Openings

Best French Defense Chess Players

Best French Defense Chess Players

In this article we will see what are the players who have to be your reference point if you are a French Defense players. Inspiration from great players from the past (and present) is a very important way to keep studying and improving your chess skills.

The French Defense is one of the most popular defense among the club players. It’s a fighting and complex battle, where Black in many variations accepts a slightly cramped, but very solid position, and prepares the counter-play underground.

Some very high-profile tournament has also seen the appearance of the French Defense, recently. In particular, the likes of Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura have employed it in a few games (with great results!).

I believe that it’s really helpful to know who are the players that you must follow in order to acquire more knowledge about your favorite Opening.

For example, when you surf the internet and especially some chess tournament report, you would immediately know what players' game check out.

Or, if you have some spare time, you can open your favorite chess software, load in a large database of games, and without wasting any time immediately search the games of a player that you know it’s worth studying, because it’s one of your model players for a certain Opening.

In this spirit, I want to share with you my thoughts about the must-follow French Defense players. Here’s the list of names we are going to look deeper in detail:

  • Víktor Korchnói – The Great. He was World Champion Challenger multiple times (always stopped by Karpov), and he sadly left us in 2016. The French Defense was an extremely dangerous weapon in his hands, and he also used it against the other top-players.
  • Nikita Vitiugov – Probably the best French Defense player in the “young” generation. Vitiugov is a 2700+ Elo player who’s also written two books on the French Defense, and of course has played it very successfully throughout his career.
  • Varuzhan Akobian – He’s a strong American GM, with peak rating above 2680 Elo, who has played the French Defense consistently for more than 20 years now! We’ll look and some of his games too.

We will also take a look at a few model games played by some of the strongest players in the world, who are recognized as French Defense experts.

Best French Defense Players: Viktor Korchnoi

Viktor Korchnoi was an extremely well-known player, both for his fighting spirit and for his strength over the board!

In fact, he won two Candidates Matches Cycle and challenged Karpov for the World Champion Title, in 1978 and 1981. Viktor lost both matches. The first match, in particular, was won by Karpov with the narrowest of the margins, 6 wins to 5, with 21 draws.

Korchnoi won many other tournaments during his career, and also became Senior World Champion in 2006.

He was an outstanding French Defense Player. In fact, he played consistently over 30+ years of professional activity, and with great results.

I want to analyze with you three important model games that Korchnoi played in his best years. These games were played against world-class opponents, and in important events. I studied them because they are also very important in order to study common patterns in the French Defense, and how to handle some typical positions.

Korchnoi Model Game #1

The first game I want to analyze with you is also a very important one from historical perspective.

This game was played against former World Champion Boris Spassky in the Candidates Match. The Opening choice for such an important match says a lot about how much trust Korchnoi had in the French Defense.

Spassky chose to meet Korchnoi’s French with the advanced variation, which is the most uncompromising approach. White immediately grabs space in the center and looks forward to attacking chances on the kingside. Spassky was indeed an attacking player.

The way Korchnoi handled the position teaches us a few key points:

  • If White expands on the Queenside with a3-b4 and then a4 too, then Black should plan ahead in order to meet a4 with a5! After that, if White grabs even more space by playing b5, Black’s Knight will enjoy a nice outpost on b4.
  • The best way to answer White maneuvers on the Kingside is to play the pawn-break f6. It has two objectives: First, creates some space to maneuver Black’s pieces too; Second, if White does not take in f6 then Black has the additional option to play f5, which shuts down the strong Bd3.
  • Although this type of position can explode any time, before the fireworks there will certainly be a maneuvering stage, where it’s important to be familiar with the typical schemes, and the typical squares for the pieces. This game is a good example, because it shows us some good squares: Nb4, Be8-g6, Rc6 and (potentially) Qb6, with indirect pressure on d4.

Here’s the full game, from my LiChess Study page.

Korchnoi Model Game #2

The second Korchnoi’s game that I would like to show to you was played against GM Robert Huebner. Huebner is a German player, now in his 70s, who was a top-player in the 70s and 80s. To give you a better understanding of how strong he was, he ranked number 3 in the FIDE list in 1980!

The game we are going to see was indeed played during the Candidates Match between the two.

Viktor “the Terrible”, as he was called, chose again the French Defense in this important and tense game, as well as throughout the match. Huebner approach in many games was to challenge Korchnoi in the Isolated Queen Pawn.

In fact, if you play the French Defense, be aware that White can easily shift the game towards a Isolated Queen Pawn endgame, so be sure to study those positions.

Huebner did so by choosing the Tarrasch Variation of the French Defense (3. Nd2), and then quickly exchanging a few pawns in the center, leaving Black with the isolated pawn on d5.

He did pretty much everything as the book would say: occupy the d4 square with a piece, exchange a few minor pieces, play on the strong pair of Bishops.

Nonetheless, Black’s position is very solid in this line, and Korchnoi shows why, and how to handle it.

  • Try to keep as many minor pieces as possible. Korchnoi only exchanged one pair of Knights till move 19.
  • Move the Nf6 to e5, and support it with a pawn on f6. From e5, the Knight will control many important squares (for example c4) and limit the action of both White’s Bishops.
  • Keep your mind open to all chances! Korchnoi’s 19 … Bxd4 is an exceptional move, a true example of “thinking out of the box”. More on this in a second.

The nineteenth move of this game is truly astonishing! Korchnoi voluntarily gives up the pair of Bishop, which is considered as an advantage, and he doesn’t even get rid of the isolated pawn!

I think it would be beyond my comprehension to play such a move in a real game… unless I had seen it before! This is the true value of studying games of great players: we learn what moves and what plans can be played in certain types of positions.

Bear in mind: I am not saying that 19 … Bxd4 is a brilliant move that leads to a strategical advantage for Black. Not at all. Black’s position was slightly worse before that move, and it still is after it.

The point here is to acquire the ability to transform positions without changing the evaluation too much. It’s a very important skill to acquire, often called transformation of advantages (or rather, disadvantages, in this game).

Korchnoi, who was also well known for his tenacious defensive skills, decided that he had a good chance to change the character of the positions and that he could hold the position with his strong Knight, despite the isolated pawn and White’s pair of Bishops.

And he was right! Here is the game.

Korchnoi Model Game #3

The third and final game of Viktor Korchnoi that I want to discuss with you was played with another great player, Nigel Short. If you haven’t heard before of Nigel, just know he was World Champion Challenger (and lost against Kasparov) in 1993! One again, exceptionally strong opponent.

Short is known as an attacking player, with a very uncompromising style. Actually, he often chooses off-beat Opening variations. Not this time though! In this game against Korchnoi, he played the mainline of the French, Winawer Variation (3. Bb4).

Korchnoi, clearly well prepared in his favorite Opening, followed the game Sokolov-Jussupov from the Candidates of the same year, in order to improve with 12 … Nb4!?

I analyzed this game quite in some depth, and here are the main insights that I want to share with you:

  • The manouver Qa5-a4 is a well-known theoretical pattern that Black really must remember all over the Opening stage.
  • On one hand, the pawn break f6 is a recurring theme. On the other, this game teaches us that the central pawn formation d5-d6-f6 that arises after White takes e5xf6, is sound and playable for Black.

This game also contains a highlight. Korchnoi played a beautiful strategical exchange sacrifice with the maneuver 20 … Rag8, 21 … Rg4, 22 … Rxh4!!

In return, he got a pawn, a very strong Knight, a perfect outpost for his King (f5) and created several targets in the form of White’s weak pawns.

If you take a picture of the game after Black’s move 30, you can’t not love Black’s position. King and Knights are stronger than all White’s pieces, by themselves! White’s pawn structure is all scattered and basically just a target for Black’s strong pieces.

Here’s the game.

Best French Defense Players: Nikita Vitiugov

Nikita Vitiugov is a Russian GM and world-class player. When I am writing, he is 2730 Elo in the live rating.

Vitiugov has won the gold medal twice (in 2009 and 2013) with the Russian Team at the World Team Chess Championship. He’s also won the Gibraltar Open (arguably the strongest Open Tournament in the World) in 2013.

The French defense is a trademark of Nikita Vitiugov. He’s played it constantly over the last 2 decades, against all kind of opponents. And in fact, he has also written two books on the French Defense! Both of them are published with Chess Starts.

Now, I want to analyze with you three games that he played on the Black side of the French Defense. I have selected these three in the database because in my opinion they are great example of how three main variations of the French Defense should be handled.

Let’s learn a few things from the real experts in the French.

Vitiugov Model Game #1

The first game I want to share with you was played by Vitiugov against no-one-less-than Ian Nepomniachtchi.

“Nepo”, as he’s often called, is another world-class player, born in Russia, who has been quite stable in the top-10, has won important tournaments such as the Russian Championship and the Tal Memorial, and also was in Magnus Carlsen’s team, during one of the World Championship matches that the Norwegian won.

So, any game between these two is certainly a top-match, between two of the strongest GM in the World.

Nepo, who plays a lot of different Opening lines, chose 1. e4 for this game. Vitiugov replied with the French Defense, and the two went on playing the sharpest line of the Winawer Variation, the so called Poisoned Pawn Variation.

Let’s first take a look at the game and then make some analysis.

As you saw, the two played a very topical line of the French Winawer. Vitiugov chose a plan that is not the most common, but performs well statistically: 15 … Kb8 and then 16 … Bc8. In fact, 15 … Nf5 is more common.

After that, Nepo continued with the standard plan to advance the passed h-pawn all the way until h7. Nonetheless, Vitiugov knew how to react and with some clever Knight maneuvers got a very strong attack against the White King.

Let’s draw some more concrete point from the analysis of this game:

  • The maneuver Bc8, b6, Bb7, Na5, Nb7, Nc5, although quite long, is very strong, and totally worth remembering. First, because exchanging the light-square bishop weakens White’s camp. Second, because from c5 the Black Knight put enormous pressure on White King, in particular threatening the central break d3!
  • Even if White’s pawn get all the way to h7, it’s likely that it’s going just to stop there. More often than not, White forces are not coordinated to support that pawn further. Actually, one of White’s Rooks might turn to be tied to its defense. So, with Black, be confident on your position and not scared about the advanced h-pawn.
  • This is well-known, but worth repeating: Knights are the real asset of Black’s position. They aim for d5 and f5 squares, and if they get there under favorable circumstances, then Black is very likely winning. In the game, for example, White could never advance g4-g5 because the Black Knight would get access to f5. White even tried to sacrifice a pawn, playing f5 himself, in order to make that square unavailable for the Knight. Mind about the Nf5 move!

Vitiugov Model Game #2

As second model game in the French Defense, played by Vitiugov, I am going to show you a game he played against GM Ernesto Inarkiev.

Inarkiev is a very strong Russian GM, whose peak rating was 2732 — pretty much on pair with Vitiugov. Inarkiev won the European Chess Championship in 2016, and also won the very strong Moscow Open in 2015. So, definitely, a world-class opposition.

The reason why I chose this game to be in the model games is because here we can see once again the Winawer Variation, but with a completely different approach to the position.

In general, the Winawer Variation can either lead to wild-open and attacking games, or to extremely closed positions, where the maneuvering phase is considerably long, before any fireworks can start.

We saw an example of the former type with the game Nepo-Vitiugov. This game, Inarkiev-Vitiugov, is instead an example of the second type.

Generally speaking, the last word about shutting down the position or not is on Black: he’s the one who decides to play c5-c4 or not.

As you will see in the game, Vitiugov waited to have all pieces in good places before taking such a committal decision, and then he finally played 17 … c4.

After his decision, a long maneuvering stage of the game followed, and only at move 31 the game turned into a wild battle. This is quite a common scenario in those seemingly closed position. Another example of this is the King’s Indian Defense, which I talked about in a previous article.

Let’s now take a look at the game.

And now let’s go through some of the highlights of the game, some key point that is worth remembering to know how to handle similar situations in our games.

  • Inarkiev, in the Opening, tried the classic maneuver Bb5+ followed by Bd3. It’s good to remember how Vitiugov reacted to this plan: Bd7 (to cover the check) followed by Ba4! As we all know, the a4 square is a key square, that should be occupied by Black Queen or Black Bishop, before White manages to play a4.
  • In reply to the advance h4, h5, Vitiugov simply played h6. Not h5, which creates lots of weak squares, but simply h6. Furthermore, as you’ve already seen, the pawn structure also allows Black to plan for Kingside breaks, such as f5 and g6-g5.
  • After Black closed the position with c4, it becomes almost impossible to open lines on the Queenside. This is why Black King is safe on the Queenside, and can go there with the artificial castle Ke8-d7-c7-b7.
  • When the Queenside is being secured, Black shifts his heavy pieces on the Kingside, such as Qg8 and Rbf8, and then continues with the break g6 or g5. This opens lines against White castle. The rest is just story of difficult times for White.

Vitiugov Model Game #3

The third and last Vitiugov’s model French game that I want to discuss with you was played against the Chinese GM Yu Yangyi.

Yu is an exceptionally strong player. Just know that he’s currently number 12 in the world with a rating of 2761 Elo!! He’s has won the Olympic games as well as the World Team Chess Championship playing in second board with China. He truly is a top-player.

In this game against a French Defense expert such as Vitiugov, Yu played the Classic Line of the French Defense, which is also very important to know and master, if you want to have the French Defense in your Opening Repertoire.

The first important moment is a move 7, when Vitiugov played 7 … a6. There is a lot of alternatives to this move, such as 7 … Be7, 7 … cxd4, and even the strange-looking 7 … Rb8. Which one to choose is really a matter of taste, and Vitiugov himself has played different moves in different games.

The second key moment in the Opening is at move 9, when Black played 9 … Bxc5. The alternative, 9 … Nxc5, is far more common, although there’s nothing bad with capturing with the Bishop either.

The next moment I really want to highlight is at move 15. White has started the operations on the Kingside and Black must decide how to react. Vitiugov played the bold 15 … d4!?, surely based on precise calculation, rather than positional intuition.

Let’s now look at the game, before analyzing further.

There are two more points that I want to add to the ones above, that I believe can be useful and practical tips.

  • First, fix in your memory the subtle move 13 … Ra7. Black’s Rook seems not doing much there for a while, until it suddenly becomes extremely useful 5 moves later with 18 … Re7! Generally speaking, is not clear where the Bc8 should go, so it makes sense to develop the Rook from a8 on the seven-th row.
  • Secondly, I think it’s very important to remember the defensive scheme that Vitiugov used against Yu’s attack: f6 first, to challenge White’s center, and then against the pawn-push e6 Black can anchor a Knight in e5. This Knight is definitely as strong as a one of White’s Rook.

Best French Defense Players: Varhuzan Akobian

Varhuzan Akobian is a American GM, who lives in and plays with USA. He was born in Armenia (a small country in East Europe known for the high percentage of strong chess players!).

“Var”, as he’s often called by his chess colleagues, has played the French Defense for more than 20 years now. Furthermore, he has been in the USA Chess Team that has won bronze medal at the Chess Olympiads in 2006 and 2008. He has also shared the first place for the US Championship in 2014. So, definitely a world-class GM.

Akobian has had many successful victories, and some painful loss with the French Defense. To be honest, the latter have mainly happened in recent times against the “fantastic 3” Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura, in some US Championship.

I am now going to show you three model games played by Akobian in the French Defense. These games were played in three US Chess Championship, against famous American GMs such as Walter Browne, Jaan Ehlvest and Yaroslav Zherebukh.

Akobian Model Game #1

The first game I want to analyze with you is a game Akobian played against Walter Browne. If you don’t know who Walter Browne was, just know he won the US Championship six times!

Browne was mainly an attacking player, and indeed in this game against Akobian he chose to meet the French with the Classic System with an early f4, to support the center and prepare a future f5.

This is a common approach, so Akobian was obviously well prepared for it. He placed all his heavy pieces on the semi-open c column, leaving perhaps the Kingside a bit unprotected.

Therefore, Browne went all in and played f5 and then also f6, creating dangerous threats against Black King.

To tell you the truth, I would be very scared to play that position with Black. But not Akobian! He was confident about Black’s defensive resources.

Let’s see what happened in the game, and then make further analysis.

There a few points worth underlining after looking at the game:

  • First of all, if you play the Classic French (3 … Nf6), rather than the Winawer, then be prepared to meet the standard attack with f4-f5 by White. In practice, White can always execute this plan, even when it’s objectively wrong it will give some practical chances. So, you should study the main defensive schemes that Black has. Like the one in this game.
  • Keep in mind the plan to exchange Bishops via a6! This is a very important strategic resource for Black, for many reasons. Two in particular: Black’s Bishop is very bad, and White’s is very strong! Not only it may attack the Kingside from d3, but it also defends the c2 pawn.
  • Again about the c2 pawn, which is pretty much the only target Black can point at, put your pawns in a5-b4, and it will be more difficult for White to play c3, and therefore more difficult to defend on the c column.

Akobian Model Game #2

The second Akobian’s game that I want to present was played against GM Jaan Ehlvest. Ehlvest is not just another GM, he was number 5 in the World in the early 90s'!

The reason why I want to show this game to you is because Ehlvest played a Queen sacrifice that is not very well-know, nor it’s often seen, but I think it’s very important to know it! If someone plays it against you, then you would be happy it’s not the first time in your life you see that idea!

This is why, in the game that I am shared via my LiChess account I also added some brief comment to clarify what is the key position and what is the best defense for Black.

Here’s the game.

Regarding this game there are just a couple of comments that I think it’s important to remember.

  • First of all, the sacrifice is NOT correct. So, if someone plays it against you, just remember you have a winning position and do your best to calculate accurately. Trust you calculation in these situations.
  • Second, the initial pawn sacrifice in d4 is a very common variation (more than 250 games played at high level). So it would be worth taking the time to go through some of these games to see what plans are played by strong players, on both sides.

Akobian Model Game #3

The last model game about the French Defense that I want to show was played in 2017, at the US Chess Championship, between GM Yaroslav Zherebukh and “Var” Akobian.

The reason why I believe this game is important is that it shows a common pawn structure that Black must be happy to play. In other words, in this game Black happily accepted a somehow damaged pawn structure on the Kingside, but gets in return two strong Bishops.

My point here is that, as a French Defense player, you should remember that this structure is sound for Black. If you remember this, then you won’t run away from it during a game, which a great positional understanding to have.

In the game, the strength of Black’s position, and his dominant Bishops pair is really evident, and it certainly must have been for a strong player like Akobian. And indeed, he won the game rapidly and convincingly.

Here’s the game via LiChess.

So, the point I want you to remember is that the doubled pawn f7-f6 are NOT necessarily a weakness, even with the short castle.

A common scenario in a real game, that has happened to me lots of times, is to think about dogmas. For example, if I were in a similar position I would probably try to avoid the doubled pawns, maybe playing Be7 or some other awkward move.

Instead, since now I know that that structure can be sound, I will analyze similar position objectively and base my decision only on my analysis.

It’s very important to get rid of some misconception, such as doubled pawns, bad bishops, etc. and analyze each position objectively. Old classic are right sometimes, but they are also wrong every now and then.

Conclusions

In this article I spoke about some of the Best French Defense Players. I believe that it’s very important to be inspired by great players in the way we handle our favorite Openings.

Studying games of strong players, expert in a Opening that we also have in our Opening Repertoire is a effective way to improve our understanding of certain type of positions. I also wrote a more detailed article about How to Choose A Opening Repertoire, worth checking out!

Have fun!!