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If I had to point to one major shift in French Defence thinking over the last ten years, it would be White's realisation that he doesn't need to maintain the cramping pawn centre d4/e5 at all costs. On the contrary, a host of strong young players have perfected the art of getting Black out of his closed centre comfort zone by sacrificing the d4 pawn versus the Tarrasch in what I dubbed 'the Universal System'. A lot of French games these days are more akin to semi-open Sicilian fights than the grandiose positional battles between Smyslov and Botvinnik back in the 1950s.

Download PGN of July '07 French games

French Advance 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Qb6 5.Nf3 Bd7

A Sicilian knight in the French Defence

Even in the Advance Variation, where the centre is blocked immediately, the effect of White's dynamic approach is being felt. Thus after 6.Bd3 cxd4 in this month's game Volokitin 'destroys' his own centre with 7.Nxd4!?:

The knight recaptures for concrete reasons: namely White hopes that once ...Bb5 is prevented, the black light-squared bishop will prove a bystander whilst he consolidates his grip on the d4 square. The player of Black is Sergey Volkov, who relishes a double edged fight more than any other French player I can think of, and he directs play from the Advance into a form of Winawer Poisoned Pawn. Here is Volokitin - Volkov.

Tarrasch 3.Nd2 Be7 4.Ngf3 Nf6 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bd3

Playing it like Petrosian

Despite the comments above, there is still scope for Black to avoid the double-edged positions of the 'Universal System' mainline. Ivan Nepomniachtchi, a brilliant young Russian with a hard name to spell, has focused his attention on ...b7-b6 and ...Ba6 lines in the style of Tigran Petrosian, the former World Champion. He plays 6...c5 7.c3 b6 8.0-0 Ba6:

Such an approach keeps the centre more blocked and 'Frenchy' than the mainline Universal. Here are some of Nepo's adventures in Andriasian - Nepomniachtchi.

Fort Knox 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bd7 5.Ngf3 Bc6

The delicate e6 square

In playing 3...dxe4, Black has opened up both the e-file for the white rooks and the c4 square for the white bishop. Where do their power lines intersect? On e6 of course! But Black evidently doesn't care, as he then moves his bishop away from the defence of the e6 pawn in pointed fashion: ...Bd7 and ...Bc6 by move five. 'So what?' you might be thinking 'the black pawn on e6 is defended by the f7 pawn, and that is quite enough'. However, most of us who play the Fort Knox have had to learn the hard way about the power of a white breakthrough on e6. In this month's game Black gets away with it, but heed the warning in Claesen - Hovhanisian.

Classical 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5

Another attacking option for White

A sharp gambit line is reached after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 a6 8.Qd2 b5 9.a3 g5:

Until now White has been grabbing the g5 pawn as a matter of course, but something new and interesting happens in Filippov - Kasyan.

Classical 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5

The McCutcheon without fragile pawns

After 4...Bb4 5.e5 h6 6.Bd2 Bxc3 7.Bxc3 Ne4 Fischer once played 8.Ba5?! against Petrosian, apparently because he didn't want his pawns smashed up by Nxc3 [it happened anyway after 8...0-0 9.Bd3 Nc6 10.Bc3 Nxc3 11.bxc3 when Tigran went onto win: 11...f6 12.f4 fxe5 13.fxe5 Ne7 14.Nf3 c5 etc.] A less radical way of maintaining a smooth pawn structure is 8.Ne2!? Why isn't this played more often? White has achieved good results with it, as you can see in Dzhumaev - Cobb.

Winawer 7.h4

A positional masterpiece by a renowned tactician

Kasparov may have retired, but Morozevich has taken over his mantle versus the French Defence by adopting 7.h4 which can lead to the Kasparov Gambit. Lputian avoids this, but he can't resist the brilliance of his opponent. Here is Morozevich - Luptian.

Winawer 7.Qg4 0-0

A variation drenched with theory

It's probably only fashion, but in general Black seems to be losing his enthusiasm for 7...0-0, preferring instead to take his chances after 7...Qc7. But no one can accuse Black of lack of ambition in Alekseev - Lputian.

Winawer 7.Qg4 Qc7

A lively line for Black

After 8.Qxg7 Rg8 9.Qxh7 cxd4 10.Ne2 Nbc6 11.f4 Bd7 12.Qd3 dxc3 13.Rb1 Black can hold onto the d4 pawn with 13...d4:

It looks risky as it either spills more pawns or allows the manoeuvre 14.Ng3 and 15.Ne4; but as we have seen in the archives, Black gets considerable counterplay in either case. Here is more evidence in Nijboer - Stellwagen and Limberg - Dolezal.

I hope you enjoyed the update. Good luck with your chess!

All Best Wishes, Neil

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