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This month, as usual, there are far too many important French Defence games by strong grandmasters to do justice to. I've noticed that a great number of questions that I get from students and others about the French are not about critical main lines, but relatively less critical ones that they find irritating. So I'm going to make sure that this column doesn't become too obsessive about novelties on move 18, although there will always be some, but tries to find a mix of the theoretical and practical. The latter can be just as instructive for developing players as more thematically-defined main lines.

Download PGN of April '10 French games

Assorted Variations

In line with the thoughts above, let me present a couple of games involving relatively rare lines which nonetheless have been used by strong players. They begin with 2 Nf3.

1 e4 e6 2 Nf3 d5 3 e5 c5 can go in some unique directions. 4 c3 is an unusual move order which, however, has been played by strong players including, recently, Gata Kamsky and before that, Malakhov and Ljubojevic. The idea is 4...Nc6 (4...d4) 5 Na3:

At this point Black has a wide variety of reasonable choices, as given in the notes. Tu Hoang Thong-Bao Khoa, Ho Chi Minh City 2010, went 5...Nh6 6 Nc2 Be7 7 d4, with a type of Advanced Variation. White played a very instructive game which illustrates the ideal structure for the first player in this opening. 4 c3 may not yield an advantage, but it will probably get you to an original position.

Instead of 4 c3, 4 b4!? is the French Wing Gambit:

It's not often that you see two strong players contesting this variation, and in Sedlak - Dvirnyy, Rijeka 2010, Black had chances for the advantage in the opening. White nevertheless achieved some compensation, after which the game took a tactical turn.

Lastly, there's 2 Nf3 d5 3 Nc3, a more common sequence. Like most players, I think that 3...Nf6 leads to the most interesting play, but we've seen the alternative 3...d4 before in this column and in particular, this position:

In Yuan - Xie, Sydney 2010, there follows a lengthy forced sequence which eventually goes the way of earlier contests, leading to equality and then to a better game for Black. Nevertheless, I think that White can achieve a modest edge here if he is well-prepared.

Exchange Variation

There's been quite a bit of discussion of the Exchange Variation line 3 exd5 exd5 4 c4 of late, and it's an Internet favourite. I would even recommend it, or 4 Nf3 and 5 c4, to players just starting out. On a more advanced level, Black should be able to equalize without serious problems, although the precise move orders are important. This is a very commonly-arising position:

In E Berg- Baciu, Rijeka 2010, White plays 6 Bd3, and I discuss the differences between that and 6 Nf3. A standard position arises in any case, one in which Black generally gains good pressure on White's centre. In this game an innovation by White gives Black the choice of a drawing line, which she rejects, or a double-edged middlegame. White eventually gets the upper hand and finishes nicely.

Advance Variation

3...c5 4 c3 Qb6 5 Nf3 Bd7 with the idea ...Bb5 is still a popular way to meet the Advance Variation, appealing for those who like to simplify and clarify the position. It is one of McDonald's recommendations in his How to Play Against 1 e4. A key variation begins with 6 a3 a5:

Many years of experience have not made clear what White's best approach is. In Acs - Hausner, Baden 2010, I've concentrated upon 6 a3 and 6 Bd3 in some detail.

After 3 e5, I have recommended 3...c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3 Nh6 in Dangerous Weapons: The French, and it's done extremely well since. One idea is that White's 6 a3/b4 idea can be a little slow without Black having played ...Qb6. This position arises:

Now Black can play 7...Nf7!?, 7...fxe5, or 7...cxd4. The latter two are safest, and promising. Zhigalko - Reinderman, Rijeka 2010, illustrates how the dissolution of White's centre makes life easy for the second player.

Tarrasch Variation

There were the usual lot of main-line Tarrasch Variations this month, but I thought I'd mention a possible way for White to avoid that.

The old Tarrasch lines with 5 f4 have seen better days if White plays c3 and Black proceeds with his customary plan of a well-timed ..cxd4, and after cxd4, ...f6 and ...fxe5. But if White avoids letting his d-pawn become a target, some new possibilities arise. That happens in Cabrera Trujillo- Barrio Pareja, La Laguna 2010, after Nb3, and in the imbedded game Paehtz-Ivkina, Dagomys 2010, where ...cxd4 is answered by Nxd4.

Classical Variation

There were several interesting games in the MacCutcheon this month, so I'll save a couple for later columns. In Berg - Wintzer, Rijeka 2010, White plays the main line with 6 Bd2 Bxc3 7 bxc3 Ne4 8 Qg4 g6, but then protects the bishop on d2 with 9 Qf4:

We have seen this in the Archives previously. Black comes up with a new idea that should have equalized with no problems.

Nestorovic - Piorun, Bucharest 2010, illustrates a topical and important defence to the 6 Be3 variation.

Here Black has been playing 10...h5 with success. It has been endorsed by Moskalenko, notably in a recent contribution to New in Chess Yearbook. In fact, one point of showing this game is simply to report and expand upon what he says there, and of course I've done my own analysis to try to get closer to the truth.

Winawer Variation

In Volokitin - Ganguly, Moscow Aeroflot 2007, we stride again into main line Winawer Poisoned Pawn territory with a wonderful fight that goes down to the wire.

Kevin previously did a massive job analysing this position. This game gives us further insights, and I've added my own analysis, as well as incorporating the old.

Paehtz - Wintzer, Bundesliga 2009/10, isn't particularly important from a theoretical point of view, but does hearken back to earlier theoretical days and serves as a very instructive example of Black's knight play and central pawn breaks in the Winawer versus White's bishop pair.

In the game, Black holds his own fairly easily because of his better pawn structure.

The main line with 7 Qg4 is often met by 7...cxd4 rather than 7...Qc7, since the latter allows 8 Bd3. After 7...cxd4, White can try to avoid the transposition 8 Qxg7 Rg8 9 Qxh7 Qc7 by various means, for example, 8 cxd4:

In Zufic - Grigoryan, Rijeka 2010, play continued 8...Qc7 9 Bd2, sacrificing the c-pawn. It seems that this is speculative, even if the game eventually went south on Black.

Till next month, John

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