The French Defense – The Right Way to Play It

What Is The French Defense?

The French Defense - The Right Way To Play It
  • a chess opening for Black
  • characterized by the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5
  • named after French players who used it in a correspondence match in 1834
  • a solid and resilient chess opening
  • played by many strong GMs of the past and present

One of the sidelines that GM Damian Lemos has seen played by strong players is 3.Bd3. If you want to be well-prepared and play the French Defense in chess you need to know how to face it, and there’s nobody better than GM Lemos to prepare you for this move.

Estimated reading time: 24 minutes

The French Defense is one of the most trusted openings in chess, popular at all levels from beginner to strong grandmasters.

It has been used in the past by Mikhail Botvinnik, Viktor Korchnoi, Tigran Petrosian, Rafael Vaganian and Wolfgang Uhlmann, among others, but also by many leading grandmasters today. Wesley So, Ding Liren and Alexander Morozevich all regularly rely on the French Defense as one of their major opening weapons.

The French Defense - The Right Way To Play It

The French Defense chess opening is a semi-closed chess opening for Black which occurs after the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 (see the position on the right). The opening got its name in 1834 in honor of several French players who used it in a correspondence match between the cities of London and Paris.

In the French Defense, Black fights for the center from the very outset and creates a very solid e6-d5 pawn chain there.

The main problem of this opening is the limited c8 bishop. However, as we’ll see, there are numerous plans that may help Black to activate his light-squared bishop later stage of the game.

In this free video, GM Damian Lemos presents the most important points about the French Defense, a chess opening Lemos himself has played for many many years:

The French Defense Frequently Asked Questions

What is the point of the French Defense?

In the French Defense, Black contests the center with the d5-pawn advance supported by …e6. The French Defense is counter-attacking.

Is the French Defense easy to learn?

The French Defense is easy to learn and a suitable chess opening for beginners. There are several common pawn breaks and strategies through different variations. These common strategies reduce the amount of opening theory you need to learn.

Is the French Defense boring?

Like many defenses, the French Defense offers you the choice to go with the safe, solid variations or play in a dynamic style. The French Defense offers Black every chance to play for a win and caters to many different playing styles.

How do you attack the French Defense?

White’s three main ways of attacking the French Defense are with 3.Nc3, 3.Nd2 (Tarrasch Variation), and 3.e5 ( French Defense Advance Variation).

White often attacks the kingside in the French Defense by advancing the e-pawn to e5 and pushing the f-pawn.

Is the French Defense aggressive?

Yes, the French Defense is an aggressive way to play with Black. White often gets a space advantage and central control, which Black counter-attacks.

Is the French Defense hard?

The French Defense can lead to complex middlegame positions. Learning the strategies, pawn breaks, and piece placement for Black will make the French Defense much easier to play.

Is the French better than the Caro Kann?

The French Defense is different from the Caro-Kann. The Caro-Kann leads to more open positions where Black usually develops his light-squared bishop before playing …e6.

How popular is the French Defense?

The French Defense is a favorite opening among players of different playing strengths. Although suitable for beginners, titled players like GM Simon Williams, GM Viktor Korchnoi, and GM Alexander Morozevich also play the French Defense.

How do you start the French Defense?

The French Defense starts with the moves 1.e4 e6. White usually plays 2.d4, but 2.d3 heading for the King’s Indian Attack is also a popular option.

The French Defense Is Played By World Champions and Their Challengers

Let’s start with former world chess champion Tigran Petrosian,

Kupper, Josef – Petrosian, Tigran, 1964, 0-1, Tel Aviv ol (Men) qual-A, Tel Aviv

and two games by World Chess Championship challengers Nigel Short, and Viktor Korchnoi

Dragoljub Velimirovic – Viktor Korchnoi, 1984, 0-1, Bosna 23rd Round 3, Sarajevo YUG

Pace, Colin – Short, Nigel, 2008.11.15, 0-1, Dresden ol (Men) 38th Round 3, Dresden GER

Why Play The French Defense?

There are several reasons to play this dependable defense:

  • First of all, the French Defense is considered to be one of the most successful openings and has an excellent score in chess databases. That means by playing it, you are automatically maximizing your winning chances statistically.
  • Secondly, playing the French Defense can be a vital alternative for all Black players who are tired of repeatedly entering the highly theoretical terrain of all the absolute main lines such as the sharp Open Sicilians or the Ruy Lopez.
  • Playing the French Defense does not force you to learn an endless amount of theory. It’s much more important to know the key strategic ideas and plans.
  • Moreover, the French Defense is fairly flexible and enables you to become a very versatile player. The French Defense can lead to a variety of pawn structures and you can vary the lines you play and make it tough for your opponents to prepare against you.
  • Thanks to the asymmetrical pawn structure which arises from most variations, the French Defense is an excellent opening to play when you’re looking for a win.

If you’re looking for some classical games to convince you of the French Defense’s potential, you can learn from a world-renowned expert, French GM Fabien Libiszewski. In this exclusive video, taken from his 17-hour chess course “The Bulletproof French Defense”, Fabien teaches grandmaster strategies that will turn your initial cramped position into total domination of the board.

Watch a preview of this chess course on the French Defense below:

French Defense – Typical Chess Tactics

Active learning is the key to success in chess. To begin, you have the opportunity to dive actively into the French and attempt to solve 4 puzzles which feature typical tactical motifs that frequently arise from this opening. Have a go! (You’ll find all the solutions at the end of the article.)

The French Defense - The Right Way To Play It

French Defense – Pawn Structure

When you are learning how to play any specific opening, one of the most important things to learn and understand is the resulting pawn structure. A good understanding of the opening’s pawn structure will then help you to understand the reason behind the piece placements on the board and also help you to appreciate the plans for both sides.

The French Defense - The Right Way To Play It

The position to the right shows the basic pawn structure of the French Defense that can be seen after the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5.

White has a space advantage in the center of the board due to his advanced e5-pawn. However, Black’s pawn structure is solid and without any weaknesses. Both sides have their own pawn chains, White’s being d4-e5 and Black’s being f7-e6-d5.

Because the base of White’s pawn chain (d4) is closer to Black’s side of the board, Black will have an easier time attacking it than White will have attacking Black’s base (f7). Black can actually immediately begin an assault on the base of White’s pawn structure with the move …c5.

This can be coupled with …Nc6, …Qb6 and …Nf5. White will be forced to defend his d4-pawn with the moves c3 (which will then extend White’s pawn chain from b2 to e5), Nf3, Be3, and Qd2 (see the diagram on the left).

Applying Pressure to d4 Is Vital for Black

The French Defense - The Right Way To Play It

Eventually, the critical d4-pawn will reach a critical point between being attacked by many pieces, and defended by many pieces! Once Black has weakened the d4-pawn enough and can no longer add pressure to it, he can then switch to attacking the front of the pawn chain (e5) with the move …f6.

Note how White is forced to constantly defend his pawn center if he wants to keep his space advantage. If he loses his center pawns, his space advantage will simply disappear and Black will be the one with space to move his pieces around.

On the flip side, because of his e5 pawn taking up extra space and his pawn chain pointing towards the kingside, White can start an early attack on Black’s kingside that may distract Black from his attack on White’s center.

The French Defense opening revolves around the pawn structure in the center of the board throughout the entire game.

Many games have been won and lost depending on the status quo in the center of the board. If White can defend everything well, then he can eventually crush Black with his space advantage. If Black can attack the center effectively and destroy White’s pawn chain, then he can expect to have a great position.

Plans In The French Defense

After the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5, White is at a crossroad, as his e-pawn is under attack. He has 4 main options against the French Defense:

  • The Exchange Variation which starts with 3.exd5
  • The Advance Variation that starts with the 3.e4-e5 pawn advance
  • The Tarrasch Variation: 3.Nd2
  •  The 3.Nc3 variation, which is the main line.

Knowing an opening means being aware of your “good” and “bad” pieces. In the French, the black light-squared bishop is notoriously bad, yet black still wins games in this opening.

Let’s briefly review each of these options in turn and see how Black should continue.

GM Mihail Marin will demonstrate how you might ensure your light-squared bishop goes from bad to good!

French Defense Variation Tree

Exchange Variation

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5

French Defense Exchange Variation
French Defense Exchange Variation

4.Bd3 Bd6 5.Nf3 Ne7 6.0-0 Bg4 7.h3 Bh5

French Defense Exchange Variation 7...Bh5
Exchange Variation 7…Bh5

8.Re1 Nc6 9.c3 Qd7 10.Nbd2 0-0-0

French Defense Exchange Variation 10...0 0 0
Exchange Variation 10…0 0 0

4.c4 Bb4+ 5.Nc3 Nf6 6.Bd3 0-0

French Defense Exchange Variation 6...0 0
Exchange Variation 6…0 0

7.Ne2 dxc4 8.Bxc4 Nbd7 9.0-0 Nb6 10.Bb3 c6

French Defense Exchange Variation 10...c6
Exchange Variation 10…c6

4.Nf3 Nc6 5.Bd3 Bd6 transposing back to the 4.Bd3 line.

French Defense Exchange Variation 5...Bd6
Exchange Variation 5…Bd6

Advance Variation

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5

French Defense Advance Variation 3...c5
French Defense Advance Variation 3…c5

4.dxc5 Nc6 5.Nf3 Bxc5 6.Bd3 f6

French Defense Advance Variation 6...f6
Advance Variation 6…f6

7.Qe2 fxe5 8.Nxe5 Nxe5 9.Qxe5 Nf6 10.Bb5+ Kf7

French Defense Advance Variation 10...Kf7
Advance Variation 10…Kf7

4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6

French Defense Advance Variation 5...Qb6
Advance Variation 5…Qb6

6.a3 c4 7.Nbd2 Na5 8.Be2 Bd7 9.0-0 Ne7 10.Rb1 Qc7

French Defense Advance Variation 10...Qc7
Advance Variation 10…Qc7

Milner-Barry Gambit – 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.Bd3

French Defense Advance Variation Milner Barry Gambit
Advance Variation Milner Barry Gambit

6…cxd4 7.cxd4 Bd7 8.0-0 Nxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.Nc3 a6

French Defense Advance Variation 10...a6
Advance Variation 10…a6

11.Qe2 Ne7 12.Kh1 Nc6 13.f4 Nb4 14.Rd1 Nxd3 15.Rxd3 Qb6

French Defense Advance Variation 15...Qb6
French Defense Advance Variation 15…Qb6

Tarrasch Variation

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2

French Defense Tarrasch Variation
French Defense Tarrasch Variation

3…c5 4.exd5 Qxd5 5.Ngf3 cxd4 6.Bc4 Qd6 7.0-0 Nf6

French Defense Tarrasch Variation 7...Nf6
Tarrasch Variation 7…Nf6

8.Nb3 Nc6 9.Nbxd4 Nxd4 10.Nxd4 a6 11.Re1 Qc7

French Defense Tarrasch Variation 11...Qc7
Tarrasch Variation 11…Qc7

12.Bb3 Bd6 13.Nf5 Bxh2+ 14.Kh1 0-0

French Defense Tarrasch Variation 14...0 0
Tarrasch Variation 14…0 0

3…Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6

French Defense Tarrasch Variation 6.Nc6
Tarrasch Variation 6…Nc6

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

French Defense Tarrasch Variation 10...Bd6
French Defense Tarrasch Variation 10…Bd6

11.0-0 Qc7! 12.Bg5 0-0 13.Rc1 Bd7

French Defense Tarrasch Variation 13...Bd7
Tarrasch Variation 13…Bd7

Main Line 3.Nc3

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3

French Defense 3.Nc3
French Defense 3.Nc3

Winawer Variation 3…Bb4

French Defense 3.Nc3 Winawer Variation
3.Nc3 Bb4 Winawer Variation

4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne7 7.Qg4

French Defense Winawer Variation 7.Qg4
Winawer Variation 7.Qg4

7…Qc7 8.Qxg7 Rg8 9.Qxh7 cxd4 10.Ne2 Nbc6

French Defense Winawer Variation 10...Nbc6
Winawer Variation 10…Nbc6

Classical Variation 3…Nf6

French Defense Main Line 3...Nf6
Main Line 3…Nf6

4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 a6

French Defense Main Line 7...a6
French Defense Main Line 7…a6

8.Qd2 b5 9.a3 Qa5 10.dxc5 Bxc5 11.Bxc5 Nxc5

French Defense Main Line 11...Nxc5
Main Line 11…Nxc5

Rubinstein Variation 3…dxe4

French Defense Rubinstein Variation
French Defense Rubinstein Variation

4.Nxe4 Nd7 5.Nf3 Ngf6 6.Nxf6+ Nxf6 7.Bd3 c5

French Defense Rubinstein Variation 7...c5
Rubinstein Variation 7…c5

8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.0-0 0-0 10.Bg5 b6 11.Qe2 Bb7

French Defense Rubinstein Variation 11...Bb7
Rubinstein Variation 11…Bb7

French Defense: Exchange Variation

The French Defense - The Right Way To Play It

Many White players choose the French Defense exchange Variation to avoid the strategically complex lines that come with a closed center.

They also cut down on their opening theory by playing the French Defense Exchange Variation.

Therefore, they choose to clear up the situation early in the game by exchanging on d5. The position becomes a lot simpler and easier to play than the other main lines of the French Defense.

The French Defense Exchange Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5 – see the diagram above) leads to a symmetrical pawn structure. This decision from White may simplify things, but White can’t now hope for an opening advantage. At the same time, it is also not easy to play for a win with Black.

White is a tempo up in a symmetrical structure. The French Defense Exchange Variation is often played by those aiming for a quick draw with the White pieces.

The good news for Black, however, is that White can’t force a draw in the French Defense Exchange Variation.

Let’s examine this line a little more in-depth.

French Defense – Exchange Variation

French Defense: Advance Variation

French Defense Advance Variation with 6.a3
The French Defense - The Right Way To Play It

The French Defense Advance Variation (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 – see the diagram on the right) is a popular line for White and usually leads to a complex strategic battle.

By playing 3.e5, White is trying to gain a space advantage, and he fixes the pawn chain. He also hopes to limit the potential of Black’s c8-bishop.

However, the French Defense Advance Variation has its weaknesses, too. Now Black should immediately start pressuring the center with 3…c5, making defending the d4-pawn the main concern for White.

Later, Black will increase the tension with …Nc6, …Qb6! An additional problem for White is the pressure on the b2 pawn that makes it hard to develop the c1 bishop. The French Defense Advance Variation leads to quite sharp and maneuvering play with decent chances for Black.

Let’s take a look at the most important lines.

French Defense: Tarrasch Variation

The French Defense - The Right Way To Play It

The Tarrasch Variation starts with the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 (see the position on the right).

This time, White wants to keep his center pawns on the e4-d4 squares, and simply continues developing his pieces.

White has placed his knight on d2 instead of of c3, as he wants to avoid the knight being pinned with …Bb4. White keeps his c-pawn free to move and 3…Bb4?! can be simply answered by 4.c3.

However, it is obvious that the d2-knight delays queenside development and this offers some benefits for Black.

One of the most logical continuations for Black is to play 3…c5, trying to quickly simplify the center.

Black is doing absolutely fine here, however, there is another decent alternative in playing 3…Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 first, and only then attacking the center with …c5.

The problem with the c8-bishop still remains unsolved, but it is useful to know that Black may sometimes activate it with …Bd7-e8-h5 (g6) after …f7-f6 is played!

French Defense – Tarrasch Variation

French Defense: The Main Line: 3. Nc3

The French Defense - The Right Way To Play It

The move 3.Nc3 (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 – see the diagram on the right) is the most natural and most frequently played move for White. White develops his knight to a good square and protects the pawn on e4 at the same time.

Black has three main options against White’s setup, 3…dxe4 (the Rubinstein Variation), 3…Bb4 (the Winawer Variation) and 3…Nf6 (the Classical Variation).

The French Defense - The Right Way To Play It

A good choice for Black is to pin the knight with 3… Bb4 and destroy White’s pawn chain after 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne7 (see the position on the left).

This is the critical pawn structure in the mainline Winawer Variation. White gets the advantage of the bishop pair and some space, but his doubled pawns seriously limit his possibilities in the center and the queenside.

The French Defense - The Right Way To Play It

This position offers very complex play. In this pawn structure, Black aims to exchange his bad light-squared bishop after …b7-b6 and …Ba6, or simply places it on a4.

The a4 square is very useful for Black’s bishop as it prevents an a3-a4 pawn advance from White, and discourages White’s limited c1 bishop from accessing the a3-f8 diagonal.

An immediate 6.Qg4 leads to the ultrasharp clash after 6… Qc7 7.Qxg7 Rg8 8.Qxh7 cxd4 (see the position on the right), and now it’s Black’s turn to grab some pawns. There is no forced line that could offer any clear advantage to White.

In the event of 6.Nf3 b7-b6, we get more solid play with a lot of maneuvering.

Opening Experts in the French Defense:

If you want to become an expert in your chess opening, it is a good idea to regularly check the games of the world’s leading experts.

You can watch their approaches against different opening setups and become familiar with the latest trends, fashionable move orders, or opening novelties. You have several opening experts to follow.

Nowadays, the biggest experts are most probably Alexander Morozevich,  Ding Liren, Wesley So, and Hikaru Nakamura who frequently play it against all the best players in the world.

Other strong players to follow are the German Grandmaster Matthias Bluebaum and the French GM Fabien Libiszewski.

Conclusion – Master The French Defense

The French Defense is one of the best openings for club players, and you should consider giving it a try to expand your horizons.

It’s a very solid and reliable opening that also helps you to become a better overall strategic player.

In this article, we’ve only managed to provide a basic overview – in fact, a detailed analysis can fill volumes! If you’re looking for a more complete repertoire as Black, we’ve got a special offer for you.

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This is a complete GM repertoire for Black, combining theory, ideas and model games to give you an opening you understand perfectly. All brilliantly explained by one of the world’s top experts on the French Defense.

Click here to get instant access to The Bulletproof French Defense with 50% off.

Solutions To The Test Positions:

  1. Top Left Corner: 1…Ndxe5 2.Bxe5 Nxe5 3.Nxe5 Bxc3 4.bxc3 Qb2 5.Qc1 Qf2+ 6.Kd1 Qxf1+ 7.Rxf1 Rxf1+ followed by …Rxc1 and Black is on top.
  2. Bottom Left Corner: 1…cxd4 2.Nxd4 Ndxe5! 3.fxe5 Qh4+ wins back the material.
  3. Top Right Corner: 1…Bxc5 2.dxc5 Nh4 3.Bg5 Bxf3 4.gxf3 Re1+ 5.Qxe1 Nxf3+ wins the queen.
  4. Bottom Right Corner: 1…Rxf3! 2.gxf3 Bf4 3.Qd3 Bxd2 4.Qxd2 Nxd4 followed by 5…Nf3. If 3.gxf4 Black plays 3…gxf4+ and White loses his queen.

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The French Defense - The Right Way To Play It

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