Monday, September 13, 2010

The Killer French: A Review

Simon Williams: the Ginger GM. Grandmaster since Hastings 2008; S&BC Blog interviewee [I, II, III]; and, as of January this year, producer of his own range of chess DVDs. I thought Williams' first offering, The Killer Dutch, was really rather good so I was very pleased to receive review copies of his latest release, The Killer French Parts I and II.

I’ve played the French off and on for more than twenty years now and have already collected (far too) many books on the opening. True, I only played it on one occasion last year (and that by transposition from a c3-Sicilian) and was planning to try 1. … g6 against 1. e4 in the coming season, but I’m always curious as to the latest goings on in this old favourite of mine.

I was also very interested to see how a new DVD would get on in a marketplace that already contains a number of options for club chessers interested in exploring the French Defence. There's Viktor Moskalenko’s highly regarded The Flexible French from 2008; The Wonderful Winawer, by the same author, is due out later this year; Vitiugov’s The French Defence and McDonald’s How to play against 1. e4 for a start and Chessbase alone have four separate products that cover the French Defence out at the moment.

It was with some anticipation, then, that I began to watch these DVDs. Long story short: I was far from disappointed with the result. For those who want more detail, in what follows I'll take a look at technical and presentational issues; give an outline of Williams' suggested repertoire; examine The Killer French's treatment of the four main branches of the French (Advance, Tarrasch, Winawer and Exchange) in some detail; and, finally, conclude with a discussion regarding the depth of coverage of these DVDs and some issues that arise regarding the nature of Williams' repertoire choices. Those amongst our esteemed and most valued readership who lack either the time or inclination (or both) to read through that lot may wish to fast forward until they see Clouseau and just take a look at the summary.


At the risk of stating the obvious, The Killer French (hereafter TKF) is a DVD: a video lecture that teaches a repertoire for Black based on the opening moves 1. e4 e6, 2. d4 d5. The two discs in the set can be bought either separately for £19.95 each or as a pair for £35; the first lasts approximately four and a half hours, the second around five.

What may be less immediately apparent is that the TKF can be played on a standard DVD machine. For me, this is already a big plus: a return to how things used to be in the early days of such products. Goodness knows why Chessbase switched to making DVDs that can only be viewed on a computer. Isn’t it obvious that sitting on a sofa watching a widescreen TV is infinitely more appealing than sitting at a desk peering at a computer screen?

Anyhoo, for the vast majority of this DVD set we find Williams on the right-hand side of our screens and a computer generated chessboard (the graphics familiar to anybody who plays on Chesscube) on the left. Those who have already seen Williams’ first DVD will not be surprised to learn that the production values for TKF are very high. The overhead shots of the chessboard have gone, which I think is rather a shame, but a scrolling text bar has been added which helps to underline the significance of certain points. It’s not particularly easy both to read and listen to the GingerGM at the same time, but I quickly discovered that a judicious use of the rewind button allowed me to do first one then the other.

While TKF is certainly very good from a technical point of view, it should also be said that Williams himself has a very likeable on-screen presence and he presents the material in a highly engaging manner. A few minor niggles aside (I noticed a couple of Chapter Title screens that appeared in the wrong place; I’d prefer full game references e.g. not just Grischuk v Short but the year [2000] and tournament [Reykjavik] too) it’s hard to fault TKF from a technical or presentational point of view and I suspect that it would not be found lacking if put up against any other DVD on the market right now.

The Repertoire

So what of the actual material Williams is trying to teach us? The TKF repertoire is based around the following choices:

Disc One
Advance: 5. … Bd7
Tarrasch: 3. … Nf6

Disc Two
3. Nc3: Winawer, Poisoned Pawn Variation

Disc Two also includes suggestions on how to meet those choices that are less popular at the higher levels but are frequently wheeled out at club level: Exchange; King’s Indian Attack; Wing Gambit; 2. b3; set-ups based on 2. Nf3, 3. Nc3; and, last but not least, the Wankers’ Gambit (really) are all covered here.

The structure is consistent throughout with each chapter consisting of an overview, a pair of illustrative games and a theory section, Williams using the latter to add some concrete detail to the themes and variations that have been described in the earlier segments. It’s an organisation of material that works well and it’s self-evident that plenty of thought has gone into the making of this DVD.

Not only is the material arranged in a highly user-friendly way, the repertoire itself is entirely consistent and coherent. “Attack is the best form of defence” is Williams’ motto and in every line he endeavours to find the most active/aggressive/challenging response that Black can muster. Pieces are sacrificed to destroy White’s pawn centre; exchanges given up on f3 and elsewhere (I suspect TKF sets a new record for the number of exchange sacrifices given in a set of DVDs devoted to opening theory); g- and h- pawns hurled forward and kings left to fend for themselves in the centre of the board. In fact in some lines you seem to have to adopt all of these strategies except the kingside pawn storm – and you’d probably be doing that too if you hadn’t already given away all your foot soldiers on that side of the board. Fort Knox, it ain’t!

It’s the sort of repertoire, then, that you might expect from a man who’s favoured the Classical Dutch for more than two decades. That said, it’s worth noting that while some might consider the recommendations aggressive, bordering on somewhat risky, they are at least moves that Williams has been prepared to play himself. References to the GingerGM’s own games abound throughout the DVD which certainly helps build confidence that his suggestions are not just outright unsound.

A Closer Look

It’s time to explore TKF in a little more depth. Here, though, I face the problem inherent in reviewing any product. It’s clearly not possible to discuss a product in any meaningful way without making specific reference to its content, but give away too much detail and nobody need bother actually buy the thing. In an attempt to square this circle I will try to reveal the flavour of Williams’ suggested repertoire through references to both my own games as well as some top-level encounters. Hopefully this should give any potential purchasers enough information to be able to decide whether or not they want to add these DVDs to their collection.


After some introductory comments Williams opens DVD One by taking a look at the Advance Variation. This is probably the right choice: these d4-e5/e6-d5 interlocking pawn structures crop up everywhere in the French and if you don’t like the positions that arise here you probably shouldn’t be playing 1. … e6 in the first place.

Black’s choice in the main lines of the Advance pretty much boils down to a decision over whether to play 5. … Bd7 or 5. … Qb6 after 1. e4 e6, 2. d4 d5, 3. e5 c5, 4. c3 Nc6, 5. Nf3.

I must confess that the subtleties that inform this particular decision are more or less entirely lost on me. 5. … Qb6 seems to get quick pressure against d4 after 6. Be2, but the queen may be misplaced after 6. a3 so delaying a choice about where to place her majesty and playing 5. … Bd7 is possibly better when White advances on the queenside. The tricky bit, needless to say, is that you don’t know what White’s going to play on the sixth move when you play your fifth!

I suspect the choice here is a matter of taste: a judgement over which of 5. … Qb6, 6. a3 or 5. … Bd7, Be2 bothers you the least. That said, I’m not sure that either line necessarily leads to a disadvantage for Black. My personal preference is usually … Qb6 although … Bd7, Williams’ recommendation, seems to be the more popular choice since Korchnoi brought it back into fashion in the 1970s.

The position after eight moves in the Spassky-Korchnoi game looks pretty normal to modern eyes. It’s funny to think that it could have been unfamiliar even to Grandmasters as recently as thirty years ago.

TKF’s coverage of the Advance is largely very good although I will have something to say about the omission of some sidelines (mostly White’s alternatives to c3 at move four) a little later.

“… if Black wants to enjoy the natural spirit of the French Defence he should continue 3. … Nf6!?. As usual, the pressure on e4 forces White to close the centre with 4. e5 … After 4. … Nfd7 … the genuinely French (temporarily blocked) positions arise.”

Viktor Moskalenko: The Flexible French

True that, as they say on The Wire. Of all Williams’ repertoire choices, his main line against the Tarrasch Variation is probably the only one that I’ve often played myself. It was pleasing, then, to see his main line head for this position

which used to be known as the starting point of the Keene-Timman variation (and may still be for all I know). Regular visitors to our humble blog may recall that we posted an example of RDK playing this line back in January. Raymondo’s 13. … Ng4 turned out to have a flaw and has long since been forgotten so TKF, unsurprisingly, follows a different path.

Evidently theory has move on a fair bit since I last studied this branch of the Tarrasch in any depth (there’s certainly plenty of stuff on the DVD that’s new to me) but, nevertheless, I think that a game I played back in 2003 still does a decent job of highlighting some themes that regularly crop up in this line.

Two codas:

(1) At the time I’d thought that White had played the opening far too passively with not enough action to counter Black’s plans and far too much fannying around (h3, Kh1, a3 etc). However, compare the position at move 22 with Marjanovic-Timman, Sarajevo 1984.

Pretty similar wouldn’t you say? Marjanovic was rated 2525 in 1984 so perhaps my opponent hadn’t been playing that badly after all. That said, I suspect the differences between the diagram and my game are all in the GM’s favour. In particular, the rook is much better placed on c3 from where it does a better job protecting the kingside. (Timman won in the end anyway, mind.)

(2) After the game my opponent described my 12. … a6 as of ‘one of those moves you make when you obviously have no clue what to do next’ and looked rather sceptical when I explained the reasoning behind the move. I’d completely forgotten about that post-mortem exchange until I was reminded of it while watching TKF. At some point Williams talks about the possibility of Black playing a prophylactic … a6 and mentions that several strong players have chosen to play it in various positions in this line over the years. Well call me a person who holds a grudge for far too long if you will, but all I can say is “Up Yours Mr. 108. Vengeance is mine!”


White’s main move against the French, theoretically speaking at least, is 3. Nc3. To counter this Williams recommends taking the bull by the horns and heading straight down the ultra-sharp Poisoned Pawn variation which runs:

1. e4 e6, 2. d4 d5, 3. Nc3 Bb4, 4. e5 c5 (or Ne7), 5. a3 Bxc3+, 6. bxc3 Ne7 (or c5), 7. Qg4 Qc7

and must be the most double-edged, most forcing line in the entire French canon.

Nigel Short once memorably described the second player’s plan in this position thus:

“For want of something better to do, Black often lets his kingside disintegrate with the intention of landing a big cheapo on his opponent in the middlegame”

which is a little harsh if perhaps not that far from the truth of the matter. Vigorous play is essential if Black is to justify the material sacrifice and giving White a dangerous passed pawn. The fellow on h2 might not look very threatening at this stage but I used to play these positions from the White side in my younger days and I won several games (usually via entirely lost positions) through the simple expediency of pushing h2-h4-h5-h6-h7.

Nosher was writing back in 1990: long before engines began to have a significant impact on the analysis of opening variations. Nowadays entering such an incredibly complex, some might say totally mad, variation without a lot of work with a silicon pal should probably be considered somewhere between rather risky and totally foolhardy. Frankly, I find some of these positions rather scary and almost completely uncomprehensible. Perhaps this is because I haven't (yet) been able to spend much time investigating them.

Williams has done a lot of the work for us, but these are high maintenance lines and attempting to play them without a fair degree of preparation is likely to lead to accidents. Still, high risk usually equals high potential reward. For inspiration have a look at Grischuk chopping up Topalov’s Mini-Me at one of the Grand Prix tournaments from 2008. The specific line of the Poisoned Pawn is not the one Williams recommends on the DVD but nevertheless the game is highly representative of the kind of (messy) play that’s likely to arise from following TKF’s suggestions.

While it’s natural to focus on such forcing lines, anybody who wants to play the French should remember that while White’s options on move four and five may be less theoretically challenging they can still be dangerous in a practical game. Here’s me on the wrong side of a miniature against the S&BC Blog’s Art Correspondent Martin Smith:-

Williams does address these sidelines, but, the fact that he gives them a similar amount of attention as they get in Uhlmann's Winning With The French not withstanding, my feeling is that the coverage is a shade skimpy. Again, I’ll come back to this a little further on.


I couldn’t let a review about a DVD on the French go by without a word or two about the interesting (to me, although not the GingerGM it seems) French Exchange. I mentioned last week how Williams’ recommended response to 3. exd5 can lead Black to playing the Exchange variation himself. I just want to add one quick thing here.

Against 3. exd5 exd5, 4. Nf3 TKF suggests a solid system for Black based on the moves …c6, … Bd6, … Nge7. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s always worth having that sort of option in your locker in case of need – but if you like the IQP positions that result from 4. Bd3 c5 why not go for 4. Nf3 Nf6 instead? After 5. Bd3, instead of the 5. … Be7 of Short – Heine Neilsen [TIFE VII] (although I’m sure that must be fine too) we can go 5. … c5 like Kasparov – Korchnoi [TIFE IX] and we’re back in our preferred game. True, White can circumvent our plans with 5. Bg5, but Bohnisch-Uhlmann [TIFE V] shows that the pin, despite my initial concerns, should not be in the least bit threatening.

That’s more than enough on TKF’s coverage of the IFE, I think, except to say that Williams’ pithy summing up of 3. exd5 is rather amusing. “Play chess: the better player should win” he says, before adding, almost as an afterthought, “Hopefully that’s you.”


So that’s what TKF covers. How well does it do it?

A database of relevant games is not included with these DVDs. Nevertheless, in general I’d say the treatment of the opening is very good albeit in a “Starting Out” or “Chess Explained” kind of a way rather than the definitive work of reference style like Watson’s Play The French or many of the books that Quality Chess have been publishing of late.

This is not a criticism of TKF, it’s just the nature of the format: you’ll always find much more information in a book than you will in even the very best DVD. Potential purchasers will no doubt already be aware of this issue, but, anyway, for the most part my feeling is that the information contained in this set of DVDs is entirely sufficient for the vast majority of club players to be able to play the French with confidence. TKF is about explaining the ideas behind the moves and not just teaching theory by rote so studying the material thoroughly should mean that you’re not left completely on your own even when White plays a move not explicitly covered on the DVD.

Nevertheless, I say “for the most part” because there are two particular areas where TKF might have beefed up its coverage. They both concern the difference between what gets played at club level and what appears on the board during Grandmaster games.

Firstly, TKF’s exploration of the Advance variation begins at the position reached after 1. e4 e6, 2. d4 d5, 3. e5 c5, 4. c3 Nc6, 5. Nf3. This is definitely the main theoretical continuation but in my experience club chessers will very often have diverged by this point. There’s 4. Nf3 and 4. Qg4 (both favoured by Nimzowitsch); 4. f4 (Steinitz) and 5. Be3 (Kupreichik). The first two options try to make use of the tempo saved by not playing c2-c3 to launch an attack while in the third Black will end up squished if he doesn’t find a way to immediately challenge the enormous centre that White’s trying to set up. I’ve faced them all over the years and can personally attest that the fact that none of them are particularly challenging from a theoretical perspective doesn’t necessarily make them easy to face in a practical game.

It’s similar with some the sidelines available to White on move four of the Winawer. Here the moves are discussed but there is very little detail. 4. Nge2 and 4. exd5 are covered well enough but 4. Qg4; 4. a3; 4. Bd2; 4. Bd3 and 4. Qd3 get less than ten minutes between them.

"Hardly anyone plays any of these lines”, says Williams, “ ... they're not particularly important.” Not for a GM and/or those playing at a higher level maybe, but, in my experience anyway, at club level White is more likely to go for this sort of thing than head into the main lines with 4. e5 and 5. a3.

The other thing about these variations is that they have the potential to explode into absolute chaos. If you get caught in an unfamiliar line you can sometimes compare the position with something less alien and work out what to do that way. The trouble with some of these move four variations is that they’re often quite unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else. Black rook on g4 by move 7 anyone?

Keeping things in perspective, that’s just two areas where the coverage falls short and it’s also worth noting that more experienced Frenchies will already have such lines worked out by now so won’t be troubled at all by the lack of attention here. Those new to the opening, though, might find themselves coming unstuck if they don’t give these allegedly minor lines some thought before trying the opening out in their games.

Burnout and Reliability?

“I've always had my doubts about you trenchy-type fellows. Always suspected there might be a bit too much of the battle-dodging, nappy-wearing, I'd-rather-have-a-cup-of-tea-than-charge-stark-naked-at-Jerry about you.”

Colonel Melchett, Blackadder IV

If nothing else, hopefully I’ve successfully managed to convey the impression that Williams’ repertoire on TKF is hard-hitting, uncompromising, and, one imagines, every inch the sort of chess that would satisfy even Colonel Melchett. The recommended lines are double-edged in more ways than one, however. Before making your purchase you may want to consider the issues of burnout and reliability.

The nature of very forcing lines is that it’s often not very long before they’ve been mined to the point of exhaustion. Kasparov’s observation that the intensive research into the 10. O-O-O variation of the Bf4 Queen’s Gambit Declined has managed to “scratch the position next to its bottom” is a rather wonderful description of the problem. In older times the evolutionary process was much slower than it is today (blame those bloody iron monsters) and where before it might have taken years of practical games to establish correct play now we can leave Fritz running overnight and all mysteries are solved.

We can hardly have it both ways. We might find a very forcing line of play that is good for Black, but if we do White will eventually either try something else along the way or not let us play it in the first place. The more this process continues, the more moves that are found, the more likely we’ll end up a position where there’s not much left on the board.

The relevance of these musings to TKF? Well, there is one line given that leads to a forced draw (an option to avoid the early bath is given along the way) and some others lead to an endgame with little or no prospect of a Black win unless White helps out with a major blunder or two. It’s hard to see how it could be otherwise - it’s the price you pay for playing lines in which one slip by White can lead him to a clearly worse or even lost position.

So much for burnout. What of reliability?

Some of Williams' suggestions are relatively untried. In particular I have in the mind the recommendation against the 1. e4 e6, 2. d4 d5, 3. Nd2 Nf6, 4. e5 Nfd7, 5. f4 variation of the Tarrasch, a plan which Moskalenko said (admittedly two years ago) has, “… not yet been widely explored”. Similarly, he advocates a sub-variation of the Poisoned Pawn Winawer that, while not new, has certainly been played much less frequently than the mainlines.

The advantages of this approach are obvious: White will likely be less familiar with our opening choices and possibly won’t have prepared a reply at home. Even if they have, a best line of play is less likely to have been established against newer systems.

The drawbacks are equally clear, however: someday somebody might come up with a sequence or a single move that blows a hole in our preparation and knocks a whole line out of commission. There has, for example, already been some talk on chesspub about the ultimate assessment of one of TKF’s suggestions against the Tarrasch.

Again, we can’t have our cake and eat it. If we want to play cutting edge theory, particularly if we are choosing very forcing, aggressive lines, we must accept that the accidents, either theoretical or practical, will happen. This is inevitable and, as before, I don’t regard this issue as necessarily highlighting a weakness or strength of Williams’ repertoire. Again, however, it’s something that prospective purchasers will want to think through before parting with their cash.

I don’t want to give the impression that TKF is all about flashy variations which only work because White is made to play obviously inferior moves. That doesn’t seem to be the case at all. As the most average of average of club chessers, my opinion as to the ultimate soundness of these lines has no real value. However, while I think it’s probably fair to say that Williams’ chessboard risk threshold is probably set a little higher than some would feel comfortable with, Gata Kamsky, for example, has used at least one of the more hazardous lines that you’ll find on TKF in two separate super-GM tournaments and it seems unlikely to me that he would have done so if he thought it outright unsound.


What else is there left to say? Not much I think.

Those who want a definitive reference work or a database of games will want to look elsewhere but TKF could well appeal to nearly all other club chessers. Those significantly higher-rated than me (currently 163 BCF/approx 1954 elo) might find they want/need to supplement the DVD with material from another source; more modestly graded club chessers may want to pay more attention to Advance and Winawer sidelines than Williams does here.

As noted, some may have issues around ‘burnout’ and the relative newness of some of the lines given. I do not, as it happens, but in any event it seems to me the issue is one of the nature of this sort of chess rather than TKF per se. By any standards this DVD set is well made, well presented and will give an enjoyable and entertaining starting point to playing the French Defence the Williams way. Even club chessers who have played 1. … e6 for many years are likely to find something new here and anybody who wants a highly confrontational/counter-attacking 'defence' to 1. e4 in their repertoire could do a lot worse than consider TKF.

It’s traditional, it seems, to end a review by awarding the product a number of stars or perhaps a mark out of ten. I’ve never found that satisfactory, I have to say; never really understood why it would be necessary. If you think what you’ve got to say can be summarised in such a blunt way, why bother to write the review in the first place? If you want to find out what the reviewer thinks why not read the chuffin review?

So no stars from me; no marks out of ten. Instead, I’ll end with the observation that before I watched these DVDs I was a person who had played the French for many years but who was intending to try something else against king's pawn openings in the coming season. Having watched TKF, though, I don’t think I’m going to be able to resist going back to my old favourite after all. The next time I see 1. e4 my response will definitely be 1. ... e6.


Morgan Daniels said...

'...and was planning to try 1. … g6 against 1. e4 in the coming season...'

Good lad!

'Having watched TKF, though, I don’t think I’m going to be able to resist going back to my old favourite after all. The next time I see 1. e4 my response will definitely be 1. ... e6.'

Oh. Boooo.

Jonathan B said...

Just for you Morgan, I'll give 1. ... g6 a punt at least once as well.

Anonymous said...

So what on earth *is* the, erm.....
Self-Pleasurers Gambit then??


Jonathan B said...

Suffice to say, my anonymous friend, that those who favour it will probably go blind.

Scott S said...

I also play the French, and like you I have too many books on it. But because of your excellent review I plan on getting this DVD (and it's great to hear I don't need the computer to play it). Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review, curiously enough I'm reluctant to play the French because the line 3 Nd2 Nf6 (the only one I like against the Tarrasch) 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 Ndf3 Qb6 8 a3, also my option as white. Can you please tell me what is the line that Williams recommends?

Thank you, all the best!
Alfonso, Spain.

Jonathan B said...

I hope you enjoy the DVDs.

Like you, Williams thinks 8. a3 in that line of the Tarrasch is annoying for Black so he avoids it.

Instead he suggests going for an idea of Moskalenko's (apparently) which involves ... cxd4 and ... a5 at some point although I forget the precise position

Anonymous said...

From a player of the White side of the Winawer...

Dare I say, I don't think Cheparinov played that well against Grischuk. I don't think he understood the opening.

Re the comment "entering such an incredibly complex, some might say totally mad, variation without a lot of work with a silicon pal should probably be considered somewhere between rather risky and totally foolhardy": I believe it's important to have a positional understanding. For White, for example: the longer the games goes on the more likely the h pawn is to play a role; try to keep Black's knights at bay and not to allow them to occupy outposts; watch out for sacs on e5; try to swap pieces.


Martin Smith said...

Great review JB, especially as it features (well, mentions in passing) our game of 2003. Actually that 5. dxc5 line in/against the Winawer came from a New in Chess article that year. Can't quite remember what the piece was called....maybe something like "Silent But Deadly".

NK said...

You need to edit your article (excellent review, BTW), but its not Colonel Melchett, he was a General!


Jonathan B said...

Thanks NK, I stand corrected. Can't be arsed to edit the article though.

Glad you liked the review.