I find the French more aggressive, as black gets easy queenside play with pieces and generally a pawn avalanche. However, my friend debates that the Caro is better than the French because the Caro allows a queenside expansion as well, but "you get to play with all your pieces" (referring, of course, to the bad light squared bishop in the French).

We both realize that the French bishop can be traded off in many lines with maneuvers like b6, Ba6, where either white trades the bishop, or has a difficult time castling kingside/coordinating kingside pieces. But it's not always possible, and even avid French players will admit that it's difficult to activate the slacker on c8.

What would be a good way to counter my friend's argument? Are there any other arguments (from an objective perspective, preferably) to support playing the French or the Caro Kann?


7 Answers 7


I can think of a couple counter arguments against what your friend says:

1) Sure in the Caro-Kann you can easily develop your Bishop outside the pawn chain, but there are several variations where the Bishop ends up being a target when developed to f5. The most prominent example is in the advance Caro-Kann:

[fen ""]
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nc3 e6 5. g4 
  1. The fact that the pawn is on c6 means the b8 knight is deprived of its best square to pressure the base of the pawn chain on d4. Essentially you are trading your traditional bad bishop for a bad knight. You can't have everything!

  2. Because black played c6 first, a further c5 to pressure the center if not well timed is a loss of tempi compared to the french where you play c5 in one go. This means that in a lot of lines, black must do a lot of prep work before he can afford to play c5, meaning there is also less pressure against white's center. This allows white a lot more leeway as to how he wants to organize his forces. Compare this to the french advance where you quickly play moves like c5, Nc6, Qb6 to pressure the center. Those moves certainly aren't possible to play as quickly in the Caro-Kann. Furthermore, if black opens the center too quickly in the Caro-Kann, he may wish his bishop were back inside the pawn chain to guard against annoying checks on the a4-e8 diagonal!

Ultimately, a debate over whether or not the Caro-Kann is better than the French is fruitless. They are both good openings of equal strength, and your choice to play one over the other is a purely stylistic choice.


It comes down to pure taste. I've been playing the Caro for over 20 years now and would never even consider the French, exactly because of this bishop - and because I've played a lot of very nice attacking games against the French with White.

The other reason why I personally dislike the French is White's boring option of 1.e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5 4.Bd3 followed by 5.Nf3. (I have to admit I employed this in a few tournament games myself, because a draw was all I needed for my desired overall outcome.) This takes the fun out of any game, at least if Black is a somewhat serious player.

Having said all this, on top I'd like to quote my old coach: "French is an opening for World Champions." What he meant by this is that you must really watch out, because you have to defend against big onrushes in a lot of variations - with a blocked center, the hidden bishop and without "the Black king's best friend" (the knight on f6). It's often a long battle until you can look for advantage on the queenside, because you have to fight for survival on the kingside. Not to my liking, but others feel differently.


The Caro-Kann defence

Now that there have been a few answers in favour of the French, I'd like to make the case for the Caro-Kann defense, especially at club level. I deliberately do not make any objective assessments, including discussions of bad bishops, tempo losses etc. (as this has been discussed before and is fruitless because both openings are objectively sound). Also, I do not discuss personal preferences. Rather, I would like to focus on the practical advantages of playing the Caro-Kann:

  1. The Caro-Kann offers a much wider variety of pawn structures. This is good if you want to have interesting games and if you want to improve your understanding of chess as a whole. Also, you can play the Caro-Kann positionally or more dynamically, depending on your style preference, as there are always good options also for Black leading to very different play (e.g. 4. ..Nf6 instead of 4. ..Bf5 in the classical mainline, 3. ..c5 instead of 3. ..Bf5 in the advance and so on). You can adapt your repertoire and easily play it for a lifetime without ever getting bored.

  2. The exchange variation of the Caro-Kann is very interesting for both sides, instead of the ultra-dull French exchange. Especially on the club level, you will face the exchange variations a lot. Black can quickly get the upper hand if White isn't careful in the Caro-Kann Exchange (compare that to the Exchange French!).

  3. There are very few forced lines. Necessary opening theory can be heavily condensed. You can spend your time on improving other areas of your game instead of studying concrete opening variations. The Caro-Kann is very solid and often not as sharp as the French defense, therefore you won't likely be crushed in a deadly attack on your king for forgetting concrete theory. Of course, like in any opening, there are a few lines you should know really well. There are not many "tricks" or dangerous Gambits and sidelines against the Caro-Kann but there are plenty against the French. Currently, I have a lot of fun playing the Schlechter variation against French players, who almost never study this line. Even in games against very strong opposition (2200 FIDE Elo+), I have seldom faced its "refutation". One IM even deliberately did not play it "in order to avoid my preparation" even though he knew the best line, of course.

  4. Very often, plans and ideas are easy to understand and execute in the Caro-Kann (e.g. play against the Panov-IQP or the minority attack in the exchange Carlsbad). Contrast that with statements of even 2700 Elo GMs (e.g. Svidler) that the French defense is a very hard opening to understand! The plans of adding pressure on d4 are nearly identical in the advance variation of both openings.

  5. The Caro-Kann is a fantastic weapon to fight for a win (especially against lower-rated opposition) due to the unbalanced nature of the position. There even is a saying that "the Caro-Kann is the new Sicilian", as there are much fewer forced lines that facilitate the Sicilian becoming "dead-analysed" to a draw. Fewer forced lines mean more opportunities to outplay your opponent. If White only wants a draw, he can simplify the position more easily against the French than the Caro-Kann (e.g. by taking on d5).

All these reasons combined, together with my preference for the noble bishops explain why I would definitely choose the Caro-Kann over the French as a main weapon. My answer is partially based on the arguments given by IM Sielecki in his Chessable course.

Finally, I'd like to conclude with cold hard evidence for the higher practical value of the Caro-Kann over the French defense: statistics.

According to the lichess database, 1. ..c6 is the best-performing move out of all four major openings (1. ..e5, 1. ..c5, 1. ..e6, 1. ..c6) on amateur level across all playing strengths and time controls. Only the Alekhine has a better score for Black among lichess amateurs. If you only consider longer time controls (rapid + classical), it is Black (!!) who wins more games than White after 1. ..c6!

On the master level, the Caro-Kann also performs better than the French defense.

I rest my case.


There is, as I see it, one main point to argue for the French defence over Caro-Kann, and that is the advance variation. In the French, the advance variation is a sound line, but not the most challenging one. In the Caro-Kann, however, it is more challenging. The reason for why this is I think can be summed up in the following three points:

  • Black's light-squared bishop may become a target outside the pawn chain. While this isn't really a big problem most of the time, it gives white a target on the kingside to accelerate a pawn storm in some instances.
  • Black's counterattack against white's center is slower than in the french in the case when white plays the advance variation, since black has already spent a tempo playing ...c6.
  • With the bishop outside of the pawn chain, black somewhat weakens the defence of the a4-e8 diagonal. This can have dire consequences if black is careless, since a bishop check from b5 can be deadly if black cannot reply with Bd7.

With this being said, both openings are sound and it comes down to a matter of taste in the end when choosing which one to play. The advance variation is not a refutation to the Caro-Kann by any means, and the Caro-Kann does have some advantages over the French defence in other regards.


I prefer the French to the Caro-kann for three reasons:

  1. No tempo is wasted on ...c5

  2. Black has active pieces.

  3. The engine favours it.

The Caro-kann has some pluses as well.

  1. The light-square bishop is developed.

  2. Black's position is solid.


The way I convinced myself that it's not by accident that Caro-Kann is statistically doing just as well as its "ugly brother" was to recall how many games I lost due to the absence of the bishop in c8. A caricature game below.

The said bishop also sometimes becomes a vulnerability: even in the main classical line White immediately starts to harass it with g4, h4-h5.

Having the bishop on c8 is in a sense more solid. And its perspectives are not as dim as might seem, with possible usage on a6 on even on c8/d7, supporting f6 (which is much less common in Caro, probably unsurprisingly in this context).

That said, these are concrete openings with concrete lines. I believe there is little point arguing philosophically about the reasons one opening is better: they are both totally legit, equalizing openings, as backed up by concrete lines and variations, rather than vague principles with a very limited scope of application.

[fen ""]
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5  4. dxc5 Nc6 5. Nf3 Bg4 6. c3 Nxe5? 7. Nxe5 Bxd1 8. Bb5 1- 0

See below. This was the quickest objective comparison I saw.


French Defense-Number of games in database: 7477; Years covered: 1819 to 2023; Overall record: White wins 40.2%, Black wins 34.0%, Draws 25.8%


Caro-Kann Defense-Number of games in database: 7807; Years covered: 1856 to 2023; Overall record: White wins 40.1%, Black wins 27.3%, Draws 32.6%

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