Beating Weanie Openings: The "Fort Knox" Variation of the French
One of the most important things to learn how to do as you try to climb from class chess to the expert and master level is to beat weanie openings. Weanie openings are openings that are commonly played by amateurs because they contain tricks that can throw opponents off balance and/or dramatically cut down on preparation because they deviate early from main lines. They are almost never played by GMs, except in faster time controls in which the surprise value counts for more. In round 1 of the game in 90 minutes over the board tournament in which I am currently playing, I faced the Urusov Gambit, for example. Unfortunately, I was unprepared for it, spent lots of time figuring it out over the board, got into time trouble and then blundered. In round 2 I saw on a neighboring board a Scotch Gambit, and my opponent played the Fort Knox variation of the French: all weanie openings, each and every one of them.
The Fort Knox is a common visitor to amateur chess because it offers a solid opening with minimal preparation. Along with something against the king's Indian attack and exchange and advance variations of the French, it is a complete response to 1 e4. Indeed, this is the repertoire offered in Neal McDonald's book How to Play Against 1 e4. Unfortunately, if white knows how to play against it, the Fort Knox results in black having a passive position with less space. To be sure, it is very solid and hard to dismantle (hence the name Fort Knox), but black is going to have a tough time against a well-prepared opponent. This is why it is a very rare visitor on the highest levels, except in rapid chess. Super GM Boris Gelfand, for example, only has ten games with it in the Chessbase Megadatabase. Nine of those games are blitz, one is rapid, and none are slow chess.
I won the following game, but not because I really knew how to play against the opening. I came out of the opening with only a very slight advantage when with best play white should have a substantial, clear x/= advantage. My victory came via a middle game attack on the king against which my opponent failed to defend well. I guess I could pat myself on the back, say "job well done" and leave it at that. Indeed, there were some good things about my game. But, the opening could have been played better. Next time I encounter this I hope I will recall the lessons I learned from analyzing this game, and crush the Fort Knox from getgo!
My game began as follows:
Now let's consider the result of the opening after 12... c6
White has more space and has set up his own queenside Maginot Line against which it is hard for black to drum up counterplay. But, on the other hand, where are his winning chances? Without the light square bishop, it will be hard to successfully attack black's king. Thus, although white has a slight advantage, this game is very drawish.
So, how should white have proceeded in the opening? Two options are presented below. The first deviates from my game with 5. c4!?. The second deviates with 7.0-0 Ngf6 8.Ng3. The latter is the main line of the Fort Knox variation.
So what has white achieved after the main line of the above variation?
I think it is fair to say that white is for choice given black's fractured pawn structure, but the game is dynamic and complicated.
Now for the main line:
How does the final result of the main line compare with my game? Compare the following position with that after 12...c6 in my game.
White has the space he had in my game, but he has also retained the light square bishop, which can play an important role in attacking black's king. Black's additional knight is, by contrast, redundant and has no place to go. The extra piece cramps his position. To be sure white no longer has his own queenside fort, but he has significant winning chances here and a greater advantage.
To see how this position might be played, here is Korneev's win against Conquest:
Finally, the rest of my game after the opening:
Chessbase Mega Database DVD. Contains important games, both annotated and unannotated.
Kaufman, Larry. The Chess Advantage in Black and White (McKay, 2004) recommends the 7.0-0 Ngf6 8.Ng3 line, but has no more than a page on it.
McDonald, Neil. How to Beat 1 e4 (Everyman, 2009) has a good, but very basic, introduction to the "Fort Knox" variation.
Tzermiadianos, Andreas. How to Beat the French Defence (Everyman, 2008) analyzes and recommends the 5.c4 variation.