Dangerous Weapons — The French

John Watson

Reviewer: Jeremy Silman
Everyman Chess
320 pages

Dangerous Weapons: The French comes after the successful debut of the first two Dangerous Weapons books (both by Emms and Palliser), one on the Sicilian and one on the Nimzo-Indian. This series offers the reader many new, dangerous ideas that add energy to their existing repertoire for both colors. Thus, Watson recommends lines that White can use against the French, while also offering up new ideas for Black in this same opening.

Though I don’t play the French as Black (I’m a Caro-Kann fan) nor face it as White (since I’m a faithful 1.d4 guy) one would think that this book wouldn’t be of much interest to me, but this wasn’t the case at all. First off, any book by John Watson is worth looking at – in fact, almost everything he’s ever done has been critically acclaimed! When you add the fact that he’s one of the world’s greatest experts on the French Defense, I couldn’t resist opening it up and taking a peek. Unfortunately, once I started I couldn’t stop (Reviewers rarely have the time or inclination to read any book from cover to cover – my immersion into Dangerous Weapons: The French used up many hours that I didn’t have to spare!).

John Donaldson told me that the thing that stood out the most in his mind was Watson’s rehabilitation of the old anti-Winawer line 4.exd5 exd5 5.Qf3 since it’s been long abandoned due to 5…Qe7+. While mildly interesting, I found the resulting positions a bit dull and most likely of little value to most swashbuckling 1.e4 aficionados (who lust after tricky tactics and wild attacks).

A far more compelling try for White was proposed in a system from the Tarrasch (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2). Watson explores one of the main lines, which occurs after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 and now White usually plays 7.Ne2, while 7.Ngf3 (initiating a pawn sacrifice) has also found many fans. As popular as these lines are, Black (as usual) has found ways to get his share of the play. However, Watson recommends a third Knight move: 7.Ndf3!?, which was brought to his attention by John Emms and Jonathan Rowson. After the critical 7……Qa5 he explores both 8.Kf1!? and 8.Bd2. These lines were so interesting that I decided (in blitz, which is all I play nowadays) to meet 1.d4 e6 with 2.e4 and give this stuff a try!

Talking to Watson (which I do with some regularity), I told him how much I enjoyed this particular recommendation. His reply, “Yes, but it’s not that important since the illogical 3.Nd2 is probably best answered by both 3……h6 and 3……a6 when White doesn’t have anything at all.”

“You don’t really believe in that garbage?” was my to-the-point reply.

Watson replied (Was this tongue in cheek, or a lecture to a French Defense fool?), “I’m completely serious; these moves make complete sense vs. the anti-positional 3.Nd2. In particular, 3…h6 just has to be good.”

I admit that the chapters on both 3……a6 and 3……h6 are very good, but I still find his handling of 3……a6 and 3……h6 in general to be chess from Mars (in other words, just not my taste, but it might be yours). But perhaps I’ am just an old fogy and can’t appreciate the wonders of modern chess ideas.

Oddly, we began a bit of a discourse on the position arising after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 a6 4.Bd3 c5 5.dxc5 Nf6 6.Qe2 Bxc5 7.Ngf3 Nc6 and now he only gives 8.a3. I pointed out that 8.c3 0-0 9.0-0 would transpose into a Colle System! Amazing but true – this usually arises after 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nbd2 e6 6.Bd3 Qc7 7.0-0 Be7 8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.e4, but now Black’s best line is thought to be 9…0-0 10.Qe2 h6 (Watson does mention this in his discussion on 3.Nd2 h6), so one has to question if ……a6 (in place of ……0-0) is really okay. I found this hard to believe (another in a long list of “hard to believes”), but ultimately Black might be able to get some mileage from the postponement of castling and even …Qc7 by taking advantage of the c5-Bishop’s access to a7: 8.c3 h6!? 9.0-0 Ba7!? when 10.e5 Nd7 11.Nb3 can be met by 11……Bb8 12.Bf4 g5. I will leave it to the reader to ponder this insanity in more detail.

The fact is that every page of this book has something of interest to offer. I spent quite a bit of time checking out (in Chapter One) 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Bb4 5.e5 h6 6.Be3!?, a move that I had never seen before. In Chapter Two (which I was hoping to skim over quickly) I again got bogged down with 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bxe7 Qxe7 7.Qh5!? which actually makes good sense.

I admit to only giving 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.Qg4 (in Chapter Three) a short look (it was too complicated for my aged brain!), while Chapter Four (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 5.exd5 exd5 5.Qf3) also was given nothing more than a cursory glance or two (too dull – it doesn’t take much to put me to sleep!). It was then that I got caught in Watson’s web, since the Tarrasch has always interested me (interesting Tarrasch lines, one mentioned earlier, filled Chapters 5 and 6).

This consumed a few hours, and I briefly considered burning the book since I was only halfway through and, judging by my rapidly beating heart when faced with Chapter Seven’s 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nc6 (the Chapter’s title is Swearing In Church), I knew that I was doomed. Why did 3…Nc6 affect me so strongly? Because in the little-known pamphlet on the Fischer vs. Petrosian match (Buenos Aires, 1971) by Reuben Fine (one of the worst writers in chess history thanks to his out of control ego), in his annotations to game 9 Fine had this to say about Petrosian’s Choice of 3…Nc6: “3…Nc6?? 
(Every beginner, even those who have not read my books, knows that Black should not block his QBP. Why Petrosian does so remains incomprehensible.) 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.exd5 exd5 6.Bb5
(Kid stuff. Black is now strategically lost.”

I’ve never forgotten these comments by Fine. I should add that anyone that wishes to bask in Fine’s hubristic “I know everything” attitude must find and buy the worst book of all time (which makes it one of the most fun and, as a result, best), Bobby Fischer’s Conquest Of The World’s Chess Championship by Fine. I find that if I’m ever depressed, I just have to read a few pages from the above book and I’ll chortle madly for the rest of the night.

Anyway, Watson shows that the position after 6.Bb5 is nothing for White if Black continues 6……Bb4 7.Ne5 0-0! 8.Nxc6 bxc6 9.Bxc6 Rb8 (9……Ba6!?) with lots of compensation for the sacrificed pawn.

There are 14 chapters in all, and each one is completely fascinating. Suffice it to say that Dangerous Weapons: The French is a must buy if you play the French Defense, and also extremely useful if you are looking for new/fun ways to challenge this annoying opening as White.