He's right, I think: even the UK's foremost French player has struggled in that line. I played it myself, once, in a club game in South Shields, and got away with it, but I doubt I'll give it another go. It was round about the turn of the millennium, when I was playing all sorts of nonsense - but still, I found I liked other versions of the French (the MacCutcheon, the ...Be7 Tarrasch) enough to keep on playing it, now and then, whenever I wanted a break from 1. e4 e5.
Not for the first time in my life, it seems that I was getting into something just when everybody else was getting out, because if there was a surge of enthusiasm for the French Defence, at about that time, the surge stopped surging when I joined it. We've not seen much of the French, at the highest level, in the past few years. At the highest level of all, we've not seen it since 1978.
This is the twenty-second game of the 1978 world championship match, with the greatest-ever exponent of the French Defence very fortunate to hold the draw (42. Rxa4 would have been an easy win). Ray writes of the opening:
it was clear that he still had not found a satisfactory defence with Blackand it was certainly the last time he rolled it out (a decision he perhaps regretted after the debacle of the final game). But he didn't play it in 1981 either, much to the surprise to those of us who grew up watching him hold Karpov to draw after draw.
Perhaps it would all have been different if Korchnoi had squeezed out one more draw in 1978 and gone on to win the match. World champions set fashions and Karpov never had a lot of time for the French: he did play it three times as world champion, but two of those were short and possibly pre-arranged draws, while the other was a disaster which (if Cafferty and Taimanov are to be believed) may have owed a lot to an assumption on Karpov's part that he was not engaged in a serious contest.
Karpov described this as the first French of his career (which is correct, if you discount transpositions and games played before his teens) which is not only one more than his predecessor could be bothered with, but one more than his great successor managed, if we exclude blitz games, non-human opponents and transpositions. Disdain for the French Defence (did Kasparov say "3. Nd2 is good enough to win, but 3. Nc3 is better"?) monopolised the world title from 1972 to 2000.
Botvinnik was a master of the opening, Petrosian was fond of it and even Spassky, not its greatest admirer, employed it to win a Candidates match on the way to the title. But no enthusiast for the French (and it's more than a stretch to call Spassky that) has held the title since.
Kramnik stopped playing the French before he won the title. So did Anand, one rapid game aside, provided it's the canonical title we're talking about - he had a few goes while the holder of the FIDE crown - and Carlsen has just the one rapid game with it since he's been the champion.
Nor did Nigel Short play it against Kasparov (or in the Candidates series preceding that match, albeit only Timman of his opponents was a 1.e4 player). True, Radjabov beat Kasparov with the French in 2003, not a defeat the loser took particularly well, and Morozevich was still beating good players with it a few years later.
The Classical French, at least, had experienced a bit of a revival at the end of the previous decade, not least due to Morozevich's own efforts, and players like Lputian continued to keep the Winawer afloat, though he retired a few years ago. Of course it's not been abandoned, as such - the French still gets played by grandmasters, still has plenty of friends on the tournament circuit, still remains the subject of well-received books by well-regarded authors
though we're still waiting for a good book that's purely about the MacCutcheon. The French remains a perfectly playable opening for the likes of me - and for rather better players than me as well.
But still, it's striking. More than striking. Since that game in 1978 - and the ten games after it in the same match - we've seen sixteen world championship matches. Korchnoi played Karpov again. Karpov played Kasparov five times, then Short, Anand and Kramnik once apiece. Kramnik played Leko, Topalov and Anand. Anand played Topalov, Gelfand and then Carlsen twice. Sixteen matches and a bit - by my count, three hundred and eight games at normal time limits and eight at faster rates.
Of those three hundred and sixteen games, not one has been a French.
How come? Whatever happened to the French Defence?
[EDIT 28 December: readers might be interested in this Reddit thread on the same subject, which I didn't know about when writing the post. In particular see Svidler talking about the opening.]
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