The French Defense: 6 Trusted Chess Strategies

The French Defense is a popular chess opening with exciting strategies you can use with either color. Here are six strategies, three for each side, to help you start winning today!

Great Opening Strategies in the French Defense

In chess, your opening strategy helps you in two important ways:

  1. when you reach the middlegame you will know what to play, and
  2. if you forget your chess opening theory, knowing your strategy will help you find the best squares for your pieces.

Instead of struggling to remember a specific move order, it is often easier to find the right move by asking, “What is my goal?” Starting with the end in mind can help you play the right opening moves.

When learning the French Defense, or any other chess opening, spend time getting to know your enemy’s chess opening strategies along with your plans. This will help you prevent your opponent’s plans in the game.

One of the most common positions in the French Defense is the blocked center. Here are some classic French Defense games to show you how to play with this closed structure.

Three Tried-And-True Chess Opening Strategies for White

1.) White’s Thematic f4-f5 Break In the French Defense

The Advance Variation of the French Defense in chess is a popular choice by White and leads to a well-known pawn chain after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3

French Defense Advance Variation
French Defense Advance Variation pawn chain

Following classical chess guidelines, both sides will seek to play on the side of the board their pawn-chain points towards. Black will seek to play on the queenside and White on the kingside.

In light of this, a thematic chess strategy for White is to advance the f-pawn with f4-f5 and even f6. There are four main ways to play with this pawn advance.

White can choose to:

  1. Develop the bishop to d3, where it aims at the h7-square and supports the f5 advance.
  2. Play g3 and develop the bishop to h3 where it applies pressure on Black’s e-pawn.
  3. Advance the h-pawn to gain more space on the kingside and meet h6 by exchanging pawns on e6. Then after …fxe6, White can play h5 to gain control of the weak white squares around Black’s king.
  4. Go for an attack against the Black king with f6.

Of course, Black is not without defensive resources of his own, including attacking the white center. The pawn on d4 often comes under a lot of pressure.

Grischuk, A. – Naiditsch, A., 2017.09.26, 1-0, Baku ol (Men) 42nd (9.4)

2.) Destroying Black’s Center

Unsurprisingly, to destroy Black’s center, White can sacrifice a piece. This sacrifice often occurs on d5 or e4.

Remember to look for possible forks with e6 after Black plays …exd5!

Black often develops his bishop to d7, and if there is another piece on f7, any piece sacrificed on d5 will be a very temporary one. At the very least, White will win a pawn while creating the possibility to play d5 at some point in the game.

French Defense Passive Piece Sacrifice on e4
French Defense Passive Piece Sacrifice

Another sacrifice for White to keep in mind is the more passive sacrifice on e4. The piece usually sacrificed in such a fashion is the knight on d2 (see diagram to the right).

This sacrifice activates White’s dark-squared bishop, which can enter the game to devastating effect if black hasn’t castled. Black can refuse to accept the gift on e4, but the knight eyes another critical square in the enemy camp – f6.

Piece sacrifices are a thematic attacking tactic against a king in the center.

These sacrifices are also extremely helpful in mobilizing a pawn center. Since White often enjoys a space advantage in the French Defense, advancing his central pawns can wreak havoc in Black’s cramped position.

Gabrielian, A. – Vastrukhin, O., 2014, 1-0, Dvorkovich Memorial op (8)

80/20 Tactics Multiplier: The French Defense
80/20 Tactics Multiplier: The French Defense – Gm Mihail Marin

3.) French Defense Kingside Piece Sacrifices for White

If Black castles short, White’s two main squares for piece sacrifices are g7 and h7. However, the f7-square can provide an opportunity for a piece sacrifice if the black king remains in the center.

A sacrifice on f7 is especially effective if White can follow up the sacrifice by capturing the g6-pawn!

The g6-pawn can become a weakness if Black advances his h-pawn to prevent White from playing h5. A knight on f4 is a potent attacking piece for White because it applies pressure on e6, d5, and g6.

One of White’s most vital attacking pieces in the French Defense is the bishop on d3. This bishop can get sacrificed on h7 if White can follow up with Ng5 and Qh5.

One of the advantages for White in playing e5 is it drives the knight away from f6. The knight on f6 is a vital defender of the castled king.

One sacrifice that gets overlooked is a piece sacrifice on g7. Eliminating the g7-pawn creates weaknesses on f6 and h6, providing excellent entry points for White pieces.

A piece sacrifice on g7 is extremely effective if White is ready to play h5 and Rh3-g3.

Smirin, Ilia – Tratar, Marko, 2017.02.12, 1-0, Skopje Karposh op (3)

Three Bankable Chess Opening Strategies for Black

1.) The French Defense Isolani

There is a significant difference between the French Isolated Queen’s Pawn structure and those arising from Queen’s Gambit Openings.

In an isolated queen’s pawn position in the French Defense, the e-pawn not the c-pawn that gets exchanged.

Control of the e-file becomes important in the French Isolani, and Black must adapt his chess opening strategy to take this into account.

As in the isolated queen’s pawn position arising from the Queen’s Gambit, controlling the d4-square is important. However, the absence of e-pawns gives Black more attacking chances against White’s kingside.

French Defense Exchange Variation 5...Bd6
French Defense Exchange Variation 5…Bd6

A black knight on e4 in these positions is a strong attacking piece. Black can even consider recapturing on e4 with a rook instead of a pawn.

…dxe4 does eliminate the main weakness in Black’s position, but …Rxe4 places a rook on e4 and allows the second rook to come to e8. A black rook on e4 puts pressure on the d4-pawn.

This is why it’s essential to remain flexible and play according to the position. 

Your chess opening strategy is a guide that works with concrete calculation, and it’s always a good idea to re-evaluate the position after an exchange.

Although Black often gets excellent attacking chances on the kingside, don’t forget about the queenside. Advancing the a-pawn can weaken the queenside and force White to defend a second weakness.

Sanal, V. – Romanov, E., 2018.10.16, 0-1, EU-ch 16th (7)

2.) Black’s …e5 Break

The e5-break is vital for eliminating the pawn weakness on e6 and activating the light-squared bishop. However, the …e5 advance needs careful timing because, after dxe5, Black gets an isolated queen’s pawn.

The isolated queen’s pawn is not always a weakness, and the extra piece activity can easily outweigh the pawn’s weakness. The advanced isolated d-pawn can be an asset.

Black must remain open to the possibility of first sacrificing a knight for two pawns on the e5-square. This sacrifice is particularly effective if White plays f4 because Black gets a protected passed pawn

In this French Defense chess game, we can see how even a player as strong as Wesley So couldn’t capitalize on the weakness of the isolated pawn in his match against Matthias Bluebaum.

So, W. – Bluebaum, M., 2018.11.14, 1/2-1/2

3.) Black Plays on the kingside in the French Defense With …g5

Moving pawns in front of your castled king is not something to undertake lightly in chess and the French Defense is no exception. That’s why it is usually best to play …g5 while the Black king is in the center or if Black castles queenside.

There are three good reasons for Black to consider playing …g5:

  1. The …g5 advance can restrict the activity of White’s pieces.
  2. …g5 is an excellent way to undermine the white center if White plays f4, and
  3. it is instrumental in opening lines against the white king.

In the French Defense Advance Variation, an attacking chess opening strategy for black is …g5, and you can play it as early as move 9. Hardly what you’d expect in an opening that has been called boring by many.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Bd7 6.Bd3 Rc8 7.a3 cxd4 8.cxd4 Qb6 9.Bc2 g5

French Defense Advance Variation 9...g5
French Defense Advance Variation 9…g5

The early advance …g5 is a double-edged chess opening strategy, but it has scored well for Black.

Here is an example of an early …g5 in the French Exchange Variation

Vedmediuc, Serghei – Marin, Mihail, 2015.10.03, 0-1, ROM-chT (1.2), Mamaia

Final Thoughts

Whether you are learning the French Defense or another chess opening, knowing that chess opening’s strategy is essential. The opening strategy is your guide to reaching positions where you can outplay your opponent.

You might outplay him with a tactical blow, you know, or simply through a deeper understanding of the position. Paying attention to your chess opening strategy in the French Defense will also deepen your chess knowledge.

When you know which strategy to use in a particular position, you can use it in other openings. You can steer the game into a familiar position if your opponent tries to trick you by not following theory.

In his excellent 80/20 Tactics Multiplier: The French Defense, GM Mihail Marin covers several chess opening strategies for both sides. Learn how to defend against your opponent’s opening strategy from one of the world’s top coaches.

All these strategies are ones found in the French Defense chess opening. You will learn strategies you can apply right away in your games.

Don’t hesitate! Grab your copy of the 80/20 Tactics Multiplier: The French Defense now and take your play in the French Defense to a whole new level!

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