The Steinitz variation of the French Defense is one of the most common ways to handle this opening with both colors. It appears after White avoids playing either:
- 3. e5, the French defense advance variation
- 3. exd5, the French defense exchange variation
- 3. Nd2, the French defense Tarrasch variation
Black’s main other attempt is to play 3… Bb4, the Winawer variation of the French defense, more active, but also a lot more risky ! A rarer possibility is 3… dxe4, the Rubinstein variation of the French defense.
Introduction To The Steinitz Variation Of The French Defense
But Black plays 3… Nf6 here, and besides e4-e5, White can also try playing the Burn variation of the French defense or the French, MacCutcheon variation with 4. Bg5, which is equally popular and that we will study in another article. What we call the Steinitz variation is the opening starting with the move 4. e5, and that’s what this article is about.
French Defense: Advance Variation VS. Steinitz Variation
To start with, we can wonder what is the difference with the advance variation, in which White plays e4-e5 on the third move. Well, this is very similar, with some differences.
Compared to the advance variation, we can say that somehow, both players have been forced to move their Knights on suboptimal squares !
d7 is the answer and we will cover it extensively throughout this article. g8 is just a waste of time so I will not discuss it.
Can The Knight Jump To e4 ?
This might be the longest line we will see in the article but I find it interesting to see already that what most books describe as a bad move (4… Ne4) without commenting further is only bad if White plays a very precise set of moves. Furthermore, it is one of those positions in which the advantage is “hard to keep”: if White plays a couple of suboptimal moves, the position becomes equal again !
Simpler, isn’t it ? Before jumping to the main line, I have a last idea for you.
But enough about 4… Ne4 !
Now it is time to look at the main strategic drivers of the French Defense -Steinitz variation !
Key Strategic Ideas In The Steinitz Variation
Those are the main strategic themes, As you have seen, nothing too surprising if you already know the French Defense a bit ! Now let’s see exactly how Black and White are implementing those ideas in the main lines of the Steinitz Variation.
White has two ways to handle this.
The first one is to say: “I don’t care how much time I waste, I will push c2-c3 anyway !” and this is the Shirov-Anand variation where White plays Nce2.
The second one, more universally played is to accept that d4 will be exchanged, and reinforce e5 with f2-f4.
5. Nce2: The Shirov-Anand Variation
This line is called the Shirov-Anand variation since Anand used it very successfully in a match against Shirov.
The only problem with White’s idea is that it is extremely slow. So Black needs to be aggressive, else White will simply get a commanding position. That’s why moves like c5 and later f7-f6 need to come quickly, maybe even a piece sacrifice on e5 !
Thus, Black has to be more active and pressure White’s center first.
Just to show how dangerous it can get quickly for White, here is a typical variation in which White did not play the best moves.