What is the French Defense in Chess?

French Defense in chess is a solid opening against 1.e4. However, in some of the variations, the French Defense can be extremely sharp as well. What are the main ideas for both sides? Also, should you play French Defense?

You’ll find the answers to it in this article. You’ll also understand the basic opening theory of the French here. But first, we need to understand this…

How do you play French Defense in chess?

The opening that occurs on the board after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5, is known as the French Defense. It is played with the Black pieces & it enjoys a reputation of being a solid and trustworthy opening. It’s an opening that a lot of top players play.

French Defense

Key Ideas for White in the French

Establish strong central control

One of White’s main ideas in the French Defense is to have firm control over the centre. By doing so, they can dictate the play as well as they gain extra space for their pieces. This way maneuvering their pieces becomes easier.

Play against Black’s Bc8

In the French, one of the key features of the position is Black’s c8-bishop. It’s often considered a bad piece because it gets restricted within it’s pawn structure. Due to this, White often tries to exchange all the pieces and go for endings where Black has to play with their bad bishop.

Key Ideas for Black in the French

Pressurize White’s centre

In the French, with 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5, Black is asking White to immediately take a decision in the centre – whether to push the pawn with 3.e5 or defend it with 3.Nc3 or 3.Nd2. Later, they can also challenge the d4 pawn with the move …c5 at the right time. Also, they can attack the e5-pawn with …f6. 

Use their c8-bishop smartly

How Black solves the problem of their c8-bishop will decide the success of their opening strategy. Ideally, Black would want to exchange this bishop for White’s light squared bishop. If that’s not possible, Black tries to use their bad bishop to defend their pawns. Another plan is to activate their bishop with …Bd7-…Be8-…f6 & …Bh5.

Now, let’s have a look at some of the theoretical lines in the French Defense.

Basic Theory of the French Defense

After 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5, White has 3 different options –

3. Nc3 (Mainline)

3. Nd2 (Tarrasch Variation)

3. e5 (Advanced Variation)

3. exd5 (Exchange Variation)

We’ll take a look at each of them here.

3.Nc3 (Mainline)

This is one of the most important lines in the French Defense. It’s also known as the mainline. Here, Black has a lot of options.

They can play the razor-sharp Winawer variation with 3…Bb4, which is a very double edged line. The side which isn’t careful can often land into trouble and get into a lost position.

Another option is to play 3…Nf6, which is a reasonable alternative to the Winawer variation. Here, in the mainline White continues with 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 or 5.Nce2. There are dynamic chances for both sides in the opening.

Or Black can choose to play a quiet line with 3…dxe4 or 3…Nf6. In most cases, it’s pleasant to play with White. However, Black’s position is comfortable too.

3.Nd2 (Tarrasch)

Named after the famous player Siegbert Tarrasch, this opening serves a similar purpose to that of the 3.Nc3. However, there’s a difference in developing the knight to d2. 

When the knight is on this square, Black’s 3…Bb4 is ineffective as it would be met with 4.c3. On the other hand, the knight on d2 also restricts the development of White’s c1-bishop

3. e5 (Advance Variation)

In the Advance variation of the French Defense, White instantly grabs space in the centre. At the same time, they also make their centre static. 

As a result, the priorities are set for both sides. White will try to make the best use of their space. They often do this by the means of creating an attack on the kingside with Nf3-g5, Bd3, Qg4.

On the other hand, Black will try to put as much pressure as they can on White’s centre, especially their d4-pawn. For this reason, the mainline continues with 3…c5, applying immediate pressure.

Later, Black will play …Nc6, …Qb6, …Nh6-Nf5. If White captures on c5 at some point, their e5-pawn becomes weak.

3. exd5 (Exchange Variation)

This variation of the French is known for being a drawish. After 3.exd5 exd5, White’s idea is to maintain their pawn structure’s symmetry without complicating the game. Simple play is the agenda here.

In most cases, the exchange variation is used by players who don’t want to fight for an opening advantage with White. Black is very comfortable in this line.


Now that you know what are White’s options are, you might wonder whether to play the French Defense as Black? If you like playing solid chess, it could be a good opening. It’s an objective and correct opening that the engine cannot refute. We hope this article has given you a basic idea of the French Defense.

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