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This column is mainly devoted to recent ideas in the Advance Variation, where the gambit idea with Bd3 in the main line continues to be played regularly. I’ve also examined two important variations in the 7 Qg4 Winawer.

Download PGN of April ’24 French games

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Advance Variation, Main line 5 Nf3 Bd7 6 Be2 f6 7 0-0 fxe5 [C02]

In the past two there have been some new ideas in the old lines that begin 3 e5 c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3 Bd7. Then 6 Be2 f6 7 0-0 fxe5 8 Nxe5 is a sequence we have covered in considerable depth in this column. My database has well over 800 games from this position, by far the most with 8...Nxe5. In Vachier Lagrave, M - Martinovic, Sa Austrian Team Ch 2024, Black chose the rare 8...cxd4:

The funny thing is that both my Stockfish and Leela engines give 8...cxd4 as the best move(!), albeit by a modest margin. It turns out that after 9 cxd4, Black doesn’t have to play 9...Nxe5, which is tricky but ultimately in White’s favor. Instead, he can play 9...Bd6! and resolve the central situation. Remarkably, Black chose this move over 9...Nxe5 only seven times over the years. In the game, Vachier LaGrave avoided the issue and played 9 Nxc6 (I cover the alternatives in the notes) 9...bxc6 10 Qxd4, but didn’t achieve anything. Incidentally, another move that has hardly been seen is 8...Bd6 (instead of 8...Nxe5 or 8...cxd4), and I’ve given that a preliminary analysis. It’s remarkable what can still be found in a long-established and well-known variation like this.

The main line with 7...fxe5 8 Nxe5 Nxe5 9 dxe5 continues to be disputed; see the Archives games, which I’ll doubtless be updating at some point. Another important try is 8 dxe5, which I’ve analysed in notes but not sufficiently. It can be dangerous, as the game Acs, P - Toth, E, Hungarian Team Ch 2024 indicates.

Black played 8...Qc7 (here 8...Nh6 is a promising alternative described in the notes) 9 Bf4 0-0-0? (9...Nh6) and was hit with the now-standard attacking idea 10 a4! with the idea Na3-b5. It’s remarkable how simple White’s attack is, and I think Black simply has to avoid this order.

Advance, Hector Gambit 5...Qb6 6 Bd3 cxd4 7 0-0 Bd7 8 Re1 [C02]

The traditional 5...Qb6 is still played more often than 5...Bd7, although the latter is gaining advocates. In the popular gambit line with 5...Qb6 6 Bd3 cxd4 7 0-0 Bd7 8 Re1, we’ve seen 8...Rc8 (instead of the natural 8...Nge7) in quite a few games. Then 9 Nbd2 dxc3 10 bxc3 is one critical position:

In a game played just a few days ago, Merario Alarcon, A - Marin, M, San Vicente del Raspeig 2024, Black played 10...Nge7, which seems slightly inconsistent with 8...Rc8, since the idea of waiting to develop the knight is either to develop the bishop by 10...Bc5 or accelerate an attack on the queenside by 10...Na5 (the main theoretical move). Of course 10...Nge7 isn’t fatal, but White’s play in this game is a model for how to seize a central initiative while Black develops too slowly.

The main line is still 8...Nge7 9 h4 Now Black has several moves, and theory is still developing. In Schmidt, M - Tiglon, B, GRENKE Open Karlsruhe 2024, Black opted for 9...h6:

I’ve tried to give a good overview of this line, including the two key moves 10 a3 and 10 h5, as in the game. Players will likely be contesting this variation for some time to come.

Advance ...Qb6, 6 Na3 cxd4 7 cxd4 Bb4+ 8 Bd2 Nge7 9 Nc2 Bxd2+ 10 Qxd2 Qxb2 [C02]

The best-known responses to 5...Qb6 are 6 a3, 6 Be2, and 6 Bd3. All these have accumulated loads of theory, so for a change of pace White has also experimented with 6 Na3, a move that is being played in several lines of the Advance.

In Efimenko, Z - Galchenko, M, Titled Tuesday 20th Feb 2024, Black chose the popular sequence 6...cxd4 7 cxd4 Bb4+ 8 Bd2 Nge7 9 Nc2 Bxd2+ 10 Qxd2 Qxb2 11 Bd3, after which White has space and active play in return for the pawn. The chances have proven to be balanced here, with a lot of room for original play.

Winawer Variation 7 Qg4 Qc7 8 Bd3 c4 9 Be2 Qa5 10 Bd2 [C18]

After 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 Qg4 Qc7, we’ve covered 8 Bd3 quite a bit, but many strong players of White are turning to it with increasing frequency, so we’ll keep looking at it. Perhaps the reason for the move’s appeal is that 8 Qxg7 doesn’t seem to be obtaining any advantage, or because the theory of 8 Bd3 is so much stabler and less chaotic than in that Poisoned Pawn line. Regardless, the problems posed by 8 Bd3 are difficult enough that both sides would do well to come to this position well-prepared. Perunovic, M - Duda, J, Titled Tue 5th Mar 2024 was a Blitz game, but between two very knowledgeable opponents who tested one of the main lines 8...c4 9 Be2 Qa5 10 Bd2 Nf5 11 Nf3:

Instead of 11...Nc6 or 11...Qa5, Black played 11...Bd7, intending to play ...Ba4 in some lines. The idea is well-known, and the order in the game can easily transpose to other lines in this variation. The game continued logically with instructive maneuvers for both sides. Alas, Blitz blunders took over at some point, but not before we come to see the most important themes of the position.

Two very recent games saw Carlsen and Vachier Lagrave on the White side of 8 Bd3 against Rapport, high-level games which will doubtless attract even more attention to the move. After the moves above (8...c4 9 Be2 Qa5 10 Bd2), Rapport chose the unusual 10...Rg8:

One drawback of this move is that Black can no longer play ...0-0, which is often a decent option after 10...Nf5. On the positive side, Black's knight on f5 can lose time to an attack with g4, which in conjunction with f4 is sometimes White's best plan in this line. Both games went 11 a4 Nbc6, and Carlsen, M - Rapport, R, GRENKE Karlsruhe 2024, saw 12 Qh3 (Vachier Lagrave played 12 Nf3). White got the better of the opening, but this turned into an amazingly difficult game all the way into the ending.

Poisoned Pawn 9...cxd4 10 Ne2 dxc3 11 f4 Nbc6 12 Qd3 d4 13 Rg1 [C18]

In the main line with 8 Qxg7 Rg8 9 Qxh7 cxd4 10 Ne2 dxc3 11 f4 Nbc6 12 Qd3 d4, a Rapids game from two months ago, Svidler, P - Gadimbayli, A Chessable Masters Play In 2024, deserves a look:

Svidler played the unusual 13 Rg1!?, probably trying to throw his opponent off. In the notes, I show how Black can respond effectively to this order, but as the game goes, we return to a potentially important line (usually starting with 13 Rb1) that I haven’t given much attention to in this column. It’s not easy for Black to play against, and after an early inaccuracy he always seems to stand somewhat worse; still it remains a good fight and there’s more to be discovered here.

Till next month, John

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