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Some catchup this month, and a continued emphasis on the Steinitz Classical Variation that has become a leading battleground for professional contests. The French was played a fair amount in the Baku Olympiad and I'll be incorporating more of those games over the next few months.

Download PGN of September '16 French games

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Advance Variation 5...Qb6 6 Be2 cxd4 7 cxd4 Nh6 [C02]

First let me examine some neglected games from recent months in the Advance Variation. The exchange of White's bishop on d3 for a Black knight on f5 comes up in a wide variety of Advance Variation lines, especially those with an early ...Nge7, but also with ...Nh6-f5. A couple of games are good illustrations of thematic ideas. In Gozzoli, Y - Teh, E, Biel 2016, 3 e5 c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3 Qb6 6 Be2 cxd4 7 cxd4 Nh6 8 Bd3!? Nf5 9 Bxf5 exf5 produced a typical position:











With opposite-side castling, play becomes sharp. The game was roughly level for some time, but Black neglected to advance on the kingside and White won nicely on the queenside.


Advance Variation 5...Nh6 6 Bd3 Nf5 7 Bxf5 [C02]

The same double-sided pawn formation developed following 5 Nf3 Nh6 6 Bd3 Nf5 7 Bxf5 in Inkiov, V - Stone, A, Ghent 2016. But White took his time developing and had to create queenside weaknesses.











Here Black could have forced White's king to stay in the center. In any case, he stood better, but White defended well and ultimately a draw resulted.


Advance Variation 5...Qb6 6 a3 Nh6 7 b4 [C02]

Shirov has played the Advance Variation quite a lot over the years, so it's always interesting to see his thoughts on Sveshnikov's main recommendation versus the traditional ...Qb6 line. We've looked at this position before:











In the past, Shirov has played 11 h3 here (as has White in our other Archives games). In Shirov, A - Wang, R, Edmonton 2016, he tries 11 g3 and has success when Black gets overambitious and sacrifices a piece. Shirov's execution is typically ingenious. Nevertheless, I doubt that White should get any meaningful advantage if Black reacts correctly.



Classical Steinitz Variation 6...Be7 7 Be3 b6 [C11]

The Steinitz lines in which Black plays ...b6 are becoming ever-more popular and have begun to overtake other variations. Against the ...b6 systems, White often places a bishop on b5, not only to counteract Black's central pressure on d4 and e5, but to discourage ...Ba6. In Caruana, F - Peralta, F, Baku 2016, White met the ...b6 structure with Bb5, and then played Nd1 and c3, shoring up his pawn chain (incidentally giving Black the option of ...cxd4 followed by ...Ne4, which he didn't take).











In this typical position, White played the rather artificial move 12 Ba4, which not only allowed Black to develop quickly but to launch a queenside pawn attack. However, after outplaying one of the World's elite players, a tragic blunder at the time control deprived Black of even a draw.

After ...a6 in these positions, the bishop will often retreat back to e2, having interfered with ...Ba6. But White can also capture on c6.











Here Black has gained the bishop pair, but White's lead in space and development allows his to attack with 12 f5!. Because Black's position is solid, this resulted in a kind of dynamic balance in Salgado Lopez, I - Bluebaum, M, Drancy 2016.

In Brkic, A - Smirnov, A, Baku 2016, Black used bad timing in combining ...b6 with ...f6.











Here Black has failed to get either ...Ne4 or ...e5 in. With 15 Qe3!, White maintained a powerful bind on the position and prepared a kingside advance.

Three games this month reached this position with Black to move:











In Warmerdam, M - Banzea, A, Prague 2016, White beautifully exploited Black's greedy 9...cxd4 10 Nxd4! Bxh4+?, but the other games with 9...Nc6 and 9...Ba6 were satisfactory for Black.



Winawer Exchange Variation 5 Bd3 Nf6 [C01]

In Anand, V - Caruana, F, St Louis 2016, the two elites face off in a Winawer Exchange Variation.











This is a relatively tame position in which Black has never had many problems. However, the position is unbalanced enough to be interesting. Caruana gained some advantage after White played too casually.



Tarrasch/Classical Fort Knox Variation 6 Bd3 Nd7 7 Qe2 [C10]

A high-level game Svidler, P - Kamsky, G, Sochi 2016, from a few months ago saw the Fort Knox Variation. It went 3 Nd2 dxe4 4 Nxe4 Bd7 5 Nf3 Bc6 6 Bd3 Nd7 7 Qe2:











Kamsky played the unusual 7...Bxe4!? 8 Bxe4 c6, rather than 7...Ngf6. This led to a rather thankless position in which White has a long-term pull. Black managed to draw, but White didn't keep the pressure up in the most efficient way. In fact, I'm not convinced that the normal 7...Ngf6, which leads to similar positions, is that much better, and this simple move order by White might even be one of the reasons why the Fort Knox is so seldom seen at the top levels.


Till next month, John

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Please post you queries on the French Forum, or subscribers can write to me at johnwatson@chesspublishing.com if you have any questions or queries.