French Defense

Nov 22, 2014, 7:18 AM |

This is a continuation of my 'Opening Repertoire' series.

I’ve categorized White’s play against the French Defense into 5 approaches. I’ll describe them, how they relate to each other, and my plan agains each in this post, and eventually write a separate post about each, with more concrete lines. The 4 main approaches involve the following position, after 2. d4 d5: 

Black has counter-attacked white’s classical e4-d4 center, specifically the undefended e4 point, forcing white to decide what to do about it. As indicated, white can play e5 or exd5 to relieve the tension, or he can defend the pawn with Nd2 or Nc3. There are other alternatives, but I categorize main other 2nd- and 3rd-move variations into the 5th approach, a grab-bag approach that I just think of as deviating from the main lines.


Approach 1 - Exchange French: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 exd5

Here, white gives up his space advantage, leaving a completely symmetrical pawn structure, and relies only on his first-move advantage. My approach in these positions is, as noted, to generally play Bd6, Nge7, Bf5, and c6. 


Approach 2 - Advance French: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5

I personally love playing the black side of this position. The battle lines are clearly defined. White has a nice space advantage, taking away the natural e6 square from black’s knight, cramping black’s light-squared bishop, and even threatening to create an outpost on d6 at some point. On the other hand, black has plenty of obvious moves to break down this center, such as c5, Nc6, Qb6, and Nge7-f5. There are also lots of tactical traps for white to fall into in some of these lines, where he loses the d4-pawn. 


Approach 3 - Tarrasch French: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 Nf6

Here, white defends the pawn sensibly, while avoiding the Winawer lines, where black renews the attack on e4 by pinning that knight with Bb4. However, that knight is also not on a completely ideal square, blocking in the c1 bishop, and will need to move again. This affords white, in the words of John Watson, “…great leeway in choosing his own pawn structure and piece placement.” Here, I choose to play the main lines, with Nf6-d7, c5, Nc6, cxd5, and f6. 


Approach 4 - Classical French: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6

Now we come to the most testing approach for white, developing the knight to its most natural square, maintaining the tension in the center. Here, rather than go for the sharp Winawer or McCutcheon lines, I stick with the more positional Nf6 lines. Here, I haven’t given a general plan because white’s next move will generally be either Bg5 or e5, and they are handled pretty differently. So I’ll save that discussion for when I flesh out this page.


Approach 5 - Early Deviations: 1. e4 e6 2. other and 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. other

Finally, I’ll just list out a couple of the 2nd- and 3rd-move variations that I will need to counter in my 5th section:

  • 2. f4 
  • 2. e3 (the KIA)
  • 2. Nf3 (when it doesn't transpose to an Exchange) 
  • 3. Bd3 
  • 3. Qe2
  • potentially others


This concludes our high-level overview of the French defense. I hope this is useful to you in organizing your own study of the French.