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When White plays 1.e4, the classic (and simple) response is 1…e5. Yet this open-game response doesn’t always result in much fun for Black. A great alternative is 1…e6 to set up the French Defense.
The French Defense is Black’s counter-attack to a King’s pawn opening from White, beginning with 1.e4 e6, and thus a semi-open game. The main line continues with 2.d4 d5. This opening is a dependable, often aggressive play that offers much success for determined, ambitious players.
This article will provide a basic overview of the French Defense, including how and why to play it and the principles and theory behind it.
What Is the French Defense?
The French Defense is a strong, semi-open chess opening for Black defined by the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5. It’s a popular counter-attack to a King Pawn opening from White that plays differently than other Black defenses. Used by beginners and grandmasters alike, it’s the most trusted Variation.
Principles and Theory of the French Defense
The principle behind the French Defense is mostly counter-attack. It’s considered a treacherous play at times, seeing as how Black does surrender space. Nonetheless, this is a bold move for those seeking a win playing the Black pieces, and it tends to begin an intense and unyielding battle wherein there are various possible outcomes.
The theory in using the French Defense is that Black delays the battle for the center by playing 1… e6, simultaneously preparing for a d7-d5 advance so as to promptly challenge White’s e4 pawn. This avoids any symmetry from the beginning and allows White to take space with the e5 advance. Black continues under the assertion he can subvert White’s advanced center later, having set up a firm and secure center with the e6-d5 pawn chain.
One of the main concepts to recognize with this opening is that while White tends to fixate on the King’s side, Black commonly counter-attacks on the Queen’s side. This often creates competition over who will get the first strike.
Additionally, Black’s Queenside Bishop is blocked immediately with 1.e6. This challenge is an intrinsic theme of the French Defense, advantageous for White, that entire games often center around.
How To Reach / Play the French Defense
To play the French Defence, White creates a pawn center by moving both the King’s and Queen’s pawns two squares, to which Black replies with an attempt to create a strong, supported center and attacks the e4 pawn. The common tabiya of this semi-open game is reached with the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5.
Why Play the French Defense?
The main reason why many play the French Defense is because it automatically increases Black’s chances of winning, statistically. Considered as one the most successful openings, it’s a solid yet aggressive play wherein Black can create an imbalance and abruptly begin an incisive battle with White.
French Defense Main Line: 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3
White’s most logical and imperative move is to continue along the Main Line and play 3.Nc3. With this move, White defends the e4 pawn by developing the Knight to c3, its most active square. The decision to play e5 can still be made later in the game, should the move become beneficial. By leaving Black’s d5 pawn under pressure, White creates a troublesome consequence should Black decide to play the quick 3…c5.
3…Nf6 – The Classical Variation
In choosing to play the Classical Variation, Black attempts to pressure White into a decision by pushing the e-pawn. The d5 exchange is still non-damaging, and the force on the pawn better defines the main plight and allows Black to counter-attack with …c5.
From here, White can play the Steinitz Variation, as follows:
4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3
Both players contend for d4. White benefits from more territory, while Black suffers a bad Bishop on the light-square; still, Black can create hardship for the d4 pawn.
A popular alternative move for White is 4.Bg5, as the force is removed from e4 with the Knight pinned.
Black can respond with the McCutcheon Variation, essentially disregarding White’s e4 – e5 threat:
4…Bb4 5.e5 h6 6.Bd2 Bxc3 7.bxc3 Ne4 8.Qg4
An alternative for Black is the Burn Variation:
4…dxe4 5.Nxe4 Be7 6.Bxf6 Bxf6 7.Nf3 Nd7 (With the option of 7…0-0)
Or, Black could play this significant line (since replaced in popularity with the Burn Variation):
4…Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bxe7 Qxe7 7.f4 0-0 8.Nf3 c5
Though White can jump in here with the Alekhine–Chatard Attack:
6.h4 Bxg5 7.hxg5 Qxg5 8.Nh3 Qe7 9.Qg4 g6 10.Ng5
Instead of moving 8.Nf3, 8.Nh3 allows for Qg4. The Black King is kept in the center through White’s sacrificed pawn, as castling on either side seems hazardous.
3…Bb4 – The Winawer Variation
The Winawer Variation is a major system in the French and one of the most popular replies to the 3.Nc3 main line move. In this play, the c3 Knight is pinned, pressing White to ease the central pressure.
White typically defines the central positioning briefly with 4.e5, taking on territory and expecting to demonstrate the vulnerability of Black’s b4-Bishop. The main line plays in full as:
4… c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3
Play can become pretty fierce from here. White typically makes an early play of Qg4, leaving Black with some interesting choices. Black can move …g6 and weaken the dark squares further, …0-0 to attack with a castling, …Kf8 into the overt obstacles, or be forced to forfeit the g-pawn.
The final possibility is the notorious Poison Pawn Variation, played as follows:
6…Ne7 7.Qg4 Qc7 8.Qxg7 Rg8 9.Qxh7 cxd4
3…dxe4 4.Nxe4 – The Rubinstein Variation
This move appears to be a compromise. For the time being, White alone holds rule over the center and has more open lines, though Black’s intentions are to offset this by eventually playing …c7–c5.
When Black is prepared for …c5 the most popular line is:
4…Nd7 5.Nf3 Ngf6 6.Nxf6+ Nxf6
Or, Black can activate the Bishop on the light-square by playing the Fort Knox Variation:
4…Bd7 5.Nf3 Bc6
Best Lines / Popular Lines of the French Defense
A popular line of the French Defense is the 3.Nc3 Main Line, potentially leading to one of the best variations, the Winawer. Another popular choice is 3.Nd2, the Tarrasch Variation. However, these are more complex options that branch away from basic French strategy and positioning. Generally, the Advance Variation best plays out to the French Defense theme.
Variations of the French Defense
Four major variations of the French Defense are possible subsequent to 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5. White sits at a crossroads for the game and can choose to pursue the drawish Exchange Variation, the theme-supporting Advance Variation, the popular Tarrasch Variation, or the aggressive Main Line.
Following 2.d4 d5, White’s decision becomes a defining turning point for the French Defense, as each option corresponds to the possible variations and leads to a distinct positioning.
Following 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5, White can choose to:
- Exchange the e4 pawn with 3.exd5 (Exchange Variation)
- Advance the e4 pawn with 3.e5 (Advance Variation)
- Defend the e4 pawn with 3.Nd2 (Tarrasch Variation)
- Defend the e4 pawn with 3.Nc3 (Main Line)
We covered the Main Line already, but let’s go into some detail on the other possibilities.
3.exd5 exd5 – Exchange Variation
This variation creates a symmetrical pawn structure, making it great for those who favor strategic battles and beginning players who still lack significant knowledge of opening theory. Though it has a drawish reputation, the exchange can be quite exciting, as it allows numerous possible plays for both Black and White at every move.
The innocuous 3.exd5 exd5 allows Black to maintain a space in the center with a pawn, and optimal placement easily follows with these initial issues equalized.
White or Black can imbalance positioning by castling on opposing sides of the board, as seen in the following:
4.Bd3 Nc6 5.c3 Bd6 6.Nf3 Bg4 7.0-0 Nge7 8.Re1 Qd7 9.Nbd2 0-0-0
3.e5 – Advance Variation
Notably, this variation strains the c8 Bishop’s ability to join the game – a fundamental impediment in the French Defense – as White is obstructing Black’s light-square pawns.
The fully secured center requires a unique approach that many players are unfamiliar with, as it differs from those used in open-center games. The strategy is to attack the pawn chain at its base with the counterstrike move 3…c5.
The critical counter-attack is as follows:
4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3
From here, Black can go a couple of ways, though the typical reply is 5…Qb6. With this move, Black puts d4 under heavy pressure to eventually weaken White’s center. The b2 square is also hit by the Queen, meaning the b3-pawn must be forfeited to make it easier for White’s
dark-squared Bishop to protect the d4-pawn.
Let’s look at some different ways this could go.
A safe play with a goal of castling is:
6.Be2 cxd4 7.cxd4 Nge7
From here, White can attempt a couple of Nb1 moves.
A straightforward approach resulting in balanced odds is:
8.Nc3 Nf5 9.Na4 Qa5+ 10.Bd2 Bb4 11.Bc3 Bxc3+ 12.Nxc3 Qb6 13.Bb5 Bd7
Alternatively, the best approach would be:
8.Na3 Nf5 9.Nc2 Bb4+ 10.Kf1
6…Nh6 is another good play for Black. The intention is to attack d4 by following with 7…cxd4 8.cxd4 Nf5. A typical response from White is then 7.Bxh6 or 7.b3, readying Bb2.
One might also play the Milner-Barry Gambit. The perilous line plays:
6.Bd3 cxd4 7.cxd4 Bd7 8.0-0 Nxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.Nc3
Or, an age-old trap can be carried out by playing:
7…Nxd4 8 Nxd4 Qxd4 9. Bb5+
6.a3 is a favored move and the most critical line for the Advance Variation. It sets up 7.b4, acquiring Queen-side territory. This can be avoided by Black playing 6…c4, planning to take en passant should White move to b4, thus forming a closed game wherein Black battles for command of the b3-square.
3.Nd2 – Tarrasch Variation
The Tarrasch Variation is a popular choice, perfect for those who don’t care for aggressive lines or completely symmetrical positions. It’s less aggressive than the Main Line 3.Nc3; still, it provides White the opportunity to obtain a slight advantage with conservative play.
In utilizing this flexible and sophisticated option, White bypasses making a choice in the center and evades the …Bb4 pin of the Winawer Variation by taking on a somewhat passive development of his Knight in exchange for leaving the c-pawn unobstructed; Allowing this pawn to reach c3 could strengthen White’s center later. However, this typically costs White an extra tempo moving the Knight before his dark-squared Bishop can be developed.
Black can go in one of two directions:
3…c5 4.exd5 exd5
Typically, this leads to Black’s isolated pawn.
The main line carries on as:
5.Ngf3 Nc6 6.Bb5 Bd6 7.0-0 Nge7 8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.Nb3 Bb6
This positioning provides White an opportunity in the middlegame to offset the movement of Black’s pieces, thus gaining a slight edge at the end.
Continuing with the main line:
10.Nbd4 O-O 11.c3 Bg4 12.Qa4 Qd7 13.Be3 a6
White’s d-pawn is isolated, but the game is far from over.
Alternatively, White could continue:
5.Bb5+ Bd7 (or 5…Nc6) 6.Qe2+ Be7 7.dxc5
With this move, the exchanging of Bishops will make it a struggle for Black to recover the pawn.
Black’s other response to 3Nd2 is:
3…Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3
In this instance, White takes advantage of the unobstructed c-pawn to boost the chain in the center and keep a space advantage.
This basic play continues:
6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 Qb6 (or 8… Nb6, the Leningrad variation) 9.Nf3 f6 10.exf6 Nxf6 11.O-O Bd6 12.Nc3 O-O 13.Re1 Bd7
While this complex positioning leaves White with a more advantageous pawn structure, Black’s engaged pieces have the odds in their favor.
Alternatively, White could go for a more aggressive play following 4.e5 Nfd7, and play:
5.f4 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ndf3 Qb6 8.g3 cxd4 9.cxd4 Bb4+ 10.Kf2 f5 11.Kg2
Though at the expense of time, White has acquired space.
This variation is one of the oldest variations when it comes to the Sicilian Defense. This variation has previously been seen at the world-class level but has dropped off in popularity in modern times. This variation is different from the others in that it chooses to develop the knights instead of the bishops.
French Defense Traps
While the French Defense is a strong, strategic opening, Black is quite passive and may occasionally struggle to maneuver. Knowing traps in this defense can assist with a quick win should your opponent take a misstep in the opening.
Here’s a trap game in Black’s favor:
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qg4 Nf6 5.Qxg7 Rg8 6.Qh6 Nxe4 7.Qxh7 Rf8 8.Bd2 Bxc3 9.Bxc3 Qf6 and black will play Rh8 and trap white’s Queen
And here’s a trap game in White’s favor:
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Qc7 7.Nf3 Ne7 8.Bd3 Nbc6 9.O-O O-O 10.Bxh7+
Check out this video for more common traps in the French Defense:
French Defense Weaknesses
The most glaring weakness of the French Defense for Black is that the queen-side Bishop is immediately blocked by the beginning move 1.e6. Most often, the whole game centers around this weakness. Still, there are ways for Black to mobilize his c8 Bishop despite the limitation later in the game.
French Defense Statistics
Here are some win-rates based on White’s initial response to the French Defense:
|Move Played||Games||White Win (%)||Draw (%)||Black Win (%)|
(Search more stats at Chessgames.com)
Famous Games & Popular Players
The French Defense has been favored by many players, both past and present, with several GMs routinely using it as one of their main opening armaments.
Some popular players of the French Defense include:
- Mikhail Botvinnik
- Rafael Vaganian
- Viktor Korchnoi
- Tigran Petrosian
- Wolfgang Uhlmann
- Wesley So
- Nikita Vitiugov
- Varuzhan Akobian
- Ding Liren
- Alexander Morozevich
Many great French Defence games have been influential to many players, such as the 1976 Reshevsky vs. Vaganian game, which you can walk through in detail with this video:
Books About the French Defense
Tactics in the Chess Opening 3: French Defence and Other Half-Open Games
Part of a six-book series, this title covers the basics of the French Defense using a collection of both new and classic games that have been annotated with descriptive and analytic commentary by its authors. It’s best suited for beginners still learning the theory behind the French Defence and other openings.
French Defence: 1.e4 e6 in Chess Openings
In this book, Tim Sawyer explains the French Defense strategy, analyzing over 120 games and touching on all the common variations. This version includes up-to-date commentary by the author that shares details about game settings and opponents, often appreciated by those just beginning to understand the theory.
The Complete French Advance: The Most Uncompromising Way to Attack the French Defence
Written by GM Evgeny Sveshnikov, a highly respected expert in chess openings, and Vladimir Sveshnikov, an International Master, this title covers a ruthless path to victory against the French Defence. It provides an excellent monograph of the French Defense, guaranteed to help raise your gameplay to the next level.
French Defense FAQs
What To Do After French Defense?
What’s best for White to do after the French Defense is set with 2…d5 is to move e4-e5. This gives White a space advantage and closes the center. Also, Black’s d5 and e6 pawns obstruct his c8 Bishop, which will struggle to mobilize. However, Black will have a solid pawn structure.
Is the French Defense Good for Beginners?
The French Defense is good for beginners to learn, as it provides understanding into pawn chains, space advantage, navigating from closed positions, outposts, good/bad pieces, and more. It doesn’t require you to know tons of theory to play, and it can help you become a more versatile player.
Why Is It Called the French Defense?
The French Defense is called so in recognition of the Paris Chess Club, who, in a correspondence game with London in 1834, carried out this opening and earned a conclusive win. Although, this French team did not originate the maneuver, as it had been established in the 15th century.
What Is the Best Variation for the French Defense?
Many consider the best variation for the French Defense for Black to be the Winawer, and safe alternatives being the Burn and Classical Variations. Advanced players also like the Tarrasch. White’s best gambits against the French include the Alekhine-Chatard Attack and the unofficial Korchnoi Gambit.
The French Defense is a great counter-attack opening for Black that often leads to sharp, strategic games and a play that all chess players should have in their repertoire.
To learn more, and attempt to unlock its full potential, check out this excerpt from the 17-hour mastery class “The Bulletproof French Defense” by French GM Fabien Libiszewski:
- Chess Pathways: French Defense
- iChess: The French Defense – A Complete Guide on How to Play the French Defense
- Simplify Chess: French Defense (How to Play It, Attack It, and Counter It)
- Wikipedia: French Defense
- Exeter Chess Club: The French Defence for Beginners II: Key Variations
- The Chess Website: The French Defense
- Chessentials: What Every Chess Player Should Know About the French Defense
- Chess Only: French Defense Traps
- Chess Only: French Defense Advance Variation
- Chess.com: French Defense for Beginners
- The Chess World: 10 Best Chess Openings for Beginners
- The Chess World: Crushing French Defense – The Korchnoi Gambit