Crushing French Defense – The Korchnoi Gambit

Crushing French Defense – The Korchnoi Gambit

The French is among the most popular defenses against 1.e4 and for a good reason. It is a very solid choice, but at the same time quite aggressive. Black’s counterplay on either wing (this depends on the specific variation) offers him an opportunity to unbalance the game and take white into a very sharp and double-edged battle right from the very first moves.

Let’s take, for example, the Winawer variation.

After the moves:

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 4.a3 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 Ne7 6.Qg4 Qc7!? 7.Qxg7 Rg8 8.Qxh7 cxd4

The position in the diagram above is the starting point of a very double edged play. Through the years, white has tried many formulas and plans, but there isn’t any clear path to obtain advantage. However, there is a lot of theory to learn and a lot of memorizing to do, so you can’t play this variation by instinct alone. Some players may already feel uncomfortable as white, not because the position is bad, but because they are going into such a sharp battle after only 8 moves. This is not something that everyone is ready to do as white.

A solution would be to avoid Qg4 and play more positional, with 6.Nf3. This is true, but the move leads to a more positional ground that may not be suitable for you.

Besides 3.Nc3, white has another main response against the French defense, the Tarrasch variation, with 3.Nd2. This line will be the subject of this article. The move 3.Nd2 is known as a less ambitious way to play against the French than 3.Nc3. However, white reduces the number of sharp lines considerably and there is still room for a dynamic and active play.

The line we are going to discuss is unofficially known as ”The Korchnoi Gambit”. The name was given to it after Korchnoi, a French player, used the line once.

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The starting position of this line arises after the moves:

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ngf3

Even though the line was named after Korchnoi, the very first ideas of the dynamic possibilities that can be used in this gambit were seen in the duel between Marshall and Saemisch. Let’s take a look at the game:

The game is of little theoretical interest, but it is a good example of how white justifies his central pawn sacrifice with:

  • Active play on the C file
  • Initiative on the kingside
  • Using the d4 square as an outpost for his pieces

We can say that these 3 elements are the ones that give white compensation for the sacrificed pawn. You should bear in mind that white must play active, always considering these factors.

In the next examples we are going to analyze the main theoretical branches of the line:

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ngf3

A) 7…Qb6 B) 7…g6 C) 7…Be7

We will start with the game of the French specialist Viktor Korchnoi, with full annotations. In this game we will examine what happens when black accepts the challenge and grabs the pawn:

Black is not forced to accept the pawn, he has quite a few alternatives and in the next two games we will have a look into 7…g6 and 7…Qb6, followed by 8…g6.

Finally, we will take a look at the line 7…Be7, followed by g5. This is a tricky line, in which black attempts to destroy white’s center by attacking the defending knight on f3. It can also yield black some initiative on the kingside, so it’s definitely one of the main lines to take into consideration.

We hope that, with this article, we have helped you expand your knowledge about the French defense, regardless of the color you want to play it with. As theory and practice never stop, there are many other recent and not so recent game examples of each line presented here. However, the lines exposed are a good point to start learning the basics of the variation and they will hopefully serve you well in your tournament practice.

Note: Openings are no doubt a very important part of chess. If you want to improve your chess level, you need to have a clear study plan. If you aim for a dramatic improvement at chess you need to work on all of the elements of the game in a systematic way:

  • tactics
  • positional play
  • attacking skills
  • endgame technique
  • classical games analysis
  • psychological preparation
  • and much more

That seems to be like a lot of things, and that is. But no worries, we have made it easy for you. Our comprehensive training course covers it all and much more. Sign up for 21 Day Training right now!

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Updated 12.22.2023


Dr TJ Skhosana, PhD:
Wants to be involved in CHESS and be able to teach it to our at-risk communities starting with foundation face: ECD. Give me tips.
Hello John, for openings you need to focus on just those that you're actually playing in your games. There is no need to study all openings in the book. However the ones that you do play, you should know well enough to avoid any surprises. Also make sure to use database approach as explained in "21 Days" program. In the next part of the course there will be the whole pdf on how to use ChessBase for preparation.Hope that helps.Good luck!
Dear John Moyer,“Chess Openings Theory and Practice” (1964) is a nice book.I used it myself. However, it’s more than half a century old.Much of the analysis is dated.In any case one cannot learn up all openings.You can limit your preparation to a few openings of your choice. What is important, one should learn the theory of openings so that it can be put into practice. From this point of views Mastering Chess Openings series by John Watson is good.If you like your opening preparation up to date, you can subscribe to for the middlegame and endgame, you already have Dvoretsky’s books.They would do.
Joseph Boronka:
Good Luck ! John Moyer :)that a lot of learning u need 2 do !Joseph
John Moyer:
I have opening and endgame books. How am I going to learn all this? My opening book is almost 800 pages and I have Dvoretsky's endgame manual. What am I to do to learn all these openings and a multitude of variations and different kinds of gambits, defenses, attacks? The list goes on and on. I have Dvoretsky's endgame manual as well as his anilitical manual.
John Moyer:
I have a good question for you Yury. I have an opening book that I call my opening bible. It. 's almost 800 pages and it has so many variations to it. how am I going to Know all the openings. It's called Chess openings theory and practce. Copyright 1964.Get yourself a used copy and look through it. I also have Dvoretsky's endgame manual. I have his aynilitical manual, too Plus numerous chess books. What am I to do.