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A narrow focus this month. I’ve chosen to examine the Fort Knox Variation, which has been used quite a bit by masters, and in particular a couple of well-known GMs. At the end I update some theory in the main line 4 e5 Steinitz Variation with 7...Be7.

Download PGN of November ’22 French games

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Fort Knox Variation 5 Nf3 Bc6 6 Bd3 Nd7 7 0-0 Ngf6 [C10]

After 3 Nc3 (or 3 Nd2) 3...dxe4 4 Nxe4, I’ve covered the Rubinstein Variation with 4...Nd7 fairly extensively, but rather neglected the Fort Knox Variation with 4...Bd7 intending 5...Bc6. Neil McDonald covered this move heavily in its early days, and I periodically look at a game or two, so there are reasonably many examples in the Archives. Nevertheless, I haven’t even looked at a few of the most common lines, and it’s time to catch up with modern treatments.

The two contemporary heroes of the Fort Knox are Rustemov and Jobava. Rustemov has played 130 games with 4...Bd7 in Megabase going back to 1996, and Jobava 45 games (with 33 of them since 2021). Today they are playing it constantly in Blitz tournaments (the Titled Tuesday events in particular). Generally I’m reluctant to use too many Blitz and Rapid games in this column. But in this case the opponents of these two players know that they can expect the Fort Knox and are able to prepare at length against it, even over the course of months, so the opening theory produced should be pretty sophisticated.

I’ll concentrate upon the main line position which arises after 5 Nf3 Bc6 6 Bd3 Nd7 7 0-0 Ngf6.

Fort Knox 5 Nf3 Bc6 6 Bd3 Nd7 7 0-0 Ngf6 8 Ng3 g6 [C10]

First, let’s consider the natural 8 Ng3, which maintains White’s space advantage while avoiding exchanges. Then Wang Hao - Jobava, B, Abu Dhabi 2022, saw 8...g6!?:

This move has been far less common than 8...Be7 but has become popular recently. Black puts his bishop on the long diagonal, blocks White's d3 bishop, and covers the critical f5 square and extra time. The game continued 9 b3 (I look at 9 c4 and 9 Re1 here) 9...Bg7 10 Ba3 Bf8 12 Bb2 Bg7 and White has a small advantage but Black has plenty of play with all the pieces on.

I like the looks of 9 Qe2 Bg7 (9...Bxf3!? is possible) 10 Ne5!, which arose in Christiansen, J - Jobava, B, Titled Tue 20th Sept 2022:

In the game, 10....Nxe5 11 dxe5 gave White a definite advantage, so 10...0-0 should be tried.

Fort Knox 5 Nf3 Bc6 6 Bd3 Nd7 7 0-0 Ngf6 8 Ned2 g6 [C10]

An important move which we have seen several times is 8 Ned2. Then a move in the recent spirit of the Fort Knox is 8...g6, as played in Gunduz, U - Jobava, B, Titled Tuesday 27th Sept 2022:

The game went 9 Nc4 (another game from this month saw the interesting 9 b3 Bg7 10 Ba3 - see the notes) 9...Bg7 10 Na5 0-0 11 Nxc6 bxc6 and Black may still be a slightly worse but it’s a game.

Fort Knox 5 Nf3 Bc6 6 Bd3 Nd7 7 0-0 Ngf6 8 Ned2 Be7 9 Nc4 [C10]

Martinez Alcantara, J - Rustemov, A, RCC Swiss 2022, saw 8...Be7 9 Nc4 Bd5 10 Ne3:

Black chose 10...Be4!?, which proved risky after 11 Bxe4 Nxe4 12 d5!

A better move is 10...Bc6, as in Postny, E - Rustemov, A, Titled Tuesday 13th Sept 2022. The game continued 11 Re1 0-0 12 b3?!:

Here instead of 12...b5!?, the forcing 12...Bb4! 13 Re1 Bc3 would have produced a slight edge for Black.

Fort Knox 5 Nf3 Bc6 6 Bd3 Nd7 7 0-0 Ngf6 8 Re1 [C10]

There’s a simple line that would bother me a bit as Black, namely, the move 8 Re1. After Black exchanges on e4, which he almost inevitably does over the next few moves, White has his usual space advantage, and his rook on e4 can be surprisingly useful in some lines where it transfers to g4 or h4. In Saric, I - Ivanchuk, V, Julius Baer GenCup Rapid 2022, Black played 8....Bxe4 9 Bxe4 Nxe4 10 Rxe4:

Here Black played 10...c6, which proved rather slow after 11 c4 Nf6 12 Rh4!.

Bortnyk, O - Rustemov, A, Titled Tuesday 27th Sept 2022, saw 10...Be7 11 c4:

Now 11...Nf6 again allows 12 Rh4. After the game’s 11...0-0 12 Qc2, Black would have done well to attack the center with 12...c5. In general, the notes indicate that this type of position is somewhat in White’s favour, but playable for the second player.

Steinitz Variation 7 Be3 Be7 8 Qd2 0-0 9 dxc5 Qa5 [C11]

In the variation 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 e5 Nfd7 5 f4 c5 6 Nf3 Nc6 7 Be3 Be7 8 Qd2 0-0 9 dxc5, the dynamic 9...Qa5 continues to be played more than the classical alternatives:

I want to catch up a little with the wild ‘main’ line, and then look at a less common but venomous try for White that might ultimately give him more chances.

In Omidi, A - Rastbod, A, Sari 2022, the critical 10 0-0-0 b6 11 Bb5 Nb4 12 a3 bxc5 was tested. I give various examples and analysis with 13 Kb1 and the game’s 13 Bxd7 Bxd7 14 axb4 cxb4. As far as I can tell, the previous assessment that Black’s game is satisfactory continues to hold up.

Quite a few players of White have turned to 10 a3, which looks slow but turns out to be difficult to meet:

The obvious replies are 10...Bxc5 and 10...Nxc5, but looking at the theory I’m not fully satisfied with either. I’ve used the old game Sadhwani, R - Subhayan, K, Dhaka 2021, to analyse 10...a6!?, a useful waiting move that allows Black to respond variously to different White setups. White still seems to keep an edge, but it’s a manageable one and the resulting play can be quite exciting.

Till next month, John

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