French Defence: Key Variations for Young Players
Edition 2.8, January, 96
1. e4 e6, French Defence
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
A way of getting into the King's Indian Reversed (KI Attack).
Prevents the exchange of Queens after 3...dxe4
3... Nf6 4. Ngf3
There are now two alternatives for Black: the old 4...c5 and the
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
Black's attack on the Q-side/centre is easier, and at the moment
has got further, but White is aiming at mate.
This is the modern approach.
5. g3 Bb7 6. Bg2 Be7 7. O-O c5 8. Re1
...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.
Against the Tchigorin Black can play 2...c5
. Play is often like the King's Indian Attack.
The Two Knights' often transposes into Advance lines after
2...d5, 3. Nc3 Nf6, 4. e5 Nd7, 5. d4
The main lines of the French start with
When Black should reply
Now the most common response is 3. Nc3 but White has alternatives:
3. Nd2 (Tarrasch Variation)
3. exd5 (Exchange Variation)
3. e5 (Advance 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).
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
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
White has isolated the d-pawn but the endgame is a long way off
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
This line gives positions much more typical of the rest of the
French, and so I recommend this for Black.
4. e5 Nfd7
White again faces a basic choice: normal development with Bd3 or
the more aggressive f4.
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
The pawn structure is advantageous to White but Black's active
pieces give excellent chances in this complex position.
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
White has gained space at the cost of time.
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.
The key counter-blow in the French
4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3
Now the familiar line is 5...Qb6 but 5...Bd7 is a good way of
White has a choice in this key position:
Bd3 (risky), Be2 (safe), or a3 (best).
Sir Stuart Milner-Barry had an attacking flair, and devised this
6... cxd4 7. cxd4 Bd7
An ancient trap is 7...Nxd4 8 Nxd4 Qxd4 9. Bb5+
8. O-O Nxd4 9. Nxd4 Qxd4 10. Nc3
(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
6...cxd4 7. cxd4 Nge7
When two moves of the Nb1 are tried:
this is perhaps the most logical way to
8... Nf5 9. Nc2 Bb4+ 10. Kf1
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
A simple approach.
8... Nf5 9. Na4 Qa5+ 10. Bd2 Bb4 11. Bc3 Bxc3+ 12. Nxc3
Qb6 13. Bb5 Bd7
with equal chances
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.
This move, unusually hitting the head (e5) of the chain instead of
the base (b2), gives Black equal chances.
6. Be2 Rc8
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.
4. Bd3 Nc6 5. c3 Bd6 6. Qf3 Be6 7. Ne2 Nge7
is level: the open K-file may become important after exchanges
Does Black want to play the Winawer or not?
These are the older lines with 3...dxe4 and 3...Nf6.
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+
White still has freer play and prospects of attack. In the endgame
the Queen's side majority may count for something.
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.
This has recently become more fashionable. An example line goes:
4... Nfd7 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 Qb6 8. Na4 Qa5+ 9.
9... cxd4 10. b4 Nxb4
This difficult piece sacrifice has become very
11. cxb4 Bxb4+ 12. Bd2 Bxd2+ 13. Nxd2 b6 14. Rb1
Ba6 15. Qb3
Black probably doesn't have enough for the piece
The natural reply here is the balancing ...Be7 but Black has two
alternatives: ...Bb4 and ...dxe4.
This has obvious links with the Rubinstein line
5. Nxe4 Be7 6. Bxf6
And Black has tried both recaptures:
7. Nf3 Nd7 8. Qd2 O-O 9.O-O-O b6 10. d5 Ne5 11. Qf4 Ng6 12.
Nxf6+ Qxf6 13. Qxf6 gxf6
...when White hopes that the greater harmony of the pawns will give
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.
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
White has the idea of dxc5 and Nd4, with advantage.
5. e5 Nfd7
And there is yet a further choice:
6. Bxe7, the safe Classical line.
6. h4, the aggressive Alekhin-Chatard attack.
7. f4 O-O 8. Nf3 c5 9. Bd3 f5 10. exf6 Rxf6 11. Qd2 Nc6 12.
Again we have a classic French imbalance between White's better
pawns and Black's counterplay
White offers a pawn for chances of attack.
6... Bxg5 7. hxg5 Qxg5 8. Nh3 Qe7 9.
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.
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.
Black is advised not to hang on to the pawn - concentrate on good
4... dxe4 5. a3 Be7 6. Nxe4 Nf6
An open game with about equal chances has resulted.
4... Bxc3+ 5. bxc3 dxe4 6. Qg4 Nf6 7. Qxg7 Rg8 8. Qh6 Nbd7
9. Ne2 b6 10. Bg5 Qe7
White has a pawn, but Black has active play for it
The Winawer Exchange Variation is harmless for Black
5. Bd3 Nc6 6. Nge2 Nge7
Now Black usually goes 4...c5 but can play more quietly with
This is the most aggressive line for Black.
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.
with complex play
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... Qc7 is safer, with the idea if 7. Qg4 f5 8. Qg3
White plays slowly, hoping perhaps to get control of the diagonal
7... Qa5 8. Qd2 Nbc6 9. Nf3 Bd7 10. Be2 Rc8 11.
dxc5 Ng6 12. O-O O-O
...with both sides having chances.
White grabs a hot pawn and tries to hang on to his centre.
7... Qc7 8. Qxg7 Rg8 9. Qxh7 cxd4 10. Ne2
This position is the starting point of some very detailed opening
research. Both sides have horrid weaknesses.
5. Bd3 b6
This is a slower way to play but offers fewer chances for
Black to win