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French Defence

French Defence
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Moves 1.e4 e6
ECO C00-C19
Named after London vs. Paris correspondence match (1834-36)
Parent King's Pawn Game

The French Defence is a chess opening characterised by the moves:

1. e4 e6

The French has a reputation for solidity and resilience, though it can result in a somewhat cramped game for Black in the early stages. Black often gains counterattacking possibilities on the queenside while White tends to concentrate on the kingside.

Basics

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Position after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5

Following the opening moves 1.e4 e6, the game usually continues 2.d4 d5 (see below for alternatives). White expands his claim on the centre, while Black immediately challenges the pawn on e4.

White has several main options - he can defend it with 3.Nc3 or 3.Nd2, exchange with 3.exd5, or advance the pawn with 3.e5, which leads to different types of positions. Note that 3.Bd3 allows 3...dxe4 4.Bxe4 Nf6, after which White must concede to Black either a tempo or the advantage of the two bishops.

General themes

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Typical pawn structure

See the diagram for the pawn structure most typical of the French. Black has more space on the queenside, so tends to focus on that side of the board, almost always playing ...c7-c5 at some point to attack White's pawn chain at its base, and may follow up by advancing his a- and b-pawns.

Alternatively or simultaneously, Black will play against White's centre, which is cramping his position. The flank attack ...c7-c5 is usually insufficient to achieve this, so Black will often play ...f7-f6. If White supports the pawn on e5 by playing f2-f4, then Black has two common ideas. Black may strike directly at the f-pawn by playing ...g7-g5. The pawn on g5 may also threaten to advance to g4 to drive away a white knight on f3, augmenting Black's play against the White centre. Another idea is to play ...fxe5, and if White recaptures with fxe5, then Black gains an open f-file for his rook. Then, as White usually has a knight on f3 guarding his pawns on d4 and e5, Black may sacrifice the exchange with ...Rxf3 to destroy the white centre and attack the king. On the other hand, if White plays dxe5, then the a7-g1 diagonal is opened, making it less desirable for White to castle kingside.

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After 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bxe7 Qxe7 7.f4 0-0 8.Nf3 c5 9.Bd3

White usually tries to exploit his extra space on the kingside, where he will often play for a mating attack. White tries to do this in the Alekhine-Chatard attack, for example. Another example is the following line of the Classical French: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bxe7 Qxe7 7.f4 0-0 8.Nf3 c5 9.Bd3 (see diagram). White's light-square bishop eyes the weak h7-pawn, which is usually defended by a knight on f6 but here it has been pushed away by e5. A typical way for White to continue his attack is 9...cxd4 10.Bxh7+ Kxh7 11.Ng5+ when Black must give up his queen to avoid being mated, continuing with 11...Qxg5 12.fxg5 dxc3. Black has three minor pieces for the queen, which gives him a slight material superiority, but his king is vulnerable and White has good attacking chances.

Apart from a piece attack, White may play for the advance of his kingside pawns (an especially common idea in the endgame), which usually involves f2-f4, g2-g4 and then f4-f5 to utilise his natural spatial advantage on that side of the board. A white pawn on f5 can be very strong as it may threaten to capture on e6 or advance to f6. Sometimes pushing the h-pawn to h5 or h6 may also be effective. A modern idea is for White to gain space on the queenside by playing a2-a3 and b2-b4. If implemented successfully, this will further restrict Black's pieces.

Tarrasch-Teichmann, 1912
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Position after 15...Nxc5

One of the drawbacks of the French Defence for Black is his queen's bishop, which is blocked in by his pawn on e6. If Black is unable to free it by means of the pawn breaks ...c5 and/or ...f6, it can remain passive throughout the game. An often-cited example of the potential weakness of this bishop is S. Tarrasch-R. Teichmann, San Sebastián 1912, in which the diagrammed position was reached after fifteen moves of a Classical French.

Black's position is passive because his light-square bishop is hemmed in by pawns on a6, b5, d5, e6 and f7. White will probably try to exchange Black's knight, which is the only one of his pieces that has any scope. Although it might be possible for Black to hold on for a draw, it is not easy and, barring any mistakes by White, Black will have few chances to create counterplay, which is why, for many years, the classical lines fell out of favour, and 3...Bb4 began to be seen more frequently after World War I, due to the efforts of Nimzowitsch and Botvinnik. In Tarrasch-Teichmann, White won after 41 moves. In order to avoid this fate, Black usually makes it a priority early in the game to find a useful post for the bishop. Black can play ...Bd7-a4 to attack a pawn on c2, which occurs in many lines of the Winawer Variation. If Black's f-pawn has moved to f6, then Black may also consider bringing the bishop to g6 or h5 via d7 and e8. If White's light-square bishop is on the f1-a6 diagonal, Black can try to exchange it by playing ...b6 and ...Ba6, or ...Qb6 followed by ...Bd7-Bb5.

A general theme in the Advance French is that White would like to put his light-square bishop on d3, maximising its scope. White cannot play this move immediately after 5...Qb6 without losing the d4 pawn. Black cannot gain the extra pawn immediately since 6.Bd3 cxd4 7.cxd4 Nxd4? 8.Nxd4 Qxd4?? 9.Bb5+ wins the black queen by a discovered attack with check. Thus, theory holds that Black should play 7...Bd7 instead to obviate this idea. White has often sacrificed the d-pawn anyway by continuing 8.0-0 Nxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.Nc3. This is the Milner-Barry Gambit, named after Sir Stuart Milner-Barry, considered of marginal soundness by present-day theory, and has never had proponents at the highest levels of play.

Another theme is that White wants to expand on the kingside and attack the black king; the long-term advantages in many French structures lie with Black, so White is often more or less forced to attack by various methods, such as driving the black knight off f5 with g4 or playing h4-h5 to expel the knight from g6. Because of the blocked centre, sacrificial mating attacks are often possible. It is said by French players that the classic bishop sacrifice (Bd3xh7) should be evaluated every move. Black, however, often welcomes an attack as the French is notorious for producing defensive tactics and maneuvers that leave Black up material for an endgame. Viktor Korchnoi who, along with Botvinnik, was the strongest player who advocated the French, talked about how he would psychologically lure his opponents into attacking him so that they would eventually sacrifice material and he would halt his opponent's army and win the endgame easily.

Main line: 2.d4 d5

3.Nc3

Played in over 40% of all games after 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5, 3. Nc3 is the most commonly seen line against the French. Black has three main options, 3...dxe4 (the Rubinstein Variation), 3...Bb4 (the Winawer Variation) and 3...Nf6 (the Classical Variation). An eccentric idea is 3...Nc6!? 4.Nf3 Nf6 with the idea of 5.e5 Ne4; German IM Helmut Reefschlaeger has been fond of this move.

Rubinstein Variation: 3...dxe4

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After 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4

This variation is named after Akiba Rubinstein and can also arise from a different move order: 3.Nd2 dxe4. White has freer development and more space in the centre, which Black intends to neutralise by playing ...c7-c5 at some point. This solid line has undergone a modest revival, featuring in many GM games as a drawing weapon but theory still gives White a slight edge. After 3... dxe4 4. Nxe4, Black has the following options:

Winawer Variation: 3...Bb4

This variation, named after Szymon Winawer and pioneered by Nimzowitsch and Botvinnik, is one of the main systems in the French, due chiefly to the latter's efforts in the 1940s, becoming the most often seen rejoinder to 3.Nc3, though in the 1980s, the Classical Variation with 3...Nf6 began a revival, and has since become more popular.

3... Bb4 pins the knight on c3, forcing White to resolve the central tension. White normally clarifies the central situation for the moment with 4. e5, gaining space and hoping to show that Black's b4-bishop is misplaced. The main line then is: 4... c5 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. bxc3, resulting in the diagrammed position:

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After 3...Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3

While White has doubled pawns on the queenside, which form the basis for Black's counterplay, they can also help White since they strengthen his centre and give him a semi-open b-file. White has a spatial advantage on the kingside, where Black is even weaker than usual because he has traded off his dark-square bishop. Combined with the bishop pair, this gives White attacking chances, which he must attempt to utilise as the long-term features of this pawn structure favour Black.

In the diagrammed position, Black most frequently plays 6... Ne7 (The main alternative is 6...Qc7, which can simply transpose to main lines after 7.Qg4 Ne7, but Black also has the option of 7.Qg4 f5 or ...f6. 6...Qa5 has recently become a popular alternative). Now White can exploit the absence of Black's dark-square bishop by playing 7. Qg4, giving Black two choices: he may sacrifice his kingside pawns with 7...Qc7 8.Qxg7 Rg8 9.Qxh7 cxd4 but destroy White's centre in return, the so-called "Poisoned Pawn Variation"; or he can play 7...0-0 8.Bd3 Nbc6, which avoids giving up material, but leaves the king on the flank where White is trying to attack. Experts on the 7.Qg4 line include Judit Polgár.

If the tactical complications of 7.Qg4 are not to White's taste, 7.Nf3 and 7.a4 are good positional alternatives:

7. Nf3 is a natural developing move, and White usually follows it up by developing the king's bishop to d3 or e2 (occasionally to b5) and castling kingside. This is called the Winawer Advance Variation. This line often continues 7... Bd7 8. Bd3 c4 9. Be2 Ba4 10. 0-0 Qa5 11. Bd2 Nbc6 12. Ng5 h6 13. Nh3 0-0-0. Its assessment is unclear, but most likely Black would be considered "comfortable" here.

The purpose behind 7. a4 is threefold: it prepares Bc1-a3, taking advantage of the absence of Black's dark-square bishop. It also prevents Black from playing ...Qa5-a4 or ...Bd7-a4 attacking c2, and if Black plays ...b6 (followed by ...Ba6 to trade off the bad bishop), White may play a5 to attack the b6-pawn.

Sidelines

5th move deviations for White include:

4th move deviations for White include:

Deviations for Black include:

Classical Variation: 3...Nf6

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Classical Variation 3...Nf6

This is another major system in the French. White can continue with the following options:

4.Bg5

White threatens 5.e5, attacking the pinned knight. Black has a number of ways to meet this threat:

4.e5

The Steinitz Variation (named after Wilhelm Steinitz) is 4. e5 Nfd7 5. f4 (the most common but White has other options: 5.Nce2, the Shirov-Anand Variation), White gets ready to bolster his centre with c2-c3 and f2-f4. Or 5.Nf3 (aiming for piece play) 5... c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 (7.Nce2 transposes to the Shirov-Anand Variation; a trap is 7.Be2 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Ndxe5! 9.fxe5 Qh4+ winning a pawn), Black has several options. He may step up pressure on d4 by playing 7...Qb6 or 7...cxd4 8.Nxd4 Qb6, or choose to complete his development, either beginning with the kingside by playing 7...cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bc5, or with the queenside by playing 7...a6 8.Qd2 b5.

Tarrasch Variation: 3.Nd2

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After 3.Nd2 Nf6

The Tarrasch Variation is named after Siegbert Tarrasch. This move became particularly popular during the 1970s and early 1980s when Anatoly Karpov used it to great effect. Though less aggressive than the alternate 3.Nc3, it is still used by top-level players seeking a small, safe advantage.

Like 3.Nc3, 3.Nd2 protects e4, but is different in several key respects: it does not block White's c-pawn from advancing, which means he can play c3 at some point to support his d4-pawn. Hence, it avoids the Winawer Variation as 3...Bb4 is now readily answered by 4.c3. On the other hand, 3.Nd2 develops the knight to an arguably less active square than 3.Nc3, and in addition, it hems in White's dark-square bishop. Hence, white will typically have to spend an extra tempo moving the knight from d2 at some point before developing said bishop.

Exchange Variation: 3.exd5 exd5

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After 3.exd5 exd5

Many players who begin with 1.e4 find that the French Defence is the most difficult opening for them to play against due to the closed structure and unique strategies of the system. Thus, many players choose to play the exchange so that the position becomes simple and clearcut. White makes no effort to exploit the advantage of the first move, and has often chosen this line with expectation of an early draw, and indeed draws often occur if neither side breaks the symmetry. An extreme example was Capablanca-Maróczy, Lake Hopatcong 1926, which went: 4.Bd3 Bd6 5.Nf3 Nf6 6.0-0 0-0 7.Bg5 Bg4 8.Re1 Nbd7 9.Nbd2 c6 10.c3 Qc7 11.Qc2 Rfe8 12.Bh4 Bh5 13.Bg3 Bxg3 14.hxg3 Bg6 15.Rxe8+ Rxe8 16.Bxg6 hxg6 17.Re1 Rxe1+ 18.Nxe1 Ne8 19.Nd3 Nd6 20.Qb3 a6 21.Kf1 ½-½ (the game can be viewed here).

Despite the symmetrical pawn structure, White cannot force a draw. An obsession with obtaining one sometimes results in embarrassment for White, as in Tatai-Korchnoi, Beer Sheva 1978, which continued 4.Bd3 c5!? 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Qe2+ Be7 7.dxc5 Nf6 8.h3 0-0 9.0-0 Bxc5 10.c3 Re8 11.Qc2 Qd6 12.Nbd2 Qg3 13.Bf5 Re2 14.Nd4 Nxd4 0-1 (the game can be watched here). A less extreme example was Mikhail Gurevich-Short, Manila 1990 where White, a strong Russian grandmaster, played openly for the draw but was ground down by Short in 42 moves.

To create genuine winning chances, White will often play c2-c4 at some stage to put pressure on Black's d5-pawn. Black can give White an isolated queen's pawn by capturing on c4, but this gives White's pieces greater freedom, which may lead to attacking chances. This occurs in lines such as 3.exd5 exd5 4.c4 (played by GMs Normunds Miezis and Maurice Ashley) and 4.Nf3 Bd6 5.c4, which may transpose to the Petroff. Conversely, if White declines to do this, Black may play ...c7-c5 himself, e.g. 4.Bd3 c5, as in the above-cited Tatai-Korchnoi game.

If c2-c4 is not played, White and Black have two main piece setups. White may put his pieces on Nf3, Bd3, Bg5 (pinning the black knight), Nc3, Qd2 or the queen's knight can go to d2 instead and White can support the centre with c3 and perhaps play Qb3. Conversely, when the queen's knight is on c3, the king's knight may go to e2 when the enemy bishop and knight can be kept out of the key squares e4 and g4 by f3. When the knight is on c3 in the first and last of the above strategies, White may choose either short or long castling. The positions are so symmetrical that the options and strategies are the same for both sides.

Another way to unbalance the position is for White or Black to castle on opposite sides of the board. An example of this is the line 4.Bd3 Nc6 5.c3 Bd6 6.Nf3 Bg4 7.0-0 Nge7 8.Re1 Qd7 9.Nbd2 0-0-0.

Advance Variation: 3.e5

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After 3.e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3

The main line of the Advance Variation continues 3... c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 and then we have a branching point:

5... Qb6, the idea is to increase the pressure on d4 and eventually undermine the White centre. The queen also attacks the b2-square, so White's dark-square bishop cannot easily defend the d4-pawn without losing the b2-pawn. White's most common replies are 6.a3 and 6.Be2.

6.a3 is currently the most important line in the Advance: it prepares 7.b4, gaining space on the queenside. Black may prevent this with 6...c4 intending to take en passant if White plays b4, which creates a closed game where Black fights for control of the b3-square. On the other hand, Black may continue developing with 6...Nh6, intending ...Nf5, which might seem strange as White can double the pawn with Bxh6, but this is actually considered good for Black. Black plays ...Bg7 and ...0-0 and Black's king has adequate defence and White will miss his apparently 'bad' dark-square bishop.

6.Be2 is the other alternative, aiming simply to castle. Once again, a common Black response is 6...Nh6 intending 7...cxd4 8.cxd4 Nf5 attacking d4. White usually responds to this threat with 7.Bxh6 or 7.b3 preparing Bb2.

5... Bd7 was mentioned by Greco as early as 1620, and was revived and popularised by Viktor Korchnoi in the 1970s. Now a main line, the idea behind the move is that since Black usually plays ...Bd7 sooner or later, he plays it right away and waits for White to show his hand. If White plays 6.a3 in response, modern theory says that Black equalises or is better after 6...f6! The lines are complex, but the main point is that a3 is a wasted move if the black queen is not on b6 and so Black uses the extra tempo to attack the white centre immediately.

5...Nh6 has recently become a popular alternative

There are alternative strategies to 3... c5 that were tried in the early 20th century such as 3...b6, intending to fianchetto the bad bishop and which can transpose to Owen's Defence or 3...Nc6, played by Carlos Guimard, intending to keep the bad bishop on c8 or d7 which is passive and obtains little counterplay. Also, 4...Qb6 5.Nf3 Bd7 intending 6...Bb5 to trade off the "bad" queen's bishop is possible.

Early deviations for White

After 1.e4 e6, almost 90 percent of all games continue 2.d4 d5, but White can try other ideas. The most important of these is 2.d3 d5 3.Nd2, with a version of the King's Indian Attack. White will likely play Ngf3, g3, Bg2, 0-0, c3 and/or Re1 in some order on the next few moves. Black has several ways to combat this setup: 3...c5 followed by ...Nc6, ...Bd6, ...Nf6 or ...Nge7 and ...0-0 is common, 3...Nf6 4.Ngf3 Nc6 plans ...dxe4 and ...e5 to block in the Bg2, and 3...Nf6 4.Ngf3 b6 makes ...Ba6 possible if White's light-square bishop leaves the a6-f1 diagonal. 2.d3 has been used by many leading players over the years, including GMs Pal Benko, Bobby Fischer and Lev Psakhis.

There are also a few rare continuations after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5, including 3.Bd3 (the Schlechter Variation), 3.Be3 (the Alapin Gambit), and 3.c4 (the Diemer-Duhm Gambit, which can also be reached via the Queen's Gambit Declined).

Early deviations for Black

Although 2...d5 is the most consistent move after 1.e4 e6 2.d4, Black occasionally plays other moves. Chief among them is 2...c5, the Franco-Benoni Defence, so-called because it features the c7-c5 push characteristic of the Benoni Defence. White may continue 3.d5, when play can transpose into the Benoni, though White has extra options since c2-c4 is not mandated. 3.Nf3, transposing into a normal Sicilian Defence, and 3.c3, transposing into a line of the Alapin Sicilian (usually arrived at after 1.e4 c5 2.c3 e6 3.d4) are also common. Play may also lead back to the French; for example, 1.e4 e6 2.d4 c5 3.c3 d5 4.e5 transposes into the Advance Variation.

History

The French Defence is named after a match played by correspondence between the cities of London and Paris in 1834 (although earlier examples of games with the opening do exist). It was Chamouillet, one of the players of the Paris team, who persuaded the others to adopt this defence.

As a reply to 1.e4, the French Defence received relatively little attention in the nineteenth century compared to 1...e5. The first world chess champion Wilhelm Steinitz said "I have never in my life played the French Defence, which is the dullest of all openings". In the early 20th century, Géza Maróczy was perhaps the first world-class player to make it his primary weapon against 1.e4. For a long time, it was the third most popular reply to 1.e4, behind only 1...c5 and 1...e5. However, according to the Mega Database 2007, in 2006, 1...e6 was second only to the Sicilian in popularity.

Historically important contributors to the theory of the defence include Mikhail Botvinnik, Viktor Korchnoi, Aron Nimzowitsch, Tigran Petrosian, Lev Psakhis, Wolfgang Uhlmann and Rafael Vaganian. More recently, its leading practitioners include Evgeny Bareev, Alexey Dreev, Mikhail Gurevich, Alexander Khalifman, Smbat Lputian, Alexander Morozevich, Teimour Radjabov, Nigel Short, Gata Kamsky, and Yury Shulman.

The Exchange Variation was recommended by Howard Staunton in the 19th century, but has been in decline ever since. In the early 1990s Garry Kasparov briefly experimented with it before switching to 3.Nc3. Note that Black's game is made much easier as his queen's bishop has been liberated. It has the reputation of giving immediate equality to Black, due to the symmetrical pawn structure.

Like the Exchange, the Advance Variation was frequently played in the early days of the French Defence. Aron Nimzowitsch believed it to be White's best choice and enriched its theory with many ideas. However, the Advance declined in popularity throughout most of the 20th century until it was revived in the 1980s by GM and prominent opening theoretician Evgeny Sveshnikov, who continues to be a leading expert in this line. In recent years, it has become nearly as popular as 3.Nd2; GM Alexander Grischuk has championed it successfully at the highest levels. It is also a popular choice at the club level due to the availability of a simple, straightforward plan involving attacking chances and extra space.

ECO codes

The Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings includes an alphanumeric classification system for openings that is widely used in chess literature. Codes C00 to C19 are the French Defence, broken up in the following way (all apart from C00 start with the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5):

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