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This month I begin with an Advance Variation line which needs updating in view of the many games which have advanced its theory over the past few years. This is followed by some new examples in the Morozevich Variation 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5 dxe4 5 Nxe4 Be7 6 Bxf6 gxf6. Finally, I look in some detail at several games with the popular 6...Nc6 in the main line of the Winawer, and a Carlsen game in the 7 h4 Winawer.

Download PGN of January ’23 French games

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Advance Variation 3 e5 c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3 Bd7 6 Be2 Nge7 [C02]

A line popularized by Korchnoi many years ago is still being contested regularly: 3 e5 c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3 Bd7 6 Be2 Nge7. This was recommended in Ntirlis’ book on the French and has been repeatedly challenged in the past few years, but seems to have held up well. The most exciting play occurs when White tries to disturb Black’s idea of ...Ng6/...Be7/...0-0 some version of h4-h5. In Shevchenko, K - Rapport, R, Superbet Rapid Warsaw 2022, White used the order 7 0-0 Ng6 8 g3:

Here there’s a highly theoretical line that goes 8...Be7 9 h4 cxd4 10 cxd4 0-0 11 h5 Nh8, which I cover fairly thoroughly in the notes (with a few new suggestions for Black). The game went 8...f6 instead. This used to be considered too loosening, with the game continuation’s 9 exf6 Qxf6 10 Be3 cxd4 11 Nxd4 Bd6 12 Nb5 being a critical continuation. In the game White tries a clever piece sacrifice; he misses the best continuation, but in any case it looks to me that Black has equality.

In this line, 7 Na3 Ng6 8 Nc2 looks very different, but after 8...Be7 9 g3 cxd4 10 cxd4 0-0 11 h4 f6 12 h5 Nh8, we have a position that strongly resembles the 8..Be7 variation in the previous paragraph:

This position has been played and investigated quite a bit. Tokhirjodeca, G - Abrahamyan, T, U.S. Women's 2022, was fully equal out of the opening. White made as speculative knight foray which should have been punished but was rewarded with a very strong attack.

Morozevich Variation 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5 dxe4 5 Nxe4 Be7 6 Bxf6 gxf6 7 Qd2 [C11]

After 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5, 4...dxe4 is a more forcing and straightforward solution to Black’s problems than 4...Be7 or 4...Bb4. Following 5 Nxe4 Be7 6 Bxf6 (the only challenging move), Black can play 6...Bxf6, but these days Morozevich’s move 6...gxf6 creates more interesting play, with Black hoping that the bishop pair will compensate for his weakened pawn structure and space disadvantage. Now 7 Nf3 is the main move, but 7 Qd2 has also been played for many years. It is usually met by 7...b6, 7...f5, or 7...a6 (see the Archives). But a few strong players have challenged the center immediately with 7...c5:

This takes advantage of the queen’s position on d2 to liquidate the center. The only drawback is that after 8 Nxc5 Bxc5 9 dxc5 Qxd2+ 10 Kxd2, as played in our game Vallejo Pons, F - Gadimbayli, A, Rapids Baku 2022, both sides’ winning chances are greatly reduced, and many draws follow. Oddly enough, in spite of the position being genuinely equal, Black has a clear advantage in both results and performance rating. In the game, the play is calm and even until suddenly time pressure leads to some embarrassing blunders.

Morozevich Variation 6...gxf6 7 Nc3 [C11]

An interesting move for White which hasn’t been seen as often as one might expect is 7 Nc3:

This prepares to meet ..c5 and ...e5 with d5 in most positions, while clearing the long diagonal in preparation for g3 and Bg2. In another game by the opponents above, Vallejo Pons, F - Gadimbayli, A, Blitz Baku 2022, Black set up with 7...a6 (7th move alternatives are considered in the notes) 8 g3 Nc6 9 Nf3, and here Black chose 9...Qd6 with a complicated game, while Morozevich’s original idea 9...h5 10 Bg2 h4! still looks like a reasonable try.

Morozevich Variation 6...gxf6 7 Nf3 f5 [C11]

The main line 7 Nf3 f5 8 Nc3 a6 is still hotly contested.

This position has become the most popular one in the Morozevich Variation. In Kiewra, K - Schmakel, S, Los Angeles 2022, White played the rare but interesting 9 Qd3 (I give examples of the more common 9 g3 and 9 Qe2 in the notes), and Black chose 9...b5 10 0-0-0 Qd6 with complex play. There is a lot to explore here, for example, 10...b4 can get extremely messy.

Winawer 6...Nc6 7 Qg4 g6 8 h4 [C18]

After 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3, 6...Nc6 continues to attract the attention of strong players. This month, most notably, we have a couple of games by none other than Magnus Carlsen. The most critical line continues to be 7 Qg4 g6 and here White has a number of options. In both games, Carlsen’s opponents played 8 h4. Ter-Sahakyan S - Carlsen, M, World Rapid 2022, continued 8...Qa5 9 Bd2:

Carlsen may have been unfamiliar with the subtleties of move orders in this line, because here he played 9...h6, allowing the standard 10 h5 g5 11 f4!, which should strongly favor White (see the notes). Instead, White played 10 a4 c4 and the game entered more or less normal paths. A fair number of mistakes followed in some complex positions, but ultimately White made the last blunder.

A few days later, in his next experience with this line, Giri, A - Carlsen, M, World Blitz Championship Almaty 2022, Carlsen chose 8...h6 and Giri went into the forcing line 9 h5 g5 10 f4!:

This time 10...f5 11 Qg3! g4 is not as clear as in the above example, but after 12 dxc5 Qa5, White still has a few options which seem to retain some advantage. In the game, Carlsen made the first big blunder and had to bail out into a theoretically lost endgame, but in Blitz the problems proved difficult for White, who blundered back and eventually lost.

Winawer 6...Nc6 7 Qg4 g6 8 a4 [C18]

8 a4 was played in another top-level encounter, Giri, A - Rapport, R, Danzhou 2022. The game followed an earlier Rapport contest versus Karjakin with 8...Qa5 9 Bd2 c4 10 h4 h6 11 Qd1. It’s surprising how this move can arise in nearly every major variation of the 7 Qg4 Winawer. There followed 11...Bd7 12 Nf3 0-0-0:

It's hard for White to make progress against Black’s solid setup, but in return White is well-placed to meet any of Black usual kingside options with ...f6 or ...g5. This is illustrated in the game where Black advances too early with his f-pawn and allows White a firm positional advantage. As so often, the game becomes messy anyway and a hard-fought draw ensues.

Winawer 6...Nc6 7 Qg4 g6 8 Qd1 [C18]

Very similar positions (but without the move a4) arose in the game Vallejo Pons, F - Rapport, R, Baku 2022 after the immediate 8 Qd1 Qa5 9 Bd2 Bd7 10 h4 h6 11 Nf3 Bd7 12 g3 0-0-0 13 Bg2:

Black has various options after both 8 a4 and 8 Qd1, of course, but it is still instructive how such slow play by White has a prophylactic effect. Here Black can play slowly, but chose 13...f5 with complex play. The game was a real slugfest from start to finish.

Winawer Main with 7 h4 [C18]

I can’t close out this column without including the insane Blitz encounter Carlsen, M - Rapport, R, World Blitz Open Ch Almaty 2022, played as the old year was closing out. We’ve seen a number of games with 6...Ne7 7 h4 Qc7 8 h5 h6, and this game transposed after 9 Nf3 b6 10 Bb5+ Bd7 11 Bd3 into a position well-known in the 1970s, when French experts like Kindermann and Yusupov were happy to play it:

The best move here is probably 11...Ba4 (see the notes), but in a Blitz game the sequence 11...c4 12 Be2 Ba4 was good enough to completely muddy the waters. The game was well-played and absorbing up to a point at which both players presumably ran out of time, because a series of colossal blunders followed. Ultimately Rapport had a completely won game but somehow it was never easy, with exposed kings and new queens all over the board. I’ll leave it to the reader to enjoy to outrageous finish.

Till next month, John

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