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The Advance Variation is attracting most of the attention at the top. White is coming up with new approaches in a few gambit lines and while not achieving forced advantages, it’s been enough to spice up the play.
I’ve also tried to update the theory of some popular lines in the Steinitz Variation, which continues to produce rich, unbalanced play for both sides.

Download PGN of November ’21 French games

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Advance, Milner-Barry Gambit 6 Bd3 cxd4 7 0-0 Bd7 8 Re1 Nge7 9 h4 [C02]

Partly due to the examples of Gawain Jones (including his recommendation in a ‘coffeehouse repertoire’), the gambit line with 4...Nc6 5 Nf3 Qb6 6 Bd3 cxd4 7 0-0!? has surged in popularity. We’ve covered this recently but now there are more details in what is becoming a sort of main line: 7...Bd7 8 Re1 Nge7 9 h4:

In the notes to Ivanov, M - Ghimpu, S-T , Titled Tuesday 19th Oct 2021, I expand upon what we’ve already seen in the Archives. The game’s 9...a6 10 h5 h6 is interesting, and alternatives like 10...g6 show that Black has various ways to approach this complex position.

Even supergrandmasters are getting in on the act. From the diagram above, Vachier Lagrave, M - Ponkratov, P, FIDE Grand Swiss Riga 2021, continued 9...h6 10 a3 (I examine the normal 10 h5 in the notes).

Black had equal chances after 10...Rc8 11 b4 a6, but failed to take advantage of his opportunities later on.

Advance Variation 5...Qb6 6 Be2 cxd4 7 cxd4 Nh6 8 Bxh6 Qxb2 9 Nbd2 [C02]

The other popular gambit line with 6 Be2 cxd4 7 cxd4 Nh6 8 Bxh6 Qxb2 continues to be attract both sides. Sjugirov, S - Acosta, P, Pablo Ismael, Speed Chess 2021, continued 9 Nbd2 gxh6 10 0-0 Bd7 11 Rb1 Qxa2 12 Rxb7 Rb8. Now that 8 Bxh6 has a fair body of recent practice behind it, this variation is becoming a main line. The following position has arisen from it several times, by two separate orders:

It turns out that there are three ways for Black to equalize.

Advance Variation 5...Qb6 6 Be2 cxd4 7 cxd4 Nh6 8 Bxh6 gxh6 9 Qd2 [C02]

Because of the potentially drawish nature of this and other lines, Black sometimes tries to sidestep the gambit with 8...gxh6 (instead of 8...Qxb2) 9 Qd2 Bg7:

This isn’t the ideal order if one wants to play the ...gxh6 idea (6...Nh6 is better, delaying ...cxd4; I have examined recent games in the notes, by transposition) because of 10 Nc3! (or 10 0-0 0-0 11 Nc3), which I analyse in the game David, A - I Filip, L, Mamaia 2021. See the notes to clarify the move order issues.

Advance Variation 5...Qb6 6 a3 c4 7 Nbd2 Na5 8 Rb1 [C02]

5...Qb6 6 a3 is White’s most positional approach. After 6...c4 7 Nbd2 Na5, White has played 8 Rb1 a number of times recently, contemplating b3 and avoiding the ...Nb3 fork at a later time.

In Motylev, A - Fedoseev, V, Ufa 2021, there followed 8...Bd7 9 h4 Nh6, when Black’s pieces were well-placed for defense, but didn’t have aggressive prospects, whereas White also lacked an effective plan. Prospects are equal here.

Tarrasch 3...c5 4 exd5 Qxd5 5 Ngf3 cxd4 6 Bc4 Qd6 7 0-0 Nf6 8 Nb3 Nc6 9 Nbxd4 Nxd4 10 Qxd4 [C07]

In the 3 Nd2 c5 4 exd5 Qxd5 5 Ngf3 cxd4 6 Bc4 Qd6 (or 6...Qd7 or 6...Qd8) 7 0-0 Nf6 8 Nb3 Nc6 9 Nbxd4 Nxd4 lines, we still see a consistent number of games with 10 Qxd4:

It's surprising how often even strong players of White enter this ending, considering its mediocre record over 1500+ games, and the fact that Black has the standard 4:3 central majority versus the 3:2 queenside. True, White's lead in development compensates for this structural shortcoming, but there’s no reason for the first player to expect any kind of advantage. Budisavljevic, L - Bluebaum, M, FIDE Grand Swiss Riga 2021, is a good example of how Black can get the better of things if White isn’t careful.

Classical Steinitz Variation 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3 a6 8 a3 [C11]

The most popular line after 3 Nc3 Nf6 among leading players is still the Steinitz Variation with 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 and most frequently, 6...Nc6 7 Be3. I’ll fill in some gaps and update developments with two games from August and two recent ones.

Esipenko, A - Grischuk, A, Moscow Blitz 2021, saw White reply to 7..a6 with the popular 8 a3:

This can transpose to various lines or have independent value. Black tested the mass exchange following 8...cxd4 9 Nxd4 Bc5 10 Qd2 Nxd4 11 Bxd4 Bxd4 12 Qxd4 Qb6 13 Qxb6 Nxb6. This position is pretty reliable for Black; in the game White got real chances, but that’s the reality of Blitz play.

In an earlier game Molner, M - Akobian, V, Cherry Hill 2021, Black stayed flexible with 8...Be7, leading to a known position after 9 dxc5 Nxc5 10 b4 Nd7 11 Bd3:

This has scored well for White, and illustrates one point of the 8 a3 move order. In the game, White obtained a clear advantage.

The a3 move also arose after the unusual order 6...cxd4 7 Nxd4 Bc5 8 Be3 0-0 9 Qd2 a6 10 a3 in Kuybokarov, T - Paravyan, D, FIDE Grand Swiss Riga 2021. 10...Nc6 11 Qf2!? followed, and Black felt justified in assaulting Whites center by 11...g5!?:

An endgame arose where Black should have been fine but was slowly outplayed.

Classical Steinitz Variation 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3 cxd4 8 Nxd4 Bc5 9 Qd2 [C11]

The old main line with 7...cxd4 8 Nxd4 Bc5 9 Qd2 a6 was tested in Ponkratov, P - Zvjaginsev, V, FIDE Grand Swiss Riga 2021, with the familiar continuation 10 h4 0-0 11 0-0-0 Nxd4 12 Bxd4 b5:

The position after 13 h5 appears about 300 times in my database and the game’s 13...Bb7 (instead of 13..b4) is played in only 11 of them, but it seems to be sound enough. In general, you will see that including the moves h6 and ...g6 is not necessarily a good idea for White.

Till next month, John

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