Zen Hostility (or, the Almost Infallible Way to Beat the French Exchange)

Vassily Smyslov, a world chess champion renowned for his smooth positional playing style, said something profound. “I will play 40 good moves. If you can play 40 good moves, then we will make a draw.”

It turns out this is the secret to beating the Exchange Variation that lower-rated players and pacifists like to venture against the French Defense (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5). If White so desires, this variation leads to symmetrical pawn structures where it’s hard to create any imbalances, and easy to trade all the major pieces on the e-file. So it’s very drawish.

If you’re spoiling for a complex fight as Black (which is why you play the French), this is a bummer. I’ve carped about this quite a bit previously, and my reaction was to burn a lot of energy trying to unbalance the setup. If White plays Nf3, you play the arrangement …Ne7 and …f6. Stuff like that. It’s pretty silly and leads to a lot of pointless losses.

Solution? Vassily shows us the way. Don’t try to win. Just play good moves and accept that a draw may be the logical outcome.

Ironically with this peaceful approach I have started regularly smashing the exchange.

As it turns out this applies much more broadly than just against the exchange French. Don’t try so hard to get an attacking position, and you will find your pieces in great position to attack. I’ve started checkmating people violently again, but it starts with simple moves, denying enemy breaks, maneuvering to flexible squares.

The adrenaline is missing, but the results are fun.

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11 thoughts on “Zen Hostility (or, the Almost Infallible Way to Beat the French Exchange)

  1. Sure, go with the position, don’t fight the position. Now if I only knew what my positions wanted, I’d be all set… :-)

    ++harvey

  2. Very true advice, Derek. This isn’t just the way to win against the French, it’s a way to win against anything. Where is the Smyslov quote from?

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