Travail Pursuit #65: Back into the labyrinth

Back into the labyrinth with 9.Nf4 in the French Tarrasch

Back into the labyrinth with 9.Nf4 in the French Tarrasch

Before I get into today’s post I should explain the reason for my extraordinarily lengthy hiatus. To begin with, in August and early September I was spending all my ‘chess time’ on the third Fantasy Chess Olympiad which we kicked off on a separate web domain for the first time (which was lucky because it coincided with some technical issues and extended down time for this website!) and it was a huge success. I’d like to return to the FCO 2016 in a future post if I may.

Following the Olympiad I simply couldn’t log on to this website’s admin system from my laptop and was effectively unable to post anything. Some wicked wits have suggested to me that the website simply couldn’t stand any further 9.Nf4 French Tarrasch games! Well, let’s put that straight immediately (and it serves the content management system right!)

In my last couple of posts in the summer I reflected on games I played during the course of last season (2015-16). All three of the games in this article were played last season as well.

Regular readers will be all too familiar with the opening line featured in this article – the Closed System of French Defence’s Tarrasch Variation. In particular I have an interest in the forcing continuations that begin after White plays 9.Nf4. I’ve covered this line extensively in Travail Pursuit editions 57, 58, 60 and 61. Now, I’m afraid it’s time for another dose, so readers already bored by this theme or put off by head-spinning complications should look away now.

Many of my games in this line are played in online ‘turn-based’ thematic tournaments where my chances of getting the variation are greatly increased. It’s one of the means I use to try and practice and sharpen my opening play as, although I take the games seriously, the results matter less to me than they do in over-the-board chess games. Two of the games featured in this post were played in a Chess.com thematic competition of this type and the third was played over-the-board in the Bradford League last season.


Shapland vs. Milton. Black has just played 14...Nxd4?

Shapland vs. Milton. Black has just played 14…Nxd4? falling into a thematic trap.

A thematic trap
Shapland vs. Milton, Bradford League 2, 2016 (see game 1 in the viewer at the end of this post).

In this game my opponent avoided the 9.Nf4 lines by playing Qb6 on move 7 (you can also play it on move 8) before playing f6. I analysed this line in Travail Pursuit #57: ‘Lighting the fuse’ where I also mentioned that the same opponent had played 9…Bb4+ in 2013. That game was a tough draw.

This time, my opponent played the more ambitious and energetic pawn break 9…f6 which transposes into the main-line after 10.exf6 Nxf6 11.0-0 Bd6. I played, as I have done previously, by offering the b2 pawn as a gambit after 12.Bf4 Bxf4 13.Nxf4. Now instead of taking the pawn on b2 or playing another natural move such as 13…Bd7 or 13…Qc7 my opponent surprisingly stumbled into a thematic trap which is pretty well known in this line of Tarrasch – he took on d4 (see diagram on the right).

This game really illustrates how, even when a thematic idea such as this appears on the board, it isn’t always as straightforward as you might imagine to convert the game. In this instance my opponent realised his mistake, had a good long think and came up with a way of muddying the waters. I inaccurately went for a direct refutation of his play, to which the engine unsurprisingly finds a defence, when in fact I should instead have aimed for a prosaic endgame advantage. I did go on to win the game comfortably after my opponent missed his single opportunity for redemption but I still learnt something from this game.


Inter_Mezzo vs. JoseSoza. Position after White has played 21.h4

Inter_Mezzo vs. JoseSoza. White has just played 21.h4. A critical endgame position in this variation

A troublesome variation
Inter_Mezzo vs. JoseSoza, Chess.com, 2016 (see game 2 in the game viewer)

In Travail Pursuit #58: ‘Disturbing the peace’ I covered a variation I considered to be the main reason why White players now seem to have stopped playing 14.Qh4 and are instead playing 14.0-0. After 14.Qh4 I think that 14…e5 15.Nf3 Bb4+ is a very good option for Black. It might even just be a little bit better from a practical perspective because White has to play very precisely to keep his head above water.

For example, immediately after 15…Bb4+ White is compelled to put his king on f1 as 15.Bd2 fails tactically. I followed the correct sequence in this game and then at the first (and probably only) juncture where I had a real choice played 18.Bg5 instead of 18.Be3 which I covered in the post mentioned above. The game move pretty much compels the exchange of queens and a complex endgame is then reached (see diagram on the right) which I would suggest players of the White pieces need to study with some care in order to find the right plans and counteract Black’s schemes.

In this game I played a series of inaccurate moves and was punished in clinical fashion. There’s plenty to learn from here and I’d not be averse to testing this endgame out some more from the White side.


Inter_Mezzo vs Artnix. White has just offered to sacrifice a pawn with 23.b4!? a typical idea to open lines for his rooks.

Inter_Mezzo vs Artnix. White has just offered to sacrifice a pawn with 23.b4!? a typical idea to open lines for his rooks.

Back to the labyrinth
Inter_Mezzo vs. Artnix, Chess.com, 2016 (see game 3 in the game viewer)

In Travail Pursuit #61: ‘Into the deep’ we took a dive into the most complex and head-spinning lines of this whole variation. In this game I had another opportunity to immerse myself fully in the lunacy that ensues when Black responds to 14.Qh4 with a move other than 15…Bb4+. My opponent played the most testing continuation with the move 18…Qa5+ and then followed up with 19…Be7. I covered some alternatives Rc8 and g6 in the article mentioned above.

Black then followed a strategic plan I’ve discussed before by playing 20…d4 making room for his knight to come to d5 and then possibly to f4. This is a dangerous plan (all sorts of knight forks loom after Nf4) and White must take care to respond correctly. In my view, extracting the king’s rook from h1 immediately is correct. I then struck out with another thematic idea 23.b4!? (see diagram on the right). Black scarcely dare take the proffered pawn as then White’s rook would penetrate with Rab1 and Rxb7.

As the game went, Black allowed me to land my queen’s rook on c7 in order to run with his king to the relatively safe square of g8 (demonstrating the reason why he didn’t play g6 on move 19) and the game took a very sharp turn indeed with me playing for checkmate and my opponent jamming his d-pawn up the board for perfectly sufficient counter-play.

The rest of the game contains some very interesting and pant-wettingly complicated engine-generated forcing variations which are well worth playing through purely for entertainment’s sake. As so often is the case in this line, both players were unable to sustain their levels of accuracy forever and in this case, my opponent made the last mistake when he allowed me to trade off to a winning king and pawn ending by sacrificing back the exchange. A truly memorable encounter I hope you’ll agree.


You can down load all the games in the database below by clicking on the ‘Chessmicrobase’ logo on the top  right of the game viewer.

By way of a post-script. So far this season I’ve played six games with White and four of those have been French Defences. Only one of them yielded the chance to play this variation and I will of course publish it here in due course. The other three games saw all of my opponents dodge the closed system (3…Nf6) and in two of those three my opponents chose to play the Rubenstein Variation (3…dxe4) saw perhaps my reputation playing this line really is starting to precede me!

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2 Responses to “Travail Pursuit #65: Back into the labyrinth”

  1. Martin Carpenter

    Nov 30. 2016

    Good to see this back too :) Coming back to life a bit.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Andy Bak

    Dec 11. 2016

    I enjoyed seeing the lines that resulted in the endgames – as well as this line being tactically hair-raising it’s also strategically complex.

    I can see why you keep angling for this!

    Reply to this comment

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