French Defense, Part 2b: MacCutcheon Variation & Tarrasch

Our French Defense survey continues with the MacCutcheon Variation and Tarrasch Variation.

Not all variations of the French are as sturdy as the Arc de Triomphe. The MacCutcheon Variation is an example.

The Arc de Triomphe, Paris. Photo: Andre Harding

In Part 1, we introduced the French and looked at lines where black exchanges pawns on e4.

In Part 2a we began looking at lines where white advances e4-e5, starting with the Winawer and Classical Variations.

White plays 3.Nc3 in the MacCutcheon and 3.Nd2 in the Tarrasch. We again look at lines where white follows up with a quick e4-e5.

MacCutcheon Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Bb4

As you might expect, the MacCutcheon Variation is combative. It has traditionally been considered somewhat less sound than the Winawer or Classical Variations, but is more than playable. White has options here, but we’re concerned with one line in particular.

White plays 5.e5

Here’s a high-level game played in 2019 which gives a flavor of the MacCutcheon:

Players with white are used to facing other lines of the French more than the MacCutcheon. For that reason alone, it’s a line to consider if you want a reasonable position with counterattacking chances. Of course, white’s decisions on moves 3 and 4 determine whether you’ll get the Mac.

Tarrasch Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2

Unlike the MacCutcheon Variation, the Tarrasch is extremely solid. Blocking the queen and Bc1 with the knight may look funny, but the point is the pawn advance c2-c3 which supports the main target in white’s position: the d4-pawn. Considering black relentlessly attacks d4 with moves like …c5, …Nc6, and …Qb6, this is sound logic!

Black replies 3…Nf6

This is one of the classic responses to the Tarrasch, although other moves have become more popular in recent years. When white advances e4-e5, familiar French Defense plans appear: black wants to attack white’s d4-pawn with the pawn advance …c7-c5, and attack white’s e5-pawn with the pawn advance …f7-f6! 

(a) “Without f4”: 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6

White hopes to convert a strong central grip and space advantage into a kingside attack or a long-term, suffocating bind. Sometimes this goes well:

and sometimes black finds strong counterplay:

That was the solid, “positional” line…

(b) “With f4”: 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ndf3

This variety of Tarrasch can get even more wild. A recent example:

Next time, we’ll take a look at the Advance Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5).

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