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Both the Men’s and Women’s Candidates featured some French Defences (six of them), so I’ll look at those this month, as well as some interesting new contests involving familiar variations of topical interest.

Download PGN of May ’24 French games

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Advance Variation 5 Nf3 Qb6 6 a3 Bd7 7 b4 [C02]

Quite a few top GMs continue to use the Advance, as Caruana did in an important Candidates game Caruana, F - Praggnanandhaa, R, FIDE Candidates Toronto 2024, After 3 e5 c5 4 c3 Nc6 5 Nf3 Qb6, Black entered into a popular line in the 6 a3 system by 6...Bd7 7 b4 cxd4 8 cxd4 Rc8, to which White replied with 9 Bb2:

Now there may be nothing wrong with the much-analysed 9...Na5 (see my note), but 9...Nge7 as played by Prag is a flexible option, still intending ...Na5 in the right circumstances, as in the game’s 10 Nc3 Na5. An interesting and equal struggle resulted, and Black even had some chances to gain the advantage as the middlegame wore on, but settled for a draw.

Advance 5 Nf3 Bd7 6 Be2 f6 7 0-0 fxe5 8 Nxe5 Nxe5 9 fxe5 Qc7 [C02]

The Women’s Candidates saw a couple of French Defense games, including a test of one main line of the topical 5...Bd7 6 Be2 f6 variation which we’ve examined here many times. In Lagno, K - Lei, T, FIDE Womens Candidates Toronto 2024, White entered a main line with 7 0-0 fxe5 8 Nxe5 Nxe5 9 fxe5 Qc7 10 Bf4:

As we have seen before, the natural 10...0-0-0 is very dangerous due to 11 a4 intending Na3-b5. Lei chose 10...Ne7 instead, equalized, and soon stood much better.

Advance Variation 5 Nf3 Bd7 6 Be2 Rc8 7 0-0 a6 [C02]

After 5...Bd7 6 Be2, most of the action has centered around 6...f6, but it’s fascinating that 6...Rc8 7 0-0 a6!? continues to be played by top Grandmasters:

This looks artificial, but asks White what he's doing while Black prepares queenside play. So far White hasn’t found anything convincing and Black has an equal performance rating, which probably says something about the essential soundness of Black’s position in the Advance Variation. Mendes, A - Van Foreest, J, Menorca 2024, continued 8 h3 h6 9 Be3, and Black tried the strange 9....c4!? and expanded on the queenside, which turned out reasonably well, but there are other logical alternatives.

Advance 5 Nf3 Qb6 6 a3 Nh6 7 b4 cxd4 8 Bxh6 gxh6 9 cxd4 [C02]

Shirov, A - Ibadov, D, Titled Tuesday 9th April 2024, saw one of the main lines: 5...Qb6 6 a3 Nh6 7 b4 cxd4 8 Bxh6 gxh6 9 cxd4 Bd7, and now Sveshnikov’s 10 Ra2:

Shirov is a leading advocate of the Advance Variation, and it's interesting to see him enter this line. The game deviated early and Black was overrun. I don’t see what’s wrong with the most forcing variation in the main line, but Shirov doubtless had something prepared.

Exchange Variation 4 Nf3 Bd6 5 c4 0-0 6 c5 Be7 [C01]

One of the best games of the Candidates resulted from the modest Exchange Variation line 3 exd5 exd5 4 Nf3 Bd6 5 c4 0-0 6 c5 Be7. In Nakamura, H - Firouzja, A, FIDE Candidates Toronto 2024, White chose the fairly obscure move 7 Qa4+:

This proved sufficient to provoke Firouzja into creating maximal complications and resulted in a superb back-and-forth contest between two great tacticians. Naturally 7 Qa4+ doesn’t force such a result, but it looks like a great way to avoid more forcing and better known paths.

Exchange Variation 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 Bd3 Bd6 6 0-0 [C01]

I wonder how many other variations besides 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 Bd3 Bd6 6 0-0 0-0 have so many thousands of games played and such dead-even results (see my first few notes to the game).

Nether White nor Black managed to create any real winning chances out of the opening in Muzychuk, A - Lei, T, FIDE Womens Candidates Toronto 2024, but White took on an isolated pawn and enough imbalance that after 25 moves or so there were some opportunities, and ultimately a fascinating ending produced a surprising/tragic result. Regardless, it’s hard for me to recommend that you embrace this opening with either color.


Exchange Variation 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 Bd3 c5 [C01]

Two of the men’s Candidates games could have transposed into the previous diagram but went down a slightly more dynamic path. They in fact came from a Petroff Defense order 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 Nxe5 d6 4 Nf3 Nxe4 5 d3 Nf6 6 d4 d5 7 Bd3. Games with this order are often ECO-classified as C01, an Exchange French, since the position can also arise from 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 exd5 exd5 4 Nf3 Nf6 5 Bd3. Both games continued 7...c5 (or 5...c5 in the French order).

Nakamura, H - Abasov, N, FIDE Candidates Toronto 2024 continued 8 c3 (two rounds earlier, Nepomniachtchi-Abasov went 8 0-0 c4 9 Be2; that is analysed in the notes) 8...c4 9 Bc2 Bd6 10 0-0 0-0 11 h3 Nc6. White had a minor edge at first, but in the very complex positions that ensued both players squandered significant advantages until ultimately White took over.

Exchange Variation 4 Nf3 Nc6 5 Nc3 [C01]

The variation 4 Nf3 Nc6 has led to some unbalanced, dynamic battles that you can see in our Archives games, perhaps most notably after 5 Bb5 Bd6 6 c4. But what can you do when White chooses 5 Nc3, as in Nepomniachtchi, I - Praggnanandhaa, R, FIDE Candidates Toronto 2024, and you’re not excited about 5...Nf6 ?

The Winawer-like 5...Bb4 is a popular choice, and in this past month, the ever-inventive Bluebaum has played 5...a6 (see the notes). I wonder if Prag was already winging it when he went for 5...Nge7, the 7th most common move? At any rate, the game is a bit of a dud and I include it mainly to celebrate every appearance of the French in our World Championship cycle.

Steinitz Variation 5 Nce2 c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 f4 Be7 [C11]

After 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7, players of White are still trying to gain chances with the moves 5 Nce2 (instead of the normal 5 f4) and the theory of this line continues to expand. In Tari, A - Sklyarov, D, Norwegian Team Ch 2024, the traditional line with 5...c5 6 c3 Nc6 7 f4 was tested, and Black chose to delay ...Qb6 or ...b5 with 7...Be7 8 Nf3 0-0:

Here Tari chose the solid 9 Be3 and Black chose to expand with 9...b5, one of several reasonable moves. White responded with the aggressive novelty 10 f5!?, which is objectively not advantageous but led to great complications and eventually to a brilliant White victory.

In Velasquez, N - Bareev, E, Candidates Blitz Toronto 2024, Black tried to launch his queenside play a tempo earlier with 8...b5:

Often this is a good idea, since ...0-0 allows White an extra move to defend his center and queenside. Here White played 9 Be3 with ideas similar to the Tari game. There are numerous choices, of course, but 9 f5 was particularly interesting.

Steinitz Variation 5 Nce2 c5 6 c3 cxd4 7 cxd4 f6 [C11]

Magnus Carlsen used the 5 Nce2 system in the Blitz game Carlsen, M - Terry, R, Titled Tuesday 2nd April 2024, and Black chose 5...c5 6 c3 cxd4 7 cxd4 f6:

I’ve long recommended this solution, which is now well-established, but my databases have almost 15 times as many games with 6...Nc6. In the game, Carlsen played 8 exf6 (I’ve included a lengthy note on 8 f4) 8...Nxf6 9 Nf3 Nc6, and here Carlsen tried to confuse matters with 10 Ng3 (instead of the normal and equal 10 Nc3), but Black could already have gained the advantage here with accurate play. In the game, equality resulted and ultimately, a draw.

Till next month, John

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