Hannes Langrock, The French Defense: The Solid Rubinstein Variation. Russell Enterprises, 2014. 204 pp. $24.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
When I was a youngster I was very happy to face the Rubinstein French. (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2/Nc3 dxe4.) There was no annoying blocked center to deal with, and all my pieces could be developed quickly to natural and aggressive squares. I only faced it once in a tournament game, and it was a dream come true: I was as an 1800 or 1900 playing a high 2000/low 2100 player and won easily in 17 moves making all the most obvious aggressive moves. Life was good! Black's 3...dxe4 just didn't make any sense to me. First he shuts in his queen's bishop, and then he opens the board for all of White's pieces.
Here’s a slightly more sophisticated critique. If Black isn’t careful early on, he can get massacred. If he survives that, then his reward is a playable position that's still pretty easy for White to handle. So from White’s point of view it’s like playing with house money. Maybe you can get a nice, quick demolition job, and even if your opponent survives the opening and early middlegame you’re still totally safe.
So what’s the attraction from Black’s side? It’s labor-saving, in that you can play it against 3.Nd2 and 3.Nc3 alike (and for that matter against the line where White at least initially omits d4 and plays his knights to c3 and f3 on moves 2 and 3). The positions are relatively simple to play – at least once you learn to avoid a few standard tricks – and if you’re a strong technician, or playing a strong tactician, it may also be a way to play to your strengths and/or your opponent’s weakness.
A couple of practical drawbacks for black players: if you win, it’s going to take you at least 40 moves and possibly longer. That’s not so bad if you’re playing in a civilized tournament, but here in the U.S. at least you might be playing two full-length games in one day. If you’re young and full of energy then go for it (though if you’re young and full of energy you should play sharp openings instead!), but otherwise it may be a dubious tournament strategy. It’s also not very satisfactory if you’re in a must-win situation, unless you’re a big believer in your technical abilities or your opponent’s technical shortcomings.
Turning to the author: I was surprised that the author, a German IM, could write an enthusiastic book supporting the swashbuckling Smith-Morra Gambit (1.e4 c5 2.d4!? cxd4 3.c3) and then write one on the sedate Rubinstein French. The two lines seem as diametrically opposed as can be! Very strange, but he has done a good job with this book.
To his credit, he acknowledges early on some of the criticisms readers might offer; indeed, he relates asking the very strong German grandmaster Georg Meier if he isn’t concerned about the drawish tendencies of this line. Meier’s reply was that he has been able to win many kinds of endgames with it. And that’s the key: you have to have good technique and be willing to grind out points over the long haul. Meier is young and a great technician who is able to defeat lesser lights with remarkable regularity in this opening. Our mileage may vary, but by learning the types of endings that can arise via this opening we can replicate some of his successes in our own games.
Langrock offers a full repertoire against 1.e4, covering White’s most important deviations on moves 2 and 3: the Advance Variation, the Exchange (both with an early c4 and without), various Blackmar-Diemer style gambits, the Two Knights line (mentioned above), the King’s Indian Attack, Chigorin’s 2.Qe2 and 2.b3. If you play other lines of the French, you might want to borrow a friend's copy to see what he says about these other lines, and you might even consider taking up the Rubinstein as a secondary weapon when you don't feel like playing the main lines. (Or perhaps you're happy facing 3.Nc3 but not 3.Nd2, or vice-versa; in that case you can play 3...dxe4 while your usual reply to one of those two knight moves is "in the shop".) Langrock himself suggests that this is best as a secondary line and not necessarily one's bread and butter.
Without going too deeply into the weeds, we can take a look at one spot that may be of interest; namely, the point at which his repertoire comes into contact with Parimarjan Negi's 1.e4 repertoire book against the French, Caro-Kann and Philidor. The line in question goes 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7 5.Nf3 Ngf6 6.Bd3 c5 7.0-0 Nxe4 8.Bxe4 Nf6 9.Bg5 cxd4 10.Nxd4 Be7 11.Bf3 0-0 12.Qd3! (Langrock's punctuation!) 12...Qb6 (12...Qc7 is Negi's main line; Langrock also considers it but doesn't like it) 13.Rad1! (Negi's exclam) 13...Rd8 14.Be3 Qa5 (14...e5 is Negi's main line within this variation; again Langrock considers and rejects it) and now something interesting happens.
Negi gives 15.Qb5 Qc7 16.Qb3 Bd7 17.c4 e5 18.Nb5 Bxb5 19.cxb5 and comments that "White's bishop pair is more important than the damaged queenside structure, which might be rectified by b5-b6 at some point. White showed exceptional technique to convert this into the full point in Karjakin - Drozdovskij, Odessa 2010" (p. 65).
Fair enough, and Langrock gives the game too, in its entirety. But instead of 17...e5, which he awards a question mark for weakening the light squares - especially in conjunction with the ensuing exchange - he proposes instead 17...Rac8! 18.Rc1 b6=, when "Black has a solid position without weaknesses" (p. 79). Rather than leaving it there, however, he proposes 15.a3! instead and offers almost a full page of analysis (minus two diagrams). So Langrock gets full marks as a diligent analyst. I'm not sure he finds 100% equality in that line. Black is solid but always a little passive and defensive and playing only for a draw. (You can replay the analysis above, and a bit more besides, here.)
All in all it looks like a pretty decent effort, and while the Rubinstein French may not be everyone's cup of tea it's worth considering if you're a Caro-Kann player, a French player looking for an occasional change of pace, or if you're a great lover of solidity. Recommended for those audiences!