd4 15.Qxd4 Qxe5 16.Qxe5 Nxe5 17.Bb2. But then Black can try to utilise his centre by 17...Ng6 18.c4! (versus ...e5; 18.f4 b6) 18...Rd8 (or even 18...Bd7 19.cxd5 exd5) 19.cxd5 Rxd5 20.Rfd1 b6 with equality, e.g., 21.Nf1 Bb7 22.Rxd5 Bxd5 23.Ne3 Bb7 (or 23...Ne7) 24.Rd1 Bc6.
Now, instead of Tzermiadianos' 15...Ng4 16 Ndf3, Black should play 15...Ng6! 16.f4! (better than 16.Bb2 e5 or 16.b5 Qa5!) 16...Qb6 17.N2f3 Nxd4 18.Nxd4 Bd7 with a balanced position.
In spite of my liking for the Guimard Variation (1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nd2 Nc6) and belief in its fundamental soundness, you'd think that if there were any line against which such a strong Tarrasch advocate should be able to get a definite plus against, it would be 3...Nc6. I'm not convinced by Tzermiadianos' solution to it; it's safe for White, but in my opinion not punchy enough to produce anything real:
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nc6 4.Ngf3 Nf6 5.e5 Nd7 6.c3 f6 7.Bb5 fxe5 8.dxe5
Wei Ming gives the line 8.Nxe5 Ncxe5 9.dxe5 c6 10.Bd3 Nxe5 11.Qh5+ Nf7 12.Bxh7 Qf6 with powerful central pawns.
Here the recent game Kostantine Sghanava-Goh Wei Ming, 1st Vietnam Open 2008 went 9.0-0 0-0 10.Qe2 Qe8 11.Re1 Qh5!? 12.Nf1, and here Wei Ming points out that Black should play 12...Rxf3! 13.Ng3 (13.Bxc6 Rf5!) 13...Qf7! 14.Qxf3 Qxf3 15.gxf3 Ncxe5 16.Be2 Ng6 with plenty of play. Tzermiadianos suggests bypassing such lines with
9.Nd4! Ndxe5 10.f4! a6! 11.Qh5+ Kd7
Having looked at this more closely, I see that even the exchange sacrifice 11...Ng6!? 12.Nxc6 bxc6 13.Bxc6+ Bd7 14.Bxa8 Qxa8 is by no means clear (Rybka 3 is surprisingly tolerant of it), for example, 15.Nf3 (15.0-0 0-0 16.Nf3 Rf5 17.Qg4 e5) 15...0-0 16.Ng5 h6! 17.Qxg6 hxg5 18.0-0 e5! 19.f5 Qc8 20.Be3 (20.g4 Qb7) 20...Bxf5 21.Qc6 Be4 with compensation. Still, Black risks disadvantage and would probably only play this if he needed a win.
Tzermiadianos alertly improves for White upon my book Dangerous Weapons:The French (which he comments generously upon), where I had given 12.Qxe5 axb5 13.Qxe6+ Ke8 14.Qe2 Kf7 with a good game.
12...Nxc6 13.N2f3 Bf6!
I think this is better than his main line 13...Bd6 14.Be3! Qe8 15.Qh3 Nxd4 16.Bxd4! with the idea 16...Bxf4 17.0-0 Qe7 18.Rae1!.
Similar is 14...b6 15.0-0 Nxd4 16.Bxd4 Kc6!? 17.Ne5+ (17.Bxf6 gxf6 18.Nd4+ Kb7 19.Rae1 Qe8 20.Qe2 Qe7!? 21.Nxe6 Bxe6 22.Qxe6 Qc5+) 17...Kb7.
To secure b7 for the king in some lines. Instead, Tzermiadianos gives only 15...Nxd4 16.Bxd4 b6 17.Ne5+ Kd8 18.b4! with the idea 0-0 and Rae1, although Black can still try to reorganise with 18...Bd7 19.0-0 a5, for example, 20.Rfe1 axb4 21.cxb4 Rf8!? 22.Qxh7 (22.Qc3 Be7) 22...Qe7 23.a3?! g5!. Again, however, that's risky for Black and a little strange-looking. 15...b6 seems better.
16.Nxc6 Kxc6 17.Nd4+? Kb7 18.Qf3 c5 19.Ne2 Bd7 with a clear extra pawn and the bishop pair.
16...Nxd4 17.Bxd4 Kc6
17...c5 18.Be5 a5 19.Rae1 Kc6 20.c4! with initiative.
Best, I think. Here's some sample analysis, to give a general feel for things: 18.Rae1 e5 19.f5 e4 20.c4! Qd8 21.Bxf6 Qxf6 22.cxd5+ Kb7 23.Nd2 Re8 24.Qc3! (24.Nxe4 Qd4+ 25.Nf2 Rxe1 26.Rxe1 Qxd5 27.g4 Qxa2) 24...Qxc3 25.bxc3 Re5 26.Nxe4 Rxd5 27.f6 gxf6 28.Nxf6 Ra5! 29.Re7 (29.Nxh7 Rxa2 30.Nf6 a5 31.h4 a4 32.h5 Ra5) 29...Bf5 with roughly balanced chances. Naturally there are many options for both sides.
18...Kb7 19.Rae1 Qf7 20.Ne5 Qe7
with ideas of ...Bh4 and ...c5. It's not clear if White's bind is worth more or less than a pawn. Instead, after 20...Bxe5!? 21.Bxe5 Rg8, White has dark-square domination, but his light squares are potentially exploitable if he overreaches; naturally, White can hardly lose if he plays with care. Probably this whole variation beginning with 9 Nxd4 can be characterised as drawish.
Another slightly eccentric variation is 3...a6.
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 a6 4.Bd3 c5 5.dxc5 Nf6
This move, analogous to 3...Be7 4 Bd3 c5 5 dxc5 Nf6, is in a side note, with no games and only the author's analysis. In other words, he could have skipped the move, but became curious and included it for the sake of completeness. This is the mark of a conscientious and involved author.
6.Qe2 Bxc5 7.Ngf3 Nc6 is my main line.
6...Qxd5 7.Ngf3 Bxc5
Another thought is 7...Nbd7 8.0-0 Nxc5, which is unbalanced, if potentially awkward for Black, for example, after 9.Be2 Bd7 10.b4 (10.Nc4 Bb5) 10...Na4 11.c4 Qc6 12.Qb3 Qc7 13.c5 Be7 14.Nc4 0-0.
8...0-0 9.0-0 Qh5 looks more accurate
9.0-0 0-0 10.Rd1 Qh5 11.h3 b5 12.Nf1 Bb7 13.Ng3! Bxf3 14.Nxh5 Bxe2 15.Bxe2
Tzermiadianos prefers White with his two bishops. It's an interesting point between middle- and endgame.
After 16.Bxh5 Nb6!, White has the bishop pair on an open board, a very significant factor; but Black has his own advantages, namely, a traditional Sicilian-style minority attack underway on the queenside supported by active pieces, and a 4 to 3 kingside majority versus White's 3 to 2 queenside majority, generally favourable for the 4:3 side. A sample line might be 17.Bf4 (17.Be2 Rac8 18.c3 Rfd8) 17...Na4 (or 17...Rad8 ) 18.Rab1 Rad8 19.Bd2 (19.c3 g6 20.Bf3 Rxd1+ 21.Bxd1 e5!) 19...Bd4 20.c3 Bf6 21.Be3 Be7! 22.Bf3 Bc5 23.Bf4 f6 etc.
17.Rd1 Ne4 18.Rf1?! Ng3.
17...Ne4 18.Be3 Bxe3 19.fxe3 Rac8 20.Rxc8 Rxc8 21.a4 f5 22.c3 Nd6
Or 22...Rc5 23.axb5 axb5 24.Ra6 Rd5!.
23.axb5 axb5 24.Ra6 Nc4 25.Bxc4 bxc4 26.Rxe6 Rb8
and Black's active rook will suffice to draw. At any rate, the 3...a6 line remains alive and well. I won't go into it here, but I think that 3...h6 (strangely given '?!') is in many ways better than 3...a6, and not threatened at all by the analysis in the book. Thus the French deserves its reputation for leaving Black with unusual flexibility in choosing systems.
This is all fascinating stuff, and thanks to Tzermiadianos, a step and often more beyond the theory that existed before this book. You can see by my analysis that the resulting positions can be argued over, and I'm sure that White could make his own case. This is a book that someone wishing to play 3 Nd2 absolutely has to have, and I think every French player will learn a great amount about his favourite opening by reading it.
Within the genre of theoretical opening books, which by its nature includes many dry tomes, Viktor Moskalenko's The Flexible French is a great read. The author sets himself he goal of presenting various favourite French variations with a broad perspective. Moskalenko talks about the history and ideas of the variation, along with some advice, statistics, and the occasional personal story. Ultimately, however, he is a keen analyst who spends most of his time as an openings book author should: presenting moves and fresh ideas.
The essence of the book lies with its choice of variations, many not well known to the average player. For example, he recommends 5...Nh6 in the French Advance main line (3 e5 c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3), something that I explored in my Dangerous Weapons:French book. The analysis is broad and enthusiastic, with an obvious preference for Black. I should say, however, that he devotes quite as much time to the traditional 5...Qb6 6 a3 (6 Be2 Nh6) 6...Nh6, with which he has extensive playing experience, as well as 6...c4. I'll return to this multiple-line repertoire structure below.
The book is not meant to be complete. It's closer to a repertoire from the Black side, although with omissions in each variation, for example, you won't see 4 Nf3 or 4 Qg4 in the Advance Variation. Or, in his coverage of the Winawer (3 Nc3 Bb4), White has some rather important variations with which to challenge Black such as 4 Bd2, 4 a3, and even 4 exd5. These aren't mentioned, and after 4 e5 c5, we see 5 Bd2 but not 5 Qg4, 5 dxc5, 5 Nf3 and so forth.
From White's point of view, although Moskalenko occasionally presents some fun and intriguing moves, there's only bits and pieces of a whole repertoire. Of course, there is not meant to be one; the book is primarily from Black's perspective. He doesn't cover, for example, 3 Nc3/Nd2 dxe4, 3 Nd2 c5 4 exd5 exd5, 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5 Be7 (but his 4...Bb4 MacCutcheon chapter makes for great reading). And Black's traditional main line in the Winawer, 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ (no 5...Ba5) 6 bxc3 Ne7 isn't part of Moskalenko's Black repertoire, so naturally we don't see it from White's point of view. And so forth.
That's simply not the kind of book we have here. Moskalenko has played a hodgepodge of Black systems in the main lines, and wants to talk about all of them! That means that you get multiple weapons against many systems. In the Winawer alone, for example, he has whole chapters on 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 b6!?, 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Qc7, and his favourite 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Qa5 7 Bd2 Qa4, with by far the best coverage of the latter that I've seen anywhere. And just to top it off, you can skip 3...Bb4 entirely and play the Classical with 3...Nf6 (with a repertoire of limited flexibility by comparison with 3...Bb4). Again, there's some slightly out-of-place but very good coverage of the Black side of the Alekhine-Chatard attack 6 h4, but since that comes from 3 Nc3 Nf3 4 Bg5 Be7 5 e5 Nfd7, he should probably have said something about the main line 6 Bxe7! Or, in the Tarrasch with 3 Nd2, he has chapters on 3..Be7 (with fantastic ideas), 3...c5 4 exd5 Qxd5, and a main-line treatment of the dynamic 3...Nf6, suddenly with complete analysis of all the important sidelines! Throughout, the play is lively and the analysis simply sparkles with ideas.
Then there are strange pauses. For a full 19 pages, he treats the lesser-known system which he calls 'Russian Roulette': 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Nf3 c5 6 dxc5 Nc6 7 Bf4 Bxc5 8 Bd3 f6 9 exf6 Nxf6 10 Qe2 0-0 11 0-0-0
(or 1 e4 e6 2 Nf3 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 d4 c5 6 dxc5, etc., transposing). From White's point of view! That is characteristic of the whole book: entertaining, but random! It's more like a tour, or a series of articles, than a systematic presentation. Because of its selectivity, it won't provide solutions to some of the variations that might bother you, but that only means that a French Defence player will want to use it in conjunction with other sources.
It's hard to say too much more without going into the history of lines or analytical niceties, but I very much approve of this book. Moskalenko is a leading French expert and it shows throughout; there's hardly a variation in the book to which he hasn't either contributed something or in which he hasn't noticed some still-unfashionable line that some strong analysts have revived. In fact, the book serves as a tribute to the French Defence itself.
Viacheslav Eingorn and Valentin Bogdanov's Chess Explained: The French has another mission entirely: to fit the breadth of the French into 127 pages while both explaining ideas and having enough specifics to get the reader off to a good start in his or her French Defence adventures. That is an almost impossible task, but they do a yeoman's job of it. As with other Chess Explained books, the featured games are all contemporary, that is, played in 2003 and thereafter, with one exception (a game by Eingorn himself in 1983). Likewise, the theory in the notes derives from recent contests, which to some extent allows them to bypass older lines that are at least temporarily out of favour. Inevitably, the material is winnowed down, for example, the content begins with 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5, and not 1 e4 e6, which is understandable; the reader will have to research things like the King's Indian Attack and Moskalenko's 2 Nf3 d5 3 Nc3 variation mentioned above.
Nevertheless, the authors do a good job of hitting not only high points, but the kind of supporting lines that Moskalenko doesn't cover. For example, the Winawer coverage is exceptionally good, and we get games with 4 exd5 and 4 Nge2, with notes on 4 Qg4, 4 Bd3, 4 Qd3, 4 Bd2, and 4 a3, the latter two of particular importance. Then there's a game with 4 e5 Ne7 involving the recently revived 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 b6 and demonstrating a convincing course for White. At move 5, after 4 e5 c5, the coverage is less impressive regarding White's 'minor' (but important) moves. The popular 5 Bd2 and dynamic 5 dxc5 in particular deserve more than a few unexplained moves. But if they'd covered everything, you would end up with little more than a skeleton and not much that 'explains' the French. The authors decide that the main lines with 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 will do more in that respect, and they're probably right. They include Winawers with 7 Qg4 Kf8!? and 7 Qg4 Qc7 (the Poisoned Pawn line), as well as the 'main' 7..0-0. The less common but important 5...Ba5 has a terribly instructive game as an exemplar.
We already saw in his Creative Chess Opening Preparation that Eingorn loves slightly out-of-the-way French Tarrasch lines such as 3 Nd2 h6 and 3 Nd2 a6 (both in my Dangerous Weapons book), which the authors also devote more than the expected space to. And 3...Be7 is given its due, while some long old main lines stemming from 3...Nf6 are too dense and the authors simply have to give them relatively superficial treatment.
The Advance Variation (3 e5) receives only 14 pages (note that pages in the 'Chess Explained' series contain more material than the average book of their dimension). That really is a problem, as the authors dismiss all options on moves 3 and 4 other than 3...c5 4 c3, and only lines with ...Qb6 are given attention (rather than those with ...Bd7/...Nge7 or ...Nh6, omitting ...Qb6). Traditional main lines such as 4...Nc6 5 Nf3 Qb6 6 Be2 are barely noted, and the popular amateur move 6 Bd3 (leading to the Milner-Barry Gambit) is also dissed. The problem is that the French Defence is a much broader and theoretically more complex opening than some others in the Chess Explained series, so the cuts need be more Draconian. Everyman had the same problem with its own Starting Out:the French.
I should mention Bogdanov, the lesser-known co-author. He is not only the long-time second for Eingorn, but a trainer of Moskalenko and Drozdovsky, names very familiar to French Defence enthusiasts, and Savchenko, who plays the French relatively often. That more than qualifies him as a French Defence expert. One of the main reasons to recommend this book is that the authors clearly know their subject and, as you would expect from Eingorn, have an eye for the slightly unusual moves that might improve upon the main games and keep the variations alive for both sides. They also have a healthy respect for White's strengths in the French, and show them in detail. Indeed, their 25 illustrative games end in +4 for White. I would say that of the books and DVDs that I'm reviewing, this one is the most balanced, and therefore should be attractive to players of both 1 e4 and/or the French Defence.
Neil McDonald is not only a leading French Defence expert, he is also one of the premier writers about it. In How to Play Against 1 e4, he recommends an anti-1 e4 repertoire with the French.
First, a relevant digression. In 2006, McDonald wrote Starting Out: 1 e4 , proposing a White repertoire with 1 e4. I found this a very brave book for recommending that White go into nearly every Open Sicilian variation (that is, with 2 Nf3 and 3 d4). No one does this in a repertoire book, much less given a couple hundred pages to cover all of 1 e4! Every author would tell you that the Open Sicilian variations are too complex and space-consuming etc. Well, he gets away with it and puts to shame those many repertoire books that use the Closed Sicilian, Bb5(+), King's Indian Attack (versus 2...e6), 2 c3 or 3 c3, and so forth.
Anyway, versus the French the Starting Out: 1 e4 book recommends the Tarrasch (3 Nd2), but without much overlap with Tzermiadianos, which shows that the White side of the French Defence has its own flexibility. Versus 3...Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Bd3 c5 6 c3 Nc6 (and via 3...c5 4 Ngf3 Nf6 5 e5 Nfd7 6 Bd3), for example, he promotes the lines with 7 Ngf3 (the 'Universal' System) instead of Tzermiadianos' 7 Ne2 and 8 Ndf3. Only versus the Guimard, he does recommend the Tzermiadianos' solution above, but without considering 9...Ndxe5!.
So, to return to the book at hand, i.e., How to Play Against 1 e4, McDonald's vast knowledge of French variations allows him to come up some slightly unusual ways for Black to set up a repertoire without having to spend hundreds of hours or more learning too well established theory. For example, versus the Advance Variation, he gives the little-investigated option 3...b6 as well as the better-known ...Qb6/...Bd7-b5, in both cases to swap his bad bishop for White's good one. Versus 3 Nc3 (/3 Nd2), he gives as a first option 3...dxe4 4 Nxe4 Bd7 with the idea ...Bc6, called 'the Fort Knox'. Versus Moskalenko's line above with 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Nf3 c5 6 dxc5 Nc6 7 Bf4 Bxc5 8 Bd3 f6 9 exf6. McDonald likes 9...Qxf6. And so forth.
One of the other reasons that I'm talking about How to Play Against 1 e4, is to bring you attention to McDonald's Chesspublishing column on the French Defence, which is, bar none, the best source on completely up-to-date and well annotated information on the French Defence. Chesspublishing.com is a pay site that I've discussed before (it's probably time to do so again, but that will have to wait). Theoreticians, almost all of them GMs, take the latest month's batch of games and annotate what they see as the most interesting ones. It's definitely worth exploring. [In the interests of complete disclosure: I have a column on the site.]
ChessPublishing can be the best way to find out how a line is evolving. McDonald's repertoire includes the line: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qd2 0-0
7...Be7 is a later discovery that has gotten a better and better reputation. The book covers all the reasons that variations with 9 dxc5 and/or 0-0-0 at some point have proven unsuccessful in grandmaster play. Today, most attention is being concentrated upon the line 9.Be2! a6 10.0-0 b5 11.a3! Qb6! 12.Nd1! This move was played in Sadvakasov-Hernandez Guerrero, Merida 2008 in December of last year, and thus was unavailable to McDonald for the book (his main game goes 12 dxc5?!, which he rightly criticises, and he quotes a game Sadvakasov-Ni Hua from Moscow 2007 beginning with 12.Kh1 Bb7 13.Bg1 cxd4 and leading to equality). But on ChessPublishing (post-book), he gives the only serious analysis that I've seen of this game, criticizing Hernandez Guerrero's 12...Bb7 and preferring 12...a5. I still like White by a bit, but that's another matter. As the game went, Black was slightly worse, but got a good game after White tried for too much.
Let me move on to brief comments on some other books. In column #91 I talked about Christoph Wisnewski's Play 1...Nc6!: A complete chess opening repertoire for Black. That was in the context of his Chigorin recommendation 1 d4 d5 2 c4 Nc6. He also wants Black to play 1 e4 Nc6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 e6, which is the same as the French line 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Nc6. This is a line that I suggest and analyse in my own Dangerous Weapons: the French, but he does so with different ideas. For example, after 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 e5 Ne4 6 Bd3, I suggest the 'normal' 6...Bb4, but Wisnewski prefers the remarkable 6...f5!?, a move of which I was completely unaware. After 7 exf6 Nxf6, White would seem to be able to take control of e5 by means of 0-0/Re1/Bb5 and the like, but I have to admit that I can't make it work and Black achieves or gets extremely close to equality. Wisnewski also chooses 4...Nge7 after 4 e5, whereas I promoted 4...f6. Again, we see how wide open the ideas are in the French, far more than anyone imagined 15 or even 5 years ago.
I should point out that two works on the French Defence have appeared on DVD over the last few years. On his 3-DVD video series, Beating the French, Rustam Kasimdzhanov offers a complete repertoire for White with 3 Nc3. He suggests 3 Nc3 because it is "probably the best move", a sentiment with which I agree. In fact, as a 1 e4 player, I tried out 3 e5, but then permanently switched to 3 Nc3. On Disk 1, Kasimdzhanov begins with a general Introduction to the French, and then, as on each disc, his first segment deals with the general layout of material on that disc. The other segments are lectures centered around complete games. This is always a tradeoff for either the book author or the commentator. Complete games are very helpful in establishing a continuity of ideas and bringing an entertaining flow to the presentation; on the other hand, using them can seriously cut into the amount of theoretical material, including both specific moves and themes that are particular to an opening. For this series, which doesn't emphasize pure theory, the decision to go with complete games seems a good one. As a whole, I find Kasimdzhanov's speaking style easy to listen to, although sometimes the frequency of 'uhs' gets a little out of hand.
In Disk#1, Kasimdzhanov discusses the Winawer, choosing the 7 Qg4 main line as his recommendation. It's too bad that he dismisses some lines for Black as simply bad without analysis. For example, what Moskalenko calls 'My System in the Winawer', namely, 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 b6 (and 4...Qd7) 5 a3 (or 5 Qg4) 5...Bf8. Moskalenko devotes a whole chapter to this line, used by the older players Petrosian, Bronstein, Portisch, and Korchnoi; but also in contemporary play by Ivanchuk (who defeated Kasparov with it, a rare loss with White by the World Champion), Vaganian, Chernin, Psakhis, Gulko, and by Moskalenko himself, who cites 10 of his own contests. As it happens, 4...b6 and 5...Bf8 has an excellent record.
Kasimdzhanov also doesn't mention 3 Nc3 Nc6 (a moderately popular move right now, and Wisnewski's main line). In the fashionable contemporary variation 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Qa5 (Kasimdzhanov touches upon 6...Qc7 only in one out-of-date line, albeit a very instructive one) 7 Bd2 Qa4 (see Moskalenko above), Kasimdzhanov suggests 8 Qb1 c4 9 h4 without looking at the good alternative 9...f6, and he says that after 9...Nbc6 10 h5, Black has to play 10...h6 to stop 11 h5, even though after 10...Bd7 11 h6 ('?!' - Moskalenko) 11...Nxh6, Black ends up with the better chances. In the main line Winawer Poisoned Pawn line with 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 Qg4 Qc7 (he gives thorough coverage of 7...0-0) 8 Qxg7 Rg8 9 Qxh7 cxd4 10 Ne2 Nc6 11 f4 Bd7 12 Qc3, he gives one non-critical variation (but again, an instructive one), and opines that 'Practice has shown that Black doesn't have enough play', something not confirmed by its elite-level over the past few years. He also says that 'Black's idea is ...Rc8', when generally the lines with ...0-0-0 are more successful. Naturally, there can't be enough room for everything or anything near the theory necessary to form a complete repertoire for White. But the real positive of this video is its instructive value, as emphasised below.
On the second disk, Kasimdzhanov covers the Classical Variation and chooses 4 e5 rather than 4 Bg5, i.e., 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6, and now the main line 7.Be3 (rather than 7 Nce2, although he gives an old example with this move: Sultan Khan - Tartakower, 1931!). Then he provides one game apiece with 7...Be7 and 7...Qb6, two with the currently popular (again!) 7...a6, and leaves the main part of his analysis (and 5 games) for 7...cxd4. As most French and 1 e4 players know, the theory on these lines is exploding, so your goal shouldn't be to learn concrete theory as much as to absorb classic examples and typical structures and piece placement, along with overarching themes. Disk #3 handles 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 (and transpositions coming from 3. ... Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4 5.Nxe4 Be7 and 5...Nbd7 6.Nf3 h6 7.Nxf6+ Nxf6) 4.Nxe4. Now he gives one of his own games, Kasimdzhanov-Arkell, Vlissingen 2003, to illustrate the Fort Knox 4. ... Bd7 5.Nf3 Bc6, and the rest of the tape is devoted to 4...Nd7 5.Nf3 Ngf6 6.Nxf6+ Nxf6. Here, rather than present a single repertoire for White, as he mainly does on the other disks, Kasimdzhanov gives no less than 4 games with 7 Bg5 and 5 with 7.c3, ending with the technical masterpiece Adams - Anand, Linares 2002.
Kasimdzhznov shows a win of his over Korchnoi in a beautiful game with 7 Bg5. He ends that lecture with a short comment to the effect of being proud of the game. But I found more in his text annotations to the game (hidden in the database), where he adds: 'Here the ruler of the black pieces said "You won" and stood up from the table. A second later I heard, not for the first time in my life, the ominous words "But still he can't play chess". And for all I know, he might be right.' This is a stimulating series, and Kasimdzhanov's games and commentary can get you started with a nice 3 Nc3 repertoire versus the French. The main point is that Kasimdzhanov picks wonderful and sometimes inspiring examples from top-level play; quite a few of them are older (that is, early 2000s!), but excellent for showing White's strategies. The analysis itself is of course not entirely current, and quite a few lines aren't covered. If you're not sure about whether to pick up this DVD set, you should probably decide based upon of how you like to absorb chess material. Some people take in information better when it's in a visual format; they may also find this kind of learning more pleasurable than reading.
The other, slightly older DVD from ChessBase is Ari Ziegler's French Repertoire for Black. In this video, Ziegler presents a full set of variations for Black to use. In most places, his analysis is more specific and detailed than Kasimdzhanov's, although the main idea is still to show Black's typical ideas in the repertoire via illustrative games, sometimes Ziegler's own. Since I won't be going into his work in detail, I will list the contents at the top level, noting a few sidelines that he doesn't cover. Again, this is a DVD, not a book, so the presenter's idea is to concentrate upon the main lines. You can miss some fundamental ideas of the French when you don't learn the lesser alternatives, of course, but there's a tradeoff between that and the ease of presentation.
Advance Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 [also 4 Nf3 cxd4, but he skips 4 dxc5 and 4 Qg4] 4...Nc6 5.Nf3 Bd7, covering 6.Be2, 6 a3, and 6 Bd3, but not 6 dxc5.
Tarrasch Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 f6 9.exf6 (with a detailed look at the rather underrated 9 Nf4) 9...Nxf6 10.Nf3 Bd6 11.0-0 0-0, with 12.Nc3, 12.Bg5, and the main line 9.exf6 Nxf6 10.Nf3 Bd6 11.0-0 0-0 12.Bf4 Bxf4 13.Nxf4 Ne4. He also picks one of the main lines versus 5.f4: 5...c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ndf3 Qb6 8.g3 cxd4 9.cxd4 Be7.
Classical Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bxe7 (the Alekhine-Chatard Attack with 6 h4 is also covered) 6...Qxe7 7.f4 0-0 8.Nf3 c5 9.Qd2 Nc6 10.dxc5 f6 (now there's an interesting choice!).
The Steinitz Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 (with the sideline 5 Nf3) 5...c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bc5 9.Qd2 0-0 10.0-0-0 a6.
Miscellaneous lines: These include the French Exchange (he says that it's 'good for a draw', which is rather downbeat; after all, nearly every chess opening for White is good for a draw; the question is how to maximize your winning chances); the King's Indian Attack, and 2 Qe2.
Ziegler's delivery is smooth and his attitude is reflective (many pauses). The text annotations to some games are in Swedish, which isn't much of a problem when the game is on the screen during the lectures, since he's commenting aloud in English. For such games in the accompanying database, however, an English-speaker will either have to ignore the notes or bravely take on the Swedish (which really isn't so bad as long as there's enough chess vocabulary to relate to).
This is an extraordinarily long DVD, with almost 7 hours of lecturing. The pace is definitely slower than other ChessBase DVDs, with many pauses, but some viewers might like the empty spaces to better absorb the material. As a whole, you can't go wrong with this DVD if your desire is to look at the basic ideas of the French and pick up some variations to play, or even most of a repertoire. The material isn't as dense as that in a book, of course, but for many people it will go down well in this video format.
Finally, a reminder. In a previous review I talked about Volumes 6&7 of Opening for White According to Anand, by Alexander Khalifman, which covers the French Defence. This series is justifiably famous, and the flagship of the Chess Stars line. Much as with Avrukh in the last review, or Tzermiadianos in this one, I find a lot of specific analysis to disagree with; but Khalifman is taking the whole theory of 1 e4 a step further and will inevitably be optimistic about some of the changes. For the most part, his approach during this long According to Anand series has been to pick main lines and analyse them in depth. Nevertheless, he refuses to skip over the smallest of moves by Black, for example, after 3 Nc3, we see 3...f5, 3...Ne7, 3...h6 (I improve upon his analysis of this in Dangerous Weapons), 3...c5 (excellent analysis here), 3...a6, 3...Be7, and 3...b6. Wonderful stuff.
I had the advantage of having Khalifman's books already when I wrote Dangerous Weapons, and was able to improve upon them with respect to my own featured lines; again, note the great value of using outside sources. But Wisnewski seems to have done without the book, and I prefer Khalifman's analysis in at least two of the 3 Nc3 Nc6 lines. Not surprisingly, McDonald's treatment of 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 Be7 has more recent games at hand than Khalifman's, but it's McDonald's main line and he benefits from two extra years of crucial games. Still, after 8 dxc5 0-0 9 Qd2 Bxc5 10 0-0-0 (McDonald thinks that White's plan is inferior) 10...Qa5, McDonald has games with 11 Bxc5 Nxc5 12 Kb1, whereas Khalifman quotes a game with 11 Kb1 immediately (forcing a delay in ...Bd7), so perhaps the latter has found something useful for White, and at any rate it should be looked at further.
Volume 7 is completely devoted to the Winawer Variation, with no less than 273 pages of a specific repertoire! Theory has developed continuously since, sometimes dramatically, so Eingorn's and Moskalenko's book above often have more sophisticated analysis of their specialties. But not always: in his analysis of 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 b6!?, Moskalenko doesn't deal with Khalifman's suggestions for White in two main lines (one an annotator's note), both of which look good for White. I think Black can work around them, but only by playing other than Moskalenko suggests. The latter's other favourite variation with 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Qa5 7 Bd2 Qa4 has an interesting split after Khalifman's 8 Qg4. In every line after 8...g6, Moskalenko improves upon Khalifman's analysis (not being aware of it), but in every line after 8...Kf8, Khalifman has effective moves not considered by Moskalenko! In these Winawer sections, then, Moskalenko would have done well to have broadened his research, and his brief Bibiliography reflects this. Having said that, I should re-emphasise that Moskalenko's is a fresh and insightful book that I absolutely would not do without.
Khalifman's books are original works which take a very concrete approach. Inexperienced players may find them too intimidating, at least if digested as a whole, and of course many amateurs won't have the time to play so many theoretical main lines. But for serious players who are willing to dig around, they have a huge amount of both conventional and creative material that will suggest a way to meet literally every serious option that French players have come up with thus far. This series is a fundamental resource for every 1 e4 defence out there. It would be a good idea, however, to update Khalifman's analysis by using other sources, for example, current databases and some of the books recommended above.
IM John Watson - Photo © Jonathan Berry
John Watson is an International Master, teacher, and author of numerous books, including the award-winning Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy and Chess Strategy in Action. His most recent work is the 4-volume Mastering the Chess Openings. John writes for the website ChessPublishing and conducts weekly interviews of leading chess personalities on ChessFM (ICC).