The Philidor Defense is a King’s Pawn Opening which can be reached through a couple different move orders. The most well-known move order is 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6
The Philidor Defense isn’t as popular today as it was in past centuries, but it remains a complex and reliable defense for black to choose. Black simply defends the e-pawn and avoids committing their knights yet.
In this position, white almost always plays 3. d4 in master-level chess. Even if white were to play another move (say, 3. Nc3 or 3. Bc4), white would usually play d4 very soon. If white doesn’t open the center, black will surely have no problems!
Black has two main set-ups in the Philidor Defense: The Exchange Variation and the Hanham Variation.
In this line, black relieves the central pawn tension right away. After 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Be7:
White has a space advantage, but black’s position is very solid. Black is ready to castle kingside, and may later try to pressure the white e4-pawn with …Re8.
White has many possible set-ups to choose from. One popular continuation is 6. Be2 0-0 7. 0-0 Re8 8. f4 Bf8 9. Bf3
White has grabbed some more space with the f-pawn, and used their light-squared bishop to help reinforce their e-pawn. Black usually continues with 9…c5 to dislocate white’s centralized knight before developing their own knight to c6, with an interesting game to follow.
Alternatively, black can avoid surrounding their stronghold on e5 and maintain the pawn tension. Let’s consider the Hanham variation, often reached through an alternative move order:
1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6. It looks like black is trying to play the Pirc Defense (which would be 3…g6), but after 3. Nc3, black instead strikes at the center with 3…e5.
White could exchange queens and stop black from castling with 4. dxe5 dxe5 5. Qxd8+, but the centralized king is not much of a concern with queens off the board. Instead more popular is 4. Nf3 Nbd7:
And we reach the Hanham Variation of the Philidor Defense. Now white can choose between a few different options – the most popular of which are going for the main line with 5. Bc4, or playing the aggresive pawn sacrifice 5. g4
The game might continue 5. Bc4 Be7 6. 0-0 0-0 7. Re1 c6 8. a4!
White usually plays this move to prevent black from expanding too quickly with …b5. After 8…b6 9. h3 a6, we arrive at the following position:
This position is quite complex! Black’s wall of queenside pawns could expand in any of various ways (for example, a later …b5 or …d5, after some preparation), and black’s position is very solid. All the pieces and pawns remain on the board, and the game is sure to be interesting.
Grandmaster Shirov is known for finding ways to play g2-g4 in many different openings, seemingly out of the blue! This pawn sacrifice is a modern interpretation of a centuries-old opening, and can cause black trouble if black if black isn’t careful.
After 5…Nxg4 6. Rg1 Ngf6, we see white’s main point. The open g-file makes it hard for black to finish kingside development.
The game might continue 7. Bc4 h6 (preventing Ng5) 8. Bd3 c6 9. dxe5 dxe5 10. Qd3, and white has a dangerous threat. If black plays the oblivious 10…Qc7?, continuing on with development:
Then white can play 11. Bxf7+! Kxf7 12. Qc4+, and white’s attack is very difficult to repel. One key point is that after 12…Ke8 13. Qe6+, white will be able to play Rxg7 if black blocks with the dark-squared bishop!
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 f5?
While this was one of Philidor’s original ideas many centuries ago, it has since fallen out of favor – and for good reason. After 4. Nc3, white has a lead in development, and black’s king is rather exposed because of the advance of the f-pawn.
If black follows through on their plan to eliminate the white e-pawn and claim the center, with 4…fxe4 5. Nxe4 d5, then 6. Neg5! gives white a huge attack – and white hasn’t even had to sacrifice anything! For example, 6…e4 7. Ne5 Nh6 (forced):
White wins with 8. Nxe4! White sacrifices a piece to threaten Bxh6 followed by Qh5, with a winning attack. The black king is too exposed.
The Philidor Defense is a complex opening that gives both sides many options. In the Exchange Variation, black concedes a space advantage for the sake of ease of development and pressure against the e4 pawn, while in the Hanham variation black retains their stronghold on e5 – it’s often quite a while before any exchanges occur at all!
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