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When I go over the new French Defence games from each month, I'm more and more struck by nominally weaker players (amateurs and 'ordinary' masters) who seem to know opening theory very deeply. This is true for main lines, naturally, but applies to relatively lesser-known variations as well. Of course, online play is inherently theory-oriented (players repeat the same lines ad nauseam), but it's also possible that the rash of French Defence books published over the past two years has had some effect. It would be fascinating to know what percentage of ICC and Playchess players read books and/or ChessPublishing, or watch DVDs.
I'm grateful to GM Dejan Antic for generously sending me some games and thoughts on the 3...Be7 Tarrasch (see below). Readers should know that their ideas and contributions are always welcome.

Download PGN of December '12 French games

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Tarrasch Variation 3...c5 4 c3 [C05]

Denis Yevseev's book Fighting the French: A New Concept features the Tarrasch Defence with the move c3, whether against 3...c5 (4 c3) or in the line 3...Nf6 4 Bd3 c5 5 c3:

The idea is to get a standard isolated pawn position, which can be fun for White to play because he gets attacking chances. In my book I show a couple of easy remedies, which I mention in abbreviated form in the notes to this month's Van der Lende-Rozentalis, Wijk aan Zee 'Cultural Village' tournament 2012. In the game White achieves the desired double-edged game and perhaps a small edge.

Universal System 8...a5/8...g5 [C06]

Last month I focused primarily on 3...Be7 in the French Tarrasch, which in general seems to be doing pretty well. In response, I had the pleasant surprise of receiving a note from Dejan Antic, co-author of Antic & Maksimovic's important and thorough book Modern French, which itself features 3 Nd2 Be7. Grandmaster Antic sent me three recent games, with the comment "I have to admit that one of the critical lines mentioned in the book, 8...g5, might be a little bit dubious. Please see attached game Dorfanis-Antic [White is Antic's student!]. Most probably 8...a5 is more solid than 8...g5."

His remark about the solidity of 8...a5 corresponds with what we saw last month, and is illustrated by two of his games, Zubarev - Markidis, Rethymno 2012, and Kerigan - Antic, Kavala 2012. The third game Dorfanis - Antic, Paleros 2012, in which Black used 8...g5 instead, ended abrubtly and badly on move 15! Still, that move has by no means been refuted. Thanks again to Dejan for these contributions.

Winawer Variation 6...Qc7 7 Nf3 [C19]

I haven't looked at the older 6...Qc7 in the Winawer for some time, but there's no universally accepted way for White to play for an advantage against it, and strong players are still willing to employ it. In the recent FIDE Women's World Championship we saw two interesting games with 7 Nf3 instead of the more forcing 7 Qg4.

In some games, Black has played 12...Nd7 here with satisfactory play, and maintaining flexibility is my usual preference; but 12...c4 is another approach favoured by French advocates. In the battle between sisters, T Kosintseva-N Kosintseva, Khanty-Mansiysk 2012, after that move, Black failed to create counterplay on the kingside and got a bad game.

Arakhamia - Grant - Mkrtchian, Khanty-Mansiysk 2012, arrived at precisely the same position except with White's bishop on d2 and rook on h1. Black again played 12...c4. This time Black managed to hold her own on the kingside:

The advance 16...g5! created interesting counterplay sufficient to equalize.

Winawer Poisoned Pawn 11...dxc3 [C18]

In the Winawer Poisoned Pawn, a few games from recent months are worth mentioning, if only because it is still being hotly contested at all levels. The variation with 11...dxc3 (instead of the classical 11...Bd7) has taken over as the main line, and continues to do well.

Gao Rui-Mu Ke, Beijing 2012, is a new adventure with the cheeky 12 Nxc3.

In another test of the important position after 12...Nd4 13 Bb2, Black finds 13...Ndf5!, a move order finesse which transposes to a known line while avoiding others. A lengthy and complex battle ensues.

We've seen the main line, Black's pawn sacrifice with 12...d4, many times in this column.

In view of Black's previous successes, it's worth noting a couple of recent White wins. In Bajarani - Grachev, St Petersburg 2012, White plays the interesting idea Rb1-b4, and in an imbedded game (Franklin-Hunt), the much-analysed 15 Rg1 is given another test.

Classical Variation with 4 e5, 7...Be7 [C11]

There were many variations in the Steinitz Classical system, as always, but I thought I'd mention Bologan - Short, Poikovsky 2012, because of the strength of the opponents and the rare line that Bologan chooses, namely, 9 Bd3!? in the main line of the 7...Be7 variation:

This leads to very unique positions. In the game, equality resulted until White blundered, but conversion was very difficult and White hung in there to salvage a draw.

Alekhine-Chatard Attack 6...a6!? [C13]

The venerable Alekhine-Chatard Attack never seems to lose its appeal, and amazing amounts have been discovered in the past decade. In Vuelban - Naumkin, Florence 2012, Black tries the rare 6...a6!?:

White's score over the years has been absurdly positive, and yet if Black knows what he's doing (and Naumkin generally does!), he should stand satisfactorily.

French Wing Gambit [C00]

Finally, it's interesting to see what someone of Nigel Short's calibre does when meeting an offbeat variation like the French Wing Gambit. In Rotov - Short, Puhajarve 2012, after 2 Nf3 d5 3 e5 c5 4 b4 cxb4, White plays 5 d4!? (instead of the more common 5 a3):

This proves to be a good choice, as Short plays riskily and finds himself under pressure. But after some good moves White misses some chances and then allows a serious counterattack. This version of the Wing Gambit may be a better practical choice than 5 a3.

Till next month, John

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