04 November 2018

Video completed: The Fort Knox Variation in the French Defence

I recently completed "The Fort Knox Variation in the French Defence" by IM Lawrence Trent, which is a ChessBase 60-minute video download.  I am not in fact taking up the French for its own sake, but using this variation to make sure that if I want to play the Dutch Stonewall by transposition, I can't be tripped up by the move-order sequence 1. d4 e6 2. e4.  Now it's important to note that White on move 3 can avoid the Fort Knox by not playing either 3. Nd2 or 3. Nc3 (either of which allows 3...dxe4, leading to the Fort Knox after 4...Bd7).  However, the less frequently played French lines like the Advance and Exchange variations are not critical and I feel Black can get by at a reasonable level with just some basic familiarization.  This is especially true if you are a Caro-Kann player who responds to the Advance variation with 3...c5, which heads into French-type positions.

Because the Fort Knox is structurally very similar to the Caro-Kann, I believe going this route is easier for me - or at least is more efficient in the near term - in terms of building an opening repertoire without major holes.  The alternative would be having to look in-depth at the non-standard Dutch lines after 1. d4 f5 (although I may do that at some point in the future).


1.  Introduction - this is a very basic intro to the Fort Knox which covers the initial entry into the variation - White has pawns on e4/d4 and Black on e6/d5, then goes 3. Nc3 (or Nd2) dxe4 4. Nxe4 Bd7.  IM Trent then discusses Black's standard development plan (...Bd7 followed by ...Bc6 and usually ...Nd7, with the idea of exchanging the bishop for one of White's knights and then playing ...c6 for a solid pawn structure), and talks a bit about the solidity of the opening and some of its past practitioners.

2.  Variation - 5. c4.  IM Trent says that he likes to start with the sidelines and this is an interesting one, in which White gets the c-pawn forward before retreating the knight with Ne4-c3.  Black sticks with standard developing moves up until a novelty, which gets the bishop off c6 with the idea of following up with ...c5 and then playing actively.

3.  Variation - 5. Nf3 Bc6 6. Neg5 Bd6; IM Trent in the video labels it as "Tricky Neg5".  (Note: there is a typo in the video's table of contents which says "Nge5" instead of "Neg5", which is rather confusing and suggests more editing effort was needed by ChessBase).  This is perhaps White's only/best shot at major tactical complications, with the idea of sacrificing the g5 knight on f7 or e6.  Black can go horribly wrong if he ignores White's tactical threats, for example by playing 6...h6? instead of the recommended 6...Bd6, which covers the e5 square.  But with smart play by Black, White simply doesn't have enough compensation for any sacrificial attacks.  Some memorization is needed in these lines, although not a huge amount.  The main line ends up looking very much like a Caro-Kann.

4.  Variation - 5. Nf3 Bc6 6. Bd3 Nd7 7. Qe2 Ngf6 8. Neg5.  Like the above variation (and also with a table of contents typo), White tries to be a little tricky and aggressive.  However, Black now has time for the standard Fort Knox plan of developing with ...Nd7 followed by ...Ngf6.  IM Trent's recommendation - he doesn't give any alternatives - is to respond with 8...Qe7, which looks awkward but at the same time defends against all of White's sacrifice ideas on f7 and e6.  The queen can later on move off the e7 square to good effect, and/or Black can castle queenside, allowing the follow-up of ...g5 and developing the dark-square bishop to g7.

5.  Variation - 5. Nf3 Bc6 6. Bd3 Nd7 7. O-O [listed in table of contents as Qe2] Ngf6 8. Ned2.  Here White's idea is to reposition the knight to c4, hoping to dominate e5 that way.  IM Trent offers multiple possible ideas for Black in response, including ...Bb5, ...Bd5 - both of which allow for the ...c5 pawn break - or simply ...O-O.  Black is not afraid to exchange the light-squared bishop for a knight, or even in some variations to preserve it on the long diagonal after going ...b6 first.  GM Rustamov is observed to often play ...Bd5 in these situations.

6.  Variation - 5. Nf3 Bc6 6. Bd3 Nd7 7. O-O [listed in table of contents as Qe2] Ngf6 8. Ng3.  This is in fact White's main line, according to IM Trent.  He presents the idea of avoiding the standard plan of an immediate ...Bxf3 reaction by Black, instead using GM Jobava's modern move 8...g6!? which blunts the White light-square bishop, offers up g7 for Black's dark-square bishop development, and takes away the idea of Nh5 for White as a future attacking move.  There is a lot of relatively new territory to explore, but IM Trent shows various plausible scenarios, including the later utility of the ...Bxf3 idea. White's 9. c4 is the most challenging response for White, who sacrifices a pawn on d5 in order to force Black's king to f8, but Black according to Trent should be OK, as it's White who has to prove compensation for the material.

And that's all there is to the opening!  The video concludes with a quiz section of five puzzles, taken from GM-level tournament games, that help show what kinds of positions you can end up with in the Fort Knox.  They're drawn from all stages of the game and include some effective ideas, for example multiple examples of exchange sacrifices.  They also demonstrate that the Fort Knox, while an equal opening, is certainly not devoid of tactical possibilities.

General comments:
  • The Fort Knox is not intended for aggressive counterplay by Black.  IM Trent emphasizes key concepts such as opportunities for multiple exchanges on e4 and the general idea of exchanging off White's active pieces, to arrive at a position where White has nothing.  Black however also has nothing in terms of obvious winning chances in most lines, so it's important to be aware of this.  I think the Fort Knox could be used to win if your opponent is the type who is too aggressive and typically over-presses in equal positions.
  • Each of the variations covered feature a direct link to the analysis in game format, so you can review them directly rather than having to go through the video again.
  • IM Trent usefully cites reference games in his narrative and encourages you to go through the full games, which is always a good idea.  He points you toward top players like GM Rustamov, who has played it frequently, and others like Gelfand and Karpov who have played key games.
  • The typos and misleading text in the video's table of contents (the "text' field of the database) are annoying but not a critical flaw.

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