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Pentala Harikrishna has vast experience on the Black side of the French Defence, so his recent book with Thinkers Publishing giving a detailed White repertoire with 3 Nc3 is of particular interest. This month, I’m going to examine recent games, as usual, but in the context of examining what Harikrishna recommends for White. He has done an excellent job, especially with what are traditionally considered less common and irregular lines, so many of the following games will fall into that category. With all the new books and eBooks on the French, I hope to organize my next few updates around their recommendations.

Download PGN of January ’21 French games

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Rubinstein Variation Mainline 4...Nd7 5 Nf3 Ngf6 6 Nxf6+ Nxf6 7 Ne5 [C10]

After 3 Nc3 dxe4 4 Nxe4 Nd7 5 Nf3 Ngf6, Harikrishna recommends the relatively rare line 6 Nxf6+ Nxf6 7 Ne5:

This is not as easy to counter as it might seem. In Kruckenhauser, A - Mostbauer, M, Austrian Team Ch 2020, Black tried 7...a6, which worked out all right but should leave White with a small pull.

I look at 7...c5 and 7...Bd6 in the notes; the latter looks playable.

Another good answer is 7...Nd7, used by several strong players. In Vazquez, G - Lenderman, A, US Collegiate Blitz 2020. There followed 8 Be2 Nxe5 9 dxe5 Qxd1+ 10 Bxd1:

With a couple of accurate moves Black should achieve complete equality, so perhaps White might want to employ 8 Bf4, with a position which may not favor him, but leaves much more interesting play on the board.

Steinitz Variation 5 Nce2 c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 Nf3 [C11]

Harikrishna recommends two different lines after 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7. The first is 5 Nce2, which as a result of his efforts has been played quite a bit recently; we have many examples in the Archives. The main line goes 5...c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 Nf3, and here Sengupta, D - Nutakki, P, Titled Tuesday October 2020, tested one of the critical moves 7...Qb6 (7...Qa5 is analysed in the notes):

White continued with the interesting move 8 g3 (Harikrishna’s main line 8 a3 is examined in the notes) followed by 8...f6 9 exf6 Nxf6 10 Bg2, and now 10...cxd4 11 cxd4 Bb4+ was called for, rather than 10...0-0 11 0-0 with a small advantage to the first player.

The other popular defense begins with 7...Be7, when 8 a3 0-0 9 Nf4 Qa5 puts pressure on White’s center. Harikrishna devotes 10 pages to the move 10 Ra2:

In Vazquez, G - Schmakel, S, Texas Collegiate Online Finals 2020, Black played what I think is his best line 10...Nxd4 11 Nxd4 cxd4 12 b4 Qb6 13 cxd4, when both the move played, 13...a5, and Harikrishna’s main line after 13...f6 should lead to equality, in my opinion, which I try to support with analysis.

Steinitz Variation 5 Nce2 c5 6 c3 cxd4 7 cxd4 f6 [C11]

Black can prevent White from entering this main line with the order 5 Nce2 c5 6 c3 cxd4 7 cxd4 f6. Then Harikrishna’s recommendation goes 8 f4 fxe5 9 fxe5 Qh4+ (he looks at 9...Bb4+ as well, which I analyse in my notes) 10 Ng3 Bb4+11 Kf2 0-0+ 12 Nf3 Nc6 13 Be3:

This goes way back to Neil McDonald's analysis of the 2001 game Morozevich-Gurevich in the Archives! The original move was 13...Ndxe5, which Harikirishna analyses in depth, but in Zhou, G - Ulybin, M, Groningen 2019 (an old-fashioned over-the-board game at a slow time control), Black played 13...Ba5. I look at both 13th-moves in some depth.

Steinitz 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3 Qb6 8 Na4 Qa5+ 9 c3 b6 10 Bd2 c4 11 b4 [C11]

Not content to offer just one repertoire choice, Harikrishna gives a full repertoire with 5 f4 as well, entering the exhaustively played and analysed 5...c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3. I don’t have room to cover the many alternatives here (check the Archives), but will refer to many in the months ahead. I was interested in his solution to 7...Qb6 8 Na4 Qa5+ 9 c3 b6 10 Bd2 c4, whose assessment has floated back and forth between equal and better for White.

After 11 b4 Nxb4 12 cxb4 Bxb4 13 Qc2 Bxd2+ 14 Nxd2 b5 15 Nc3, Black has two pawns for a piece and the threat of rapidly advancing his passed pawns on the queenside. This has been played in many games over the years. Ambartsumova, K - Muminova, N, EUR Online Women CC Final 2020, continued with 15...0-0, and my analysis of the game’s 16 g3, as well as Harikrishna’s 16 a3 indicates that White keeps a clear advantage.

In Ronka, E - Santiago, Y, Titled Tuesday December 2020, Black followed the same variation but deviated with 15...b4:

White responded with 16 Nce4!, which is considered best by Harikrishna and others. The game follows a sideline of his analysis for a few more moves, but I disagree with his assessment and think that Black has a playable game. Of course, White has various earlier options, so Black would have to prepare well to enter into this line.

Hecht-Reefschläger 3 Nc3 Nc6 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 e5 Ne4 6 Bd3 [C10]

Thanks to Neil McDonald’s efforts, the irregular Hecht-Reefschläger Variation, 3 Nc3 Nc6, received its first in-depth theoretical consideration in this column, and up to a couple of years ago I tried to keep up with that tradition. Looking over what’s been happening since, I find a few interesting trends. First, although I’ve been a bit pessimistic about certain key lines, 3...Nc6 has scored surprisingly well. In part, that’s because White doesn’t choose the most critical lines, but also because Black tends to be better prepared.

The older line 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 e5 Ne4, which we have examined many times in this column, continues to appear regularly, so Black should be familiar with it. After 6 Bd3 Bb4 7 Bd2 Nxd2 8 Qxd2, Gavrilescu, D - Taboas Rodriguez, D, Titled Tuesday December 2020, Black played the somewhat unusual 8...Be7!? (I’ve put recent games with a couple of other moves in the notes).

The idea is ...Nb4 and ...c5. White castled, but 9 a3 is probably the way to maintain some advantage. The usual 8...f6 and 8...Bd7 are in good theoretical standing.

Hecht-Reefschläger 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 Bd3 [C10]

Remarkably, Harikrishna has devoted a whole section and 35 pages of analysis into 3...Nc6. The other trend has been that in correspondence chess, White has increasingly focused upon two other promising variations for White, which indeed pose the most difficulties for Black, and Harikrishna has fortunately made these his main recommendations, adding scads of original analysis. As shown in this column, 5 Bd3 Bb4 6 0-0! is quite dangerous, with the idea 6...Bxc3 7 exd5!:

See Ronka. E - Khoroshev, N, Titled Tuesday July 2020, for the risky but playable 7...Nxd4.

Instead of 7...Nxd4, Black can simply recapture with 7...exd5 8 bxc3 0-0:

In Ronka, E - Stupak, K, Titled Tuesday July 2020, White played 9 h3 and White’s bishops count for something but not much. I show three alternatives in the notes that lead to equality. It’s possible that 7...exd5 is a playable, if slow, way to counter 7 exd5.

Instead of 5...Bb4, Black can also go for the bishop pair with 5...Nb4 6 e5 Nd7 7 Bg5 Be7:

Edouard, R - Bauer, C, Djerba Blitz 2020, continued 8 Bxe7 (Harikrishna recommends 8 h4, but then I like 8...c5) 8...Qxe7, and here I think that instead of 9 Be2 c5, White should play 9 a3 Nxd3 10 Qxd3 with a space advantage.

Hecht-Reefschläger 4 e5 f6 5 Nf3 Bd7 [C10]

As he often does, Harikrishna offers a second repertoire solution to 3...Nc6 with the move 4 e5 (instead of 4 Nf3). Without going into detail (again, see the Archives for further examples), the game Giri, A - Chernobay, A, Titled Tuesday Nov 2020, went 4...f6 5 Nf3 Bd7:

Here Harikrishna’s 6 Bd3 leads to some advantage, but so should Giri’s 6 Bf4. With correct play, Black only stands modestly worse; in the game, he equalizes only after White misses a killing shot.

Till next month, John

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