The Petrov Defense is a King’s Pawn Opening beginning with 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6
Rather than defending the threat to the e5 pawn, black instead decides to counterattack white’s e4 pawn by playing …Nf6. While many consider this move to be unambitious for black, the Petrov Defense retains its reputation as a solid opening which is tough for white to exploit.
White has three main moves against the Petrov Defense – capturing the undefended black pawn with 3. Nxe5, striking at the center with 3. d4, or simply defending white’s own e4 pawn with 3. Nc3. Let’s consider them one by one and see what can happen.
Note that defending the pawn with 3. d3?! is considered inferior – why block in the light-squared bishop unnecessarily?
This has generally been considered the most critical test, taking the undefended pawn.
Black should not immediately respond in kind. 3…Nxe4 4. Qe2! is a trap that many beginners fall for with black.
Black is left without a fully satisfactory move here. The knight is under attack and cannot move (for example, 4…Nf6?? 5. Nc6+ wins the queen with a discovered check). 4…d5 5. d3 doesn’t free black from his woes either.
Because of this, black needs to meet 3. Nxe5 with 3…d6, and only after 4. Nf3 can black safely recover the pawn with 4…Nxe4.
Now 5. Qe2 Qe7 is nothing special for white, so white will often just grab the center with 5. d4. Black’s most popular move is to play 5…d5, ensuring that space in the center becomes equal.
This is often considered the starting position to the main line of the Petrov Defense. The pawn structure is entirely symmetrical, which causes many people to consider this opening rather dull. White must surely have some small advantage by virtue of having the move, and often continues 6. Bd3
Later, white could choose to play c2-c4 to imbalance the position a little bit and fight for space, or to play the more solid c2-c3. White has a small edge, but black’s position is very solid, and both players should have no trouble finishing development.
To avoid this type of game, some players with white have resorted to playing 4. Nc3, accepting doubled pawns. After 4…Nxc3 5. dxc3:
White not only opens a line for the dark bishop to develop, but also might intend to castle queenside! Then, the large pawn-mass with the doubled pawn might be more of a strength than a weakness, adding protection to the white king. If black castles kingside, white will be free to launch an attack against the black king.
Play might proceed 6…Be7 7. Bf4 Nc6 (black avoids committing the king for a while!) 8. Qd2 Be6 9. 0-0-0 Qd7 (9…Bxa2? 10. b3 traps the bishop) 10. Kb1
Now if black castles kingside, white is ready to launch his pawns forward to attack the king (for example with h4), and if black castles queenside, white may respond with Bb5 (pinning the knight, and breaking the pin with …a6 and …b5 is more risky now after castling)!
Black usually keeps up the waiting game just a little bit longer with 10…Bf6, with an interesting position.
Sometimes called the “Modern” variation of the Petrov Defense, this is another way that white can try to avoid the symmetrical main line.
After 3…Nxe4, white can play the in-between move 4. Bd3 before recouping the lost pawn.
If black plays the natural 4…d5 to defend the knight, then 5. Nxe5 simply transposes to a mainline Petrov, but 5. dxe5 results in an original position:
Will white’s far-advanced pawn be a liability or a strength? It’s not entirely clear yet. Black sometimes plays 5…Nc5 now, trying to exchange off white’s powerful bishop, but white can respond with 6. 0-0 (developing as fast as possible and allowing the exchange) or simply 6. Be2. It’s anyone’s game.
3…exd4 is an alternative move for black, but it allows white to play 4. e5 and kick the f6 knight. A sample line might continue 4…Ne4 5. Qxd4 d5 6. exd6 Nxd6, with a wide-open center being the result.
This move is more of an attempt to avoid the Petrov than it is an answer to the Petrov. Black really has little choice but to play 3…Nc6, transposing to a Four Knights Game.
Black may have been deprived of an opportunity to play their favorite defense, and instead forced to play an opening most often associated with the 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 move order. But black can be content that they’ve avoided the most critical lines stemming from that position (the Ruy, Scotch, and Italian), and play a Four Knights Game from here!
3…d6 is a second option, leading to a Philidor Defense.
The Petrov isn’t too popular these days among amateurs, as white has the choice to either seek a small advantage in a symmetrical position in the main line, or to me more ambitious by, for instance, castling queenside.
Nonetheless, the Petrov Defense is tough to break down, and can give players headaches in must-win situation especially!
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