Chess Traps | French Defence

The French Defence is a chess opening characterised by the moves:

1. e4 e6

This is most commonly followed by 2.d4 d5, with Black intending ...c5 at a later stage, attacking White's centre and gaining space on the queenside. White has extra space in the centre and on the kingside and often plays for a breakthrough with f4–f5. The French has a reputation for solidity and resilience, although some lines such as the Winawer Variation can lead to sharp complications. Black's position is often somewhat cramped in the early game; in particular, the pawn on e6 can impede the development of the bishop on c8.


Position after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5

Following the opening moves 1.e4 e6, the game usually continues 2.d4 d5 (see below for alternatives). White makes a claim to the centre, while Black immediately challenges the pawn on e4.

White's options include defending the e4-pawn with 3.Nc3 or 3.Nd2, exchanging it with 3.exd5, or advancing the pawn with 3.e5, each of which leads to different types of positions. Note that 3.Bd3 allows 3...dxe4 4.Bxe4 Nf6, after which White must concede to Black either a tempo or the advantage of the two bishops.

General themes

Typical pawn structure

The diagram shows a pawn structure commonly found in the French. Black has more space on the queenside, so tends to focus on that side of the board, almost always playing ...c7–c5 at some point to attack White's pawn chain at its base, and may follow up by advancing his a- and b-pawns.

Position after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.f4 Qb6 6.Nf3 Nh6

Alternatively or simultaneously, Black will play against White's centre, which is cramping his position. In the unlikely case that the flank attack ...c7–c5 is insufficient to achieve counterplay, Black can also try ...f7–f6. In many positions, White may support the pawn on e5 by playing f2–f4, with ideas of f4-f5, but the primary drawback to the advance of the f-pawn is opening of the g1-a7 diagonal, which is particularly significant due to the black queen's oft-found position on b6 and the heavy pressure on d4. In addition, many French Advance variations do not provide white with the time to play f2-f4 as it does not support the heavily pressured d4 pawn. For instance, 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.f4? (if white plays Nf3, f4 will come much slower) 5...Qb6 6.Nf3 Nh6! and the knight will come to f5 to place fatal pressure on d4 and dxc5 will never be an option for white as the white king would be stuck in the center of the board after Bxc5.

Position after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bxe7 Qxe7 7.f4 0-0 8.Nf3 c5 9.Bd3

White usually tries to exploit his extra space on the kingside, where he will often play for a mating attack. White tries to do this in the Alekhine–Chatard Attack, for example. Another example is the following line of the Classical French: 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e5 Nfd7 6.Bxe7 Qxe7 7.f4 0-0 8.Nf3 c5 9.Bd3 (see diagram). White's light-square bishop eyes the weak h7-pawn, which is usually defended by a knight on f6, but here it has been pushed away by e5. If 9...cxd4 (Black does better with 9...f5 or 9...f6), White can play the Greek gift sacrifice 10.Bxh7+ Kxh7 11.Ng5+ Qxg5! 12.fxg5 dxc3 13.Qh5+! where Black has three minor pieces for the queen, which gives him a slight material superiority, but his king is vulnerable and White has good attacking chances.

Apart from a piece attack, White may play for the advance of his kingside pawns (an especially common idea in the endgame), which usually involves f2–f4, g2–g4 and then f4–f5 to use his natural spatial advantage on that side of the board. A white pawn on f5 can be very strong as it may threaten to capture on e6 or advance to f6. Sometimes pushing the h-pawn to h5 or h6 may also be effective. A modern idea is for White to gain space on the queenside by playing a2–a3 and b2–b4. If implemented successfully, this will further restrict Black's pieces.

One of the drawbacks of the French Defence for Black is his queen's bishop, which is blocked in by his pawn on e6 and can remain passive throughout the game. An often-cited example of the potential weakness of this bishop is S. Tarrasch–R. Teichmann, San Sebastián 1912, in which the diagrammed position was reached after fifteen moves of a Classical French.

Black's position is passive because his light-square bishop is hemmed in by pawns on a6, b5, d5, e6 and f7. White will probably try to exchange Black's knight, which is the only one of his pieces that has any scope. Although it might be possible for Black to hold on for a draw, it is not easy and, barring any mistakes by White, Black will have few chances to create counterplay; this is why, for many years, the classical lines fell out of favour, and 3...Bb4 began to be seen more frequently after World War I, owing to the efforts of Nimzowitsch and Botvinnik. In Tarrasch–Teichmann, White won after 41 moves. In order to avoid this fate, Black usually makes it a priority early in the game to find a useful post for the bishop. Black can play ...Bd7–a4 to attack a pawn on c2, which occurs in many lines of the Winawer Variation. If Black's f-pawn has moved to f6, then Black may also consider bringing the bishop to g6 or h5 via d7 and e8. If White's light-square bishop is on the f1–a6 diagonal, Black can try to exchange it by playing ...b6 and ...Ba6, or ...Qb6 followed by ...Bd7–b5.