The old game of chess
Modern (Western) chess originated from the Persian game of shatranj , itself a derivation of the very similar Hindu game of chaturanga . The rules of shatranj (no double Pawn moves or castling, weaker Queen ( firzan ) and Bishop ( fil
made it a slow game with a deferred clash of forces. This encouraged the development of tabi'a (starting formations), a recognised arrangement of forces which could be aimed for almost regardless of the opponent's play. You will find written tabi'a tabia and tabiya , the plural is tabi'at.
Hooper and Whyld in their excellent Oxford Companion to Chess give a selection of tabi'at.
mujannah (="flank opening")
N.B. the pieces on c1 and f1 are fils , the piece on d1 a firzan
A King's-side attacking formation.
Muwashshah (="richly girdled")
In practice, say H&W, the opponent would never allow the completion of this strong attacking formation.
Some players have tried to interpret old tabi'at in modern chess, for example the mujannah can arise from Bird's opening. This is unnecessary, for modern chess has its own tabi'at . The Soviet literature is quite rich in uses of the term in modern chess.
I am uncomfortably aware that for some players, especially juniors, this is a tabi'a . I wouldn't mind so much if I though they had the slightest idea what to do when they got this far.
There are strong arguments for supposing this to be a modern tabi'a . Both sides set up their formations without any great account being taken of the moves of their opponent, and from here a great many alternative plans are available to each player.
The veteran Russian GM Mark Taimanov is just one author who uses the term in his writings.
"This is one of the typical tabias ( sic ) of the Taimanov system. As in many similar variations, this position is assessed as favourable for White.
"White has an advantage in the centre, harmonious development, pressure along the d-file and a wide choice of plans to gain the initiative. Black is slightly restricted (at least in the centre), and he has to spend time (at least three tempi) on development.
"Nevertheless, many practical examples show that Black's position is quite viable. What is the secret?
"First of all, Black's position is invulnerable as yet, because his pieces control the whole defensive region, so it is difficult to approach his position (the only worrying aspect is the weakened d6 square). Besides, Black has good opportunities of his own in prospect. For instance, if he manages to arrange his pieces freely according to the scheme ...Qc7, ...Rfd8, ...Bb7, ...Rac8, then he can count on promising counterplay on the Queen's-side connected with ...Nc6-a5-c4, and, in some cases, on pressure along the a8-h1 diagonal. That is why the theoretical debate concerned with this variation has already been going on for several decades, deepening the understanding of the position for both sides, but not coming to a final conclusion.
"Obviously, White's attempts to gain the initiative can be linked either to the weak d6 square (12. Bf4), or to active play in the centre and King's-side (11.f4 or 11.Rad1, etc.)."
The book gives two games:
11.Rad1 [ or 11.f4 Bb7 12.e5!? Na5!? 13.Bd3 Rc8 14.Ne2 Nc4 15.Bxc4 Rxc4 16.Rad1 Qc8 (Black is better) 17.c3 b4!? 18.Rc1 0-0 19.b3 bxc3 20.Nxc3 Rc6 21.Na4 Ba3 22.Rxc6 Qxc6 23.Nb6 d6!? 24.exd6 Bxd6 25.Rc1 Qe4 26.Rc4 Qb1+ 27.Rc1 Qg6 28.Qc2 Be4 29.Qf2 Rd8!? 30.Rd1 Bc7 31.Rxd8+ Bxd8 32.Nc4 Bd5 33.Nd2 h6 34.h3 a5 35.Nf3 Bc7 36.Nd4 Qb1+ 37.Kh2 g5!? 38.Nb5 Bxf4+ 39.Bxf4 gxf4 40.Nc3 Qf5... Unzicker,W-Taimanov,M/Wijk aan Zee 1981/0-1 (53)] 11...0-0 12.Bf4 Qa5!? 13.a3 Rd8 14.Bd6 Bb7 15.Bxe7 Nxe7 16.Qg5!? f6 17.Qc5 Nc6 18.Rd6 Rac8 19.Rfd1 Nb8 20.Qe3 Rc6 21.R6d4 Qb6 22.Qh3 Qc5 23.Nd5!! exd5 24.exd5 Rd6 25.c4! bxc4 26.Rxc4 Qa5 27.Rh4! h6 28.Rxh6! Rxd5 29.Rh8+ Kf7 30.Bc4 Ke7 31.Bxd5 Bxd5 32.Rxd8 Nc6 33.Re8+! 1-0 Sznapik,A - Donchev,D [ or B46] Prague (11), 1985
There are two parallel but over-lapping variations of the main line 3...Nf6 French Tarrasch.
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 f6 9.exf6 Nxf6 10. Nf3 Bd6
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 Qb6 9.Nf3 f6 10.exf6 Nxf6 11.0-0 Bd6
Tony D strongly recommends having this type of position in your repertoire, and being able to play it for both sides. The point is, there are some very common Pawn formations to be mastered here, and you can read a lot of the plans right off the Pawn structure. However, the Pawn structure is not fixed.
A French root and some branches
The classic French structure arises after the Pawn moves:
e4 d4 e5
As both sides contest the centre, this fundamental structure is altered.
The basic French centre
There are some themes here that re-appear in many variations below.
Black has a poor light-squared Bishop, at least for the moment. Black would like to exchange light-squared Bishops, White would like to exchange dark-squared Bishops.
White has more space and a potential King's-side attacking position.
Black, who has the move, will attempt to attack the chain with Pawn moves like:
...c5 ...f6 ...cxd4 ...fxe5 ...f5
Black will continue to put pressure on d4 and can extend the scope of the attack to c3 by advancing the b-Pawn. Nimzovitch, who studied the Advance Variation, always recommended the attack on the base of the Pawn chain. Since Nimzo, and since the development of the Tarrasch variation, we see much more virtue in attacking the head. In fact, we see a lot more ...f6s in the Advance these days.
White will defend or change the centre with Pawn moves like:
c3 f4 dxc4 exf6
White must try to make the space or the attack tell without allowing Black to destroy the centre and without getting in a tangle. Black will use obvious piece moves like ...Nc6 and ...Qb6 to put pressure on the Pawn centre. The immediate Pawn attack, around which Black's development in this line revolves, is:
[ or Black can try and do without this move in other lines of the French (Guimard).]
French tension centre
White usually tries to hold the centre initially with c2-c3.
After an exchange of Pawns:
French centre with open c-file
The exchange relieves a certain amount of central pressure, but brings the base of White's Pawn chain a little nearer Black's pieces.
The open c-file allows a variety of new possibilities for Black, most notably use of the b4 square (...Bb4+, ...Nb4).
...f6, exf6 Nxf6
This is the key formation we will discuss in more detail below. The two Pawn weaknesses alluded to are Pe6 and Pd4; the Pe6 is weaker, being exposed on a half-open file, and White has the advantage of being able to play on e5 as well as e6. However, Black can attack d4 just as easily as White can attack e6, and can even hope to get in the dynamic ...e6-e5:
After an exchange of Pawns (White naturally does not want to allow ...e5-e4) we develop the:
Isolated passed Queen Pawn.
White should behave the same as in an IQP centre, blockading the Pawn and holding Black to its defence, looking for second weaknesses; Black should look for attacking chances on the open lines, and chances to advance the passed Pawn.
French strongpoint centre.
White gives up d4, the better to hang on to the single point e5. Also, this exchange may wrong-foot Black by requiring a recapture on c5.
Black will typically try to destroy this centre with
With the head of the White Pawn chain so close to hand and under such pressure, it is hard for White to defend it and we normally see an exchange.
This leads to the next central formation:
Isolated Pawn couple
This is quite a stable formation which can dominate planning in the early middle game. Black has a concrete weakness on e6 and a weak square on e5. This is why White is so happy to exchange: a lot of the cramp exerted by the previous structure still persists and White now has open lines against plain targets.
Black would ideally like to achieve ...e6-e5, dominating the centre. White, not unnaturally, would prefer to restrain this, and so moves like Re1, Ne5, Bf4 and so on are all key. White would perhaps also like to achieve f2-f4, but may need to move the Nf3 to do so.
You very often get a similar centre with f4 from the main line of the Classical Variation:
French very tense centre.
From the Tarrasch with 5.f4:
This centre could resolve into almost any other formation! In fact the tension may be enhanced by a Black ...g7-g5.
We'll look in detail at the "Two weaknesses" formation as seen in the ...Nf6 French Tarrasch.
To look at specifics, I'll choose the less common ...Qb6 line.
This is because:
- The more common Qc7 line is a jungle (although we can transpose)
- The more common line Qc7 can be avoided by the murky 8.Nf4 variation, winning the exchange.
- This less common Qb6 line has a superb how-to-play guide in John Watson's book.
MacDonald and Harley note that the Qb6 often comes back to Qc7, helping protect the King. But this is no waste of time because typically White has had to spend time coping with the attacks on b2 and d4, and may have settled for the passive Be3. They also note that Farago always plays ...Qb6 and is never in any trouble!
This is the position after Black's move 11, with White to move.
The Black Queen attacks Pawns on b2 and d4, restricting White's development. If the Bc1 moves, the b2 Pawn is hanging. If either Knight moves, the d4 Pawn isn't really hanging, because after ...Nxd4; Nxd4 Qxd4, the Bd3 can play away with check, winning the Qd4. But the Ne2 really will move one day, and the Black King may not always be on a checkable square. In fact, one common idea is for Black to play ...Kh8, threatening the d-Pawn. After castling, Black's Rook has occupied the half-open f-file, with new ideas like ...Rf8xf3 or xf2. Black's pieces are all quite active and White has yet to untangle; White is no position yet to exploit the static weakness of the Pe6 and the temporarily poor Bc8. Black has some unobvious moves like ...Nb4 (hitting d3/c2) and ...Ng4 (hitting ../e5), or manoeuvring either Knight to f5 (...Nc6-e7-f5/ ...Nf6-g4-h6-f5) to keep White from settling into a sound attacking position, and some enterprising ideas like ...Bc8-d7-e8-h5 to activate the Bishop.
What are White's choices here? Almost every legal move has been played!
- 12.Rb1 - idea: protect the b-Pawn and play Bf4
- 12.Ng3 - idea: control ../h5, block ...Bd6xh2
- 12.Bg5?! - ideas: gambit b-Pawn, play Bg5-h4-g3 to swap dark-squared Bishops
- 12.a3 - ideas: advance b-Pawn to b4, harass Nc6, occupy c5; prevent ...Nb4 (maybe organise Bc2/Qd3) (development lagging though)
- 12.Re1 - idea: pressure on e5/Pe6/Ke8, but weakens f2; often transposes below
- 12.Qd2 - idea: Qg5
- 12.Bf4 - ideas: exchange Bd6, gambit Pb2; there is sometimes the trick ...Bxf4; Nxf4, Nxd4!; Nxd4, e5!
- 12.b3 - ideas: protect b-Pawn, move Bc1 to f4 (or b2)
- 12.Nf4 - idea: hit e6. A critical try although Black can gambit the Pe6
- 12.Bd2 - idea: to c3 securing b2 and d4; slow
- 12.Nc3 - the flexible main line, committing White to nothing (although giving up Bf4). It adds some new ideas like Nc3-b5, or, after ...a6, Nc3-a4-b6
This actually doesn't exhaust the ideas, just the moves! One more idea is Ra1-c1xc6, undermining e5.
How might the game go after 12. Nc3?
Tseitlin,M-Beake,B/Hastings Challengers 1990/EXP 21/1-0 (57)
This key game was given in John Watson's book, although he safeguards the Black pieces to a B Becke. This continues a fine tradition of mis-attributing key games by Exeter players, after BCO gave a critical Petroff variation played by HV Mallison (against Hugh Alexander) as being essayed by Mattison, the Latvian problemist.
[We spent some time looking at the variations in Watson's book]
I find all this detail daunting, but Tony D says the detail is not so important as the ideas - there are a lot of games, but not so much theory! The idea being that Black can solve problems over the board. On the other hand, Watson says "Theory has exploded!". Perhaps the real answer is, ideas first, theory second. There are lots of ideas in "non-theoretical" openings which are not widely known, and players get by in blissful ignorance because their opponents don't know the theory either! For examples, look at the Beating the Anti-Indians document.
Your comments and experiences are welcome!
P.S. Other French centres
If White avoids e4-e5 we get other centres; while the Pawn is on e4 either White or Black can exchange, which lead to very different types of game.
Hooper, David & Whyld, Ken. Oxford Companion to Chess (2nd edition). O.U.P.
Taimanov, Mark. The Sicilian Taimanov System . Batsford
Watson, John. Play the French (revised third edition). Cadogan.
MacDonald, Neil & Harley, Andrew. Mastering the French . Batsford.