Winning with an AlphaZero idea in the French at the World Cup
Niclas Huschenbeth in Sportschau

Winning with an AlphaZero idea in the French at the World Cup

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Niclas Huschenbeth defeated Arkadij Naiditsch in the first round of the World Cup using an idea in the French Poisoned Pawn Winawer variation from the AlhpaZero - Stockfish match. After the game, GM Niclas Huschenbeth tweeted:

It all starts with the following position in the Poisoned Pawn Winawer variation.

Position after 9... Qc7

The main move that has been played in this position is 10.Ne2, protecting c3, developing a piece and 'preventing' Qxe5. After 10.Ne2 Qxe5 White continues 11.cxd4, and the relative stability in the centre combined with the pawn majority on the kingside gives White an already winning position. The move 10.Ne2 was played at the Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2018 between Giri and Carlsen and, most recently, between Kulaots and Radjabov in Dortmund 2019. 10.Ne2 makes sense considering the plans of White and Black. White wants to advance his pawn majority on the kingside. Black would like to advance his pawns in the centre and attack the White king. Therefore, it is logical for White to slow down Black's attack by creating the pawn duo f4-e5. 

AlphaZero is of a different opinion and chose in its 2018 match against Stockfish for the surprising 10.Qd3, defending pawn c3 and threatening cxd4. It does allow Black to take with a check on e5. Stockfish did not take on e5 but played 10... dxc3.

I analyzed the game between Huschenbeth and Naiditsch using Lc0. In my article Lc0 versus Stockfish, I wrote that you can run Lc0 locally on the GPU of your PC, by renting an engine on the Chessbase-cloud or by running it directly on Google Cloud. I recently discovered a fourth way to run Lc0. Chessify, better known for its excellent diagram scanner, also offers cloud engine analysis. Besides Lc0, you can rent the 2 TCEC finalists Stockfish and Allie&Stein, here. Chessify runs Lc0 v0.23 on an Nvidia Tesla V100, one of the fastest GPUs available at the moment. The Nvidia Tesla V100 is also much faster than the Nvidia RTX 2080 that you find on the Chessbase cloud.

I was surprised to learn that Stockfish, at sufficient depth (>40 moves) considers 10.Ne2 and 10.Qd3 of comparable strength. Lc0, just like AlphaZero, has a slight preference for 10.Qd3.

The game between AlphaZero and Stockfish continued after 10.. dxc3 with 11.Nf3 (defending pawn e5) 11... b6 and the game eventually ended in a draw. Matthew Sadler and Natascha Regan, authors of the award-winning book Game Changer (ECF Book Of The Year!), analyze this game in the video below. 

The real first test for his variation was the game between Jorden van Foreest and Venkataraman Karthik.

In this game, the critical 10... Qxe5 was played. (Please note that Karthik played this line himself with White (!) in 2014 against Nihal in the Indian Championships Under 15. That game also ended in a draw.)

So after 10.Qd3 Qxe5+ 11.Ne2 dxc3 12.Qxc3 Nbc6 13.Qxe5 Nxe5 the following position arises:

Position after 13... Nxe5
With the queens traded, the White king is no longer in immediate danger. White has the bishop pair, and White's pawns on the kingside are more dangerous than Black's centre pawns. It is easier for White than for Black to finish his development and to activate his pieces. Finally, Black has fewer pawn islands than White. On balance, White is better.

The Hiarcs Openings Book, which is based on engine, correspondence, and top GM games, recommends 14.Nf4. Van Foreest and Huschenbeth both chose for 14.Ng3.

The first deviation between the 2 games is on move 17. Karthik chose 17... a6 and Naiditsch 17... b6. Jorden van Foreest obtained a winning position but failed to convert.

Position after 23... Be4 (J. van Foreest - V.Karthlik)

In this position, Jorden van Foreest released the tension with 24.gxf6 allowing Black to trade pieces and escape. Winning was 24.Ng3 followed by Bg4 and later h4 and in some variations also a4 followed by Ba3. The idea is to leverage the bishop pair while pushing the kingside pawn-majority.

In the game of Huschenbeth, White won convincingly using his pawn-majority on the kingside.

Position after 21... Rah8. White played 22.Nxf6 and won quickly.

The full game:

This is a nice example of how AlphaZero is contributing to the development of chess. Human players have long preferred the move 10.Ne2 to hold on to the centre with pawns on e5 and f4. AlphaZero is teaching us that, after the exchange of queens, Black's attack is no longer dangerous, and White's kingside pawn majority and bishop pair give White a clear advantage.