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This month I want to cover early deviations after 3 Nc3. This includes a look at 4 e5 Qd7 and 4 e5 b6 in the Winawer, as well as the fairly obscure 3 Nc3 Be7 and 3 Nc3 h6, which have both been used over many years by strong masters, but have never fully caught on.

Download PGN of December ’19 French games

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Winawer 4 e5 Qd7 [C16]

A lot of attention has been given recently to Winawer lines after 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 without an early ...c5, especially setups with ...b6. The variations with 4...Qd7 and 4...b6 have grown increasingly popular. It makes some sense for leading players who use the French only as an occasional weapon, such as Caruana and Carlsen, to play such lines, because they don’t require much theoretical upkeep. Even if they concede space and sometimes a minor theoretical disadvantage, they tend to produce heavy strategic positions in which the better player wins.

Caruana has often played the line 4...Qd7, and in several lines he follows ...b6 with the move ...Nc6 (instead of ...Ba6). In the blitz game Anand, V - Caruana, F, Bucharest 2019, 5 Qg4 f5 6 Qg3 b6 7 Bd2 Nc6 followed:

White managed to keep a space advantage, and when Black created pawn weaknesses in order to gain the two bishops, the weaknesses turned out to be permanent and never went away. I’ve included several variants of this ...Nc6 idea in the notes, including other Caruana games.

In another battle between heavyweights, Aronian, L - Carlsen, M, London 2019, play continued 5 Nh3 b6 6 Nf4 Ba6 7 Bxa6 Nxa6 8 0-0:

White has the typical space advantage and slight edge, but Carlsen made a huge error early on, and only after missing win after win did Aronian let his esteemed opponent back into the game.

Winawer 4 e5 Ne7 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 b6 7 Qg4 Ng6 8 h4 h5 9 Qg3 Ba6 [C16]

Many years ago, 4...Ne7 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 b6 was a main line, and in the past few years we’ve seen a revival of this variation, with some unique move orders for both sides.

In Popatov, P - Voit, D, Khanty-Mansiysk 2019, 7 Qg4 Ng6 8 h4 h5 was answered with 9 Qg3 Ba6 and now 10 Bd3!? Bxd3 11 cxd3:

This has been played a fair number of times. White’s central pawns cover key squares, but in the various examples in the notes he seems to lack effective plans.

The game Zarubitski, V - Papp, L, Tallinn 2019, saw the normal 10 Bxa6 Nxa6:

This is the old main line, still not terribly clear from a theoretical point of view. White played a slightly unusual move order with 11 Ne2 (instead of 11 Bg5, analysed in the notes), but soon put a bishop on g5 anyway, and the usual themes arose, principally involving White’s f4-f5 versus Black’s queenside play.

Classical Variation, Irregular Moves, 3 Nc3 Be7 4 exd5 exd5 [C10]

It was recently pointed out to me that I’ve mostly ignored 3 Nc3 Be7 in this column, a line which used to be championed by Morozevich and Seirawan and is still played by strong masters. It’s a specialty of IM Mikhail Demidov, for example, and I’ll look at two recent games by GM Sergei Matsenko. What’s more, it’s been years since I’ve looked at 3 Nc3 h6, used by GMs Emanuel Berg and Vadim Malakhato, among others and having a bit of a revival. This is in contrast the heavy coverage of my pet line 3 Nd2 h6, the latter more thoroughly analysed on ChessPublishing than anywhere else.

In Yoo, C - Matsenko, S, St Louis 2019, White tried to exploit 3 Nc3 Be7 by transposing into an Exchange Variation via 4 exd5 exd5. This is an important consideration in all irregular variations (such as 3 Nd2 h6 and 3 Nd2 a6, for example). Here, however, Nc3 isn’t a particularly potent move (White can no longer play c4, for example), so Black shouldn’t have too many problems. The game continued 5 Nf3 Nf6 6 Bd3:

After 6...Bg4 7 h3 Bh5 8 0-0 0-0, White could play a developing move with equality. Instead, he slightly weakened himself with 9 g4, which might have led to some difficulties. In any case, Black can also equalize by playing for an early ...c5.

Classical Variation 3 Nc3 Be7 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 Bd3 [C10]

4 Nf3 Nf6 5 Bd3 is White’s most popular attempt to gain an advantage and I suspect his best choice. Then the main line (I discuss alternatives in the notes) goes 5...c5 6 exd5 exd5 7 dxc5 Bxc5 8 0-0 0-0 9 Bg5 Be6:

This position has been arrived at many times, with even results. Perhaps White has a small nominal edge, but Black has good activity and the isolated pawn isn't easily attacked. In Nasuta, G - Schwabeneder, F, Vienna 2019, we see a few examples of the play.

Classical Variation 3 Nc3 Be7 4 e5 c5 [C10]

The other critical move is 4 e5. Then 4...b6 is playable, but 4....c5 is more ambitious. In Mishra, A - Matsenko, S, St Louis 2019, this led to 5 Qg4 g5!?:

I’m not sure if I fully approve of this but it creates interesting problems and worked perfectly in the game.

Classical Variation, Irregular Moves, 3 Nc3 h6 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 Bd3 [C10]

Finally, I thought I’d mention 3 Nc3 h6, which is perhaps not as solid as 3...Be7 but continues to be used. The old main line 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 Bd3 Bb4 6 e5 Ne4 7 Bd2 was seen in Gavrilescu, D - Cosma, E, Bucharest 2019.

Instead of the conventional 7...Nxd2, Black used the order 7...Bxc3 8 bxc3 Nxd2, achieving a double-edged game with about equal chances.

Till next month, John

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