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This month I focus upon two Winawer lines. The first, 6...Nc6 in the main line, has been fairly popular among strong masters for several years now. The second, 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 b6, is recommended in various French repertoires and has seen fairly extensive practice for at least 70 years, but isn’t attracting much grandmaster attention today.

Download PGN of December ’23 French games

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Winawer Main Line 6...Nc6 7 Nf3 [C18]

After 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3, prominent French players continue to use 6...Nc6 with success. So far, the games in the Archives mostly follow the main line with 7 Qg4. I haven’t dealt much with 7 Nf3, even though it’s reasonably popular. In Martinez Duany, L - Carrasco Martinez, J, Spanish Teams Linares 2023, 7...Qa5 8 Bd2 followed:

Black played 8...c4 (8...Qa4 and 8...Nge7 are also popular), when White returned to the Qg4 idea by 9 Nh4 Bd7 10 Qg4 g6. Black’s dark squares are potentially weak, but since White has played the two extra knight moves, he has time to castle queenside and advance his kingside pawns without too many problems.

Winawer Main Line 6...Nc6 7 Qg4 g6 8 Nf3 [C18]

After 7 Qg4 g6, the main move has been 8 Nf3, as illustrated by Obgolts, E - Demidov, M, Khanty-Mansiysk 2023:

The game followed established lines with 8...Qa5 9 Bd2 Qa4 10 Bd3 c4 11 Be2, and here Black has been foregoing or at least waiting on capturing on c2, in this case by 11...Bd7 12 0-0 0-0-0. Black has held his own in this and similar positions, and bth sides have plenty of prospects.

Winawer Main Line 6...Nc6 7 Qg4 g6 8 Qf4 [C18]

An interesting idea for White is 8 Qf4, which was played as far back as 2006 by Murray Chandler but extremely rarely since:

Recently this queen move has been played by Kosteniuk, notably in three games versus Hou Yifan in the Semifinal match of the Women's Speed Chess Championship. White ties Black to protection of f7 and, by defending his queen on f4, threatens dxc5 in some cases.

In Kosteniuk, A - Mkrtchian, L, European Teams Women Budva 2023, Black played 8...Qa5 9 Bd2 c4 10 h4 (in one of her match games versus Hou Yifan Kosteniuk played 10 a4 here - see the notes) 10...h6:

This is a complex middlegame position requiring careful play from both sides. In practice, whether or not White retains an abstract theoretical edge, the game is unpredictable and up-in-the-air.

The same applies to two similar games from the Kosteniuk-Hou Yifan Women’s Speed Chess match which went 8...h6 9 h4 Qa5 10 Bd2 c4 11 a4 Bd7:

The pawn on a4 prevents ...Qa4 and makes a technical difference, but the themes are familiar. Kosteniuk, A - Hou Yifan, Women's Speed Chess 2023 contains two games which deviate on move 15. Both are high quality contests although, being Blitz games, they have their share of inaccuracies and missed opportunities. I think this line is fully playable for both sides.

Winawer 4 e5 b6 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Qd7 7 Qg4 f5 8 Qg3 Ba6 9 Bxa6 Nxa6 [C16]

Black’s defense with 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 b6 has a longstanding appeal, in large part because it sidesteps some of the most theoretically dense and complex variations in chess after 4....c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3. Inspired by some beautiful games by Petrosian and Bronstein as Black some 70 years ago, a number of authors have constructed repertoires with 4...b6, including three from the past few years. In this column I want to look at some games with 5 a3. At first, I assumed that the classic line 5...Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Qd7 (which can also arise via 4...Qd7 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 b6) 7 Qg4 f5 8 Qg3 Ba6 9 Bxa6 Nxa6 was refuted, but I notice that what I’ve included in the Archives doesn’t fully cover the lines that have been played recommended for Black. Let me start with the usual move 10 Ne2:

Kienboeck, B - Belke, F, Vienna 2022, is the most recent relevant game I can find. Black played the immediate 10...Kf7 and I review several of White’s approaches. In the notes I analyse the old line 10...Nb8 11 Nf4 Kf7 (to avoid 11...Nbc6? 12 Nxe6!, but 11...Qf7!? 12 Nxe6 is more interesting), which has been played a good deal, but here I examine the engine’s top suggestion 12 Nh5! (still unplayed) and can’t find a satisfactory reply.

In the recent game Khachiyan, M - Fisabilillah, U, Titled Tue 1st Aug 2023, White bypassed all this with 10 a4:

I give this ‘!’ because it has been relatively neglected and avoids the monstruous complication stemming from 10 Ne2. In the main line 10...Nb8 11 a5 Nbc6 12 axb6 cxb6 13 Ne2, Lakdawala’s repertoire move 13...Qf7 appears to fall short, and the game’s 13...Kf7 14 Nf4 Ne7 loses quickly after an inaccuracy. I think Black can improve, but White seems definitely better in any case after 10 a4.

Winawer with 4 e5 b6 5 a3 Bf8 [C16]

All this is at best very risky for Black and so I don’t expect to see many strong players using 5...Bxc3+ (although White had better know what to do in detail!). On the other hand, 5...Bf8 is a safer and more practical course which has always had its advocates.

Fans of 4...b6 will point to the lack of weaknesses in Black’s position and White’s rather awkwardly-place knight on c3. But White has gained some time with which to shore up his center and it’s hard to avoid thinking of this as a favorable Advance Variation or Classical Steinitz. We’ve looked at 6 Bb5+ in numerous games, but only briefly at alternatives. Piekielny, P - Tazbir, M, Lublin 2023, tested the main line 6 Nf3. To me, White always has some advantage, if only because he can shore up his center favorably at some point with Ne2 and c3. The game illustrates, however, that at least both sides can go wrong.

Another promising idea is 6 h4, staking out space on the kingside:

This can be played now or later, but it says something about Black’s space difficulties that White doesn’t have to worry about his center being undermined. Xu, Y - Rastbod, A, Titled Tuesday 15 Mar 2022, is full of notes which illustrate this, and the game itself is way too easy for White. My overall impression of 4...b6 is that it is mainly effective when it takes White out of his preparation, but can too easily lead Black into a cramped position without adequate prospects.

Till next month, John

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