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The Portisch-Hook Winawer with 6...Qa5 is the one of the most fascinating variations in the opening, with both sides having a remarkably wide number of ways to pursue their strategies. It continues to be popular at every level, so I've chosen some games from the last few months and tried to fill in the theory with relevant games and analysis.
Still plugging away at non-main line Winawers, I realised that after 3...Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 Bd2, White doesn't have to go into the depressing 6 Nb5 but might try the safe 6 a3 Bxc3 7 Bxc3. simply trying to win the bishop pair. There have always been a subset of good players who employ this; White's risk is low, and if he wants to, he can usually get a game with genuine content. Naturally Black gets his chances as well. So far there is only one game in ChessPub with 6 a3, and White played the odd 7 bxc3, which Neil rightly criticised.

Download PGN of December '11 French games

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Winawer Variation Portisch-Hook 6...Qa5 [C18]

Robson - Shulman, Lubbock 2011 is a tough struggle between two top U.S. players in the line with 7 Bd2 Qa4 8 h4, which is one of the sharpest 6...Qa5 lines. They reach this position:

Robson goes for the ambitious 12 Bd3, and Shulman demonstrates why he one of the leading experts in these lines. Ultimately it's White who is trying to hang on, which he does with good defence.

The 8 Qb1 c4 line can be extremely slow and strategic. In an important game from a couple months ago, Svidler - Lima, Khanty-Mansiysk 2011, White fends off a too-radical attempt from Black:

Here Lima played the ambitious 15...g5?!, but Svidler found 16 Nh2!, threatening to block the kingside. Lima responded with a pawn sacrifice 16...f5, which gained quite a bit of compensation, but Svidler slowly untangled and ultimately consolidated the pawn.

8 Qg4 is critical, and I've given three games with the popular response 8...Kf8, which avoids creating the weaknesses that 8...g6 does.

In Khachiyan - Shulman, US Chess League 2011, White plays the newer and ambitious continuation 9 Nf3!?, leaving the c-pawn hanging in return for quick development and the prospects of attack. The game was balanced throughout, and I found it hard to find real improvements.

White traditionally retreats to d1 with 9 Qd1, still easily the most popular line, following Fischer's famous game against Hook. In Van Delft-Vedder, Hoogeveen 2011, White played a slightly unusual flank knight move and combined it with the standard idea dxc5.

The game was roughly even until White got overambitious with his attack. Impatience costs a lot of points in the Portisch-Hook, by both sides.

The same 9 Qd1 variation was tested in Renteria - Ruiz Sanchez, Totana 2011. Black played ...b6 and ...Ba6, swapping the light-squared bishops:

Usually this is enough to secure at least equality, since White has no more attack, but here I think that 14...c4 was the best (or at least easiest) way to establish that. 14...Nge7 allowed 15 dxc5, which isn't exactly killing, but would have given White some activity on the queenside. As it was, the game was equal until White blundered horribly, and just as Black was about to make the final consolidating move, he blundered back equally horribly to bring the game to a draw.

Winawer 5 Bd2 Ne7 6 a3 [C17]

Moving on to the Winawer with 5 Bd2, the game Mastrovasilis - Shirov, Porto Carras 2011, tests 5...Ne7 6 a3 Bxc3 7 Bxc3. Shirov chooses the most interesting move 7...b6 (7...Nc6 8 Nf3 is analysed in Makka-Ikonomopoulou below), to which White responded with 8 Bb5+ Bd7 9 Bd3 Nbc6 10 Nf3:

Here Shirov found an accurate move 10...Ng6, which goes back to a Leko-Bareev game from 1995. White got the chance to play for what I think was a slight advantage, but played safely. Not surprisingly, Shirov speculated, and everything liquidated to a drawn ending which he nevertheless came close to winning.

In Makka - Ikonomopoulou, Athens 2011, the players went into the same opening but White deviated with the daring 10 f4!? and arrived at this position a couple of moves later:

Here Black played the innovation 12...Ng6 (as in the Shirov game, starting to put immediate pressure upon White's centre via ...f6), to avoid early queen sorties like 12...0-0 13 Qh5. But after 13 Nf3, things returned to normal with 13...0-0 and a complex, equal game resulted. I think the lesson of these 6 a3 lines is that the resulting positions are interesting enough, and both sides can play for a win.

Till next month, John

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