Play The French Defense – A Practical Guide

This primer will show you how to play the French Defense in chess with a minimal investment of time. Understanding the ideas in the French Defense will provide a solid foundation for you to expand upon.

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Along with being quick to learn, many chess players really like its solidity.

The French Defense is reached after 1.e4 e6. Along with being quick to learn, many chess players really like its solidity.

french defense
French Defense

There are lots of other advantages to the French Defense. 

  • You can play for a win with black.
  • There are numerous common themes and breaks played by black no matter what variation white chooses. These recurring ideas in the French Defense mean less time studying the opening.
  • The defense is very flexible and allows you to meet whichever plan white chooses with confidence.
  • With careful play, you will reach an equal middlegame position (or better, if White doesn’t know the theory).

There are a few things you must bear in mind when you play the French Defense since chess is a game of give-and-take.

  • Black’s light-squared bishop is a bad bishop. The pawns on e6 and d5 mean it will take some time to get it into the game. Usually by playing …Bd7, …Be8, and then either …Bg6 or …Bh5.
  • White has some dangerous attacking plans which you must be prepared to meet. These commonly involve a bishop on d3 and advancing the f-pawn.
  • Knowing the correct move order is very important if you don’t want to find yourself in a bad position; if you resist grabbing pawns early-on you can reach a good position.
  • One of white’s most common options, especially at the club level, is the Exchange Variation. The biggest danger it poses is lulling black into thinking a draw is a foregone conclusion.

Despite the challenges black faces, the French Defense has proven itself a popular choice.

In the past, the defense has been played by such greats as Mikhail Botvinnik, Akiba Rubinstein, and Tigran Petrosian. More recent exponents include Viktor Korchnoi, Evgeny Bareev, Gata Kamsky, and Alexander Morozevich.

French Defense Words Of Caution

Although there are many good reasons to play the French Defense in chess it’s important not to let your guard down. Remember, there is no such thing as an opening that guarantees you winning chances, otherwise every player would use the same opening in every game!

The opening is a path to get to a middlegame you are comfortable with, with equal and attacking chances, and that goes for your opponent too. It is a good idea to know what plans your opponent has against the French Defense.

A white bishop on d3 combined with Qh5 can turn into a potent attacking combination and deserves a second mention.

In light of this, be especially cautious when it appears you can win a pawn. Ask yourself “What attack can white generate? Would I be better off developing and getting my king to safety?”

In most cases suffering through a torrid attack isn’t worth going a pawn up. Being a pawn up in the endgame is great but it won’t help if you get checkmated in the middlegame.

Being forced to fend off a big attack by white isn’t why people choose to play the French Defense in chess.

The following video is taken from the popular Deep Dive series of chess openings presented by the very experienced GM Damian Lemos, and is a good introduction to the French Defense.

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The Main Variations Of The French Defense In Chess

In the notorious French Defense Exchange Variation, or Groan Variation as French Defense aficionado GM Simon Williams calls it, white can steer play into calmer waters. However, these calmer waters do not mean a forced draw for white.

On the contrary, you can feel pretty good about your opening choice if white concedes his advantage on the third move. Then again, the Advanced Variation, Tarrasch Variation, and Classical Variation lead to many exciting games.

This French Defense primer will cover:

  • The Exchange Variation
  • The Advance Variation
  • The Tarrasch Variation
  • The Classical Variation

Any opening played regularly by a legend like Viktor Korchnoi is worth having in your repertoire. Model your play on his games and you will decimate the ranks of club players.

French Defense Exchange Variation 

The French Defense – Gm Damian Lemos (lemos Deep Dive Vol. 15)
The French Defense Exchange Variation

Club players are likely to face the Exchange Variation in at least half of their games. In other words, you can feel confident about obtaining a good position in a lot of your games if you are playing the French Defense.

All you need is to know one or two good ways to play against it. Above all, the biggest danger when facing the Exchange Variation is that you will get complacent and assume the game will end in a draw.

The intention you must adopt is you will make your opponent regret taking the lazy approach by crushing him. Why wouldn’t you feel good about your opening if your opponent fears your chances in the main lines? 

The Isolated Queen Pawn Strategy

One of the main ideas in the French Defense Exchange Variation is to play ..c5 and head for an Isolated Queen Pawn (IQP) position. This creates an unbalanced position where you have active piece play and good attacking chances.

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The Solid 4.Bd3 Nc6

For those who want a more solid approach against 4.Bd3, a good choice is to play 4…Nc6 attacking the d-pawn. You can follow-up with …Bd6, …Nge7, …Qd7, and queenside castling. Coupled with white’s usual kingside castling, you get great attacking chances.

The Dangerous 4.c4

With all of the above in mind, the most dangerous choice from white is 4.c4. This is well met with 4…Bb4+ 5.Nc3 Nf6. In order to gain a tempo remember to wait until white develops his light-squared bishop before capturing on c4.

The Balanced 4.Nf3

By far the most common move is 4.Nf3 which is the most drawish line after the solid 4…Nf6. There isn’t a lot you can do with the black pieces if white is determined to play for a draw.

A good approach when playing the French Defense is to study the games of Korchnoi and see how he plays this position.

You have every reason to feel confident you have better chances if you are playing the middlegame strategies Korchnoi used.

Here is a game showing how deadly the Exchange Variation can be. This game lasted only 14 moves.

Stefano Tatai (2455) versus Viktor Korchnoi (2665) 0-1,

Beersheba(6), 1978

French Defense Advance Variation

french advance
French Defense Advance Variation

After 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 we enter the Advance Variation of the French Defense in chess. In this variation, black has two pawn breaks. These are …c5 and …f6 and they are the most common ideas in the French Defense.

Remember with pawns locked on e6 and d5 black’s light-squared bishop often enters the game through d7-e8-g6 or h5.

White intends to make use of his extra space and attack on the kingside with f4-f5. The bishop on d3 is a very good attacking piece for white and the pawn on e5 keeps a black knight from f6.

In other words, you must be careful white doesn’t get the chance to sacrifice a bishop on h7 followed by Ng5, and Qh5 with a very strong attack.

For this reason, one way of playing this position with Black is to begin with the …f6 break. At the same time, black intends to capture on e5, followed by …Qc7 and long castling. After …fxe5 black has an open f-file for his attack. 

Nimzovitch’s 4.Qg4

Against one of Nimzovitch’s favorite moves 4.Qg4 (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.Qg4) attacking the g7 pawn, black can immediately put pressure on the d4 pawn with 4…Nc6.

In addition, you can increase the pressure on d4 with moves like …Qa5+ and …Qb6. For instance 5.Nf3 Qa5+ 6.Bd2 (c3 allows …cxd4 because the c-pawn is pinned) 6…Qb6 and the queen attacks both d4 and b2.

A fashionable move by white in the Advance Variation is 6.a3. A good response, however, is 6…f6 to capture on e5 and force a pawn to this square.

With that in mind, black mustn’t rush into capturing on e5 until his king is safely castled on the queenside. After f6 black plays …Qc7, and long castle before taking on e5.

This avoids tactical shots based on Nxe5, Qh5+ since the bishop on d3 controls g6. White can meet …g6 with Bxg6.

Equally important to remember is that pawn grabbing in the opening is often discouraged. With this in mind follow a safety-first approach and you will get a good position without being in danger.

The Tarrasch Variation

french tarrasch
French Tarrasch Variation

In the Tarrasch Variation white plays 1.e4 e5 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 in order to avoid the pin with Bb4. Now 3…Bb4 is met with 4.c3 causing black to lose a tempo by moving the bishop a second time.

Even so, white inhibits the development of his dark-squared bishop and the queen doesn’t defend the d3 bishop. 

One of the advantages of playing the French Defense is that you can meet 3.Nd2 and 3.Nf3 with the same move – 3…Nf6. The usual response from white in both instances is 4.e5, when you play …Nfd7, followed by …c5, …Nc6, …cxd4 and …f6.

Keep in mind that you will often find yourself playing with familiar pawn formation of e5, d4, e6, and d5. This static pawn setup is likely to occur in the Advance, the Tarrasch, and the Classical variations.

In other words, you will soon acquire a deep understanding of how to play such positions. The c5 and f6 pawn breaks will become automatic.


The 7.Ngf3 line of the Tarrasch variation shows how suitable the French can be for an attacking player. One of the key pawns in the French Defense is the white pawn on d4.

Black can meet 7.Ngf3 with …g5?! The threat is …g4 to drive the defender away from d4. Not to mention that moves like …h5 and …Rg8 will follow soon.

In addition, you know you are in for an exciting game when you can launch an attack with …g5 on move 7. Even better is knowing this attack is a little-known idea in the French Defense.

However, when faced with 6.f4 black is well-advised to enter a positional game by playing …f5. This keeps the kingside closed in order to allow play on the queenside.

Black has the simple plan of advancing the a-pawn seeing that the knights are ideally placed to take advantage of any weak squares white creates halting the a-pawn advance.

The Classical Variation

french classical
French Classical Variation

After the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 black continues in like manner with his usual development …c5 and …Nc6. However, in the Classical Variation black can make use of two very useful waiting moves – …Be7 coupled with …a6.

The idea behind these moves is to see on which side white intends to castle. If white chooses queenside castling black can push the c-pawn forward and launch a pawn-storm against the white king with …b5.

However, when both sides castle kingside black can close the position with …f5. This move blunts the attack of the d3 bishop.

The Classical Variation 4.Bg5

Of course, white can refrain from playing e5 and choose to play 4.Bg5 instead. In this instance, a safe, solid plan for black is 4…dxe4 5.Nxe4 Be7 6.Bxf6 Bxf6 with kingside castling and …c5 to follow.

White is unlikely to exchange his centralized knight on e4 for the bishop on f6 but it’s prudent to retreat the bishop to e7 soon. This ensures black keeps the advantage of the bishop pair.

In contrast to the plan above an adventurous player might choose to meet the move 6.Bxf6 with 6…gxf6. The light-squared bishop gets developed on b7 and an equally important f5 later to drive away white’s centralized knight.

Anand, Viswanathan (2753) versus Bareev, Evgeny (2729), 1/2 – 1/2


Final Thoughts On Playing The French Defense In Chess

The recurring ideas in the French Defense through all variations make it a very good choice for the busy player. In addition, you can learn enough to play the French Defense in as little as two or three hours.

After that, you can explore the opening deeply by investing 17 hours of study into this opening. The Bulletproof French Defense by GM Fabien Libiszewski is a great reference for you to have as you move forward with the French Defense.

This is an opening with a simple, solid foundation that leads to rich and complex positions. In addition, you can be playing the French Defense against good club-players with only 6 hours of study.

Keep it simple at the start. After that, you gradually expand if you find the French Defense suits your playing style.

This French Defense primer will get your journey into this tried and tested defense off to a good start. There is more to learn about this beautiful defense.

Next Steps

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