First, a Little History on my Experience with the French Defense
I first learned how to play the game of chess in 1983 when I was in third grade. One classmate of mine and I were so far above the others in math that our teacher taught us the game and this is what we played during recess on days that it rained and recess took place in the classroom. For the next 11 years, I played occasionally. Then came the 1994-1995 school year, my sophomore year of college at Winthrop University, and there were four of us that played many nights in the lobby of the dorm in the middle of the night, one of which being the person that operated the entrance door to the dorm that was locked at midnight each night. A year later, in the Fall of 1995, an RA (Residence Assistant - a student that is hired to head one floor of a residence hall) by the name of Gil Holmes ran a small tournament between 7 other students and himself. This lead to Gil Holmes and myself probably played about a thousand blitz games over the course of my final five semesters in college (and we've gone to many tournaments since then, and now our kids hang out together at times, but that's another topic), and I read my first three chess books over the course of the 1995-1996 school year. "Winning Chess Tactics" and "Winning Chess Strategies" by Yasser Sieriwan and "How to Win in the Chess Endings" by I.A. Horowitz. During that time, I was playing blitz games against another player by the name of Mark Roach (some of you might recognize the name as he's played in limited tournaments in North Carolina), and unlike Gil at the time, Mark was a big 1.e4 player, and I experimented with various moves as Black, not knowing anything about openings. Just basic tactics, strategy, and endgames. When I played 1...e6 and 2...d5, something clicked. I asked if what I was playing was an opening and if it had a name, and was informed that it was called the French Defense, which lead to the first opening book I ever read, Wolfgang Uhlmann's "Winning With the French". This is now 1996. I also at that time picked up the Queen's Gambit as both White and Black, and this is what I played in my first tournament in 1996, the Statesville Open. I continued to play a bunch of blitz in college and studied books, but didn't play another tournament until March of 1997 in Rock Hill, SC. This is when I started played in tournaments regularly, including well over 50 games in 1997, and over 100 games every year from 1998 until 2015, a streak that was broken in 2016 where I only played 93 games.
Well, during those years, while I have played other openings as well against 1.e4, including 1...e5, the Caro-Kann, the Najdorf and Taimanov Sicilian, the Modern Defense, and brief stints of the Pirc, Scandinavian, and Alekhine, I have known the French Defense for over 20 years now. I probably have at minimum 400 to 500 games as Black with the French Defense, and possibly more. I've had great results with it.
That said, there has been two major difficulties with the French. The first is 3.Nc3. This is known to be White's strongest move against the French. White will always have a slight advantage with this line if played properly. If Black ever proved full equality here, everyone would play the French Defense. That said, there is a TON of theory that White must know to be able to maintain that advantage. In addition to the move 3...Nf6 that we covered here in the previous two articles, White must also be ready for the Rubinstein Variation (3...dxe4) and the Winawer (3...Bb4), the latter of which has even more theory to it than 3...Nf6. You could spend a lifetime just trying to figure out how to retain that advantage with 3.Nc3.
From 1997 until about 2007, it was thought that 3.Nc3 was White's only choice to get an advantage. Then came a rough patch for Black. A GM by the name of Evgeny Sveshnikov was a major contributor, amongst others, that started finding many new ideas for White in the Advance Variation of the French Defense. 3.e5 started becoming more popular, and White was starting to get excellent results. It was figured out that the main reason why Black was scoring so well previously wasn't because the Advance Variation was bad, but rather, that White wasn't following up with the correct lines. The Milner-Barry Gambit (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.Bd3?!) was popular, but it's not very good. Others, after the same first five moves by each side, were playing the more conservative 6.Be2, but this does nothing for White and equality is extremely easy for Black to achieve. In 2007, that all changed, so much to the point that the French Defense for me went from being my main defense to 1.e4 from 1997 to 2007, to being a defense that I only played on rare occasion for 2007 to 2015, before picking it back up in 2015 and playing the line shown in the Introduction article. So the ideas in the Advance French have come a very long way just in the 20 year span that I have played the French Defense, and it is of my firm belief that aside from 3.Nc3, the Advance French is a legitimate way to get an advantage against the French Defense, and that aside from these two moves, 3.Nc3 and 3.e5, White has no other way to achieve anything better than equality.
The Advance Variation contains far fewer branches than 3.Nc3, and hence easier to retain the ideas, and so that is why I believe it is the best line to play against the French, balancing strength with the amount of work required to execute. In addition, these ideas from 2007 still for the most part hold today.
Article Structure - And The Theory Behind It
You might have noticed that the first six articles covered various lines of the French recommended for Black via a complete game structure, with a game for each major variation that often contained other games embedded within for various side lines. While I am a firm believer that the complete game format is the best way to learn a defense as Black, I don't think it's the most effective way to study your game as White. Why, you ask? Think about it from a tree structure perspective.
Let's look at Black first. What can White legitimately play? 1.e4 is one move. 1.d4 is a second move. 1.c4 and 1.Nf3 are options, but they will often transpose to 1.d4 openings. Sure there are a few sidelines, but not many that are very effective. Then you have very minor openings like 1.b3, 1.b4, 1.Nc3, 1.g3, etc. So if you look at it from the perspective of branches, you have 4 branches. 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4 minor lines that don't transpose to 1.d4, and 1.Nf3 minor lines that don't transpose to 1.d4. Now let's take the 1.e4 branch. You play 1...e6. What does White have? 2.d4, maybe 2.d3, and really nothing else. All other lines are deemed minor. If you figure minor lines are so rare that a 30-minute study and absorbing a basic understanding is sufficient, you are left with a very limited number of branches. So the 1.e4 branch may have 2 branches at move 2, 2.d3 and 2.d4, and then for the 2.d4 branch, move 3 will have 4 branches, 3.Nc3, 3.Nd2, 3.e5, and 3.exd5.
Now with these limited branches, namely 5 of them, you are looking at almost half of your games ever played as Black if you are a devoted French player. Every time the game starts 1.e4, you have a French. So it's absolutely critical to understand the pawn structures and ideas like the back of your half because roughly a quarter of your games will feature this opening, assuming half your games you'll be Black and half of those you'll face 1.e4. You need to know typical endgame themes.
Now let's look at White. Since we are talking about being the French, we'll assume your first move will be 1.e4. How many legitimate moves are there for Black? Sure something like 1...b6 is legal, but there are seven moves for Black that are considered the main defenses to 1.e4, namely 1...e5, 1...c5, 1...e6, 1...c6, 1...d6, 1...g6, and 1...Nf6, with moves like 1...d5 and 1...Nc6 not far behind. That's 9 branches at move 1 compared to Black's 4 branches. Now let's look at just 1...c5. Let's say you play 2.Nf3, the main second move just like how I am recommending the main second move, 2.d4 here against the French. Now you have 2...d6, 2...e6, 2...Nc6, 2...g6, and even 2...a6 or 2...Nf6. That's 6 sub-branches just in the Sicilian Branch and this is only move 2. 1...e5 is also loaded with sub-variations.
Therefore, given the fact your White repertoire is going to have far more branches to it than your Black repertoire unless you play something really odd like 1.g4, and that your number of opening branches as Black will typically be far more limited, I am of the firm belief that understanding the middlegame and endgame positions in your Black repertoire is far more critical because of the high frequency. As White, there is a lot more to understand and absorb in the opening, and your positions end up so diverse, that you are not going to have the same middlegame positions repeatedly, and so a general broad study of middlegame and endgame ideas is more effective here. So in essence, what you are doing is studying general middlegame and endgame books to broaden your knowledge, and these will be most effective for your games as White as you will have a wide variety of positions, but as Black, you are narrowing the middlegame and endgame positions and deepening your understand of those specific positions, but you can't leave out the rest of the middlegame and endgame structures because of your games as White.
Therefore, the structure of this article will be as follows:
- History of the French Advance
- Theory of the French Advance
- Recommended Study
History of the French Advance
While not the earliest that it was ever played, the biggest contributor to French Advance strategy is Aaron Nimzowitsch. In a nutshell, one one describes White's strategy. Blockade! Understanding of White's goal is extremely simple. Keep the d5-pawn and e6-pawn stuck in their tracks. Does this mean that White must go out of his way to hold on to the two pawns in the center and automatically play moves like f4, to hold down e5? No! In fact, in the French Advance, the move f4 is rarely ever played early on because once White castles, the d4-pawn can be pinned to the King by the Black Queen on b6, which in turn actually weakens e5. The idea behind blockading the pawns on d5 and e6 is not to keep pawns on the d4 and e5 squares, but rather to completely control those two squares, where in some cases, it may not be physically impossible to move those pawns, but rather, moving them simply loses for Black. So rather than there being one way to own the center and block the Black pawns, there are three:
- Occupy d4 and e5 with Pawns, which is how the game starts off.
- Occupy d4 and e5 with pieces, most frequently a Bishop on d4 and a Knight on e5, though both could be Knights if e5 is thoroughly covered by other pieces, such as a Rook on e1, or maybe if the f-pawn is eventually pushed to f4, usually preceded by a King move to h1 to get out of the pin.
- Leave the squares open, but under total control such that if Black ever were to advance them, despite it maybe opening up Black's bad Bishop, it leads to no compensation for Black once they are captured and White is just winning.
So to illustrate this idea of the Blockade, I'm going to show you a game played by Aaron Nimzowitsch where he gives up the pawn center, and then uses his pieces to maintain the blockade, and win the game. Please note that this game is solely to illustrate the concept of the Blockade and that the line played in the opening is not amongst the lines I'm going to recommend as Black's play in this game was not ideal.
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.Bd3
This move constitutes the well known Milner-Barry Gambit. While it may have worked out well in 1911, it's not considered to be very good in today's day and age, and is not the move I will be recommending in the theory section of the article.
It is well known today that Black should trade on d4 first with 6...cxd4 7.cxd4 and only now play 7...Bd7!.
White takes advantage of Black's error and surrenders his pawn center, but I emphasize that he is surrendering his pawn center, not THE center! This game will illustrate how White continues to maintain the Blockade, which is the most important thing to keep in mind. Nothing else matters!
7...Bxc5 8.O-O f6?
Black continues to chip away at White's pawn center, but it won't help Black's cause. Black needs to try to fight for control of d4, and that starts with 8...a5, preventing White's next move and keeping the Bishop on the g1-a7 diagonal, eyeing d4. White is still better in this line, but the game move allows White to go from better to practically winning right off the bat!
9.b4! Be7 10.Bf4 fxe5?
Now that Black gave up the d4-square on move 8, let's give up on e5 now that we are at it! Great idea! NOT! Black needed to play something like 10...Nh6, maintaining the tension in the center, and if White ever takes on f6, Black can take back with the g-pawn and continue to give competition to the e5-square.
11.Nxe5 Nxe5 12.Bxe5 Nf6
Note that 12...Bf6 fails tactically to 13.Qh5+ g6 14.Bxg6+ hxg6 15.Qxg6+ Ke7 16.Bxf6+ Nxf6 17.Qxg7+ and 18.Qxf6 and White is up two pawns.
The Knight is coming in to join the c3-pawn and the Bishop to complete the Blockade!
13...O-O 14.Nf3 Bd6 15.Qe2
Keeping the Blockade intact! There is no reason to trade Bishops on d6.
Giving way to the Knight to occupy e5!
16...Rac8 17.Ne5 Be8 18.Rae1
White has completely dominated the dark squares in the center of the board. The c3- and b4-pawns also play a major factor in Black's complete inability to contest the central Blockade.
So of all things, what does Black do? He gives up his dark-squared Bishop for a Knight? Leaving White with an uncontested dark-squared Bishop when trying to break a dark-squared Blockade is a recipe for disaster! Black has basically waived the white flag with this move. Black's position is a train wreck as it is, but he has to try something like 18...Bh5 and at least pretend that he's trying to survive. The point behind this game has been made, and the rest requires no comments.
19.Bxe5 Qc6 20.Bd4 Bd7 21.Qc2 Rf7 22.Re3 b6 23.Rg3 Kh8 24.Bxh7 e5 25.Bg6 Re7 26.Re1 Qd6 27.Be3 d4 28.Bg5 Rxc3 29.Rxc3 dxc3 30.Qxc3 Kg8 31.a3 Kf8 32.Bh4 Be8 33.Bf5 Qd4 34.Qxd4 exd4 35.Rxe7 Kxe7 36.Bd3 Kd6 37.Bxf6 gxf6 38.Kf1 Bc6 39.h4 1-0
Theory of the French Advance
After the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5, Black has nothing better than 3...c5, and after 4.c3, Black has two primary options.
Also possible for Black is 4...Qb6, but after 5.Nf3, Black just about always plays either 5...Bd7, which directly transposes to line A2, or 5...Nc6, which directly transposes to line B3.
Black's idea is simple. He figures that with the center closed, slower player is warranted, and rather than development being his primary goal is to trade off the bad Light-Squared Bishop.
And now Black has two major options here.
Those of you that have read the Introduction article will know that this is the line recommended for Black in the Black Repertoire. It is a fairly recent idea, and there is still lots of room for research and creativity. Black figures that rather than running the risk of the Queen being misplaced, Black is willing to take doubled b-pawns if White captures when the Bishop comes to b5. However, it will come at a cost as it will open up the a-file for the Black Rook, and it makes Black's plan fairly easy. As you will see, we won't be executing this trade.
Another side note - this position can also arise from the O'Kelly Sicilian after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 a6 3.c3 e6 4.d4 d5 5.e5 Bd7
If Black plays the immediate 6...Bb5 without trading first on d4, White should take the Bishop because of the tempo that can be gained later on. After 7.Bxb5+ axb5 8.dxc5! Bxc5 9.b4 Bb6 10.Na3, Black doesn't have a good way to hold the b5-pawn, and after 10...Ne7 11.Nxb5 O-O 12.O-O, Black will move his Knights to c6 and g6 to attack e5. It may be best for Black to play 12...Ng6 first to eliminate White's option of bringing out the Bishop to cover the e5-pawn. After 13.Qe2 Nc6 14.Re1 Qd7 15.a4 Rae8 16.Be3 Bxe3 17.Qxe3, Black doesn't have sufficient compensation for the missing pawn. Degraeve(2470) - Hall(2370), Oakham 1992.
7.cxd4 Bb5 8.Bc2 Bb4+ 9.Bd2 a5 10.a3
The main line is 10.Nc3, but I think this sneaky little sideline, virtually forcing Black to trade Bishops immediately, is stronger.
10...Bxd2+ 11.Qxd2 Ne7 12.Nc3 Ba6 13.h4
With the Black Bishop covering f1, White doesn't bother trying to block the diagonal to castle. Instead, the Rook is going to come out via the third rank. An idea that is also seen sometimes in the Winawer Variation.
13...h6 14.Rh3 Nd7 15.Rg3
Black's Kingside weaknesses can be hard to deal with. With White pawns on e5 and h5 and Black's pawns on e6 and h6, if Black advances either the f-pawn or the g-pawn, the neighboring squares become very weak. For example, if Black advances ...g6, then the f6-square and the h6-pawn both become very weak. Because of this, the pawns on f7 and g7 become weaknesses in and of themselves.
15...Qc7 16.Rg3 Qc4 17.O-O-O
Note that 17...O-O loses to 18.Qxh6! while 17...Kf8 fails to 18.Qf4! Qc8 19.Nh4 Kg8 20.Qg4 Qf8 21.Ng6 and Black is in a heap of trouble. 21...Nxg6 is answered by 22.hxg6 while 21...fxg6 is answered by 22.Qxe6+.
18.b3 Qc7 19.Rxg7 b4 20.axb4 axb4 21.Na4 Bb5 22.Qxb4 Bxa4 23.bxa4 Nb6 24.Kd2 Nc6 25.Qc3 Nxa4 26.Bxa4 Rxa4 27.Rb1 Kf8 28.Rg4
And White has consolidated. Black does not have sufficient compensation for the pawn. Eliseev - Artemiev, Moscow 2016
Like 5...a6, Black's idea is to try to get the Light-Squared Bishops off the board. What's different here is that the Queen comes out early, which can in some cases end up being misplaced, but at the same time, it pressures White's center, and doesn't give White the same aggressive options for the development of his Bishop.
Here, 6.Bd3 is a mistake as Black can play 6...cxd4 7.cxd4 Nc6, directly transposing to the dubious Milner-Barry Gambit.
If Black trades pawns first with 6...cxd4 7.cxd4, White should use the c3-square for the Knight and after 7...Bb5 8.Nc3 Bxe2, White doesn't give Black the easy development by attacking d4 after a Queen recapture on e2. Instead, 9.Nxe2! and now:
a) 9...Bb4+ 10.Kf1 Nc6 11.g3 Bf8 12.Kg2 Nge7 13.Rb1 and White is better as his pieces are better coordinated and his King is safe. Petrov - Skalkotas, Aghia Pelagia 2004
b) 9...Nc6 10.O-O Nge7 11.Ng3 h5 12.h4 g6 13.Bg5 Bg7 14.Rb1 Rc8 15.Qd2 Qb4 16.Qf4 Nf5 17.Nxf5 gxf5 and White's better as he can use the dark squares to infiltrate and attack with a static pawn structure for Black. Malysheva - Rozic, Budva 2003
After 7...dxc4 8.d5 exd5 9.Qxd5 Ne7 10.Qe4, Black has to be really careful. For example, after the tempting 10...Bc6?!, White gains the upper hand after 11.Qxc4 Bd5 12.Qb5+ Nbc6 13.Nc3 Rd8 14.Qxb6 axb6 15.Nxd5 Nxd5 16.O-O Be7 17.Bc4 O-O 18.a3 Nc7 19.Be3 b5 20.Be2 Rd5 21.Rfe1 Nxe5 22.Nxe5 Rxe5 23.Bf4 Rxe2 24.Rxe2 Nd5 25.Rd1 Nxf4 26.Rxe7 h6 27.g3 Ne6 28.Rxb7 g6 29.Rb6 Nd4 30.Rxd4 cxd4 31.Rxb5 Rd8 32.Kf1 and the White King is inside the box of the Black passed pawn, and with it isolated compared to White's connected passers on the Queenside. White will be up two pawns and won the game on move 72. Thanh - Hoang, Phu Dong 2004.
Instead of 10...Bc6?!, Black should play 10...Qg6, where after 11.Qxg6 hxg6 12.Na3 Ba6 13.Bxc4, White's advantage is minimal, and in Galdunts - Grabarczyk, Germany 1999, Black was able to reduce it down to a slightly inferior Rook ending and indeed held on.
Or 8...dxc4 9.d5 exd5 10.Qxd5 Ne7 11.Qxc4 Qb4+ 12.Nbd2 and White is better. See Howell - Villamayor, Gausdal 1986 and Benjamin - Marinello, Sioux Falls 1998.
9.Nbd2 dxc4 10.a3 Qb5 11.Qe2 cxd4 12.Nxd4 Qd5 13.N4f3 Nd7 14.Nxc4 Rc8 15.Ne3 Qe4 16.O-O
And White has a slight advantage on the basis of his lead in development. Hendriks - Kamp, Germany 2001.
This is the more common response by Black.
And now Black has three major options here.
B1) 5...Nh6 6.Bd3
White waits to see what Black does before responding. Inferior is 6.Bxh6 gxh6 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.Bd3 f6 and White's center is basically gone. White waits to see if Black moves the Knight again to f5, or if he trades on d4.
The alternative is 6...Nf5 in which White should respond with 7.Bxf5 exf5 8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.O-O Be6 10.Nbd2 O-O 11.Nb3 Be7 12.Re1 and White has the advantage as Black is weak on the dark squares. Espinosa Flores - Cave, Dresden 2008.
This is why we wait at move 6. If the Black Knight goes to f5, we capture on f5 and then capture on c5 and work off the dark squares. If Black trades on d4, only then do we take on h6. The rule of thumb is, between capturing on h6 to double the Black h-pawns and make ...f6 slightly harder to achieve, and taking on c5 to control the dark squares, you don't want to execute both as Black gets at the weak e5-pawn too quickly. Instead, if Black executes a trade on d4, then since a White d4-pawn will support e5, Black trades on h6. If Black moves the Knight to f5, you trade Bishop for Knight and then take on c5 to dominate the dark squares. Whatever you do, don't allow Black to trade on d4 and get in Nf5!
7...gxh6 8.cxd4 Bg7
Or 8...Qb6, after white the game Svidler - Nguyen, Russia 2011 shows White's potential. 9.Qd2 Bd7 10.Be2 Bg7 11.Nc3 O-O 12.O-O Ne7 13.Bd3 Kh8 14.Ne2 Bb5 15.Bxb5 Qxb5 16.Nf4 Ng6 17.Nh5 Rac8 18.Rac1 Qd7 19.h4 Rxc1 20.Rxc1 Rc8 21.g3 Rc6 22.Rxc6 Qxc6 23.Nh2 Ne7 24.Qf4 Nf5 25.g4 Qc2 26.Nf3 Ne7 27.Qxf7 Qg6 28.Qxe7 Qxg4+ 29.Kh2 1-0.
White should not be tempted to take on f6. Instead, he calmly develops and keeps the blockade on e5 intact, following the ideas of Nimzowitsch.
10...O-O 11.Nd2 Kh8 12.Rc1 fxe5 13.dxe5 Bd7 14.Nb3 Qe7 15.Bb5 Rf4 16.Bxc6 bxc6 17.g3 Rg4 18.Nfd4
A double attack on the c6-Pawn and via discovery on the Rook on g4.
White has won a pawn for no compensation and won the game in 62 moves. Ding - Nguyen, China 2013.
B2) 5...Bd7 6.Be2
And now Black has no less than five legitimate options.
Black goes for rapid development. However, once White's castled, if Black leaves the tension on the board too long, White can take advantage.
Black is in a bit of a dilemma in this line. If he takes the pawn with 7...cxd4 8.cxd4, then regardless of his follow-up, like 8...Qb6 or 8...Nge7, White has the c3-square for the Knight as he hasn't committed the Knight to d2 before Black traded, and both moves should be answered by 9.Nc3! and White holds a small advantage. That said, the downside to 6...Rc8 and 7...a6 is that is poses no pressure to White's center, and White can take full advantage of that.
The e5-pawn is not under intense pressure, making this move possible.
8...Bxc5 9.c4 dxc4
9...d4 is inferior. After 10.Nbd2 Qc7 11.Ne4 Nxe5 12.Nxe5 Qxe5 13.Nxc5 Qxc5 14.b4! Qb6 (14...Qxb4 15.Qxd4 +/=) 15.Qd2 Ne7 (15...e5 16.f4 is better for White, and 16...f6 is no good because of 17.fxe5 fxe5 18.Qg5! +-) 16.c5 Qc7 17.Qxd4 and the Bishop pair gives White the advantage.
And White will regain the pawn with an advantage in space. White is for preference here.
Note that the following game illustrates nicely what happens if Black tries to hold the pawn. After 10...b5? (Getting his pieces out is more critical and something like 10...Nh6 should be played, but White is still for preference) 11.Ne4 Be7 12.b3 f5 13.Nd6+ Bxd6 14.Qxd6 c3 15.a4 Qe7 16.Qd1 Qc5 17.axb5 axb5 18.b4 Nxb4 19.Ba3 Ne7 20.Ne1 c2 21.Nxc2 Qxc2 22.Bxb4 Qxd1 23.Rfxd1 Nd5 24.Ra7 Rc7 25.Rxc7 Nxc7 26.Bd6 Nd5 27.Ra1 Kf7 28.Ra7 Rd8 29.Bxb5 Ke8 30.Ba6 Ne7 31.f4 Nc8 32.Rxd7 Kxd7 (32...Rxd7 33.Bxc8 is also winning for White) 33.Bb5#, Paragua - Sadorra, Manila 2013.
Here Black is trying to use the move order to goad White into an inferior line.
This is the preferred move for White. The problem with 7.a3 is that after 7...Rc8 8.b4 cxd4 9.cxd4 Nge7, we transpose into the line 5...Qb6 6.a3 Bd7 7.b4 cxd4 8.cxd4 Rc8 9.Be2 Nge7, and you will see below that White's 9th move here is inferior to what is recommended in line B32.
Again the dilemma of whether or not to trade on d4 as it gives White the c3-square for the Knight. After 7...cxd4 8.cxd4 Nge7 9.Nc3 Nf5 10.Na4 (An idea to keep locked in your head when Black is putting pressure on d4. This sequence will drive the Queen away from d4.) 10...Qa5 11.Bd2 Bb4 12.Bxb4 Qxb4 13.a3 Qe7 (or 13...Qa5 14.b4 followed by 15.Nc5) 14.Rc1 O-O 15.Nc5 and White's position is to be preferred.
Here we see it again! The lack of pressure on e5 allows White to transition the focal point from d4 to e5 via this capture. Knowing when to relieve this tension is paramount for both sides. If White ever develops his Queen's Knight, Black should almost always take on d4 immediately. White needs to delay the development of his Queen's Knight as long as possible so that if Black trades, he can use the c3-square for his Knight. If Black puts all his eggs in one basket and goes after d4 without relieving the tension, always look for this possibility. The two points on the board that you have to check to make sure this is possible are the squares e5 and f2.
This battle of Black wanting to wait to relieve the tension on d4 and White wanting to develop his Queenside Knight is very similar to the battle for the tempo in the Queen's Gambit Declined, where Black wants to make White develop his Bishop to e2 or d3 before taking the pawn on c4 while White is trying to make productive moves without moving his light-squared Bishop until Black takes on c4. The trade on d4 and the development of White's Queen's Knight is a similar battle of who commits first. Keep this in mind before you automatically develop the Queen's Knight. In some lines it's necessary. For example, line B25 below. But make a habit of first trying to see if you can make progress without moving this piece, and always be on the lookout for when dxc5 works, after which the Knight is free to move when appropriate.
White forces the Bishop to a more passive position before Black is ready to execute any king of attack on White.
Here Black will typically use the h6-square to develop the Knight. The alternative option is 9...Bf8 and developing the Knight through e7. In both cases, Black's position is somewhat passive and White is ready to expand on the Queenside, reducing Black's space even more. Clearly White wants to trade as few pieces as possible in this line.
With the focal point shifted from d4 to e5, White overprotects his strong point and is ready to expand on the Queenside. White's got the advantage.
Unlike the previous two lines, Black immediately gives White the c3-square for the Knight, but in return, he has fixed the target at d4.
7.cxd4 Nge7 8.O-O Nf5 9.Nc3 Rc8
9...Qb6 goes through the same rigamarole as before, starting with 10.Na4. Black chooses to avoid this.
10.Be3 Be7 11.Bd3 Nxe3
This is almost forced. Black could try 11...g6, in order to hold on to the Knight, but then just continuing on with the development gives White a slight edge, starting with a move like 12.Rc1. Other than 11...g6, Black has no real alternative because he can't afford to let White take the Knight on f5 in such a way that Black is forced to re-capture with the e-pawn as, even if it's protected, the d5-pawn will become way too weak for Black, especially with a White Knight already on c3.
Black can also play 12...f5, which based on a rarely used idea I'm about to bring up, this move order might be the better move for Black. A complex game ensues after 13.a3 O-O 14.Ne2 Qe8 15.h4 Qh5 16.Nf3 Qe8 17.Rc1 with unclear play, Webb - Trella, Dortmund 2009. Note that while Black does win this game, it is because of subsequent errors. White's position is fine here.
White's got the space advantage and d4 is well covered, and outside of the a1-Rook, White's pieces are ready to attack, so why not break it open immediately? Oddly enough, this move has been rarely played.
13...dxe4 14.Bxe4 f5 15.Bc2 Qb6 16.Na4
There's that idea again, using the Na4 move and the Queenside Pawn expansion to push the Black Queen away from d4. You should be starting to see the importance of developing the Knight to c3 whenever possible.
16...Qa5 a3 17.Rfd8 18.b4 Qc7 19.Bb3
White is getting ready to get his last piece in the game with Rc1, gaining even more time on the Black Queen. Once again, White is for preference, and while the game may not be perfectly played (it is played between a couple of amateurs), I would encourage all to look at the game Milla de Marco - Blanco Villalba, Malaga 2005. If you can't find it anywhere else, it can be found at 365chess.com, which all the games referenced here can be found at. It's a free database. It features a lot of critical items that come up often in the French Advance, like the potential of a passed pawn, the superiority of the Bishop over the Knight in an endgame, the Rook ending that ensues, and many other factors. The game is 104 moves long, but well worth the time to look at.
This line has been somewhat popular of late, but I find it very dangerous for Black.
White should simply castle here and not worry about trades on e5. Taking on f6 would be a mistake as it simply accelerates Black's development and White loses control of the f6-square.
If Black tries to build up on e5 with the move 7...Qc7, then 8.Bf4 Nge7 (Intending 9...Ng6 adding an attacker to e5 and hitting the Bishop) 9.Bg3 Qb6 (Attacking b2 on the basis that the White Bishop has gone to g3) 10.Na3! and now 10...Qxb2 would lose to 11.Nb5! and other moves like 10...Nf5 allow White to play 11.dxc5! once again and after 11...Bxc5 12.b4! Nxg3 13.hxg3 Be7 14.c4 Nxb4 15.exf6 Bxf6 16.Rb1 a5 17.Qb3 O-O 18.cxd5 exd5 19.Nc2, White is better. Petzold - Hoellmann, Germany 2006.
White should trade Knights first. 8.dxe5 results in Black keeping an extra attacker of the e5-pawn, and while White maintains the Knight on f3, it impedes the possibility of playing f4, which would also guard the e5-pawn, and in a better manner than the clumsy Knight on f3, which can eventually be driven away if Black starts pushing his g-pawn at any point in the game.
8...Nxe5 9.dxe5 Qc7 10.c4!
White surrenders the e5-pawn, but breaks open the center and can harass the Black Queen if he takes it.
10.Qxe5 11.Re1 O-O-O 12.cxd5 exd5 13.Nc3 (remember, the threat is worth more than the execution - there is no reason to execute the discovery at this time) 13...Nf6 14.g3 Qc7 15.Nxd5 Nxd5 16.Qxd5 and White was better in Jonkman - Rodrigues, Lisbon 2000. White proceeded to execute a nice winning attack in an opposite-colored Bishop ending.
11.Bf4 O-O-O 12.Nd2 Bc6 13.Bf3 Be7 14.Ne4 Bxe4 15.Bxe4 g5 16.Bg3 h5 17.h3 g4 18.hxg4 hxg4 19.Qxg4
And White has emerged with the Bishop pair and is up a pawn in Tomazini - Poliakov, Czech Open 2009. Black did not have near the fire power to get at the White King.
So we have seen the problems if Black trades early on d4, and we've seen the problems if Black doesn't immediately attack White's center, so that leads to this being the main line. Black intends to go to f5 with the Knight, pressuring d4 again without actually trading there. It also makes dxc5 ideas less attractive for White as Black will have already developed one of his Kingside pieces. That can only mean one thing.
In this case, we will have to move the Knight and let Black win the battle of who commits first. The Knight needs to be relocated to c2 to cover d4.
As mentioned prior, it makes no sense for Black to hold off trading now that he doesn't have to worry about Nc3 ideas.
8.cxd4 Nf5 9.Nc2 Qb6 10.O-O
So we now have the main starting position of the 5...Bd7 variation.
10...Na5 leads to a forcing sequence. 11.g4 Ne7 12.Nfe1 Bb5 13.Nd3 h5 14.b4 Nac6 15.a4 Bc4 16.a5 Qc7 17.gxh5 Nf5 18.Be3 with a complex game and chances for both sides.
White has other options here, but I think this is his best move. The center is blocked, and with the way the pawns are pointing, White should be figuring on a Kingside attack. There is no reason not to get started right away. White will gain tempi on the expansion based on the Black Bishop having to spend time so as not to get trapped.
11...Nh4 12.Nxh4 Bxh4 13.f4 Be7 14.Kh1 g6 15.b3
White has no intention to fianchetto. He just doesn't want to sacrifice the b-pawn when he develops the Bishop.
15...a5 16.Be3 Rc8 17.Qd3 Na7 18.a4
18...Nc6 19.f5 Qd8 20.Bh6 Bg5 21.Bg7 Rg8 22.f6
Fixing all the targets on the Kingside.
22...Nb4 23.Nxb4 axb4 24.Qh3 h6 25.Bd3 Rc3 26.Rf3 Qb6 27.Bxg6! Qxd4
A very cute move. Black can't take the Bishop because of mate in 1. White wins material.
28...Kd8 29.Raf1 Re8 30.Bxe8 Bxe8 31.Bxh6 Rxf3 32.Rxf3 Bxh6 33.Qxh6 Qxe5 34.Qf4 Qxf4 35.Rxf4
And Black didn't have the compensation for the lost material and resigned five moves later. Zhizmer - Manilyk, Kiev 2006.
This is Black's other main option. The move is double-sided. On one side, Black puts immediate pressure on d4. On the flip side, the Black Queen can very well impede Black's own expansion on the Queenside.
White tries to take advantage of the downside to 5...Qb6 and attempts to expand on the Queenside for himself. If White can successfully take over space on both the Kingside and Queenside without having his position fall apart, and without trading a whole bunch of pieces off, Black is likely to suffocate.
Black had three main options here. The first two allow White to expand and Black proceeds on the basis that he thinks White is over-extending himself while the third option prevents the expansion, but releases the pressure on the d4-pawn.
A word of note on a fourth option you might occasionally face. Like line B33, the move 6...a5 also attempts to clamp down on b4 and prevent White's Queenside expansion. That said, there is a major flaw to this move. It was previous mentioned that the Milner-Barry Gambit is an inferior line and not good for White because of the line 6.Bd3? cxd4 7.cxd4 Bd7 8.O-O Nxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.Nc3 a6!. Well, Black no longer has the move ...a6 with the pawn already pushed to a5. Therefore, the b5-square becomes a weakness, and so now after the strong move 7.Bd3!, White is better after 7...cxd4 8.cxd4 Bd7 9.O-O Nxd4 10.Nxd4 Qxd4 11.Nc3 because the move 11...a6 is unavailable to Black!
This move is interesting, but may not be best here. If White had played 6.Be2, which I don't recommend unlike in the 5...Bd7 line, only then would the move 6...Nh6 have the punch it needs. You'll see in the line below that White wastes no time with the light-squared Bishop early on.
7.b4 cxd4 8.cxd4 Nf5 9.Bb2 Bd7 10.g4
White wastes no time and immediately pushes the Knight back.
This move is possible because of the loose Bishop on b2.
12.Na4 Qc6 13.Nc5 Nc4 14.Bc3
White does have a bad Bishop, but so does Black. The position is very complex, but the space advantage should give White a small edge. Mkrtchian - Middelveld, Kemer 2007.
Once again Black allows White to expand on the Queenside.
7.b4 cxd4 8.cxd4 Rc8
And now, 9.Be2 would lead to the same inferior position that 7.a3 lead to in line B22. Instead of playing this automatic move, White should develop his other Bishop to cover d4.
Despite the fact that it might turn into a bad Bishop, and the tactics it allows Black to get his Knight in on the c4-outpost, I prefer it over 9.Be3 because the latter allows Black to play 9...Nh6 followed by going to f5 or g4 and trading itself off for the Bishop on e3. Once again, piece trades favor Black because he is the one that is cramped. A space advantage is useless if there are no pieces on the board.
White isn't going to let the Knight sit on c4.
10...Nc4 11.Nxc4 dxc4 12.Rc1 a5 13.Nd2 axb4 14.Nxc4 Qd8 15.a4!
This move is stronger than recapturing. Black's extra pawn is an isolated and doubled pawn. 15.a4 keeps the bind more intact and leads to a better position for White.
15...Bc6 16.a5 Nh6 17.Nb6 Rc7 18.d5! exd5 19.Bd3
White takes the time to get his Bishop out and castle while the pawn blocks the Black Bishop from taking on g2.
19...d4 20.O-O Be7 21.Rc4
Black may technically be a pawn up, but the extra pawn is extremely weak. White also has a lead in development as Black still has to castle. He's also got a lead in space, and in the game Vysochin - Kobylkin, Lugansk 2007, it only took White 17 more moves to mop up and win the game.
Many consider this to be the "old main line". It's not quite as popular today because Black has less space to attack than White. By rule of thumb, when the center is completely blocked, you attack the side in which your pawns point, regardless of where the Kings are. In most cases, Black will castle Queenside and White will castle Kingside, but unless Black makes the mistake of allowing the move b3 by White early on, White will still attack Kingside and Black Queenside because of the direction the blocked pawns in the center point.
White should also keep a keen eye on the possibility of sacrificing on c4, d5, or e6. For example, White may sacrifice his Bishop on c4 for two pawns, taking the second pawn with a Knight on d2, and get an annoying Knight in on d6.
7...Na5 8.Be2 Bd7 9.O-O Ne7 10.Rb1
Taking the responsibility off of the Bishop to cover b1.
10...Nc8 11.Re1 Qc7 12.Nf1 Nb6
So we now have the main starting position of this variation. Move order can sometimes deviate, but it will usually amount to the same thing. For example, White could play 10.Re1 before 11.Rb1, or Black could play 10...Qc7 before 11...Nc8, etc. Black can also play an earlier ...h6 to prevent the Knight from going to g5. In the long run, it should transpose the vast majority of the time.
I like this move better for White than the more popular 13.Bf4. The problem is that Black can be annoying with 13...Nb3, with the threat of 14...Ba4 and the White Queen has problems getting out from discoveries by the Black Knight, in many cases winning the d4-pawn. After 14.N3d2, to annoy the Knight and trade it if Black doesn't move it, Black simply retreats with 14...Na5 and if White goes back with 15.Nf3, then simply 15...Nb3, and in the game Simacek - Petrik, Cartak 2003, White tried to avoid the draw with 16.Ne3, but paid the price for it after 16...Ba4 17.Bf1 h6 18.h4 Be7 19.h3 O-O-O 20.Qe2 Kb8 21.g4 Ka8 22.Bg3 Rdg8 23.Bh3 Qd8 24.Ng2 Bd7 25.Nfh4 g6 26.hxg6 fxg6 27.f4 g5 28.Nf3 h5 29.Ne3 gxf4 30.Bxf4 hxg4 31.Bxg4 Be8 32.Kf2 Bg6 33.Rh1 Bxb1 34.Rxb1 Bh4+ 35.Nxh4 Qxh4+ 36.Kg2 Nd2 37.Bg3 Rxg4 0-1
This move was played to avoid Ng5 by White and be able to castle Queenside without having to worry about a fork on f7.
14.Bf1 O-O-O 15.Nh5 Na4 16.Qc2 Nb6 17.Bf4 Ba4 18.Qe2 Qd7 19.g4
Once again, with the center locked down, White can afford such moves of pawns in front of his King.
Due to the complexity of the line, and the interesting factors of the game, I've decided to give the entire game of Smeets - Lui, Nijmegen 2002.
19...Bb3 20.Ra1 Qc7 21.Bg3 Ba4 22.Nh4 Nb3 23.Rab1 Bd7 24.Ng2 Na4 25.Qc2 b5 26.f4 a5 27.f5
A critical break for White in this line.
27...b4 28.axb4 axb4 29.Ngf4 Qa5 30.Re3 Kc7 31.Bg2 Kb7 32.Rf1 Qb6 33.Kh1 Re8
So let's observe the situation. It looks at first glance like Black has everything intact. He's got e6 covered, which appears to be what White's attacking. However, the problem isn't e6, but g6 and f7!
Black has no choice as 34...Be6 drops the d5-pawn. Now g6 is weakened.
And so White's move makes total sense, attacking the Rook with tempo and putting the knight on the weakened g6-square.
35...Rg8 36.Rf7 Kc8 37.Ref3 bxc3 38.bxc3 Bb4 39.Bf2
39.cxb4?? allows 39...Nxd4!, forking the White heavy pieces and building a danger pair of passed pawns for Black.
Black's position is falling apart.
40...Rd8 41.Qa2 Na5 42.Bh4 Qb3 43.Qa1 Bb2 44.Qf1 Nc6 45.Bxf8 Rxf8 46.Nf8 1-0
Black resigned as he realized that White's attack is coming much faster than his and there is no stopping it.
That's a lot of theory, and yet it's barely anything compared to the amount of theory in 3.Nc3. Now that you have a basic foundation of the French Advance, I would suggest expanding your knowledge on the French Advance by doing the following items:
- Go to 365chess.com and pull up each of the games referenced in this article and study them. The vast majority of them are wins by White.
- Study the games of Aron Nimzowitsch and Evgeny Sveshnikov, specifically those with an ECO Code of C02 where Nimzowitsch and Sveshnikov are White. Note that when studying these, ignore the specific variations played. The focus should be more on middlegame play that results from the French Advance. In particular, pay close attention to games that involve blockading the central pawn by controlling d4 and e5. Not every game will involve this strategy, but a high percentage of them will, and keep in mind that a blockading strategy can be lifted at any point in the game if there is something better available, especially if White has placed all of his pieces on ideal squares and is ready to attack.
- Play the Advance variation against the French in over the board tournament games. Don't get overly frustrated if you lose a few games. The practice is critical for long term success.
- If you have not done so already with one of the other six articles, save this to your favorites. That way, it will be easier for you to find for future reference. With the links at the bottom of each article, if you have one of them saved, you can easily get to all seven.
Well, that concludes this series of articles on the French Defense. I hope it has encouraged you to give it a whirl as Black, and hopefully with the same level of success that I've had with it for over 20 years, and that you are also able to go up against the French with confidence now that you have this dangerous weapon at hand, namely 3.e5!
Links to the rest of the articles.
Introduction and facing the Advance Variation
Part One: The Exchange Variation
Part Two: The Tarrasch Variation
Part Three: The King's Indian Attack
Part Four: The MacCutcheon Variation
Part Five: The Steinitz Variation