Thursday, March 01, 2007

The French Connection and the Nature of Piquant Irony

I admire players who have discovered the openings suited to their style and stay faithful to them all their lives. They acquire a depth of knowledge that prevents them from collapsing in a heap at the latest theoretical innovation from the umpteenth openings database.

The trouble with me (a muddle-aged chess player), and I suspect most young players, is that I do not stick with an opening or defence long enough to understand its essence. If I lose or get a difficult game, I look elsewhere for redemption. If only I can find the perfect opening or defence I will not be put into difficult positions. But hang on a minute. Isn’t the point of chess that you will be in a difficult position? You have to fight and overcome your opponent, who is trying to do you over. And in case you haven’t noticed, there’s not much perfection in our imperfect world. The perfect opening or defence doesn’t really exist, despite what Mr Fischer once so loudly proclaimed.

The Bot has explained the key to success in chess, as getting to the essence of a position. Then and only then will your analysis be sound. The same is true of openings and defences. Botvinnik is right of course, but that’s no reason to follow his advice. After all, we are human, and therefore prone to acts of the gravest irrationality – like not listening to the great Bot.

One of my finest acts of irrationality, is to play openings or defences that do not suit my style (whatever that is; at 54 I am still working on it) but which I find attractive. They appeal to my aesthetics, or I hope to surprise an opponent, or worse, they are recommended by the latest opening’s guru (and especially by his or her publisher). As a result I fall flat on my still modest derriere, cursing myself for being such an idiot.

How lucky then, to have discovered about 15 years ago, that I like the French Defence, and can actually play it well enough to survive the opening and make it into the middle-game with a playable position. I like the complexity and counter-attacking nature of the French, and even when I have lost with it, I have given a good account of myself, ‘going down swinging’. The French gives you an anchor in the centre and enables you to shift to the attack in the complexities that inevitably arise. Great attacking players (Fischer, Tal) have had difficulties with it; stupendously talented players like Nimzovich, Alekhine, Capablanca, and even the great Bot himself, have relied on it; contemporary players like Short, Korchnoi, Vaganian, Dreev, Yusupov use it. The greatest player of the French, its most loyal paramour, is Uhlmann, who has played it all his professional life.

The other amazing thing about the French, is that I somehow I can understand its main themes. I can reach a level of comprehension denied to me in other defences against e4, such as the Sicilian or Pirc. Finally I had a defence I both liked and which seemed to suit my evolving style – which is attacking or counterattacking (with a sprinkling of the bizarre). Thus I play it with confidence. I can honestly say, there is no other opening or defence with which I have lost with greater confidence. Sarcasm aside (I am a foundation member of the ‘Coalition of the Sarcastic’), I do reasonably well with it across the board or in correspondence chess, and like the Vienna, it has become a staple of my chess diet.

The Bot was right. He always is. I bet even God has to listen to him when it comes to chess.

Advice to the young and innocent: Find an opening or defence which suits your style and which you can understand, and play it; get experience with the different patterns it produces. Save your aesthetic delights for the
middle-game or ending. There is nothing more aesthetically satisfying than a victory.

I present for your edification the following game, which has a ‘piquant irony’. If you have to experience irony in your life, then piquant is the best kind.

The place is Norfolk Island in 1995, the second time I played there (see previous post, Eraclides versus the Masters ~ Part 3 Not Slam-Dunked by Craig Laird, for details about this tournament). I decided to play the French Defence against e4 and swotted up a few main lines. This defence is one of the greatest contributions of the French to civilization, along with croissants and champagne.

Anyway, why is this game so full of ‘piquant irony’? I hear you asking as you open a bottle of brandy. Because my opponent, one of the first few times I ever played the French, was himself a Frenchman. He was on holiday in Norfolk Island with his young family, and being a keen chess player thought he would play in the annual tournament. His name was Bernard Laugery and he was tall, youngish, elegant. His opponent on that day, was a 40 something, swarthy Eraclides from Australia.

I am sure that Monsieur Laugery must have thought I was trying to psych him out by playing the French Defence, but it was not so. I would have played the French against a Frenchman or a Martian.

Donc, fait le jeu! And remember to have that glass of brandy ready, or better yet, cognac. Take a snort before you start playing over the game. The notes are light, as befits the game.

Bernard Laugery VERSUS George Eraclides

Norfolk Island Open, 1995

Round 3

French Defence

1. e4 e6

He looked at me as though to say, ‘Are you serious? You’re going to play the French against moi? A Frenchman?’

2. d4 d5
3. ed ed

The exchange variation came as a surprise. It is supposed to be drawish and I thought maybe he was nervous about facing one of his national treasures. In any case, the exchange variation is not as mild as it appears. Attacking players like Blackburne (BC) and even Kasparov have tried it. It leads to an open game, which is always dangerous, and may not be to the taste of the Black player. For the next few moves both players try to avoid drawish book lines in order to play for a win.

Incidentally, when I use ‘BC’ it stands for ‘Before Computers’.

4. Nf3 Bd6
5. Be2?! Ne7?!
6. 0-0 Bg4
7. Nbd2 0-0
8. h3 Bh5
9. Re1 Nd7?!
10. Nf1 c6
11. Nh4 Bxe2
12. Rxe2?! Qc7
13. Qd3?! Nf6?!?
14. Qf3 Rae8
15. b3

If 15.Bh6 Ng6 16. Nf5 Rxe2 17. Qxe2 Re8 and Black can take the Bishop on h6. White hopes to eventually play c4 and expose the Queen on c7.

16. Ng6 fxg6 (For the attack)
17. Qd3 Qf7
18. Be3 Ne4
19. Nd2 Nxd2
20. Qxd2 Bb1

A common ‘French’ manoeuvre after Rooks have been linked.

21. Rae1 Qc7
22. g3?! Qf7 (Eyeing the f3 weakness)
23. Rf1?? Bxg3 (White blunders and Black says thank you very much)
24. f4?! Qd7 (Continuing the pressure; Black pieces are woefully placed)
25. Kg2 Bh4
26. Rf3 Re4
27. Bg1? Rfe8
28. Rxe4 Rxe4
29. Bf2 Qe7!
30. Re3 Bxf2
31. Rxe4 Qxe4 (Central domination)
32. Kxf2 Kf7 (Heading to the centre for the ending)
33. Kg3 Kf6
34. h4 h5! (Black plans a check on g4)
35. a3?! Qe6
36. Qf2 Qg4+
37. Kh2 Kf5! (This King does his own fighting)
38. b4? Qxf4+
39. Qxf4 Kxf4
40. c3 b5 (Or Kg4 is even simpler)

And Black won the King and Pawn ending easily.


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