French Defense: Intro and Part 1

The French Defense will always have a special place in my heart

In 1834, a chess match was played between the cities of London and Paris. When the Parisians answered London’s 1.e4 with 1…e6, the French Defense was born.

As a struggling 1000-rated player in 1997, chess was hard. I was weak at tactics and calculation, and simply not talented. I didn’t have any coaching, so it was on me to find a way to improve my game. 1…e5 and the Sicilian, which I tried to play because they were popular, did not fit me at all.

The French Defense is named for a game between London and Paris in 1834. The Parisians responded to 1.e4 with 1...e6.

The Eiffel Tower lit up during a summer evening. Photo: Andre Harding

What I did have was oodles of determination to grind my opponents down slowly, especially in rook endings. For this, the French fit me very well! It was my main defense to 1.e4 until 2008.

If you like more excitement in your games, take heart: the French Defense can provide that, too.

We reach the starting position after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5:

Black threatens the e4-pawn and counterattacks in the center.

White has four good replies. From most to least complex: 3.Nc3, 3.Nd2, 3.e5, and 3.exd5.

However, I suggest we look at things based on the center type we get. There are three main options: (1) Black can exchange pawns on e4; (2) White can lock the center with e4-e5; and (3) White can exchange pawns on d5.

Today we’ll look at the first of these. In later posts we’ll examine the other options.

Black exchanges pawns on e4

After both 3.Nc3 or 3.Nd2, black can exchange on e4. After 3…dxe4 4.Nxe4 we get this:

Now black has two main options. In the Rubinstein Variation with 4…Nd7

A typical line is the following:

Black has dissolved white’s center and found good posts for his pieces. The goal is to gradually neutralize white’s play and equalize. White has more aggressive attempts, too, so be prepared.

Even more solid (but passive) is the Fort Knox Variation with 4…Bd7, which I played for many years:

Play might continue something like this:

Black wants to play an ultra-solid game, but this is really passive and it’s hard to create counterplay. Still, if you’ve been struggling mightily with other openings, this can keep you in the game for awhile.

Another popular line

There is also the Burn Variation with 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4 5.Nxe4:

A typical line is:

Black has more potential counterplay with the kings castled on opposite sides, but runs a greater risk of facing a strong attack. Note that black can’t force the Burn Variation because white can choose 4.e5 instead of 4.Bg5. That line will be discussed in the next part where we examine lines with an early e4-e5 by white.

In all lines with an Exchange on e4, black wants to develop solidly and tries to avoid dangerous attacks or sacrifices. However, this allows white to dictate the pace of the game, which is fine if you’re a defensive or counter-attacking player.

In Part 2a, we start our survey of lines where white advances e4-e5.

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