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My apologies if I've chosen too many of the usual suspects for variations this month; the main lines tend to hit my eyes first. Apart from those, there are a couple of lesser lines in the Classical and MacCutcheon which I hope can keep you awake.

Download PGN of July '11 French games

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Advance Variation 6 a3 [C02]

There were several games in what seems to be everyone's main concern these days, the line with 5...Qb6 6 a3 Nh6 7 b4 cxd4 8 cxd4 Nf5 9 Bb2:

White replied to 9...Bd7 with 10 Be2 in Fandino Reyes- De Francesco, Havana 2011. This move has been maligned by experts on both sides of the board, but is perfectly playable and leads to equal, interesting positions. In fact, White got the advantage against normal Black moves.

Skliarov - Vorontsev, Alushta 2011, entered the fashionable line with 10 g4 Nfe7 11 Nc3 Na5:

Black made a standard type of pawn sacrifice to control the light squares and play with a good bishop versus a bad one. We've looked at this idea before, and here the themes express themselves in slightly different form. Black prevailed in the end, but I'd assess the opening as equal.

Tarrasch Defence 3...Nf6 [C06]

There are unfortunately a number of drawish (really drawish) lines when Black allows the exchange of bishops in the traditional 3...Nf6 Tarrasch system with Bd3, Ne2, etc. Hence the popularity of lines with the battery ...Qc7/...Bd6. In the variation without ...Qc7, one of the main lines is 13...Ne4 14 Qc1:

In Sek - Volkov, Taganrog 2011, Black plays 14...Ng5, but manages to avoid the standard drawish ending that is considered the theoretical remedy. He at least manages to keep the position alive in the sense that the better player will have chances to win.

There were three interesting games in the Universal system with 7...g6, a move that hasn't been in the limelight recently. In all of them White employed the most critical response 8 h4:

In the game Du Popovic-Drmic, Djakovo 2011, Black chose the radical line 8...Qb6 9 h5 g5!?, and after 10 Nxg5 cxd4 11 cxd4:

Drmic played 11...Qxd4, the move I always preferred, but fell victim to a vicious attack. While Black has several ways to try to improve, the whole line is shaky. In the notes, we also see a very recent game with 11...Nxd4, which has a poor reputation; however, Black suffered only a minor disadvantage coming out of the opening, equalised, and only lost due to later errors. Still, White's wins remind us that he has good practical chances in this line, and no risk of getting the worse game if he plays well.

Sambuev - Fiedler, Toronto 2011, saw 8...h6 in response to 8 h4. White grabbed a lot of space and skillfully ground him down. Fortunately for Black, there's an early improvement which (in my opinion) holds the balance.

Winawer - Poisoned Pawn [C18]

Pacher - Petrik, Banska Stiavnica 2011, tested a Poisoned Pawn Winawer line suggested for White by Bologan in his 'Fit for the French' DVD.

Here White played 18 Rb1 Bc6 19 Rb3 0-0-0 20 Rxc3, which has been discussed on the Forum, for example. Even for two pawns, Black's much more active pieces and usual structural advantages, along with White's exposed king, give him full compensation (but no more; two pawns is a lot, after all).

The same position arises with White's rook on b1 instead of g1. This used to be popular, but Feher - Racz, Zalakaros 2011, reminds us why it is no longer a good winning try. The game doesn't have any new theoretical importance, but is complex and instructive, with several characteristic themes illustrated.

Positional Winawer 7 h4 [C18]

Three games played this month were played with the 7 h4 line of the Positional Winawer; I've combined them in Kryvoruchko - Zherebukh, Lviv 2011:

This has to be one of the most important Winawer lines apart from 7 Qg4, and you get the feeling that it won't be worked out for a long time.

A question sent me by Bill Schaefer (playing Black): "I used to experiment with the Portisch-Hook variation of the French back in the 1970's and often played it like the Poisoned Pawn since it seemed to befuddle my opponents at the time. In reading through your updates it appears the favored Black responses are 8... g6 or 8... Kf8. Is there any validity to that approach [jw: 8...Ne7 9 Qxg7 Rg8 10 Qxh7 cxd4] or is it simply too speculative / lacking compensation against stronger opponents?"

Bill includes a game from 1975, Todd-W Schaefer, in which White defends poorly and loses after some back-and-forth, including several recognizable Poisoned Pawn ideas. I feel that the opening favours White if played correctly, but it might be worth a shot upon occasion.

Classical/Steinitz Variation 7 Qh5 [C14]

I was asked by a reader about the lack of games with 7 Qh5 in the Classical Variation (after 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5 Be7 5 e5 Nfd7 6 Bxe7 Qxe7):

I recommended this very rare move in my book 'Dangerous Weapons: The French'. In Ivekovic - Rogulj, Zagreb 2011, I cite that book to show various directions in which the opening can go.

MacCutcheon Variation 6 Bc1 [C12]

Last month I showed a miniature in the MacCutcheon line 5 e5 h6 6 Bc1. In fact, I think this move is seriously underrated and can give White interesting play in every line. In Mihok - Szablowski, Budapest 2011, the following normal position arose:

Here 9...Bxc3+ 10 bxc3 cxd4 followed. In the notes I've placed a recent game with 9...Ba5 10 dxc5, which may even achieve an advantage. White won both contests, although he got nothing out of the opening in the main game.

Till next month, John

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