The French Defense is a King’s Pawn Opening beginning with 1. e4 e6
Because of this, the French Defense avoids a lot of the downsides of the Scandinavian Defense. After 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5:
Black will be able to keep a foothold in the center with a pawn after the harmless 3. exd5 exd5. This is known as the Exchange Variation of the French Defense, leading to an entirely symmetrical position where Black shouldn’t have much to fear.
Black can either be content to castle quickly to the kingside and complete develop, or break the symmetry by doing something creative (for example, castling queenside), but in any case black is considered to be fine.
Instead, let’s consider white’s more ambitious options when taking on the French Defense:
White immediately claims a space advantage and denies the f6 square to black’s knight.
The completely locked center demands a totally different approach than the open-center games that most chess players are more familiar with! Black needs to fight back in the center, and 3…c5 – “striking at the base of the pawn chain” – is by far their most common move. After 4.c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Qb6:
We arrive at a common position. Black is doing everything they can to add pressure to the white’s queen’s pawn. If they succeed in forcing this pawn to exchange on c5, the white pawn chain is shattered and the e5 pawn could potentially be overextended and weak.
But meanwhile, white’s space advantage persists, and black’s light-squared bishop is horribly restrained by black’s pawns! This is a common drawback of the French Defense.
White develops a knight to its most active square and defends the e4 pawn. White may play e5 at a later point, like in the advanced variation above, if it becomes advantageous to do so.
By not taking the pressure off of black’s d5 pawn right away, white also makes it much less desirable for Black to play the immediate 3…c5?! After 4. exd5 exd5 5. dxc5, it appears that Black is losing a pawn. 5…d4 6. Ne4 helps to make things messy, but most Black players will avoid this line.
Instead, Black’s main options are to concede the center with 3…dxe4, or to add pressure to White’s king’s pawn with 3…Nf6 or 3…Bb4:
This seems like a concession. White has sole control of the center for the time being, and more open lines for development. I’ve always found this pleasant to play on the White side, but black will be able to complete development and strike at the center later. Black often continues with …Nd7 and …Ngf6 and castles kingside quickly.
Black adds pressure to the e-pawn, hoping to force white into making a decision. Exchanging on d5 is still harmless, and pushing the pawn helps clarify the central situation and enables Black to strike back with …c5.
4. e5 Nfd7 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 is one common continuation:
Play is thematically similar to the Advance variation – White has more space and black has a bad light-squared bishop, but Black will be able to generate pressure against the d4 pawn. White often plays f4 to bolster the center in this line, as white will be missing the help of the c-pawn on c3 – thanks to the positioning of their knight!
4. Bg5 is white’s other popular option, simply pinning this knight to take pressure off of e4. White may be willing to exchange this bishop for the knight at some point – conceding the Bishop Pair to black to alleviate the pressure on the white center.
The Winawer is one of the most complex lines of the French Defense. Black’s dark-squared bishop is a very important piece, as his central pawns are fixed on light squares. Exchanging off this bishop (especially for a knight, instead of its dark-squared bishop counterpart!) is a big concession, as it leaves the dark squares vulnerable.
However, if black succeeds in doubling white’s pawns on the c-file, those pawns could potentially be very weak later on in the game.
Black is threatening to take on e4 now that the knight is pinned, so white often plays 4. e5. Now black can play 4…c5, and white often takes up the challenge and coerces black to give up their prized bishop with 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. bxc3:
Play from here can be quite sharp. White often plays an early Qg4, forcing black to either play …g6 (further weakening the dark squares), …Kf8 (The drawbacks here are obvious!), …0-0 (Castling into an attack – white has more space on the kingside and will surely go after the king), or else sacrifice the g-pawn!
This last option can be seen in the infamous “Poison Pawn Variation” of the Winawer. 6…Ne7 7. Qg4 Qc7 8. Qxg7 Rg8 9. Qxh7 cxd4:
White’s up a pawn, but the situation is far from clear. Black is threatening …Qxc3+ winning a rook, and it’s hard for the white king to find shelter. One wrong move could spell disaster here – for either player.
With this sophisticated move, white avoids committing to a decision in the center yet while also avoiding blocking in the c-pawn. Letting this pawn come to c3 might be important to bolster white’s center later!
Black can now play 3…c5 if they wish, striking at the center and taking advantage of the more passive placement of the white knight. This often leads to an Isolated Queen’s Pawn middlegame position for black after some later central exchanges. Black will be left with a lone pawn on d5 and have a space advantage, but white will target this pawn with their pieces and use the d4 square as a secure outpost.
3…Nf6 is black’s other common move, adding pressure to white’s center – a key idea in many French Defense variation. After 4. e5 Nfd7 5. Bd3 c5 6. c3
White makes use of their unblocked c-pawn to bolster their central pawn chain and maintain a space advantage.
Of course, black can also play 3…dxe4 if they wish, and after 4. Nxe4 we transpose to the Rubinstein Variation, covered above.
The French Defense is a solid opening with a good reputation. Black’s two main challenges are the limited scope of the light-squared bishop and the fact that white often obtains a space advantage, but black has adequate tools to deal with these drawbacks if he plays accurately!
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