Beating the boredom in the French Exchange

Several years ago I was an avid French Defence player.  For several seasons in the league and congresses my default move against the kings pawn was to push 1…e6.  Its a great opening with dozens of fascinating variations and different plans and systems.  In the world of amateur chess thou there was just one problem.  No one would let me play these lines.  Instead, anyone below 2000 would make me play the exchange variation, my dreams of exciting double edged positions that I was familiar with dashed by move three.  If only there was a way to avoid the symmetry, avoid the exchanges, avoid the tedium of the exchange positions at amateur level.  Lets give it a go…

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?!

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 22.11.40

“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%

Or

#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!

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.

Conclusion

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.

Lovely stuff!


mecircle

Jon Fisher

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.

 

 

 

 

How not to play the Icelandic Gambit

Sometimes you play a game, irrespective of the result, that reminds you why you love chess. Ive been playing the nf6 Scandinavian for about 18 months but have yet to play the exciting Icelandic Gambit over the board. Fortunately I found myself facing an open minded opponent who was more than wiling to dive into complications.  I found the game very instructional from a psychological as well as theoretical perspective.  Lets take a look.

icelandgambit

Would the Icelandic Gambit offer an exciting tactical mess of a game?  Yes.  If Black knew how to play it…

The game was Board 6 of the Horfield (my team) vs. Clifton match of Division 1 of the Bristol & District Chess League. My opponent was Anton Muller who has virtually the same grade as myself (and attacking mentality).  My thanks to him for the game and permission to share.

So a great escape that highlighted all the great human elements of chess.  Throughout the game the plans and stories that I told myself led to inferior positions as I misplayed the opening and drifted into an inferior middle game.  However, in the end it was clock that was my friend not the position and the old adage of the person who makes the penultimate mistake wins.

Perhaps the most instructive lesson for me was the psychology of realising your position is busted but still has dynamic potential.  In my opinion the move 25.Nxf2 was probably the best move I played in the game and yet it actually results in a +5.00 swing to my opponent in the evaluation.

With regards to the opening, if you are interested in the Icelandic gambit then I hope this example game helps you learn how not to play the 6. Bd2 lines.  I feel I should have played Nc6 early on when he offered a queen swop and after recapturing then I would have had an immediate threat on c2.  it just didn’t feel very gambit like.

My thanks (and apologies) to my opponent for the game.  Fortunately the match result was 3 – 3 so everyone saved face in the end.


mecircle

Jon Fisher

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.

Gambit night is back!

Its a well known fact that Gambit Night is one of the crazier nights in the Bristol chess calendar. This fun night from North Bristol Chess Club is rapidly becoming a summer tradition so the Bristol Chess Times endeavoured to find out some more.

Im ashamed to say that Gambit Night is the only Bristol Tournament I have never played in after 13yrs in the league.  Its not a deliberate thing, more a timing issue over the summer months as I’ve often been away or unavailable. So what is Gambit night?

Gambit Night is an evening of blitz with a twist.  At the start of every game the players choose a card with a random gambit written on it. The players are forced to set up the board from the position on the card and then the clocks are started (10 minutes)! Im told that much crazy crazy play follows and it is especially a great leveller between players of different skill. For a league that prides itself on a very high standard of serious chess, the North Bristol CC Gambit Night provides a well established tradition of tongue in cheek chess with a healthy dose of fun (and swearing).  To top it all off the North Bristol crew only charge a modest £3 charge for a full evening of gambit mayhem. Bargain!

To honour this upcoming crazy night in the Bristol chess calendar I decided to look at some dubious gambits with a Bristol twist.  Lets start with “The Clifton Gambit” which stems from a correspondence match between Clifton and Dublin chess clubs in the 19th century.  It took me a while to translate this gambit from the old style notation recorded on the Clifton website and to be honest was left a little cold with its lack of immediate craziness.

The Clifton Gambit

  1. e4 e5 2. f4 pxp 3. Be2?!

cliftongambit

Just what exactly is white gaining from this move?  A quick scan of the statistics shows white scores 51% whilst the computer shows  a score of -1.2 so quite frankly I’m unimpressed.  If you are going to gambit then atleast lets get some dynamic compensation going.  Maybe I’m missing something…

In my quest for a crazy dynamic gambit I was reminded of Horfield’s Mike Harris (Bristol Chess Times first correspondent who will be attending Gambit night and reporting back on his findings) love of the Latvian.  Mike will literally play anything in the Latvian so I’ve just chosen the best gambit I could find with the stupidest name.  Ladies and Gentlemen I give you The Lobster Gambit.

The Lobster Gambit

  1. e4 e5 2.nf3 f5 3. g4?!

lobstergambit

Lovely stuff! Now thats a gambit I can get behind! What a lovely claw shape! Heres hoping North Bristol CC are paying attention and add this crustacean to their deck of gambit cards in the next couple of days.

Ill be honest that my knowledge of Bristolian themed gambits is limited so I welcome any thoughts from longer serving league members than myself.  The final (tenuous) Bristolian connection I could find was the Wing Gambit of the Bishops opening, purely based on Bristol’s proud aeronautical heritage with Conchord. Like I said tenuous.

The Wing Gambit

  1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Bc5 b4

winggambit

This remarkable move scores a nice healthy 60% with white (from 94 games) and only scores -0.52 with computer analysis.  Dare I say that in the context of a standard club player, then this might actually be sound?! Heres hoping for picking this card at Gambit Night!

So that ends our tour of Bristol themed gambits.  Im sure more knowledgable heads than me may have other crazy lines with a west country twist so feel free to leave a comment below!

Gambit Night is on the 3rd August this year at the Ratepayers Arms, Filton.  The first round starts at 19:45 and entries are accepted on the night. Any questions (and special thanks) can be directed to Steve Woolgar: knightskies@sky.com.

Lets go burn some pawns!


mecircle

Jon Fisher

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.