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This month I've concentrated upon two main line systems: the Advance Variation with 5...Qb6 6 a3 and the Poisoned Pawn 7 Qg4 Winawer (with one lengthily-annotated game on 7 Qg4 0-0). They are two of the most hotly contested lines in the French right now.

Download PGN of May '11 French games

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Advance Variation [C02]

The most-played line of the Advance Variation is still 3 e5 c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3 Qb6 6 a3. In Makarkin - Ar Petrov, Armavir 2011, Black secured a powerful centre in exchange for the bishop pair:

In a very instructive manner, White used the bishops to perfection when Black didn't pursue the initiative quickly enough. In the end he failed to convert in apparent time pressure.

At the U.S. Women's Championship, Anna Zatonskih and Tatev Abrahamyan contested the same 9...Bd7 10 g4 twice. In both games Abrahamyan - Zatonskih, St Louis (round 2.3) 2011 Abrahamyan - Zatonskih, St Louis (round 2.5) 2011 , the players reached this position:

Zatonskih, content with a draw, played the remarkable 15...c3!?. Now 16 Nd6+ draws, so in the first game, Abrahamyan went for 16 Bxc3?!; she probably stood worse. In the second game, she improved with 16 Qxc3, when Black got considerable and probably sufficient compensation for the pawn.

In the same line in Kacakovski-B Smith, Karposh 2011, Black skips over the ...Na5-c4 tactics and simply develops:

This is more like it for White: space, a secure centre, and powerful knight. His advantage is clear, though Black managed to confuse the issue after mistakes.

Saleh - Al Razi, Jakarta 2011, illustrates the older line with Be2, and then ...Be7 before queenside play:

Here White should play 11 h4, preparing g4, rather than 11 g4? Nh4, which is the point of ...Be7.

There are still games in this variation with 9 Be3 instead of 9 Bb2, although certain forcing lines have discouraged White from this course:

In Burchert-M Becker, Oberhausen 2011, Black tried the traditional 9...f6, but didn't know (or forgot) his theory.

5...Nh6 [C02]

Viktor Moskalenko advocated 5...Nh6 in his book The Flexible French, and I've been talking about it for some time (including in my Dangerous Weapons: The French); but it still hasn't reached mainstream status. I can't resist showing one more example:

In Van Assendelft-Heidel, Oberhausen 2011, a typical conflict arose between Black's two bishops and White's better central control. The game was about level out of the opening.

Winawer Variation 7...0-0 [C18]

I'm returning to the 7...0-0 main line played by Apicella in three games, that is, with the sequence 13...Qf7 14 Ng5 Qe8. Perhaps it's because I'm not very familiar with the line that in a previous column I didn't even consider a fairly obvious move (to be fair, neither did Apicella, apparently, or several other top players).

Here White has a much better move than 22 0-0-0 (analysed repeatedly in the Archives, including by me) and 22 Qf1. In Grigoryan - Apicella, Aix-les-Bains 2011, he played 22 Kd2!, simply intending to play Rag1 and crash through on the queenside. Perhaps the existence of an older game with 22 Kd2, in which Black won decisively, influenced everyone; Grigoryan's improvement on move 24 almost certainly puts this particular move order to rest. Thanks to Franz Steenbekker for pointing out how important this game is for current theory.

For some reason, I then got obsessed with the earlier and not very theoretical move 17...Ne7 in the notes and did a massive analysis on it. The idea is to shore up the kingside before undertaking queenside adventures. I've appended much (too much?) of it to a mega-note in this game. In the end, I don't see that White can gain any advantage, but these lines are ridiculously complex both strategically and tactically; so there is almost certain to be more than one error in the analysis, the resolution of which will favour one side or the other. Give 17...Ne7 a look if you like the 13...Qf7 lines of the 7...0-0 variation.

Winawer Variation Poisoned Pawn [C18]

Moving on to the Poisoned Pawn Winawer Variation, there are simply far too many recent games to show, several extremely important, so I've tried to give dense analysis while also referring to relevant games in the Archives. Let me quickly list the games I'm using as outlines. Unfortunately, I'll have to reserve discussion of some variations for other updates.

First, Klaus Gawehns kindly sent along to me, with the kind agreement of his opponent, a correspondence game still in progress at the time I received it. Mikhalchuk - Gawehns, ICCF harlekin's mini-tournament III 2011, turns the theory of the Tait variation on its head by depriving Black of his most straightforward forcing solution:

In this position (familiar to ChessPub fanatics), White played 20 Rb5!, which may well be a refutation of the whole line. I've analysed the game in depth, but also indicated some ways for Black to deviate on moves arising before this point.

In the popular line with the early 12...d4, there are three games. I'll start with the ultra-important Volokitin - Cornette, Aix-les-Bains 2011. When Volokitin takes the White side, we're interested in what he thinks. A familiar position arises:

Now Black continued 18...Qa4, a move that we've seen in the Archives. I'm not thrilled with it, and so have analysed 18...Qd5 at excruciating length, and suggested one improvement in the 18...Qd4 line.

We see 17 Bd3 in Milman - Tuhrim, Philadelphia 2011:

White wins nicely even if the game becomes of moderate theoretical value when Black goes wrong and allows queens to be exchanged.

Whites also includes Bd3 in Michalczak - Hillarp Persson, Reykjavik 2011, but it's after the insertion of h3 and ...Rh8, which we've discussed before (I'm not thrilled with the idea, although it depends upon the exact position).

White continues 20 Bxf5!? here, which cedes the light squares. On the other hand, he picks up the c-pawn, and a verdict of equality seems fair.

Till next month, John

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