In The French Defense Exchange Variation – What To Do After 4. c4?

French Defense exchange variation Monte Carlo line

The Exchange Variation of The French Defense is a variation that is hardly played anymore at the grandmaster level. As Black, you should be quite happy if white chooses to take on 3. exd4.

There are good ways for Black to reach equality and that is always great for Black in the opening.

If you are a French player and not playing at the master level you are surely going to run into the Exchange Variation with 4. c4 from White and in this article, I am going to give you a guide on how to proceed as Black.

We are also going to have a closer look at your main plans and how to place your pieces as Black.

If White plays 4. c4 in the Exchange Variation this particular line is called to Monte Carlo Variation of the French Defence.

Let us first have a look at the starting position and how we get there.

The Monte Carlo Variation of The French Defense Exchange Variation After White Plays 4. c4

Our position arises after the White chooses to take in the French and then on his next move advances his c-pawn to c4.

The c4 move is one of 3 possible moves that white typically plays in the Exchange.

The other two are:

  • 4. Nf3
  • 4. Bd3

In this, we are only focussing on 4. c4.

What we need to know in this position is that we are going to take on c4. We just have to wait until the right moment before we do.

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Knowing that we are going to take at some point means we also know that we are going to play against an isolated pawn means that we have a plan. We are going to place a knight in front of the isolated pawn since the pawn cannot be protected by another pawn. Also, we want to trade as many pieces as possible. Trading pieces makes the isolated pawn even weaker.

It is important to have a bit of patience here. It is best to let White’s moves decide when is the right moment. The key here is development tempo and we want to try to get Black to waste a tempo with his bishop on f1.

How Should Black Continue After 4. c4 in The French Defence Exchange Monte Carlo Variation

So, what exactly should Black do after 4. c4?

At this point, we always want to go 4… Nf6 defending the unprotected d-pawn.

White has three main possible moves here.

  • 5. Nc3
  • 5. Nf3
  • 5. cxd5

The last option cxd5 is one that we are not going to worry about since white is doing much of our work for us. Of course, we want to take back with our knight here. This leaves us to block the isolated pawn which is exactly what we wanted to do in the first place. Black is already much better here. Looking at grandmaster games that have reached this position in the past black wins 49% while white only wins 45%.

White’s main move is 5 Nc3 attacking our d-pawn. 5… Bb4 is good here pinning whites knight to the king. Other fine options are 5…c6 reinforcing out d-pawn or 5… Be7 getting our bishop out of the way of our king and preparing to castle kingside.

Against 5. Nf3 our main moves as Black are the same and the reason is that we have a very clear goal.

We want to develop our pieces as quickly as possible and generally putting them on their most active squares.

All the while we are developing our pieces and castling we are watching White’s development moves closely. We want to pay particular attention to when he moves his light-squared bishop out.

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First, let us take a closer look at where we are looking to place our pieces against after 4. c4.

French Defence Exchange Variation With 4. c4 And The Best Placement of Blacks Pieces

After 4. c4 we are going for rapid development while waiting for the right time to take on c4.

So, where should we aim to put our pieces? Have a look at the following diagram where you can see Black’s best piece placement in this position.

Like already stated the strongest move for Black against 4. c4 is Nf6. This also follows the sound general opening principle that you should develop your knights before bishops.

After Nf6 we want to get the bishop out of the way to castle. For this reason, the next move is bishop to b4. After this we can castle and finally develop our other knight so it goes Nc6.

Having our ideal move order ready we need to know when to take on c4 and after clarifying this we will look closer at Black’s main plan and strategy after the opening developing moves.

Take On C4 When it Causes White to Lose a Tempo

In the Monte Carlo Variation, there are three facts that we can use to our advantage.

  • We know that we are going to take on c4.
  • We also know that White will have to take back on c4 with his bishop.
  • White needs to move his bishop on f1 to prepare to castle.

Imagine if we took right away with 4…dxc4. Now White can take back with 5. Bxc4 and simultaneously developed a piece. White looks very good here.

This is not what we want and therefore we develop first and await white moving his bishop.

Only after White moves the bishop to prepare to castle do we take on c4. He has to take back with his bishop and by doing so he has just moved the same piece twice. This way white has lost a tempo. Great news for us and we can now focus on completing development and then carrying on with our main plans.

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A typical line goes like this.

Now we need to turn our attention to our plan for the rest of the game. White has the isolated d-pawn and we are going to base out plan on this fact.

Block Whites Isolated D-Pawn and Exchange as Much as Possible

Black has a simple plan after these opening moves.

Here we assume that White has an isolated d-pawn on d4. Obviously White has his own reasons for wanting to play with this isolated pawn and that is his better piece activity.

We want to accentuate the weakness of the isolated d-pawn. We do this by placing a knight on d5. This blocks the isolated pawn and because the pawn is isolated our knight can not be chased away by another pawn.

Next step for Black playing against the isolated pawn is simply to trade off as many pieces as possible. The less pieces on the board the better for Black. On the flipside White wants to keep as many pieces to take advantage of his better piece activity.

Besides blocking the isolated pawn and trading pieces we want to keep attacking the isolated pawn when possible. This also ties whites pieces down to defending the pawn.

After 4. c4 in The French Defence Exchange Variation Without The Isolated D-Pawn

For now we have assumed that we are going to play against whites isolated d-pawn when he plays 4. c4 in the exchange variation of the French Defence.

There is also another possibility, though. That is if White pushes his c-pawn to c5 before we take. This is not really a line that White takes very often here, so we will not focus more on that line here.

As a French player you probably do most of your opening preparation on other lines than the Monte Carlo.

You should not be worried, though. There is a reason that the Exchange Variation is rarely played anymore at the higher levels. The exchange is good for Black and with the advice in this article you are well on your way to get the upper hand as Black in the French Defence Exchange Variation after white continues with 4. c4.

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