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This month features some main lines in the Steinitz, Tarrasch, and Winawer Variations, and a smattering of lesser lines. There are still quite a few Blitz games, but happily,we’re rapidly beginning to see the return of over-the-board play and slower time controls.

Download PGN of July ’21 French games

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Steinitz Variation 7...Be7 8 Qd2 0-0 9 Bd3 [C11]

There were a few high-level games of interest in the Steinitz Variation. After 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3 Be7 8 Qd2 0-0, Nepomniachtchi essayed upon the aggressive 9 Bd3 in Nepomniachtchi, I - Korobov, A, GCT Rapids Zagreb 2021:

Black played 9...c4, which is Lemos’ recommendation in his book The French Defense Move by Move. Black gains time and space, but I’m skeptical of whether that’s worth relieving the pressure on White’s center. It’s true that Black gained decent play, and a wild and wooly game resulted. But this is risky, and I can’t see anything wrong with the thematic 9...f6, attacking the center, as I analyse in the notes.

Steinitz Variation 7...Be7 8 Qd2 0-0 9 dxc5 Nxc5 10 0-0-0 [C11]

Anand, V - Korobov, A, GCT Rapids Zagreb 2021, saw the conventional move 9 dxc5, to which Black replied 9...Nxc5 10 0-0-0 b6:

Once again, Black achieved good play eventually, but this order allows White to secure his space advantage safely, so I would still recommend the more popular 10...a6.

Classical, Jackal Attack 6 Bg5 [C11]

I got an email asking about the line 2 Nc3 d5 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 (4....Ne4 5 Ne2 is promising) 5 d4 c5 and now the so-called ‘Jackal’ Variation 6 Bg5!?:

This attack also arises from a 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Nf3 move order. 2600+ player Kirill Shevchenko has been using it successfully in Blitz play. After 6...Qb6, Shevchenko, K - Erigaisi, A, Junior Speed 2021, continued 7 dxc5 Qxb2 8 Nb5 Nxe5 9 Nc7+ Kd7 10 Nxa8 Nxf3+ 11 gxf3 with an unclear position which nevertheless seems to favor White.

Another game between the same two opponents in the same event tested what seems to me White’s biggest problems. Black played 7...Bxc5! 8 Qd2 Nc6 9 0-0-0 Qa5:

Here in Shevchenko, K - Erigaisi, A, Junior Speed 2021, White tried to improve upon 10 a3 by 10 Kb1, but still faced effective queenside pressure. The Jackal looks good for White in most lines, but this one needs improvements.

Tarrasch Variation 3...c5 4 Ngf3 cxd4 5 Nxd4 Nc6 6 Bb5 [C07]

White hasn’t been doing particularly well in the main lines with 3 Nd2 c5 4 exd5 Qxd5, so the safer sideline 4 Ngf3 is increasingly employed. Then we’ve seen many games after 4...cxd4 5 Nxd4 Nc6 6 Bb5 Bd7 7 Nxc6 bxc6 8 Bd3, and recently a few with Giri’s recommendation 8...Bd6 9 Qe2 e5. Kovalev, V - Maghsoodloo, P, EU-Cup Online Gr-F 2021, continued 10 c4 d4, bringing up an important juncture which is becoming a main line:

I believe that I’ve covered the main possibilities here, although not in book-like detail. Black should be fully equal, I believe, but both sides can get in serious trouble if they don’t play accurately.

Winawer Poisoned Pawn 7 Qg4 Qc7 8 Qxg7 Rg8 9 Qxh7 cxd4 10 Qd3 [C18]

The Poisoned Pawn Lines after 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 Qg4 Qc7 8 Qxg7 Rg8 9 Qxh7 cxd4 10 Ne2 Nbc6 have been analysed to an extreme and seem to have lost their appeal to strong players of White. But some of the sidelines strike me as quite unresolved, for example, 10 Qd3 as popularized by Alpha Zero. In the line 10...Qxe5+ 11 Ne2 dxc3 12 Qxc3, I feel that Giri’s suggested order 12...Qxc3+ 13 Nxc3 Nbc6 is soundest and probably best, but the line in Bacrot, E - Edouard, R, French Team Ch Chalons en Champagne 2021, 12...Nbc6 13 Qxe5 Nxe5 has not yet been exhaustively analysed. Eduoard is very well-prepared theoretically, so his choice probably deserves more attention. In the game, White played 14 h4:

Black achieved a balanced middlegame, but White played a little more accurately, especially in the drawish endgame. There’s a lot to be explored here.

Winawer Variation 7 h4 b6 [C18]

The Winawer main line 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 Qg4 has been holding up well recently for Black. Versus the popular 7 h4, Black has had to work harder, and in the past few years has increasingly turned to 7...Qc7. It’s instructive to see why 7...b6, seemingly natural, is so seldom played.

In Unneland , M - Lugovskoy, M, Titled Tuesday 16th Mar 2021, we look at critical lines with Qg4, which are difficult to meet, as well as the harmless ones if White delays that move.

King’s Indian Attack, Nbd2 MainLine 7 0-0 0-0 8 Re1 Qc7 9 c3 [C00]

2 d3 d5 3 Nd2 Nf6 4 Ngf3 c5 5 g3 Nc6 6 Bg2 Be7 7 0-0 0-0 8 Re1 Qc7 9 e5 is one of the the main lines of the King's Indian Attack. Playing flexibly with 9 c3 instead has long been a fairly popular and less committal option. Then 9...b5 and 9...b6 are by far the most commonly-played moves. Amin, B - Meier, G, European Online CC Final 2021, saw the extremely rare 9...h6:

This was followed by 10 e5 Nh7. In my notes I give this retreat ‘!’ for originality (10...Nd7 has been played a few times), with only one predecessor game from 1853! The knight doesn't get in the way on d7, as can happen in the main lines, and importantly, gives Black an extra kingside defender against White's standard kingside attacks.

Till next month, John

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