The exchange variation of the French Defense ? Read through a few generic opening books for beginners and you will be lucky if the exchange variation gets more than a paragraph dedicated to it. Also, “drawish”, “boring” are terms used to described the exchange variation in online forums. In this article, I will show you that this is far from being the case !
As a reminder, the other main lines of the French defense feature imbalances and clear plans for both players:
- The French defense advance variation
- The Winawer variation
- The classical variation, including the Steinitz variation of the french defense and the French defense with Bg5
- The French defense Tarrasch variation
- The French defense Rubinstein variation
In the Exchange variation, this is quite the opposite: everything remains open !
Yet, the point of this article is to advocate that the exchange variation is a very rich and interesting opening to play, for the following reasons:
- a very open position, ultimately leading to sharp tactics,
- many possible moves for both players at each step,
- hence making it possible to choose between several strategic ideas for both players !
To sum up, yes, the initial position is equal, but it is certainly not drawish ! I hope that by the end of the article you’ll be convinced to make the Exchange variation your favorite line against the French defense.
As usual, before going into some concrete opening lines, we will see what the usual ideas are. What is remarkable in the Exchange variation is that, the pawn structure being completely symmetrical, all ideas are playable for White and Black.
This is what White gets by following the main opening principle: move pieces to their best squares.
Is that it ? Certainly not ! Because each player gets to choose one of the above plans. Some plans are good counters to some others, making the Exchange variation a more complex version of rock, paper, scissors. For instance:
Do you start to see how far we can go ? We are only at move 4 and we already have a dozen of lines to explore. It is probably humanly impossible to remember all the possibilities here so it will be you, with your ideas and your tactical skills, against your opponent. Therefore this article is here to give you those plans and ideas in whatever setup of the Exchange variation you are finding yourself in.
This is certainly the most comprehensive resource you will find online about the Exchange variation of the French Defense. As you will see, the positions we get are very balanced, but certainly not drawish. At club level, this is actually quite the opposite of drawish: there are so many possible plans to develop your pieces that you will always find a way to be smarter than your opponent !
White Plays 4. Nf3
As we have seen, 4. Nf3 is the most common move, so here we go !
Standard Setup Of The French Defense Exchange Variation
We have to start somewhere, a a good place to start is the most common line, the one you see in all articles about the exchange variation, a line that is indeed very drawish.
This symmetrical setup can also appear in some lines of the Petrov defense. And one example of this at the highest level is the 6th game of the World championship match between Carlsen and Caruana, that ended in a draw after a long positional battle.
This line is very commonly played and is indeed drawish. But White can play more cleverly and get a slight advantage early on. This is how grandmasters play this line nowadays.
So good news for White: Black does not fully equalizes in what we could call the main line of the French exchange variation. Thus Black may not want to struggle during 20 moves to merely equalize and often shows a more fighting spirit by breaking the symmetry immediately. This is where things become interesting !
Black Replies To 4. Nf3 With 4… Nc6
Here, Black is choosing a completely different setup, even considering castling long !
Now White mainly has two ways to react: adapt with Bb5 or stick to the plan with Bd3
White Plays 5. Bb5
This is probably the best move here: Black’s position is already uncomfortable.
Now the line becomes very concrete and forced. The perfect opportunity to test your understanding of the position on several points.
So, after White plays the Bishop to b5, we enter a kind of a forced line, which is not so common in the exchange variation of the French defense ! White’s next option keeps the game more open.
White Plays 5. Bd3
This is the second option for White.