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It's interesting to look at the current distribution of games and variations in the French Defence. The use of 3 e5 (the Advance Variation) has steadily dropped over the years and is now employed in around 11% of games in the French, and the Exchange Variation in about 10% (a number comparable to the King's Indian Attack). These are both down from peak frequencies of about 15% in much earlier times. 3 Nc3 naturally remains the most popular move, accounting for around 43% of French Defence games (only 14% of these are Winawers). Over the past decade, the most significant increase has come in the use of the Tarrasch (3 Nd2), which is now played in almost a quarter of games in the French (23%). I think that this reflects both the perception of safety (who wants to be pinned with ...Bb4, whether in the Winawer or MacCutcheon?) and the idea that it doesn't require as much preparation as 3 Nc3, while developing faster than 3 e5.
This month we'll concentrate upon the Tarrasch and MacCutcheon variations.

Download PGN of September '14 French games

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Tarrasch Variation 3...c5 4 exd5 Qxd5, 6...Qd7 [C07]

In the variation with 3 Nd2 c5 4 exd5 Qxd5 5 Ngf3 cxd4 6 Bc4, Rublevsky (a longstanding expert of Tarrasch theory) played White twice against the relatively new move 6...Qd7, leading to this basic position:

Black keeps the diagonal of his bishop on f8 unblocked (as opposed to 6...Qd6) and perhaps play ...Bc5, but in the games, Black had to be careful of Bg5 and Bxf6. See Rublevsky - Goganov, St Petersburg Rapid 2014.

Tarrasch Mainline 3 Nd2 Nf6, 11...0-0 12 Bf4 [C06]

In the main 3 Nd2 Nf6 variation with 11...0-0 rather than 11...Qc7, Fedorowicz - Wang, Montreal 2014, tested the important line with 14 g3:

From this position, Black played 14...Qf6 15 h4, and then tried the slightly strange-looking 15...Qh6, which was good for an original position with a slight theoretical disadvantage. Objectively, 15...h6 is arguably equal and therefore more accurate, but it provides fewer positive chances.

In the same variation, Black in Feuerstack - Bente, St Pauli 2014, bypassed the usual 13...Ne4 in favor of 13...Qd6:

Black is on the verge of equality in this line, but since White retains a tiny edge in simplified positions, Black's winning chances are restricted. Thus a lower-rated player on either side may not be afraid of this variation, while a higher-rated one might want to avoid it.

Tarrasch 3 Nd2 Nf6, 9 Nf4 Exchange sac line [C06]

Some players are still attracted to the violent variation with 9 Nf4:

This month White had some success, most noticeably in the game Karthikeyan - Volkov, Abu Dhabi 2014, in which French expert Volkov was able to keep approximate equality throughout, and then blundered. Nevertheless, the overall assessment is encouraging for White, who should probably be happy if this line always leads to such playable and double-edged positions.

A less theoretically critical but nevertheless instructive game was Anarkulov - De Gondo, Tromso 2014.

In this standard position, Black played 16...e4 17 fxe4 Bb4+, preventing White from castling. However, the cost of weakening his pawns and opening lines renders this idea dubious, and White stayed on top.

Tarrasch Mainline 3 Nd2 Nf6, 11...Qc7 12 g3 [C06]

In Perdek - Musialkiewicz, Poronin 2014, the main line with ...Qc7 and ...Bd6 arose, and White tried the positionally consistent and critical move 12 g3:

There followed 12...0-0 13 Bf4 Ng4, a line which is still unresolved. White got some positional advantage, but then ran into trouble in short order.

Classical/MacCutcheon Variation 6 Be3, 7...Kf8 [C12]

Suc - Tratar, Trieste 2014, featured 6 Be3 in the MacCutcheon. After 6...Ne4 7 Qg4, Black answered with 7...Kf8, which is not most masters' favourite these days, but seems to hold its own. White gambited the c-pawn to arrive at this position:

White has good compensation, but probably only enough.

MacCutcheon Variation 6 Bd2, 8...Kf8 [C12]

In the main line with 6 Bd2 Bxc3 7 bxc3 Ne4 8 Qg4, 8...Kf8 is likewise less popular than 8...g6 (I recommend the latter in PTF4), but the moves are both well-established and perhaps of equal value. A standard position arose in Al Modiahki-Peralta, Tromso 2014:

This is considered equal, and the game does nothing to change that impression.

MacCutcheon Variation 6 Bd2, 8...g6 [C12]

A few games with 8....g6, currently the main line, are imbedded in Atabayev - Liu Guanchu, Budapest 2014.

This variation is playable for both sides. Black loses this time, but not due to the opening, and the notes provide alternative ways for him to play.

Till next month, John

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