Exploring the French: A Fresh Approach to Old Lines
Exploring the French: Some Interesting Games in the Old Steinitz
Recently, I have been exploring alternatives for white in the French mainline with 3. Nc3. Simply put, the amount of French theory particularly in the mainline Steinitz variation has been ballooning at a rather alarming rate. High level battles recently featuring French expert Meier and even Nakamura defending with the black side in highly complex variations. In particular, Naka has played the complicated 8...Qb6 variation where white often sacrifices a pawn. This is the position that can arise.
White is doing fine here and many top level games have been played here such as Karjakin-Naka 2013 FIDE Grand Prix. Although I think the mainline Steinitz is objectively the best way to combat 3...Nf6 in the Classical French due to the increase in popularity of the dynamic Burn and McCutcheon variations, I also began exploring alternatives to the mainline. Then I ran across a few games of one of my favorite creative players Ian Nepomniatchi. He has been experimenting with an old line in the Steinitz with 7. Nf3 playing it several times between 2006 and the present according to my database. Granted, several of these games have been in rapid events and I do not claim this offers any advantage at all. Black should equalize with relative ease but it gets black out of theory and hopefully into your prep. Here is a rapid game I played in my local area.
Ok so granted I outrated my opponent by 300+ USCF and this was a rapid game but this demonstrates the rapid attacking opportunities available in these older lines. White can also play in a more positional manner as in this game of Nepomniatchi.
This idea of an early h4 push is fairly common in Nepo's games in this system gaining a lot of space on the kingside and later often developing a rook via h3. This is not a particularly uncommon form of development in the French with the rook on h3 or a3 often preventing many exchange sacrifices on f6 for example (often in the French Tarrasch). Notice how Nepo also delays castling and pushes pawns on both sides of the board locking up the queenside so that the only successful pawn break available is white's f4-f5 idea. I also particularly like the kingwalk from moves 29-32 realizing that there is no hurry in attacking on the kingside and just getting the king to safety. Even if Nepo had not won in the tactical manner he did note that white is the only one with options on the kingside and black must constantly worry about the f4-f5 push. Note that Nepo also used this twice against Ding Liren, the prominent Chinese player.
I hope others will find the Old Steinitz to be an interesting and unique alternative to the standard mainline with 5. f4. Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think of this rather strange old line.