Viktor Moskalenko, The Even More Flexible French: Strategic Ideas & Powerful Weapons (New in Chess, 2015). 363 pp., $29.95/€26.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
As the title suggests, this book is a sequel to an earlier work (2008) called The Flexible French, and it's appropriate that Viktor Moskalenko has so entitled these works. Although Francophobes may feel as if all French positions are the same, characterized by the miserable interlocking pawn chains in the center, those who play the opening or have studied it with White know that Black has a huge number of possible approaches, regardless of what White plays on move 3 (or even on move 2). Where some pro-French authors pick their repertoire choices in an attempt to keep the spread manageable and to go deep in the variations, Moskalenko doesn't get as far into the weeds but gives the French player seemingly limitless options. This makes the book nice as a source of ideas and surprise weapons, but I would recommend not using this work as your only source on the French. Pair it with John Watson's Play the French, Nikita Vitiugov's The French Defence Reloaded, or one of the recent Quality Chess books on the French and you're in business.
To give some idea of the breadth of Moskalenko's volume, he offers 3...Nf6, 3...Be7 and 3...c5 against the Tarrasch, while against 3.Nc3 he covers both 3...Nf6 and the Winawer. Within the Winawer there are still more choices: 4.e5 b6 5.Qg4 Bf8 is the first, 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Qc7 7.Qg4 f5 for the second, and 6...Qa5 (intending 7...Qa4) for the third. The absolute main lines with 6...Ne7 7.Qg4 0-0 or 7...Qc7/7...cxd4 are absent. For that matter, in the Tarrasch line 3.Nd2 c5 4.exd5 Qxd5 5.Ngf3 cxd4 6.Bc4 Qd6 7.0-0 Nf6 8.Nb3 Nc6 9.Nbxd4 Nxd4 10.Nxd4 Moskalenko does give one game with 10...a6, but in it he shows Black getting killed. He concludes that he "cannot understand the idea behind the popular advance 10...a6?! It seems to be a significant waste of time that allows White to develop his initiative, forcing Black to revert to safer ideas, such as ...Be7, ...Bd7 etc." He is referring to 10th move options for Black, which he covers in earlier games.
You might get the impression that you won't learn the "real" French from this book, but only a series of sidelines. Aside from the arguable claim that today's main lines constitute the "real" French, I would disagree. Moskalenko may not cover all the absolute main lines, but he covers enough of them, and certainly enough general kinds of positions to benefit any French player.
As usual when looking at opening books, I compared what the author had to say with what the latest book I'd seen defending the opposite side had to say; in this case, the comparison was with Parimarjan Negi's 1.e4 vs. The French, Caro-Kann & Philidor. I limited my look to the lines beginning 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3, when the books interacted on the options 7...a6, 7...Qb6, 7...cxd4 and 7...Be7. (There's the huge spread in Moskalenko, on display once again!) In general I'd say that Negi went deeper, but Moskalenko throws out so many possibilities - even one-movers - that his book does escape Negi's clutches from time to time. It is a little disappointing that Negi's book isn't in Moskalenko's bibliography, but that's not Moskalenko's fault - the former didn't come out early enough for him to address it. Let's turn to some specifics:
A: 7...a6. After 8.Qd2 b5 9.dxc5 Bxc5 Negi recommends 10.Bd3, which isn't covered by Moskalenko. That's not really a knock on Moskalenko, as it is a rare move, but it is inconvenient for the French player looking for an answer to Negi.
B: 7...Qb6 8.Na4 Qa5+ 9.c3 cxd4 10.b4 Nxb4 11.cxb4 Bxb4+ 12.Bd2 Bxd2+ 13.Nxd2 is a line that has long been known to be very dangerous for Black, and Moskalenko admits this. He doesn't recommend the line, but he does present some analysis, following a 2007 Freestyle game (man + machine), winding up in a draw. That suggests that the line can hold, even if it requires impractically perfect play. I analyzed this line in great depth a year or so ago, however, and concluded that White is probably winning by force, and that seems to be Negi's conclusion as well. So I think that things are even worse for Black than Moskalenko suggests.
C: 7...cxd4 8.Nxd4 and now a further subdivision:
C1: 8...Bc5 9.Qd2 0-0 10.0-0-0 a6 11.Qf2 and here there are two moves discussed by both books. One is 11...Bxd4, and if anything Moskalenko gets slightly the better of the coverage here. The other option is 11...Qe7, and here Negi's coverage is greatly superior. Moskalenko stops after 12.Bd3 f6 13.exf6 Nxf6 14.h3 Bd6 15.Kb1, evaluating White's last move as interesting, while Negi goes much further and offers some new analysis. Just giving his main line, there's 15...Bd7 16.Rhe1 b5 17.g4!N Rac8 18.f5! e5 19.Nxc6 Bxc6 20.g5 Nd7 21.f6! gxf6 22.g6 e4 23.gxh7+ Kh8 24.Be2 with a clear advantage for White.
C2: 8...Qb6. After 9.Qd2 Qxb2 10.Rb1 Qa3 11.Bb5 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 a6 13.Bxd7+ Bxd7 14.Rb3 Qe7 15.Rxb7 we have a sharp position that was especially popular in 2013 and 2014. Here the overlap spans two moves, 15...Qh4+, 15...Qd8, and they can transpose into each other. Negi's coverage is superior here, but Moskalenko gets a leg up by his analysis of 15...Rc8, a move not noted by Negi.
D: 7...Be7. Moskalenko throws out a short suggestion or two that isn't covered by Negi, but in areas of substantial overlap it is Negi's investigation that is more thorough. I'll skip the details this time, so you'll have to scare up the books for yourself.
Now, the Negi book is really, really good and very detailed, so the fact that it often seems to get the better of the argument (and probably does get the better of the argument in most cases) doesn't mean that Moskalenko's book is substandard. Not at all. But I do think it is most useful in an auxiliary role, for instruction, inspiration, advice and variety while using another, more conventional book as the basis for one's repertoire.
In addition to the bare moves, Moskalenko offers lots of very accessible textual help. He writes with great enthusiasm and knowledge about his beloved opening, highlights key tips, themes and tricks, and even offers some useful statistics about results and players ("heroes") to further benefit the reader. It is a very enjoyable and useful book, and is warmly recommended to lovers of the French Defense from, I'd say, approximately 1700-1800 on up.