The French Defence for Beginners II: Key Variations

French Defence: Key Variations for Young Players

Edition 2.8, January, 96

1. e4 e6, French Defence

Introduction

The French is a solid and safe defence which you will certainly meet and may like to play yourself as a reply to 1. e4. In these notes I will give a quick run-down on the main variations of the French, and give an example line for each variation so you can get some idea of how to play for each side.

  Variations I recommend for White include the Alekhin-Chatard Attack and the Alekhin Gambit against the Winawer. Black's best line is certainly the Winawer, but there are safer alternatives like the Classical or Burn Variations. The Tarrasch is a line for later on in your chess life, in my opinion.

White avoids 2.d4

2. d3 The King's Indian Attack

tSlDjLsT
XxXx+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+-+-+-
-+-+p+-+
+-+p+-+-
pPp+-PpP
RnBqKbNr

A way of getting into the King's Indian Reversed (KI Attack).

2... d5

3. Nd2

  Prevents the exchange of Queens after 3...dxe4

3... Nf6 4. Ngf3

 

tSlDjL-T
XxX-+xXx
-+-+xS-+
+-+x+-+-
-+-+p+-+
+-+p+n+-
pPpN-PpP
R-BqKb+r

There are now two alternatives for Black: the old 4...c5 and the modern 4...b6.

4... c5 (Variation A)

tSlDjL-T
Xx+-+xXx
-+-+xS-+
+-Xx+-+-
-+-+p+-+
+-+p+n+-
pPpN-PpP
R-BqKb+r

The most common approach. One well-known line goes:

5. g3 Nc6 6. Bg2 Be7 7. O-O O-O 8. Re1 b5 9. e5 Nd7 10. Nf1 a5 11. h4 b4 12. Bf4 a4 13. a3 bxa3 14. bxa3 Nd4

 

t+lD-Tj+
+-+sLxXx
-+-+x+-+
+-XxP-+-
x+-S-B-P
P-+p+nP-
-+p+-Pb+
R-+qRnK-

Black's attack on the Q-side/centre is easier, and at the moment has got further, but White is aiming at mate.

 

4... b6 (Variation B)

tSlDjL-T
X-X-+xXx
-X-+xS-+
+-+x+-+-
-+-+p+-+
+-+p+n+-
pPpN-PpP
R-BqKb+r

This is the modern approach.

5. g3 Bb7 6. Bg2 Be7 7. O-O c5 8. Re1 Nc6

 

t+-Dj+-T
Xl+-LxXx
-Xs+xS-+
+-Xx+-+-
-+-+p+-+
+-+p+nP-
pPpN-PbP
R-BqR-K-

...with Black perhaps planning to castle Queen's side.

  Other ways of avoiding 2. d4 include the Tchigorin variation 2. Qe2, and the Two Knights' Variation with 2. Nf3.

2. Qe2, Tchigorin variation

Against the Tchigorin Black can play 2...c5 or even 2...e5. Play is often like the King's Indian Attack.

 

2. Nf3, Two Knights' Variation

The Two Knights' often transposes into Advance lines after

2...d5, 3. Nc3 Nf6, 4. e5 Nd7, 5. d4 c5

  The main lines of the French start with

2. d4

When Black should reply

2... d5

White avoids 3. Nc3

tSlDjLsT
XxX-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+x+-+-
-+-Pp+-+
+-+-+-+-
pPpN-PpP
R-BqKbNr

Now the most common response is 3. Nc3 but White has alternatives:

  3. Nd2 (Tarrasch Variation)

  3. exd5 (Exchange Variation)

  3. e5 (Advance Variation)

 

3. Nd2 The Tarrasch Variation

This avoids the pin ...Bb4 and keeps c3 open for a pawn. Black has two approaches - one open (3...c5), one closed (3...Nf6).

 

3... c5 (Variation A)

tSlDjLsT
Xx+-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-Xx+-+-
-+-Pp+-+
+-+-+-+-
pPpN-PpP
R-BqKbNr

This secures free play at cost of an isolated pawn, although an open game may be more what White wants with 1. e4.

4. exd5 exd5

4... Qxd5 has been tried

  And now White has two choices: to continue normal development, or to aim for immediate exchanges in the hope of a better endgame.


5.Ngf3 (Variation A1)

tSlDjLsT
Xx+-+xXx
-+-+-+-+
+-Xx+-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-+-+n+-
pPpN-PpP
R-BqKb+r

The main line, which may then go:

5... Nc6 6. Bb5 Bd6 7. O-O Nge7 8. dxc5 Bxc5 9. Nb3 Bd6 10. Nbd4 O-O 11. c3 Bg4 12. Qa4 Qd7 13. Be3 a6

 

t+-+-Tj+
+x+dSxXx
x+sL-+-+
+b+x+-+-
q+-N-+l+
+-P-Bn+-
pP-+-PpP
R-+-+rK-

White has isolated the d-pawn but the endgame is a long way off

 

5.Bb5+ Bd7 6. Qe2+ (Variation A2)

tS-DjLsT
Xx+l+xXx
-+-+-+-+
+bXx+-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-+-+-+-
pPpNqPpP
R-B-K-Nr

This is a way of trying to exchange off a few pieces , expecting a better endgame against a weak isolated d-pawn which will appear after dxc5.

 

3... Nf6 (Variation B)

tSlDjL-T
XxX-+xXx
-+-+xS-+
+-+x+-+-
-+-Pp+-+
+-+-+-+-
pPpN-PpP
R-BqKbNr

This line gives positions much more typical of the rest of the French, and so I recommend this for Black.

4. e5 Nfd7

 

tSlDjL-T
XxXs+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+xP-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-+-+-+-
pPpN-PpP
R-BqKbNr

White again faces a basic choice: normal development with Bd3 or the more aggressive f4.

 

5.Bd3 (Variation B1)

5... c5 6. c3 Nc6 7. Ne2 cxd4 8. cxd4 Qb6

8... Nb6 is the Leningrad variation

  9. Nf3 f6 10. exf6 Nxf6 11. O-O Bd6 12. Nc3 O-O 13. Re1 Bd7

 

t+-+-Tj+
Xx+l+-Xx
-DsLxS-+
+-+x+-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-Nb+n+-
pP-+-PpP
R-BqR-K-

The pawn structure is advantageous to White but Black's active pieces give excellent chances in this complex position.

 

5. f4 (Variation B2)

This is a much sharper try

5... c5 6. c3 Nc6 7. Ndf3 Qb6 8. g3 cxd4 9. cxd4 Bb4+ 10. Kf2 f5 11. Kg2

 

t+l+j+-T
Xx+s+-Xx
-Ds+x+-+
+-+xPx+-
-L-P-P-+
+-+-+nP-
pP-+-+kP
R-Bq+bNr

White has gained space at the cost of time.

 

The Advance Variation 3. e5

tSlDjLsT
XxX-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+xP-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-+-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
RnBqKbNr

The Advance Variation is a straightforward line aiming at a space advantage on the K-side. The drawback is the loss of time meaning White goes on the defensive while Black hits at d4.

3... c5

  The key counter-blow in the French

4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3

 

t+lDjLsT
Xx+-+xXx
-+s+x+-+
+-XxP-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-P-+n+-
pP-+-PpP
RnBqKb+r

Now the familiar line is 5...Qb6 but 5...Bd7 is a good way of avoiding this.

5... Qb6 (Variation A)

t+l+jLsT
Xx+-+xXx
-Ds+x+-+
+-XxP-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-P-+n+-
pP-+-PpP
RnBqKb+r

White has a choice in this key position:

  Bd3 (risky), Be2 (safe), or a3 (best).


6. Bd3 (A1, The Milner-Barry Gambit )

t+l+jLsT
Xx+-+xXx
-Ds+x+-+
+-XxP-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-Pb+n+-
pP-+-PpP
RnBqK-+r

Sir Stuart Milner-Barry had an attacking flair, and devised this risky line.

6... cxd4 7. cxd4 Bd7

  An ancient trap is 7...Nxd4 8 Nxd4 Qxd4 9. Bb5+ (DIAGRAM)

Diagram (trap)

 

t+l+jLsT
Xx+-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+b+xP-+-
-+-D-+-+
+-+-+-+-
pP-+-PpP
RnBqK-+r

winning

8. O-O Nxd4 9. Nxd4 Qxd4 10. Nc3

 

t+-+jLsT
Xx+l+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+xP-+-
-+-D-+-+
+-Nb+-+-
pP-+-PpP
R-Bq+rK-

10... a6

  (10... Qxe5 is risky but playable)

  Now 11. Qe2 with the idea of following up with Rd1; White has some pressure but Black has prospects of a win with the extra pawn

 

6. Be2 (Variation A2)

6...cxd4 7. cxd4 Nge7

 

t+l+jL-T
Xx+-SxXx
-Ds+x+-+
+-+xP-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-+-+n+-
pP-+bPpP
RnBqK-+r

When two moves of the Nb1 are tried:
8. Na3 (Try 1)
this is perhaps the most logical way to

  play

  8... Nf5 9. Nc2 Bb4+ 10. Kf1

 

t+l+j+-T
Xx+-+xXx
-Ds+x+-+
+-+xPs+-
-L-P-+-+
+-+-+n+-
pPn+bPpP
R-Bq+k+r

And Black has two equally worthwhile tries:

  (i) 10... h5 securing the position of the Nf5

  (ii) 10... Be7 so if 11. g4, 11...Nh4 keeps the balance of attack and defence of d4


8. Nc3 (Try 2 -)
A simple approach.

  8... Nf5 9. Na4 Qa5+ 10. Bd2 Bb4 11. Bc3 Bxc3+ 12. Nxc3 Qb6 13. Bb5 Bd7

 

t+-+j+-T
Xx+l+xXx
-Ds+x+-+
+b+xPs+-
-+-P-+-+
+-N-+n+-
pP-+-PpP
R-+qK-+r

with equal chances

 

6. a3 (Variation A3)

t+l+jLsT
Xx+-+xXx
-Ds+x+-+
+-XxP-+-
-+-P-+-+
P-P-+n+-
-P-+-PpP
RnBqKb+r

The modern approach, and probably best.

6... c4 7. g3

7. Nbd2 Na5 (better 7... f6) 8. b4 cxb3 9. c4 is a dangerous gambit -- Keres.

7... f6

 

t+l+jLsT
Xx+-+-Xx
-Ds+xX-+
+-+xP-+-
-+xP-+-+
P-P-+nP-
-P-+-P-P
RnBqKb+r

This move, unusually hitting the head (e5) of the chain instead of the base (b2), gives Black equal chances.

 

5... Bd7 (Variation B)

6. Be2 Rc8

 

-+tDjLsT
Xx+l+xXx
-+s+x+-+
+-XxP-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-P-+n+-
pP-+bPpP
RnBqK-+r

This is a way of avoiding the familiar lines with ...Qb6 which seems at least as good. White has tried several approaches (6. dxc5, 6. a3) but this move is fine.


3. exd5 The Exchange Variation

3...exd5

 

tSlDjLsT
XxX-+xXx
-+-+-+-+
+-+x+-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-+-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
RnBqKbNr

4. Bd3 Nc6 5. c3 Bd6 6. Qf3 Be6 7. Ne2 Nge7

 

t+-Dj+-T
XxX-SxXx
-+sLl+-+
+-+x+-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-Pb+q+-
pP-+nPpP
RnB-K-+r

is level: the open K-file may become important after exchanges

The main line 3. Nc3

tSlDjLsT
XxX-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+x+-+-
-+-Pp+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

Does Black want to play the Winawer or not?

Section I: Black avoids the Winawer

These are the older lines with 3...dxe4 and 3...Nf6.

3... dxe4 The Rubinstein Variation

tSlDjLsT
XxX-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+-+-+-
-+-Px+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

This is an old-fashioned and rather passive approach -- all right if you like that sort of thing.

4. Nxe4 Nd7

4... Bd7 5. Bd3

5. Nf3 Ngf6 6. Nxf6+ Nxf6 7. Bd3 Be7 8. Qe2 O-O 9. Bg5 c5 10. dxc5 Qa5+

 

t+l+-Tj+
Xx+-LxXx
-+-+xS-+
D-P-+-B-
-+-+-+-+
+-+b+n+-
pPp+qPpP
R-+-K-+r

White still has freer play and prospects of attack. In the endgame the Queen's side majority may count for something.


The Classical French 3... Nf6

This safe and solid line has always been a reliable way of holding White's initiative, but it is not as easy to play for a win.


4. e5 The Steinitz Variation

This has recently become more fashionable. An example line goes:

 

tSlDjL-T
XxX-+xXx
-+-+xS-+
+-+xP-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

4... Nfd7 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 Qb6 8. Na4 Qa5+ 9. c3

 

t+l+jL-T
Xx+s+xXx
-+s+x+-+
D-XxP-+-
n+-P-P-+
+-P-Bn+-
pP-+-+pP
R-+qKb+r

9... cxd4 10. b4 Nxb4

  This difficult piece sacrifice has become very topical.

11. cxb4 Bxb4+ 12. Bd2 Bxd2+ 13. Nxd2 b6 14. Rb1 Ba6 15. Qb3

 

t+-+j+-T
X-+s+xXx
lX-+x+-+
D-+xP-+-
n+-X-P-+
+q+-+-+-
p+-N-+pP
+r+-Kb+r

Black probably doesn't have enough for the piece

4. Bg5 The Classical Variation

tSlDjL-T
XxX-+xXx
-+-+xS-+
+-+x+-B-
-+-Pp+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-+qKbNr

The natural reply here is the balancing ...Be7 but Black has two alternatives: ...Bb4 and ...dxe4.

 

4... dxe4, The Burn Variation

tSlDjL-T
XxX-+xXx
-+-+xS-+
+-+-+-B-
-+-Px+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-+qKbNr

This has obvious links with the Rubinstein line

5. Nxe4 Be7 6. Bxf6

  And Black has tried both recaptures:

6...Bxf6 (Variation 1)

tSlDj+-T
XxX-+xXx
-+-+xL-+
+-+-+-+-
-+-Pn+-+
+-+-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-+qKbNr

7. Nf3 Nd7 8. Qd2 O-O 9.O-O-O b6 10. d5 Ne5 11. Qf4 Ng6 12. Nxf6+ Qxf6 13. Qxf6 gxf6

 

t+l+-Tj+
X-X-+x+x
-X-+xXs+
+-+p+-+-
-+-+-+-+
+-+-+n+-
pPp+-PpP
+-Kr+b+r

...when White hopes that the greater harmony of the pawns will give the advantage.

 

6... gxf6 (Variation 2)

tSlDj+-T
XxX-Lx+x
-+-+xX-+
+-+-+-+-
-+-Pn+-+
+-+-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-+qKbNr

A more risky and more dynamic try.

  After 7. Nf3 Black hopes the two bishops and

  open d- and g-files will give active play.

4... Bb4, The MacCutcheon Variation

tSlDj+-T
XxX-+xXx
-+-+xS-+
+-+x+-B-
-L-Pp+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-+qKbNr

This line still offers Black some prospects of a counterattacking game, but is not as good as the Winawer.

5. e5 h6 6. Bd2 Bxc3 7. bxc3 Ne4 8. Qg4 g6 9. Bd3 Nxd2 10. Kxd2 c5 11. Qf4 Nc6 12. Nf3

 

t+lDj+-T
Xx+-+x+-
-+s+x+xX
+-XxP-+-
-+-P-Q-+
+-Pb+n+-
p+pK-PpP
R-+-+-+r

White has the idea of dxc5 and Nd4, with advantage.

 

4... Be7 The Classical Variation

tSlDj+-T
XxX-LxXx
-+-+xS-+
+-+x+-B-
-+-Pp+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-+qKbNr

5. e5 Nfd7

 

tSlDj+-T
XxXsLxXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+xP-B-
-+-P-+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-+qKbNr

And there is yet a further choice:

  6. Bxe7, the safe Classical line.

  6. h4, the aggressive Alekhin-Chatard attack.

 

6. Bxe7 Main Line Classical Variation
6...Qxe7

 

tSl+j+-T
XxXsDxXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+xP-+-
-+-P-+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-+qKbNr

7. f4 O-O 8. Nf3 c5 9. Bd3 f5 10. exf6 Rxf6 11. Qd2 Nc6 12. dxc5 Nxc5

 

t+l+-+j+
Xx+-D-Xx
-+s+xT-+
+-Sx+-+-
-+-+-P-+
+-Nb+n+-
pPpQ-+pP
R-+-K-+r

Again we have a classic French imbalance between White's better pawns and Black's counterplay

 

6. h4 The Alekhin-Chatard Attack
White offers a pawn for chances of attack.

6... Bxg5 7. hxg5 Qxg5 8. Nh3 Qe7 9. Qg4

 

tSl+j+-T
XxXsDxXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+xP-+-
-+-P-+q+
+-N-+-+n
pPp+-Pp+
R-+-Kb+r

The N goes to h3 to allow this Q move when White has good prospects of attack. Black may decline the Gambit with a passive game.

 

Section II: The Winawer Variation 3... Bb4

tSlDj+sT
XxX-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+x+-+-
-L-Pp+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

Black takes a risky decision - to attack White's Knight but with the important dark-squared bishop. White has the main try 4. e5 but also some ways of avoiding these critical lines, including the gambit lines 4. Nge2 and 4. a3, and the Winawer Exchange 4. exd5.

4. Nge2 The Alekhin Gambit

tSlDj+sT
XxX-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+x+-+-
-L-Pp+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+nPpP
R-BqKb+r

Black is advised not to hang on to the pawn - concentrate on good development instead.

4... dxe4 5. a3 Be7 6. Nxe4 Nf6

 

tSlDj+-T
XxX-LxXx
-+-+xS-+
+-+-+-+-
-+-Pn+-+
P-+-+-+-
-Pp+nPpP
R-BqKb+r

An open game with about equal chances has resulted.

 

4. a3 Pawn snatch variation

tSlDj+sT
XxX-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+x+-+-
-L-Pp+-+
P-N-+-+-
-Pp+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

4... Bxc3+ 5. bxc3 dxe4 6. Qg4 Nf6 7. Qxg7 Rg8 8. Qh6 Nbd7 9. Ne2 b6 10. Bg5 Qe7

 

t+l+j+t+

X-XsDx+x
-X-+xS-Q
+-+-+-B-
-+-Px+-+
P-P-+-+-
-+p+nPpP
R-+-Kb+r

White has a pawn, but Black has active play for it

4. exd5 Winawer Exchange

tSlDj+sT
XxX-+xXx
-+-+-+-+
+-+x+-+-
-L-P-+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

4...exd5

  The Winawer Exchange Variation is harmless for Black

5. Bd3 Nc6 6. Nge2 Nge7

  Equal game.

 

4. e5, Main line Winawer

tSlDj+sT
XxX-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+xP-+-
-L-P-+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

Now Black usually goes 4...c5 but can play more quietly with 4...b6/4...Qd7.

 

4... c5 (Variation A)

tSlDj+sT
Xx+-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-XxP-+-
-L-P-+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

This is the most aggressive line for Black.

5. a3

 

tSlDj+sT
Xx+-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-XxP-+-
-L-P-+-+
P-N-+-+-
-Pp+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

5... Bxc3+

5... Ba5 has been tried: 6. b4 cxd4 7. Qg4 Ne7 8. bxa5 dxc3 9. Qxg7 Rg8 10. Qxh7 Nbc6 11. Nf3 Qc7 12. Bf4 Bd7 13. Bd3

Variation

 

t+-+j+t+
XxDlSx+q
-+s+x+-+
P-+xP-+-
-+-+-B-+
P-Xb+n+-
-+p+-PpP
R-+-K-+r

with complex play

6. bxc3

 

tSlDj+sT
Xx+-+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-XxP-+-
-+-P-+-+
P-P-+-+-
-+p+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

This is the critical position in the Winawer. Black has given up the important dark-sqaured bishop to weaken White's pawns which can be attacked down the c-file. Black will try to block the centre to slow up any White attack.

6... Ne7

 

tSlDj+-T
Xx+-SxXx
-+-+x+-+
+-XxP-+-
-+-P-+-+
P-P-+-+-
-+p+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

6... Qc7 is safer, with the idea if 7. Qg4 f5 8. Qg3

7. a4 positional line

tSlDj+-T
Xx+-SxXx
-+-+x+-+
+-XxP-+-
p+-P-+-+
+-P-+-+-
-+p+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

White plays slowly, hoping perhaps to get control of the diagonal a3-f8.

7... Qa5 8. Qd2 Nbc6 9. Nf3 Bd7 10. Be2 Rc8 11. dxc5 Ng6 12. O-O O-O

 

-+t+-Tj+
Xx+l+xXx
-+s+x+s+
D-PxP-+-
p+-+-+-+
+-P-+n+-
-+pQbPpP
R-B-+rK-

...with both sides having chances.
7. Qg4, Winawer 'Poisoned Pawn'

tSlDj+-T
Xx+-SxXx
-+-+x+-+
+-XxP-+-
-+-P-+q+
P-P-+-+-
-+p+-PpP
R-B-KbNr

White grabs a hot pawn and tries to hang on to his centre.

7... Qc7 8. Qxg7 Rg8 9. Qxh7 cxd4 10. Ne2 Nbc6

 

t+l+j+t+

XxD-Sx+q
-+s+x+-+
+-+xP-+-
-+-X-+-+
P-P-+-+-
-+p+nPpP
R-B-Kb+r

This position is the starting point of some very detailed opening research. Both sides have horrid weaknesses.

 

4... Qd7 (Variation B)

tSl+j+sT
XxXd+xXx
-+-+x+-+
+-+xP-+-
-L-P-+-+
+-N-+-+-
pPp+-PpP
R-BqKbNr

5. Bd3 b6

  This is a slower way to play but offers fewer chances for Black to win

Chess Quotes

"THE KING
The King himself is haughtie care,
Which ouerlooketh all his men,
And when he seeth how they fare,
He steps among them now and then,
Whom when his foe presumes to checke,
His seruants stand, to giue the necke.

  THE QUEENE
The Queene is queint, and quicke conceit,
Which makes her walke which way she list,
Ans rootes them up, that lie in wait,
To worke hir treason ere she wist:
Hir force is such against her foes,
That whom she meets, she ouerthrowes...

— Nicholas BRETON (1542-1626), The Chesse Play.