Beating the French Vol.1: Super-GM classes for the amateur

2/8/2011 – The French Defense is one of those fascinating defenses that never seems to lose its luster at all levels, and one need only see the difficulties Short had with White in the recent London Classic. Rustam Kasimdzhanov just released three DVDs to remove the veil of mystery, with the first on the Winawer. Scientist, professor, and French enthusiast Kevan Cowcill gives his in-depth review.

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Beating the French Volume 1

By Kevan Cowcill

I’ve long been a fan of the Fritz Trainer DVD series. Each presenter brings his own mannerisms, quirks, and strengths to the DVDs, and it seems my favourite presenter is the one playing on my computer at any given time. Rustam Kasimdzhanov, in his Beating the French Volumes 1 to 3, is no exception. In the series, Kasimdzhanov earnestly presents a White repertoire based upon 3.Nc3 which he says is probably the strongest and most aggressive approach against the French. He likes the lines he shows, and does a good job persuading the listener to like the lines as well.

This review is for the first volume of this series where Kasimdzhanov examines positions following 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 (the Winawer Variation, though he doesn’t mention this). The DVD assumes some basic understanding of the positional aspects of the French Defence and how these translate into strategic plans in the middlegames and endgames.

Kasimdzhanov’s DVD should be accessible to most chess players, even if they aren’t familiar with the French. Plans are straightforward, strategies and positional ideas easy to remember, and Kasimdzhanov reviews them many times showing how they are applied in different positions.

Memorization will play a part in learning the moves, but he gives enough strategic plans so that if players forget the actual moves, they can probably do fairly well by keeping the long-range strategic plans in mind, and making moves that are true to them.

For those wanting some background in the French first, Chessbase has some introductory DVDs including Ari Ziegler’s The French Defence (played from Black’s perspective, and which I have replayed so many times I almost have the monologue memorized, in addition to the moves), and Nigel Davies’ French Defence Strategy.

Kasimdzhanov’s French Volume 1 has over 3.5 hours of material in the form of fifteen lectures broken into easily digestible sections lasting from just over four minutes (the wrap-up lecture) to as long as twenty-two minutes, and focuses on the line 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne7 with 7.Qg4.

He doesn’t appear to be using written notes, and doesn’t appear to be camera shy. The impression is of a presenter who has practiced more than once what he wants to say. His English is also good and native English-speakers won’t have difficulty understanding him.

Even though the DVD is done from White’s perspective of winning against the French, Kasimdzhanov still shows where Black can gain an advantage if White doesn’t play accurately.

Important to learning is the layout of this DVD. Kasimdzhanov hasn’t presented just a series of games, but has interspersed them with theoretical lectures that tie in with the games he’s just discussed or will be discussing. Instead of following numerous lines in the actual game where a learner may lose the forest for the trees, so to speak, Kasimdzhanov briefly mentions them in the game but then covers them more in-depth in the theoretical lectures. This prevents numerous variations in the game from obscuring the overall lessons of the game, and reinforces previous lessons.

Kasimdzhanov’s DVD shows how the long-term positional ideas in the French still come into play even in such dynamic positions that arise from 7.Qg4. Since I reviewed the DVD, I’ve played some quick blitz games in these lines with mixed success in terms of winning, but fully successful in terms of enjoying the games (even the ones I lost).

Like a good teacher, he emphasizes the understanding so that the specifics can be found. Many attacking and counter-attacking games arise which contain the same tactical themes due to the nature of the pawn structure. He teaches that the best way to learn opening theory is to learn the main ideas and then try to apply them in unknown positions. The lecture on the Morozevich-Lputian is such a game where the move 7.Qg4 is not played. If you have understood and memorized the positional and strategic ideas in the main 7.Qg4 lines, you should be able to apply them to this game.

In addition to Morozevich’s game, we are shown games by Kasparov, Short, Shirov, and Ivanchuk, to see how they handle (or mishandle) the positions.

What follows is a brief overview of the contents of the DVD.


Kasimdzhanov makes his Super GM understanding accessible to amateurs

After his Introduction into the general strategical and positional ideas in the French, the next two lectures are titled Theory Part I and Part II. Anyone not familiar with the ideas in the French should listen to Theory Part I several times as the rest of the DVD builds on the ideas presented here. Incidentally, the final lecture, just four-and-a-half minutes long, sums up the general strategies and positional considerations seen in the DVD, and if you’re new to the French, can also be listened to first.

After these two lectures, he moves on to practical examples. The first is a one-sided game by Macieja-Vaisser, but he presents it to cement the material we’ve learned in the theory lectures. Kasimdzhanov’s trainers taught him that one-sided games were the best games for learning as they show clear-cut examples of White achieving long-term goals. Kasimdzhanov isn’t just presenting information to an audience, he is teaching the audience.

More games and a third theory section follow. The games have numerous teaching moments. For example, Karjakin – Yussupov provides lessons in paying attention to the opponent’s possibilities, and depriving him of counterplay even if you hold the initiative. Karjakin used a novelty to stifle Yussupov’s bishop before continuing on with his attack.

Another example is Ponomariov- Ivanchuk where Ponomariov’s win is a great positional achievement while Ivanchuk is “fishing in muddy waters”, seemingly a bit unsure of the positional strategies needed to win.

One game that caught my fancy was Volokitin and Lputian simply because the b-pawn managed to advance to b7 and survive cheek-to-cheek with Blacks’ king, “living on the knife’s edge”, for 29 moves. This was made possible because White had so many threats on the Kingside that Black never had the luxury of taking the problem pawn.

Volokitin,Andrei (2652) - Lputian,Smbat G (2634) [C18]
Calvia ol (Men) Mallorca (9), 24.10.2004

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Ba5 6.b4 cxd4 7.Qg4 Ne7 8.bxa5 dxc3 9.Qxg7 Rg8 10.Qxh7

Black has some counterplay based on the slight weakness of the pawn on e5. Black is in a hurry as White will be activating all his pieces and his h-pawn after which Black will not be enjoying this game.

10... Nbc6 11.Nf3 Qc7 12.Bf4 Bd7 13.a6 0–0–0 14.axb7+

and the b7-pawn owes its survival to the kingside threats never giving Black the tempo needed to capture it.

Kasimdzhanov says this game is a reason why 5…Ba5 was put out of practice in serious chess. A hasty check of my TWIC database shows four games with 5…Ba5 played in 2011 so far, and 37 games in 2010 with one player rated 2684 and the rest between 1900 to 2600. In my patzer view though, 5…Ba5 still provides enough dangerous weapons for Black, at least at my old club’s level.

Another nice game was Shirov-Atalik.

Shirov,Alexei (2737) - Atalik,Suat (2570) [C16]
EU-chT (Men) Plovdiv (1), 11.10.2003

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 Ne7 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 b6 7.Qg4 Ng6 8.h4 h5 9.Qg3 Ba6 10.Ne2 Rh7 11.Bg5 Qd7 12.Qf3 Qa4 13.Ng3 Bxf1 14.Kxf1 c5

Black’s king is stuck in the center, his pieces are scattered around the board and uncoordinated, but in a closed position this is less important. However, if the position were to open up by some fire-on-the-board maneuver, then Black would be at a serious disadvantage.

Shirov naturally finds a fire-on-the-board move with the sacrifice 15.Nf5 to open the position to exploit Black’s weaknesses. The Knight’s threat of landing on d6 forces Black to accept the sacrifice either now or later. One of Kasimdzhanov’s lessons here is: don’t not let the seemingly simple positions hide the tactical possibilities.

The Morozevich-Lputian game doesn’t have 7.Qg4, but as mentioned earlier, it is provided as an example with a different set-up because a good way to learn theory is to use the ideas in different positions. This aids in understanding moves rather than just memorizing lines of variations (not to devalue memorization though).

Morozevich,A (2762) - Lputian,S (2634) [C18]
TCh-RUS Sochi RUS (8), 09.05.2007

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 Ne7 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 7.h4 Nbc6 8.h5 Qa5 9.Bd2 Bd7 10.h6

Like the Volokitin- Lputian game above, White is still sitting on the back ranks. Furthermore, it seems White has “wasted” tempi by rushing a lone soldier up the h-file on a suicide mission instead of developing pieces.

White’s goals are simple. He is aiming to destroy Black’s structure on the Kingside (a recurring theme in this DVD), but Black may also get some advantage from the open g-file and his freed Rook. White’s strategic idea is an attack along the b-file with his Rook and Queen, eliminate the c5 pawn with the Rook, and make his own pawn chain unassailable. If Black doubles his h-pawns, his f5-pawn break is more difficult (the f5-pawn break is covered in previous lectures so the viewer understands the importance of this maneuver) and White’s pawn chain is further protected.

White gives up some dynamic possibilities, and gives Black a lead in development in exchange for long-term central theoretical considerations, which become very important later in the game. After Kasimdzhanov explains the plans, it may be a good time for the viewer to stop the recording to see if she or he can find the necessary moves required to put the plan into action.

One interesting item about the game is that even Kasimdzhanov was surprised that the central superiority of White’s pawns could actually be so important, and that from the position below he, and other GMs analyzing the game afterward, came to the conclusion that the position is probably almost lost for Black despite his extra passed pawn.

10... gxh6 11.Rb1 0–0–0 12.Rb5 Qa4 13.Qb1 Na5 14.Rxc5+ Kb8 15.Rh3 b6 16.Rf3 Ka8 17.Rb5 Nc4 18.Rb4 Nxa3 19.Rxa4 Nxb1 20.Ra1 Nxd2 21.Kxd2

22...Rdf8 22.Bd3 Rhg8 23.g3 h5 24.Ne2 h4 25.Rh1 hxg3 26.Nxg3 Rh8 27.Nh5 Ng8 28.Rg1 f5 29.Rg7 Bc8 30.Nf4 Nh6 31.c4 dxc4 32.Bxc4 Rd8 33.c3 Ng4 34.Ke2 Rhe8 35.Rh3 Rd7 36.Rxd7 Bxd7 37.Rxh7 b5 38.Bb3 Bc8 39.f3 a5 40.fxg4 1–0

The last game of the lot is an old one, and a favourite of Kasimdzhanov’s: Fine – Flohr (1938). This game is included to show that ideas back then were equally important in understanding the position, and to show how tremendous the chess players back then really were. It is an example of “old-school” play where in the opening you develop as fast as you can, only move a piece once (no pieces staying on the back rank), not too many pawn moves, and no unsupported pawn rushing headlong to disaster. Despite the differences in philosophy between this and previous games, the same themes occur, and once again, if you’ve learned the plans in the previous games, you should be able to apply them to unfamiliar positions.

The lesson from this game is that having a good position is not enough, one must also have a good plan and execute it steadily. With the combination of Kasimdzhanov’s theoretical and practical examples, anyone studying this DVD should be able to do just that even in unfamiliar French Defence positions.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable, well-planned and informative DVD, and I’m looking forward to viewing the next two in the series.

You can buy Beating the French Vol.1 in the Chessbase Store.

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