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This month will feature the Tarrasch Variation and 3 Bd3. In the Tarrasch (3 Nd2), we first look at some recent experience with the Universal System after 3...Nf6. Turning to 3 Nd2 c5, I’ll examine the ever-popular 4 exd5 Qxd5, and White’s attempt to avoid that with 4 Ngf3.
At local tournaments, I’ve noticed a definite increase in the use of 3 Bd3, probably in part due to its use by several superstars (mainly in Blitz and Rapid games). We’ll examine some games that illustrate both its good points and limitations.

Download PGN of March ’18 French games

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

The Universal System has been an attacking player’s favorite for a couple of decades now, and the theory is still unresolved, sometimes even under-investigated. After 3 Nd2 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Ngf3 c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 Bd3, the move 7...g6 is still a very popular response. Pichot, A - Gallego Alcaraz, A, Moscow 2018 continued 8 0-0 Bg7 9 b3 0-0 10 Bb2:

This looks ultra-solid on White’s part, but the play heats up after 10...f6 11 exf6 Qxf6 with the idea ...e5. An extraordinarily hard-fought, back-and-forth game ensues, crowned by a brilliant escape for White at the very end.

White tried the normal and more aggressive 9 h4 in Rizouk, A - Gallego Alcaraz, A, Barcelona 2018 , leading to 9...h6 10 0-0 g5:

This is a key position. As the game went, White never seemed to have a chance to gain the advantage; I have tried to find his best alternatives at this point.

Tarrasch Variation 4...c5 Qxd5 Mainline with 10...a6 [C07]

I should probably mention two games from January that followed the old main line of 4...Qxd5 5 Ngf3 cxd4 6 Bc4 Qd6, reaching this position, which you may very well face if you have 6...Qd6 in your repertoire:

This classic line goes back to the early days of 4...Qxd5, but has been tested again several times of late. The main line goes 13...Bxh2+ 14 Kh1 0-0 15 Nxg7 Rd8 16 Qf3 Kxg7 17 Bh6+ Kg6 18 c3 Nh5:

Now in Pichot, A - Le Quang Liem, Gibraltar 2018, White played 19 Be3 f5 20 Rad1, which is rarely seen and shouldn’t cause Black many problems. Nevertheless, in the game, Black could have been in big trouble, which shows how treacherous this line can be even against a super-GM.

In Kuthan, A - Sebenik, M, Austrian Team Ch 2018, White opted for 19 Bc1 Bf4 20 g4, which we’ve seen in this column before. This time it was White’s turn to turn a harmless position into an inferior one, and eventually he even lost. In general, the lesson is that these lines are equal, but you have to know them.

Tarrasch Variation with 3...c5 4 exd5 Qxd5 5 Ngf3 cxd4 6 Bc4 Qd7 [C07]

Last month we looked at the popular order 3...c5 4 exd5 Qxd5 5 Ngf3 cxd4 6 Bc4 Qd7, which allows Black to delay or even forego ...Nf6, since White’s Ne4 won’t attack the queen as it does after 6...Qd6.

Another idea of 6...Qd7 is to bring the f8 bishop out quickly. In Mamedov, R - Le Tuan Minh, PRO League 2018, White played the same moves as in the 6...Qd6 line above:

Now 11..Qc7 12 Bb3 Bd6 13 Nf5 would transpose, but Black has the effective option of 11...Bc5. This has a solid record of producing draws; in this game Black even grabbed a positional advantage and went on to win.

After 6...Qd7 play often goes 7 0-0 Nc6 8 Nb3 a6 9 Nbxd4 Nxd4 10 Nxd4, and now 10...Qc7 (instead of 10...Nf6) reserves the option of ...Ne7. Pichot, A - Lenderman, A, PRO League 2018, saw this implemented after 11 Qe2 Ne7.

Black can still play with ...b5 or ...b6 and ...Bb7, but one theme that carries more weight with the knight on e7 is ...e5, when Black can easily develop an initiative. This happened in the game.

Tarrasch Variation 4 Ngf3 cxd4 5 Nxd4 Nc6 [C07]

In order to avoid 4 exd5 Qxd5, some players of White continue to turn to 4 Ngf3. Then 4...cxd4 5 Nxd4 Nc6 continues to be a reliable line for Black. In Kanakova, N - Greet, A, Newcastle 2018, White went into the main line with 6 Bb5 Bd7 7 Nxc6 bxc6 8 Bd3 Bd6 9 Qe2:

Here various moves are possible, but Greet’s flexible 9...Ne7 goes well with 8...Bd6 and apparently equalizes. The game itself is a tragicomedy.

The 3 Bd3 Variation [C01]

I feel a bit strange taking up too much column space with the variation 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Bd3 (we’ve had 11 games already), but it’s remarkable how often we’re seeing this move on all levels of play. On the positive side, that’s a tribute to how difficult White is finding it to play against the French Defence. On the other hand, while there have been plenty of high-profile games with Carlsen, Kramnik, and Vachier Lagrave playing White, Black is still sometimes completely unprepared and casually walks into a difficult position. In fact, in two games by very strong players this month, Black went straight for the line White probably hopes for most: 3...dxe4 4 Bxe4 Nf6 5 Bf3 c5 6 Ne2 Nc6 7 Be3 Nd5?!:

If you look at the Archives, you’ll see this inferior move used by none other than the super-prepared Fabiano Caruana (in Kramnik-Caruana, admittedly only a Blitz game) and several others. The problem is 8 Bxd5! Qxd5 9 Nbc3! . Now, taking the g-pawn by 9...Qxg2!? has led to various miniatures and mostly losses, even if Black is only moderately worse with perfect play. See this month’s game Kovalev, Vl - Tabatabaei, M Moscow 2018.

In Vachier Lagrave, M - Van der Lende, I, Pro League 2018, Black found the novelty 9...Qh5! . Fairly typically for a rapid game, both sides misplayed the next moves and White won rather quickly. The bottom line is that with perfect play, Black stands worse but is still in the game.

Black has other defences which have had more success. Instead of 7...Nd5, we saw 7...e5 in Arribas Lopez - Abrahamyan in the Archives, and 7...cxd4 8 Nxd4 Ne5 is a safe and sound solution that appears in two games this month. Moskalenko, A - Mozharov, M, Moscow 2018, continued 9 0-0:

Here I think that 9...Be7! with full equality is more accurate than 9...Nxf3+, as played. White didn’t achieve anything in the game, but might have had a small edge with precise play.

Another perfectly sound move we haven’t discussed before is 6...Be7:

The idea is to get castled quickly and wait for White to commit to a setup. In Yuffa, D - Bluebaum, M Moscow 2018, Black answered 7 Nbc3 with 7...Qa5!?, which is objectively a bit worse than the simple and equal 7...0-0, although both moves are playable.

Till next month, John

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