ForumHelpSearchMy ProfileSite InfoGuests InfoRepertoireLinks
This month we’ll look at three variations: the Advance, Winawer, and Steinitz. Most of the games feature conventional lines with moves that are somewhat irregular, but fully sound.

Download PGN of April ’20 French games

>> Previous Update >>

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

Shirov, A - Lomasov, S, Moscow 2020 tested a newly-popular idea in the line 3 e5 c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3 Qb6 6 Be2 Nh6 (6...cxd4 7 cxd4 Nh6 8 Bxh6 Qxb2 9 Nbd2 is an important order that can transpose), when 7 0-0!? cxd4 8 Bxh6 gxh6 (8...dxc3!?) 9 cxd4 Qxb2 10 Nbd2 is a promising gambit:

Here, after 10...Nxd4, 11 Rb1! improves upon the often-played 11 Nxd4 Qxd4 12 Bb5+, and Black needs to be concretely prepared if he is to counter White’s attacking chances.

Advance Variation 5...Bd7 6 Be2 f6 7 0-0 fxe5 8 Nxe5 Nxe5 9 dxe5 Qc7 [C02]

The old line with 5...Bd7 6 Be2 f6 was out of favor for many years but is being played again by strong players. Timman, J - Nikolic, P, Leiden 2020, tested 7 0-0 fxe5 8 Nxe5 Nxe5 9 dxe5 Qc7 10 c4:

Here there’s a huge body of theory. Nikolic chose 10...d4 (10...0-0-0 has been holding up well) and Timman responded aggressively by 11 Bf3 Ne7 12 b4!?, but got overextended.

Positional Winawer Variation 7 h4 Qc7 8 Nf3 b6 [C19]

Ian Nepomniachtchi unleashed a surprise opening in the Candidates Tournament by using the French Defence, and more particularly, the Winawer Variation, which he hadn’t played since 2013 and more often found himself playing the White side. Two games began with 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 h4, and in both Black played 7...Qc7. In Alekseenko, K - Nepomniachtchi, I, Yekaterinburg 2020, there followed 8 Nf3 b6:

After 9 Bb5+ Bd7, White chose the unusual move 10 Be2, which caused Black no problems and indeed, Nepomniachtchi came out of the opening with some advantage. Both sides missed chances and the game was ultimately drawn.

Winawer Variation 7 h4 Qc7 8 h5 [C18]

Instead of 8 Nf3, Vachier Lagrave, M - Nepomniachtchi, I, Yekaterinburg 2020, continued 8 h5 h6 9 Rb1 b6 10 Qg4:

Nepomniachtchi’s defense with the rare move 10...Rg8!? may have been played with the idea of surprising Vachier Lagrave. It led to a playable position, but after a few mistakes, White obtained an advantage he never let go of. The normal 10...Kf8 also needs to be investigated more closely.

Winawer Poisoned Pawn 11...dxc3 12 h4 Bd7 13 h5 [C18]

Rapid games in very complex variations often get out of control, but when played by strong players they can provide insight into the opening. Tan, Ju - Grischuk, A, PRO League 2020, followed the theoretical line 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 Qg4 Qc7 8 Qxg7 Rg8 9 Qxh7 cxd4 10 Ne2 Nc6 11 f4 dxc3 12 h4 Bd7 13 h5 0-0-0 14 Qd3:

Here Grischuk played the slightly unusual 14...Nf5 (instead of 14...d4) and a unique position arose rather quickly, with White having several winning chances but eventually settling for a lengthy draw. This is potentially an important line.

Winawer Variation 7 Qg4 Kf8 [C18]

An original and instructive Winawer game I missed from a few months ago was Anand, V - Xiong, J, Wijk aan Zee 2020. After 7 Qg4, Black chose 7...Kf8, a respectable if difficult move we have seen many times. Anand played 8 h4, a move that I’ve neglected in this column.

Xiong played the virtually unknown 8...h5!? (8...Qa5, 8...Qc7, and 8...b6 are normal), which isn’t the most logical move, since White wanted to play his next move 9 Qd1 anyway. Still, some interesting play resulted, with Anand ultimately demonstrating how risky a move like ...h5 can be.

Winawer, Armenian Variation 6 Qg4 [C18]

The Armenian Variation with 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Ba5 continues to be played by strong grandmasters. Frolyanov, D - Martirosyan, H, Moscow Aeroflot 2020, saw the lesser-played move 6 Qg4 (6 b4 is played ten times as much); there followed 6...Ne7 7 dxc5 Bxc3+ 8 bxc3 0-0 9 Bd3:

Black played 9...Nd7 10 Nf3, and now instead of the older 10...f5?!, 10...Nf5. This seems to give him a playable game in every variation.

Classical Steinitz Variation 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3 a6 8 a3 [C11]

I always wonder what computers will do in standard pawn structures, especially locked ones. Both engines in a computer match, KomodoMCTS 2503.05 and Ethereal 12.01, playing opposite colors, chose a particular and relatively rare line in the Steinitz, namely, 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3 a6 8 a3 b5, and now the unusual 9 Ne2, to which they both replied 9...Be7. Maybe this position was pre-chosen by their programmers. At any rate, one of the engines, KomodoMCTS 2503.05, played the ultra-normal move 10 dxc5 here, but when its opponent had the same position, it chose 10 c3:

In Ethereal 12.01 (3810) - KomodoMCTS 2503.05 (3809), TCEC 20 Premier 2020, White demonstrates what can happen when Black undertakes no disruptive action against a large permanent space advantage.

This line with 7...a6 also leads to a couple of other standard positions. In Ragger, M - Vitiugov, N, Prague Masters 2020, the players entered into the lengthy variation 8 a3 Qb6 9 Be2 cxd4 10 Nxd4 Bc5 11 Na4 Qa5+ 12 c3 Bxd4 13 Bxd4 Nxd4 14 Qxd4 Qc7 15 b4 0-0 16 0-0:

There have been many games here, and White tends to get a small advantage, but players of Black have been content to play the position. This game was drawn, although not before White had a few opportunities for a lasting advantage.

Classical Steinitz Variation 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3 a6 8 Qd2 b5 [C11]

In Vachier Lagrave, M - So, W, speed tourney 2019, there followed 7...a6 8 Qd2 b5 9 dxc5 Bxc5 10 Bd2 Qb6 11 Bf2, one of the main lines of the Steinitz:

The game itself was a miniature featuring an unsound Bxh7+ sacrifice which nevertheless brought home a point - an entertaining speed game. I’ve used it as an excuse to include recent games and review some of the main lines and alternatives.

Till next month, John

>> Previous Update >>

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