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I am a French defence player and I enjoy playing almost all the lines (Tarrasch, Winawer, advance variation, ...) because I think the play that follows the opening suits my style and I feel very comfortable. I am a club player (~1800).

I have realized lately that at the very top level the French is not played. Most of the games that start with 1. e4 end up being Sicilian defences, Berlin Walls (or some other lines of the Ruy Lopez) or even some Caro-Kahn (I recall at least a game or two of Giri playing this).

If we don't consider just the very top level (which I consider to be the top 20 players in the world more or less) we can find some 2700 rated players who have played the French (I recall some game from Vallejo now).

So I wonder why is the French not played more often. Which is the line for white that gives the greatest advantage? Could anyone point me to a reference explaining how to "refute" the French with white?

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Why is the French defence not played at the highest level?

If you consider any statistically small (~20) sample of chess players, regardless of standard, then you will get clustering of openings chosen. This has very little to do with soundness or otherwise and much to do with fashion and temperament. Just look at someone like Nakamura.

So I wonder why is the French not played more often.

Normally when black chooses to play the French he wants an unbalanced position with double edged play. However white does not have to agree with this. If white just wants a draw then he can always play the exchange variation when the whole nature of the position changes and a draw becomes much more likely. This is usually not what black wants.

Which is the line for white that gives the greatest advantage?

It is the line where black makes the worst mistake ;-). Seriously, no line gives white a big advantage with best play on both sides.

The Tarrasch is more popular at higher levels but this has nothing to do with size of advantage. I think it has much more to do with flexibility. Other lines commit white earlier to a particular route while the Tarrasch generally lets white keep more options open for longer.

Interestingly the Advance variation is more popular at lower levels because it reduces the flexibility ;-). After this black can no longer play the Rubinstein with ed4 and nor can he put a knight on f6. Of course he can put a pawn on f6 attacking the front of the pawn chain and perhaps this is part of the reason it is less popular at higher levels.

Could anyone point me to a reference explaining how to "refute" the French with white?

No, they won't be able to because there is no way to refute the French with white. There can be some scary lines for black, for instance in the Winawer where white plays Qg4, but if black knows the theory he should be fine (unless white has a novelty!).

Now, if you were asking about the Benoni ...

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    Today the world elite plays almost everything. If a line is hardly ever played, there has to be a practical reason. That doesn't have to be a refutation. Possibly white can just pose too many different difficult problems, or there are lines in which white gets guaranteed pressure without any risk. I don't know the reason, but from the last elite french games I have seen, I would guess the 3.Nc3 lines are just too nice for white. – BlindKungFuMaster Nov 16 '15 at 12:27
  • @BlindKungFuMaster Thanks, that was exactly what I was referring to. Great answer by the way. – A. A. Nov 16 '15 at 16:55
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    Against 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.de Black has the option of 3...Qxd5, leading to a Caro/Scandinavian type opening. Less drawish than the exchange, but takes some experience to play correctly. – Jeff Lowery Dec 20 '15 at 16:03
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Peter Svidler answered this in a recent video for Chess24:

Why do the majority of GMs and almost all super-GMs play 1…e5 or 1…c5 in answer to 1.e4 rather than the French Defence (1…e6)?

Peter: I think the answer is twofold. Firstly, both the Spanish and the Sicilian offer you a much broader scope to choose from. If you play 1…e5 you’re not really limited to one structure, let alone one line. That’s not necessarily to say the French is one structure and one line, but it does limit Black’s opportunities more than the Spanish or the Sicilian. But I think the bigger issue with the French is, at least for me, that it was always a very, very difficult opening to understand. I didn’t do that badly in terms of practical results, but actually understanding what’s going on in the opening is another matter – even from the white side, and it’s generally accepted that the white side is the more comfortable side of the French Defence.

That brings me to my second point. This was mainly to do with the fact that I played French games almost exclusively with Alexander Morozevich, who put a tremendous amount of work and imagination into building his French repertoire. If you do that it becomes a very attractive option against 1.e4, because people don’t encounter it that often these days. People are no longer very convinced with their choices and I think it’s very playable and also a very sharp opening that you could argue definitely gives you more counterchances than the Spanish. If the white player would prefer a quiet life he will find it harder to find a quiet life in the French than in the Spanish.

  • Thanks, I am a premium member of chess24, the video that you're quoting is one of his banter blitz sessions or does it belong to a series about something specific (Svidler's Archangels maybe)? – A. A. Nov 16 '15 at 17:00
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    @adolfo Here: youtube.com/watch?v=8jfV9RQrE9Y at 59:00 ;) – French-d-fence Nov 16 '15 at 17:16
  • Welcome to the site! Good first answer. – user1108 Nov 17 '15 at 9:20
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I'm a French Defense player. As Peter Svidler opined in his interview on Chess24, "If the white player would prefer a quiet life he will find it harder to find a quiet life in the French than in the Spanish [Ruy Lopez]".

The main reason it isn't played is that it is harder for Black to play the French Defense than it is for White to play against it. He accepts the following limitations:

  1. He is facing a White pawn at e5 for much of the game in many of the variations
  2. As a result, his king's knight rarely gets to sit comfortably on f6
  3. As a result, White's queen often goes raiding on the kingside
  4. As a result, Black often can't castle safely on the kingside.

These are not problems that most players are comfortable having.

But I play it because:

  • It's relatively easy to get the game into areas where I'm better prepared (and in more familiary territory) than White, which is unnerving to a lot of players of White
  • It's a fighting defence, with a few traps, clever stratagems, and ways to knock White into burning a lot of time on his clock
  • It shows you have nerve, and and that you have probably put a fair amount of effort into learning how to play a defence that can be tricky to handle. This can be intimidating by itself.

Obviously, at the GM and Super-GM levels, the players stay pretty booked-up, and you have to be really adventurous to suprise them (think Sveshnikov/Pelikan Sicilian, Scotch Game, King's Gambit, and so on, which were considered either unplayable or too quiet to be useful when they resurfaced in the latter half of the last century, typically with great success). Many of these players are now starting to try unorthodox ideas in the older established openings, like the Italian Game (Giuoco Piano). The French may get another day in the sun.

In the meantime, it is getting played by the likes of Carlsen, Caruana, Nakamura, Anand, Radjabov, Morozevich, Ivanchuk, So, Giri, Karpov, Grischuk, Harikrishna, Gelfand, Leko, Mamedyarov, Topalov, Wang Hao, Ponomariov and others.

So, while it's not getting played as much as the Spanish and Sicilian by the highest-level players, they certainly are playing it from time to time, even in blitz!

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The French Defense requires a lot of sharp, tactical play. It is "like" the Sicilian insofar as it tries to avoid e5 as a response to e4, and take away the initiative from White. But although "tactical," the Sicilian offers more of a positional game than the French. (I play both, but prefer the Sicilian.)

The French Defense was quite popular in the middle of the 20th century with tactical players such as Alexander Alekhine, Mikhail Botvinnik, and Vasily Smyslov. And before them "lesser" lights such as Rudolph Spielmann, and Mikhail Chigorin.

But today's grandmasters are more positional players. On the other hand, with "top 20," you're dealing with a small sample size, so in another half century, you might see the French Defense popular with the then-prevailing group.

  • Good answer, I upvoted it, but wanted to clarify that Botvinnik was not a tactical player, he was strategical. – Fernando Gonzalez Sanchez Jul 11 '17 at 2:29
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The French is played at the highest levels today. For example, the number # ranked player in the world Caruana uses it. There is no refutation of the French. It's a sound opening. However, it may not be well suited for certain situations. For example, the exchange variation is considered vary drawish if White wants a draw. It is true that the current top twenty players seem obsessed with the Najdorf and Ruy Lopez (Berlin Defense) lines as Black because currently it seems that Black can equalize with these lines.

  • I thought about this some more and I have another theory. Currently many of the top players are very young and went through a chess coaching system which emphasizes tactical training. Therefore, they were encouraged to play the tactical openings as opposed to the more positional French. It may just as simple as that. Computers are better at analyzing opening positions than the closed positions of the French. Since many top players employ computer analysis, they may avoid the French for this reason. – ToddM Feb 12 '17 at 22:41

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