Harikrishna’s French

Have you ever wondered how an elite chess player’s preparation looks like? If you have, now you have a chance to find out.

Chessable managed to get Pentala Harikrishna to create a repertoire for White against the French Defence. He is by far the strongest player to have a repertoire on the platform and I was curious to see what material he prepared.

As an 1 e4 player who has always played 3 Nc3 against the French in the past I was excited to find out that Harikrishna also suggests the same choice for the repertoire. My reason for more or less abandoning 3 Nc3 was that all 3 main Black defences: 3…de, 3…Bb4 and 3…Nf6 became so popular that every single one of them required a ton of work to keep updated with many viable options appearing for Black.

So what did Harikrishna come up with?

As usual the Chessable repertoire comes with a full video material, so instead of going over the variations (which I did later) I decided to watch the video. While watching I was looking at my own notes and compared the lines.

Harikrishna covers a lot of 3rd moves for Black, but these are inferior so I concentrated on the 3 main ones.

The biggest surprise for me was that against 3…Bb4 he suggested the exchange variation 4 ed. At first I was disappointed, as I couldn’t believe White can pose problems there. Still, the facts that an elite player suggests that line and that the move has already been played by other strong players were enough to convince me to give it a closer look.

Harikrishna’s concept is curious. He is trying to put pressure in a symmetrical position a-la many lines in the Petroff Defence. He does in fact revolutionise the line by not playing in the old-fashioned way with a3, forcing Bxc3 when White takes bxc3, but rather goes for the more positionally solid approach with the maneuver Nc3-e2. A useful rule of thumb he gives is that White should always put his king’s knight on an asymmetrical square from Black’s: if Black plays …Ne7 then White goes Nf3 and if Black goes …Nf6 then White plays Ne2.

After the initial scepticism I found the lines quite compelling. The main reason was the easiness to play them as White’s play is simple, straight-forward and very safe. Quite a different picture than the lines after 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bc3 6 bc and now either 6…Qa5 or 6…Ne7 when White can easily be put to the sword of the counter-attack if he messes up.

Against 3…Nf6 I saw that Harikrishna’s suggested line is 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Nce2. I felt inner satisfaction when I saw this because I studied and prepared this line back in 2000 (!) as a back-up for my main choice of 4 Bg5. Since my analysis is rather dated, I was glad to find out many important improvements Harikrishna has discovered, perhaps the most shocking one being 12 Kd2! in one of the lines.

Against the Rubinstein 3…de he suggests the latest trend of 7 Ne5 (after 4 Ne4 Nd7 5 Nf3 Ngf6 6 Nf6 Nf6). I have never studied this line in depth so I took time to check it. One of the main characteristics of the course comes to the fore here – Harikrishna doesn’t shy away from showing his own preparation and novelties. For example, after 7 Ne5 Nd7 he analyses the move 8 Be2, a novelty on move 8! Both Karjakin and Dominguez have played 8 Bf4 against Meier, but Harikrishna goes for the endgame and gives deep analysis of his new idea. He could have saved this idea for an important game, but instead he chose to share it with the Chessable students. I found this very sincere.

As with any elite player, the analysis is deep and thorough, all carefully checked with an engine. Another example is his own admission that he forgot his preparation in the game against Rapport from March this year and then he proceeds to show an improvement and an important novelty on move 10 in one of the lines.

I found the video pleasant to watch as Harikrishna’s voice is calm and his exposition is measured. I invested several hours in watching him explain his lines against the French and I feel I came out of it equipped with new lines to try against this opening. For me, that is a lot.

Harikrishna’s French Toast is out on Chessable.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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