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This month I examine a few Winawer variations that have become popular, starting with 4...b6. The we look at one Winawer main line and finally, the unusual order 2 Nf3 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Nce2.

Download PGN of May ’21 French games

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Winawer 4...b6 Variation 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 [C16]

3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 b6 is a suggested repertoire move in recent French Defense books, for example, Marin’s Winawer ebook, Lakdawala’s Opening Repertoire: French, and Lemos’ recent The French Defense Move by Move. One line that we’ve looked at a fair amount is 4...b6 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 (normally arising by the move order 4...Ne7 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 b6) 7 Qg4, and now 7...Ng6, which used to have more followers but is still played (Miedema recommends it in his French Winawer volume and analyses it at length). A rare alternative here is 7...Kf8:

This was used by Caruana in a couple of games in 2018 but has not caught on. In the game Triapishko, A - Ehlvest, J, Titled Tuesday April 2021, I give a few of the critical lines. I think it’s fair to say that with accurate play White should retain somewhat better chances, but since Black has a solid game and no weaknesses, this is a system that might appeal to positional players who think they can outmaneuver opponents in original semi-closed positions.

Much more common is 4...b6 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Qd7, the idea being to meet 7 Qg4 with 7...f5 8 Qg3 Ba6, after which Black retains the option of castling on either wing:

This is a much more respectable system which has scored respectably over the years. In Aravindh, C - Mitrabha, G, Titled Arena April 2021, Black was fine coming out of the opening and well into the middlegame but got outplayed in the end.

Winawer 4...b6 Variation 5 a3 Bf8 [C16]

The highest-profile players of Black using 4...b6 in the 1950s through 1970s were Petrosian, Bronstein, and Korchnoi. After 5 a3, they employed the retreat 5...Bf8, as did Vaganian, Ivanchuk and a clear majority of 4...b6 users into the present. This modern idea gives White a lot of leeway. The move 6 f4 is natural and secures space, but hasn’t produced particularly good results. In Bernadsky, V - Xiong, J, PNWCC Blitz JP 2021, Black played 6...Ne7 7 Nf3 Qd7 8 Be3 h5, reaching a position that can arise via several move orders. White most often plays 9 Bf2, as he did in this game:

Xiong responded with the new move 9...Ng6, which worked out in Blitz but was probably inferior. The notes show alternatives which have been successful for Black.

After White’s most popular move 6 Nf3, Black can play 6...Qd7, 6...Ba6, or 6...c5, but most often chooses the flexible 6...Ne7. In the Rapid game Agopov, M - Marin, M, EU-Cup Gr-A 2021, White tried to grab some more space with 7 b4, leading to 7...c5 8 Bg5:

White has scored well in the very limited experience with this position, but Marin’s response 8...a6 appears to hold the balance.

As I see it, the biggest problem with the 4...b6 5 a3 Bf8 line is 6 Bb5+, as we have seen before in this column. Perhaps 6..Bd7 is the safest move. Golubev, M - Borsuk, K, Titled Tuesday 30th Mar 2021 continued 6...c6 7 Ba4 b5 8 Bb3 Ne7 9 Nce2 c5 10 c3 Nbc6 11 Nf3:

This isn’t forced, but Black should try to avoid this kind of position.

The opening as played is a good illustration of how much trouble he can get into in this line.

Winawer 7 Qg4 Qc7 8 Bd3 c4 9 Be2 [C18]

12-year-old Abhimanyu Mishra is in a race to try to become the youngest grandmaster ever. As far as I know, he’s never been a French Defense player, but he tried out the opening in a key game this month and nabbed the full point. Seemann, J - Mishra, A, First Saturday May 2021, went into the main line with 3 Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5 a3 Bxc3+ 6 bxc3 Ne7 7 Qg4 Qc7, when White played 8 Bd3 c4 9 Be2:

As reported in this column, Mishra had a recent loss on the White side of this line and he drew a game as White last fall. In this month’s game, he uses that experience to good stead. We’ve shown the basic ideas before, but this game deserves a look because of the thematic positional ideas and brutal attacking finish. I’ve borrowed from Mishra’s notes to supplement my own.

2 Nf3 d5 3 Nc3 Variation, 3...Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Nce2 c5 6 c3 [C00]

Dubov and Grischuk have experimented with the move order 2 Nf3 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Nce2!? (instead of the conventional 5 d4 c5 6 dxc5, for example) 5...c5 6 c3:

The idea is to transpose to the Classical line recommended by Harikrishna, i.e., 6...Nc6 7 d4. But Black has good options. In Dubov, D - Zierk, S, Titled Tuesday 30th Mar 2021, Black played 6...c4, to target White’s e-pawn after 7 d4 cxd3. At this point White played 8 Ng3, which proved good enough in Blitz but is objectively inferior to the previously played 8 Ned4!.

In Dubov, D - Liyanage, RD, Titled Tuesday 30th Mar 2021, Black played the other critical move 6...d4. White seems to have little better than 7 cxd4 cxd4 8 Nexd4 Nxe5 9 Bb5+:

Here Grischuk had previously faced 9...Ned7, which according to my analysis is perfectly sound, and in this game Black played the equally solid 9...Nec6. Dubov got no advantage from the opening but he did get the double-edged play he was after, and Black eventually cracked.

Till next month, John

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