A Resource for Chess Francophiles
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.
While not a complete survey, I think it gives the aspiring Frenchie enough to get started. Anti-Frenchies should take a look as well.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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!