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This month I first examine some main line Winawers followed by an old move in the main line Tarrasch with 3...Nf6. Lastly, I look into an irregular move which has recently been used by some strong players: 2 c3!?. It can lead to a surprising number of sound sidelines, some with themes resembling the Advance Variation and others resembling the 3 Nd2 c5 4 exd5 exd5 Tarrasch Variation.

Download PGN of August ’23 French games

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Winawer Variation 7 Qg4 Qc7 8 Bd3 c4 9 Be2 Qa5 [C18]

The main line Winawer with 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3 6 bxc3 Ne7 is undergoing some changes for practical reasons. Here the 7 Qg4 Qc7 8 Qxg7 Poisoned Pawn requires a lot of preparation and repertoire maintenance for both sides, and since White doesn’t seem to have any advantage to reward him for all this work, we have been seeing more of 7 Qg4 Qc7 8 Bd3, which keeps things more under control and allows fewer tactical explosions. This line is trickier than I previously thought, and Black has to play accurately to avoid incurring a positional disadvantage. White also needs to know his move orders well, because if Black can consolidate and castle queenside, he will sometimes obtain good kingside attacking chances at no particular cost. Mishra has been playing both sides of this variation. In Hong, A - Mishra, A, Saint Louis 2023, play continued 8...c4 9 Be2 Qa5 10 Bd2 Nf5 11 a4 Nbc6 12 Nf3 Bd7 13 Qf4:

I think the play is objectively balanced here, as illustrated by the game and notes.

Winawer Variation 7 Qg4 Qc7 8 Bd3 c4 9 Be2 Nf5 [C18]

In Parkhov, Y - Djordjevic, Vu, Belgrade 2023, Black used the order 9...Nf5 and White played the popular idea 10 h4. There followed 10...Bd7 11 h5 h6 12 a4 Qa5 13 Bd2 Nc6 14 Nf3:

Black was tempted by 14...b5!?, winning a pawn on the queenside. This worked out, but with accurate play, White should have come out with the advantage. 14...0-0-0 is objectively better, with at best a slight advantage for White.

Winawer, Poisoned Pawn 9...cxd4 10 Ne2 dxc3 11 f4 Bd7 [C18]

An inadequately analysed move that we have seen quite a few times over the years comes up in the main line following 7 Qg4 Qc7 8 Qxg7 Rg8 9 Qxh7 cxd4 10 Ne2 dxc3 11 f4, and now 11...Bd7!?:

Kacprzak, K - Sieciechowicz, M, Bydgoszcz 2023 continued 12 h4 (12 Qd3 has been the main move, covered in various Archives games) 12...Bb5!, covering the queen retreat to d3 and intending ...Bxe2 in many cases. This seems to be a fully satisfactory variation for Black.

Winawer, Poisoned Pawn 9...cxd4 10 Ne2 dxc3 11 f4 Nbc6 12 Qd3 d4 13 Nxd4 [C18]

Finally, a recent example of the modern main line 10...dxc3 11 f4 Nbc6 12 Qd3 d4 13 Nxd4 Nxd4 14 Qxd4 Bd7 15 Rg1 Nf5 16 Qf2 Qc6 17 Bd3 Qd5 was seen in Owen, M - Arun, K, Chiang Mai 2023. White hasn’t been getting anywhere with 18 Rb1 or 18 Be3. The game saw the ultra-rare 18 g3!?:

This has some surprise value, and indeed in the game it provokes an immediate inaccuracy. After a messy middlegame in which White fails to capitalize on a clear advantage, he wins anyway following some mistakes by his opponent.

Winawer Variation 7 h4 Qc7 8 Rb1 [C18]

The positional lines remain unclear, with numerous new ideas. 7 h4 is still critical, when after 7...Qc7, 8 Rb1 has been tested by some strong players. Black should play either 8...b6 or 8...Nbc6. It the game Soumya, S - Bhakti, K, Ahmedabad 2023, Black experimented with 8...Bd7?! , intending ...Ba4.

After 9 h5 h6,however, simply 10 Qg4! would have been strong; perhaps Black needs to try another 9th move. At any rate, the game continuation 10 Rh3?! led to complex play in which Black’s eventual pressure on the kingside and center prevailed in instructive fashion.

Tarrasch 3...Nf6 Mainline 11.0-0 0-0 12.Bf4 Bxf4 13.Nxf4 Ne4 14 Nh5 [C06]

In the main line with 3 Nd2 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 c3 c5 6 Bd7 Nc6 7 Ne2 cxd4 8 cxd4 f6 9 exf6 Nxf6 10 Nf3 Bd6 11 0-0 0-0 12 Bf4 Bxf4 13 Nxf4 Ne4, 14 Nh5 is only the fourth most popular move and not considered very dangerous, but might deserve consideration because the main alternatives 14 Ne2, 14 g3, and 14 Qc1 are not yielding much for White versus accurate defense,

Akopian, V - Root, D, Saint Louis 2023 continued 14....g6 15 Ng3 Rxf3!? 16 Qxf3 Nd2, with a complex middlegame following in which initially White had a limited advantage, then later Black missed a chance to equalize, and finally White established a nice positional bind.

Irregular Lines - 2 c3/2 f4 [C00]

Throughout the years White has fairly often had recourse to 2 f4, which we’ve covered in various games in the Archives. Recently, the slightly odd-looking move 2 c3 has been used by strong players (notably Zvjaginsev and Shimanov) to get positions resembling the Advance Variation but without the typical Black central pressure. After the obvious 2...d5 3 e5 c5, there are actually several legitimate ways to avoid the main line Advance which arises after 4 d4.

For example, 4 Na3, 4 Nf3 Nc6 5 Na3, and 4 f4 are all playable. The latter often transposes to 2 f4 but not necessarily so. 4 f4 was played in Zvjaginsev, V - Volkov, S, Moscow 2023, which continued 4...Nc6 (4...d4 is a legitimate option) 5 Nf3 Nh6 6 Na3 (6 Bd3 is another independent line) 6...Nf5 7 Nc2:

In the game, 7...d4 was played and seems satisfactory, with plenty of ideas for both sides. An interesting variation.

2 c3 c5 3 d4 d5 4 exd5 exd5 5 Nf3 [B22]

After 2 c3, Black can also play 2...c5. This is an Alapin Sicilian in which 3 d4 d5 4 e5 is again an Advance Variation, but White also has 4 exd5 exd5 5 Nf3, a position that arose in two Carlsen games, one this last month.

Since 2 c3 is appearing more often, I’ll stray from my usual territory this once and show a couple of illustrative games here, but the reader should be aware that this will normally be found in the Anti-Sicilian section (ECO Code B22). Naroditsky, D - Carlsen, M, Bullet Chess 2023 went 5...Nf6 6 Bb5+ Nc6 (actually, 6...Bd7 has enjoyed excellent practical result here) 7 0-0, and Carlsen played the somewhat odd 7...Bd6!? (7...Be7 is normal, when 8 dxc5 transposes) 8 dxc5 Bxc5 with a typical IQP position that offers mutual chances.

2 c3 c5 3 d4 d5 4 exd5 exd5 5 Nf3 [C09]

In the earlier game Carlsen, M - Dubov, D, Titled Tuesday Jan 2023, play went 5...Nc6 6 Bb5 Bd6 7 dxc5 Bxc5 8 0-0 Nge7 9 Nbd2 0-0 10 Nb3:

This is a standard position from the Tarrasch line 3 Nd2 c5 4 exd5 exd5 5 Ngf3 Nc6 6 Bb5 Bd6 7 dxc5 Bxc5, but with White having played c3 earlier than he has to in that variation, and so 10...Bb6, as played, is arguably better than in the analogous Tarrasch line. This is a position that French players will want to understand.

Till next month, John

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