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This month, as usual, we look at a few Classical Steinitz games. Then we examine two variations in the Tarrasch Defence: 3 Nd2 c5 4 Ngf3, and several irregular lines of the Universal System.

Download PGN of November '13 French games

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Classical Variation with 4 e5, 7...Qb6 [C11]

The Classical Steinitz with 7 Be3 continues to be the main focus of elite games in the French Defence. 7...Qb6 has always been considered a solid, playable line, when 8 Na4 Qa5+ 9 c3 leaves Black a choice. There's nothing wrong with 9...b6, but in Caruana - Ivanchuk, Paris 2013, Black chose the slow 9...c4, which leads to lengthy manoeuvring games after 10 b4 Qc7:

This is a speciality of Volkov, who tends to put most of his pieces on the back rank and win anyway. In this game, Black equalises fairly easily, but then plays inaccurately and gradually falls into a losing game.

7...cxd4 8 Nxd4 Qb6 [C11]

This month saw three more high-level tests of Nakamura's specialty 7...cxd4 8 Nxd4 Qb6. Apologies for running this variation into the ground, but the best players in the world are using it as a battleground. Anyway, the coverage in Caruana - Agdestein, Rhodes 2013, should be the last in this column for a while. That game went right down the main theoretical line which we've discussed here, reaching this position:

Caruana fails to prove that White has any more than an optical advantage, and Black has no trouble holding his own.

Classical 5 Nf3 [C11]

As we've often noted the Classical line with 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Nf3 c5 6 dxc5 Nc6 7 Bf4 can also arise via 2 Nf3 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 d4 c5, etc. A well-played Girl's Under-18 game, Imnadze - Efroimski, Budva 2013, went into the traditional main line.

Here White played the older move 11 Qe2 instead of 11 Ne5, after which some early and instructive tactics arose.

Tarrasch Variation 3...c5 4 Ngf3 cxd4 [C07]

Against 3...c5, the move 4 Ngf3 frustrates some players of Black because they can no longer enter the 4 exd5 Qxd5 lines (for example, 4 Ngf3 Nc6 5 exd5 Qxd5 6 Bc4 favours White). On the other hand, Black has a couple of ways to equalise after 4...cxd4 5 Nxd4. One is 5...Nc6, when the most challenging line leads to this position:

Black has three defences here, as described in Kovalev - Edouard, Warsaw 2013.

Alternatively, the move 5...Nf6 is often played and after 6 exd5, Black played 6...Qxd5 in Illescas Cordoba-Drasko, Warsaw 2013, (a recent game with 6...Nxd5 is in the notes). This led to a familiar position:

White tried 8 Nc3 (instead of the more popular 8 c4) and got a little something, but if Black plays accurately this line has no real appeal.

Universal System 7 Ngf3 g6, 7...h6, 7...a6 [C06]

In the Universal System with 3...Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 Bd3 c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 Ngf3, there's an older version of the ...g5 line that's been around for at least 20 years and never resolved. It arises from 7...g6 8 h4 Qb6 9 h5 g5 and leads to this position:

In Castellanos Rodriguez-Perez Mitjans, Azuqueca de Henares 2013, I've tried to give a thorough overview of the state of theory as I see it. As so often, a verdict of 'dynamic equality' seems to be the result.

In the same Universal System, Black seldom plays 7...h6, but it has several positive points, preparing ...g5 while preventing incursions by a White piece on g5. Also, as opposed to the positions with and early ...Be7, Black retains the possibility of playing ...Bg7 or ...Be7. The reason that this is all relevant is that my favorite eccentric move after 3 Nd2 is 3...h6, and after 4 Ngf3 Nf6 5 e5 Nfd7 6 Bd3 c5 7 c3 Nc6, we have transposed to the Universal with 7...h6:

In fact, this position, which was promoted by Eingorn and played by him with success, is theoretically in good shape. Unfortunately, its results in the Archives are poor, but you can see in my notes that this comes down to Black basically winging it in the opening when perfectly good options were available. In Antipov - Bauer, Linares 2013, a game where Bauer played 3...h6, Black wins a nice game via the straightforward plan of ...g5, ...h5, and ...g4.

Another fairly eccentric Universal System arises from 7...a6. As with 7...h6, this can arise via 3 Nd2 a6 4 Ngf3 Nf6 5 e5 Nfd7 6 Bd3 c5 7 c3 Nc6. After 8 0-0 Black has two interesting moves:

In my French: Dangerous Weapons book, I recommend 8...g5, with the usual ideas, which is complex but turns out to be perfectly playable. In Lou Yiping-Kamsky, Tromso 2013, Black played the unusual 8...b5!?. I also analysed this in some detail in Dangerous Weapons. A wild game results and the much lower-rated player scrapes by with a draw. Ultimately, I think that 8...g5 is objectively stronger than 8...b5, but the latter has little theory attached to it, and Kamsky usually knows what he's doing, so I look forward to future tests.

Till next month, John

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