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In this column I’ll look at four French Defenses from the online Magnus Carlsen Invitational 2020 Rapids tournament, since that was the elite tournament from the past month, as well as Blitz and Rapids games from some other online events, and a complex struggle between Stockfish and Leela ChessZero.

Download PGN of May ’20 French games

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Tarrasch Variation 3...Nf6, 6 Bd3 b6 7 Ngf3 [C05]

Antipov, M - Gilevych, A, Team Match 2020, tested the variation 3 Nd2 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 c3 c5 6 Bd3 b6 7 Ngf3!?, a surprisingly rare move with the point 7...Ba6 8 Bxa6 Nxa6 9 Nf1, aiming to consolidate White’s central advantage. After 9...cxd4 10 cxd4 Bb4+, Antipov tried 11 Ke2!?, to keep complications on the board:

Then 11...Be7 would have limited Black’s disadvantage, but it’s not a fun position. Furthermore, simply 11 Bd2 was enough for a lasting edge. Black might want to look into 7...Be7.

Tarrasch Variation 3...Nf6, 6 Bd3 Nc6 7 Ne2 cxd4 8 cxd4 f6 9 Nf4 [C06]

An ultra-critical line arose in Diakonova, E - McPhillips, J, 4NCL Online 2020: 3 Nd2 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 c3 c5 6 Bd3 Nc6 7 Ne2 cxd4 8 cxd4 f6 9 Nf4!?. We haven’t looked at this much recently, although it is still played sporadically. The game went right into an old main line with 9...Nxd4 10 Qh5+ Ke7 11 exf6+ Nxf6 12 Ng6+ hxg6 13 Qxh8 Kf7 14 0-0 e5 15 Nb3 Nxb3 16 axb3:

Here 16...Bf5 was played. I try to review some of the main theoretical details. As has been the case for many years, the resulting positions are equal, with Black needing to play the next few moves accurately, but White also needing to take care and easily able to fall into some disadvantage due to Black’s powerful center.

Winawer Exchange Variation 5 Bd3 Nf6 6 a3 [C01]

Ian Nepomniachtchi showed a willingness to go into the Winawer 7 Qg4 main lines in both the Carlsen International and Abu Dhabi Super Blitz tournaments. It can’t hurt to see how elite players interpreted these lines, even in Rapids and Blitz games.

I’m a little surprised that the exchange with 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 exd5 exd5 5 Bd3 has attracted so much attention from strong players, notably Carlsen, Anand, So, Vachier Lagrave, and Aronian. It doesn’t appear that the theory is particularly favorable for White, but the line’s safety, combined with the minimal level of necessary preparation, seems to weigh in its favor. In the game Caruana, F - Nepomniachtchi, I, Carlsen International 2020, the players tested the important line 5...Nf6 6 a3 Bxc3+ 7 bxc3 0-0 8 Ne2:

Black chose the rather unusual solution 8...Re8 9 0-0 Ne4, which sufficed to draw; but I’d still prefer the more conventional defenses.

Winawer Variation, Poisoned Pawn 10 Qd3 [C18]

In the line 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 Qg4, Nepomniachtchi had a couple of interesting experiences. After 7...Qc7 8 Qxg7 Rg8 9 Qxh7 cxd4, Nakamura tried an idea made popular by AlphaZero’s use of it, i.e., 10 Qd3:

After 10...dxc3 11 Nf3, Black went into an old AlphaZero game with 11...b6, and followed it for 19 moves, at which point Black deviated. The resulting positions may be playable, but they’re difficult, and Black eventually fell into a losing endgame in Nakamura, H - Nepomniachtchi, I, Carlsen International 2020. It might be more practical to use a different defensive setup offering more positive chances.

Winawer Poisoned Pawn 7...cxd4 8 cxd4 Qc7 9 Bd2 [C18]

Praggnanandhaa, R - Nepomniachtchi, I, Abu Dhabi Super Blitz 2020, saw 7...cxd4 instead, and after 8 cxd4 Qc7, White sacrificed the c-pawn with 9 Bd2:

This has been played for many years, but after 9...Qxc2 10 Rc1 Qe4+, White failed even to equalize, and here 10...Qg6 also looks good. So White should probably play 10 Qxg7, which leads to a kind of dynamic equality.

Winawer Poisoned Pawn 10 Ne2 dxc3 11 f4 Bd7 12 Qd3 Na6 [C18]

Stockfish and Leela ChessZero (‘Lc0’) engaged in a couple of Winawers in the 13th Computer Chess Championship. After 10 Ne2 dxc3 11 f4, Leela chose the unusual line 11...Bd7 12 Qd3 Na6!?:

After 13 Rb1 Nc5 14 Qxc3 Rc8, Black is playing a positional pawn sacrifice that offers enough compensation to make a close game of it. This idea has survived several tests in the past, and achieved another draw in Stockfish - Lc0, 13th CCC Final 2020.

Winawer, Positional Variation 7 h4 Qc7 8 h5 h6 9 Rb1 b6 10 Qg4 [C18]

Last month, we covered Nepomniachtchi’s games with 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 h4 in the Candidates Tournament versus Alekseenko and Vachier Lagrave. The latter game continued 7...Qc7 8 h5 h6 9 Rb1 b6 10 Qg4 Rg8. In Vachier Lagrave, M - Nepomniachtchi, I, Carlsen International 2020, the players entered the same line and continued until move 15 in this position:

Here Vachier Lagrave deviated from his previous 16 Qd1 by playing 16 Ne2. White kept an edge based upon Black’s king and rook position and ultimately achieved a winning game, but couldn’t convert. Black may be within drawing bounds in this line, but it’s difficult to play in practice.

In Caruana, F - Nepomniachtchi, I, Carlsen International 2020, a game from two days earlier, Nepomniachtchi chose 10...cxd4 (instead of 10...Rg8) 11 Qxg7 Rg8 12 Qxh6 Qxe5+ 13 Ne2 dxc3:

Black’s strong center and easy development mostly compensates for White’s bishop pair and passed h-pawn, but with care White should keep a limited advantage. The game went back-and-forth and was fairly drawn.

Classical, Morozevich Variation 7 Nc3 [C13]

It’s remarkable how well the Morozevich has held up over the past 15 years; it must be considered one of the best ways to meet 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5. In Baron, Ta - Lomasov, S, Team Match 2020, after 4...dxe4 5 Nxe4 Be7 6 Bxf6 gxf6, White tried the surprisingly uncommon move 7 Nc3:

White probably should have gained some advantage after 7...b6 8 Qf3!, even if the game didn’t prove that. I therefore present some 7th-move alternatives for Black in the notes.

Classical Variation 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Nce2 c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 Ngf3 Be7 [C11]

The line stemming from 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Nce2 c5 6 c3 have become popular of late. After 6...Nc6 7 Ngf3 (7 f4 is also debated - see the Archives), Black chose 7...Be7 8 Nf4 (both sides have important options) 8...cxd4 9 cxd4 Qb6 in Gavrilescu, D - Bluebaum, M, PlayChess Teams Online 2020.

Black already has difficult-to-meet threats of ..Bb4+ and ...g5, to which White couldn’t find an adequate solution.

Exchange Variation 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 Bd3 Bd6 6 Qe2+ [C01]

I haven’t looked much at some of the dull symmetrical lines in the Exchange Variation, for example, 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 exd5 exd5 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 Bd3 Bd6 6 Qe2+ (6 0-0 is Nikolayev-Prasca Sosa in the Archives).

While this is part of Sielecki’s Keep it Simple 1 e4 repertoire, I don’t feel that it causes Black many real difficulties. Krejci, J - Cernousek, L, Prague 2020, saw Black play the most obliging move 6...Qe7, and even then 7 Qxe7+ Kxe7 8 0-0 Re8 (or 8...h6) doesn’t lead to much for White. But the real problem, as I express in the notes, is that 6...Be7 and 6...Be6 should both be fully equal.

Till next month, John

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