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In my experience, the French is my weakest opening after e4. I used to play the advance variation against it but found that black gets really nice pressure in the center and by the middlegame white's center is kind of a liability. After switching to the exchange variation, it was hard to really push for much of an advantage since the position is basically equal.

My question is are there any tricky (tactical or offbeat) sidelines that will make black uncomfortable that are still objectively equal with perfect play from black? By the way, I'm 1600 on chess.com, since rating is probably relevant to the question.

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  • eric rosen has some youtube videos
    – cmgchess
    Sep 24 at 19:44

5 Answers 5

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Have a look at the Schlechter variation. It's a tricky sideline that almost always takes Black out of book and their known structures. White has interesting ideas, and some typical French moves are not great in this variation. There are also a few traps (that some 1600s fall for).

 [FEN ""]
 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Bd3

If Black tries to get their known and favourite advance structure, White gets a very favourable version of it with a significant advantage.

The risk is low, if Black finds the best moves (very unlikely at 1600, as noone knows the theory), the game is objectively even (maybe practically slightly more pleasant for Black).

This video is a great introduction to the line. I also recommend to look at the ChessMood material created by experienced GM coaches, as it has a very high quality: Starter Course, Main Course. You can also consider IM Banzeas Sidelines Course on Chessable to learn the line and it's ideas.

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There is an old gambit idea in advance, that was pioneered by Nimzowitsch & Keres. According to Sveshnikov (the authority on the advance variation) it leads to equality with best play.

 [FEN ""]
 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. Nf3

The point is that you sacrifice your d4 pawn and in exchange black position is restrained by his own immobile center - black cannot pressure d4 if he has his own pawn on d4. So it's a positional sort of gambit, where you have longterm compensation.

Piece placement: place your bishop on d3, after black plays Ne7 play Bf4 with idea that you can answer Ng6 with Bg3. You castle short. Rook goes to e1, Queen often to e2.

There are three main motifs you have to be aware of:

  1. you need to overprotect e5 pawn. If you place your pieces so that almost all of them are protecting e5, they will be quite harmonius and ready for kingside attack.
  2. Greek gift sacrifice. If black castles kingside, greek gift sacrifice of the bishop on h7 works a lot of the time, since e5 makes Nf6 impossible.
  3. h4-h5-h6 pawn push. Especially if black knight is on g6 - since then h5 forces it to move away from the king and so prepares greek gift sacrifice. Even if you don't have anything concrete this plan is desirable, since after h6 if black replies g6 he has a lot of dark square weaknesses on kingside. Start pushing h-pawn as soon as you are finished developing (if there isn't something better to do).

If black tries to break your center early with f6 it's usually dubious, check with engine.

For inspiration see Keres games in the variation.

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  • Initially, this looked like a good option to me. However, Stockfish seems to think that white does not get enough counterplay and even when black plays human moves in most lines black is just a clean pawn up by the middlegame.
    – user35472
    Sep 26 at 1:47
  • @user35472 black for sure equalizes in these lines - if you want advantage you need to play mainline stuff (either Nc3, mainline advance or Tarrasch). But clean pawn up? Hardly. Maybe if you play engines first choice also as white (these a4+Bb5 plans) instead of complicating the position on the kingside. Look at how humans treat these lines and, in general, when pawn down in unclear position don't trust the engine too much. Humans aren't computers and counterplay is vastly different concept between these two. Sep 26 at 5:11
  • I have to admit though that I stopped playing this line due to early Nge7+f6 plan. However this plan is not critical according to engine, I just didn't like the resulting positions. Sep 26 at 5:12
  • The engine gives this as the top line after 4. Nf3: (1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. Nf3) cxd4 5. Bd3 Nc6 6. O-O Bc5 7. Nbd2 Nge7 8. Nb3 Bb6 9. a4 Bd7 10. Re1 h6 11. Bf4 a5 12. Qd2 Rc8 at depth 40 ply and I would be happy to play this with black. The engine agrees with me and evaluates this as -0.6
    – user35472
    Sep 27 at 0:08
  • This position looks to me full of play - if you call this a clear pawn up position you have to be a lot stronger than I am. Anyway you can deviate on move 7 (with Re1 or Qe2, latter being very tricky) or on move 9 (Bf4). Sep 27 at 4:31
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This is a very relevant question. I myself am a 1.e4-player and something, which you will encounter a lot are players complaining about the french defense. I personally decided a long time ago, that going into the french positions only bears risk for a not so well prepared player (like me).

Finally I found something, where french players are really bad it (because they almost never face it). I started experimenting with sidelines. One line, which surely should not be viewed as a sideline is the KIA (Kings Indian Attack).

[Event "?"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "????.??.??"]
[Round "?"]
[White "?"]
[Black "?"]
[Result "*"]
[PlyCount "3"]

1. e4 e6 2. d3 *


Black has many possible setups, but all are a little different from the usual french structure. I have played this line with white and black against titled players. It has always been fun and exciting. Surely not, what a french player seeks, when he pushes his e-pawn one move forward.

I have also analysed a quick win by Georg Meier in a very important sideline of the KIA. Meier-Parkhov

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  • 1
    And karjakin won a must win against shankland in world cup. Black had a better position in the middlegame but it's so easy to mess up over the board when whites whole army is launching at your king
    – cmgchess
    Oct 5 at 2:03
  • 1
    If you are already a kings Indian player as black this line comes off as a bonus
    – cmgchess
    Oct 5 at 2:04
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YouTube Video French Exchange Variation

I propose the Exchange French Defense. Garry Kasparov, when he was world chess champion, played it several times with success. The main advantage is psychological, French players like some kind of pawn structures that you are avoiding with this line. However, the position is almost equal. The best player will win. If you study games played with this line, you will have a good start in your French games.

Here is one of the games that Kasparov won with that line: https://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1070560

Here is a video that can inspire you about the same game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNHO-vINDJc

There is a book that you can buy. Here are some pages offered by the publisher, New In Chess, to motivate you to buy: https://www.newinchess.com/media/wysiwyg/product_pdf/3756.pdf

The author is GM Alexander Fishbein: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Fishbein

You can buy the book on Amazon, if you wish: https://www.amazon.com/stores/Alex-Fishbein/author/B075N1DG4Z?ref=ap_rdr&store_ref=ap_rdr&isDramIntegrated=true&shoppingPortalEnabled=true

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First off: the French Defense is a "correct" opening and you cannot expect to get some "automatic" advantage playing against it - the same way you can't expect to get an advantage in the Ruy Lopez, the Italian, or any other correct opening. That doesn't mean there aren't some lines which lead to either white or black advantage. But given best play from both sides you will end up in some balanced middlegame position.

Second: the main theme of the French is "counterattack". White is allowed to expand his center - only to have it attacked and eventually blown apart later. On the other hand black always has the light-squared bishop as a liability, because the pawn structure remains fixed for a long time and most black pawns are on the white squares.

There are some offbeat lines for white which are still "correct" in the sense that black can play correctly and still have no advantage automatically. The "offbeat" merely means that the resulting structures are unusual for the French Defense:

a) Chigorin Variation
After 1. e4 e6 2. Qe2!? black cannot really play d5 because the e-pawn, which would naturally take back in case of exd, is pinned and Qxd5 is uncomfortable because Nc3 would win a tempo. Black usually responds with 2. ... c5 and the game will develop very similar to the closed Sicilian, with the white light-squared bishop usually ending on g2 (otherwise white would have to lose an additional tempo to bring the queen out of the way). The resulting positions are about level.

b) Aljechin-Chatard
In the main variation (1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e5 Nfd7) The classic continuation is to exchange the Bishop on e7, but 6.h4!? is also possible. This is a gambit, but black's position becomes dangerous after 6. ... Bxg5 7. hxg5 Qxg5 8. Nh3! (hitting the queen) and a following Qh5. A typical motive is the sacrifice of a knight on e6, tearing open the black position and breaking through in the center. In the end the gambit leads to equality, not more (once again, the French is still "correct"), although the tendency of the game ending in anything else than a draw is high.

c) Tarrasch Variation
After 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 instead of the "normal" move 3. Nc3 (the "classical variation") white can also play 3. Nd2!?. on the upside d4 can be reinforced by c2-c3, the downside is that the bishop c1 is temporarily shut in. Black can steer the game into rather quiet waters by 3. ... dxe (the "Rubinstein variation") and it makes no difference if the white knight takes back coming from c3 or d2. Black can also play 3. ... c5 (the "open variation"), resulting in a lively game. Black can also ignore white's setup completely and play 3. ... Nf6.

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