A series of opening moves in chess. The French Defense is often considered to be the most under-rated opening in chess. The French Defense if characterized by the moves:
1. e4  ... e6

White gets space, and black gets a solid pawn structure with good play on the queenside, and good endgame chances.

The most common continuation is the Winawer variation:

2. d4  ... d5
3. Nc3 ... Bb4
In this line, white, seeks to attack the kingside, and possibly the dark squares, while black seeks counterplay on the queenside and in the center.

Another popular continuation is the Advance variation:

2. d4  ... d5
3. e5  ... c4

This is played a lot at lower and intermediate levels of chess, and less, though some, at the higher levels.

If white is satisfied with a draw, sometimes the Exchange variation will be played:

2. d4  ... d5
3. ed

Another option for white is the Tarrasch:

2. d4  ... d5
3. Nd2
the idea being that black can no longer attack the key e4 square.

One that is less popular in the US than the rest of the world is the King's Indian Attack:

2. d3
the idea being to create a solid, though less aggressive, center and queenside so as to offer less targets for counter-attack while white is attacking on the kingside.

See also: chess notation.

French Defense: ECO C0X - C1X

"I have never played the French Defense in my life, which is the dullest of all openings."
    - Wilhelm Steinitz, first World Chess Champion. (1836-1900)

Introduction

Are you painfully boring? Do you like dull things? Do people comment on how you are the most lifeless person they know? Do you enjoy spending countless hours rearranging the way your socks fit into your dresser drawer? Do you play chess not as a way to get into the beauty of the game, but instead primarily to cause ennui in your opponents? If you've answered yes to any of these questions, the French Defense might be right up your alley.

Perhaps it's not as bad as all of that, but the French Defense is definitely no substitute for a cup of coffee. At this point you might be asking yourself why someone who clearly finds this opening to be boring would bother to take the time required to write a detailed writeup on the subject. Well, the answer is threefold:

  1. I have already written on two gambits for white in the French, the Alapin-Diemer Gambit and the Diemer-Duhm Gambit so it's not as if I'm unfamiliar with it. Add to that the fact that it's perfectly sound and is intensely popular from time to time.
  2. As far as I can tell, nobody actually likes the French Defense, so where would the immense volume of existing literature on this opening come from if only fans wrote about it?
  3. Someone asked me nicely to cover this opening system in a writeup.

Let me also mention that you probably won't see this a whole lot right now, even at the club level, but you will again, because of the "rotating trickle-down openings theory" (the awkward name is mine, thank you). Basically this theory states that grandmasters play what the world champs and other top players are playing, local masters emulate the grandmasters, and club players try to emulate all of the above. Therefore things are in-fashion for a while, then fade away, only to be revisited in a few years when one of the top players finds an interesting novelty in a nearly forgotten line. Right now, the French seems to be temporarily out of style, but it'll be back.

Note: This is one of the most theory intensive openings there is. In fact, there are two entire ECO chapters just covering the French Defense and its many varieties. This means that any cursory treatment--such as in this writeup--is grossly inadequate. I will survey some common lines, but from there it's up to you to decide if you like this opening and whether or not you wish to pursue further study. Also be aware of the gambits mentioned above, as this slow and stodgy opening can be livened up. As always, all annotation is mine.

Definition

The French Defense is defined by the following moves:

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 (see Diagram 1.)

In the French Defense, black challenges the e4 square with a solid, if slow opening. White has many, many options at his disposal at this point, however, so let's look at some of the major lines.


                         Diagram 1: After 2. ... d5
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |BR |BN |BB |BQ |BK |BB |BN |BR | 8
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |BP |BP |BP |   |   |BP |BP |BP | 7
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   | 6
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   |   | 5
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |WP |WP |   |   |   | 4
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WP |WP |WP |   |   |WP |WP |WP | 2
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WR |WN |WB |WQ |WK |WB |WN |WR | 1
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                      A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                        

Major Lines

  • Advance Variation - 3. e5: ECO C02

    The advance variation in the French is a highly positional closed game. After 3. ... c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 (see Diagram 2) we reach what is classified as the French Advance: Paulsen Attack, which is by far the most common line in the advance variation. There is a lot of tension on the d-file, but it often comes to nothing, and even if you do take the d-pawn, the c-file may open but the center remains locked. White will try for a kingside attack in this position since that's where he has the most space so you will need to rally your pieces to the queenside, where the most likely pawn break will occur anyway. Black most commonly plays 5. ... Qb6 in this position, increasing the pressure on the d4 square, while threatening the weak b3 square (which would make a great knight outpost). All-in-all, it's a reasonable game for both sides.

    
                              Diagram 2: After 5. Nf3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BR |   |BB |BQ |BK |BB |BN |BR | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BP |BP |   |   |   |BP |BP |BP | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |BN |   |BP |   |   |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |BP |BP |WP |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |WP |   |   |   |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |WP |   |   |WN |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WP |WP |   |   |   |WP |WP |WP | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WR |WN |WB |WQ |WK |WB |   |WR | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                            
    

  • Winawer Variation 3. Nc3 Bb4: ECO C15-C19

    As you can see in Diagram 3 This line is slightly more active than the advance variation in that pieces are actually coming in contact with each other. However, you'll find that while this is the second most popular line of the French, it's still very slow and positional, owing largely to the next move. 4. e5 c5 which locks the center and (surprise, surprise!) moves to create a half-open b or c file for continued action on the flanks. The normal continuation follows with 5. a3 Bxc3 6. bxc3 (see Diagram 4) with a locked center and a highly positional game. The general ideas here are to attack on the queenside (white will attack you on the kingside). You only keep your bad bishop, while white has the pair, but the doubled pawns on the c-file and the half-open b file provide viable targets for you. Keep up the pressure on d4 with your c-pawn as long as you are able and you should see decent chances.

                              Diagram 3: After 3. Bb4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BR |BN |BB |BQ |BK |   |BN |BR | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BP |BP |BP |   |   |BP |BP |BP | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |BB |   |WP |WP |   |   |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |WN |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WP |WP |WP |   |   |WP |WP |WP | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WR |   |WB |WQ |WK |WB |WN |WR | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                            
    

                             Diagram 4: After 5. bxc3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BR |BN |BB |BQ |BK |   |BN |BR | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BP |BP |   |   |   |BP |BP |BP | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |BP |BP |WP |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |WP |   |   |   |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WP |   |WP |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |WP |   |   |WP |WP |WP | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WR |   |WB |WQ |WK |WB |WN |WR | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                            
    

  • Exchange Variation 3. exd4 exd4: ECO C01

    While this initially looks like it will liven things up some with an exchange of pawns on the e-file thereby opening up center lines, it's actually surprisingly slow and positional. Most games continue with the main lines (both of which end up in the same position) which are either 4. Bd3 Bd6 5. Nf3 Nf6 or 4. Nf3 Nf6 6. Bd3 Bd6 (see Diagram 5) which are generally followed by more intentional symmetry with both sides castling kingside and probably bringing their bishops onto the g-file. If you're playing the French, the exchange variation is white giving you exactly what you want: A slow and quiet game.

    
                             Diagram 5: After 6. ... Bd6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BR |BN |BB |BQ |BK |   |   |BR | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BP |BP |BP |   |   |BP |BP |BP | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |BB |   |BN |   |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |WP |   |   |   |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |WB |   |WN |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WP |WP |WP |   |   |WP |WP |WP | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WR |WN |WB |WQ |WK |   |   |WR | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                            
    

  • Tarrasch Variation 3. Nd2: ECO C05-C09

    The Tarrasch is by far the most popular variation in the French. In the gigantic databases of games available these days, there are at least twice as many Tarrasch French games than Winawer (the next most popular). The reason being that the positions that arise tend to be much more open and therefore are more risky and challenging for both sides. In the Tarrasch variation there are two main lines from here.

    1. 3. ... Nf6 4. e5 Nfd7 5. Bd3 c5 6. c3 Nc6 7. Ne2 (see Diagram 6) with tense action in the center, and a likely pawn break on the c-file. Generally you'll exchange the pawns on d4 and if you want to mix things up a bit, can advance your f-pawn swap it for white's e-pawn to open things up a bit. This is actually a pretty good setup for black, and after things open up a little the position is far more sharp and ripe with tactical possibilities for both sides.


                          Diagram 6: After 7. Ne2
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |BR |   |BB |BQ |BK |BB |   |BR | 8
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |BP |BP |   |BN |   |BP |BP |BP | 7
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |BN |   |BP |   |   |   | 6
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |BP |BP |WP |   |   |   | 5
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |   |WP |   |   |   |   | 4
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |   |   |WP |WB |   |   |   |   | 3
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WP |WP |   |WN |WN |WP |WP |WP | 2
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                     |WR |   |WB |WQ |WK |   |   |WR | 1
                     +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                      A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                        

  • 3. ... c5 4. exd5 (see Diagram 7) and you have a highly volatile center and a wide open game. Your choices here are pretty much exd5 or Qxd5 with another pawn trade to come and black generally getting a small lead in development. This appears to be one of the more interesting non-gambit lines in the French with lots of possibilities for both sides.
                              Diagram 7: After 4. exd5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BR |BN |BB |BQ |BK |BB |BN |BR | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BP |BP |   |   |   |BP |BP |BP | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |BP |WP |   |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |WP |   |   |   |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WP |WP |WP |   |   |WP |WP |WP | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WR |WN |WB |WQ |WK |WB |WN |WR | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                            
    

  • Classical French 3. Nc3 Nc6 4. Bg5 Bd7: ECO C13-C14

    This one is being included simply for historical value as it has proven to be unpleasant for black. If white plays 3. Nc3 against your French, you'd be much better off playing the Winawer variation instead. The classical variation generally continues with 5. e5 Nfd7 (see Diagram 8) with black getting a cramped game with no space, and white having the exact opposite with tons of space and his bad bishop traded for black's good bishop after 6. Bxe7 Qxe7 6. f4 (see Diagram 9)white has a very nice game and black is stuffed into the back ranks and unhappy.

    
                           Diagram 8: After 5. ... Nfd7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BR |BN |BB |BQ |BK |   |   |BR | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BP |BP |BP |BN |BB |BP |BP |BP | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |BP |WP |   |WB |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |WP |   |   |   |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |WN |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WP |WP |WP |   |   |WP |WP |WP | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WR |   |   |WQ |WK |WB |WN |WR | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                            
    

    
                              Diagram 9: After 7. f4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BR |BN |BB |   |BK |   |   |BR | 8
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |BP |BP |BP |BN |BQ |BP |BP |BP | 7
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |   |BP |   |   |   | 6
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |BP |WP |   |   |   | 5
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |   |WP |   |WP |   |   | 4
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |   |   |WN |   |   |   |   |   | 3
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WP |WP |WP |   |   |   |WP |WP | 2
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                         |WR |   |   |WQ |WK |WB |WN |WR | 1
                         +---+---+---+---+---+---+---+---+
                          A    B   C   D   E   F   G   H
                            
    

    In Closing

    As I have hopefully demonstrated, the French is not as boring as I initially led you to believe (and it's actually quite exciting compared with the Caro-Kann), so if you prefer slow, positional situations in the late opening to middlegame, it may be exactly what the doctor ordered. Being aware of the more tactical Tarrasch and gambit openings will also help you to steer your game into better territory, but if you do decide to take the French on the repertoire be ready to study a lot and buy thick well-analyzed books on your favorite variations.


    Resources:
    Chessbase 8 use to cull game statistics.

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