The propensity of amateur players to default to the French Exchange variation basically killed my love of (what actually is) a great opening. Sadly I would estimate easily 50% of my games in the French were exchange variations. Now before any readers jump on me and say “hey Jon, the french exchange is a great opening you just don’t play it like Anatoly Karpov“, I know that. Thats my point.
Unless you plan on playing like a Super GM then the French Exchange variation is boring at amateur levels as piece after piece is removed from the board and hands are quickly shaken.
Well my experience in the French has always rankled me and having written a piece several weeks ago on avoiding symmetry in another bane of the amateur chess scene, I got round to asking myself why I should simply accept the symmetry in the French Exchange. Having dabbled with the the nf6 Scandinavian recently I initially toyed with the idea of ignoring the capture 3. exe5 and playing Icelandic Gambit style with 3. Nf6.
Note to self: The French Exchange is not the Icelandic Gambit!
I quickly came to the conclusion that this move is rubbish! The best that can be said is that it gives white a pawn. Lets move on.
The Scandi-French Exchange?!
However, contemplating the Scandinavian did make me ask the question why not simply capture with the queen on move 3 instead of the e pawn?
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 Qxd5?!
“Why does everyone recapture with the e-pawn?” he says…
In theory it shouldn’t be terrible as its a bit like a Scandinavian defence and if John Bartholomew says its ok to retreat a queen to d8 then who am I to argue?!
A quick look at the statistics in the database shows I’m not completely insane:
- Played 911 times
- White scores 54%
The numbers are encouraging and straight away could we be looking at a way to mix up the position and avoid the symmetry and exchanges so associated with the French Exchange?
The obvious follow up for White is 4. Nc3 (as played in 614 games). Instead of retreating the Queen though we do have an interesting resource of 4…Bb4 (as played in 719 games – I suspect we are in transposition territory here but thats encouraging as it means we are moving further away from the French Exchange right?!).
From this position there are a range of moves available but two in particular stand out and cause me concerns for the player of the black pieces:
#1 – 5. Nf3: Played in 465 games and scoring 61%
#2 – 5. Qg4: Played in 56 games and scoring 67%
#1 – 5.Nf3
For the sake of this article I am not going to explore the myriad of move options available to white in the nf3 lines. As I am sure you can appreciate, if the white player so wishes they can just start to play normal developing moves such as Bd3, 0 – 0 whilst there appears to be some favourable statistics for Black if they fianchetto their Queen’s bishop with an early b6. I have included one line that demonstrates a potential route that hopefully highlights how far removed from the “traditional” symmetry of a French Exchange this position is:
1.e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 Qxd5?! 4. Nc3 Bb4 5. Nf3 Nf6 6. Bd3 b6 7. 0-0-0 Bxc3 8. bxc3 Bb7
A different kind of position to the usual French Exchange and both players have plans ahead.
#2 – 5. Qg4
But what we really need to look at in detail is 4. Qg4. With this move scoring an impressive 67% is our early queen manoeuvre already busted? I’ve faced early Qg4’s in the past against other lines in the French and its never that fun. White’s threat is the g7 square, whilst preventing development of the g8 knight. Hmmm. There is however a remarkable, hard to see, unintuitive move (in my opinion) that suddenly holds this position together for Black.
5…Nc6 miraculous defends the h8 rook by threatening the d4 pawn!
Defend the kingside by developing on the queenside obviously! Now if White takes on g7 then the d4 pawn drops and the rook on h8 is also defended. All for the added benefit of developing a new piece. As you can tell, I like this move.
White spends a tempo defending d4 with 6.Nf3 followed by 6…Ne7. In the database I found 10 games in this position and the computer evaluation is unbelievably close to 0.00.
White has tried:
- 7.Bd2 – 6 games (-0.20 evaluation)
- 7.Qxg7 – 4 games (0.00 evaluation)
- 7. a3 – 0 games (but seems reasonable to me – 0.00 evaluation)
As with the 4.Nf3 lines, I am not going to explore every variation in this article but again it seems to me that Black finds themselves in an equal position, lots of play on the board and with some opportunities to complicate by giving up the g7 pawn. It certainly feels like we are a long way from the French Exchange that the player of the White pieces wanted to take us into.
There is obviously a lot more detailed analysis to be conducted on this “Scandi-French Exchange” but on first glance I like what I see, particularly for the amateur player. A quick Google revealed that none other than Hikaru Nakamura has been known to try it in blitz. To be fair he is one of the best blitz players on the planet so he could probably play anything but hey, I take it as an endorcement.
I’m sure there must be some weakness to this treatment of the French Exchange but initial review suggests its likely to be that White is not really threatened and follows simple, easy development and both players get a playable game. The move 5…nc6 seems to remove the sting from whites most trying response of 4. Qg4, which is a relief.
In terms of our objectives of avoiding symmetry and exchanges:
- The e file remains closed (a common problem in the French Exchange)
- The position is unsymmetrical with different plans available to both players
- Amateur (sub-2000) players will be out of their (very small) French Exchange book
Finally I will leave you with an entertaining 18 move game that I found in this line (admittedly through transposition) from the Pardubice Czech Open in 2007 which shows some of the bite in this line for black.
Jon is the Editor of The Bristol Chess Times and Publicity and Recruitment Officer for The Bristol & District Chess League. He plays for Horfield Chess Club and has been known to play 1. b3 on occasion.