Say 'oui, oui' to the French Defence

by ChessBase
5/8/2007 – What was the most played opening in 2006? When you check that with your Mega Database 2007 you will find the Sicilian clear in the lead, but with the French already in second place! Why do so many players favour the French? Many good reasons can be found on Ari Ziegler's new DVD. Buy it right away or read this review.

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Ari Zieglers "The French Defence"
Reviewed by Michael Jeffreys

Oui, Oui!

When I ask club king-pawn opening players the defense they most hate to face, somewhat surprisingly the answer I get most often is NOT the Sicilian, but the French! Apparently this rock-solid reply to 1.e4 proves to be a tough nut for many White players to crack.  Perhaps it’s that White feels he is entitled to be the one attacking, yet he has to spend the first several moves of the game defending Black’s siege on his d-pawn.  Sacré bleu!

And now things have just gotten a whole lot worse for White as ChessBase has released a new DVD on the French by Swedish IM Ari Ziegler.  In it he gives Black a complete repertoire on exactly how to make 1.e4 player’s lives extremely unpleasant.  

The likeable Ziegler showing one of his games

I had never heard of IM Ziegler before seeing this DVD, but I can tell you that I am now a huge fan of his.  Whereas sometimes IM Andrew Martin puts out DVDs on openings he doesn’t play, Zeigler has a lot of experience in the French and doesn’t hesitate to give you his own pet lines and ideas.  Also (and I like Andrew Martin, even though it may not sound like it here) Martin can occasionally be a bit overly optimistic in the lines that he recommends.  Not so here with Ziegler, who takes a very realistic approach to his recommendations.  However, that’s not to say that Ziegler isn’t passionate about the French.  He is, but it’s in a much more controlled, low key manner rather than Martins overt enthusiasm.

Ziegler comes off as a wise old (and I don’t mean “old” negatively, as he’s only 40) uncle who is passing down his secrets to you.  He has a sort of low key charisma that is as refreshing as it is appealing.  What’s more, the dude is funny!  He had me laughing in several spots with his sedate humor.  For example, in the “miscellaneous” video clip, he says: “With 1.e4, White’s normal aim is to attack the f7 square, but against the French defense, White can forget about this dream.”  Now I know this doesn’t read very funny, but when you hear the matter-of-fact way he says it, it just sounds funny.

Okay, let’s take a look at the lines that are covered on this DVD:


1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4. c3 (Introduction and Advanced Variation)

Ziegler begins by explaining how he used to be a Sicilian player (Sveshnikov) and had a “nice life,” but he says that he got older, got married, had some kids and decided that he no longer had the time or memory to keep up with all the theory.  So, he turned to the French, which is more dependent on strategy and understanding where to put the pieces than on tactics.

One thing that I did notice is that he refers to his teaching as “the center method,” but doesn’t really explain what that is.  However, one can posit that since a constant theme in the French is for Black to snipe away at White’s center with the moves f6 and c5, this could be what the Swedish IM is referring to.  Still, this is a very minor quibble as the way he presents the material is so instructive, I don’t really care what he calls it!

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 (Tarrasch - old and new line)  

Ziegler showing the placement of White's Knights in the Tarrasch

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 (Tarrasch f4 line)

Ziegler thinks 5.f4 is White’s best try in the Tarrasch and doesn’t relish facing it (as you can see in the screenshot below!)  Of course, he still believes Black has a perfectly adequate defense which he goes on to show (as well as several interesting side lines.)  

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 (Classical)

Ziegler feels that overall, White’s best try for an advantage against the French is 3. Nc3.  In response, he DOES NOT recommend 3…Bb4 for Black, the Winawer variation.  Instead he likes 3…Nf6, provoking White into playing e5 so that Black can then attack this advanced pawn later on with moves like f6.

After 4.Bg5, he recommends the simple 4…Be7 (rather than 4…Bb4, which is the McCutcheon).  After 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bxe7 Qxe7 7.f4, he reminds the viewer to play 7…0-0 here, as 7…c5?! runs into 8.Nb5!  After 8.Nf3 c5 9.Qd2 Nc6 White should play 10.dxc5 because 10.0-0-0?! runs into the positionally strong 10…c4! and Black’s queenside pawn storm is more dangerous than White’s kingside storm which has yet to begin.  And now instead of recapturing on c5 with the knight or queen, Ziegler recommends that Black play the more dynamic 10…f6!? threatening to bust up White’s center!  (see screenshot below)  

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5. e5 Nfd7 6.h4 (Alekhine Chatard Attack)

Here Ziegler recommends somewhat surprisingly that Black simply castle here. He feels that after 6…Bxg5 7.hxg5 Qxg5, White gets an advantage NOT with the old 8.Nh3, but with Swedish GM Jonny Hector’s move, 8.Qd3! threatening 9.Rxh7.  And so this is why he recommends 6…0-0, which although it appears that White can mount a strong kingside attack, Black will have a free hand destroying White’s center with moves like f6 and c5.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4. e5 Nfd7 5. f4 (Steinitz Variation)

Ziegler says that the Steinitz variation is recommended in the book, An Opening Repertoire for White according to Anand and is played by several top players.  Thus French players can expect to see this line often.

The final video segment on the DVD is labeled “Miscellaneous” and contains the lines below.  My only complaint is that they are all buried within the one long 34-½ minute clip, and thus it’s difficult to access a specific one.  Better would have been to break-up this long clip into smaller clips, with each one containing one line.  Okay, here’s the remaining material:

1.e4 e6 2.d3 (King’s Indian Attack)

If you buy this DVD, be sure to check out Ziegler’s secret line against the K.I.A. involving a pawn sac, which you will NOT find in any book.  (Hint: Black ends up with an attack similar to a Marshall in the Ruy Lopez!)

1.e4 e6 2.Qe2 (Various)

About this strange second move, Ziegler makes a face and says, “I don’t like this move at all…it’s almost a joke!”

1.e4 e6 2.Nf3 d5 3.e5 c5 4. b4!? (Wing Gambit)

Ziegler just stares at the board for a while with a wry smile and then says, “White is voluntarily giving Black a pawn for nothing.  We must accept it!"  He then grabs the pawn with 4…cxb4 and says, “Thank you very much!”

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3. exd5 exd5 (Exchange Variation)

“Good for a draw,” says Ziegler. ...

The Bottom Line

Buy it now...

This is IM Ari Ziegler’s first DVD for Chessbase, but I certainly hope it won’t be his last.  He is a wonderful teacher who really takes his time and carefully explains exactly what each side wants to do in whatever position he is discussing.  Since Ziegler has been a French player for many years, his passion for the opening really comes through.

I like the fact that Ziegler takes the Black side on this DVD.  So many chess authors try to provide a “balanced” repertoire where it seems that every line ends in an “equals” evaluation.  Well forget that!  I want a guy who fights for my side and shows me how to blow my opponent out of the water!  While of course Ziegler doesn’t exactly do this, his confidence in the French defense as well as his strong belief in the various lines he recommends makes you want to play the French (assuming that you don’t already!)

Whereas I have criticized other ChessBase  authors for appearing nervous on camera, Ziegler has a nice calm presence that instills confidence in the viewer.  If you play the French, this is absolutely a must purchase.  After all, it’s like having an IM give you a 7-hour private lesson on the French for under 35 bucks!!  And even if you don’t play the French, I’m sure you will enjoy Ziegler’s instructive discussion of how to play one of Black’s best defenses.

On a scale of 1-10, The French DVD gets a 9.5.

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