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For many years, the French Defence was popular at all levels, but swamped by the Sicilian Defence in the supertournament games of the world's top 10 players. No longer. Glancing at the latest FIDE list, I see that 6 of the world's top 10 players play the French with some consistency, even if another opening is their main weapon. At the moment, the French is appearing very regularly at the Sao Paulo/Bilbao Grandmasters Final super-tournament. As of the second-to-last round, in fact 6 of the 18 games beginning with 1 e4 have been French Defences (without a single Sicilian!). Of the 6 participants, Caruana, now in the top 5 in the world, has become a strong French advocate over the past few years, and Vallejo Pons is also a proponent. But even Magnus Carlsen, who overwhelming prefers 1...e5 and 1...c5, also played 1...e6 twice in the Sao Paulo/Bilbao event, and has dabbled in the French a number of times over the past two years. The sad part is that, after doing extremely well recently, the French was slaughtered in terms of results; poor Vallejo Pons went 0-3 (in spite of two opening advantages). Even Carlsen lost a game with it. But a closer look reveals that Black achieved early equality or even better (twice) in four of those games. Sometimes that's just how the chips fall.
This month I'll review those Sao Paulo/Bilbao French Defence games, as well as one between Leko and Ivanchuk from the London Grand Prix.

Download PGN of October '12 French games

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King's Indian Attack 4...Nc6 [C00]

In a critical encounter with Caruana, who at the time had a healthy lead, Carlsen chose not to try for anything in the opening and just play chess.

As in other games in this tournament, Carlsen did best from a harmless, non-theoretical position, and ultimately played an ending which I think will be included in many books because of his excellent technique and the issues involved. See Carlsen - Caruana, Sao Paulo/Bilbao 2012.

Advance Variation 6 a3 Nh6 [C02]

The main line of the Advance Variation with 6 a3 Nh6 was tested in Caruana - Vallejo Pons, Sao Paulo/Bilbao 2012, where White put his bishop on e3 instead of b2. This line hasn't given Black much trouble over the years (see the archives), but he has to know what he's doing.

Here Black played the reckless move 12...Nxb4?! (I actually give it a '?'), grabbing pawns at the cost of abandoning his kingside and letting White's strong centre go unmolested. This ends in disaster, although oddly enough, White lets Black off the hook while prosecuting a fairly simple attack (and then receives a gift in return).

Winawer Variation 7 Qg4 0-0 [C18]

Karjakin was White in two main line 7 Qg4 Winawers. In Karjakin - Vallejo Pons, Sao Paulo/Bilbao 2012, the game followed the 7...0-0 main line with 8 Bd3 Nbc6 9 Qh5 Ng6, and reached this book position:

Black chose the rare move 15...Ne7 and came out very well. Unfortunately, when he finally got to a winning position, he mixed up move orders and soon collapsed.

Karjakin - Carlsen, Sao Paulo/Bilbao 2012, saw 8...f5, and the players arrived at this position:

Notice the absence of knights on f3 and c6, the inclusion of which would make it one of the main lines. It turns out that White can't force that transposition by playing Nf3 before Bd2 (see the game notes). Carlsen played the extraordinarily rare move 13...Nd7 and never seemed in any trouble. This is a plausible, super-solid way of treating 7...0-0. On the other hand, White can render Black's winning chances almost nonexistent if the first player determinedly pursues a draw.

7 Nf3 [C19]

Caruana made a good decision to lure Carlsen into the Positional Winawer because his own understanding of the position is probably better than that of Carlsen, who hasn't equivalent experience. Black generally needs to play actively in the Winawer, but in Caruana - Carlsen, Sao Paulo/Bilbao 2012, he neglected to challenge White's centre.

Here White played 12 Re3! and established a clear advantage by attacking on the kingside. Nevertheless, he didn't pursue his best opportunities, and Black slowly but surely got his key freeing move in, actually gaining the advantage. But then, in one last twist, Black got overambitious and miscalculated badly.

Exchange Winawer [C01]

The Winawer was again tested in Carlsen - Vallejo Pons, Sao Paulo/Bilbao 2012, in which White chose the relatively harmless 4 exd5 exd5 5 Bd3 line. He got nothing from the opening, as shown by this position which arose just before Black began to play too passively:

Black is somewhat better, but when Carlsen speculatively sacrificed a pawn, Black declined to take it, played passively, and fell victim to a kingside attack.

Classical Variation with 4 e5, 7...a6 [C11]

In the 7...a6 main Steinitz lines, Leko won another game by using the rather obscure move 10 Ne2:

In Leko - Ivanchuk, 1st FIDE GP London 2012, White slowly grinds Black down. There are some great notes from the Archives, including those from an earlier win by Leko in the same line. This is a good example of how a fairly harmless move, which has several fully satisfactory replies, can be an effective weapon as long as the opponents are thinking on their own.

Till next month, John

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