As some of you may know, the 2016 Chess Olympiad started last week in Baku, Azerbaijan. Though most of the drama has yet to occur, the first few days of the competition have offered many mismatches, which means plenty of great and not-so-great trends to start out the tournament. While I’m sure you may be able to find a couple, one theme that both I and National Master Franklin Chen have discussed has been how the French has not performed well at all up to this point in the Olympiad.
While I am by no means a 1. e4 player or expert on the French, I decided to tackle this theme as a personal challenge to understand why the French can be seen as strategically risky and why it seldom makes the top flight games. To first layout this article I think I should differentiate between a strategically risky opening and a bad opening.
If you think about the French for a second, while it aims to push …d7-d5, it voluntarily allows White to claim full control over the center with pawns on both e4 and d4. More importantly, as many French players can relate, the c8 bishop is often referred to as the “bad French bishop”, because in many lines, it struggles to find daylight and have a meaningful role in the position.
This doesn’t make the French a bad opening, as many great players have tried their hand with it as Black at some point, it just means that someone playing 1…e6 should be aware of the fact that they are giving up more static factors than 1…e5 for dynamic play on the queenside. However, thanks to the recent development of engines, many of these dynamic lines can be thoroughly analyzed at home, and thus we see the French fashioned less at the Grandmaster level than in amateur level games.
I’m willing to bet that if you have been seriously following the Olympiad, you have already seen the game played by Wei Yi in the first round against Kosovo. However, rather than looking at the game for entertainment from the Chinese wonder kid, let’s try to see what went wrong for Black.
So was this just a question of bad preparation? I do get the impression that perhaps Black quickly looked over a similar position with an engine and thought he could equalize. For most French players, spending this early move, 3…a6 is not to everyone’s liking as the tempo put Black permanently behind in development. Luckily enough for us, Women’s Grandmaster Katerina Nemcova had an opportunity to display here how …c5-c4 can also cause problems in the Women’s Olympiad without the inclusion of this move.
Sure, two round 1 mismatches should not be significant towards our understanding of an opening. However, it was a place to start for this article, and to be seen by two 1800+ rated players at the Olympiad – well, I hope you can see how I felt obligated to discuss this …c5-c4 push! For the next three games, we’ll be looking at space-grabbing variations – meaning that rather than capturing on d5 (which is not to everyone’s liking!), White pushes in the center and forces Black to prove something for the bad bishop and space deficit. In round 2, David Howell, one of my favorite players, demonstrates this in a beautiful win over Indonesia.
So here we saw how when White leaves Black with no target on d4, the position quickly becomes difficult to play and White is the one continuing to press for space. While we have found some small improvements for Black in each game so far, we have yet to really see a position where Black can find serious dynamic resources to make up for slow development or a space deficit, reinforcing the fact that the French is strategically risky. I mentioned that Black could try …f7-f6 against Howell instead of breaking the center, but Canadian Grandmaster Bareev tried this against Mickey Adams, only to reach a similar fate. Take note of how Black still has problems in development, but also suffers from poor structure and king safety!
I hope so far you’re starting to see a pattern. In each of these four games, Black has failed to find dynamic resources and paid the price for playing a strategically risky opening. That is not to say that the French is a bad opening – it has lots of well-established theory and a history of being played in many important games. It’s just that in each of these cases Black failed to “prove” anything whereas against 1…e5, usually it’s up to White to “prove” he has something. This burden of proof is what makes the French inherently risky, and why principled novelties could prove as more detrimental to Black than White in an over the board game.
I want to leave today’s post with a game Franklin shared with me that I had completely missed, but I think reinforces the theme that against these top level players, the French is perhaps not the best option against 1. e4. In the third round Austria-Jamaica match, Markus Ragger showed us we were forgetting one more thing about the French – the bad c8 bishop. Against the Jamaican FIDE Master, Ragger built an “aquarium” around b7, and the bishop never saw daylight as White’s pair of knights danced around Black’s position.
Again, here is another seemingly well-versed player in the French unable to demonstrate its prowess over-the-board. I think it’s really easy at home to passively look at these positions with an engine and believe that Black should be more or less okay with perfect play – but is it realistic to know all of these positions by heart for a tournament? I hardly think so. Black gives up a lot in the opening, the center, development, and in the case of a few games today, king safety – from a human perspective, it’s really difficult to hold the equality when White just makes fundamentally sound moves. It especially hurts when you’re playing the French against a top-class player in the Olympiad! All of these factors explain why fans of the French maybe a little unhappy.
So what does this mean if you play the French? Well chances are, you aren’t representing your country and playing the likes of Ragger and Adams right now, so for the most part, your opponents likely are not familiar with these lines for White. So on that note, you’re probably safe – you just need to have a really strong theoretical understanding and a good sense of the static/dynamic balance in the position. Notice how in each of the five losses we analyzed today, all of Black’s troubles stemmed from a position where the pawn structure could change – whether it was Black playing …c5-c4 to avoid the IQP, or challenging the d4 and e5 pawns to justify giving up the center. Based on what I’ve seen writing this article (keep in mind I play neither side of the French), it would appear that to play 1…e6, Black must be ready to handle many different pawn structures, and be flexible as the direction of a game changes. Whether or not this is for you, I can certainly not be the judge.
I’ll certainly be on the look out for more French in Baku, and I hope you do too!