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Fabiano Caruana vs. The French Defense - Early Beginnings (Part 1)

ChessOpeningChess PersonalitiesAnalysis
This series of articles will cover Fabiano Caruana's games against the French Defense since the beginning of his career until mid-2021.

Fabiano Caruana is an Italian-American who plays the Spanish Opening, Russian Defense, French Defense, and even the Italian Opening sometimes! A member of the exclusive 2800+ club, superGM “Fabi,” as he is affectionately called, has an opening repertoire as wide as the expanding Universe. Just as Mr. Caruana used the French Defense to score some very important victories, he has also faced it in some crucial games. In this series of articles, we will see just how a man who was famed for his knowledge of the Black side of the French Defense turns the tables (or board) and crushes (or attempts to) the French Defense as White!

In this article, the first of the series, we will see the early beginnings of Fabiano Caruana as a French Defense demolisher. We start off with some early games when Caruana was a mere neophyte in his chess development – yes, there was a time when Caruana was rated only 2400. I have divided this article into three sections, the “Winawer Woes” phase, when Caruana was having a tough time against the Winawer, and the “Winawer Schwinawer” phase, when Caruana was playing so well against the Winawer that Szymon Winawer, the namesake of the opening, would not have wanted his name to be associated with this opening! It is also bears mentioning that during this time period (2005-2007), Caruana did venture one Tarrasch against none other than superGM Ian Nepomniachtchi, getting a draw against “Nepo” in a very complex game which will be analyzed in the “Bonus: The Tarrasch vs. Nepo Man” section.

Note also that at the end of the article and all other articles in this series, the reader will have the option to test out what they have learned in the opening, middlegame, and endgame.

Before we delve into the games, it is useful to learn what the Winawer is, what plans White should pursue in the Winawer, what plans Black should use to counteract said White plans, etc.

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/91g8nmBC#6

The defining move of the Winawer. The idea is that by pinning White's knight which defends e4, Black can also hope to damage White's pawn structure after Bxc3+ bxc3. These doubled pawns are not only weak, but they also block in White's dark-squared bishop, which finds it difficult to find useful squares.In some lines, such as the 6...Qa5 line, Black further applies pressure on White by playing 7...Qa4, which mechanically blocks the a4 move. Without a4, White is not able to play Ba3, giving his dark-squared bishop some extra scope.

However, it’s not all rosy for Black because White does enjoy the bishop pair advantage, and while b6 ideas in the Winawer do give Black the possibility of trading off their locked light-squared bishop, White can block said exchange. White may even welcome this exchange under some circumstances since the Black position, lacking in both light- and dark-squared bishops, would suffer from both light- and dark-square weaknesses. Finally, Black’s g7-pawn is left weakened, so the critical move against the Winawer, 7. Qg4, can cause Black a great deal of suffering.

Winawer Woes

A young boy of only 12, Fabiano Caruana was pitted against IM Miklos Galyas, who was 26 at the time. With a rating of 2255, Caruana knew that his 2444-rated opponent outrated him by a good margin, but he was not going to let that fact deter him. In fact, in that very tournament, Caruana beat a couple of 2200s and was soon on his way to becoming a 2400 only a year later. Unfortunately, in his former pet 7. h4 line against the Winawer, Caruana was outplayed in the opening by his more experienced opponent, who messed up his winning edge due to exceptional defense by the fledglingmaster. Finding these brilliant moves took its toll on young Caruana, though, and the fatigued child prodigy finally succumbed to Black’s rook and knight.

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/qZuJZsuN

Well, that was quite the crushing victory by IM Galyas against the young superstar! White simply allowed Black too much freedom with the light-squared bishop, so be sure not to do that when you play the Winawer as White.
A year later and 200 points stronger, Caruana is ready for the Winawer. His opponent, IM Attila Jakab, chooses a different and more enterprising, if not adventurous, variation of the Winawer. Unfortunately, this time Caruana seems even more ill-prepared and loses without a fight!

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/fd5Vs75n

0-2 against the French Defense is not good, but in both games, Caruana was outrated. Yes, I know in the second game he was only outrated by 3 points, but math is math! Now rated at 2444 (quite a nice number if I do say so myself), Caruana was facing even tougher opposition: grandmasters. GM Robert Cvek was ready to fight Caruana on his7. h4 Winawer turf, and he came armed with some new weapons.

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/dbHe7tce

Castling into the attack! Oh, the follies of youth!

Having faced GM Cvek in Round 4 of the 2006 Mitropa Cup, Caruana faced another Winawer in round 7 of the same tournament. This time, GM Tomas Petrik was going to show the young boy not to mess with the French!

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/Tg8wo9yH

The king on e2 was more of a fighting piece than a withering piece, but with queens on the board, kings can’t be safe for too long, and Caruana played in too careless a manner and was duly punished.

Oh my! 0-4 against the French Defense?! Yes, that’s what happens when you’re outrated. However, Caruana wasn’t going to be outrated by 2500 GMs for too long, and his knowledge of the Winawer was only going to improve...

Winawer Schwinawer

Fabiano Caruana was playing the Black side of the French Defense at the time, so that could explain his inability to destroy what he loves, but as those of us imbued with passion know, love can easily turn into hate...

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/rKtpSImq

h4! and Kh2!! Caruana was playing like AlphaZero before it was even popular. At long last, Caruana was punishing the opening he so love(s)d, and he was not going to stop. This time, it was personal:

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/1qAuecPr

One should remember that at that point in time, it wasn’t known that that line was bad for Black, so thanks to the efforts of Caruana and other strong players, 11...f6 was blown off the map.

Bonus: The Tarrasch vs. Nepo Man

After the two crushing losses against IM Galyas and IM Jakab, Caruana decided to switch gears and play the Tarrasch (3. Nd2) against GM Nepomniachtchi. The game ended in a draw, perhaps something to be proud of for the ever-outrated Caruana. You’ll have to excuse me for the curt analysis as the main purpose of this article is the Winawer and not the Tarrasch!

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/dmsLdxwP

Now it’s time to put what you learned to the test (little to no hints for the wicked)!

Openings

What is considered the critical test of the Winawer?

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/bdC9lzYs

How do you counteract Black’s idea?

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/qjrUgdhC

How can you be more aggressive and attack Black?

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/6jtMWrDd

How can you play against White’s weirdly-placed pieces?

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/VTMpGOiQ

Don’t castle into the storm – find something better!

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/CVMw95im

Don’t play Caruana’s dubious novelty!

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/fHdRt5KA

Where does the queen belong (also Negi’s opinion)?

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/nBUzUYoO

Where does the queen belong (not Negi’s opinion!)?

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/JBpA1HSe

Middlegames

The eternal question:

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/Coyu4Zsu

When you can’t avoid a storm, prepare for it:

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/Ka8P2uOl

Food is good.

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/qhrwYW3H

Defend like an engine!

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/4owbQa41

A common tactic in the Winawer White needs to watch out for:

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/RZLkSHuw

As long-term as one can get...

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/dTGWbQre

Endgames

Unfortunately, only the game against IM Galyas made it to a proper endgame. Still, there’s a lot to learn from that game!

Which square?

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/Q6jx5Ym1

No Passivity, Part 2:

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/bt5m3qOu

Finish him!

https://lichess.org/study/BIaYOSip/5rlULaFu

Conclusion

With such strong victories against the Winawer and a GM title on its way, it looked like Caruana’s days of losing to the Winawer would come to an end. Those reasons may very well explain why Caruana didn’t lose to the Winawer from 2007-2008, but there may also be another reason for Caruana’s exceptional performance against the French in 2007 and 2008. What might that reason be? Well, you’ll have to read Part 2 to find out...

Reconnecting