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I want to catch up on a neglected variation this month, the Exchange Variation. It's hard to pin down because the play goes in so many directions, but I'll stick with standard Black defences for the most part, concentrating upon lines which top players seem to prefer at the moment.

Download PGN of October '11 French games

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Exchange Variation 4 Nf3 Nc6 [C01]

Every month at least a few games, and sometimes many, feature 4 Nf3 Nc6. I have to admit that I've been skeptical of this move on principle, but I've changed my mind. 4...Nc6 has been around for quite a long time now and is popular among the top players. It is recommended in Neil McDonald's How to Play Against 1 e4, and I doubt that there's anyone who knows the line better. That book, my own analysis, and many examples indicate that it's satisfactory, as well as being a nice way to avoid symmetry.

The key line is 5 Bb5 Bd6:

This is a Winawer Exchange Variation reversed, with White a tempo ahead! But it seems we have a typical symmetrical variation phenomenon: because White has had to commit his pieces first (Nf3 instead of Ne2), Black can adjust his play accordingly.

First Black has to deal with the aggressive and critical 6 c4 (NOT played in the reverse Winawer position, by the way):

In the game Hayrapetian - Minasian, Kajaran 2011, I show recent games and review quite a lot of theory, including excerpts from McDonald's book.

Instead of 6 c4, the high-rated game Safarli - Mamedyarov, Baku 2011 went 6 0-0 Nge7 7 Re1 0-0 and Black was soon slightly but definitely better. Another game between strong grandmasters, Wang Chen-Ganguly, Qinhuangdao 2011, featured 6 h3, and again White ceded a small (not really significant) edge to his opponent.

Finally, the game Fataliyeva - Sengupta, Mumbai 2011, saw White run into disaster after 6 0-0 Nge7 7 Bg5:

The problem is that ...f6 is almost always a useful move. This is especially true when Black castles queenside and attacks White's king by throwing his pawns forward, which is what happens.

So it appears that White has accepted that Black has sufficient counterplay in the 6 c4 line and is trying other approaches, but with little success thus far.

4 Nf3 Bd6 5 c4 [C01]

Another important order is 4 Nf3 Bd6 5 c4, and it's possible to play 5...c6 as in my book, but 5...Nf6 is also valid. After 6 Nc3, we have this position:

Recently Black has demonstrated that he can temporarily sacrifice a pawn with 6...0-0. In a game from the end of August, Bologan - Socko, Khanty-Mansiysk 2011, which I think illustrates the pawn sacrifice well, I've tried to give the outlines of what's going on. Apparently Black can equalise by either omitting ...h6 or by playing it, but he should not waste a tempo, e.g., with ...Re8.

4 Bd3 [C01]

Another traditional approach is 4 Bd3. If the games with 4 Bd3 this month are ordered according to average rating, it takes 16 games down the list before White gets a win! That's with 8 draws and 7 Black wins. Once you go to the 2100-and-below range, White outscores Black by a little, so I guess you may be okay playing 3 exd5 against the average fellow at your club or online. But it's interesting that among the stronger players, one gets the distinct impression that White is playing to draw, even if his rating is equal to or higher than his opponent, and that seems to have produced the usual result when anyone plays for a draw: a bunch of draws, a bunch of losses, and no wins!

After the popular sequence 4 Bd3 Nc6, two unsophisticated but fun games where the opponents castle on opposite wings are shown in Gorsek - Drasko, Sentjur 2011. The main game features a type of position with which many French players will be familiar:

Several games with 4 Bd3 Nc6 5 c3 Bd6 6 Qf3 are given in Fridman - Vedder, Ans 2011:

This is a solid, equal line which usually doesn't create many threats or yield any advantage for White, but on the other hand Black doesn't have any predictable way to attack and is left to his own devices.

Sometimes players pursue a silly symmetric line, as they were so wont to do in the 19th century. In Nikoloayev - Prasca Sosa, New York 2011, the opponents test the line with 4 Bd3 Bd6 5 Nf3 Nf6 (they play 4 Nf3 Nf6 in the game, actually, but the 4 Bd3 Bd6 order is more common), and eventually arrive at this position:

Fortunately, Black breaks symmetry and the game goes on for a long time, but neither side can find (or perhaps wants to find) any way to try for advantage. In the notes we see a game with the same line up to move where White attacks, and an interesting game in which 6 Qe2+ Qe7 7 Qxe7+ leads to a very modest White advantage.

4 c4 [C01]

There have been many games with 4 c4 over the past year, and I think I'll come back to this fashionable move in a separate column. The game T Taylor-Altounian, Los Angeles 2011 reaches this position in the opening:

I show a lot of analysis, which I think makes the point that targeting White's isolated pawn on d4 (by, e.g., ...Bg4 and ...dxc4) is often better than trying to blockade it (by e.g., ...dxc4 and ...Nb4-d5), and that if a blockade becomes the necessary solution, you will have to control squares in the vicinity of the blockading square as well as the square itself.

Till next month, John

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