Usually, whoever makes the first move - in chess or in life, gains an automatic advantage. In chess, the French Defence makes that statement less of a certainty.
This defence is the chess equivalent of what therapists advise people to do in confrontational situations: keep your boundaries.
Whether we're talking about chess or psychology, keeping boundaries could limit your options. How and how quickly you respond, whether you engage or do your own thing and whether you can entice others to go along with your plans are examples of such limitations.
In chess, no game opener offers more dramatic proof of that than the French Defence.
Unique among the top chess openings favoured today, this defence is not the only one to give Black a strong advantage but it certainly stands apart from the rest. Let's find out why.
Explaining the French Defence
Imagine stepping out of your house on a fine, sunny morning and, upon seeing your neighbour has also just walked outside, you send a hearty greeting. They answer with a limp half-wave and turn away.
That's odd, you might think. Normally, you two would meet somewhere in the middle and exchange some news; maybe invite one another to a more meaningful exchange later on. What's going on?
If this scenario were a chess game, it would be called the French Defence.
The Open Game is the most common move-pair opening chess games today. It consists of the White king's pawn advancing to e4 and Black's e-file pawn meeting it head-on in the middle of the board, on square e5 (1. e4 e5). This pawn-to-pawn confrontation represents both sides staking their claim on the board's centre.
The Queen's Gambit sees the queen's pawns facing off that way, albeit on the d-file.
Contrary to these popular and oft-used openings, the French Defence avoids that mid-board confrontation because Black advances their e-file pawn only one square (1. e4 e6).
White's next move is just like any other Open Game move. Their queen's pawn takes up residence at d5, thus forming their typical pawn centre. This time, Black does confront White's d-file pawn: 2. d4 d5.
At this point, with their e-file pawn under attack, White may call up a knight to defend it (3. Nd2 or Nc3). Other options include capturing Black's d5 pawn or simply advancing their e-file pawn out of harm's way.
One move White should avoid making is 3. Bd3 - advancing their kingside bishop to defend their e4 pawn because Black may achieve their positional play aims faster (gaining a 'tempo' in chess-speak) or the possibility of capturing White's bishop, which would give them a 'two-bishops' advantage.
With just this brief explanation, it's easy to see how Black can easily gain the upper hand and keep their advantage by playing the French Defense. They can also hold it longer than if playing the more renowned Ruy Lopez opening.
A Bit of Background on the French Defence
This opening got its name thanks to a correspondence match between a player in London who has a Parisian player for an opponent that took place in 1834. There were earlier games featuring that defense but, apparently, this tactic had yet to be named.
Because it was so unconventional for its time, the French players had to do a fair amount of convincing to make this defence standard. At that time - the Romantic era of chess, symmetrical games were more conventional.
Indeed, William Steinitz, the very first World Chess Champion (1886 to 1894), crowned toward the end of that era, sneered:
"I have never in my life played the French Defence, which is the dullest of all openings."
Of course, we can't know if he actually sneered as he uttered those words but he certainly made his contempt for the defence crystal clear.
In the early 1900s, Hungarian chess master Géza Maróczy made the French Defence his go-to move. As he was so well-regarded in chess circles, other players thought that, perhaps, they too should take a closer look at all of its inherent possibilities. Soon, it became the third-most-popular response to White's e4 move.
The French Defence's popularity has grown since then. Recently, analysis of chess games reveals that the French Defence ranks second only to the Sicilian Defence.
French Defence Variations
Essential notation for the French Defence is: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3
In nearly half of all recorded game featuring the French Defence, this is the main line. Black may answer White's knight with 3. ... Bb4, 3. ... Nf6 or 3. ... dxc4. These responses are called the Winawer Variation, the Classical Variation and the Rubenstein Variation, respectively.
If White is a particularly aggressive player, they might adopt the Exchange Variation (3. exd5 exd5), in which White captures the d5 pawn and Black draws on their e6 pawn to recapture.
Of course, there are other variations White may try, the Tarrasch (3. Nd2) and Advance (3. e5) included.
Another one, favoured by International Chess Master Helmut Reefschlaeger, entails Black moving their queenside knight to c6 as a defense for their d5 pawn. Most in the chess community consider that a questionable move - almost a throwaway turn, considering the rest of the line: 4. Nf3 Nf6 5. e5 Ne4.
That's about all the time we'll invest in exploring that risky move. As seen in the King's Gambit (Declined), variations of all types have their pros and cons; let us now discover different approaches for players on both sides of the board to consider.
White Deviates from Standard
The standard notation in the last segment details how more than 90% of all French Defence games open: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3
And, as we mentioned in this article's introduction, this opening advantages Black to a higher degree - provided they can operate within the constraints it imposes on their moves.
To claw back some favour, White may try different variations to gain an edge on their opponent. Here are a few to consider:
- the Chigorin Variation (2. Qe2) keeps Black off of d5. The typical Black response is 2. ... c5
- the Steiner Variation (c4) is also meant to keep Black away from d5
- the Reti Gambit (2. b3): Black may accept by advancing to d5, as usual, or may decline by moving their kingside knight to f6
- the Labourdonnais Variation (2. f4) accelerates White's pawn structure buildup while Black invokes their knights
- the Two Knights Variation (2. Nf3 d5 3. Nc3): as White deploys their knights, Black builds up their pawns
All of these minor adjustments to the standard opening may present White with a bit of a leg up but any opponent, outside of a complete chess novice would be able to overcome these attempts at establishing dominion.
That's what makes the French Defence so suitable for Black players who are just beginning their chess career. It's not exactly foolproof - nobody's ever guaranteed a win, but this defense makes it a bit easier to at least raise their Elo ratings.
You have to keep in mind that winning chess games is not an end in itself but a means of improving one's standing as a player so that they qualify for more prestigious tournaments and competitions.
Black Deviates from Standard
As this opening defense favours Black, that side of the board would be less inclined to deviate from the standard moves. Still, there are options you should try, especially if you're a relatively new player.
The Franco-Benoni Defence (2. ... c5) promotes an early buildup of the queenside pawn structure for Black, which could compel White into invoking the Sicilian Defence if they opt for 3. Nf3.
It may also transpose into the Alapin Sicilian - albeit only a line, or conclude as a mere sidestep of the French Defence. Finally, it may lead down a convoluted path that culminates in the Advance Variation we covered above.
Another possible variation Black might exercise is 2. ... b6. This short hop is in line with Black's overall pawn structure aims but it still cramps their action. On the other hand, it could transpose into the English Defence (1. d4 b6 2. c4 e6), an exceedingly asymmetrical opening.
As with the Scotch Game, the French Defence has endured its share of bad press because it favours - or, at least facilitates Black holding their own throughout the game. Still, there are some downsides.
For one, Black has to manage very cramped play at least into the middlegame. With such a tight line of pawns, piece development becomes much more difficult. And then, there's the matter of the pinned knight...
The Classical Variation, described above, sees Black answering their opponent's 3. ... Nc3 with Nf6. That is a standard move but the downside is that that knight then becomes trapped and powerless.
Still, despite the cramped structure and restricted piece development, the French Defence is the best response Black could give to the standard e4.
So, while you might not be the type to give your neighbour a lackadaisical wave when you meet in the morning, if you're playing chess and have drawn Black, that's the best move you could make.
Now find out what the Italian game has to do with pianos...
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