French Defense - 1. e4 e6

French Defense – 1. e4 e6 (Tarrasch, Winawer, Exchange, Advance, Classical)

The French Defense is a well-established and highly tactical chess opening played against 1. e4, offering players unique strategic considerations and a diverse range of variations.

The opening begins with the moves 1. e4 e6 and is often followed by 2.d4 d5.

The French Defense is characterized by its solidity, resilience, and potential for sharp complications, especially in lines like the Winawer Variation.

Move Order of the French Defense

The French Defense’s primary sequence begins with 1.e4 e6.

French Defense - 1. e4 e6
French Defense – 1. e4 e6

Subsequently, the standard follow-up involves 2.d4 d5.

French Defense Main Line - 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5
French Defense Main Line – 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5

This leads to a battle over control of the center, with Black immediately challenging White’s pawn on e4.

It’s also possible to arrive at this position through a Queen’s Pawn Game with 1.d4 e6 2.e4 d5, or by declining a Blackmar-Diemer Gambit with 1.d4 d5 2.e4 e6.

Theory, Strategy and Purpose of the French Defense

The French Defense’s overarching purpose is to challenge White’s control of the center, while building a robust and resilient structure that limits White’s offensive capabilities.

The general strategy for Black involves attacking White’s central pawns, aiming to create counterplay and disrupt White’s control.

A common maneuver involves …c5, putting pressure on White’s center and gaining space on the queenside.

The move …f7-f6 can also be employed as a way to undermine White’s center, especially when the …c7-c5 attack is insufficient.

Variations of the French Defense

The French Defense boasts several variations, each with unique strategic considerations.

The decision White makes following 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 significantly affects the game’s direction.

Key options include defending the e4-pawn with 3.Nc3 or 3.Nd2, advancing it with 3.e5, or exchanging it with 3.exd5.

Each choice leads to different types of positions, each with its own strategic challenges and opportunities.

The French Defense and its variations are listed with the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings ECO Codes C00 to C19.

  • C00 – 1.e4 e6 without 2.d4, or 2.d4 without 2…d5 (early deviations)
  • C01 – 2.d4 d5 (includes the Exchange Variation, 3.exd5)
  • C02 – 3.e5 (Advance Variation)
  • C03 – 3.Nd2 (includes 3…Be7; C03–C09 cover the Tarrasch Variation)
  • C04 – 3.Nd2 Nc6 (Guimard Variation)
  • C05 – 3.Nd2 Nf6
  • C06 – 3.Nd2 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3
  • C07 – 3.Nd2 c5 (includes 4.exd5 Qxd5)
  • C08 – 3.Nd2 c5 4.exd5 exd5
  • C09 – 3.Nd2 c5 4.exd5 exd5 5.Ngf3 Nc6
  • C10 – 3.Nc3 (includes the Rubinstein Variation, 3…dxe4)
  • C11 – 3.Nc3 Nf6 (includes the Steinitz Variation, 4.e5; C11–C14 cover the Classical Variation)
  • C12 – 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 (includes the McCutcheon Variation, 4…Bb4)
  • C13 – 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 dxe4 (Burn Variation)
  • C14 – 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7
  • C15 – 3.Nc3 Bb4 (C15–C19 cover the Winawer Variation)
  • C16 – 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5
  • C17 – 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5
  • C18 – 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 (includes the Armenian Variation, 5…Ba5)
  • C19 – 3.Nc3 Bb4 4 e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne7 7.Nf3 and 7.a4

Let’s look at each variation in a bit more detail:

Main line: 2.d4 d5

In the French Defense, the main line continues with the moves 2.d4 d5.

After 1.e4 e6, these moves establish strong central pawn structures for both players.

It immediately questions White’s control over the e4 square and sets up potential pawn breaks for Black in the future.

Tarrasch Variation: 3.Nd2

The Tarrasch Variation, named after the German chess player Siegbert Tarrasch, is a less aggressive but solid choice in the French Defense.

It became popular during the 1970s and early 1980s when the Russian Grandmaster Anatoly Karpov used it to his advantage.

This variation, which begins with 3.Nd2, aims to provide White with a safe, small advantage.

Tarrasch Variation: 3.Nd2 - 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2
Tarrasch Variation: 3.Nd2 – 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2

Like 3.Nc3, 3.Nd2 protects the e4 pawn but also allows the possibility for White to advance their c-pawn, paving the way for the move c3 to support the d4-pawn.

Hence, the Winawer Variation (3…Bb4) can be readily countered by 4.c3.

However, 3.Nd2 does limit the development of White’s dark-square bishop, usually necessitating an additional tempo to move the knight from d2 before this bishop can be developed.

Black has several responses:

  1. 3…c5 4.exd5 and Black can recapture with either:
  • 4…exd5, which typically leads to an isolated queen’s pawn for Black. This line was seen in many of Karpov–Korchnoi’s games. The game can proceed with 5.Ngf3 Nc6 6.Bb5 Bd6 7.0-0 Nge7 8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.Nb3 Bb6, a position where White may have a slight advantage in the endgame if they can neutralize the activity of Black’s pieces in the middlegame.
  • 4…Qxd5, an alternative strategy that trades Black’s c- and d-pawns for White’s d- and e-pawns, leaving Black with an extra central pawn. In return, White gains time by harassing Black’s queen. This balance of static and dynamic advantages has seen a rise in popularity in recent years.
  1. 3…Nf6, where Black’s aim is to close the center. A possible line is 4.e5 Nfd7 5.Bd3 c5 6.c3 Nc6 7.Ne2 cxd4 8.cxd4 f6 9.exf6 Nxf6 10.Nf3 Bd6, at the end of which Black has a backward pawn on e6, but has freed their pieces.
  2. 3…Nc6, known as the Guimard Variation. Here, Black aims to exchange White’s central e-pawn by …f6.
  3. 3…Be7, known as the Morozevich Variation. This move, while looking odd, aims to make every White move have its drawbacks.

The Tarrasch Variation offers a less aggressive but more solid strategy for White.

By focusing on careful development and pawn structure, White aims to gradually accumulate small advantages while avoiding the sharper and more tactical lines of the French Defense.

It’s a variation that demands careful strategic consideration and positional understanding from both sides.

Winawer Variation: 3. Nc3 Bb4

The Winawer Variation is a prominent choice in the French Defense, characterized by 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4.

With the move 3…Bb4, it pins the knight on c3, compelling White to resolve the central tension.

French Defense, Winawer Variation
French Defense, Winawer Variation – 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Bb4

This move, popularized by Szymon Winawer and driven by the efforts of Nimzowitsch and Botvinnik in the 1940s, has become the primary response to 3.Nc3.

The Winawer Variation often proceeds with 4.e5, which allows White to claim more space and potentially show that Black’s b4-bishop is misplaced.

A common sequence of moves in this variation is 4…c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3.

In this position, White has doubled pawns on the queenside, a potential target for Black’s counterplay, but these pawns can also be an asset for White as they bolster his central control and offer a semi-open b-file.


While the main line and the Winawer Variation are common, there are various sidelines that both White and Black can explore.

5th-Move Deviations for White

These include 5.Qg4, 5.dxc5, 5.Nf3, and 5.Bd2.

Each of these deviations comes with its unique strategic objectives and might lead to distinct positional or tactical scenarios.

4th-Move Deviations for White

These include:

  • 4.exd5 exd5, which transposes into the Exchange Variation, where White may attempt to exploit Black’s arguably misplaced bishop on b4;
  • 4.Ne2, known as the Alekhine Gambit, aiming to prevent Black from doubling his pawns;
  • 4.Bd3, defending e4; and 4.a3 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 dxe4 6.Qg4, trying to target Black’s g7 weakness.

Deviations for Black

For Black, interesting deviations can be achieved with 4…Ne7, which often transposes back to the main line, and 4…b6 followed by …Ba6.

Another notable line is the Armenian Variation, initiated with 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Ba5, where Black maintains the pin on the knight, a tactic thoroughly utilized by Armenian players, most famously Rafael Vaganian.

Classical Variation: 3…Nf6

The Classical Variation of the French Defense is one of the oldest and most reliable systems available for Black.

The main idea for Black is to challenge White’s pawn on e4 directly with 3…Nf6.

Main line: 4.e5 Nfd7

The main line of the Classical Variation starts with 4.e5, forcing the Black knight to move to d7.

Here, the game usually continues with 5.f4, supporting the pawn on e5.

From here, the game may continue with 5…c5, challenging the central pawn chain, 6.Nf3, developing a knight and adding more support to the pawn on d4, and 6…Nc6, adding pressure to the pawn on d4.

Steinitz Variation: 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4

Named after Wilhelm Steinitz, the first World Chess Champion, the Steinitz Variation features a large pawn center for White.

After 5.f4, Black will usually counterattack with 5…c5, putting pressure on White’s center. (Creative 5th move variations for black could include 5…a6, 5…Be7, or 5…g6.)

The game often continues with 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3.

The line 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e5 Nfd7, before the typical move 5. f4 is also equivalent to the Scandinavian Variation of Alekhine’s Defense:

French Defense - 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e5 Nfd7
French Defense – 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e5 Nfd7

French Defense: Classical, Steinitz, Boleslavsky Variation

The Boleslavsky Variation goes:

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 a6
French Defense: Classical, Steinitz, Boleslavsky Variation -1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 a6
French Defense: Classical, Steinitz, Boleslavsky Variation – 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Be3 a6
Shirov–Anand Variation: 5.Nce2

5.Nce2, the Shirov–Anand Variation, aims to reinforce the center with c2–c3 and f2–f4.

This variation prepares a solid structure and can lead to very rich and complex positions.


Another popular choice for White is 4.Bg5, pinning Black’s knight to the queen and preparing to advance the e-pawn.

The main replies for Black are:

Burn Variation: 4…dxe4

Named after Amos Burn, the Burn Variation goes for 4…dxe4.

The line generally follows with 5.Nxe4 Be7 6.Bxf6 Bxf6.

The idea here is that after the exchange on f6, Black can get dynamic play due to the bishop pair, although White’s knight is well placed on e4.

McCutcheon Variation: 4…Bb4

The McCutcheon Variation features 4…Bb4, ignoring White’s threat of e5 and opting to counterattack instead.

After 5.e5 h6, the position becomes sharp and requires precise play from both sides.

Rubinstein Variation: 3…dxe4

The Rubinstein Variation, named after Akiba Rubinstein, is one of the more solid responses to the French Defense.

The basic idea is to eliminate White’s central e4 pawn and try to combat White’s central pawn duo of d4 and e5.

The variation starts with 3…dxe4, simplifying the position and heading for a more balanced, less chaotic middlegame.

After 3…dxe4, 4.Nxe4 is the most common move for White, and Black’s typical responses are:

  1. 4…Nd7 5.Nf3 Ngf6 6.Nxf6+ Nxf6, which prepares to challenge the centre with …c5. This line is solid for Black, with an even balance of material and a potentially strong central pawn break.
  2. 4…Bd7 5.Nf3 Bc6, also known as the Fort Knox Variation. This move activates the light-square bishop and adds pressure to the center. This line, often played by Alexander Rustemov, allows Black to ensure the safety of the king and prepare for potential endgame advantages.

Hecht Reefschlager Variation: 3…Nc6

The Hecht Reefschlager Variation, 3…Nc6, is a lesser-played variation in the French Defense.

The move 3…Nc6 is not the most common at the top level but has been used by strong players including Aron Nimzowitsch.

The idea of this variation is to quickly develop the knight to its most natural square, and prepare to strike in the center with …e5 or …d4 in the near future.

Rare sidelines after 3.Nc3

Some rare sidelines are seen after 3.Nc3 in the French Defense:

Paulsen Variation: 3…c6

The Paulsen Variation, named after Louis Paulsen, features 3…c6.

This move aims to reinforce the pawn on d5 and prepare for a potential pawn break with …c5, mirroring White’s setup.

This variation can also be reached via the Caro-Kann Defense move order (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 e6).

This line is generally less sharp than other lines in the French, with a greater emphasis on solid, strategic play.

Advance Variation: 3.e5

The Advance Variation is a common response to the French Defense and begins with 3.e5.

Advance Variation of the French Defense - 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5
Advance Variation of the French Defense – 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5

The aim is to gain space in the center and limit the mobility of Black’s kingside pieces, particularly the light-squared bishop.

Main line: 3…c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3

The main line of the Advance Variation sees Black immediately challenging White’s central pawn chain and trying to open up lines for his pieces.

After 5.Nf3, there are a few possible options for Black:

  1. 5…Qb6: This move targets the pawn on d4 and pressures the b2 pawn, indirectly preventing the dark-square bishop from easily defending the d4 pawn. White often responds with 6.a3, 6.Be2, or 6.Bd3.
    • 6.a3: This move prepares for a pawn advance to b4, securing more space on the queenside. Black can prevent this with 6…c4, threatening to capture en passant if White plays b4. The game becomes closed with Black battling for control over the b3 square. An alternative for Black is 6…Nh6, aiming for …Nf5. This sequence may look strange as White can double Black’s pawns with Bxh6, but Black typically responds with …Bg7 and …0-0, which provides adequate king safety and an open file for the rook.
    • 6.Be2: This is a more conservative approach by White, aiming to castle quickly. Black often responds with 6…Nh6 with the idea of 7…cxd4 8.cxd4 Nf5, targeting the d4 pawn. White can then decide whether to capture the knight with 7.Bxh6 or reinforce the center with 7.b3, preparing to fianchetto the bishop with Bb2.
    • 6.Bd3: After 6…cxd4 7.cxd4 Bd7 (note that 7…Nxd4?? 8.Nxd4 Qxd4 9.Bb5+ wins a piece for White), 8.0-0 Nxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.Nc3 leads to the Milner-Barry Gambit. White can obtain a promising attack after 10…Qxe5 11.Re1 Qb8 12.Nxd5 or 11…Qd6 12.Nb5.
  2. 5…Bd7: This move, known as the Euwe Variation, prepares for queenside expansion and keeps an eye on the a4-e8 diagonal. If White responds with 6.a3, Black has the interesting option of 6…f6!, immediately attacking White’s center. In general, if Black can achieve this break successfully, he will solve most of his opening problems.
  3. 5…Nh6: This move anticipates a trade on h6, which gives Black a semi-open g-file for potential attacks against the White king. If White doesn’t capture on h6, the knight may move to f5 to pressure the d4 pawn or (after …f6) to f7 to pressure the e5 pawn.

There are some other, less common, strategies such as 3…b6, which aims to fianchetto the light-squared bishop, or 4…Qb6 5.Nf3 Bd7 with the idea of 6…Bb5 to trade off the light-squared bishop.

Also, attempting to play 3…Nc6 to reach the Hecht Reefschlager Variation or the Guimard Variation isn’t a good idea because it allows White to establish a strong pawn center with d4 and e5.

Exchange Variation: 3.exd5

The Exchange Variation is a popular choice for those wanting to avoid the complicated lines of the French Defense, by opting for a more symmetrical structure that can lead to more simplified positions.

The main line goes as follows: 3.exd5 exd5.

Exchange Variation - 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 exd5
Exchange Variation – 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 exd5

Many players, especially those new to 1.e4, find the French Defense’s closed structures and unique strategies daunting.

Thus, they often resort to the Exchange Variation to simplify the position and make it more manageable.

Indeed, it’s not uncommon for games in this line to end in early draws, especially when neither side tries to break the symmetry.

However, it’s important to note that despite the symmetrical pawn structure,

White cannot force a draw. Over-reliance on symmetry can sometimes lead to an unexpected defeat.

This was demonstrated in Tatai–Korchnoi, Beer Sheva 1978, where after 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, White resigned.

To generate real chances for victory, White often plays c2–c4, putting pressure on Black’s d5 pawn.

Black can give White an isolated queen’s pawn by capturing on c4, but this often allows White’s pieces to become more active, possibly leading to attacking chances.

This can be seen in lines such as 3.exd5 exd5 4.c4 or 4.Nf3 Bd6 5.c4. If White doesn’t play c2–c4, Black can opt for …c7–c5, as demonstrated in the Tatai–Korchnoi game.

Without c2–c4, White and Black have a couple of primary setups. White might play Nf3, Bd3, Bg5 (pinning Black’s knight), Nc3, and Qd2, or alternatively Nd2 with c3 support and a potential Qb3. Black can mirror these setups due to the symmetrical nature of the position.

Another interesting strategy involves White and Black castling on opposite sides of the board, which can lead to attacking opportunities for both sides. This can be seen in the line: 4.Bd3 Nc6 5.c3 Bd6 6.Nf3 Bg4 7.0-0 Nge7 8.Re1 Qd7 9.Nbd2 0-0-0.

Knight Variation – 1. e4 e6 2. Nf3

The knight variation starts:

1. e4 e6 2. Nf3

Like most open games, white’s second move is 2. Nf3.

This retains white’s opening advantage (roughly +0.10 to +0.25), but goes down a less heavily treaded path.

Black’s second move would normally be 2… d5.

French Defense: Knight Variation - 1. e4 e6 2. Nf3
French Defense: Knight Variation – 1. e4 e6 2. Nf3

White could then either take the pawn or even consider 3. e5.

The line 1. e4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 transposes into an Alapin Sicilian.

If progressing to 1. e4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. d4 Bd7, it transposes to the Advance Variation of the French Defense.

1. e4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. d4 Bd7 6. Be2 Nge7 is considered the Advance, Paulsen, Euwe Variation of the French Defense.

Tarrasch Variation vs. Winawer Variation vs. Classical Variation vs. Advance Variation vs. Exchange Variation

All of these are variations of the French Defense, which starts with the moves 1.e4 e6.

The names you provided refer to different ways that white can choose to develop:

  1. Tarrasch Variation: This is characterized by the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2. The idea is to avoid the pinning of the knight that happens in the Winawer Variation (after 3.Nc3 Bb4). White plans to play Ngf3 and Bd3, and to recapture on d4 with the knight if Black exchanges in the center. The knight on d2 also supports the advance e4–e5 if conditions are right.
  2. Winawer Variation: This variation begins with 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4. The Winawer is a more aggressive variation from Black’s perspective, intending to exploit White’s central pawn duo. Black often accepts a pawn structure with isolated pawns to obtain active piece play.
  3. Classical Variation: This begins with 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6. Black allows white to dominate the center with pawns and plans to undermine this center later in the opening.
  4. Advance Variation: The Advance Variation starts with 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5. Here, white looks to stake out space in the center and cramp black’s position. Black aims to challenge and undermine White’s central pawn chain at an opportune moment.
  5. Exchange Variation: This starts with 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5. White typically follows up with Bd3, Nf3, and 0-0. Although this variation is considered to be somewhat tame, as it often leads to symmetrical pawn structures and equal chances for both sides, it allows White to avoid the complex theory of the other lines and aim for a solid, if somewhat less ambitious, setup.

Each of these variations has its own intricacies and is suited to different types of players.

The choice among them can be largely a matter of personal style and preference.

Learn the French Defense | 10-Minute Chess Openings

Early Deviations in the French Defense for White

Following 1.e4 e6, the standard continuation is 2.d4 d5, but White has several options to deviate:

  1. 2.d3 aims for a King’s Indian Attack setup with a future 3.Nd2. White’s likely subsequent moves include Ngf3, g3, Bg2, 0-0, c3 and/or Re1. This strategy has been adopted by prominent players like Bobby Fischer and Lev Psakhis. Black can respond with a setup of …c5, …Nc6, …Nf6, …Be7, and …0-0 or develop the kingside with …Bd6 and …Nge7.
  2. 2.f4 is the La Bourdonnais Variation, named after Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais. Play can proceed with 2…d5 3.e5 c5 4.Nf3 Nc6 5.c3 Nge7 6.Na3 Nf5.
  3. 2.Qe2, the Chigorin Variation, discourages 2…d5 as 3.exd5 would pin the black pawn, forcing Black to recapture with the queen. Black typically responds with 2…c5, which can lead to positions similar to the 2.d3 variation or the Closed Sicilian.
  4. 2.Nf3 d5 3.Nc3, known as the Two Knights Variation, offers two good responses for Black: 3…d4 and 3…Nf6.
  5. 2.c4 is the Steiner Variation, which attempts to discourage 2…d5 by Black. However, Black can still respond with 2…d5. After 3.cxd5 exd5 4.exd5 Nf6, the only way for White to maintain the extra d5 pawn is with 5.Bb5+, but Black has good compensation for the pawn.
  6. 2.Bb5 has been tried occasionally, notably by Henry Bird in his victory over Max Fleissig during the Vienna 1873 chess tournament.
  7. 2.b3 leads to the Réti Gambit if Black responds with 2…d5 3.Bb2 dxe4. However, Black can decline the gambit with 3…Nf6 4.e5 Nd7, which prompts White to proceed with f4 and Qg4 before developing the knight to f3.
  8. 2.e5, known as the Steinitz Attack, doesn’t offer any advantage to White after 2…d6. Alternatively, after 2…d5 3.d4, the game transposes into the Advance Variation of the French Defense.

There are also some unusual continuations after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5, such as 3.Bd3 (the Schlechter Variation), 3.Be3 (the Alapin Gambit), and 3.c4 (the Diemer–Duhm Gambit, which can also arise from the Queen’s Gambit Declined).

These are generally less popular and are used as surprise weapons rather than main strategies.

Early Deviations for Black

In response to 1.e4 e6 2.d4, Black’s most common response is 2…d5, but there are other less frequent but interesting deviations:

  1. 2…c5: Known as the Franco-Benoni Defense or the Franco-Sicilian Defense, this move reflects the characteristic …c7–c5 push found in the Benoni Defense. White has several possible responses:
    • 3.d5, which can transpose into the Benoni Defense, though it leaves White with additional options as c2–c4 is not compulsory. (This is considered the strongest response by modern engines.)
    • 3.Nf3 transposes into a standard Sicilian Defense. Also a Horwitz Defense from the Queen’s Pawn Opening.
    • 3.c3 leads to a line of the Alapin Sicilian (typically reached via 1.e4 c5 2.c3 e6 3.d4).
    • Note that the game can still transpose back into the French Defense, such as with 1.e4 e6 2.d4 c5 3.c3 d5 4.e5, which takes us into the Advance Variation of the French Defense.
  2. 2…b6: This move can transpose into Owen’s Defense or the English Defense, which are characterized by their focus on the development of Black’s light-squared bishop to a6 or b7.
  3. 2…f5: This is the Franco-Hiva Gambit, which offers a pawn in an attempt to disrupt White’s pawn structure and control of the center. However, it’s considered dubious because it weakens Black’s kingside significantly and doesn’t guarantee sufficient compensation for the pawn.

These deviations offer Black alternative ways to challenge White’s control of the center and can lead to different types of positions, thereby providing variety to the game.

However, they are less commonly played and may not offer the same level of robustness as the main line (2…d5) in the French Defense.

Franco-Sicilian Defense - 1. e4 e6 2. d4 c5 (showing suggested 3. d5 continuation)
Franco-Sicilian Defense – 1. e4 e6 2. d4 c5 (showing suggested 3. d5 continuation)

Evaluation of the French Defense

The French Defense is generally evaluated at around +0.30 to +0.50 for white.

Theory & Continuation Lines of the French Defense

Below we have some common theory and continuation lines from the French Defense starting move order 1.e4 e6 that you would see at the highest level of play.

2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Nge7 6. Bd3 cxd4 7. cxd4 Nf5 8. Bxf5 exf5 9. Nc3 Be7 10. Ne2 h6 11. h4 Be6 12. h5 Qb6 13. O-O O-O 14. Rb1 Rac8

2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Bd7 6. a3 c4 7. Be2 Na5 8. Nbd2 Nh6 9. Rb1 Be7 10. g3 O-O 11. h3 Nf5 12. O-O Qe8 13. g4 Ba4 14. b3

2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Bd7 5. Nf3 Nc6 6. Be2 Nge7 7. O-O Ng6 8. Re1 Be7 9. g3 O-O 10. h4 cxd4 11. cxd4 f6 12. h5 Nh8 13. exf6 Rxf6 14. Nc3 Nf7 15. Bf1 h6

2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 dxe4 5. Nxe4 Nbd7 6. Nxf6+ Nxf6 7. Nf3 c5 8. c3 Qb6 9. Bd3 cxd4 10. Nxd4 Bc5 11. O-O Bxd4 12. cxd4 Bd7 13. Bxf6 gxf6 14. d5 O-O-O 15. Qc1+ Kb8

2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 dxe4 5. Nxe4 Nbd7 6. Nf3 h6 7. Bxf6 Nxf6 8. Bd3 Nxe4 9. Bxe4 c5 10. Qe2 cxd4 11. O-O-O Bd7 12. Qc4 Qb6 13. Qxd4 Qxd4 14. Rxd4 Bc5 15. Rd2 O-O-O 16. Ne5 Bb5 17. Nxf7 Rxd2

2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 dxe4 5. Nxe4 Be7 6. Bxf6 Bxf6 7. Nf3 O-O 8. Bc4 Nc6 9. Bb5 Bd7 10. O-O a6 11. Bc4 b5

History of the French Defense

The French Defense, a chess opening characterized by the initial moves 1.e4 e6, has a rich history and has been the subject of extensive study for many years.

The opening is named after a correspondence match between London and Paris in 1834. Jacques Chamouillet, a player for the Paris team, reportedly convinced his teammates to adopt this defense. Interestingly, the opening can be traced back even before this match, though the origins are somewhat nebulous.

The French Defense wasn’t widely popular in the 19th century, especially in comparison to 1…e5. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first World Chess Champion, even described it as “the dullest of all openings.” However, the defense started to gain traction in the early 20th century, notably adopted by Géza Maróczy, a world-class player who chose it as his primary response to 1.e4.

For a long time, the French Defense was the third most popular reply to 1.e4, behind 1…c5 (the Sicilian Defense) and 1…e5. However, according to the Mega Database 2007, in 2006, 1…e6 (the French Defense) was second only to the Sicilian in popularity.

Many influential players have contributed to the theory of the French Defense. Among them are Mikhail Botvinnik, Viktor Korchnoi, Akiba Rubinstein, Aron Nimzowitsch, Tigran Petrosian, Lev Psakhis, Wolfgang Uhlmann, and Rafael Vaganian.

More recent advocates 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, promoted by Howard Staunton in the 19th century, has declined in popularity, with its reputation of providing immediate equality to Black because of the symmetrical pawn structure. However, it was briefly experimented with by Garry Kasparov in the early 1990s.

The Advance Variation, favored in the early days of the French Defense and seen by Aron Nimzowitsch as White’s best choice, saw a decrease in popularity throughout the 20th century.

Nevertheless, it was revitalized in the 1980s by GM Evgeny Sveshnikov and has remained a viable choice, especially at the club level, due to its simple, straightforward plan and attacking opportunities. More recently, GM Alexander Grischuk has successfully used it at the highest levels of competition.

Is the French Defense Good for Beginners or Intermediates?

The French Defense can be a good choice for both beginners and intermediate players.

For beginners, it provides a structured approach to the game and a clear plan for developing pieces and contesting the center.

For intermediate players, the opening offers numerous strategic and tactical nuances that can help improve understanding of positional play and pawn structure dynamics.

However, it’s worth noting that the opening can lead to some complex positions and requires a deep understanding of its strategic ideas.

How Often the French Defense Is Played at the Grandmaster Level

The French Defense is regularly seen at the grandmaster level, reflecting its strategic depth and potential for leading to a wide range of middlegame structures.

It’s a favorite among players looking for a robust and challenging response to 1.e4.

Some grandmasters have utilized the French Defense as a key part of their opening repertoire, further solidifying its status as a potent and respected choice in top-level play.

French Defense vs. Sicilian Defense

The French Defense (1.e4 e6) and the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5) are both popular responses to 1.e4, but they offer different types of games.

French Defense

The French Defense is known for its strategic depth and solidity. Black attempts to challenge White’s central pawn duo directly.

After 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5, Black’s plan is to effectively manage their cramped space in the opening, and capitalize on counter-attack opportunities later in the game.

While the French Defense can lead to a variety of pawn structures and piece setups, a common characteristic is the “pawn chain” structure that emerges after White advances their pawn to e5.

One potential issue with the French Defense is that Black’s light-square bishop can be difficult to develop effectively due to the pawn structure.

Sicilian Defense

The Sicilian Defense, on the other hand, is known for leading to more asymmetric and dynamic positions.

In contrast to the direct challenge of the French Defense, the Sicilian Defense combats White’s central control indirectly.

The Sicilian Defense tends to result in more open positions where tactical prowess is highly important.

The most popular variation of the Sicilian Defense, the Najdorf Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6), allows Black to create a complex pawn structure and aims to counter-attack on the queenside while White often goes for a kingside attack.

Why is the Sicilian Defense more common at the highest level?

The Sicilian Defense is often seen more frequently at the top level of chess for a few reasons:

1. Complexity and Asymmetry: Sicilian positions tend to be more unbalanced and complex, providing more opportunities for both sides to play for a win. The asymmetry of the position means that it’s less likely the game will simplify to a draw.

2. Richness of Tactics: The open nature of many Sicilian lines leads to tactical battles that can test even the strongest players. This creates many opportunities for players to show their calculating abilities and to outplay their opponents in sharp lines.

3. Wide Variety of Variations: The Sicilian Defense has a multitude of variations that can cater to different player styles. From the aggressive Najdorf and Dragon variations, to the more positional Scheveningen and Paulsen systems, the Sicilian offers something for everyone.

4. Historic Success: The Sicilian Defense has been successfully employed by numerous World Champions and elite players throughout history, which testifies to its effectiveness and resilience.

In contrast, while the French Defense is also a reputable opening, it tends to lead to slightly more closed positions and can sometimes be difficult to break down, leading to fewer decisive games.

However, there is an argument to be made that the French Defense is underplayed at the highest levels of the game.

Oftentimes in chess there are trends based on what’s worked recently (i.e., the top players having success using it) rather than its theoretical soundness.

It’s worth noting though, that the choice between the Sicilian and French (or any other openings) often comes down to individual player preference and style.

Some players might prefer the solidity and strategic nature of the French, while others might prefer the dynamism and tactical richness of the Sicilian.

French Defense vs. Caro-Kann Defense

The French Defense (1.e4 e6) and the Caro-Kann Defense (1.e4 c6) are both reliable defenses against 1.e4, but they present distinct plans and strategies.

French Defense

The French Defense is a chess opening that is characterized by a solid pawn structure and counterattacking opportunities.

After 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5, Black seeks to undermine White’s pawn center.

The main issue with the French Defense is the potentially problematic development of Black’s light-square bishop, which can be restricted by its own pawns on the e6 and d5 squares.

Caro-Kann Defense

The Caro-Kann Defense, on the other hand, begins with 1.e4 c6 and aims to combat White’s central control without creating significant weaknesses.

Black often follows up with 2…d5 and looks to develop the light-square bishop outside the pawn chain, typically to f5 or g4, before playing …e6.

This tends to solve the problem that often occurs in the French Defense regarding the light-square bishop.

However, Black may concede some space to White in the opening phase.

Comparing the French and Caro-Kann Defense

1. Bishop Development: In the French Defense, Black’s c8 bishop is often a problem piece, as it’s blocked by its own pawns on d5 and e6. In the Caro-Kann, however, Black can develop the bishop outside the pawn chain, often to f5 or g4, before playing …e6.

2. Central Control: In both defenses, Black looks to challenge White’s control of the center. However, in the French, Black immediately attacks the central d4 pawn with …d5, while in the Caro-Kann, Black uses a different move order, with …c6 first and …d5 second, to fight for central control.

3. Pawn Structure: Both the French Defense and the Caro-Kann Defense can lead to pawn structures where Black has pawns on c6 and e6. However, in many lines of the Caro-Kann, the central structure is less rigid than in the French, as Black is often able to trade off a pair of central pawns, making the game a bit more dynamic.

4. Opening Character: The French Defense tends to be more tactical and can often lead to sharp, complex positions, especially in the Winawer Variation. The Caro-Kann is generally seen as more positional and strategic, focusing on solid development and long-term plans.

Again, the choice between the French Defense and the Caro-Kann Defense (or any other opening) comes down to a player’s personal style and preference.

Some players may enjoy the strategic battles of the Caro-Kann, while others may prefer the counterattacking opportunities and dynamic potential in the French Defense.

FAQs – French Defense

1. What is the French Defense in chess?

The French Defense is a chess opening characterized by the initial moves 1.e4 e6.

This opening is usually followed by 2.d4 d5, with Black proceeding to challenge White’s pawn center.

The French Defense is known for its resilience and solidity, despite the initial cramped position of Black’s pieces, particularly the bishop on c8.

2. What are the main continuations after the opening moves of the French Defense?

After 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5, White has a few possible continuations:

  • 3.Nc3 or 3.Nd2 to defend the e4-pawn
  • 3.e5 to advance the pawn
  • 3.exd5 to exchange the pawn
  • 3.Bd3 to defend the pawn with the bishop, though this allows Black to gain either a tempo or the advantage of the two bishops.

Each of these options leads to different types of positions with varying strategic and tactical considerations.

3. How does Black counterplay against White’s pawn center in the French Defense?

Black usually counterplays against White’s central pawn structure by attacking it.

The move …c7–c5 is common to challenge White’s center. In case this attack is not enough, Black may also play …f7–f6.

These moves aim to destabilize White’s center and gain more space for Black’s pieces.

4. What common strategies does White employ in the French Defense?

White often tries to exploit their extra space on the kingside for a potential mating attack.

This is particularly visible in the Alekhine–Chatard Attack.

Apart from this, White may also look for opportunities to advance their kingside pawns, particularly in the endgame, using moves like f2–f4, g2–g4, and then f4–f5.

A more modern idea for White involves gaining space on the queenside with a2–a3 and b2–b4.

5. What are the main drawbacks of the French Defense for Black?

One of the main drawbacks for Black in the French Defense is the queen’s bishop, which can be blocked by the pawn on e6 and remain passive throughout the game.

Black’s position can also become cramped and passive due to the structures that arise from the opening.

Finding a useful post for the bishop can often be a priority for Black early in the game.

6. How does Black deal with the problematic bishop in the French Defense?

To avoid the problem of a passive light-square bishop, Black often seeks to find it a useful post early in the game.

In many lines of the Winawer Variation, Black can play …Bd7–a4 to attack a pawn on c2.

If Black’s f-pawn has moved to f6, then Black may consider moving the bishop to g6 or h5 via d7 and e8.

If White’s light-square bishop is on the f1–a6 diagonal, Black can aim to exchange it by playing …b6 and …Ba6, or …Qb6 followed by …Bd7–b5.

7. Can the French Defense transition into other common openings?

Yes, the French Defense can transition into other openings through transposition.

For instance, after 1.d4 e6 2.e4 d5, the game has effectively transposed into a French Defense from a Queen’s Pawn Game.

Another example is when Black declines a Blackmar–Diemer Gambit with 1.d4 d5 2.e4 e6, which also leads to the French Defense.

8. How does White deal with Black’s counterplay on the queenside?

White usually responds to Black’s counterplay on the queenside by reinforcing their central pawns, often with the move c2–c3.

White must also be mindful of Black’s potential for counterattacks, particularly against the d4 pawn, as well as the risks of advancing their f-pawn prematurely, which may open the g1–a7 diagonal and potentially expose White’s king to attack.

9. How important is pawn structure in the French Defense?

Pawn structure is vital in the French Defense.

The opening often results in a closed pawn structure, which can lead to a slower, more strategic battle.

Both sides must carefully consider their pawn moves, as they can significantly influence the prospects of their pieces and the overall dynamics of the game.

10. Why is the French Defense considered a solid opening choice for Black?

Despite the initial cramped position of Black’s pieces, the French Defense is considered a solid opening due to the tough pawn structure that Black can establish.

This pawn structure makes it difficult for White to break through without making significant concessions.

Additionally, the French Defense offers Black several opportunities for counterplay, either by challenging White’s center or exploiting pawn weaknesses on the queenside.


The French Defense is a critical part of the chess opening landscape.

It offers a robust and resilient response to 1.e4, providing players with numerous strategic considerations and a rich array of middle game possibilities.

Whether you’re a beginner learning the ropes or an intermediate player looking to deepen your understanding of the game, the French Defense is a compelling choice that can significantly enhance your chess skills and strategy.

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