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French Defence

See also: list of chess openings

The French Defence is an opening in chess. It is characterised by the opening moves 1. e4 e6 (see algebraic notation) and in the vast majority of cases this is followed up with 2. d4 d5, giving the following position:

The defence 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 counter-attacking possibilities on the queen-side while white tends to concentrate on the king-side.

The 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 has since become one of the most popular defences to 1. e4. Players including Viktor Korchnoi, Wolfgang Uhlmann and Nigel Short have been particularly fond of it. More recently, the defence has featured strongly in the opening repertoire of Evgeny Bareev and Teimour Radjabov (who used it to defeat Garry Kasparov in early 2003, thus becoming the first player born since Kasparov took the world championship in 1985 to beat him).

General considerations

Whatever variation of the opening is played, certain themes tend to recur in the French Defence. A pawn formation similar to this one occurs in several of the main variations where neither the d nor the e pawns are exchanged:

Black has more space on the queen-side (see chess terminology) so tends to focus on that side of the board. He often plays ...c5 to attack white's pawn chain at its base, and this move, as well as ...f6 can help to free his position, which is somewhat cramped.

White, on the other hand, usually tries to exploit his extra space on the king-side where he can sometimes create 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

White is focussing on the h7 pawn. In many openings, black would have a knight on f6 defending this square, but here it has been pushed away by e5. A possible continuation sees white sacrifice this bishop with 9... cxd4 10. Bxh7+ Kxh7 11. Ng5 when black must give up his queen to avoid being mated with 11... Qxg5 12. fxg5 dxc3. Black has three minor pieces for the queen, which in theory is a straight swap, but his king is vulnerable and white has good attacking chances.

One of black's main problems in the French Defence is his queen's bishop which is blocked in by his own pawn on e6. The bishop can be next door to useless for the early part of the game, and unless black makes some effort to free it (usually with the pawn breaks ...c5 and ...f6), it can remain that way for the whole game. An often cited example of the potential weakness of this bishop is Tarrasch - Teichmann, San Sebastian 1912, in which the following position was reached after 15 moves of a Classical French:

Here black is reduced to complete passivity. White will probably try to trade off black's knight, which is the only one of his pieces that has any scope. Although it might be possible for black to defend this position and hold on for a draw, it is not easy and, barring any mistakes by white, black will have no chance of an attack. In Tarrasch - Teichmann, white won after 41 moves. However, this is pretty much as bad as the French Defence gets for black - normally black has compensatory counterplay.

Following the opening moves, the game almost always continues 2. d4 d5. This leaves white's e4 pawn attacked. He has several main options - he can exhchange the pawn off with 3. exd5, he can push the pawn forwards with 3. e5, or he can defend the pawn with either 3. Nd2 or 3. Nc3.

3. exd5 exd5 - the Exchange Variation

The exchange variation has the repuatation of being safe for white, but rather dull. Because of the symmetrical pawn structure there is no imbalance in the game, and the open e-file encourages the exchange of pieces. White maintains an advantage because he moves first, but draws are common in this line, and it is generally thought that if white seriously wants to play for a win, he must choose a different move.

3. e5 - the Advance Variation

3. e5 is the advance variation. It was regarded as the best continuation by Aaron Nimzowitsch, and, although not so popular as other continuations in modern play, is still seen quite often. The game usually continues with a sequence focusing on white's d4 pawn: 3... c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3, after which both 5... Bd7 and 5... Qb6 are common.

A trap which many beginners fall into in the 5... Qb6 line is 6. Bd3 cxd4 7. cxd4 Nxd4 8. Nxd4 Qxd4 9. Bb5+ winning the black queen. Black should play 7... Bd7 instead to prevent this. White may decide to sacrifice his d pawn anyway by continuing 8. 0-0 Nxd4 9. Nxd4 Qxd4 10. Nc3 (this is known as the Milner-Barry Gambit after Stuart Milner-Barry).

3. Nd2 - the Tarrasch Variation

3. Nd2 is the Tarrasch variation, named after Siegbert Tarrasch. This move was particularly popular during the late 1970s and early 1980s when Anatoly Karpov used it to great effect. It is still played today, though not as often as it once was.

The move differs from 3. Nc3 in several respects: it doesn't block the path of white's c pawn, which means he can play c3 at some stage to support the d4 pawn; and it avoids the Winawer Variation because 3... Bb4 can be met with 4. c3 when black has wasted a move (he has to retreat his bishop).

The most critical line is generally regarded to be 3... c5 4. exd5 exd5, which usually leads to black having an isolated queen's pawn (this is both an advantage because of the open lines it gives black, and a disadvantage because an isolated pawn is weak as it cannot be protected by other pawns and so must be protected by pieces instead).

If black wants to avoid the isolated queen's pawn, he can instead continue 3... Nf6, which leads to positions more akin to the Classical variation.

3. Nc3

3. Nc3 can be thought of as the main line of the French. Black has three main options, 3... dxe4 (the Rubinstein variation), 3... Bb4 (the Winawer variation) and 3... Nf6 (the Classical variation).

3... dxe4 - the Rubinstein Variation

This move, named after Akiba Rubinstein is seen as somewhat passive but not necessarily bad.

3... Bb4 - the Winawer Variation

This variation, named after Simon Winawer, is one of the main systems in the French. For a good while around the middle of the 20th century, it was the most often seen move after 3. Nc3, but around the 1980s, the Classical Variation began to be revived, and has since become more popular.

...Bb4 pinss the c3 knight to the king, leaving the e4 pawn undefended. White has the option of playing a gambit with 4. a3 or 4. Nge2 (the Alekhine Gambit), but usually moves his pawn into safety with 4. e5.

A typical continuation is 4. e5 c5 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. bxc3:

White has more space on the kingside, where black is even weaker than usual because he has traded off his dark-square bishop. White often plays Qg4 at some stage to put some pressure on that side of the board. Black has compensation, however, in the form of white's doubled c pawns, which are weak and liable to come under attack.

3... Nf6 - the Classical Variation

This is another major system in the French. White can continue with 4. e5, the Steinitz Variation (named after Wilhelm Steinitz) or can play 4. Bg5. This threatens e5 which would win the knight (it could not moved because it is pinned to the queen). The most usual reply at the top level is now 4... dxe4 (the Burn Variation, named after Amos Burn). This line can become quite imbalanced after the continuation 5. Nxe4 Be7 6. Bxf6 gxf6 (a variation played on several occasions by Alexander Morozevich), or can proceed down quieter lines with 5. Nxe4 Be7 6. Bxf6 Bxf6 (or 5... Nbd7 and 6... Nxf6).

The main line was once 4... Be7. A normal continuation would then be 5. e5 Nfd7 6. Bxe7 Qxe7 7. f4 0-0 8. Nf3 c5, when white has a number of options including Bd3, Qd2 and dxc5. An alternative for white, the Albin-Chatard Attack, is not very popular at Grandmaster level, but is more often seen in amateur games. After 4... Be7 5. e5 Nfd7 6. h4 Bxg5 7. hxg5 Qxg5 8. Nh3 (Nf3 is also seen but less common), white has sacrificed a pawn in order to improve his attacking chances on the king side. The open h-file gives white another line to attack down, and he also gains time by attacking black's queen while developing pieces. Accepting the gambit in this way is not necessarily bad for black, but he can decide to decline it instead in a number of ways including 6... a6, 6... f6 and 6... 0-0.

Alternatively, black can play 4... Bb4 (the Macutcheon Variation), when the main line continues 5. e5 h6 6. Be2 Bxc3 7. bxc3 Ne4 8. Qg4. This line is not so popular.

Early deviations

After 1. e4 e6 the usual continuation is 2. d4 d5, but white can try other moves. 2. b3 is sometimes played as a gambit (after 2... d5 3. Bb2 dex4), 2. d3 leads to a sort of King's Indian Defence with colours reversed, and 2. Qe2 and 2. Nf3 have also been tried.

ECO codes

The Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings includes an alphanumeric classification system for openings which 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):