SuperMac! The French MacCutcheon

Since I put this together, all the pop-up games have stopped working, sorry about that. Normal service may or may not be resumed, but meanwhile, you can find and play through all the Slav & MacCutcheon games in this PGN file

This line gets its name from a simul. game that the American amateur MacCutcheon played against Steinitz in 1885.  After some initial explorations by Tarrasch and Co., it was relatively neglected, but opening theory is never still... Chistiakov played it for decades, as has Volkov, and recently it has appeared again in Korchnoi's games.  It has also been favoured by Ivanchuk and especially Morozevich who has found new resources in many lines.

The Mac is supposed to be my main defence to 1.e4, but I often complain that I never get to play it!  Following the Shirov-Anand encounters in 2000, Whites seem more often to prefer 4.e5.  But the tide may be turning: after having one a season for the last 10 years, I've had four this year already.  So I thought I'd study it for once! 

First, something to whet your appetite, an amuse-bouche and something more substantial as a starter:


Gotcha!  And a classic encounter, known from Fischer's collection of memorable games:


Now for the main course:

Ideas behind the French MacCutcheon

The counterattacking ...Bb4 is less theoretical than the Winawer but shares its determination to double White's pawns at cost of the dark-squared Bishop.  Given that Black's other Bishop will be bad, White can hope that the c-pawns will not be so vulnerable that an attack that an initiative can still be pursued elsewhere.  Compared with the Winawer, Black can celebrate the exchange of another pair of pieces and the retention of the g-pawn; White can enjoy the lead in development and the concession Black must make to hold the King's-side together (abandon castling with ...Kf8 or create dark-square holes with ...g6).

The Mac promises counterplay... eventually. 

The old main line melting pot (Alapin-Lasker Attack)

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Bb4 5. e5 h6 6. Bd2 Bxc3 7. bxc3 Ne4 8. Qg4 g6 9. Bd3 Nxd2 10. Kxd2 c5

w kq c6 0 11

After 10...c5, Black doesn't have a single piece developed, but can look forward to counterattacking against White's messy pawns and King.

"White usually continues with something like h4, Nf3, Qf4 and possibly dxc5, but the order in which the moves are played varies" (Pedersen)

Thanks, Steffen, for that illuminating comment :)

Black also has a choice of systems:

Blockade with ...c4

This is fantastically solid, and while Black's Bishop is obviously bad, White's Bishop also lacks scope (being able to move only backwards!).  It rather reminds me of the Dutch Stonewall; White's light-squared Bishop is no more effective than Black's.  There seems to be no move order with which White can unlock the Black fortress. 


Alternatively, Black can play to hold the tension in the position

How then to develop the Bc8?  There is a common idea: ...cxd4, ...Qa5, ...b6 and ...Ba6.  This usually equalises but the game can be rather flat as the tension goes out of it; you have to see the endgames coming and make sure you're poised for them.


Alternatively, Black can retain more tension by delaying the exchange on d4 and waiting for White to go wrong.  The fashionable way to do this with ...Bd7-c6 and ...Nd7 and then castling long.  It seems to combine the virtues of solidity and flexibility:


I continue to play ...Nc6 which is more active, but I do find it can fizzle out to a major-piece += ending quite quickly.  The critical line in this new arrangement has been tested at the highest level:


I think that's enough for a broad-brush understanding of the Mac; to explore other themes we are going to need a bit more detail about the theory.

Variations of the French MacCutcheon

An attempt at refutation: h4, Rh3 and Bxg6

This is a crucial line, and is in all lines Bxg6 is a crucial idea.  In all the main lines Black can at least survive although sometimes White can force a draw.  I'll try and point out where White has an instant draw if they want it.


Harding reported the key discovery in the main line: after 13.Bxg6, Black hits back with 13...Nxd4!  This is a good move whether White reinforces the attack with the Rook (as in the game) or the Knight.


Because of this possibility, I like to play ...Qa5 when I can.  However, ...Qc7, being able to interpose on f7, is also an effective deterrent.  Then Black might prefer to chase away the Bishop with ...c4 before playing ...Bd7 (interfering with the black Queen's observation of f7).

An example of White being able to draw occurs in the modern main line, where e6 is also loose:


Black's options in defence at other times include declining the piece (with ...Rf8 or other moves) or temporising with ...Rg8 (when the King may feel less exposed).

So, this is not a huge problem, assuming a draw is acceptable to Black, and the theory is not deep, but if Black ever fails to check the sac on g6 it can rear up like a garden rake hidden in the grass...


So, it seems the MacCutcheon cannot be refuted by direct attack, and White can settle for a more orthodox pursuit of the advantage.  I'll review the main lines below, but there is a bit more to theory now than when I first looked at it.  I think Ivanchuk renewed interest in the Mac after his game with Anand (below) where, although he lost, he was a bit better into the middlegame. White players once more pushed deep into the forest of manoeuvres after 9.Bd3, this time armed with computers and databases, but without ever catching sight of a definite plus.  White's alternatives along the main highway have therefore also been re-examined.  Some tries formerly dismissed have become important, but also some disappointingly dull recommendations for Black have been replaced with more dynamic replies.

Some theory on the old main line:

To try and make sense of the morass, I have divided White's choices between immediate tries, and those following:

Flexible and almost certainly necessary at some point.  (Ne2 is an alternative which I have never seen played at top level but have had it in one of my own games.)   Nf3-h2-g4 is a natural career path for the Knight, but it can reappear on d4.


Throwing in h4 certainly gives White some extra options on the King's-side (like a timely h5 or even Rh3), and the odd tempo seems not to be crucial. 

Let's see what happens if Black meets both moves with the old-fashioned ...Nc6 (...Bd7, ...Qa5 and ...Qc7 are all reasonable alternatives).

Using the b-file: Rhb1 or Rab1

These Rook moves don't seek to refute the line but gain an edge with which to badger Black's still rather restricted position. 

After h4, moving the King's Rook over to the b-file seems indecisive.  The Queen's Rook might not be a bad try: White can try and over-stretch Black before deciding where to break, and it doesn't take long for the Rook to relocate to the King's-side.


Only 11.Rab1 is available and it is of course likely to transpose below.

After 11.Nf3 Nc6:

We have seen that the simplifying method works:


Rab1 or Rhb1 can both be reasonably met by Qc7 (deterring Qf4) or the blockade:



I was puzzled by this when I first saw it: surely White is playing into Black's hands?  But Black will have to reorganise to make any use of the opportunities on the c-file, and the gain of the d4 square can be worth it.


This doesn't trouble Black:


After Nf3

Doesn't seem much more threatening: Black's demolition of White's centre in the following game is very pretty to watch...


After h4:

In this move order it abandons the e-pawn:


So this is not so much a crucial opening idea as a middlegame one: White and Black must assess it on each turn to see if it is yet a worthwhile option for White.


A natural try to invade on f6.  There is a common trick, seen in the Rossolimo game: after Black plays ...Qc7, Black can meet Qf4 with ...f5!, covering the weakness on f6.  It doesn't solve all Black's problems, but it certainly makes life easier.  So, if you're determined to play Qf4 as White, either play it immediately, or wait for something committal like ...Qa5 or ...Qe7.


The simplifying seems to work perfectly well:


The blockade is not so convincing (see below):

It's not a bad moment to decide on the modern arrangement of Black's minor pieces:


After Nf3:

The safest try for Black seems to be the usual simplifying of cxd4 Qa5+ and b6


The blockade is not convincing:


An early Qa5 can oblige White to recapture on d4 with a piece, but that isn't a problem for White (who may play dxc5 to get a piece to this square!).


After h4:

Simplifying still works:


And without citing a practical example, Psakhis mentions a variation on the blockade idea:

So, what have we found out so far?

White's Move 11/12: R(ah)b1

and Black's reply: Now After Nf3 Now After h4 After Nf3
simplify cxd4/Qa5+/b6/Ba6 OK OK OK OK OK
Queen moves? Qc7
Qc7 Qa5 Qa5

That's a sort of survival guide.  You can find yourself re-inventing bits of theory: in one game after 11.Nf3 Nc6 12.h4 Qa5!? I faced 13.Qf4! and decided to make the Queen move again: 13...cxd4 14.Nxd4 Nxd4 15.Qxd4 Bd7 which I later discovered had been played often and is all perfectly respectable, although 14.h5!? might have made me blink a bit.


After both Nf3 and h4...

...Well, first it's Black's move! -- and the good news is that there is still a fair choice.  Our familiar pawn decisions are all still available (...c4, ...cxd4) and there have also been tried various Queen moves (...Qa5, ...Qc7 and ...Qe7) as well as developing the Bishop (with ...Bd7).

Simplify - EG133:

Blockade - EG141:

Qa5 - EG117:

Qe7 - EG142:

Qc7 - EG116:

Conclusions?  It certainly seems that the simplifying technique works against anything White might try, but if you're playing for a win as Black, you might prefer to keep more dynamism in the position, and for this a Queen move looks best.  Qa5 is active and Qc7 solid; Qe7 might be passive with this formation.

Whatever you pick, there remains to be examined during the following play the interpolation h5 g5.  It's not appropriate immediately:


Fidgety Bishops I: 9.Be3 and 9.Bc1

There are two fidgets with the dark-squared Bishop on move 9: White can play it to c1 or e3.  Both variations deny Black the opportunity to eliminate one of White's pair of Bishops; also, the black Knight on e4 may become stranded and vulnerable to harassment with moves like f3.  They also offer the c-pawn as bait; Black will lose time and position by taking it, after which any attempt at counterplay is more likely to turn out better for White.

Maroczy variation 9.Be3

I sort of got the idea (from Eade and Pedersen) that Black either declines with ...c5 (our first example game, above), or grabs the pawn on c3 but avoids ...c5 to keep it closed (because of course after falling behind in development you don't want to open the position).  To quote, Ben Goldacre, "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that": Psakhis gives as a line 9...Nxc3 10.Bd3 c5 11.dxc5 Qa5 12.Nf3 Ne4+ 13.Nd2 Nxc5 14.0-0 with compensation for the pawn but nothing more.  So perhaps all three approaches for Black are viable, depending on your view of the theory, and how you like to defend your gambit lines.

Moskalenko favours what he calls a 'Black jet' approach, taking an active stance on the King's-side and harassing the White Queen.


Duras variation 9.Bc1

This move retreats all the way while having designs on the a3-f8 diagonal.


Psakhis again assesses this line as 'with compensation', which may or may not be satisfactory for White.


An attempt at normaility: Qxd2

White is by no means obliged to play Qg4, and keeping her majesty at home allows her to recapture on d2.  Play is more sober but White cannot hope for much with such a poor structure.


There is a way to try and get the best of both worlds, following Qg4 with Qf4:


Fidgety Bishops II: 6.Bc1 and 6.Be3

These moves have similar motives as on move 9: to retain the Bishop pair, strand the black Knight on e4, and offer a gambit of the c-pawn.

Olland variation 6.Bc1

This has often been dismissed but is equally often revived...  Pedersen once tripped over this line as Black and struggled, so when he came to review the Mac he took care to 'solve' the problem of this variation, quoting this game (which is findable by searching on the name of the Black player instead of Rytschagov/Rõtšagov):


Psakhis treats it with respect and concludes that Black's problems cannot be dealt with so easily: in particular, he cautions that 15.Qg3 leads to a White initiative.  I was duffed up in this line by Mike Yeo at Torbay last year, since, while I knew of the existence of 6.Bc1 I also had a touching optimism that all problems could be solved over the board.  (Not true...

)  However, a couple of rounds later, Richard Cannon played Pedersen's recipe and the well-schooled Yeo produced Psakhis' recommendation... without a definite result.


In fact, this fancy line may not be necessary: ...Bxc3 and ...Ba5 are both playable if sharp.


Janowsky variation 6.Be3

Again, says Psakhis, this is a serious bid for the advantage.  I haven't yet had it played against me*, but it may be a better try for White than the Lasker line.  Black still has plenty of resources:


Moskalenko has recently described a 'new' (old) idea which seems to hold after a fashion, although I'm not sure I fancy it:


Since Moskalenko published his book, it seems to have cropped up a bit more often, so you are vulnerable to a TN here.  For example, would you be prepared to meet 8.h4!? h5! 9.hxg5!? ...? (I'm not sure "!?" quite captures the spirit of that move; it's one of Shirov's, so perhaps one day his innovations will be assigned a symbol all their own.)

* P.S. Just had it in the club championship!  The Mac is also a favourite of my opponent, so of course I faced the strongest line...  I tried reproducing the Byrne-Shipman line but showing good judgment Phil recaptured on d4 with a piece and I really struggled to do anything useful after that, and was lucky to escape with a draw.  So, next time it's either Mosklalenko's Black Jet or the chewy main line.


Other White dodges at move 6.

Bernstein's 6.Bh4
Again often dismissed, but the very natural try in the next game led to a convincing win for White:


So, more recently Black has turned to the unobvious try 8...f5:


Tchigorin Variation 6.exf6

Obviously crucial if it works, but also not any sort of refutation.  I was disappointed to think that Black would have to try and untangle a mess rather slowly after the variation given in the following game:


But when asked the question, The Moz recommends that we play simply and dynamically ...


White dodges at move 5: 5.exd5, 5.Nge2 and others.

[Igor Glek] is an expert in the MacCutcheon variation of the French. That stood him in good stead, as Glek wrote in the French magazine Europe Echecs, in 1988 when he was doing his military service in Russia. At that time Anatoly Karpov was playing for the Red Army team. Karpov asked Glek for advice about what to play with white against the MacCutcheon. Glek compiled a small file on the line that starts with 5. e4xd5, which of course is not a refutation of the MacCutcheon, but very safe and, according to Glek, gives white good prospects for a minimal positional advantage. "Just what I needed," Karpov said. -- Hans REE

Again, I had concluded that Black would get a slightly worse but tenable play, but recent games have shown some reasonable chances for the defender:




A similar attempt to stifle Black's play: I imagine Black can equalise quite happily after the game continuation but getting counterplay is something else.



At the moment, these all seem inconsequential.  Fingers crossed...


Lasker used this in his match against Tarrasch, with not bad results but these could not be credited to the opening.



Lasker also tried this against Tarrasch.  Note the move order in the following game, which quite often yields a classical French.


After Qg4, the King slide ...Kf8

Living legend Viktor Korchnoi (another man hard to find in a database! Kortsnoj, Kortschnoi...) played ...g6 in his youth, but ...Kf8 later; the King move seems to lead to more complex play and so is a better way to play for a win (or just a more interesting game).  It's not a way of playing I think I understand, but be my guest!





Tim Harding: The Classical French (Batsford 1991)

W John Lutes: French MacCutcheon (Chess Enterprises 2001)

Steffen Pedersen: The Main Line French 3.Nc3 (Gambit 2001)

James Eade: Remember the MacCutcheon! (Chess Enterprises 2002)

Lev Psakhis:  French Defence -- Steinitz Classical and other systems (Batsford 2004)

Viktor Moskalenko: The Flexible French (New in Chess 2008)

Justin Horton once asked for a book on the Mac, but this begs the question of purpose.  Eade's Remember the MacCutcheon! is a great introduction, giving you a feel for the line in a way few opening books do by describing the emotional journey of his games, as well as throwing in a brisk summary of the theory (a book which deserves the exclamation point awarded on its title page).  Psakhis' book is not exclusively a treatise on the Mac, but is as thorough and authoritative as one could wish.  And Lutes' is a neglected gem, throwing in a huge amount of antiquarian material on the French in general and a lot of non-English-language sources on the Mac.  He refrains from offering his own opinions as to the best routes, but provides you with the most detailed map of the terrain.  Lastly, Moskalenko's book is a passionate and partial look at the French, including a nice chapter on the Mac with lots of original suggestions.

Chess Quotes

"The loser is always at fault."
— -- PANOV