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This month I'll look at an assortment of Tarrasch Defences and Classical Steinitz Variations. For the most part, these are slightly unusual lines, but not far from the mainstream.

Download PGN of December '13 French games

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Tarrasch Variation 3...c5 4 exd5 Qxd5 [C07]

The variation 3...c5 4 exd5 Qxd5 is still considered sound, but it's interesting that players as Black are dodging main lines and experimenting with slightly odd moves. After 5 Ngf3 cxd4 6 Bc4, for example, 6...Qd7!? is being seen and, in the normal line 6...Qd6 7 0-0 Nf6 8 Nb3 Nc6 9 Nbxd4 Nxd4 10 Nxd4, Black has recently tried 10...Be7!? a few times:

While this is sound, I'm inclined to be skeptical about the practical value of something so passive as more than a drawing attempt. White got little to nothing in the game Bok - Giri, Netherlands Team Championship 2013, but Black had even fewer opportunities.

3...Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4, 7 Nb3 [C05]

After 3...Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5, the sequence 6 Ngf3 Nc6 7 Nb3 is a safe and balanced line that White should perhaps try out more (especially since 6 c3 Nc6 7 Ndf3 can be so dangerous for the first player).

We've looked at this before, and in Safarli - Tikkanen, European Teams 2013, I review some basic replies. The game itself features a nice White attack which goes terribly wrong after mistakes.

Universal System 7...Be7, 8...g5 9 b4!? [C06]

In the Universal System with 3 Nd2 Be7 4 Ngf3 Nf6 5 e5 Nfd7 6 Bd3 c5 7 c3 Nc6 8 0-0 g5 (the same as 3...Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Bd3 c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 Ngf3 Be7 8 0-0 g5), the rare move 9 b4!? goes back to 1990, but has never caught on, in spite of a reasonable score:

The idea is to reduce pressure on White's centre at the cost of a pawn. In Jan Sorensen-B Sorensen, Danish Teams 2013, Black captured on b4 with 9...cxb4 10 cxb4 Nxb4, and after the most important move 11 Bb1, several games have shown that the play is unclear.

Universal System 7 Ngf3 f6 [C06]

In the Universal System with the order 3 Nd2 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Bd3 c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 Ngf3, 7...f6!? is a rather obscure move and one of several options that I recommend in PTF4. Reader Josef N Blades Aldebol sends us another of his innovative ideas in the French Defence after 8 exf6 Nxf6 9 0-0 cxd4 10 Nxd4:

analysis, which I supplement with my own in Tarrasch Universal System 7...f6.

Guimard Variation 3...Nc6, 6 Bb5 [C04]

The Guimard Variation is still enjoying reasonable success. One main line that I haven't touched upon recently is tested in Sanal - Ashiku, Kocaeli 2013, which arrives at this book position:

The game tested the complicated forcing sequence beginning with 10 Na5 Ndxe5! 11 Nxe5!, which turns out to be equal with accurate play by both sides.

Classical Steinitz 6...Be7 [C11]

It seems that even in the most venerable of positions there's always something new. In the Classical Steinitz Variation, we've shown a huge number of games following 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6, many of them proceeding 7 Be3 Be7. It seem as though there's always something new to be found, and a couple of years ago a few strong players began to play 6...Be7!? instead of 6...Nc6.

Morozevich had tried this out in a 2004 game versus Shirov, but it wasn't until 2012 that he tried it again and then this year (versus Giri). Volkov is another leading GM who spurred interest by using the move in games in 2009 and 2010, but his idea was 6...Be7 7 Be3 Qb6, which has not caught on in comparison to 7...0-0 and 7...b6.

There are a few points to delaying ...Nc6. 6...Be7 is a sort of waiting move, to see how White sets up before deciding upon a plan, which might be ...b6 or some more traditional line with ...a6 or ...cxd4. When Black chooses an early ...b6 without ...Nc6, he is both discouraging dxc5 (...bxc5) and retaining the option of ...Ba6 supported by the knight on b8.

A 'main line' arises in the game Saric - Svane, Kozloduy 2013: 6...Be7 7 Be3 0-0 8 Qd2 b6, and here White played 9 0-0-0!?

This is dangerous, because Black can start a standard attack on the queenside via ...c4 and ...b5. It's not as bad as the same position with ...Nc6 already in, because Black's attack proceeds more slowly due to the tempo loss ...b6-b5. Nevertheless, the game shows how quickly White can be run over, and the recent game in the notes shouldn't really encourage White either.

The move 9 Be2 is safer, as analysed in Rasmussen - Andersen, Rhodes 2013. Black brought his bishop to a6 and achieved equality with an exchange on e2:

White tried a crazy attack with g4, perhaps not objectively best, and almost pulled it off. Both sides blundered in the tactical melee which followed.

Because delaying ...Nc6 is rather slow, you'll see White trying to exploit it with the aggressive 8 Bd3:

In Morawietz - Bluebaum, Bad Wiessee 2013, Black played simply 8...Nc6, when 9 dxc5! was best, because the slow 9 a3 f6! resulted in the dissolution of White's centre.

That's not the only way to play it, of course. I'll use a game from July, Svetushkin - Antic, Greek TCh 2013, to illustrate an early ...b6/...Ba6 idea versus Bd3, reaching this position:

Morozevich tested this same position versus Bologan. In both games, Black achieved complete equality.

Till next month, John

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