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The Classical Variation is featured this month. It is arguably becoming the most important French Defence on the top levels, and a reliable weapon for the average player.

Download PGN of August ’16 French games

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Winawer Portisch-Hook Variation 8 Qg4 Kf8 [C18]

First, one Winawer game in the Portisch-Hook Variation with 6...Qa5 and 7...Qa4, which continues to get respectable results. A typical position arose in Saric - Kovalenko, Gjakova 2016:

Black exchanges White's important light-squared bishop, after which the situation is balanced with plenty of play left.

Classical Steinitz Variation 6...Be7 [C11]

The Classical order 3 Nc3 Nf6 has overtaken the Winawer on the top levels and is increasingly the focus of theoretical attention. White most often responds with 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4, the Steinitz Variation. In Kramnik - Buhmann, Dortmund 2016, White was in a particularly aggressive mood and took on big risks in order to prosecute his attack.

After 11..a6, Kramnik went into the complex 12 Bd3 with ideas of Bxh7+ and f5. He subsequently sacrificed a piece, missing an advantageous alternative, and then misplayed his way into a lost position, saving it to draw only after errors by his opponent.

I've included excerpts from two of my own recent games in this line which may prove instructive; they are at any rate lively!

Tikkanen - Hillarp Persson, Uppsala 2016, saw a very early dxc5, which soon transposed to a main line position.

We're used to seeing 10...a6 in this position, with the ideas of ...Qa5 and ...b5; but in this game Black tried 10...b6 and followed that by trying to secure e4 and block the kingside with ...f5. White didn't play the most testing idea of Rg1 and g4, preferring exf6 instead. The game was equal, but White won a nice game.

In the Steinitz, lines with an early ...b6, either on the 7th or 8th move, are now outnumbering those with ...a6. Black wants to respond to dxc5 with the recapture ...bxc5 and in the meantime plays for ...Ba6 or, more often, ...Bb7, often following with ...cxd4 and ...Nc5-e4. In Palac - Navarra, Drancy 2016, the following position was reached:

With the light-squared bishops off, these positions tend to be about equal, and that was the case here.

The ...Ba6 theme is arguably more effective against lines with g3 involved. This position arose in Perpinya Rofes - Peralta, Badalona 2016:

Now the game's 12...cxd4 was perfectly good, but the computer suggestion 12...g5!? is also fully playable. I've included two other recent games with 6...Be7 and 7...b6 in the notes.

Classical Steinitz Variation 5 f4 c5 6 Nce2 [C11]

Hou Yifan - Koneru, Hancheng 2016, is a rather wild affair (a Rapid game) which could well go in the Tarrasch section, since although the game begins with 3 Nc3, the main line can arise by orders with 3 Nd2 as well. We've seen this position before:

White chose the most challenging move 12 Rf1, which opens a theoretical can of worms. The game went back-and-forth and ended cruelly.

Classical Variation 4 Bg5 de4 5 Nxe4 Be7 6 Bxf6 gxf6 [C11]

The Morozevich line in the Classical continues to be terribly popular. In Kovchan - Shankland, Biel 2016, Black went right into a main line:

Here Ivanchuk's piece sacrifice 12 d5!? b4 13 dxe6 scared Black off of this line for a while, but my notes and recent games show that there's little for the prepared player to fear. In the game, White played 12 dxc5, which proved quite harmless.

7 Qd2 (instead of 7 Nf3) was tested in Ding Yixin - Lei Tingjie, China 2015. One idea is to meet 7...a6 8 g3 b5 9 Bg2 Bb7 with 10 Nxf6+ (see the notes). In the game, Black played the rare move 8...Bd7:

Now the bishop will be defended on c6. In the game this works well and apparently constitutes a relatively safe route to equality.

Till next month, John

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