The Anatomy of the French Advance

I have always played the advance against the French, and as a French player myself I have faced the advance many times. Naturally, there is no substitute for learning theory, however, the french advance is a forgiving opening in which an understanding of general principals can help you find the right ideas, even deep into the middle game.

(1) Black’s Dark-Square Bishop

First of all, everyone knows that in the French advance, Black’s light-squared bishop is a notorious problem piece, and finding a proper square or job for it can sometimes be difficult. This is certainly a theme to keep in mind. However, in my own games a much more important theme is that Black’s dark-squared bishop is the key to his position. To the same degree that Black’s light square bishop is passive and weak, his dark square bishop is active and strong. It holds down the weak squares behind his pawn chain, and often aids in a kingside attack on white’s castled king along the h4-d8 diagonal. Therefore, white should look to exchange off this bishop if possible, as it will open up black’s position for infiltration with a knight on c5 or d6 possibly, if not another piece. Often, white can force black to part with the dark squared bishop with the above mentioned knight maneuver, for instance the following thematic exchange has occured in countless of my games.

And here, the position is slightly better for white because of the static advantages that white enjoys, namely the space advantage and grip on the dark squares. Black will have a hard time creating counter play in the center without taking huge risks now.

(2) White Attacks on Both Flanks Simultaneously

Often we see these principals working together in tandem. In this game, white’s space advantage, and domination of the dark squares, made possible by exchanging off the dark square bishop, allows for an attack on both flanks simultaneously. Pressuring Black’s king from both sides should always be on White’s mind, and is often available when Black has failed to castle.

(3) White’s Space Advantage

In the french advance, white almost always emerges from the opening with a space advantage. Sometimes, this becomes the main feature of the position. This is particularly true where black closes off the pawn chain with the advance c5-c4. The game becomes less of a tactical battle, and more of a positional, maneuvering game, where both sides look for a breakthrough. In the following game, Nakamura expertly milks white’s space advantage for every drop of advantage, achieving a won ending after a very carefully planned breakthrough on the kingside of the board, where White’s space advantage is the greatest.

In the following two games, you will see a general two part plan emerge. (1) white tries to shut down black’s counterplay on the queenside of the board, and then (2) white turns his attention to the kingside, where he makes his decisive breakthrough.

Here, I play a similar kind of position but with a different idea in mind. Rather than the slow positional game that naka played above, here I play g3 to activate the light squared bishop along a different diagonal, and push for a kingside breakthrough rapidly. Again, the main feature of the game is white’s space advantage.

(4) When Black Castle’s Kingside Quickly, a Quick Kingside Attack is Often Available

A common theme in the French advance is the pressure that white may quickly bring against a hastily castled black King. For this reason, I often leave my king in the center with black for as long as possible, and occasionally castle queen-side, or in some instances I even “castle by hand” queen-side.

(5) Knowledge of these themes is key to playing both sides of the board in the French Advance

As I mentioned, I myself play the French, and so I find myself on the black side of the Advance regularly. Knowledge of these themes can win you games effortlessly, as demonstrated in the following game.

Obviously, at a higher level of play, white will also be aware of these themes, and the middle game will play out as a discussion surrounding the above outlined plans. The following game is a good game in which white missed his opportunity and allowed Black to shut down all of white’s ideas. By demonstrating a keen knowledge of the themes in this defense, black was able to keep white from making a breakthrough. Most importantly, watch how black keeps a firm control over the dark squares in the center of the board using first his queen, then his pawns, then a knight and pawns. Despite having to cede his dark square bishop, he was able to hold the draw by protecting these essential central squares and forcing white to earn them by exchanging pawns into a drawn ending.