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The Burn variation is one of the most common lines of the French defense. It is commonly played at the top level and features some open play. Very often, the position will feature opposite castles, making the position sharper than usual.

It is interesting to note that the first moves of the French defense are really about e4: Black is trying to attack that pawn, White is trying to defend it. The move each player chooses to attack or defend e4 really determines the line we are going to see.

At the moment, 4. Bg5 is a pin that defends e4. White’s other idea was simply to push the pawn on e5 (no pawn on e4, no problem !), and that is the Steinitz variation of the French defense. Half a move earlier, Black had the option of pinning the Knight with 3… Bb4 and this move leads to the Winawer variation of the French defense.

Black has a third possible reply here, 4… Bb4, the McCutcheon variation of the French defense. I tackle it in a separate article as the present article is already rich enough !

As a reminder, White is in no way forced to play the Knight to c3 on the third move. Here are the alternatives:

The line starting with Be7 is sometimes called the “Normal Variation of the Classical Variation”. Hard to play something more normal than this ! This is a very good move leading to positions that are not always so “normal”.

4… dxe4 is similar to the Rubinstein variation of the French defense, in which Black captures on e4, but one move earlier. We will compare 3… dxe4 and 4… dxe4 to understand why capturing on the fourth move is slightly different (and also better !) than capturing on the third move.

4… Be7: The “Normal” Variation

The attack/defense tango around the e4-pawn is clearly the main theme of the French defense in the few first moves, until the focus shifts to d4 ! So White has to do something.

Nothing too hard to find for Black in the previous line, yet the refutation of White’s f2-f3 is not obvious either. I think it is good to take time to refute wrong moves, like here, as it helps you understand the dynamic possibilities (for Black, in that case).

This tactical line featured a Zwischenzug. Check out my article if you want to know more about this pattern !

White ends up with a big advantage here. This is a bit of a tricky line: in a similar line in the classical variation where Black played the (also wrong) 4… Ne4, Black’s main chance was c5.

Enough talked about tricky wrong moves, let’s jump to the main line !

Now any retreat of the Bishop would be followed by a strong c7-c5 from Black ! Additionally, White has the Alekhine-Chatard attack 6. h4, which is in my opinion one of the best attacking gambits ever, and I like it so much that I am dedicating a specific article to it.

This line illustrates how strong a Knight on the sixth rank is.

Those line with Nb5 are very sharp and forcing.

After a6, both sides will usually follow the same plans than before: c7-c5 and Queenside attack for Black, dxc5, Qd2 and castle long for White.

Now there is one last move that I want to show you.

Here, Nb6 is slightly more committal and harder to find: it stops the threat, but at the cost of making Black’s Bishop development harder: there is no b7-b6 any time soon ! So Black’s best option comes at a cost, and White can be happy too. This is definitely an interesting sideline to know.

This is the conclusion of the line starting with 4… Be7 for Black. Remember: Knight to b5 is in the air, and if not, the game follows common French defense patterns, often featuring opposing castles to spice up the game !

4… dxe4: The Burn Variation Of The French Defense

If we follow the standard naming convention, only this move is the French Defense / Burn variation.

dxe4 played one move earlier is the Rubinstein variation, that has the reputation of being solid, but in which Black lacks space. Yet the Burn variation is known to be better than the Rubinstein variation for Black. What is the difference ?

This line shows that Black cannot so easily develops the Knight on f6 in the Rubinstein variation, and has to play more preparation moves before reaching an harmonious setup.

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