The French defense is one of the most popular defenses against 1. e4. It is regularly played at the highest level, although both 1… e5 and the Sicilian are more popular. However, the French defense is an excellent opening giving most of the time highly unsymmetrical positions and unique strategic plans.
Strategic Ideas In The French Defense
The position after White plays e4-e5 is typical of the French defense. This defense has the particularity to offer clear strategic plans for both sides. Thus, if you appreciate strategic battles , the French defense is a very interesting choice with both colors. What are those plans ?
This explains why naturally White will seek to play on the Kingside.
After e4-e5, White has a space advantage, and more play.
the Greek gift is a typical example of a quick and successful attack , often happening in the French defense.
So, White has a space advantage, and attacking opportunities on the Kingside. On the other side, what is Black trying to achieve in that position ?
For that reason, Black cannot play too passively and let White develop his Kingside attack: Black must take energetic actions against White’s pawn center.
Therefore, Black must act quickly to destabilize White’s pawn center. To that purpose, there are two main moves: c7-c5 and f7-f6.
The second typical breakthrough for Black is f7-f6.
All in all, Black has two possible pawn breakthroughs, c7-c5 and f7-f6, after which the position changes and each side has to adapt. Now let’s come back to Black’ s main problem in the French defense and see how this can be tackled: the Bishop on c8 !
The c8-Bishop is definitely Black’s biggest problem in the French defense. Once Black has managed to develop it actively or exchange it, it is always a decisive step towards a good position.
We have now seen the main strategic ideas in the French defense. The main point is to understand that White has a space advantage and an easier play on the Kingside, whereas Black is trying to counterattack on White’s slightly overextended pawn center (while of course trying to solve hit Bishop problem).
Remember, these plans are only valid when White has played e4-e5, and there are many other ways to handle the center for both players, as we will see now in the main French defense lines.
How to handle the French defense, the main lines
I will rapidly present the main lines of the French defense. Considering that we are in an overview of this defense, each line will only be briefly covered. More will be presented in follow-up articles dedicated to each particular line.
The Exchange variation is certainly White’s simplest way to handle the French defense: by exchanging a couple of central pawns, the position becomes much simpler and a lot of tension has been removed.
Just playing naturally in the exchange variation will lead you to very dull positions. Interestingly, this position can also be reached via the Petrov defense.
For this reason, the exchange variation has long considered as an opening leading to a draw. This is however not entirely true, and White keeps some chances to play for an advantage.
Of course, playing c2-c4 means that you are ready to go for Isolated Queen’s Pawn positions, but this is a good try to fight for an advantage.
Combined with c2-c4, there are several lines to put unexpected pressure on Black in the Exchange variation.
We will see more ideas and moves in the article dedicated to the Exchange variation, but here is what you should take away: this is certainly not White’s deadliest attempt against the French defense, but Black would be wrong to assume that this is an easy draw !
The French Defense advance variation is White’s most straightforward way to reach the typical French pawn structure we have studied in depth earlier.
In this position, everything we have said from the beginning of this article applies. The advance variation is the simplest way for each side to get the canonic french defense pawn structure, and in a way, we can say that each side gets his ideal setup
Let’s continue a few moves forward and check together the typical development moves.
The advance variation is also played in order to prepare the Milner-Barry gambit, a gambit in which White gives up d4 for a good activity.
This gambit is a sharp and complex line that we will not study further in this page. But have a look to the upcoming Gambits in the French Defense page to know more about it.
Main variation 3. Nc3
This is White’s main move against the French defense.
What is the idea of Knight to c3 ? White keeps some flexibility in the center. This can be annoying for White, as Black can play a timely dxe4, but this is also annoying for Black, because White’s pawn center is not overextended yet, and attacking it is not so efficient for now. Let’s not forget that Nc3 is developing a piece and that opening principles tell us that you should develop your Knights quickly.
In the end, White often ends up playing e4-e5 anyway, as we will see in the following lines.
3… Bb4, The Winawer Variation
When White plays the Knight to c3 to defend e4, Black is often playing a move to try to renew the threat on e4.
The Winawer is definitely one of the critical lines of the French defense. We will give it the full analysis it deserves in a dedicated article.
3… Nf6, The Classical Variation
Knight to f6 ticks all the boxes of a good opening move: it develops a piece (and more particularly, the Knight) to its best square, while making a threat the opponent has to reply to.
This is how the French defense was played in the nineteenth century. Since that , theory has evolved a lot, but this line remains valid nowadays !
The next possibility for White is to try to leverage a dangerous pin.
The MacCutcheon variation needs more analysis, which I will be happy to provide in a dedicated article about the move 4. Bg5 in the French Defense.
To finish with the classical variation, I want to mention a very exciting gambit to play with White: the Alekhine-Chatard attack.
The Alekhine-Chatard attack is probably not winning after Black’s best play. However it is a very sound gambit that gives a long term initiative to White even if Black plays correctly.
3… dxe4 The Rubinstein Variation
The Rubinstein Variation is a line of the French defense that does not look like the other ones. In this line, there is no e4-e5 for White, no c7-c5 or f7-f6 breakthrough for Black.
The Rubinstein variation is playable, but Black’s position lacks space and remains hard to play for some time. In a sense , this could be compared to the Philidor defense.
This line shows how NOT to play the Rubinstein variation with Black: if you play it, you have to know what you are doing because it is harder to play than it looks for Black !
3. Nd2 The Tarrasch Variation
If you remember the lines starting with 3. Nc3, White often gets confronted to an issue: the c-pawn cannot go to c3, because the Knight is already there. This often allows Black to play some powerful moves in the center.
3… Nf6 The Closed Variation
This is how Black will play if he wants to play a classical French defense system where White plays e4-e5: Here Black can play c7-c5 and all the standard plans to attack White’s pawn center.
You can see the idea behind 3. Nd2: getting an improved version of the classical variation for White. Arguably though, White’s Knight will take a little longer here to get repositioned on their best square, so there is still a tradeoff !
3… c5 The Tarrasch Open System
So 3. Nd2 is giving White an good version of the classical French defense setup, without giving Black many opportunities to deviate. If that was all about it, we would almost exclusively see 3. Nd2 played. But Black has another option that brings the game to different territories: here, pawns get exchanged, and White will not play his typical space advantage+Kingside attack play. This is the Tarrasch open system.
The theory of the Tarrasch open system is rich, and several moves are possible for each player at each step. So let’s just see a couple of typical lines to see the resulting positions and pawn structures.
All standard plans of the Isolated Queen’s pawn positions apply here. In the next line, both sides end up with a very open position.
Therefore, the move Nb3 does secure a recapture on d4 for White. The game goes on, with a slight advantage for White, but nothing lethal.
With the 3. Nd2 c5 system, Black has a very interesting and different way to handle the opening, a way that White has to get familiar with if he is playing 3. Nd2 !
Avoiding The French Defense With White
Finally, White may not want to jump in the theoretical battle and play some over-analyzed line that Black is prepared against. Instead, White can try to sidestep Black’s preparation with one of the following ideas.
2. f4 is not a great way to avoid the French setup. Black can play the most natural moves and get a good version of the French defense.
Moving the Knight to f3 is more interesting: the game can continue off the beaten tracks.
Of course, Black is not forced to play d5-d4 to jump into that sort of Van Geet opening, he can play Nf6 to bring back the game to a good version of the classical variation where White has played Nc3 and cannot have a pawn on c3.
2. d3 The King’s Indian Attack
2. d3 is probably the best attempt to avoid the French defense. This whole setup is very popular at club level and is called the King’s Indian attack.
To avoid the main lines, White has another funny move I want to show you. It seems very weird and against every opening principle at first, but it is actually clever.
This final position is not even that bad for Black, but White’s slight advantage plus the surprise effect is enough to put White in the driver’s seat for the rest of the game.
We have now reached the end of this (long) overview of the French defense (a cousin of the Caro-Kann defense in some way). What is cool about this defense (in my opinion) is that the plans are clear for Black and White, so you always have an idea of what to play next if you have some strategic understanding of the position. This should be enough for you to start playing some games online.
Now of course, if you want to know more about each line mentioned above, I invite you to refer to the detailed articles that will be released soon !