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In this update I want to look at some Winawer sidelines which have been the subject of repertoires or theoretical articles over the past year, as well as some variations with 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5 dxe4. To see whether players are paying attention, I decided to look at recent online games, and indeed there are players of all strengths taking up the gauntlet. Unfortunately, although the opening play is instructive, most of these games are blitz games, and several of them are ruined by time scrambles. Hopefully you’ll be able to get something useful from them and ignore the new reality.

Download PGN of December ’20 French games

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Winawer main line with 6...Nc6 [C18]

After 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3, the move 6...Nc6 has been most frequently associated with Ponomariov, although other top players have experimented with it. The most devoted 6...Nc6 practitioner may be the Russian IM Oleg Vastrukhin, who has played it consistently for over a decade. We’ve only covered the critical main move 7 Qg4 in this column, but in Bologan, V - Vastrukhin, O Titled Tuesday 2020, White played 7 Nf3 and Black responded with the rare 7...Bd7 (which has also been played by Ponomariov):

Bologan continued with 8 h4, when the conventional 8...Nge7 might transpose into a normal Winawer, but 8...Qa5 9 Bd2 c4!? followed. In the notes I’ve analysed the important alternative 8 a4.

In Maze, S - Vastrukhin, O, Titled Tuesday Nov 2020, White played the uncommon 7 h4:

Vastrukhin again played 7...Bd7, but eventually got into trouble when White expanded on the kingside, exchanged queens, and entered into an instructive ending in which White’s two bishops and space were dominant factors. I look at a variety of 7th-move alternatives.

In Ivic, V - Vastrukhin, O, Titled Tuesday 2020, Black faced the main line 7 Qg4 g6:

The game continued 8...Bd7 (8...Qa5 may be more accurate - see the notes) 9 Nf3 Qa5 10 Bd2 c4, with double-edged play.

Winawer 4...Qd7 [C16]

Having been played by Caruana (a lot) and even by Carlsen, 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 Qd7 has gained a seemingly permanent place in the set of respectable options for Black. There have been a series of articles, annotated games, and even repertoire recommendations for both 4...Qd7 and 4...b6 (which sometimes transpose), so it’s interesting to see the moves popping up in online tournaments. A traditional structure arose in Murzin, V - Maghsoodloo, P, C'Chartres Blitz 2020, following 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 b6 7 Nh3 Ba6 8 Bxa6 Nxa6:

A difficult position. I examine both 9 Qg4 and the game continuation 9 Nf4.

In Praggnanandhaa, R - Maghsoodloo, P, Junior Speed 2020, White answered 4...Qd7 with 5 h4:

I like this unusual move, which intends simply h5-h6 and is useful agains almost any Black setup. There's a strong logic to playing on the flank when Black has been slow to attack the center with ...c5. Black continued 5...b6 (5...c5 6 a3!) 6 h5 Ba6 7 Bxa6 Nxa6 8 Qg4 Bf8, a position which appeared in two recent Maghsoodloo games. Although the play is complex and offers creative leeway, I think that White should retain the advantage with accurate play.

Slizhevsky, A - Hess, R, Titled Tuesday Sept 2020, saw the superficially slow order 4...Qd7 5 Qg4 Bf8!?:

Black has no weaknesses or targets and hopes to have time to develop and counterattack in the center. Here White played 6 Bb5, a rare move once tried by Caruana. In the notes I look at a couple of other more conventional moves, but in any case this variation could do with a closer look.

Winawer 6...Ne7 7 Qg4 Nf5 [C18]

Another deviation from the main line with a lengthy history but not many contemporary followers is 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 Qg4 Nf5. This is almost always followed by 8 Bd3 h5:

Here White has two main moves. 9 Qf4 and 9 Qh3. In the past, the latter was considered to give White some advantage, but that’s not clear. In Joba, A - Townsend, M, Skalica 2020, I look at the key lines. If Black is to revive 7...Nf5, however, he’ll have to find some new moves and be thoroughly prepared versus both of White’s 9th moves.

Classical, Rubinstein Variation 4 Bg5 dxe4 5 Nxe4 Be7 6 Bxf6 Bxf6 [C11/13]

Versus 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5, 4...dxe4 5 Nxe4 Be7 is an increasingly popular way to avoid the theory-heavy 4...Bb4 and 4...Be7. After 6 Bxf6, I’ve devoted a fair amount of column space to Morozevich’s 6...gxf6, and it has to be said that this is the most enterprising and ‘fun’ variation. But it’s also risky, and there have always been players who have preferred the solid 6...Bxf6. Then after 7 Nf3, 7...0-0 and 7...Nd7 are the main moves, but in Klimkowski, J - Bogdanov, I, Infoszach Masters 2020, Black tried to get in the useful ..b6 in a move early with 7...b6:

Here White deviated from the ‘natural’ 8 Bd3 and 8 c3 to play 8 Qe2, intending 0-0-0 followed by attack. This didn’t lead to much, and the game itself was spoiled by a blunder, but Black’s method of equalizing is instructive.

Although 7 Nf3 is played in about 90% of games (and all but 1 game in the Archives), White does have a couple of reasonable choices. The move 7 c3 is a little tricky. In Derakhshani, D - Hardik, O, Midwest Collegiate Blitz 2020, there followed 7...0-0 (in a game between the same two opponents, Black regretted 7...b6?! 8 Qf3! c6 9 0-0-0 with a dangerous attack) 8 Bd3:

Here Black played 8...Be7, which is a bit slow although hardly fatal. I expended some effort looking at 8...Nd7 9 Nf3 e5, a thematic attempt which looks fully equal. It’s a variation that White could consider using, however, for a change of pace.

Finally, the double exchange by 7 Nxf6+ Qxf6 (alternatively, 6 Nxf6+ Bxf6 7 Bxf6 Qxf6) has always been considered harmless but if you’re planning to play Black you’ll see it every now and then.

In Paravyan, D - Bluebaum, M, Titled Tuesday July 2020, White played for Qd3 and 0-0-0. The fact that White got a large advantage, and that Black came back to win in the Blitz time pressure, shows that even with strong Grandmasters, such a simple position can pose problems and get out of hand.

Till next month, John

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