The blocked French structures have fascinated me ever since my early teen-age. The feeling became more complex when I started to play this opening regularly.
The typical thinking scenario consists of a move by move plan choices on either wing. It feels like if having a busy agenda and having to identify the right priorities. If Black manages to do everything right, there can be such pleasant strategic reward, but things do not always run our way as the typical positions are enormously complicated. Winning with the French offers one the highest creative and aesthetical delight, but when things turn the other way around it can be the worst nightmare.
The game below, played in the last (yet) Candidates’ round is a good illustration of all these.
Vachier-Lagrave,Maxime (2767) – Nepomniachtchi,Ian (2774) [C18]
FIDE Candidates 2020 Yekaterinburg (7.2), 25.03.2020
Even though the French is part of Nepo’s repertoire, my subjective feeling is that not all the resulting positions suit his style. He is an active, concrete, dynamic, player, who gladly embarks forced opening lines (even when he is caught by surprise as in the first round with Giri).
2.d4 d5 3.Nc3
Even though Vachier has played this before, his main line seems to be 3.Nd2.
3…Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne7
I assume that Nepo expected 7.Qg4 as played by his opponent a couple of times before. This usually leads to huge complications, in which the Russian player tends to feel comfortable.
The French player’s move is aggressive in a wide meaning, but it avoids early complications. Quite a smart choice as it will turn out, even though for a while Nepo will continue blitzing out his opening moves.
7…Qc7 8.h5 h6 9.Rb1
A relatively rare move, which did not slow down Black’s playing rhythm, though.
The main move is 9.Nf3 but this absolves Black of early kingside problems.
The other way to secure the queenside is 9.Bd2 when play can go: 9…b6 10.Qg4 Kf8 11.Rh3 Ba6 12.Rf3 Threatening Qxe6. 12…Qc6 13.Qf4 Qe8 as played by Drasko twice.
An unusual way to defend the pawn.
10…Kf8 is more typical. True, White can start an attack along the f-file, but Black’s counterplay should not be neglected: 11.Rh3 Ba6 12.Rf3 Nf5. With Bd2 instead of Rb1 this would not work. But now White will be hanging in a certain line. 13.Qf4 cxd4! 14.g4 (The point is that 14.cxd4? Bxf1 15.Kxf1 Qxc2 attacks the rook and threatens …Qd1 mate.) 14…Nh4 15.Rg3 Bxf1 16.Kxf1 dxc3 17.Rh3 Qe7 18.Qh2 g5 19.hxg6 Nxg6 with very unclear play, as White’s position has also been largely damaged.
Trying to spoil Black’s coordination.
11…Bd7?! is passive and after 12.Bd3 the threat Bh7 would be real.
But 11…Kd8 deserves attention. In principle the earlier …Rg8 more or less secures the kingside and the queenside looks like a safer and broader area for the king. 12.Bd3 cxd4 13.cxd4 Ba6 The point is that 14.Bh7 is not dangerous. 14…Nd7! 15.Bd2 (15.Bxg8? Qxc2 leads to queenside trouble for instance 16.Bh7!? g6!) 15…f5! 16.Qh4 (The only way to stay out of troubles. White has to attack and pin the e7–knight. 16.exf6? Nxf6 wins the bishop.) 16…Qxc2 17.Rc1 Qd3 18.Bb4 Qf1+ with a perpetual.
This is the second moment when Black had a difficult decision between moves with similar merits and no obvious drawback. Making such choices over the board can be very confusing, but Nepo had dealt with it at home.
12.Bd3 Ba6 13.dxc5 Bxd3 14.cxd3 Nd7 15.d4 bxc5 16.Qd1
This is by no means an unusual queen retreat. In some lines it can happen at an early stage and immediately after moving to g4. But it was only now that Nepo stopped blitzing and took almost 15 minutes before answering.
This looks just natural in fact.
17.Bd2 Rb8 18.Ne2
And this was Vachier’s first move preceded by a long thought, 16 minutes. White has to keep developing, of course.
It is hard to suggest other move damaging Black’s position to such an extent as this one. On top, it came as a result of 30 minutes thought.
Black not only clears the a3–f8 diagonal for the monster bishop, but also deprives the own queen of the pressure along the f1–a6 diagonal.
It was not too late for redirecting the king towards the comfort area while slowing down White’s development, too: 18…Rxb1 19.Qxb1 Qa6 20.f3 Nc6 21.Kf2 Rh8 Preventing Qh7 in order to prepare …Ke7 possibly followed by …Nb6–c4 with normal play for Black.
19.0–0 Rb6 20.Qc2 Rh8 21.a4
21…Ke8 22.Rb4 Nc6
Vachier spent less than two minutes on this principled decision.
23.Rxb6 Nxb6 24.Ra1 Kd7 25.Bc1 was also good, as unlike in the line above Black would not have the c4–square for his knight.
The knight returns to e7 in order to slow down the pawn attack.
23…Nxb4 offers White an overwhelming attack: 24.cxb4 Qa6 25.b5 Qc8 26.Bb4 followed by f4–f5 soon.
As we will see, this fails to stabilize the kingside.
25.Rb5 Qa6 26.Bc1 Kf7 27.Ba3 Rhb8 28.Bxe7 Kxe7
Black’s position crumbles down already.
29…fxg4 30.Rxb6 Rxb6 31.Rf1 followed by f4–f5 or if allowed Qg6 wins quickly.
30.axb5 Rxb5 31.gxf5 Rxb1+ 32.Qxb1 exf5 33.Ng3 Qb6 34.Nxf5+ Kf8
Pawns are equal, but White’s central pawns are very strong while the pawn on d5 is chronically weak. White is just winning.
35.Qa1 Qe6 36.Ng3 Qg4 37.Kg2 Qxf4 38.Qxa7 Ke7
38…Qg4 loses the pawn on d5: 39.Qa8+ Ke7 40.Qxd5.
39.Qa3+ Kd8 40.Qd6 g5
40…Qd2+ 41.Kh3 Qxc3 allows 42.e6.
40…Ke8 41.Qe6+ Kd8 42.Qxd5 gains a tempo by threatening e5–e6.
41.hxg6 h5 42.g7