"The Complete French" by Lev Psakhis

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Mar 20, 2013

When I introduced this column I mentioned that I probably wouldn't be covering many opening books. However, I decided to write a review of this fairly old book on the French by grandmaster Lev Psakhis from the "Complete..." series. Why?

Well, first of all, this was one of the first books on chess that I owned. I think it had a big role in my understand not just of the French Defense, but of chess in general. Yet this is a book of theory, with many game quotations and, while there are general assessments and explanations, there are not as many as in middlegame books or even other kinds of opening books. Nevertheless, I think I gained a lot from the games which are presented along with the relatively terse notes and many game quotations.

I also wanted to use the opportunity to discuss opening books in general. I haven't really bought many recently-published opening books, but sometimes when I have found myself in a book store (a new book store, i.e. Barnes and Noble) I have browsed the chess section. I have seen that the new opening books differ quite a bit from the ones of the past. They tend to have a lot more explanations and a lot more of the author's own analysis. Some of them even have quizzes for the reader, summaries of general "key points" and so on. I understand why this is - before there were chess databases (The Complete French was published in 1992, before chess databases were widespread) an opening book was essential. And most opening books back then simply showed key master-level games in the variation, picked out by a strong player with his assessments. Nowadays everyone can easily have a chess database and look for themselves at the games. They don't get a grandmaster's assessment of the positions - but they can look at the result of the game, and also assess the position for themselves. Therefore publishers know that a modern opening book needs to have something more. Additionally, with many more amateur-level players studying opening theory than in the past, publishers know that books that are more of the "reference" type will be over many reader's heads.

However, personally, somehow the modern opening books kind of annoy me. First of all, there is a lot of the author's own analysis. This is fine and it might be useful, but the problem is that many of the book authors are not top-level players, so you can't necessarily trust it. And if the author is a top-level player, in many cases he doesn't want to give away his secrets! Additionally, I know that people doing chess analysis for publication can be a little bit careless. You don't get paid a huge amount, even if you publish a book, so you need to just get it done relatively quickly. I would much rather see what strong players actually trusted enough to play on the board.

Additionally, I find some of the explanations by the authors to be kind of tiresome. I suppose I would like to hear how a really strong player describes the position - but again, really strong players nowadays don't usually write opening books. I think some of the more recent opening books are a little too commercial.

Thus, for me - personally - books more like The Complete French would be reasonable nowadays, if I were just learning an opening. I can see all the games in the database, sure, but here it is organized and selected by a strong player (Lev Psakhis was a two-time Soviet Champion and was in his prime as a player at the time). Here, instead of analysis by some IM with Houdini, you have a very strong player's selection of the critical lines, leaving it up to you to decide what to play. Of course other people might have a different opinion, but I think there is always a virtue in keeping it simple.

Finally, about opening study in general - you might have heard many times "understanding the opening is more important than memorizing moves". This is true - if you understand the opening better than your opponent, you will win even if he knows a lot of specific variations. However, understanding is not conferred simply by an author telling you, e.g. "White is trying to push the pawns on the queenside". In order to really understand the variation, you need to look at specifics and study actual variations. In fact, by learning actual variations in the right way, you develop a better understanding - then you might forget the specific moves, but the understanding will remain. The key, of course, is that when you study the opening, you should try to understand the moves that you are learning, not just memorize them.

Where I got it

I don't know - I think probably through a catalogue. I think I got the book some time in 1994, and I started playing chess in 1993. The book is completely falling apart with none of the pages connected to the cover and most not connected to each other, either.

What's good about it

I mostly answered this above. These kinds of books were very important before databases were widespread - without them a player needed to do a lot of individual research, collecting tournament bulletins, Informants, and magazines, and selecting the games from those. I find it interesting that the players of the sixties, seventies, and eighties could play the opening quite well despite the difficulties with gaining information. Quite often I look at the old games and see that they played better, with much clearer, sounder, and more creative ideas. Somehow I think that the excess of information muddles people's minds.

I do like simplicity and in this book at least I know that everything is factually accurate. The majority of the moves contained therein were actually played on the board by strong players. Very important is that the book contains entire annotated games - not just theoretical lines. I think this is better. Learning an opening is not just about the first ten moves - you need to understand the character of the position, which often persists until the end of the game. Psakhis did another "The Complete..." series book, The Complete Benoni - however there he did not give entire games, and I think that book is far worse.

Of course, this book does much more than just quoting games. There are general assessments and descriptions of the character of various ideas. The writing is pretty good, and Psakhis - a long-time practitioner of the French Defense - clearly feels for the opening. For example, in the preface he says "The French is like a proud woman who does not give her heart away easily. In order to master this difficult opening, it is not enough to know a few variations. You have to put your 'heart and soul' into it, you have to love it, and only in this way will you understand its mysteries. "

How it impacted me

The French played a big part in my opening repertoire from by beginnings as a chess player until 2008. Nowadays I only play it occasionally. Somehow I find it unaesthetic to play the King's Indian against 1.d4 and the French against 1.e4. However, the French was my main opening until 2008 and I did reasonably well with it, considering that I was a much weaker player than I am now for most of that time. I think this book helped to shape my early understanding of the French. Yes, there are no special diagrams with arrows showing the pawn structure and summaries such as "Black should attack the base of the pawn structure by ...c5..." but I think showing is better than telling anyway.

An Excerpt

I am not going to type out reams of variations from some opening lines, and you probably don't want to read them without context. So I will instead provide some short excerpts from different points in the book.

A. Sokolov-Vaganian

Biel IZ 1985

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2


This move is far from new. As far back as the 1920s, it was played from time to time by that chess innovator, Aron Nimzowitsch. Later, at the end fo the forties and in the early fifties, it became known to a wide circle of players and was incorporated in the repertoire of Botvinnik and Petrosian, but never became really popular. In recent years, the attention of theorists has been attracted much more strongly by other possibilities for Black, and 3...Nc6 has remained a 'poor relation' in theory and practice. It can occasionally be seen in the games of Vaganian, Rogers and Kovacevic, but it is only Drasko, an International Master from Yugoslavia, who risks playing this way constantly. To be perfectly frank, 3...Nc6 is a move I don't much like, since in many variations of the French the most natural and effective counterplay for Black consists in undermining White's strong pawn centre with ...c7-c5; and 3...Nc6 means, at best, that this possibility must be left until later. However, among the positive features of this variation we may count the complexity of the resulting positions and the relative lack of study devoted to them. White usually replies with 4.c3 or 4.Ngf3, both of which promise him an opening advantage... (page 44-45)


A wonderful melee arose in Kosashvili-Ulibin, Santiago 1990: 17.Nxh2 Bxh2+ 18.Kh1 Bf4 19.Qh5 (White seems to be on the point of success, but...) 19...g6! 20.Bxf4 Rxf4 21.Bxg6 Qe7! (the key move! The rook threatens to go to h4, and the white king suddenly finds itself in an unpleasant situation; in addition the pawn on d4 is en prise, and one may question what the knight is doing on such an out-of-the-way square as a4) 22.Bd3?! (it was essential to play 22.g3 Rxd4 23.Nc5 e5 =/+) 22...Rh4 23.Qe2 e5! with a strong attack. (page 86)

Any Downsides?

The main downside is pretty obvious. This book was published in 1992, and opening theory advances quickly. On the other hand, the French is not so susceptible to the winds of theory. It is interesting that there are probably plenty of opening books published in 2007 which are already out of date, but this book is still reasonably useful. I don't read it anymore, because I don't play the French much and I am pretty aware of most of the stuff in it already. I'm not saying to go out and buy this book (if you can find it), I just decided to review it because it was an influential book on me, and also it gave me the opportunity to discuss opening books in general.

What you should eat/drink while reading this book



  • 17 months ago


    I recently started playing the French and really think from your insight into this book and the little text that you shared from the book, sounds excellent!! I love the French and won't play the Sicilian until I have a gun to my head now. I'm winning 75% approx. of my games as black against e4. I actually love playing the white pieces against the French too! I heard it was boring and drawish. Haha , not my games! You better not blunder , it can end fast. I have mates and resigned games in 10-15moves against players in my first French advance tournament after playing it a month or two. I will get this book! Anyone know of any way of learning with enough understanding quickly to play the various lines like the Winawer , jackall, and the exchange properly? That tournament was the fastest for me but not going to find tournaments in every variation. I am willing and will put in the work, I want to play a little before and during study like I did with the advance.

  • 2 years ago


    I think I will continue to rely primarily on the Caro-Kann, and occassionally the Sicicilian and Ruy Lopez, against E4. I am very confident when an opposing player chooses to employ the French against me. Although I have successfully used the French many times to win games, I have also found myself in a losing position faster than with any other reply to E4 I know. I just feel cramped using the French, and the outcome of those games seems never to depend on how well I play, but rather on how poorly my opponent may or may not play. I know many greats, like Botvinnik, did well with the French early in their careers but only played it sparingly as time progressed. IMO, the Caro-Kann is the best defense agaiinst E4, at least for me it is

  • 4 years ago


    I agree with Sumar.Most of the newer books are far better than the older books, some of which just had tons of variations and little verbage.I do like the older Batsford "Winning with the ..." series.They usually have a section for "...3   other"  which covers many of the lesser played techically incorrect but often seen moves that most of the newer books won't have.

  • 4 years ago


    when this book released to Indonesia ?

  • 4 years ago


    Mmmmm, cheese. . . . . 

  • 4 years ago



  • 4 years ago


    One of my favorite books too! I still have my old falling-apart copy along with all of his new books on the French.

  • 4 years ago


     In Spanish,  "complete french" means something different LaughingLaughingLaughing

  • 4 years ago


    Thanks for the review Bryan. I do play the French, but I doubt that I'll buy another chess book unless it is also available as an interactive e book or at least the examples are available as pgn files, downloadable or available on an accompanying disk.

    The teaching aids available online are much easier when you can work through examples on an interactive digital board.

  • 4 years ago


    Really nice review Bryan.  The last paragraph in the first section, about how to study and understand openings is gold IMO. Thanks for doing these excellent reviews.  

    Although, they are forcing me to dig into the dusty corners of my collection and go hunting on Amazon. :)

  • 4 years ago



  • 4 years ago



  • 4 years ago


    I think you are a little too hard on new opening books. You said they were generally not written by top level players, where they are, they may not give away that player's "secrets," that they may be "rushed" and sloppily put together, that the analysis may be "tiresome," and that you were more interested in seeing what top-level players play over the board. Were all of this true, I would be inclined to agree with your article, but I find (at least with the books that I buy) that this is simply not the case.

    Take, for instance, the recent "English Opening" series in "The Grandmaster Repertoire" books. First, it was written by a top-level player, Grandmaster Mihail Marin. Second, Marin the entire series introduces many new novelties into the analysis, some of which were played by Marin over the board, supplemented with his own penetrating analysis of the resulting positions, backed up by strong computer analysis (rather than the other way around). In fact, I especially like it where Marin recommends a line that is not the computer's first choice, along with the reasons for doing so. Third, the books are well-written, clearly put together over a long period of time, and with supplemental analysis as interesting -- if not more interesting -- than the lines themselves.


    And there are many other books, both within and outside of "The Grandmaster Repertoire" series, that do this as well.


    In short, so long as they buyer is careful to spend a little time researching the opening book he or she is interested in purchasing, there is no shortage of new, excellent opening books from which to choose. Yes, there are bad chess books out there, just as there are bad history, philosophy, and cooking books out there. But I would much rather be a chess player buying an opening book in the year 2013 than in the year 1985. The state of the world of opening books is simply not as bad as you make it out to be. 

  • 4 years ago


    how i can get it ?

  • 4 years ago


    It's funny you took that special quote from Lev Psakis, so did GM Danny King in his video on the French!  It's a wonderful quotation. Thanks and love this series of article.  I'm going thru Endgame Strategey by Shereshevsky with much thanks again for your recommendation; it's very helpful. Keep up the great work!

  • 4 years ago

    FM Thunder_Penguin

    cheese, kids!

  • 4 years ago


    @johnpseudonym the moves are from different pages in the book

  • 4 years ago


    @johnpseudonym They are two different excerpts. The first is a quote from the book from page 44-45 and the latter is an excerpt from page 86.

    Great article!

  • 4 years ago


    I'm confused. Where are moves three through seventeen?

  • 4 years ago


    great artical.

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