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We only look at the Tarrasch Variation this month. Judging from the tournaments I’ve been to and students I’ve talked to, 3 Nd2 seems to be the main line that most teachers are telling their stronger students to play. I’ll concentrate upon just a few Black systems.

Download PGN of July ’17 French games

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Tarrasch Variation 3...c5 4 Ngf3 Nc6 5 exd5 exd5 6 Bb5 [C09]

After 3 Nd2 c5, White increasingly plays 4 Ngf3 to avoid 4 exd5 Qxd5. A move that has popped up more frequently in the past few years is, after 4...Nc6 5 exd5 exd5 6 Bb5, 6...Qe7+:

This goes back to Capablanca and Bondarevsky in the late 1930s, with Korchnoi and Zviagentsev being the primary modern advocates.The idea is to enter an equal ending after 7 Qe2 or moderate White’s pressure following 7 Be2 Qc7!. In Sambuev, B - Noritsyn, N, Montreal 2017, the latter line led to comfortable equality. White needs to find something convincing here.

The traditional line with 6...Bd6 took an interesting course in Duda, J - Korobov, A, Khanty-Mansiysk 2017, 7 0-0 Nge7 8 dxc5 Bxc5 9 Nb3, and now the old-fashioned 9...Bb6:

This rare move has long been held to be somewhat inferior to 9...Bd6, but some very strong players have used it over the years, and in the computer era, we can work out how to equalize, or at any rate live with a minimal disadvantage. This game is a good illustration.

Tarrasch 3...c5 4 Ngf3 cxd4 5 Nxd4 Nf6 [C07]

Another popular 4 Ngf3 variation is 4...cxd4 5 Nxd4 Nf6, when for a long time 6 exd5 Qxd5 7 Nb5 Na6 has been the main line in practice:

We’ve seen this several times in the archives, with 8 c4 and 8 Nc3 being the main moves. White deviated with 8 a3!? in Topalov, V - Caruana, F, Paris 2017. Even though it’s a Rapid game, these super-grandmasters produce an instructive contest, with level play resulting until White slips and allows Black a clear advantage. But Topalov has the last laugh.

Instead of 7...Na6, Caruana tried out 7...Qd8!? in the same tournament in Vachier Lagrave, M - Caruana, F Paris 2017, this time a Blitz game:

I can only find one other master game with this move, yet it seems sufficient to equalize. A wild back-and-forth struggle ensues.

Tarrasch Variation 3...Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 [C05]

After 3 Nd2 Nf6 , the attempt by White to cramp Black by 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 is not the main line, but always has a following. Luke McShane has become the leading advocate among top Grandmasters, as shown in two rapid games this month.

McShane, L - Pigott, J London 2017, followed one main line by 5...c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 Ndf3 Qb6 8 a3 (a popular modern move) 8...Be7 9 b4 cxd4 10 cxd4 a6:

Black’s well-established plan is ...Qc7/...b5/...Nb6-c4, and often ...a5. White fails to make any progress in response, and Black establishes a lasting advantage which soon turns into a winning one. Only his gross blunders manage to save White, who even wins in the end.

Instead of 9 b4, White switched to 9 h4 in McShane, L - Merriman, J London 2017:

There are several good answers to the rather slow combination of a3 and h4 (White has only one piece out); Black chose the known solution 9...cxd4 10 cxd4 Na5, hitting the light squares b3 and c4. As shown in the notes, Black had numerous options for complete equality on the next five moves, but once McShane got a positional grip on the game, he never let go.

A different version of the 5 f4 system goes 5...c5 6 Ngf3 Nc6 7 Nb3. This is an interesting way to avoid main line theory while being relatively safe:

Rajkovic, M - van Foreest, L Veliko Gradiste 2017, continued 7...c4 8 Nbd2, and instead of the normal 8...b5, Black played 8...Qa5 with the ideas of ...c3 and ..b5-b4. The game was double-edged and eventually Black’s queenside attack prevailed.

Tarrasch Variation 3 Nd2 Be7 4 Bd3 c5 5 dxc5 Nf6 6 Qe2 [C03]

I seldom mention any of my own games, but one that I just played a few days ago illustrates the kind of surprise you get in over-the-board play even when you think that you’ve prepared well. Yang, K - Watson, J Irvine 2017, followed a main 3...Be7 line: 4 Bd3 c5 5 dxc5 Nf6 6 Qe2 0-0 7 Ngf3 a5. Here 8 0-0 has nearly always been played automatically, but as my opponent was thinking, I started looking at 8 e5 Nfd7 9 h4!?:

I’d never seen this, and sure enough, he played it! It’s a unique order that isn't mentioned in Antic and Maksimovic's massive coverage of the position after 7...a5, nor in any other book, DVD, or source on 3...Be7 that I can find, except a game in... ChessPublishing, of course! Surprisingly, it has done quite well in limited practice, even if Black has a couple of satisfactory answers. The complications can be mind-boggling, although in the game White was too ambitious and I was able to defend fairly easily. There’s plenty more to explore here.

Till next month, John

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