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Two of my ‘usual suspects’ this month: the 3...Be7 Tarrasch and Classical Steinitz variations are both currently fashionable and undergoing theoretical developments. In addition, a couple of lesser-played but interesting Winawer lines caught my eye.

Download PGN of August ’17 French games

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Tarrasch Variation 3...Be7 4 e5 c5 5 c3 [C03]

Black has been holding his own recently in the 3 Nd2 Be7 main lines with 4 Bd3 or 4 Ngf3, so attention has returned to the 4 e5 variation, with a new emphasis upon 4...c5 5 c3 (instead of the older 5 Qg4) 5...Nc6 6 Bd3:

Black has tried a number of plans here involving ...Nh6 and ...f6, but in Tiglon, B - Huschenbeth, N, Washington 2017, he chose the direct 6...cxd4 7 cxd4 Qb6 8 Ndf3 Bb4+. This proved relatively ineffective after 9 Kf1 because White’s center has no pressure upon it. The first player had the better of it, and won with a nice attack.

In Amanov, Z - Kazhgaleyev, M, Astana 2017, Black used the same approach, but improved with 8...Bd7 9 Ne2 Nb4 10 Bb1:

And now he should play10...Bb5! with complex and roughly equal play. Instead, after the game’s 10...Qa6 11 Nc3, White can slowly untangle and achieve a nice advantage. As it happened, Black decided to speculate on a truly unsound piece sacrifice, but White declined to accept the material and after a titanic struggle, blundered at the end.

Tarrasch 3...Be7 4 Ngf3 Nf6 5 e5, 8...g5 [C06]

Korneev, O - Landi, A, Fano 2017, saw the main line 4 Ngf3 Nf6 5 e5 Nfd7 6 Bd3 c5 7 c3 Nc6 8 0-0 g5!?, reaching this position:

The game followed theory for a few more moves, and Black played an inferior defense. White played very accurately to gain the advantage and eventually convert.

Winawer Portisch-Hook Variation 8 Qb1 c4 9 h4 [C18]

The Portisch-Hook Variation continues to attract adherents. After 6...Qa5 7 Bd2 Qa4, White chose the 8 Qb1 c4 9 h4 line in Boros, D - Naroditsky, D Washington 2017. White continued with the slightly unusual idea of Qb2 and Rb1, but reached a fairly normal-looking position:

Play remained balanced until Black broke on the kingside, when after an inaccurate response White couldn’t prevent his king from being exposed. In the end, Black messed up the attack and lost, but in general this line looks in good shape for him.

Winawer Variation 7 Qg4 0-0 8 Bd3 Nbc6 9 Qh5 [C18]

The game Sevian, S - Hevia Alejano,C A, Washington 2017 tested the main 7 Qg4 0-0 variation, in the sideline 8 Bd3 Nbc6 9 Qh5 Ng6 10 Nf3 Qc7 11 Be3 Nce7!? (as opposed to the usual 11...c4):

This is a somewhat underinvestigated idea, and the obvious attempt at direct refutation, full of crazy variations, only draws. It’s worthy of a closer look.

Winawer Variation 4...b6 5 a3 Bf8 [C16]

Black’s systems with ...b6 instead of ...c5 always have a minor following, and recently we’ve seen a surprising number of games with 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 b6 (or here 4...Qd7 intending ...b6). Vaganian is one of the faithful adherents to this strategy, but after decades of playing it, he inexplicably fell into one of the worst variations in Morozevich, A -Vaganian,R, Biel 2017. After 5 a3 Bf8!?, White played 6 Bb5+! c6 7 Ba4.

It’s worth knowing this maneuver: the plan is Nce2, c3, and Bc2, and there’s little that can be done to stop it.

Steinitz Variation 7 Be3 a6 8 Qd2 b5 [C11]

Every month there are raftloads of Steinitz Variation games and many new strategies. Harikrishna, P - Studer, N, Biel 2017 demonstrates how a modest inaccuracy can result in Black’s collapse, especially in a slow-developing line such as 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3 a6 8 Qd2 b5, where Black delays getting his pieces out in order to grab space. White generally plays 9 a3, 9 dxc5, or 9 Be2. But the rare move 9 Nd1 , with typical Steinitz ideas, has its points:

White wants to follow with c3/Bd3/0-0/f5. There are decent solutions for Black to choose from, but he can’t play too slowly, as the game shows.

The position after the more conventional 9 Be2 Be7 was seen in two games involving super-GMs over the past two months. Both continued 10 0-0 0-0 11 a3:

In Vachier Lagrave, M - Bluebaum, M, Dortmund 2017, Black played the move 11...Rb8, new to high-level play. It’s not necessarily better or worse than other moves, but I like it in principle, because Black keeps options like ...b4 open while not committing his queen and at the same time, having the bishop on c8 can discourage White from trying f5 for a while. In the game Black equalized comfortably.

A better showing for White in the same line resulted from the standard move 11...Bb7 in Grischuk, A - Caruana, F, Paris (Rapid) 2017. The following position is typical but a little deceptive:

The exchange ...f6 and ...fxe5 ended up favouring White’s kingside attack. Black put a knight on c4 and exchanged off White’s e3 bishop, but then suffered from a serious lack of space.

Till next month, John

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