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The majority of variations discussed in this month's updates are non-critical, that is, one move won't usually render your position hopeless (as White or Black), and they don't require much theoretical preparation for either side to play them. Of course, preparation always helps, and the more games you've seen, the more you'll understand the general ideas and flow of the game.

Download PGN of August '11 French games

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Exchange Variation [C01]

White is still turning to 3 exd5 on a regular basis, either in frustration at not being able to find an advantage with other moves, or wanting to avoid ever-increasing theory, or both. The danger for White is that he or she often plays as though the draw is 'in hand' (and that it's not a bad result). Sometimes this attitude leads to excessive conservatism and confused strategies.

The game Zatonskih - Savchenko, Helsingor 2011, illustrates the important 4 Nf3 Bd6 5 c4 Nf6 variation, an increasingly popular way in which Black tries to achieve an imbalance:

The notes include three recent Ulibin games, all in lines which arise often.

In De Dovitiis- Rodriguez Vila, Villa Martell 2011, I look at various 4 c4 lines, including among others 4...Nf6 5 Nc3 Bb4 and 5...Nc6, as well as 4...Bb4+. Ultimately Black did quite well in these games, including the notes, but then again he was usually the higher-rated player.

Tarrasch Defence 3...Nf6 [C06]

Last month I mentioned that there were a number of drawish lines in the traditional 3...Nf6 Tarrasch system with Bd3, Ne2, etc. when Black foregoes ...Qc7 and allows the exchange of bishops by Bf4. Apart from the lines in which Black sets up the preventative ...Qc7/...Bd6 before castling, the slightly obscure move 12...Nh5!? (after 11 0-0 0-0 12 Bf4) keeps play on the board and has been employed consistently throughout the years by Moskalenko. Its recent popularity probably stems from the latter's games and comments in 'The Flexible French'.

The ideas are to prevent White's Nf4 (which encourages further exchanges), to use the queen on d6, rook on f8, and knight on h5 to control and perhaps occupy f4 (in the case of Ng3 or Nc3, for example), and to open up the f-file, sometimes threatening or playing ...Rxf3. Naturally there are disadvantages; the knight on h5 doesn't control central squares, for example, and can't go to e4; nor can it protect ...d5 in order to prepare ...e5, as it does from f6. In Cruz Ravina-Brynell, Barbera del Valles 2011, from the diagram, White played 14 Qd2; in the notes I analyse 14 Ng3, the move recommended in Tzermiadanos' Tarrasch book 'How to Beat the French'.

Ponizil - De la Villa Garcia, Pardubice 2011 saw a new move (I think): 14 Qc2. This looks naïve but has some positive features.

Winawer - Portisch-Hook Variation [C18]

The Portisch-Hook variation of the Winawer is ever more popular. I suspect that the reason for this is that Black doesn't have to know very much theory (nor does White) and can proceed using common sense and good strategical principles. Edouard - Navrotescu, Fourmies 2011, is an example of how both sides have plenty of options.

It features White's fianchetto idea (I've included a simple Nf3/Be2/0-0 game in the notes), reaching a line in which Black's ...f6 activates his pieces while weakening his e-pawn. According to the games thus far, this appears to be a fair tradeoff.

Mencinger - Kovacevic, Pula 2011, reached this now-standard position, played over 20 times in my database:

In the game, 15...Rdf8 is played, as far as I know for the first time (15...Nc8 is almost always chosen). It leads to an equal position, and after a few moves neither side seems able to try anything positive for fear of standing worse. White bravely does so anyway, and is rewarded with the win after errors on his opponent's part.

Next, we get back to the critical 8 Qg4 with the game Lacasa Diaz- Moskalenko, Sitges 2011. Black plays 8...g6, which weakens dark squares but avoids the cramped position which can result from 8...Kf8 (the latter is nevertheless not a bad move, and often played):

In the game, White tries the popular pawn sacrifice 9 Nf3, provoking Moskalenko to respond with the line-closing 9...c4. I don't much like the latter move, but after White makes seeming progress on the kingside, he gets stuck and eventually the game is drawn. There are three other games in the notes, one with the traditional 9 Qd1, and two with the underrated 9 Ra2 (9...b6 and 9...Nc6 are tested). I've included notes which indicate how both sides have legitimate options at several junctures. These lines come down to playing better than the opponent rather than pursuing some narrow theoretical path.

Classical/Steinitz Variation [C11]

French devotee and author Simon Williams played two Frenches in the British Championship (one with White) , neither in the lines from his book or DVD, so apparently both he and his opponents were sidestepping that too-familiar ground. But I'll sneak back into last month's batch (late June) for his most interesting game (to me), S Williams-Arkell, London 2011 (2nd Big Slick GM). Williams tried the Classical/Two Knights line 2 Nc3 d5 3 Nf3 (which could also be put under 'Odds and Ends') 3...Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 d4 c5 6 dxc5 Nc6 7 Bf4 Bxc5 8 Bd3 f6 (Arkell actually used the move 8...f5, which is a little strange because it seems to give White more choices, but maybe there's something new here) 9 exf6:

In the game, Arkell played 9...Qxf6, which got attention in the French Forum Theoretical Competition, and led to the novelty that won it. Instead of the most popular 10 Bg3, Williams chose 10 Bg5 Qf7 11 Qe2 0-0 12 0-0-0. I'll call this the 'pseudo- Russian Roulette Variation'. The 'true' Russian Roulette Variation', explicated at length by Moskalenko in 'The Flexible French', is the same basic idea versus 9...Nxf6, that is, 9...Nxf6 10 Qe2 0-0 12 0-0-0. I give three new games with the latter system in the notes. In the main game, Arkell deviates from the most common line and an interesting positional struggle results.

Till next month, John

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