French Defense – How to Play as White and Black

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Table of Contents

The French Defense is an excellent defense for chess players of all playing levels. You can play it as a beginner and continue playing it when you become a grandmaster.

This post will look at the French Defense from both sides.

Important Concepts To Keep In Mind In the French Defense

  • The French Defense is a safe, solid defense that is suitable for beginners to play.
  • Understanding the ideas and strategies is more important than memorizing long theoretical lines. The basic plans and tactics are clearly explained.
  • The main variations are the Advance, Exchange, Classical, and Tarrasch Variations.
  • The King’s Indian Attack – a favorite of Bobby Fischer.
  • Against a strong opponent, an excellent choice for Black is the solid Rubinstein Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxd4 Nd7). This is an especially potent weapon if you are a good endgame player.
  • Frequently Asked Questions.
This video is from Lifetime Repertoires: French Defense course by GM Anish Giri

Playing the French Defense With Black or White

The French Defense will provide you with a solid position without learning a lot of theory or any sharp theoretical lines.

In this post, you will learn:

  • the fundamental ideas for both sides.
  • The French Defense Exchange Variation (3.exd5),
  • Advance Variation (3.e5),
  • Tarrasch Variation (3.Nd2),
  • Classical Variation (3.Nc3 Nf6),
  • the Winawer Variation (3.Nc3 Bb4),
  • King’s Indian Attack (1.e4 e6 2.d3 d5), and
  • the Rubinstein Variation (3…exd4 4.Nxd4 Nd7).

The French Defense is a beautiful chess opening that will grow with you as you become a stronger player.

Strategies for Both Sides In the French Defense

In the French Defense, like most chess openings, some fundamental strategies and tactics apply to the opening as a whole. Then there are those that apply specifically to a particular variation and will be covered in the relevant sections.

In all variations of the French Defense, the light-squared bishop becomes a bad bishop after 1…e6. Knowing how to improve or exchange this piece is a must for the Black player.

The French Defense begins with the moves 1.e4 e6.

The starting position of the French Defense arises after 1.e4 e6

Black intends to claim his share of the center with …d5 but wants to make sure the pawn is defended while allowing the development of his dark-squared bishop.. White’s most common response to 1…e6 is 2.d4.

After 2.d4 d5 White usually plays one of four moves – 3.Nc3, 3.Nd2, 3.exd5, and 3.e5. What makes the French Defense such a good chess opening for beginners is the similarity of structures and the fact you can meet 3.Nc3 and 3.Nd2 with the same move if you desire.

Black can play both 3…Nf6 or 3…dxe4 against either 3.Nc3 or 3.Nd2. However, Black has another reliable move against 3.Nc3, which is 3…Bb4, which enters the Winawer Variation.

In general, one of White’s most potent attacking pieces is his light-squared bishop. This bishop is usually developed to d3, where it attacks the h7 square. Black is well-advised to exchange his bad light-squared bishop or a knight for White’s light-squared bishop.

Because of the attacking potential of a bishop on d3, Black will sometimes play an early …b6 to allow …Ba6. Be sure to play …Ba6 before you move your knight from b8, or your bishop will drop off.

Black’s good bishop is his dark-squared bishop and is a piece he would like to keep. Although it appears blocked in with the White pawns on d4 and e5, it remains a valuable piece.

Thematic Pawn Breaks for Black in the French Defense

When studying a chess opening, it’s vital to know which pawn breaks you want to play. For Black, his two main pawn breaks in the French Defense are …c5 and …f6.

Be sure to play …c5 before developing with …Nc6, or you will need to lose a tempo to play this pawn break. Also, keep in mind even after playing …c5 Black can still safely castle long.

Before playing the …f6 pawn break be sure this advance cannot be met with Qh5+ followed by capturing on g6. The queen on h5 pins the h-pawn.

The …f6 pawn break is particularly useful if Black castles short since it opens the f-file for the rook. Black must be alert to the possibility of sacrificing the exchange on f3.

This is a tactic that often arises within the Tarrasch Variation (3.Nd2) of the French Defense.

White’s Attacking Plans in the French Defense

There is little doubt one of the weakest pawns in Black’s position is the e6 pawn. Since this pawn is on a light square and thus blocksBlack’s light square bishop, it makes sense for White to exchange the bishop for one of Black’s kingside defenders.

However, White must not rush into this exchange because the bishop pair is a potent attacking weapon that is effective from a distance.

Like Black, there are two pawn moves that White will almost always play during the game – c3 and f4. Advancing with f4 not only supports the pawn on e5, but its advance to f5 and f6 is often vital to a successful White attack.

This pawn advance highlights the importance of the White bishop on d3. From d3, the bishop covers the f5-square and adds support to the pawn advance.

Along with the f-pawn, the h-pawn advance is another attacking option for White. The h-pawn advance usually occurs when White has castled long or in the Alekhine-Chartard Attack in the Classical Variation.

French Defense Exchange Variation

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5

3.exd5 introduces the French Defense Exchange Variation

This is a common variation among club players who wish to avoid studying a lot of opening theory. GM Simon Williams has called this “The Groan Variation” because of its boring character.

The biggest challenge for Black is to avoid feeling deflated when White plays 3.exd5. Instead, it is a good idea to adopt a mindset that White must be severely punished for such timidity.

That being said, it is not a variation to take lightly, and if you choose to play the French Defense, it is vital to have a system against the Exchange Variation. Two systems are even better because keeping an asymmetrical position increases the winning chances for both sides.

The advantage of having the first move for White is balanced by the fact Black gets to see how White intends to arrange his pieces.

Black’s Development Options in the French Defense Exchange Variation

In light of this, if White plays Nc3, then Black can keep the position asymmetrical with …c6. This not only defends the d-pawn, but it also prevents Nb5 from harassing the Black bishop on d6.

One standard method of development for Black is …Bd6, …Nge7, and …Bf5 to exchange White’s powerful bishop on d3. Another system for Black involves castling long when the bishop on d3 is not as powerful an attacking piece.

In order to castle long, Black will play …Nc6, develop the bishop to e6, f5 or g4, …Qd7, and 0-0-0.

The third strategy for Black is to play with an isolated queen’s pawn after …c5. Viktor Korchnoi used this approach to good effect.

The main line of the French Defense Exchange Variation

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Bd3 Bd6 6.0-0 0-0 7.Bg5 Bg4 8.Nbd2 Nbd7

The symmetrical nature of the position means Black has achieved easy equality.

When Black needs a win in the Exchange Variation 4…Bg4 is the move of choice. 4…c6 offers Black slightly higher winning chances and easy equality than the most popular fourth move – 4…Nf6.

French Defense Advance Variation

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5

The French Defense Advance variation is characterized by the move 3.e5

Welcome to the French Defense Advance variation. A variation that assures White of a space advantage, but little more.

Against many players, you can make the slight edge from the space advantage enough for a win. Getting the most out of your space advantage must become the focal point of your middlegame training if you play the French Defense Advance Variation.

Black must remain aware of the attacking potential offered by White’s d4, e5 pawn-chain and seek counterplay or to close the position. Of course, the release of the tension in the center aids the defender since you know what White intends.

And White’s intention is to make it difficult for Black to develop his kingside pieces, while locking the center. The blocked center allows White to launch a kingside attack.

3…c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Bd7 6.Be2 Nge7

In the Advance Variation the knight goes to either f5 or g6 via e7

The knight is headed to g6, where it applies pressure to the e5-pawn and helps defend the Black king.

7.0-0 Ng6 8.g3 Be7 9.h4 0-0 10.h5 Nh8

No, the move ...Nh8 was not played by an amateur, but by world champion Magnus Carlsen

Although it might seem strange to retreat the knight to h8, this is the hallmark of the dynamic chess played today. In fact, this move was played by none other than Magnus Carlsen against Alexander Grischuk.

The Modern 6.a3

Along with 6.Be2 a typical move played today is 6.a3

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Bd7 6.a3

The move 6.a3 has become quite popular recently.

The move 6.a3 might appear to stop Black from castling on the queenside because it supports the advance of the b-pawn.

However, Black is able to close the queenside with c4. Black can also bring the knight from g8 to c6, instead of g6, to add another defender around the king.

6…f6 7.Bd3 Qc7 8.0-0 c4 9.Bc2 0-0-0 10.Re1 Nge7

Opposite side castling is an excellent way to spice up the game by Black.

Chess players learn early to play on the side which the pawn chain points toward. In this case, thanks to castling long, Black has moved his king to the opposite side of White’s pawn chain.

Because of the locked center, White can play on the kingside even though he has castled short. This allows White to advance the pawns in front of his king.

French Defense Tarrasch Variation

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2

The starting position of the French Defense Tarrasch variation

By developing the knight to d2, White avoids the pin with …Bb4, which is a common tactic in the Classical Variation with 3.Nc3. The drawback is the knight on d2 blocks the queen’s defense of the d-pawn and the bishop on c1.

Black can entice White to advance the e-pawn by playing 3…Nf6, when the loss of time moving the knight a second time is offset by the release of tension in the center. The knight will retreat to d7 and support the f6 pawn break.

In order to activate the bishop on c1, White will often play Ndf3 and Ne2 after playing Bd3, so the second bishop isn’t blocked by a knight. Another strategy for White is to exchange Black’s strong bishop on d6 with Bg5-h4-g3.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.c3 c5 6.Bd3 Nc6

6...Nc6 puts pressure on the key d4-pawn.

The great thing about the French Defense is how often the same moves are played. This is why learning the French Defense is more about strategy than theory.

Apart from …Nf6, Black’s moves are very reminiscent of the Advance Variation, and if he wishes, Black can play many of these moves against the Classical Variation.

7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 f6 9.exf6 Nxf6 10.Nf3 Bd6

In this position a lot depends on the mobility or lack thereof of Black's central pawns

After White captures on f6, the d6 square becomes a perfect square for the dark-squared bishop. In fact, it becomes such a vital piece that White will seek to exchange it at the earliest opportunity.

Thanks to the knight on e2, White can use a strategy Black sometimes employs in the Exchange Variation. A second way to exchange the d6 bishop is with Bf4.

In light of this, Black will often play …Qc7 to force white into playing g3 if he wants to exchange the bishop with Bf4. This is precisely what happened in the next game.

French Defense Classical Variation

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6

3...Nf6 is the French Defense Classical Variation.

Against 3.Nc3 Black has two main moves to choose from:

  • 3…Nf6 brings us into the Classical Variation of the French Defense,
  • and 3…Bb4 is the Winawer Variation.

The advantage of 3…Nf6 is it involves many of the same moves Black played against the Tarrasch Defense. The Winawer Variation is the riskier, more double-edged option.

Once again, the development of the knight on f6 induces the e5 advance bringing about familiar positions.

There is no time wasted in the Classical Variation before playing f4 to support White’s pawn center. Of course, Black is advised to strike back immediately with …c5 to place pressure on the d4-pawn.

4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 a6 8.Qd2 b5 9.a3 Qa5 10.Be2 b4

When both players launch attacks on either side time is most important. 10...b4 by Black is the correct approach and keeps White from pushing his attack.

Black plays on the queenside, the direction his e6 and d5 pawn-chain points towards. 10…b4 makes use of the pin on the a-pawn since axb4 loses the rook on a1.

The arising middlegame offers chances for both sides to play for the win with open files and semi-open files for the rooks on both sides.

Take a look at how two top grandmasters played this position.

The French Defense Winawer Variation 3.Nc3 Bb4

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4

3...Bb4 is the French Defense Winawer Variation.

Pinning the knight puts pressure on the center, which makes White’s next move practically forced. After 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3 6.bxc3 Nge7 7.Qg4, we enter the mainline of the Winawer Variation.

A fighting approach by White which forces Black to make a decision about the unprotected g-pawn.

In this position, Black can either defend the g7-pawn with 7…0-0 or choose to sacrifice the pawn with 7…Qc7 8.Qxg7 Rg8 9.Qxh7 cxd4 10.Ne2 Nbc6 11.f4 reaching this complicated, dynamic position

In the Winawer Variation it is not uncommon for the sides to take turns collecting pawns.

The calmer 7…0-0 was Magnus Carlsen’s choice, and after 8.Bd3 f5 9.exf6 Rxf6 10.Bg5 Rf7, he had everything nicely under control.

Magnus Carlsen chose the calmer 7...0-0 over 7...Qc7 and obtained an equal position.

The King’s Indian Attack

A favorite of Bobby Fischer, the King’s Indian Attack is a reverse King’s Indian Defense setup with the e4-pawn supported with d3. White often advances the pawn to e5.

The characteristic development for White in the King’s Indian Attack usually includes Nf3, g3, Bg2, and 0-0. The queenside knight will make its way over from b1 to g4 via d2, f1, and h2.

As is quite clear, this takes quite a bit of time and helps Black prepare himself for the kingside attack. Another strategy for Black is to draw White out of his preferred piece placement into unfamiliar territory.

1.e4 e6 2.d3 d5 3.Nd2

The King's Indian Attack against the French Defense was a favorite of Bobby Fischer.

The knight blocks the d-file, or else Black can exchange queens after …dxe4, dxe4, and …Qxd1.

3…Nf6 4.Ngf3 b6

Black intends to put more pressure on the center with the development of his light-squared bishop.

Since White intends to fianchetto the bishop to become both a strong attacker and defender, it makes sense for Black to exchange bishops. The exchange of light-squared bishops invariably favors Black in the French Defense.

5.g3 dxe4 6.dxe4 Bc5 7.Bb5+ c6 8.Bd3 e5

Black has succeeded in diverting White's bishop from the long diagonal and has an equal position.

White can’t capture the e5 pawn without losing the knight after …Qd4 threatening mate on f2 and attacking the knight on e5.

9.Nc4 Nbd7 10.Qe2 0-0 11.0-0 Qc7

This position is dynamically equal. Black freed up his bad French bishop with 8...e5.

This position is dynamically equal. Black freed up his bad French bishop with 8…e5.

Instead of blocking the d-file with 3.Nd2, White will sometimes play 2.Qe2. This move ensures there can be no exchange of queen’s on the d-file after …dxe4.

However, the most glaring drawback is the loss of time and blocking the bishop on f1.

An excellent way for Black to take advantage of the queen on e2 is to transpose to an open game with 2…Nc6 3.Nf3 e5.

The loss of a tempo is a small price to play to free up Black's bad French bishop.

From this position, Black can frequently find himself playing a King’s Indian Defense setup. Especially if White plays 4.d5 and Black retreats the knight with 4…Ne7.

4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 d6 6.d5 Ne7 7.c4 g6 8.Nc3 Bg7 9.h3 Nh5 10.Qc2 0-0

Black can play for a kingside attack and has no trouble activating the light-squared bishop.

The Rubinstein Variation 3…dxe4

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7

Black can play 3...dxe4 against both the Tarrasch and 3.Nc3 variations. This makes it an excellent choice to cut down on opening theory.

This position can be reached after 3.Nc3 instead of 3.Nd2, making it an excellent choice if you wish to cut down your opening study time.

Another advantage of this opening variation is that it allows you to take advantage of the fact many players ignore working on their endgame technique.

Of course, this strategy only works if you are willing to work hard on improving your endgame skills. Hardly surprising that this variation was named after the great Polish player Akiba Rubinstein, an excellent endgame player.

Apart from the fact that this variation often leads to an equal endgame, it is a safe option for Black to use against 3.Nc3 and 3.Nd2.

The Rubinstein Variation is good if you are playing a much stronger opponent, but it is not suitable if you find yourself in a must-win situation with Black. Then it is best to play one of the more standard responses mentioned earlier in this post.

Many players with White will play the most natural moves against the Rubinstein Variation.

5.Nf3 Ngf6 6.Nxf6 Nxf6 7.Bd3 c5 8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.0-0 0-0

Black has equality and will activate his light-squared bishop with ...b6 and ...Bb7

In this position, Black will play …b6 and …Bb7 with an excellent position.

One vital point to bear in mind with Black is not to fear doubled pawns on f6. These doubled-pawns often occur after Bg5 when Black breaks the pin with …Qc7.

Even a player as strong as Vishy Anand couldn’t make headway against the resulting position in his game against Boris Gelfand. The players agreed to a draw on move 22.

White Plays More Actively With 6.Bg5

A more active approach by White is 6.Bg5 and voluntarily exchanging on f6 two moves later. This approach was introduced by Vassily Smyslov and played more recently by Anand and Topalov.

White intends to disrupt Black’s natural plans with 9.Bb5+ which forces 9…c6. This move makes …Bb7 ineffective for Black.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7 5.Nf3 Ngf6 6.Bg5 h6 7.Nxf6 Nxf6 8.Bxf6 Qxf6

Black prevents the doubling of pawns that would arise after 8...gxf6.

Now White can play the disruptive 9.Bb5+ c6 10.Bd3

In this position after 10.Bd3 the best move for Black is 10...Bd7

10…Bd7 is the crucial move for Black to remember. The bishop will go to c6 after …c5. Black will often castle long in this variation.

After 10…Bd7 11.Qe2 c5, White usually plays either 12.0-0-0 or 12.Qe2. Neither of these moves is very challenging for Black, and the games often end in draws.

Learn to Play This Serious but Fun Opening

Ready to adopt the French Defense as your primary defense to 1.e4? Learn how to play this fantastic defense from GM Alexander Lenderman and NM Bryan Tillis.

This excellent course teaches you all the subtleties of the opening and provides you with a solid repertoire that you can play for many years.

Follow in the footsteps of chess greats, like Botvinnik, Smyslov, and Alekhine, and meet 1.e4 confidently.

French Defense Frequently Asked Questions

Is the French defense aggressive?

Yes, the French Defense is an aggressive defense for Black to play against 1.e4. The French Defense is a counter-attacking defense that works best if Black takes the fight to White.

Is the French Defense easy to learn?

Yes, the French Defense is easy to learn and is considered an excellent defense for beginners. The French Defense allows you to reach a solid position without knowing a lot of theory, except for the Winawer Variation.

The move 3…Nf6 and the Rubinstein Variation (3…dxe4) are playable against 3.Nc3 and 3.Nd2 reducing your theoretical workload.

What’s the point of the French Defense?

The French Defense aims to establish a pawn in the center and fight White for central control. Black plays 1…e6 to support 2…d5. The move …d5 usually causes White to advance the e-pawn either right away or later in the game.

Once the center is locked, Black can begin attacking the d4, e5 pawn chain.

How can you beat the French Defense?

Beating the French Defense is no easy task, which is why it is played by grandmasters today. White’s winning strategy depends on where the sides castle. If both sides castle short, then White will attempt to push the f-pawn forward and create weaknesses in front of the Black king.

Another sound attacking strategy for White is to castle long if Black has castled short. This allows White to advance his h-pawn to create weaknesses in Black’s defensive setup and activate his h1-rook.

Is the Caro-Kann Defense better than the French Defense?

The Caro-Kann is different from the French Defense, and different doesn’t always mean better. In fact, in the database at lichess.org, both openings have the same winning percentage for Black – 24.

In the Caro-Kann Defense, Black’s light-squared bishop is not blocked by a pawn on e6. Black will almost always develop the bishop to f5 or g4 before playing …e6.
Black can often transpose to the French Defense from the Caro-Kann Defense if White plays the Advance Variation.

For example, in the French Defense, the Advance Variation begins with the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5, and in the Caro-Kann Defense, we have 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 when …e6 reaches the same position.

Why is the French Defense considered bad?

Like any opening in chess Black makes some concessions, but to say it is bad is incorrect. Black concedes a space advantage in return for a solid position with counter-attacking possibilities.

This makes it unsuitable for players who enjoy open positions with lots of active piece play. When selecting an opening repertoire, it is essential to consider the typical middlegame and endgame positions. Pay particular attention to the pawn structures that arise.

If you dislike playing with pawn weaknesses, then openings with doubled-pawns or the isolated queen’s pawn are openings you will think are bad. However, many top grandmasters often play these openings with great success.

Which grandmasters play the French Defense?

The late Viktor Korchnoi is the most famous of all French Defense players. Modern grandmasters who play the French Defense include Alexander Morozevich, Ēdouard Romaine, and Simon Williams (aka the GingerGM).

In the past, great chess players who played the French Defense included Mikhail Botvinnik, Vassily Smyslov, Alexander Alekhine, and Mikhail Chigorin.

Who is the best French Defense player?

There is no one player who can lay claim to the best French Defense player, but Viktor Korchnoi and Alexander Morozevich played many games in the French Defense. Either one of them could arguably be regarded as the best French Defense player.

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