Miniatures to Memorize: French Defense – 1: A. Alekhine vs A. Asgeirsson (Reykjavik 1931 Simul)

Miniatures to Memorize is a series of short games (30 moves or fewer) that I highly recommend beginner- and intermediate-level players to commit to memory during their opening preparation. Some games show how to quickly punish your opponent’s natural-looking but inaccurate moves, while others demonstrate how easily you can go wrong and completely blunder your game. Presently, the series covers my favourite openings: the London and Catalan Systems for White and the French, Dutch, and King’s Indian Defenses for Black. I hope you enjoy and learn from these as much as I did.

I strongly urge you to follow along on a physical chess set. In case that is not convenient, and only in that case, use the lichess interface below. In case the interface does not load, you can go directly to the study.

Alekhine punishes the French

The first game in the French Defense series is a cautionary tale. World Champion Alexander Alekhine shows his opponent in a simultaneous exhibition match at Reykjavik, Iceland, how easy it is to find oneself out of preparation within three moves.

Why should you memorize this game?

As White

Being a 1.e4 player, you probably face the 1…e5 or 1…c5 in most of your games. Meaning, there is a good chance you aren’t paying that much attention to the 1…e6 French. If your opponent is well-prepared, they can quickly puncture your position. But you’re already overwhelmed by the extensive theory around your Ruy Lopez, Italian Games, and the countless Sicilian variations.

So, you need an easy-to-learn counter against the French. One strategy is to throw Black off their preparation as early as you can. This means focusing not on the main variations, but on the rather obscure sidelines. This game has become the theory around one such. As of writing, fewer than 5% of French Defense games on lichess, played between players rated under-2000, follow this line and 83% of those games are won by white.

As Black

You already know that the French has the reputation of being a rather “narrow” opening, albeit with a lot of “depth”. Meaning, most games evolve into only a handful of variations (Classical, Advance, Winawer, Tarrasch, and Euwe), though each of these has theory going up to 20 moves. So, you might have convinced yourself that you’ve smartly minimized your preparation time by avoiding all the 1…e5 and 1…c5 theory. You prepare the five variations listed above and chill, as you’re fairly convinced that white probably doesn’t know theory beyond move 5 or 6.

So, you keep winning (unless you blunder your middle- or endgame) until you face an opponent who plays a sideline you never considered memorizing. You will soon find yourself trying to hold on to the general ideas of the French, trying to play it as a system irrespective of White’s moves, trying to make sense of why the same plans aren’t working, and you’ll have a losing position by move 15.

This problem becomes exacerbated, particularly as you move up the ratings ladder. Higher rated opponents may not be fully conversant with the main variations, but they are almost always guaranteed to have one weapon against the annoying French that shows up on their board from time to time.

So, if you’ve made the French a part of your lifelong repertoire, you have to divorce yourself from the “narrow” reputation, and have a general sense of multiple sidelines.

Now, let’s jump into the game.

Pull out your chess set

If you don’t have one, or it is super-inconvenient right now, you can use the lichess interface below. In case you can’t see it, go to the study page directly.

1.e4 e6 And we enter the French territory.

2.Nc3 Alekhine tries to throw his opponent out of preparation with a rarely played continuation of the French Defense. Usual replies are 2.d4 and 2.Nf3

2…d5 Continuing in the typical French Defense style. Though, 2. …c5 might have been a more positional move, preventing d2-d4.

3.d4 Nf6 4.Bg5 Another rare move. The e4-e5 advance is more typical.

4…Be7 Counter-pinning the c3 Knight might have been a better try as Bxf6 can be followed by Qxf6 without damaging the pawn structure. On the other hand, white does run the risk of a doubled c-pawn after Bxc3.

5.Bxf6 Bxf6 6.Nf3 O-O 7.e5 Be7 8.h4 Alekhine is in no hurry to castle. Instead he sets up a deadly trap to pressure the h7 pawn and open the h-file for his rook through a fishing pole maneuver, as eventually did happen in the game.

8…Re8 Asgeirsson probably realized the threat, but his response was to create room for his king to escape. Instead, better response could have been c7-c5, counter-striking in the center. [8…c5 9.dxc5 Nd7 10.Bd3 Nxc5 11.Bxh7+ Kxh7 12.Ng5+ Kg6 (Preventing Qh5) 13.Qg4 Bxg5 14.f4 f5 15.exf6 Kxf6 16.hxg5+ Ke7 and white is only slightly better.]

9.Bd3 c5 Too late. Now, better would have been simply h7-h6, removing the pawn from the target square, and potentially keeping the h-file closed.

10.Bxh7+ Kxh7 11.Ng5+ Bxg5 12.hxg5+ Kg8 Moving up the board is not any better. [12…Kg6 is Mate in 4. Find it as an exercise.]

13.Qh5 Kf8 King starts running away. The rook slide seems to be paying off.

14.O-O-O Getting the king to safety, but more importantly connecting rooks. With the center closed, might double up on the h-file.

14…Ke7 15.g6 Completely busting open the king-side. Remember, this is just move 15.

15…a6 Not sure if this is a waiting move or a passive attempt to prevent the knight from joining the attack on the queen-side via b5.

16.gxf7 Rf8 17.dxc5 Nd7 Attempting to pressure the weak c5 and e5 pawns and also add another defender to the queening square, so the rook can potentially move. The Queen could also be developed to c7 to further pressure the pawns.

18.Rxd5 Although completely winning, maybe Nxd5+ was more forcing as it comes with check. [18.Nxd5+ exd5 19.Qg5+ Nf6 20.Rxd5 Qxd5 21.exf6+ Kxf7 22.Qxd5+ and white is completely winning]

18…Qa5 [18…exd5 19.Nxd5+ Ke6 20.Qg6+ Nf6 (20…Kxd5 walks into Mate in 7. Find it as an exercise.) 21.exf6 Kxd5 22.fxg7 Bg4 23.gxf8=Q Qxf8 24.Qxg4 Kxc5 25.b4+ Kd6 26.Rd1+ Ke7 27.Rd7+ Kf6 28.Qf4+ Ke6 29.Rd3 Rd8 30.Qe4+ Kxf7 31.Qf5+ Ke8 32.Qh5+ Qf7 33.Re3+ Kf8 34.Qh6+ Qg7 35.Rf3+ Kg8 36.Qe6+ Kh8 37.Rh3+ Qh7 38.Qf6+ Kg8 39.Rg3+ Qg6 40.Rxg6+ Kh7 41.Qg7#]

19.Qg5+ Kxf7 20.Rh7 Black still can’t capture the rook on d5, as it will hang mate in 2. Find the mate.

20…Rg8 21. Rd4 Capturing the knight here is a blunder. [21.Rxd7+ Bxd7 22.Qf6+ Ke8 23.Rxg7 Rxg7 24.Qxg7 Bc8 and black is material up and better]

21…Qxc5 22.Rxd7+ Why does Rxd7 work now when it didn’t in the last move? What has changed? The black queen is now on c5, which means the white knight can join the attack with tempo via the c3-e4-d6+ jumps.

22…Bxd7 23.Ne4 Qb4 As the Queen is lost anyway, a last attempt could be to bring the rook in to capture the knight. [23…Rac8 24.Nd6+ Qxd6 25.exd6+ but white is completely winning.]

24.Nd6+ Kf8 This walks into Mate in 2, but the more resilient defense isn’t much better. [24…Qxd6 25.Qf6+ Ke8 26.Qg6+ Kd8 27.exd6 and white is completely winning.]

25.Qf6+ 1-0 Black resigns. [25…gxf6 26.Rf7#]

From my Chess Preparation Journal, dated 5-April-2020.

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