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Quite a few familiar positions this month. There’s a lot being written about the Advance Variation, so I feel that I should note a few developments. Then I wanted to address the Winawer with 6...Nc6, which attracts just enough top player attention to deserve some coverage. Finally, I look at a couple Steinitz Variation main lines which are starting to become overanalyzed; because of that, it’s becoming clear how they stand in terms of soundness and practicality.

Download PGN of July ’23 French games

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Advance, Hector Gambit 6 Bd3 cxd4 7 0-0 Bd7 8 Re1 [C02]

The Advance Variation continues to be popular. I recently reviewed a couple of Chessable repertoires with 1 e4 (by Lev Rozman and Jesse Kraai), and versus the French they both suggested using 3 e5, with fashionable Bd3 gambit in the line 3...c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3 Qb6 6 Bd3 cxd4 7 0-0 Bd7 8 Re1. In Carlsen, M - Terry, R, Titled Tue 13th June 2023, the ex-World Champion, who has played this line several times as White, got to this position by a different order. After 8...Nge7 9 h4, the players reached what has become the main line of the gambit (called the ‘Hector Gambit’ by Rozman):

The main game by Carlsen isn’t of great theoretical consequence, but I’ve added a great deal of analysis to this Blitz game in order to show a few ways in which I think Black achieves equal play in a very topical variation.

Advance 5...Bd7 6 Be2 cxd4 7 cxd4 Nge7 8 Na3 Nf5 9 Nc2 Be7 [C02]

Instead of 5...Qb6, 5...Bd7 continues to be a popular way to play which to some extent neutralizes the Bd3 gambit lines. The traditional 6 Be2 is still critical. It was played in Dominguez Perez, L - Mekhitarian, K, AimChess Rapid Play-In, where Black chose 6...cxd4 7 cxd4 Nge7 8 Na3 Nf5 9 Nc2 Be7 10 0-0 0-0:

A familiar type of position in which having the queen on d8 instead of b6 seems favorable, particularly because White's kingside attacking chances are limited. I cite another Carlsen game in the notes.

Advance 5...Bd7 6 Be2 Nge7 7 Na3 Ng6 8 Nc2 Be7 9 g3 [C02]

A sort of hybrid line arises in Xiong, J - Maurizzi, M, Titled Tue 30th May 2023, where 6 Be2 Nge7 7 Na3 Ng6 8 Nc2 Be7 9 g3 0-0 10 h4 was played:

This is a standard type of position, although more often connected with Nc3 (rather than Na3-c2). It’s fascinating how many dynamic chances this opens up for both sides.

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

Elite players including Carlsen, Rapport, and Grischuk have played numerous games with 6...Nc6 in the main line Winawer 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3, and we have analyzed a few of the main lines before. In Sadhwani, R - Short, N, Nagpur 2023, White went into the popular variation 7 Qg4 g6 8 h4:

Short won a nice game as Black, but the opening was potentially favorable for White. It’s important for Black to avoid too much simplification while his dark-square weaknesses and bad bishop remain on the board.

Winawer Variation 6...Nc6 7 Qg4 g6 8 Qf4 [C18]

In Durarbayli, V - Druska, J, Dulles 2023, White played 8 Qf4:

This is an obscure move (I suspect a prepared one) with some excellent points. The queen hits f7 (sometimes discouraging ...0-0-0), and is aimed against Black's ..Qa5-a4 plan as shown in the line 8...Qa5 9 Bd2 Qa4 (9...c4 is likely better) 10 dxc5!. In the game, Black tried 8...h6 9 dxc5 Qa5 10 Bd2 Qxc5, and after 11 Nf3 had a relatively passive position. I would like to see how a strong grandmaster reacts to this idea.

Classical Steinitz Variation 5...c5 6 Ne2 Nc6 7 c3 [C11]

The variation 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Nce2 c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 Nf3 doesn’t seem to be played as often on the top levels as it was earlier in the year, but it’s hardly solved. Bortnyk, O - Chigaev, M, Singapore 2023, got to this position via the order 2 Nc3 d5 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 d4 c5 6 Ne2 Nc6 7 c3, and Black tried 7...b5:

White played 8 a3 a5 and now the unusual 9 g3!?, which proved rather slow. I analyse 9 Nf4 and 9 h4 in the notes.

Classical Steinitz Variation 7 Be3 cxd4 8 Nxd4 Qb6 9 Qd2 Qxb2 [C11]

In the Steinitz Variation, 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3, the fashionable line is still 7...cxd4 8 Nxd4 Qb6, which I’ve covered a lot recently. Not much is happening theoretically, but because there are a couple of high-level games to report, I’ll include them in the game Firouzja, A - Caruana, F, Norway Chess Stavanger 2023, where we reach the main line with 9 Qd2 Qxb2 10 Rb1 Qa3:

The game continued 11 Ncb5 (I report on a few of the usual 11 Bb5 games in a note) 11...Qxa2 12 Rd1 Rb8 13 Nc7+ Kd8 14 Ncb5 Nc5 and we have a position in which Black stands objectively better but White hopes to harass him into mistakes. It doesn’t work.

Classical Steinitz Variation 7 Be3 Be7 8 Qd2 b6 [C11]

It’s easy to get a little bored with all the 8...Qb6 games, so let me look at a couple of contests with the popular 7...Be7, to which White replies 8 Qd2:

In Santos Ruiz, M - Perske, T, Titled Tue 20th June 2023, Black tries to avoid the fashionable 8...0-0 9 dxc5 lines by playing 8...b6. This is not my favorite ....b6 line (I prefer 6...Be7 and an early ...b6 without ...Nc6), but in any case the game and notes illustrate a couple of White’s tries for advantage and how Black might respond.

Classical Steinitz Variation 7 Be3 Be7 8 Qd2 0-0 9 dxc5 Qa5 [C11]

In Pranav, A - Terry, R, AimChess Rapid 2023, we see the aforementioned 8...0-0 9 dxc5 variation, with Black testing the 9...Qa5 line we have seen so often over the past couple of years:

Somewhat like the 7...cxd4 8 Nxd4 Qb6 lines we looked at above, this variation has been exhaustively analyzed and tested. The important positions are not terribly compelling, but remain important because 9 dxc5 is one of the few variations that has given Black real problems over the years. The game itself is relatively routine, with the typical modern result that in a dead equal position, Black runs out of time and blunders.

Till next month, John

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