The Rubinstein variation of the French defense is very specific and does not feature the usual French defense pawn structure.
This is typical of the French defense. This blocked center is featured in the following lines:
- The French Defense advance variation
- The French Defense Winawer variation
- The French Defense Steinitz variation
- The French, MacCutcheon variation
- Some lines of the French Defense Tarrasch variation
- Some lines of the French Defense Burn variation
But the French Rubinstein features a different idea.
Now let’s mention a rare gambit that White can play.
4. f3 transposes to the dubious but always dangerous Blackmar-Diemer gambit ! Is this gambit dangerous ? Certainly ! Is White’s initiative worth a pawn ? Probably not. Yet, this gambit has its advocates and it is known to give serious practical chances. However, this article is not the place for a full analysis of the Blackmar-Diemer gambit and we will focus on the main move that is, as you will see, promising enough for White.
Main Ideas In The French Rubinstein
And this position is important enough to stop for a moment and look at the important plans for both sides. Then only we will look at concrete lines.
What strikes us first is that it is a very simplified position already, with very few tensions at the moment. This can be compared with the French defense exchange variation in that regard.
And to make that Kingside attack even sharper, it is common for White to castle Queenside. For a quieter play, White can also castle Kingside and increase pressure little by little.
A final word: similarly to the exchange variation of the French defense, lines are much less forced, which means that at each point, 3 or 4 moves are probably OK to play, as long as you have a strategic reason to play them. So don’t be afraid to get off the beaten tracks here, your idea is probably good !
After this introduction on strategy, we can finally start looking at the concrete lines. At least now, you will better understand why the players are choosing those moves. After 4. Nxe4, Black mostly has 3 possible moves. Let’s start with the most obvious one, Knight to f6.
Black Plays 4… Nf6
Knight to f6 is the perfect move from a strategic standpoint: in theory, as Black lacks space, White should avoid exchanges and retreat the Knight.
The line above is a dream for Black: with logical moves on both sides, Black is already better on move 6. How is that possible ?
At the end of this line, White is better developed and Black’s Queen is completely misplaced. White has a huge advantage already.
That is pretty much all I want to say about the line 4… Nf6: you will find here and there people advocating that Black is fine with this line, but the truth is that it gives a clear advantage to White. Black simply has no reason to go into this.
4… Nd7 Blackburne Variation
As the immediate 4… Nf6 does not work well, Black often prepares it with the move 4… Nd7 first, in the style of a Caro-Kann opening.
Now, it seems like White has a lot of possibilities, but a lot of them can be discarded quickly.
The Burn variation is already covered in a dedicated article. In this article we will focus on White’s most common move.
The Classical Variation 7. Bd3
This is probably the most common way to play against the Blackburne variation of the Rubinstein. But we will see that White’s other options are very promising as well !
After Black plays the thematic c7-c5, we will quickly look at three ways for White to react.
8. dxc5 – White Captures On c5
The resulting position is probably a very small advantage for White, but Black has nearly equalized here.
In this position, castling long is no longer safe for White and O-O usually follows quickly. Here as well, we are very close to equality for Black.
8. O-O – White Ignores The Threat
But of course, Black does not capture, and the game continues like this.
This is all about 8. O-O, you will probably get back into the main line of the Blackburne variation anyway. The next possible move for White is actually a different idea, and it does not transposes, so we will spend a little more time on it.
8. Be3 – White Targets c5
White has no immediate threat here, but look at the previous position: Black has no way to dislodge the powerful Bishop on d4 (no Knight, no pawn). White’s space advantage, center control, and Queenside majority ensure a good advantage here.
This last line is very interesting and very dangerous for both players.
The chances should be roughly equal, but it seems like Black is the one attacking here. That is the reason why White often castles short in this line.
This move 8. Be3 gives interesting play, perhaps more interesting than dxc5/O-O in positions that are lesser known. A good argument to include it in your repertoire !
White has also tried to play this Be3 move one move earlier, in place of Bd3.
7. Be3 – Another Variation
Playing the Knight to d5 asks a question to White: do you accept to exchange that Bishop ? On the other hand, there is a forcing line to try to take an advantage of that Knight on d5 with White. It is using the a4-e8 diagonal, one of White’s strategic patterns in the French Rubinstein.
From there, White follows with Bishop to f4 or O-O-O with a clear advantage.
This was to show you that the 7. Be3 line is trickier than it looks. Black has to find the move 12… f6 to survive the opening !
This idea of Ne5 combined with Bb5 and Qa4 is instrumental in the next line we are going to cover.
7. c3 – The Kasparov Attack
Like many recent opening ideas, this variation was unveiled by Garry Kasparov in a game against Ruslan Ponomariov. This is in my opinion the best option to fight against the Blackburne variation with White.