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 Strategy Lessons

Strategy and Tactics: Yin and Yang?

Chess strategy and tactics are intertwined … but ask yourself this: which side of the equation receives most of the focus in lessons and classes?

Definitely tactics. And for a lot of coaches, it’s not even close. However …

What does it take for a student to gain proficiency in tactics? I only know one method: solving thousands of puzzles, and getting regular practice applying tactical ideas in games.

This experience cannot be gained solely through lessons. I assign tactics puzzles for homework (usually Chess School 1a) and rarely work on them during a private lesson. The exception is calculation practice, but that is different from developing tactical sight.

It’s perfectly fine to spend 10-15 minutes on tactics by checking tactics homework, and maybe doing a few warm-up puzzles — but that’s as far as it should go.

Puzzle solving alone is a terrible use of time for a 1-2 hour once-per-week lesson.

I also think it’s lazy! Beware, parents.

 

The Real Purpose of Chess Lessons

Chess strategy lessons
Chess lessons should mostly focus on strategy.

You can go to Amazon, buy a chess tactics book, and work independently. Diligent study will bring results, no question about it, and you won’t need a coach for improvement in this area.

But what if you want to improve your understanding of chess strategy?

If you go to Amazon and purchase a strategy book — even an excellent one authored by Euwe, Nimzowitsch, Dvoretsky or Marin, for example — there is a lot that you won’t “get” right away. Or at all.

Chess lessons or classes can really shorten the learning curve. That is what a teacher is paid for!

 

Example of a Chess Strategy Lesson

I recently taught an online class and showed the following position, which comes from the famous game Capablanca vs. Tartakower from the celebrated New York 1924 tournament, before White’s 23rd move:

I asked the students (roughly 800 to 1400 in strength) to give me ideas for the first player, and got what I expected: suggestions to attack or win tactically. Chiefly 23.d5 to open the center “for an attack,” and 23.c5, trying to skewer the Black queen and rook with a further 24.Bb5.

First, the d4-d5 advance will only lead to mass exchanges and the Black knight will be able to use the newly opened c5-square (probably with the maneuver …Na5-b3-c5).

Second, c4-c5 does not set up a skewer, as after 24.Bb5 Black can reply with 24…c6.

They were surprised to learn the World Champion played 23.h4!

The idea is to follow up with 24.h5, giving Black a very difficult choice: either allow 25.hxg6 which creates a permanent weakness on g6, or even worse to play 24…gxh5 when after 25.Rh1! White wins back the h5-pawn, is closer to getting a passed pawn on the kingside, and maybe wins the h7-pawn as well:

I could see the mental light bulbs going on through their Zoom cameras! Tactics and attacking play are not always the right tools for the job.

How well would most books explain these ideas, while anticipating your questions and being able to demonstrate exactly the variations you need to see in order to understand the position?

This is what lesson or class time is really for.

Chess Tactics: Von Scheve — Teichmann, 1907

Richard Teichmann. Photo: Deutscher Schachbund.
Richard Teichmann lost sight in his right eye in the 1890s. Photo: Deutscher Schachbund.

Richard Teichmann (1868-1925) was one of the best players of the early 20th century.

The German master was nicknamed “Richard V,” as that was often his tournament placing.

Karlsbad 1911 proved to be a different story: he rose to the occasion and achieved the greatest result of his chess career.

Teichmann won the 26-player round-robin by a full point over a string of current and future top players — Akiba Rubinstein, Carl Schlechter, Frank Marshall, Aron Nimzowitsch, Savielly Tartakower, Alexander Alekhine, and Rudolf Spielmann among them.

 

 

Here is a brevity against Theodor von Scheve, played at the Berlin Jubilee Tournament of 1907.

Black to play. How did Teichmann conclude the game in short order?

12…?

Don’t abandon your castled king

Beating the Smith-Morra Gambit

The Smith-Morra: A Controversial Anti-Sicilian

Faced with the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5), many white players avoid the Open Sicilian that comes about after 2.Nf3 and 3.d4. Instead, they choose an Anti-Sicilian like the Smith-Morra Gambit (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3)

At club level, an unprepared black player can quickly find themselves in serious danger. White aims for a menacing setup like this:

Of course, black needs to survive long enough to face even this!

Traps

The Smith-Morra Gambit player hopes their adversary will fall into a nasty trap, and there are many. For example:

Or this one:

Many black players look to turn the tables on white with the so-called Siberian Trap:

To avoid accidents, many black players decline the gambit or give back the pawn immediately.

I’m not one of them. If I knew all my opponents would play the Smith-Morra, I would always answer 1.e4 with 1…c5. If the line is so great for white, why do top players not use it?

 

The Recipe

In the traps above, black has problems on e5 and b5, and uncoordinated pieces. Knowing what you’re up against makes it far easier to deal with!

There are many viable setups for black, but I defend the Smith-Morra with the line 2…cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 a6! Don’t rush that …Nf6 move.

Let’s see some examples.

 

Early Games

Debut by Transposition

According to the MegaBase, Dutch master Lodewijk Prins first reached the position after 6…a6 against Savielly Tartawkower in 1950, but couldn’t recover after his pieces got tangled early on. The game started as an O’Kelly Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 a6).

 

Battle of Titans

Fischer and Kortschnoj drew in Buenos Aires 1960, also after transposing from an O’Kelly.

 

San Antonio 1972: No Respect for the Smith-Morra

Ken Smith attempted the Smith-Morra Gambit several times in San Antonio 1972.
The Tournament Announcement for San Antonio 1972. Source: Chess Life and Review, October 1972

The Church’s Fried Chicken International, held in San Antonio, Texas in 1972 remains one of the strongest events ever held in the United States. Lajos Portisch, former World Champion Tigran V. Petrosian, and future World Champion Anatoly Karpov tied for first place with 10.5 points out of 15.

American master Ken Smith (the “Smith” in “Smith-Morra”) tried the gambit several times, but without success against such chess heavyweights.

Let’s take a look at two of those games. Both were played in the second half of the tournament when black could have expected the Smith-Morra Gambit.

Round 9 vs. Evans

We saw this American legend play a model game before. He does again here:

Evans also played in Buenos Aires 1960, so he would have known the Fischer—Kortschnoj game above.

Round 13 vs. Mecking

The future World #3 emulated the Kortschnoj/Evans treatment and then collected material.

 

The Bottom Line on the Smith-Morra

If you play the Sicilian you should be happy to face the Smith-Morra, or any Anti-Sicilian for that matter. Playable though they may be, Anti-Sicilians are inferior to the Open Sicilian,

Don’t use the common excuse “white knows their pet line better than I will.” Study! Learn how to deal with the annoying sidelines your opponent can throw at you, and thank them for not challenging you in the most critical way.

I don’t have a perfect record against the Smith-Morra Gambit, but I score better than 50%. Anytime you can say that with one of your black openings, that is a big success.