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After the initial moves of the French Defense: Exchange Variation, my opponent played 4.Bb4+. I followed with 5.Bd2, but after analyzing it, I saw that it is not in the master games opening on chess.com and 5.c3 and 5.Nc3 are considered better moves.

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1. e4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. exd5 exd5 4. d4 Bb4+ 5. Bd2

It looks like the most natural move to me, because:

  • It forces the bishop away or to take my bishop which I can recapture with my knight, therefore developing it if he decides to take
  • c3 looks like a less natural move because although it pushes back the bishop, it prevents my knight from developing on c3 in the future
  • Nc3 looks like a less natural move because it pins the knight to the king, and if he takes my knight, he gets my pawns double stacked on the c file, which I always have thought you should try to prevent

So, why the move is weaker?

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Depending on what database you look at, all three moves (5.c3, 5.Nc3, 5.Bd2) are playing in this position. Nc3 and c3 are the most common, but Bd2 is played sometimes.

A lot of the play in the French Exchange is centered around the central squares and the open e-file. Quite often, White will play c4 and Nc3 and try to deploy their bishops at d3 and f5 or g4.

The problem with playing 5.Bd2 in my opinion is that the bishop is much stronger on a square affecting the center rather than trying to counter Black's bishop. Additionally, if Black plays 5...Bxd2, White can recapture with the Knight, which would put the knight slightly out of position (as it's better on c3 than d2), or the Queen, which would put it slightly out of postion (it's not really affecting anything on d2). If Black does not capture and plays like 5...Bd6 (it's best square), then White needs to reposition the bishop, which is doing nothing on d2.

Playing 5.c3 is fine. It moves Black's bishop, has central solidity, but creates a gameplan where white will need to do more maneuvering to get its pieces (i.e. the b1 Knight) into good positions. Ultimately, the Exchange French tends towards a draw and passive play, and, while 5.c3 seems active, it creates a passive setup for White.

I think @cyclops is right in the value of 5.Nc3. It keeps up the pressure on the center and develops a key piece to its most influential square. Yes, Black can take it and double White's pawns, but a) Black's dark-squared bishop is a really valuable piece in this opening, b) it still allows white to play c4 comfortably to hit the center. It may look messy, but it's better overall.

The French Exchange is usually fairly slow and equal. Bd2 may put White a little out of position, but it does depend on what kind of game White wants to play, i.e. if White wants to be active, passive but solid, or simply counteract anything Black does.

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  • Hi, thanks so much for this response, really clarifies my question and hits a lot of my talking points. One question that I do still have though is when you say Black's dark-squared bishop is really valuable in this opening; why? Although I have been playing chess for a while, I am a complete novice at chess theory. How do you know which bishop is my powerful for which opening? And why is this so? – Scott Scott Mar 5 at 22:52
  • @ScottScott There are surely people who know more about chess than me who can explain it better, more thoroughly, or just plain correct me. From my experience, Black's f-bishop is really useful in exerting influence over e5, which can make for a really good post for a white piece. It is also nicely aimed at the kingside. – rougon Mar 6 at 0:10
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It appears to be 4...Bb4+ that's the unusual move here. The chess.com database only shows one game with it, and that's the game that continued with 5.c3. When you have the position after Bb4+ on the board and it shows 5.Nc3 with a bunch of games, it's actually showing games that transposed into that position - the Nc3 was played earlier in the game.

Given that there's only one actual game in the database with Bb4+, there very well may be nothing wrong with Bd2. It hasn't been played simply because the position almost never came up.

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    I suppose most of those games went 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.exd5 exd5 5.Nf3. Still, there is something to explain, since chess.com's free engine after 4...Bb4+ has 5.Bd2 in third place behind 5.c3 and 5.Nc3. Us patzers wonder what's wrong with 5.Bd2 and what's so good about 5.c3. – bof Mar 5 at 6:32
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    I personally consider the chess.com opening explorer to be seriously flawed, precisely because it shows transpositions rather than moves that were actually played. For example, try putting 1. e4 d5 2. Bc4 in the chess.com opening explorer: it suggest that most masters would play 2... c6 or 2... Nf6 instead of just grabbing the free bishop and winning on the spot! – Marc Paul Mar 5 at 13:12
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    @bof That's fair. But I ran my engine to depth 38 and it shows c3 at +0.29 and Bd2 at +0.15. With that kind of small difference, it seems like both of those moves are going to have their pros and cons. – D M Mar 5 at 20:46
  • @DM: You must actually state the engine as well as version number otherwise "depth 38" is meaningless. Stockfish at "depth 38" does not search all possible move sequences to a depth of 38 plies. Even depth 20 is outright impossible for all standard computing devices. Instead, each engine uses plenty of heuristics to prune (possibly incorrectly) almost all of the search tree, and "depth 38" just means that at least one of the branches reached that depth... Maybe you know all this, but I'm sure that most readers don't. – user21820 Mar 6 at 8:50
  • @user21820 It was Stockfish 7 running at a MultiPV of 5. – D M Mar 6 at 17:48
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I would say that 5.Nc3 is better than 5.Bd2 because 5.Bd2 would allow Black to exchange Bishops very early in the game. It is a general principle that more piece exchanges lead to less complicated middlegames and to more chances of draw, which is naturally something that favors Black. The move 5.c3 does not look optimal to me since, as you said, it blocks the development of the Knight. So, I really don't know why the engine favors it.

By playing 5.Nc3 you develop your Knight to one of its most natural squares, but you allow the pin. This will either force Black to capture your Knight (thus, exchanging a Bishop for a Knight which is generally better for White) or ignore your Knight and further develop. However, White can later respond with a3 followed by c4 and expand his/her grasp on the Queenside. This will probably lead to short castling for both sides, but White should be still slightly better.

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  • Hi, thanks for the quick response. I totally see where you're coming from and am starting to understand why they prefer 5.Nc3 over 5.Bd2. One question I do have though is that although a bishop for a knight is generally better for white, black is able to double up my pawns on the c file if I play 5.Nc3, which I feel is advantage black. Let me know if I'm wrong in thinking that though. – Scott Scott Mar 5 at 22:46
  • Well, of course the main advantage of Black in exchanging his Bishop for your Knight is that he will double your pawns on the c-file. Otherwise Black would not do the exchange no matter what. I am not suggesting that 5.Nc3 Bxc3 is great for White, I am just saying that in my opinion an early exchange of Bishop for a Knight has more pros than the cons of doubled pawns on the c-file. – Cyclops Mar 6 at 11:43

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