Beating the French Defense: How Grand Masters Do It

How to Beat the French Defense

If you are playing White, you expect to set the tempo of the game. But if it starts to feel that Black is keeping you from developing your pieces, it could be because your opponent played the French Defense opening.

To beat the French defense, you can use the Advance, Exchange, or Tarrasch responses. All three responses take the offensive away from Black. The Advance is the most aggressive and risky of the three, while the exchange variation gives White and Black equal opportunities to win.

If Black uses the French Defense, you need to regain control of the game quickly, or you will be playing defense instead of offense. So why is this defense so effective for Black, and what are your options as White to take control of the game? Let’s find out.

What Is the French Defense?

The French defense is a series of moves designed to challenge White’s pawn. Instead of conceding the center of the board to White, Black uses an initial pawn move that appears weak. However, on the next move, Black moves to challenge White’s pawn.

White begins with the King’s opening, and Black responds not with e5 but e6. It looks like a tentative opening that suggests Black will play defense. White responds with the queen’s pawn to d4, and Black responds with d5.

1.e4 e6. 2.d4 d5.

This leaves White with a dilemma. Instead of being able to move forward with an opening, White must now respond to Black’s pawn.

What Is the Theory Behind the French Defense?

The principle behind this defense is that advancing a piece without adequate support leads to poor pawn structure. White’s space advantage in the center is offset by a weaker pawn structure, especially if White moves the queen’s pawn to e5.

Black can then begin an attack on the base of White’s pawn by moving the bishop’s pawn to c5. Once again, White must react to Black’s move. If it takes Black’s pawn on c5, Black captures White’s pawn with the bishop on f8.

For every move White makes to protect the weak pawn on d4, Black can create an additional threat.

How To Respond to the French Defense?

The Advance Variation, Exchange Variation, and Tarrasch are the three primary responses to the French Defense. 

Advance Variation

Notice the word advance. This variation has White advance the king’s pawn to e5. White sees two advantages to this. First, White’s pawn sits in Black’s territory. Second, Black’s pawn on e6 is hemming in the bishop on c8.

The Advance Variation works well if Black decides to attack the pawn on e5 because White’s next move can be bishop’s pawn to c3 and then short castle. White don’t face any difficulties. 

However, if Black’s strategy is to attack the base pawn on d4 by moving the queenside bishop’s pawn to c5, White will be forced to respond by protecting the weaker one.

Exchange Variation

Here White decides to exchange pawns by capturing Black’s d5 pawn. Black responds by taking White’s.

The advantage to this response is that White is no longer on the defensive. It can begin to apply pressure on Black’s pawn through moves such as pawn to c4. Moving the kingside knight to f3 protects the d4 pawn.  Generally white do short castle and try to devolop pieces in centre and attack.

Tarrasch Variation

This variation, named after the German grandmaster Siegbert Tarrasch, became popular in the 1970s and 1980s because of Anatoly Karpov’s success with it.

Instead of advancing your pawn to e5 or exchanging pawns, you bring your kingside knight to d2 to protect your e5 pawn with this variation.

What you do next depends on Black. An inexperienced player might bring the dark-squared bishop to d4 to keep the knight from moving. However, moving your bishop’s pawn to c3 will cause Black to retreat.

Instead, Black might bring the kingside knight to f6. In that case, move your pawn to e5. Black will need to retreat again, and you can then bring the bishop’s pawn to c3 to protect the d4 pawn. Or you can move the knight on d2 to f3 to protect both pawns.

Regardless, Black is no longer on the offensive.

4. Nc3 – pls cover this line also (Main line)

What Do the Statistics Say About the French Defense?

Because White moves first, it automatically has an advantage, so any time White wins less than 50%, that’s good. Draws don’t count as a win, but for Black, they are not quite a loss either. So, how many times does Black win with the French Defense?

Let’s see what the statistics say.

  Black wins Draw White wins
Advance Variation 34.3% 24.7% 40.9%
Exchange Variation 31% 38% 31%
Tarrasch Variation 22.8% 45.5% 31.7%

An aggressive player with a solid understanding of chess strategy and theory stands a good chance of winning. However, White stands a better chance of winning because the advanced variation carries more risk for Black. If you want to keep White from winning, you’ll have better odds with either the Exchange or Tarrasch variations.

Famous Players and Matches

The Austrian World Chess Champion Wilhelm Steinitz reportedly said: “I have never in my life played the French Defence, which is the dullest of all openings.”

Whether he actually said it, he did play something similar in the first part of his opening in an 1873 match against Adolf Anderssen. Even more ironically, Steinitz is credited with transitioning chess from a game of gambits, sacrifices, and aggressive play to one based on board position. Perhaps his quote was a form of verbal misdirection.

Gary Kasparov won with the Tarrasch variation in a 1991 game against Viswanathan Anand.

Viktor Korchnoi used the French Defense repeatedly, especially in a memorable game against Mijo Udovcic in 1967.

You will see the opening used frequently in Club Matches and at the highest levels of play because it allows Black to put White on the defensive early in the game.

Further Reading

The French Defence by Damian Lemos takes the reader through a move-by-move study and explores each variation in more detail.

For players who want to tackle the Advanced Variation, the Complete French Advance is worth checking out.

Black might try to set up the Rubinstein Response if White counters with one of the variations discussed in this article. French Defense: The Solid Rubinstein Variation will help prepare you for that.


Should a Beginner Use the French Defense When Playing Black?

As a beginner playing Black, you need all the advantages you can find. It blunts White’s initial attack and gives you equal control of the center of the board.

The danger for a beginner is to get confused over the primary goal of the opening, which is attacking White’s weak pawn. Trying to go after the King too early will backfire. Instead, as you continue to put pressure on the weak pawn, look for pins and forks to take out stronger pieces.

Why Is It Called a French Opening?

The opening was first used in France in 1834 in a match against Paris and London. Informal correspondence chess clubs existed in Europe, and players on the French team used the Defence (the French spelling) during several matches.

What Is a Correspondence Match?

Think of correspondence chess as long-distance chess as opposed to two players playing in-person (over-the-board). Today we can play with anyone who has internet or email, but before that, chess moves would be communicated through some type of mail delivery system, via a postal system, runners, or even homing pigeons.

Correspondence matches have several advantages. One, since the move does not need to be made within several minutes, a player has more time to study it. Two, players can be playing numerous games at once.

Internet games are a kind of correspondence match done in real-time.

Final Thoughts

When playing White, your opponent can play the French Defense to impede your strategy and force you into a defensive position. To counter the Defense, you have three options: 

  • Advance variation
  • Exchange variation
  • Tarrasch variation

Statistically, in the first and third variations, White has a higher chance of winning while the opponents are more likely to draw if the Exchange variation is played.

All our articles are reviewed and edited by GM Marian Petrov, a top level GM coach, theorist, mentor and and former Bulgarian champion, as well as winner of many open tournaments around the world.

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