Review: The Modern French
Recently a new book on the French was published by New in Chess. Written by GM Dejan Antic and IM Branimir Maksimovic, The Modern French offers a repertoire for anyone who wants to try 1...e6 against 1.e4. Shortly before he headed to the Olympiad in Istanbul, where he'll play first board for Australia, GM David Smerdon wrote a review for us.
IN SHORT: The Modern French is a real treasure-trove of schemes and ideas in the French, delivering a first class lesson on how to understand this complex strategic opening. For the new Francophile, it offers everything necessary for a complete repertoire preparation, and for French aficionados, a deeper look into the positional subtleties of the variations. Unfortunately, the poor structure and formatting of the text will disappoint and repel those looking for an easy read, but for the dedicated student willing to use the book as a work tool, this one comes highly recommended.
Opening books these days come in a variety of guises. The most popular species, of course, is your standard repertoire book: a narrow, straightforward, “against this, you do that” guide for the chess businessman. Then there's your more exhaustive, encyclopaedia-style work that tries to completely disseminate an opening, throwing down every variation in comprehensive detail in a sort of extensive historical walk down an opening’s memory lane. And finally, there's the strategist's favourite: the themed guide, offering patterns, structures, and a general working knowledge of the subtleties of the variations – the chess teacher’s choice.
By GM David Smerdon
This division leaves The Modern French, by Dejan Antic and Branimir Maksimovic, as something of an anomaly, a hybrid creature that seeks to combine the best of all approaches, and very nearly succeeds. The authors (you might know Antic from his writings in Chess Informant and the New In Chess Yearbooks; Maksimovic has been a coach for 30 years and a lifelong French player) have selected their favourite variations for black in offering up their suggested repertoire, and, having played the French at all levels since I was eight years old, I heartily concur with their choices. In my opinion, 3.Nc3 Nf6 and 3.Nd2 Be7 begin two of the most fascinating variations in the French, as well as flaunting the endorsement of many of the world’s top players, including our hero, Alexander Morozevich. (Of course, this means that Winawer or Rubinstein die-hards might have to look elsewhere.)
Rather than dictatorially telling us what to do within each of the variations, however, the authors also go to great pains to cover in comprehensive detail every alternative for both colours - including many for black that they later don’t recommend. Within the McCutcheon (3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Bb4), one of my favourite opening lines,
the authors recommend Kortchnoi’s 8…Kf8 rather than the more popular 8…g6 in the absolute main line with 6.Bd2. This is a tough line for a book to cover, as concrete lines are unimportant and transpositions frequent in this complex positional fight, but the authors do very well in explaining the plans and key motifs in the variation. Moreover, I was very happy to see seven pages devoted to 8…g6 as well, and particularly to my preferred system with …Nc6 and …Qa5, with which I’ve had much success. Their analysis of this and also white’s popular alternatives 6.Be3 and 6.Bc1 is bang up to date and concurs with my own files.
Furthermore, interspersed throughout the book’s heavy analysis are real pearls of wisdom for the reader looking for a deeper strategic insight. Every now and then, Antic and Maksimovic pause to explain key positional motifs that are absolute gold along the path to understanding the strategy and themes behind this complex opening. Consider the following example, where the authors explain the key differences in this important position between the plans beginning with 11...Qb6 and 11...Bb7 respectively:
[After 11…Qb6] Black is threatening the unpleasant pinning after …cxd4 and …Bc5, usually after completing his development with …Bb7 and …Rc8. The main battle is on the central diagonal a7–g1 and the outcome usually determines who will be better off from the opening… Both White and Black would prefer to maintain [the …cd/d4] tension until they successfully complete their development…
“[After …Bb7] the idea is to activate the passive knight via c5, after the exchange of the central pawns, and jump to e4. The bishop provides necessary support from b7. The queen goes to c7, from where it can influence the play on the c-file and help the assault against White’s e5-pawn with …f7-f6. The rooks will be placed on c8 and d8, creating perfect harmony amongst the pieces. White’s superiority on the a7–g1 diagonal is parried by Black’s control on the a8–h1 diagonal, and the play on the f-file can be countered with activity on the c-file.
Despite my years of experience playing the French with both sides, I found myself learning an incredible amount, particularly regarding the ideas behind many of the common ideas that I often employ, but, it turns out, only superficially understand. In fact, so insightful and intuitive are the explanations in this book that, despite being a French ‘lifer’, I felt like I was learning the opening for the first time, and I’m quite excited about putting this new wisdom into action in the future.
I was interested, too, to see what the authors recommend against the King’s Indian Attack, a line that’s always a little annoying for a French or 2…e6 Sicilian player to meet. I’ve always stuck to the standard kingside fianchetto, but their recommendation of an early …b6 followed by …dxe4 is really very sensible: the White player can no longer set up the standard KIA position and play on autopilot, and the action quickly turns to the centre. The coverage of this irritating little sideline is really quite good.
But I am a little surprised by the authors’ decision to ignore a few other sidelines that can pop up from time to time, such as 2.b3, the Wing Gambit and the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit. It’s true that these lines are relatively rare, especially at grandmaster level, and have a dubious reputation, but a lot of club players might have preferred to have all their bases covered in purchasing a book supposedly offering a complete repertoire to 1.e4.
The coverage of the Two Knights’ variation (which can also come about through 5.Nf3 in the Steinitz) is also a little sparse. The main line with 8…f6 9.exf6 Nxf6 is recommended, but White’s newest and most dangerous continuation, 10.Qe2 followed by castling queenside and a quick kingside attack, isn’t mentioned. This is in my opinion a grave omission, and also a little curious given that this ‘Zakharov’ line was extensively covered in Moskalenko’s The Flexible French, one of the books cited in the bibliography.
In their coverage of the Advance variation, I was impressed with the attention the authors gave one of my favourite gambits, the rare 5…Bd7 6.Bd3 cxd4 7.cxd4 Qb6 8.0-0 Nxd4 9.Nbd2!?. This may be because I sprung it against Antic himself back in 2007, but regardless, the authors accurately state that this should be considered the main line of 6.Bd3, and they do a very good job of explaining the sources of White’s compensation and the strategic themes in the lines that follow.
Something of a litmus test for books on the French is how well the authors cover the Exchange variation. 3.exd5 is, in my opinion, a far more serious try for White than most people give assume. I was pleased to discover that The Modern French shows this variation a lot of respect, recommending two of my favourite lines with an early …c5 or quick queenside castling, and offering practical suggestions on how to keep the tension when facing a weaker opponent determined to draw.
One thing I found a little amusing, however, was the authors’ dealing of the same line with colours reversed. After 4.Bd3,
the book recommends 4…c5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.0-0? cxd4 7.Re1+ Be7
[which] led to a total destruction of White’s position
in Teloudis-Graf, 2010, which is quoted in full. However, in the line 4.Nf3 Bd6 5.c4 Nf6 6.Nc3 0-0 7.cxd5 we arrive at the same position but which colours reversed and an extra move (Nf3) for white, after which the authors recommend, not 7…Re8+, but 7…h6, with two pages of further analysis giving the reader the distinct impression that black is better here as well! Of course, it’s hard to believe Black is fundamentally better in the Exchange, but the truth of the matter is probably that the position is unbalanced but probably equal, even with the extra tempo. This is exactly what Black should be seeking in this variation, and so the authors’ recommendation is fully justified.
But before we reach for the ‘Recommended’ stamp, a little warning: this book is certainly not for everyone. The content, as I mentioned, is remarkably astute and of the highest quality, but the same cannot be said of the editing. If you’re looking for an easy read, a simple opening guide, or even just a clear, well-presented chess book that can be devoured on a train or sampled while sitting in a café, steer clear. This is a workman’s book, and as such, requires serious study and a dedication and willingness to work through the thicket.
Unlike, for example, the Everyman ‘Starting Out’ series or the Gambit ‘Chess Explained’ range, this opening book lacks both an easy-to-follow structure and clear repertoire recommendations. Rather than leaving out bad lines for black or breaking up the more dense variations into different sections, the authors instead follow an out dated and cumbersome classification of the variations, leading to lines with ridiculous twelve-point subheadings such as “D1213122”. These subvariations always include many alternatives for black, equally analysed, including those which the authors later dismiss as dubious or just plain bad. So why analyse them to such depths, or even include them at all? More often than not, it’s rarely clear which alternative is recommended until twenty or thirty pages later. The order of variations is no help either; sometimes the best move is listed first and sometimes last, in case the reader didn’t have enough headaches already. Of course, I understand the authors’ desire to give a comprehensive account of each line, and they’ve certainly put a lot of work into it, but it seems there’s a lot of tangled and spurious information for someone looking to learn the opening with the black pieces, which surely must be their target demographic.
The authors (or editors?) could also have taken a leaf out of the Gambit and Everyman templates in recapping the lead-in moves every now and then when a main line resumes. Sometimes it’s a good thirty pages before the secondary subvariations are dealt with, and combined with a lack of white space anywhere in the book to break up the formatting, jumping straight back from move 15 to see “B: 6.Ngf3” can, at times, be a little confusing. Fortunately there is a very useful index of variations, but the text jungle that awaits on every page, combined with a bunch of typos and a couple of incorrect diagrams, and some of the enjoyment is definitely dampened from the reading experience.
Still, formatting should be considered a small issue in relation to a chess book, and it’s hardly the main criteria for comparing The Modern French to the other books on the market for this opening. Interestingly, it’s probably not a New In Chess issue, as NIC also published Moskalenko’s The Flexible French in 2008, which is an excellent read and very easy to follow. However, Moskalenko’s work doesn’t really offer a repertoire, offering instead a bunch of creative and imaginative lines, underpinned by some very reasonable strategic explanation. In that sense, it’s not a bad complement to The Modern French.
Nikita Vitiugov’s The French Defence (2010), John Watson’s Play the French (2003, 3rd edition) and Neil McDonald’s How to Play Against 1.e4 (2008), on the other hand, are far more serious competitors. Of course, when it comes to chess theory, just like technology, the latest stuff always has some sort of theoretical edge, and so Antic and Maksimovic’s work is always going to be hard to beat. However, there are other differences, too.
Vitiugov is the first 2700+ player to write about the French, so if you want that sort of backing behind your books, it might be the way to go. The drawback, though, of having a super grandmaster author is that the ideas and themes aren’t really explained in a way that club players can appreciate, as opposed to The Modern French. Watson, on the other hand, is of course very good at setting out chess strategy and also covers the Winawer as well as 3…Nf6 in his work, but 2003 is a little old by chess theory standards.
McDonald is in my opinion one of the best French teachers around these days and his work is excellent, but I’m not that keen on his 3…b6 recommendation against the Advance variation. Furthermore, even 2008 starts to look a bit ancient in the fast-evolving lines of the main line Steinitz, and some of the key positions covered by Antic and Maksimovic (including some pretty cute novelties) are understandably missing. Still, I was a little surprised that The Modern French didn’t include How to Play Against 1.e4 in its bibliography, especially seeing as both books recommend the same lines against 3.Nc3 and 3.Nd2. Overall, though, this book compares very favourably to its high quality competitors, and, unless you’re dead set on playing the Winawer or Rubenstein variations, is probably is the pick of the bunch from the perspective of 2012.
In conclusion, if you’re prepared to take your time and work through this book, the rewards are definitely there for the taking. I haven’t seen a book on the French give such a thorough dissertation of the strategic underpinnings of the opening since Lev Psakhis’ The Complete French (1992). Unlike the rest of my chess library, my copy of this book is littered with post-its and comments in the margin, and there are always some extra fruits of strategic wisdom waiting to be picked on every re-read. This is hardly the lazy chessplayer’s glass of champagne, but for the true French aficionado or the serious openings student, The Modern French comes highly recommended.
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