It is time to speak about the Winawer variation of the French Defense ! How to characterize it ? Clearly, it is a razor-sharp opening, with a lot of crazy complications. So if you like to play complex lines in which each move is a matter of life and death, you are at the right place ! At the same time, there are strong strategic plans making the French Winawer perfectly suited for strategic players as well.
First things first: White does not commit to either playing e4-e5, the French defense Advance variation, or 3. exd5, the French defense Exchange variation. White is also not playing 3. Nd2, the French Tarrasch.
Now the Winawer variation starts when Black plays 3… Bb4. Instead of 3… Nf6 that can lead to the Steinitz variation of the French defense or to the Burn variation of the French defense with Bg5. Black also does not play 3… dxe4, leading to the French defense Rubinstein variation.
3… Nf6 is another correct move for Black here (probably safer to be fair), developing a piece according to standard opening principles.
Strategic Principles Of The French Winawer
Now I want to spend some time on a very important point in the Winawer. Look at that structure for Black.
Strategy 101 tells you that you should always try to keep your good Bishop and exchange your bad Bishop. Moving the Bishop to b4 often means that Black is ready to exchange his good Bishop against the Knight on c3, then why is Black getting rid of his good Bishop so easily ? I see three main reasons.
In other words, Black has given up a good piece for a quick development and some weaknesses to target on White’s position: this is a classical trade-off between material and time.
Now let’s have a look at the typical plans for each side in the French Winawer.
That being said, the usual plans of the French defense also apply here. And remarkably, the Winawer variation is very close to the French, MacCutcheon variation. Therefore, some of the following diagrams will be a reminder of what you already know.
There is something very specific to the Winawer. As Black’s dark-squared Bishop gets exchanged quickly, White can make use of the weakened dark squares, and there is a move that is just doing this !
Queen to g4 is a typical move in the French Winawer. At every move and with both colors, you should consider what happens if White plays it next. Now once this is played, Black has two main ways of handling it.
Now that we have checked the main ideas, we will start looking at some lines. The Winawer is a bit particular in this regard: there is one main line, and a surprising number of sidepaths that are suboptimal, but very sound and quite tricky !
So what we will do in this article is to study the main line in depth, and make sure that you know what to play for in the middlegame, and then explain more briefly what each sideline is trying to achieve, and how to handle it.
Looking At The Main Line Of The French Winawer
We understand that White cannot play like this. So White is forced to do something about his e4-pawn. What follows is the critical line of the French Winawer. We will check the deviations in the next chapter.
Main Strategic Plans
This Bd7-a4 move was the tipping point in the game Polgar Morovic 1992.
After looking at plans, here is a view on the specific moves that allow Black and White to implement those plans.
Black’s critical reply: 6… Ne7
As you have guessed already, the critical move for White is Queen to g4 here. Let’s first see what can happen if White does not play this move.
From the last position, Black can play on the Queenside with Bishop to d7 and/or Queen to a5 and a4, but playing on the Kingside with f7-f6 is another option (especially since we have seen that Black often likes to close the center with c5-c4 before playing this in the Winawer).
But now comes the time to look at what is probably the most important and the most critical line of the French Winawer !
White Plays The Critical Line: 7. Qg4 !
This line is the main battleground of the French Winawer. It is ultra-sharp and both Black and White hope to outplay their opponent in its endless tactical possibilities.
And now, Black has to decide what to do with the g7-pawn because finding the right way to defend it is not so straightforward. Let’s start with the least popular options, and little by little we will check the more popular lines.
Those were the unpopular replies to Qg4. As you have seen, they are bringing (very) difficult positions to Black and can hardly been recommended. Thus, the only two options that should be played here are O-O and Qc7/cxd4.
So you can castle with Black, it is probably a good move, but be ready to face a very strong attack. The other option for Black is a crazy counter-attack and I have no doubt that you have chosen playing the Winawer because of this line !
Now, let’s have a look at concrete lines happening after 7. Qg4 Qc7 !