Review: The Flexible French

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Because I don't think it's really possible to write a serious review about an opening book unless you regularly play that opening yourself, I have not written about Viktor Moskalenko's previous opening book, The Fabulous Budapest Gambit. This review about his new book, The Flexible French is an attempt to compensate this lapse.

By Arne Moll

Not enough experience

To be honest, I didn't know what to think of Moskalenko's book on the Budapest Gambit. I really wanted the book to be good, and it sure looked good, as is always the case with New in Chess books, with lots of pictures, explanations, schemes and well-analysed games, but I still couldn't really make up my mind, simply because I had absolutely no experience in the opening, so I couldn't tell whether the variations and the explanations were at all relevant from a practical point of view. In fact, I did know something about the Fajarowicz Gambit (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e5 3.dxe4 Ne4!?), and what Moskalenko wrote about that, seemed a bit superficial to me. A member of my local chess club, Nirav Christophe, plays this line quite often, has analysed it thoroughly, and always comes up with the most fantastic, complicated variations, which are nevertheless quite relevant if you play this line. But somehow Moskalenko failed to mention most of these lines. I admit I didn't feel encouraged to do some research on the rest of the book, and I left it at that.

But now, Moskalenko is back with a new book on the French, which happens to be an opening I know pretty well. (Hey, I even drew GMs with it in official games!) Again, the book looks great. Moskalenko shows his ambition already on the first page:

This [...] book is an attempt to mix various aspects: my general experience in this opening, new concepts and analysis of several critical lines. Its purpose is to offer a combative repertoire to black players, and also to offer white players some sharp ideas.

I have to admit I just love this quote. Usually, opening books are rather one-sided, or even biased, and most authors are not even ashamed to admit it. What Moskalenko wants is something else entirely: he wants to provide both Black and White with existing and new ideas. If only every opening book could be written that way! I eagerly started with the rest of the book, and I wasn't disappointed.

Relevant and objective

Viktor MoskalenkoOne of the things that struck me immediately is that wherever I looked, Moskalenko was suggesting lines that I actually recognized from my own experience in the French. What I mean by this is not, of course, that I could have written this book as well, but that even from a quick glance, his variations always seemed highly relevant to me. And this is a big compliment, because there are so many opening books that just go on and on about some absolutely trivial or obscure line. However, I never caught Moskalenko spending his energy on irrelevant lines that nobody plays, or nobody cares about anyway. To take just one example, there's this optimistic gambit that is sometimes seen on club and tournament level, which starts with 1.e4 e6 2.Nf3 d5 3.e5 c5 4.b4!?. This is actually a pretty dangerous gambit if Black takes the pawn. You could give fascinating lines after 4...cxb4 5.a3 showing great sacrificial attacks by White, with lots of exclamation marks and enthusiasm, but is this really relevant? Of course it's not! White's initiative is completely obvious and the moves can be played without knowing any theory: just exchange black squared bishops and you're ready to roll. What is highly relevant to both Black and White players is what happens if Black refuses the pawn. Moskalenko focuses on the move 4...d4!? (also played by Korchnoi) which he then does analyse in depth, not because he likes to dazzle the readers with crazy variations, but because the ensuing lines are almost forced for both sides.

The book has many useful sections. Variations are always introduced with a bit of history and general ideas. There are plenty of funny and instructive quotes in the book. (I particularly liked "Dogmas exist to camouflage defects and fears" which is a quote by Moskalenko himself) Some diagrams do contain a little too much arrows - a disease that started, I think, with the "Mastering the..." series in the early 90s - but I always like a good summary and statistical information, however easy it is these days to find this out yourself with ChessBase.

Another thing I liked was the so-called 'Weapons' that are given (there's one on almost every page!). These are mostly tactical tips. The good thing, again, is that these tips are both for Black and for White. Moskalenko is also objective in another way: he is not afraid to give his own opinion, even if this means going against the common consensus. For instance, in the Tarrasch Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2) he not only analyses 3...Nf6 and 3...c5, but also the slightly off-beat 3...Be7!? It's not difficult to become enthusiastic about this nice little waiting move: players like Morozevich, Nempomniachtchi and Radjabov have played it regularly. Moskalenko quotes the French-expert Lev Psakhis who sums up the advantages of the move, but thereby fails to mention the disadvantages. Moskalenko immediately adds: "But the tempo spent is very important here. White must try to take advantage of this." Obvious though this may sound, I found it a refreshingly objective remark: there's always two sides to a variation, and every move in chess is also a concession. I think I could use such a comment both as Black and White.

Simply a great opening book

Time and again, I kept recognizing problems and questions from my own practice with the French. Sometimes, these were flattering for me. For example, I have always thought that the move 4...b6 in the Winawer (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5) was underrated. Moskalenko thinks so too. It's also nice to see that my club member Rob Witt has been on the right track for years in a particularly sharp variation of the Advance Variation. But I also discovered many new things. Have you too, like me, always wondered what would happen if Black actually castled on the 6th move in the hyper-sharp Alekhine-Chatard variation? Well, Moskalenko gives highly detailed analyses of precisely this line from his "old notebook" from 1991. And I'm finally beginning to understand something of the MacCutheon variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Bb4) - a line that I have always considered extremely fuzzy. It's all about the kings in this line.

I could go on giving more examples, but I think you get the picture. This is simply a great opening book. Sure, I also missed some important lines, such as the main line Winawer, but oh well, that's just memorizing boring theory anyway. I prefer to delve deeply into the ideas of this beautiful opening, and I can't think of a better guide than Viktor Moskalenko.
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