Thursday, April 4, 2013

Building an Opening Repertoire - How to Play the French Defense

Now that I'm taking chess a little more seriously than I have for the past 10 years or so, I'm going to have to brush up on my openings as well. Many players - regrettably many beginners and novices among them - are fascinated by studying openings. I never liked it all that much, I think a lot of time is wasted on memorizing lines, which becomes an unfortunate necessity approximately once a player crosses the 2000 ELO barrier.
The time I have to devote to my opening repertoire I would much rather spend on studying middlegame strategy or endgame technique. However, a somewhat solid knowledge of the openings you play is necessary, and of course there's an obvious advantage to getting good positions out of your openings.

The first opening I want to take a closer look at again is the French Opening, particularly playing White. I want to play the Winawer Variation because I think it gives White very practical attacking chances.
As someone who used to enjoy playing the French defense with both colors, I now think that from a practical point of view, many variations and in particular those that I'm talking about in this article, are easier to play for White.

Having said that, I think it is clear that if I want to play the Winawer, I have to be prepared for Black's 3 main responses:

a) The Rubinstein Variation (Black plays 3. ... dxe4)
b) The Classical Variation (Black plays 3. ... Nf6)
c) The Winawer Variation (Black plays 3. ... Bb4)

A) The Rubinstein Variation:

The Rubinstein Variation after 3. ... dxe4
This is my least favorite of Black's 3 approaches to the Winawer. Basically I play the French defense because I enjoy the positions where the center is closed. Structures like the Rubinstein Variation, or the Exchange Variation where White takes on d5 do not look very "French" to me. In fact, for many years I had considered giving up playing the French altogether because I had no way to prevent my opponent from exchanging pawns in the center. Fortunately, the Rubinstein Variation is fairly rare and much less common than Black's other 2 responses. This is certainly because the Rubinstein Variation is not a very ambitious approach for Black.

B) The Classical Variation:

The Classical Variation after 3. ... Nf6
After playing this variation for many years with Black I've come to the conclusion that the pressure White is putting on Black on the kingside is far more significant than any counter play Black can generate on the queenside. I know that theoretically chances should be about even in the Classical Variation, but years of experience playing this opening tells me that practically this is much easier to play for White, at least at my level. The French defense is a good example that psychologically the defender has a much tougher job than the attacker.

C) The Winawer Variation:

The Winawer Variation after 7. Qg4
This is the position I want to play the Winawer for. It seems to me that White has a pretty straightforward attack and a lot of natural moves to support a strong kingside attack. I'm really looking forward to exploring this line a little further.

Approach: Even though it is quite old already, I think Lev Psakhis' "The Complete French" is still the definitive treatment of the French defense. In my studies of this opening I'll rely mostly on this book. I'll supplement this theoretical treatment with some more recent games from top level tournaments, some of which I plan to be discussing here.

If any readers of this blog have good bad or ugly experiences playing the Winawer, I'd like to hear from them. 

It takes brass balls to play the French Defense, particularly for Black. (Scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, one of my favorite movies)

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