French Defense, Part 4: Steiner Variation

A Resource for Chess Francophiles

The Centre Pompidou in Paris. Photo: Andre Harding

About a year ago, I wrote a multi-part series on the French Defense (first part here), the opening that I often cite as having saved my chess career. I played it from 1998-2008, and would not have reached 1900+ without it.

Subsequent parts of my series can be found here: 2a2b, 2c, and 3.

While not a complete survey, I think it gives the aspiring Frenchie enough to get started. Anti-Frenchies should take a look as well.

 

Endre Steiner
Endre Steiner (1901-1944)

Recently, I received a donation from NYC-area chess coach Nikki Church (thanks, Nikki!). When I asked her if she had any topic requests, she asked me what to do about annoying sidelines such as 2.c4 in the French, apparently called the Steiner Variation. Her students like to play this against her, and it proves once again that the French is an opening people either love or hate. There’s little in-between!

So, it seemed I would have to revive my series! I promised Nikki I would inflict some pain on her students’ schemes!

Let’s start!

 

French Defense, Steiner Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.c4

My feeling is this move should be a welcome sight! I believe black should play 2…d5, preparing to exchange center pawns and liberate the pieces, especially our light-squared bishop.

Well, not so fast. The challenge is that we won’t end up in a very French-like position after the following moves … and I know French players can be very formulaic …

Variation A: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.cxd5 exd5

Variation B: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.exd5 exd5

Variation C: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.e5

Variation D: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.d4

 

A: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.cxd5 exd5

Now there are two main choices — A1: 4.Qa4+ and A2: 4.exd5.

A1: 4.Qa4+

As a cautionary tale, the great Savielly Tartakower was barbecued by Endre Steiner himself!

Ugh. This kind of game sends shivers down the spine of a French devotee, as we’ve all had accidents like this! Nevertheless, I have a few points to make.

First, I think 4…Bd7 was already dubious, in light of the strong reply 5.Qb3! This compelled the awkward 5…Bc6, making the cleric a bystander from early on.

I would prefer 4…Qd7, or even 4…Nd7 5.exd5 Nf6 followed by …Bd6 or …Bc5 and kingside castling.

I really didn’t like 7…Nfd7?! Just look at that queenside! Maybe 7…Ne4 was already forced.

After 8.Qg3! Tartakower’s position was critical, and Steiner was off to the races.

 

Moshe Czerniak showed a simple and good way to deal with white’s play:

 

A2: 4.exd5

Against this, the French player has to be comfortable developing their pieces to more aggressive posts than usual. I know from experience that such “comfort” is not a given. Still, it’s the only way.

If you don’t believe me, would you trust Viktor Kortschnoj? Against ex-World Champion Boris Spassky?

Let’s move on.

 

B: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.exd5 exd5

This doesn’t really have independent value. 4.cxd5 transposes to A2, and 4.d4 is not part of the Steiner Variation, it transposes to the Exchange Variation covered in Part 3.

 

C: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.e5

White’s most challenging lines against the French mainlines involve squeezing the second player with an eventual e4-e5 advance, clogging up kingside development. With the black king knight barred from f6, there’s always danger of a strong attack.

So why not use this idea in the Steiner Variation as well?

I think this is a sensible approach by white. I would advise black to play 3…c5 gaining space in the center and preparing to develop in a similar fashion to the Advance Variation.

You could do a lot worse than emulate the play of GM Schmidt:

That leaves one more possibility.

 

D: 1.e4 e6 2.c4 d5 3.d4

This is not actually part of the Steiner Variation, but the Diemer-Duhm Gambit (DDG). I think this continuation is unlikely because white can reliably get the same position after 2.d4 d5 3.c4.

Just take the center pawn and develop comfortably, as GM Santos Latasa does here:

That should conclude my coverage of the Steiner Variation. Did I leave anything out? What do you think of this line? Please leave a comment to this post!

Good luck, Nikki!

Chess Tactics: Mariya Muzychuk — Goryachkina, 2019

Mariya Muzychuk
Mariya Muzychuk. Photo: @MariyaMuzychuk

Mariya Muzychuk was born in Lviv, Ukraine in 1992.

The Ukrainian Women’s Champion of 2012 and 2013 has won a pile of medals in European and World Team Championships, and in Chess Olympiads.

Still, her greatest achievement was becoming Women’s World Chess Champion in 2015! Simultaneously, she earned the International Grandmaster title.

Mariya’s older sister Anna Muzychuk is also one of the top female players in the world.

 

A Brilliant Finish

Aleksandra Goryachkina
Aleksandra Goryachkina (born 1998). Photo: ChessFIDE

Recently, FIDE reinstated a Candidates Tournament as part of the Women’s World Championship. The eight-player double round robin for this past cycle was held May-June 2019 in Kazan, Russia. 

Aleksandra Goryachkina clinched the 14-round marathon two rounds early in a dominating performance, earning the right to challenge reigning Champion Ju Wenjun.

However, it was Mariya Muzychuk who ended the tournament with a bang: her crushing victory over the winner was awarded the Brilliancy Prize of the Candidates Tournament! Goryachkina was undefeated in the event until this final round game.

 

Black is trying to hang on, but White dashes her hopes. How? White to play.

24.?

 

One Round Too Many

In conclusion, just one more thing needs to be said: Happy Women’s Day!

Understanding the Caro-Kann Defense

The Best Book to Learn the Caro-Kann Defense

Understanding the Caro-Kann Defense was published way back in 1981. Amazon tells me I purchased it in March 2012, but I’ve only read it recently … and regret not doing so much sooner.

I have read a lot of Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6) books over the years, as I flirted with the opening for years and have now made it my weapon of choice against 1.e4.

I’ll start with the conclusion: I don’t think any other Caro-Kann title comes close.

Keep in mind: I lack chess talent, and need things spelled out for me in a to-the-point manner. This is why I love Max Euwe and Edmar Mednis so much. Your mileage may vary. There are other choices if you want wild, entertaining stories with your chess.

More About Understanding the Caro-Kann Defense

Understanding the Caro-Kann DefenseThe book has five co-authors: Raymond Keene, Andrew Soltis, Edmar Mednis, Jack Peters, and Julio Kaplan, with each writing two consecutive chapters.

All the main lines are covered, including 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6 exf6 (by Peters) which most contemporary books ignore completely. Soltis covers sidelines in the final chapter, which includes the King’s Indian Attack (2.d3), Two Knights (2.Nc3 d5 3.Nf3), and 2.c4 as expected, but I was surprised to see the Fantasy Variation (2.d4 d5 3.f3) discussed in a book from 40 years ago —and well-done, too!

The authors really take their time and discuss the ideas and key maneuvers available to both players in this opening. You really understand what both players are striving for, and their variations are helpful, not torturous.

The only place where the book really shows its age is with the Advance Variation (2.d4 d5 3.e5). It only discusses the old, not-topical line 3…Bf5 4.Bd3. Still, the coverage is helpful, as Keene explains this part very nicely, and the line still appears at lower levels!

I don’t read chess books very much any longer, but I couldn’t put this one down and finished it within a week. It was that helpful, easy-to-read, and confidence-building.

I would order a copy of Understanding the Caro-Kann Defense if you have any interest in this opening — from either side, as a player or a coach. Not only can the book be had cheaply, who knows how long copies of the old gem will be around at an affordable price?

Table of Contents

Understanding the Caro-Kann Defense CONTENTS

Other Images from Understanding the Caro-Kann Defense

Understanding the CK page 7

Understanding the CK page 31

Understanding the CK page 99

 

For Reference: Other Caro-Kann Books

If you want to play the line with 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5:

Grandmaster Repertoire 7: The Caro-Kann by Danish GM Lars Schandorff (2010) was widely praised, and contained the latest theory and games. Still, I felt something was missing. At least for me. It’s the type of opening book you would expect from Quality Chess.

There is also Caro-Kann: Classical 4…Bf5 by Garry Kasparov and Aleksander Shakarov (1984). The coverage is thorough, as you would expect from The Beast, and I suspect it can be a useful starting point even today.

I haven’t read Play the Caro-Kann: A Complete Chess Opening Repertoire Against 1e4 by Jovanka Houska (2007), but I remember it getting good reviews. Notably, she recommends answering the Advance Variation with 3…c5, rather than the much more common 3…Bf5. This line has gained in popularity at high level, and I might change to it myself!

Houska wrote a major update in 2015: Opening Repertoire: The Caro-Kann.

If you want to play the line with 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7:

I previously reviewed Opening for Black according to Karpov by former FIDE World Champion Alexander Khalifman. This book has been much more helpful to me, because it gives analysis and sensible reasoning for its moves and evaluations. It’s Caro-Kann coverage is not huge, because most of the book is devoted to defending 1.d4/1.c4/1.Nf3, etc.

More recently, there’s Caro-Kann: Move by Move by Cyrus Lakdawala (2012). Personally, I don’t like these kinds of books that contain too many words that try to be clever and don’t get to the point. (At the other end of the spectrum, I wouldn’t bother with Eduard Gufeld and Oleg Stetsko‘s Caro-Kann: Smyslov System 4…Nd7 from 1998).

There are other books, too, of course. But these are the ones I am familiar with.

French Defense, Part 2c: Advance Variation

In this part, we move on to the French Defense Advance Variation.

Pyramid entrance to the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Photo: Andre Harding

Unlike in Parts 2a and 2b, White immediately plays e4-e5 before developing his knight from b1. Play is very straightforward.

Once again, black’s main source of counterplay is an attack on white’s d4-square. The second player starts with the pawn advance …c7-c5 and then involves both knights, and the queen — at least. White has to be careful to keep his center intact, but if he does there are good attacking chances to be had.

Advance Variation: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5

Will white’s extended pawns become a strength or a weakness? Overall the chances are balanced, but of course anything can happen in an individual game.

White’s bind in the Advance proves too strong

This classic game is too striking to not show for those who haven’t seen it, even if Nimzo’s concept is not completely sound:

Black’s counterplay in the Advance is a force to be reckoned with

Ehlvest was ranked World #5 back in January 1991 but gets shredded here.

That concludes our coverage of the French Defense Advance Variation. Next time we continue with Part 3, the Exchange Variation. Stay tuned!