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There's No Such Thing As A Boring Chess Opening

There's No Such Thing As A Boring Chess Opening

CoachJKane
| 60 | Opening Theory

"I captured on d5. I was terribly ashamed, and from the time I swore: to play for a draw, at any rate with White, is to some degree a crime against chess." - GM Mikhail Tal on the Exchange Variation of the French Defense.

Mikhail Tal on a less shameful day. Photo: Alamy.com: 

Former world champion Tal isn't the only player to look down on the Exchange French. It's long been considered a boring opening, mostly an attempt for a lower-rated player with the white pieces to aim for a quick draw. It joins other openings like the Exchange Slav and the London System among the most ridiculed variations in the game. However, chess is complicated, and any remotely logical opening can give you winning chances if you come to fight. 

Table Of Contents


What Makes A Boring Chess Opening?

The main issue with the Exchange French is that it's too symmetrical, and players like Tal figured that players of the white pieces would only try it if they wanted a draw. He was right that if both players want to keep the symmetry and trade pieces, it's possible to make a quick draw in this line or in just about any opening. 

In this instance, Tal played GM Viktor Korchnoi, an opponent who tormented him throughout his career. It's not shocking that Tal wanted a draw against Korchnoi, and he managed it in this game. However, just because a game is symmetrical three moves in, it doesn't mean that it will be symmetrical all the way through.

Is Carlsen sleeping through a boring opening? Photo: Chess.com.

In the recent 2024 Candidates Tournament there were four Exchange French games and they were full of fighting chess. Let's take a look to see if Tal's disdain for the opening makes sense in modern practice.

Symmetry Doesn't Last Forever

When GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Ian Nepomniachtchi needed to win against the lowest-rated player in the field, GM Nijat Abasov, they both chose to transpose from the Petroff Defense to the Exchange French with the rare 5.d3. 

Despite the symmetrical position six moves in, both Nakamura and Nepomniachtchi achieved dramatic and fighting games. Nepomniachtchi won a pawn and didn't quite manage to convert it into a victory. Nakamura won his game, but it was one of the fiercest battles in the whole event. Both sides had substantial advantages at different points in the game.

There's Always Room For Surprises

When Nakamura faced the French Defense in a critical game from the candidates against GM Alireza Firouzja, he knew that the Exchange Variation wouldn't stop him from leaving theory early and reaching a complicated position. He surprised the commentators with a rare seventh move, and by move ten, the players had reached a new position. It led to arguably the most complicated game in the event, which Nakamura won to remain in contention for first place.

Is The Exchange French A Good Drawing Weapon?

We've seen how modern grandmasters use the Exchange Variation to play for a win. Is it still a good tool to play for a draw as Tal did against Korchnoi? The only game in the candidates that White chose the Exchange French, attempting a quick draw, was in round 12 when Nepomniachtchi played it against GM Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu. Nepomniachtchi managed the draw and stayed in contention to win the event, but it wasn't easy. He was slightly worse early on and had to fight for 55 moves to claim the half-point. 

Possibly the most famous Exchange French in history was a 1990 battle between GMs Mikhail Gurevich and Nigel Short. Gurevich needed only a draw to advance from the Interzonal tournament to reach the Candidates matches and tried to trade pieces quickly to simplify the game. Short allowed trades when they favored him and won a clean victory to take the Candidates spot.

A good day for Nigel Short. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Conclusion

In modern chess, the Exchange French, a purely symmetrical opening that carries a drawish reputation, can also be a sharp winning attempt. It's a good way to reach a tricky position with chances for both sides. The winner of the candidates, GM Gukesh Dommaraju, lost against the London System, one of the openings most made fun of for being simple and drawish. Both White and Black won games in the Berlin Defense, another supposedly boring opening.  Chess is far from solved, and there aren't any early opening choices to guarantee a draw or a boring game. If you want to ensure that you won't lose a game, you're going to have to find some good moves on your own!

Let's take one more look at that Tal-Korchnoi draw. It turns out Black had a great chance to win right before the end.

If Tal were alive today, we don't know what he would play against the French, but it's clear that he could fight for a win in any opening he'd choose.

Do you have a favorite or least favorite opening? Let us know in the comments.

CoachJKane
NM Jeremy Kane

Jeremy Kane is a National Master and three-time Wisconsin state champion. He is the Director of Training Content for Chess.com. He has been teaching chess in person and online for over 15 years and has designed hundreds of lessons, available on chess.com/lessons. He is the author of Starting Out The Trompowsky on Chessable and The Next To Last Mistake, a book on defensive ideas in chess.

He is the developer of the Caro-Kane Variation of the Caro-Kann Defense.

email: [email protected]

Twitter/X: @chessmensch

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