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This month I’ll focus on 3 Nc3. The emphasis will be on 3...Nf6 4 e5, currently the most popular move at the top levels. I also look at some Winawers, notably at a few ways to sidestep currently fashionable lines.

Download PGN of December ’22 French games

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Classical Variation 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Nce2 c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 Nf3 [C11]

For the past few years, in the line 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7, 5 Nce2 has had a period of modest popularity, to some extent inspired by Harikrishna’s advocacy. Given Black’s recent successful defenses in the Steinitz line with 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3, 5 Nce2 is all the more relevant and deserves a deeper investigation. In Harsha, B - Ibadov, D, Titled Tuesday 22nd Nov 2022, Black played 5...c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 Nf3 Qa5, and 8 a3 cxd4 9 b4 followed:

Black played 9...Qb6?! 10 cxd4 a5?!, and White gained an extremely dangerous initiative after 11 b5! Qxb5 12 Nc3 Qb6 13 Rb1. Correct was 9...Qc7 10 cxd4 b5!, as played by Caruana and Vitiugov, but this is very unclear and hardly resolved.

In Andersen, M - Prusikin, M, Bundesliga 2022, Black chose 7...Be7 8 a3, and instead of 8...0-0, which has a solid theoretical reputation, he played 8...Qb6 9 b4 cxd4 10 cxd4:

Now 10...a5 11 b5 Qxb5 12 Nc3 is a tempo up for Black on the previous game, but White still has good compensation. In the game, 10...f6 11 Be3 fxe5 led to equal play, but White could have gained some advantage with 11 exf6!.

Both of these examples show how White can create good winning chances in this line. Black is arguably better off by delaying development of his queen, and one should also take note of the variation 5 Nce2 c5 6 c3 f6, which has a good record and also deserves a closer look.

Steinitz Variation 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Ne2 f6 [C11]

The main line is 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3, but 7 Ne2 can be played here as well. In Negi, P - Hilby, C, Charlotte 2022, there followed 7...f6 8 c3 Qb6:

This position could have arisen via 5 Nce2 c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 f4 f6 8 Nf3, etc. In the diagram, 9 a3 and 9 g3 are the main lines, but in the game 9 h4 was played and a unique position quickly arose illustrating several standard themes from this structure.

Steinitz Variation 7 Be3 cxd4 8 Nxd4 Qb6 9 a3 Bc5 10 Ncb5 a6 [C11]

The Steinitz Variation with 3...Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3 is still the most popular line of the 3 Nc3 French. The defence 7...cxd4 (7...Qb6 8 a3!? cxd4 9 Nxd4 transposes) 8 Nxd4 Qb6 continues to be popular. We saw 9 a3 Bc5 10 Ncb5 recently in a game Niemann-So (see the Archives).

In that game 10...Nxd4 was played and White gained some advantage. In Mareco, S - Peralta, F, Barichole 2022, Black tried 10...a6 11 b4 axb5 12 bxc5 Qxc5 13 Qd3 Nxd4 14 Bxd4 Qe7 , when the play is fairly complex, but if White has any edge it is quite limited.

In So, W - Erigaisi, A, Tata Steel Rapid Kolkata 2022, Black tried the same line but with 13...Qe7!?. There followed 14 Nxb5 0-0:

Probably White should try 15 Qb3 (as in the original game with this line). He may be only slightly better in that case, but after 15 Be2 f6 (or 15...b6), Black has already equalized.

Winawer Mainline 7 h4 Qc7 8 h5 h6 9 Rb1 [C18]

After 3...Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7, recent games in the Poisoned Pawn Winawer are not achieving much for White (as far as I can tell), so it’s important to keep looking at 7 h4, which is still leading to original play and producing games with prospects for both sides. First, a game with 7...Qc7, which has become the main line.

In Ibadov, D - Goryachkina, A, Titled Tue 22nd Nov 2022, White tested 8 h5 h6 9 Rb1:

After 9...b6 (I give some analysis of 9...Nbc6) 10 Qg4, Goryachkina played 10...cxd4 11 Qxg7 Rg8 12 Qxh6 Qxe5+ 13 Ne2 dxc3 14 Bf4 Qe4 in two recent games including this one. The line seems playable for Black.

Winawer Mainline 7 h4 Qa5 8 Bd2 Nbc6 9 h5 [C18]

With 7...Qc7 getting so much attention over the past few years, the old-fashioned approach of 7...Qa5 might be worth revisiting for Black. Bui, B - Haak, E, Vlissingen 2022, continued 8 Bd2 Nbc6 9 h5:

Here Black played the 9...Bd7, allowing h6. The idea is that Black's kingside weaknesses will be compensated by a combination of piece activity in that sector and queenside play, while White counts upon his two bishops and central advantage. After 10 h6 gxh6, White has an array of options and there is much unexplored territory worth exploring.

In Samant, A - Puranik, A, Asian Continental Blitz Delhi 2022, Black played the safer-looking 9...h6, leading to 10 a4 Bd7 11 Qg4:

Here 11....Nf5 12 Bd3 favors White, so Black played 11...0-0-0 12 Qxg7, and now both 12...cxd4 and 12...Qb6 seem to give reasonable play.

Winawer 6...Nc6 7 h4 [C18]

Of the many deviations from the main line for Black, 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Nc6 is one of the riskiest because he has to accept kingside weaknesses. Nevertheless, it continues to be played periodically with reasonable success. The main advocate for 6..Nc6 recently has been Oleg Vastrukhin, who has been tested in nearly every line. In Den, D - Vastrukhin, O, Tuapse Blitz 2022, White tried the interesting move 7 h4:

After 7...Bd7 8 h5 Qa5 9 Bd2 0-0-0, the game and notes show how having the knight on g8 instead of e7 has some real advantages for Black.

Till next month, John

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