- The French Defense in chess is considered a fighting opening
- Takes a strong stake in the center
- Easy to learn
- Simple and solid
- Has been used by many famous masters
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
Playing the French Defense in Chess
The French Defense has been used by many famous masters including Alexander Alekhine, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Ding Liren, and Varuzhan Akobian, who is considered a modern-day expert in this opening.
The opening, denoted by the first moves of 1.e4 e6 and normally followed by 2.d4 d5, has been around since at least the 1800s and played by all manner of chess addicts, from beginner to grandmaster.
The main idea is to get a pawn in the center and create a very solid pawn setup on the e6 and d5 squares.
However, playing …e6 so early blocks in the c8 bishop and because of that, Black often struggles to get it into the game and active.
As we’ll see, though, there are definitely ways to accomplish this and remind White that he shouldn’t take the French Defense in chess so lightly.
Readers interested in a comprehensive write-up on this chess opening can go to this French Defense post here on iChess and delve deeply into the ins and outs of the opening.
Also, this introduction to the French Defense by GM Damian Lemos will come in handy:
Alexander Alekhine and the French Defense in Chess
Here is an example of how the fourth world champion, Alexander Alekhine, handled the Black side of the French Defense, way back in 1909 in St Petersburg.
The future world chess champion would have been about 16 years old when he played this game, so we can see that this monster of the board already had a master’s-level handle on chess very early in life.
Although not much is known about his opponent, J. Goldfarb, an internet search reveals that he did butt heads with some very famous players, such as Akiba Rubinstein.
J. Goldfarb vs. Alexander Alekhine, 1909.
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5
Here we see the classical French Defense formation from Alekhine. From this point, the game can go practically anywhere, as you will soon see.
After Black’s …d5, White has a few choices, but most popular are exd5, which is the Exchange Variation, e5 for a French Advance, or Nc3, the Paulsen Variation, which can lead to the famous Winawer setup if Black then plays 3…Bb4.
3.exd5 exd5 4.Bd3
White has chosen to exchange and activate his light-squared bishop on d3.
Now, I’m sure you’ve all heard the idiom knights before bishops and, mostly, that’s true.
It might seem more natural to play Nf3 instead.
It may surprise you to learn that Stockfish flips back and forth between the two moves while set on infinite analysis, no book, and ultimately reports that either is fine.
4…Nc6 5.c3 Bd6 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Nf3 Ng4 8.Nbd2
One notable thing about this game is that …Nc6 isn’t normally played until after …c5, which is thematic in most French Defense games. Alekhine chose to skip the …c5 move and develop a piece, instead.
The game went on rather normally until Alekhine played 7…Ng4, threatening White’s dark-squared bishop on e3.
White played his other knight out and let him take the bishop, which was a rather poor decision as it loses a bishop for a knight early in the game and leaves White with a weak, backward e-pawn.
8…Nxe3 9.fxe3 Qe7 10.Qe2
Alekhine, no stranger to the French Defense in chess, capitalized on the weakness immediately by playing …Qe7, pressuring the pawn and improving his position at the same time.
10. Qe2 f5 11.0–0 Nd8
Alekhine realizes that the knight’s job on c6 is done and it needs to move to greener pastures.
11…Nd8 may seem like a weird move but it does carry with it a strategic idea, which is to reroute it to the g5 square, where it offers to trade off White’s kingside knight.
It also threatens to land on e4, a great outpost square.
12.c4 c6 13.Nb3 0–0 14.Rae1 Nf7 15.Qc2 Ng5
White took the knight and Alekhine recaptured with his queen, which now stares menacingly at White’s king.
He also retains the venerable bishop pair, which is a great thing in this French Defense structure.
White blunders, allowing Alekhine to launch a huge attack utilizing a bishop sacrifice to rip open the king’s defenses.
17…Bxh2+ 18.Kf2 h5 19.Rh1 Bd6 20.Rfh3 h4 21.Rf3 Bg3+ 22.Ke2 f4 23.exf4 Bxf4 24.g3 Re8+ 25.Kf1 Bxg3 26.Bh7+ Kh8 27.Qg6 Re1+ 0–1
The game is over after ten more moves, Alekhine having completely dominated the position in this French Defense game.
There is no hope now because after Black moves his king to g2, the only legal square, there is a forced checkmate.
The game would have continued: 28. Kg2 h3+! 29. Rxh3 (forced) Bxh3+ 30. Kxh3 Qh4+ Kg2 and the final nail in the coffin, 31. Qh2#.
A job well done by the future world chess champion!
- Wait! Want to go deeper into the French Defense? GM Damian Lemos Deep Dive 7-hour chess course on the French Defense is a good place to start. Save 50% on this course now.
A Bloodbath in the French Defense Between Kamsky and Liren
Now let’s take a look at a French Defense game in which the thematic c5 move was utilized.
The game, played between Gata Kamsky and Ding Liren in 2011, is nothing short of a bloodbath.
Kamsky, G (2730) – Ding, L (2628)
Aeroflot Open A Moscow RUS (6), 13.02.2011
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7 5.f4 c5
And here we see a more thematic structure in the French Defense with the center-grabbing …c5 having been played.
6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Ne2 Be7 8.c3 0–0 9.Be3 f6 10.g3 Qb6 11.Qd2 fxe5 12.dxe5 Rd8 13.Bh3 d4
Black needs to open the game up, and chooses the violent …d4 dagger to do so.
14.Bf2 d3 (it should be noted that this move is possible because of discoveries with the d8 rook) 15.Nc1 Nf8 16.b3 Qa6 17.a4 b5
Now Black is playing on the wing, taking advantage of the pin his queen has on the a4 pawn against the rook on a1.
This …b5 move is very uncomfortable for White, especially considering all else going on that he has to deal with, such as the advanced and protected passed d-pawn.
18.0–0 Bb7 19.Ra2 b4 20.c4 Na5 21.Be3
White has just played his bishop out to e3, a logical-looking move.
What would you play here?
I’m willing to bet it isn’t what Ding Liren played in this French Defense masterpiece.
Take a few moments and decide what you would do.
21…Nxc4 was played, which was likely rather shocking to Kamsky.
The game continued: 22.bxc4 Qxc4 and it’s clear now what was on Black’s mind when he sacrificed the knight: not one, or two, but three passed pawns.
23.f5 exf5 24.Bxf5 Qd5 25.Bxd3 c4 26.Bb1 Qc6 27.Qe1 Ng6 28.Raf2??
I’ll bet Kamsky kicked himself after this blunder and seeing Ding’s reply, which was 28…Nxe5!
This move takes advantage of the fact that White’s knight on f3 can’t move or else checkmate is delivered on h1.
Now Black moves in for the kill, slowly dismantling White until there is nothing left but crumbs and dust.
28.Nxe5 29.Ne2 Rd3 30.Ned4 Qd5 31.Bxd3 Nxd3 32.Qd2 Nxf2 33.Rxf2 Rf8 34.h4 c3 35.Qd3 Bc5 36.Bf4 Rd8 37.Be5 Re8 38.Bf4 Re1+
Again, Ding punishes Kamsky for having a knight that simply cannot move.
The psychological effect this type situation has on players is powerful. White’s hands are tied, he can do almost nothing but wait for the end.
Kamsky, surely feeling overwhelmed and defeated, interposed the rook with 39.Rf1. The position is shown below.
Stop for a few moments and decide what you would play if it were your move as Black in a real game. Is it what Ding played?
If you came up with 39….Qxf3!! then give yourself a healthy pat on the back, because it’s a monster of a move.
The knight on d4 is pinned, the rook on f1 is pinned to the white king, and Black has retained the massively powerful queen-bishop battery on the long diagonal.
The game is as good as over, but Kamsky decided to play another move anyhow, taking Black’s queen with his own.
But after the bishop check, he decided it’s finally time to call it a day and hope the next game goes better.
40.Qxf3 Bxd4+ 0–1
We also recommend you watch this free video by IM Valeri Lilov on the French Defense, as it will provide you with further interesting ideas on how to play this chess opening correctly:
Bobby Fischer Against the French Defense in Chess
OK, now let’s see what happens when the French Defense in chess doesn’t work.
The following game was played by Ronald Finegold, chess master and father of popular streamer GM Ben Finegold, in 1963.
Ronald used the French Defense against his opponent and lost, it’s true, but in his defense, none other than the great Bobby Fischer played the white pieces.
This is a true slug fest, and is a beautiful game for many reasons and on so many levels, it’s tough to do it justice.
Fischer, Robert James – Finegold, Ronald
Bay City Bay City, 1963
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4
As mentioned earlier in this article, …Bb4 takes the Paulsen Variation into the Winawer, one of the most popular lines in the French Defense.
4.a3 Bxc3+ 5.bxc3 dxe4 6.Qg4 Nf6
Black dares White to take the g-pawn, which will gain him a few tempi after Rg8, chasing the queen away.
However, especially in his Najdorf Sicilian games as Black, Fischer is known for snatching the very dangerous b-pawn and so why would he do anything different here?
Takes it is!
7.Qxg7 Rg8 8.Qh6 Rg6 9.Qe3 b6 10.Bb2 Bb7 11.0–0–0
It isn’t often we see both players castling queenside in a French Defense setup, but it happened here.
11…Nbd7 12.h3 Qe7 13.Ne2 0–0–0 14.c4 e5 15.dxe5 Nxe5 16.Rxd8+ Kxd8 17.Nf4 Rg8 18.Be2 Kc8 19.Rd1 Rd8 20.Rxd8+ Kxd8 21.Qg3 Ng6 22.h4
After some to-and-fro action, as well as a few exchanges, we see Fischer slowly gaining traction.
What really is interesting about this game is that Finegold didn’t do anything outwardly wrong, per se, and yet Fischer just opened the door and came in.
With each new position that arises, the engine eval slowly creeps up in Fischer’s favor.
It goes to show the true mastery he possessed and that one does not necessarily need a blunder from his opponent in order to completely take control of a game.
Well, not when your name is Bobby Fischer, you don’t.
22…Nxf4 23.Qxf4 Ne8 24.h5 Bc8 25.h6 Qd6 26.Qg5+ Qe7 27.Qd5+ Qd6 28.Qg5+ Qe7 29.Qg3 Bf5 30.Qf4 Qe6 31.g4 Bg6 32.Qg5+ Qe7 33.Qd5+ Qd6
After the knights were exchanged the game saw quite a bit of checking and repositioning.
Black managed to get his bishop to g6 where it protects the e-pawn.
What we end up with is the position above; can you find White’s move?
Do yourself a favor and take some time here. The move that Fischer found is mean and not real obvious.
34.Be5! Forcing the trade of the ladies, on Fischer’s terms.
A tough improving move to find but of course, Fischer was a tough player.
34…Qxd5 35.cxd5 f6 36.Bg3 Ke7 37.Kd2 Nd6 38.Ke3 b5
After …b5, I think most of us would see Bxd6, removing the protection of the pawn, and Fischer saw it, too.
But to take the b-pawn allows Black to capture on d5 and then things aren’t so clear.
Fischer opted to do a little housecleaning in this French Defense game before he did anything drastic.
39.Bxd6+ Kxd6 40.Kd4 a6 41.c4 bxc4 42.Bxc4 a5 43.Ba2 f5 44.gxf5 Bxf5 45.Bb3 Bg6 46.Ba4
Here is the point of Fischer’s setup.
Although it’s tough to see, he’s actually looking to target the g6 square.
Wait, g6? How is that possible?
It’s totally protected. Yes, that’s right, it is. For now.
Watch how Fischer forces his way into what can only be described as a brilliant sequence.
Finegold actually did Fischer a huge favor with his last move, allowing the unprecedented Be8!!
Now White’s in the kitchen, and he’s going to make himself at home.
47…Ke7 48.Ke5 Bg4 – the deadly mistake. This allows Fischer to take the food he found in the kitchen and go sit down on the couch, turn on the tube.
He’s in and he’s there to stay, French Defense or no French Defense in chess.
Fischer’s next move seals the deal (and was what he wanted the entire time!).
49.Bg6! – the pawn is gone and White’s own a-pawn cannot be stopped.
49…Bd7 50.Bxh7 c6 51.dxc6 Bxc6 52.Bxe4 Bxe4 53.Kxe4 Kf6 54.f4 1–0
Playing f4 was the final hammer blow in a brutal sequence of moves that rendered poor Finegold inoperable. What a game!
So, don’t let other people scare you away from trying the French Defense if you would like to add it to your repertoire.
Clearly, the e6/d5 setup is strong and solid and it’s anything but a passive opening when played dynamically.
That Black has to deal with a possible bad bishop on c8 just comes with the territory.
But, as with anything else we may love, we must take the bad with the good. Play a few French Defense games, see how they go!