The French Winawer: A History

The French Winawer: A History

| 32 | Opening Theory

In the first installment of my series on the development of various opening variations, we learned about the history of the King's Gambit.

This week we will be moving on to a more modern and frequently seen opening: the Winawer French.

In the basic position of the French after 3.Nc3, the Classical Defense (3...Nf6) was by far the most popular move in the distant past. The alternative way of stepping up the pressure on e4, 3...Bb4 was played far less often.

In those days, there was a far greater regard for the exchange variation from White's point of view. After all, open games were preferred, and White does have one extra move to get a piece out.

Thus after 3...Bb4 4.exd5 was the most frequently seen answer -- and some regarded this as a superior exchange variation for White.

The move 3...Bb4 became associated with Szymon Winawer, a Polish player who was active in the late 19th century, and now the variation is called by his name.

Winawer via wikipedia

Winawer actually only used his opening a few times, although he did beat Mikhail Chigorin with it:

The day of the Winawer French did not come, however, until Aron Nimzowitsch began to use it in the 1920s. In particular, he showed that Black did not need to fear the exchange on d5 -- the inclusion of Nc3 and Bb4 could benefit Black.

Nimzowitsch was known for not being afraid to give up a bishop for a knight, so it is natural that he would adopt this variation.

Alexander Alekhine also used the Winawer occasionally.  In particular, it helped him to wrench the world title away from Jose Capablanca when he used it to win the first game of their 1927 match with the black pieces -- another blow to 4.exd5.

In the early days of Soviet chess, the Winawer was very popular, perhaps largely due to its adoption by Mikhail Botvinnik. During this time, 4.exd5 started to completely lose its popularity, and become replaced by the space-gaining 4.e5.

With this move, White cramps the black kingside, which is already weakened by the absence of the dark-squared bishop,  while also somewhat entombing Black's light-squared bishop. Since that time, 4.e5 has remained by far White's most popular move, although 4.a3 and 4.exd5 are seen from time to time.

Initially Jefim Bogoljubow's 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.Bd2 was frequently seen. But soon it became clear that the position after 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 was anything but safe for Black.

White had weak doubled pawns, but the dark squares in Black's position were very drafty. If the position opened up -- even at the cost of a pawn -- Black could feel a very cool wind blowing through the dark squares.

In the 1930s and 1940s, many very fascinating games were played by Botvinnik and his contemporaries. The type of chess played in these unusual structures differed greatly from the chess which had been seen before.

Botvinnik thoroughly explored the complex positional themes resulting from the particular unbalanced structure with the weakness of the white c-pawns opposed to White's two bishops and space advantage.

Eventually, players generally (although not unanimously) came to the conclusion that positional approaches such as 7.Nf3 and 7.a4 did not lead to an advantage for White. 7.Qg4, striking immediately at the g7 pawn -- which was weakened by the exchange of Black's dark-squared bishop -- became the critical move, and has remained such to this day.

Black has many possible responses to 7.Qg4. Initially such moves as 7...Qa5 and 7...Nf5 were tried, but they were soon discredited.

Black is left with three principle approaches:

  • to play the natural 7...0-0, maintaining material equality and harmony while exposing the black king to a rather strong attack;
  • to play 7...Kf8, leaving Black with positional advantages while avoiding a direct attack, at the cost of locking the rook out;
  • and the moves 7...cxd4 or 7...Qc7 (which might transpose), sacrificing the g7- and h7- pawns while spiriting the king away to the queenside, with a rapid counterattack in the center following.

The last one -- known as the "poisoned pawn" -- became the crucial line, full of intricate theoretical variations. A major exponent was the German grandmaster Wolfgang Uhlmann:

Meanwhile, Black sought other ways of playing the Winawer that avoided the critical 7.Qg4 move. One of the early ways was 6...Qc7, instead of 6...Ne7, which allowed 7.Qg4 to be met by a move of the f-pawn. However, this in general was found wanting.

Black also found ways to vary earlier. Among these was the so-called "Armenian Variation," where Black meets 5.a3 with 5...Ba5 (instead of exchanging on c3).

This led to very sharp play. The Armenian grandmasters were big exponents of this line -- hence its name -- although Botvinnik used it early on, in his 1954 match with Vassily Smyslov.

Other, more obscure, deviations were also used by Black. A variety of tricky setups involve the delay or avoidance of ...c5 enjoyed the advocacy of players such as Tigran Petrosian, David Bronstein, and Borislav Ivkov.

Where does the Winawer currently stand?

First of all, the Poisoned Pawn variation is still critical, but instead of the older 11...Bd7, as played by Ulhmann and others, 11...bxc3 has been played recently more often, with the idea of developing the light-squared bishop on b7, and also with the idea of meeting 12.Qd3 with 12...d4, sacrificing the d-pawn rather than the c-pawn.

This led to some sharp, theoretical lines:

There is more interest in meeting White's 7.Qg4 with 7...0-0, where there has been some very deep examination of this rich position:

Finally, in the Armenian variation with (5...Ba5), which had been under a cloud for a long time, there has been an interest in ideas involving meeting Qg4 moves with ...Kf8.


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