My best french... move

My best french... move

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The article in front should be useful mainly to those who are:

  • beginner level players
  • intermediate level players
  • French Defense players

Focal points:

  • thinking process
  • activity of pieces
  • space advantage
  • coordination
  • compensation for material
  • strategic intuition

The game was played on the European Youth Championship for boys under 16. It is far from the best one I've ever played, but it is important to me as I am still proud on a move that I've found.

Gabor Pinter (2332) - Aleksandar Kekenj (2236), Litohoro (GRE) 1999.

1. e4 e6
2. d3

An unusual move. It deserves to be characterized as the one which violates the basic opening principles:

  • take the center with pawns, especially if your opponent is allowing you to do that (in this case, why not 2. d4?);
  • develop quickly and place your pieces on the most active squares (with d2-d3 White is closing his light-squared Bishop, and that obviously can't be good from the point of activity and development).

However, the move was played from time to time by none other then Bobby Fischer. Further we will see how it can be dangerous for Black.

2... d5
3. Qe2

The reason for such set-up is in the idea of developing a kingside attack. Exchanging the Queens wouldn't help White to do so, and that's why we can see the move Qd1-e2.

Now, there is a question:
How it can be already seen that White is heading to the kingside?

Simply, if White is going to preserve (hold) the e4-pawn with help of his neighbour - the pawn on d3-square - it means that White is trying to keep slight space advantage on the kingside.

Further, it is well known that your pieces are more comfortable on the side
where they have more space. There they should develop an initiative. So, White will have better chances on the kingside.

However, there is another question:
How anyone can think that in such situation - where the e4-pawn of White faces the e6-pawn of Black - White is better on the kingside?

The answer is interesting and that much obvious that is usually forgotten: The e-pawns are kingside pawns! The one with the better or more advanced e-pawn will be considered as the one with space advantage on that side of the board. The same is valid for the queenside d-pawns.

Another question is following:
Why Black wouldn't advance his e6-pawn to the e5-square, thus equalizing space possession on the kingside?

Sometimes Black tries to create set-up in which the d-pawns are traded off, and then he pushes again his e-pawn, to get more space for his pieces on the kingside. However, in such case Black is usually slightly back in development because he already played once with the same e-pawn.

3... Nf6
4. Nf3

So far, White is following his plan of keeping the pawn on e4-square, against his opponent on the sixth (third) rank. Compared to the French when White pushes the e-pawn more, to the e5-square, this wont give Black any chance of undermining the White e-pawn with f7-f6, nor the usual White d4-pawn in the French, which can be undermined with the c7-c5.

This looks more solid for White, but in return his pieces are without such space advantage that they usually enjoy in the classical French.

4... Bc5!? N

This move is something new (and literarlly - a novelty). It just came into my mind at that moment. I was thinking about the type of position that is going to arise after usual and expected setups for both sides, and at that point I felt that I would like to play something else. Something new. To force my opponent to think from the fifth move, instead of playing by books in the next ten.

The usual line here, that I wanted to avoid, is: 4... Be7 5. g3 c5 6. Bg2 Nc6 7. O-O O-O 8. e5 Nd7 9. Re1 b5 10. Nbd2 a5 11. Nf1 b4 12. h4.

As it was said before, White is generating an attack on the kingside. The pawn on e5-square is giving him a lot of space advantage on the kingside, while Black pieces are completely blocked: not only because White's e5-pawn, but also because of their own on the e6-square.

It would be race on two different sides, and I felt at that moment that I would like to attack on the kingside, so I needed to change something radical in the position.

5. e5

A good reaction by White! He felt that my last move (Bf8-c5) can't be good as it is not played by top players, and he has found the reason. His thinking was: The Bishop wants to generate an attack on the f2-square, but it will need coordination with other Black pieces. Now, if the center becomes locked and closed, there will be no support for the Bishop. Also, if the White pawn steps to the e5-square, kingside will belong to the White, and the c5-Bishop would have nothing to do from the c5-square. There is even d3-d4 pawn advance to straighten the center, and make the Black dark-squared Bishop useless.

5... Nfd7
6. g3

Four years later, in the grandmaster's game A. Cabrera (2478) - S. Shipov (2604), ICC 2003, White played here: 6. d4 Be7 7. Qe3 c5 8. c3 Nc6 which was quite good for Black (Shipov managed to lose, but his position from the opening was more then solid). At first sight it looks like the d3-d4 advance is giving White a tempo, because the Bishop is retreating. The problem with such thinking is that White ignores the fact that his Queen is in front of the Bishop, and that he already played once with the d-pawn. It's much better to wait with the d3-pawn, so that Black can't break with c7-c5 so easily.

What Black should do now (after the move 6. g3)?

Two years after this game, the first Uruguayan grandmaster, Andres Rodriguez Villa (at that point he had 2500+), played just a normal moves - castle, later he advanced with the f-pawn, but not in order to crush the White's central e5-pawn - instead he played f7-f5. Position that he had was a disaster, but on the end he managed to win lower rated player.

Classical French idea is to destroy White's advanced pawns - e5 or/and d4. If Black plays f7-f5, that will look nice, Black is gaining some space on the kingside, and stopping White's initiative, but it closes Black light-squared Bishop, and leaves/stabilizes White's central e5-pawn. Further, White can prepare pawn-brake in view of g3-g4, or even to start opening the game on the other side. Black is never satisfied in the French when he has to advance the f-pawn to f5-square.

6... f6!

I give an exclamation mark to this move, not because it is the most accurate move in the current position, but because it is so much in the spirit of French defense, that even in situation like this, when White's Queen is eyeing the e6-pawn and the King, this move is still okay to play. This is the only active way to play the French defense.

One more thing. The Bishop is still on the c5-square. It is eyeing the f2-pawn, and waiting for the opportunity to strike. Now the f-file is close to be opened, which means that the Rook will join the pressure on the f2-pawn.

That's why the next White's move is completely understandable.

7. d4 Bb6

For the Bishop is now better to stay on that diagonal, as Black's aim is to completely destroy White's pawn-centre. In that case the Bishop would have a great influence in Black's kingside attack, and a nice coordination with the soon-castled f8-Rook.

8. Bh3!

An excellent move, whose aim is to provoke f6-f5. The point is to secure the e5-pawn, which means that Black would have a big problem of developing his light-square Bishop, and not to forget - Black has significant lack of space because of the e5-pawn.

What to do now? There is a great problem with the e6-pawn. Should Black after all play f6-f5?

8... O-O!!

A completely insane move! Black is leaving his e6-pawn to be taken, he is placing his King so that the pawn can be captured with check, and also the second pawn, the pawn on d5-square, White can take in the second move.

However, Black is not going to push f6-f5, which gives him a passive game, and slightly worse position. I wanted to get my b6-Bishop back into the game, to put my pieces to work together (the f8-Rook with the b6-Bishop), and to break the White center while his King is still there!

So, there are three principles that I just put in practise:

  • Develop!
  • Move your king into safety!
  • Put your pieces to work together (coordinate)!
  • Open up the center while your opponent has uncastled King!

Not to forget that after White light-squared Bishop goes to the journey to collect all those pawns, there will be some light-square weakened around White King, even after he castles.

So, all that Black is gaining for the cost of two (central) pawns. Is it worth? Sometimes it can't be calculated to the end (Michael Tal used to rely only on intuition when he would decide to sacrifice), and in this case I wasn't really in the mood for deep calculation. I checked some variations, and I was satisfied, but couldn't see everything. I just knew that there has to be something. I knew that I am doing everything as it should be done in chess.

9. O-O

After the most logical: 9. Bxe6+ Kh8 10. exf6 I thought over the board that I can play Nd7xf6, with more then enough compensation for the pawn, as the light-squared Bishops will be exchanged, and White King will be in danger because of the weak light-squares (pawn to g3 also makes the f3-Knight vulnerable, and potentially the f2-pawn).

However, there is also an interesting reply in view of: 10... Re8!? This interesting move has been found through my computer's analysis. The move which was not on my mind at that time. Now, as I am not fan of showing lines and naked variations, I wont add anything more. If someone is interested to see how it could develop, there are engines to run. For me, the strategical perspective and the ideas behind these opening moves are more interesting and important.

9... fxe5

Of course that f6-f5 doesn't deserve any commentary.

Black is aiming to open up everything in the center and stress:

  • the power of his developed pieces (the b6-Bishop and the f8-Rook),
  • the weakness of White's idea to play a move with the Queen in the early stage of the game (wasting time), and
  • the bad idea of fianchettoing the light-squared Bishop (one extra-move in order to develop that piece).

10. Bxe6+

White is thinking correctly: If the Bishop doesn't take the free pawn, then the aim of playing Bf1-h3 is gone.

10... Kh8
11. Bg5

This move is difficult not to play in such position. It is a developing move, and in the same time an attacking move. All players higher then 1200 rating points know that such moves should be good. However, here White is ignoring the fact that the Queen will be "forced" to the better square!

Maybe slightly better try was: 11. dxe5.

11... Qe8
12. Bxd5

Practically, the only decent move.

12. Bxd7 would terribly weaken light squares. After simple reply 12... Bxd7 Black is threatening too many things.

There is an interesting fact. At that moment, over the board, I wasn't completely sure about the evaluation; it is difficult to calculate and see everything. Basically, I was more then satisfied with the situation. I just felt it. It was an intuition (something that is very important and can be developed/improved by any chessplayer). However, today, when I run my chess engine, for the first twenty seconds it shows that White is slightly better (Black's compensation for the sacrificed material is not enough), but later it changes the evaluation and says that Black has to be at least slightly better (the compensation for sacrificed material is more then enough).

12... c6?

A mistake that was made again on the wings of intuition. I thought that the Bishop is at the moment centralized, which is good for White, and also it defends the f3-Knight. If the Bishop has to move from the central diagonal h1-a8, it means that the light-squares around the White King will be permanently weak. That was all correct. However, the problem is that White can retreat the Bishop to c4-square, from where it can have an important role in defending the Queen on e2, as a defense against Qe8-h5 (after which the f3-Knight wouldn't be pinned).

Better was: 12... h6 followed by Nd7-f6, in which case the d5-Bishop will be under attack.

13. Bb3?

13. Bc4! Qh5 14. Nbd2 and White would be able to defend everything.

13... h6

This move actually does two good things for Black:

  • it defends from the back-rank weakness that could be problematic in some variations when the Queen and the Rook takes an action against the f3-Knight; and
  • it forces the dark-squared Bishop to go back at c1-square, because the d2-square should be left for the other Knight to take part in defending his colleague.

14. Bd2?

14. Bc1 as it was explained, is better.

14... Qh5

Now Black pieces are well coordinating and White is in danger. He has only one way to defend accurately.

15. dxe5?

Houdini has shown that there was an interesting draw, which involves the Queen sacrifice: 15. Kg2! Nf6 16. Nxe5! Qxe2 17. Ng6+ Kh7 18. Nxf8+ Kh8 19. Ng6+ and Black King can't escape checks.

15... Rxf3

15... Qxf3 was the other option, but I wasn't satisfied to capture the Knight and exchange the Queens, which would give me clearly better endgame. I felt that there has to be a way to proceed with the attack if I keep the Queens.

Further the game is not so instructive, as many blunders are made on both sides. Black remained better for about ten more moves, but then a big blunder made him fight for a draw. At the very end, White was in time trouble, and made a decisive mistake which gave me a draw by repetition. A lucky draw.

For those who are interested to see the game to the end: