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An emphasis on the Tarrasch Defence this month, including the recently-popular line with 3...Nf6 and 6...b6. I conclude with a couple of theoretically important Winawers.

Download PGN of March '15 French games

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Tarrasch Variation Universal System, 7...g6 [C06]

In the ...Nf6 lines versus the universal system with Ngf3, Black has a relatively new weapon in the 7...g6 variation 8 h4 Qb6 9 h5 Rg8!?:

This is a non-developing move which also eliminates kingside castling for Black. Nevertheless, it has the dual idea of supporting ...g5 and in some cases opening the g-file. It's a typical modern idea which is slowly becoming more popular. In Narayanan - David, New Delhi 2015, White played the logical 10 Kf1, but Black's central pressure proves effective in a model study game. I have tried to indicate most of the alternatives and previous games.

The same line was tested in Ducarmon - Hovhanisian, Maastricht 2014, with Black deviating by 11...cxd4 (see also the note on 11...g5, which appears to be promising).

Here Black chose 12...Qb4, heading for an equal endgame which he won rather easily. But White could have avoided the exchange of queens with the pawn sacrifice 13 Qc2!, and there are more dynamic options, including 12...g5!.

The traditional 8...h6 was played in Ducarmon - Harikrishna, Gibraltar 2015. White chose the rare move 9 Qe2, and Black replied 9...Qb6:

Here White played 10 dxc5 Qc7 11 Nb3 and traded fast development for the center. He held an approximately equal game up to move 35 against an opponent rated over 300 points higher, but lost ground in time pressure and couldn't hold the game.

In this line, the move 9 Bc2 is becoming more popular, and there are several recent games with 9...b6, the move I suggest in Play the French. Perhaps I'll analyse that soon. A slightly eccentric but reasonable alternative is 9...b5!?:

This arose in Popovic - Markoja, Graz 2015. One idea is ...a5/...b4/...Ba6, or simply ...b4 and ...Rb8. This is worthy of some tests. The game ended relatively quickly in a draw, although Black stood better towards the end.

Tarrasch Variation 6...b6 [C06]

Another recently-popular move (and subject of analysis in ChessBase Magazine; French Defence expert Socko is a leading proponent) is 6...b6, as Nigel Short used to play. I'm featuring mainly late 2014 games because they best reflect typical play.

This works best if White hasn't played Ngf3 instead of Bd3, because if White wants to play Bxa6, he has moved his bishop twice. In the diagram, White tends to choose Ne2 or Nh3 (with an idea towards Nf4 or f4) over Ngf3. In a game from late last year, Zabawski - Socko, Wroclaw (European Rapid) 2014, Black demonstrated his idea versus f4-f5:

Here he played 10...f5, and demonstrated that the position after 11 exf6 Nxf6 is at any rate playable and possibly fully equal.

Socko was less successful versus the Nf4 plan in Azarov - Socko, Wroclaw (European Blitz) 2014:

Here 12...0-0 was fine, with a limited disadvantage at most, but 12...g6?! proved weakening and the dark squares gave Black too much trouble in the end.

The World Women's Champion develops a large positional advantage in Hou Yifan-Dzagnidze, Beijing (Blitz) 2014, a remarkably well-played game for a Blitz game. The opening goes White's way:

Now 12...b4? 13 c4! gave White a large advantage. Towards the end things went a little crazy, but we see a very well-played contest for a Blitz game.

Finally, this month's Escandell - Simon Padros, Barcelona TCh 2015, is another illustration of how the pure ...c4/...b5-b4 attack is playable, but probably not sufficient to fully equalize against White's kingside play, especially after ...g6.

Black gets tied down on the kingside, if forced to play ...g5, and then White's f4 move gains the initiative.

Tarrasch Variation 3...h6 4 Ngf6 Nf6 5 Bd3 c5 6 exd5 [C03]

In my favorite Tarrasch 3...h6 variation, the sequence 4 Ngf6 Nf6 5 Bd3 c5 6 exd5 doesn't seem to bother Black. Tiviakov - Hovhanisian, Groningen 2014, reached this position:

Tiviakov is one of the best and most experienced players of 3 Nd2, so it's good to see that he didn't achieve an opening advantage in either this game, where Black actually gained the advantage, or in another of his games in the notes, where he played down more than 300 points. He did manage to win both games in later complications, however.

Winawer Variation 7 Qg4 0-0 8 Bd3 Nbc6 9 Qh5, 13...b5! [C18]

I don't think I'd get away without reporting on the game in which Emanuel Berg defeated his own move (13...b5!!) in the 7 Qg4 0-0 main-line Winawer. The new in E Berg-Sjodahl, Vaxjo 2015 move (well, the move that deviated from Berg's lengthy analysis in his book) was 18 f4!?:

Black responded well and may have even gained the advantage (although White's attack in these lines is easy to underestimate), but failed to take enough care defensively and White broke through.

Two weeks earlier Sjodahl had also followed Berg's analysis to achieve an equal position in T Karlsson- Sjodahl, Swedish Team Championships 2015.

This time White was the one to let things slip in the endgame and Black prevailed. It's characteristic of these lines that the imbalances persist to the end and therefore offer better winning chances than many openings.

Till next month, John

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