Monday, January 14, 2013

The French Defence

For some reason I have recently been looking through opening books and articles. Unfortunately I haven't been looking at any that have much relevance to my personal repertoire but still, I remember someone saying that any chess study is better than none! The summer break is a time for most players to reflect on their play and to make some resolutions about the following season (of course, I'm talking about amateurs like myself). It is a time to start on new openings, or refine some old ones. Summer here in Australia is the middle of winter in Europe and at this time more inspiration can be gained from the super tournament at Wijk aan Zee. In the first round of Wijk, in the top section I was expecting to see the usual array of Grunfeld's and Semi Slav's. However, following the games at the Internet Chess Club I was pleasantly surprised to see many starting with 1.e4 but then even more surprised to see 3 games start with the French Defence. Does this herald a renaissance for the French Defence at the top level where it's been a rather infrequent guest? Well, probably not, seeing black scored 1/2 out of 3 and the half point looked like a struggle.

Here in Melbourne, the French is a fairly regular occurrence in tournaments. A lot of young players use the French in their repertoires. It is a fairly easy opening to learn and the closed structures are somewhat different to those of the 1.e4 e5 openings that most of us start with. Even at the top level there have been a few players using the French fairly regularly, including Morozevich and Vitiugov.

This is a typical starting point in one of the main lines of the French, and it occurred in the game Anand-Nakamura from round 1 of Wijk aan Zee 2013. With the centre closed play will be based on the flanks, and white may castle on either side. Black's light squared bishop can be a problem piece, though this piece often is exchanged after black advances his queen side pawns and the bishop then makes its way to a6. For anyone who wants to play the French, this is a very important variation to learn as it is a typical French structure. It also occurs often with over 10,000 games from this position in Big Database 2013 (white scores a healthy 57%).

Ok, it's spot the difference time. Here, white's position is exactly the same as the above diagram but black has played Be7 instead of Nc6. This was the game between Karjakin and Hou Yifan where black tried the time consuming plan of ..b6, ..Ba6 and exchanging the bad bishop on the f1-a6 diagonal. White in the meantime developed and got the thrust c4 in opening the position somewhat which usually favours the better developed side. White won an excellent game.

Another plan in the French involves black capturing on e4 with his d-pawn. This usually leads to positions where things are a little more open though black often stays a little passive in these systems.

This position arose after 9 moves of the game Harikrishna-Giri. White managed to win this game though I'm reluctant to state it was the opening that caused this. White made some use of space, and won a nice rook endgame. Funnily enough a very similar position happened for black in another game:

With the exception of the knight on d7 black's position is exactly the same as in the diagram above. This started out as a Nimzo Indian in the game Sokolov-Wang Hao. I guess players who use the French as their main repertoire against 1.e4 could look at this and choose the Nimzo-Indian as a repertoire choice against 1.d4.

The French is a repertoire choice for players who don't mind a space disadvantage but prefer a solid structure with some counter chances. Personally I don't enjoy these type of positions for black, and I should know as I have played the French as black over the years. No, I am now on the side of white trying to prove an advantage which is my resolution for this year. I intend to examine the French again (I haven't really looked at any openings in depth for a long time) to try to strengthen my repertoire choices against it. I'll post any future plans and variations in the French during the year.

All the games mentioned above can be seen in the game viewer below:

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