Estimated reading time: 16 minutes
What Is The Petroff Defense?
- a chess opening for Black against 1.e4
- characterized by the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6
- named after Alexander Petrov, a Russian chess player
- a solid and resilient chess opening
- played by many strong GMs of the past and present
- nowadays mainly popularized by Super-GM Fabiano Caruana
The Petroff Defense (also known as the Russian Defense) is a positionally sound opening full of hidden bite. It is one of the most trusted openings in chess, popular at all levels from beginner to strong grandmasters.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Petroff Defense was known as one of the toughest nuts to crack for White and players like Kramnik, Anand and Gelfand used it with Black to achieve easy draws at the top level. Since then, sadly, the Petroff gained a reputation of being too drawish an opening which is not suitable for many club players.
Today, however, thanks to the efforts of Super-GM Fabiano Caruana and other strong GMs, the Petroff has attracted general attention again and is slowly finding its way back to the tournament halls.
The Petroff Defense is a chess opening for Black which occurs after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 (see the position on the right). The opening got its name from Alexander Petrov, a Russian chess player who popularized it in the 19th century.
- Not comfortable playing with the Black pieces? Check out this must-read guide on chess openings for Black
This opening guide on the Petroff Defense provides you with all you need to know about this fascinating opening. What are the overall advantages of playing the Petroff Defense? Which opening traps and typical tactical motifs should Black be aware of? And what are the main lines and the latest theoretical developments for both sides?
To begin, we go back a few years to take a look at an inspirational game by Super-GM Vladimir Kramnik, one of the world’s experts on the Petroff Defense. He used the Petroff Defense in his World Championship Match against Peter Leko to great success:
Leko, Peter (2741) – Kramnik, Vladimir (2770): Brissago 2004
Why Play The Petroff Defense?
There are several reasons to play the Petroff Defense:
- First of all, playing the Petroff with 2…Nf6 is a very natural and classical way off reacting to White’s threat of Nxe5. Instead of defending the e5-pawn with a move like 2…Nc6, Black attacks one of White’s pawns himself. The Petroff is one of the most logical openings Black can play against 1.e4.
- Secondly, playing the Petroff Defense can be a vital alternative for all Black players who are tired of repeatedly entering the highly theoretical terrain of all the absolute main lines after 1.e4 e5 such as the Italian Game or the Ruy Lopez. The Petroff allows the Black player to immediately take the opponent out of his comfort zone by playing a move which is not as frequently played as 2..Nc6.
- In the past, the Petroff had a reputation of being too drawish an opening which was not suitable for many club players. Therefore, many Black players didn’t like it. This also means, however, that there haven’t been a lot of opening books, articles or videos published on the Petroff. Most White players haven’t taken the time to study how to play against the Petroff as it has occurred comparatively rarely. This makes the Petroff an easy and quick to learn opening which does not require an endless amount of the latest theoretical developments. It’s much more important to know the key strategic ideas and plans.
- The fact that the Petroff Defense is not that well analyzed as an opening like the Ruy Lopez or the Italian might enable you to contribute some new ideas to it. If you take the time to analyze the lines in the Petroff, you might come up with interesting moves that haven’t been played often, or even not at all.
- The Petroff Defense is an opening which has been successfully used by the greatest players. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, the Petroff Defense was known as one of the toughest nuts to crack for White and players like Kramnik, Anand and Gelfand used it with Black to achieve easy draws at the top level.
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Petroff Defense – Typical Chess Tactics
Active learning is the key to success in chess.
Before we go deeper into various lines and variations, you have the opportunity to dive actively into the waters of the Petroff Defense, and solve 4 puzzles which feature typical tactical motifs that frequently arise from this opening. Have a go! (You’ll find all the solutions at the end of the article.)
Petroff Defense – Basics and Key Concepts
Before we start to dive deep into the theory of this opening, we need to create a complete roadmap of the lines we variations we need to study when we want to play the Petroff Defense. This helps us to always keep track of the jungle of variations.
- If you want to know how to study chess openings the right way, read to this detailed and easy-to-scan guide on how to learn openings
First of all, before we can start studying the lines in our opening system, we need to make sure that we actually reach our opening. You need to have an answer to the lines which your opponent can play before you enter your familiar territory. Think of an opening like the Sicilian Najdorf, for example. It occurs after the following five moves: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6.
Yet, if you choose to play the Sicilian Najdorf and your opponent plays 1.e4, it’s by no means granted that you will reach this position in every game. Your opponent can deviate early on by playing moves like 2.c3 (Alapin Sicilian), 2.Nc3, followed by 3.f4 (Grand Prix Attack), 2.d4 (Morra Gambit) and many more.
The advantage of playing the Petroff is that the starting position of this opening is already reached after two moves. Yet, we still need to study White’s options after 1.e4 e5. Here are White’s options:
- The King’s Gambit (2.f4)
- The Vienna Game (2.Nc3)
- Other Moves (2.Bc4 or 2.d4)
In order to not get caught off guard in the opening, you need to study these moves separately. We’ll give you some ideas on how to deal with these moves. Yet, these ideas can only be seen as a starting point and you’ll need to study these early deviations in more detail.
Theory Section: The Petroff Defense
After the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6, White is at a crossroad, as his e-pawn is under attack. Therefore, he only has two main options against the Petroff Defense:
Yet, it should be noted that there are two other moves Black should be familiar with – 3.Bc4 and 3.Nc3. Both these moves are not played that frequently. However, Black is well-advised to have an answer to these moves. If Black wants, he can transpose to other openings by, for example, answering 3.Bc4 with 3…Nc6 (Italian Game) or 3.Nc3 with 3…Nc6 (Four Knights Game).
If Black does not want to enter these openings, however, he needs to look for alternatives.
Petroff Defense: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.d4
The move 3.d4 is the second most-played move by White. You won’t face it as often as 3.Nxe5, but you still need to know what to play against it.
We’re going to provide you with two reliable variations – one solid variation and one variation that offers Black more chances to steer the game into a more unbalanced position. Let’s take a look:
Petroff Defense: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 – Introduction
When playing the Petroff Defense with Black, it is key not to fall into a famous opening trap. After the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 (see the diagram on the right), Black should not play the move 3…Nxe4?, immediately trying to restore the material balance.
This move backfires after 4.Qe2! Nf6? Nc6+ (see the diagram on the left), when White wins the queen.
Instead, Black should first play 3…d6, forcing the White knight back and only then capture on e4.
That said, the move 3.Nxe5 is the move which you will probably face 70% of the time when opting to play the Petroff Defense.
It can lead to sharp variations like the Cochrane Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nxf7) and the two big main lines – 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3 and 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4.
We’ll cover each of the variations in detail.
Petroff Defense: Cochrane Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nxf7)
The Cochrane Gambit is an aggressive gambit which needs to be taken very seriously. If Black plays some casual developing moves, he can quickly find himself in a very bad position, facing a strong attack against his exposed king.
At first glance, 4.Nxf7 might look like a mistake as White simply loses a piece for two pawns and weakening Black’s king without having developed any other piece. However, White has some ideas in this gambit and Black needs to know how to react. For Black, it’s worth remembering some concrete lines and moves against the Cochrane Gambit. Let’s take a look at how Black should deal with this gambit:
Petroff Defense: Mainline after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3
Let’s take a look at the two main lines White can try against the Petroff Defense. The move 5.Nc3 is not as frequently played as 5.d4, but it has become quite fashionable in recent years. White has an easy-to-follow plan after Black’s main move 5…Nxc3. Black really needs to study this type of position as it’s not easy to play if you are unfamiliar with the Black plans and ideas.
Petroff Defense: Mainline after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4
The move 5.d4 introduces the absolute main line against the Petroff Defense. Here, Black has a choice between several variations.
Opening Experts in the Petroff Defense:
If you want to become an expert in your chess opening, it is a wise decision to regularly check the games of the world’s leading experts.
You can watch their approaches against different opening setups and become familiar with the latest trends, fashionable move orders or opening novelties.
If you choose to play the Petroff Defense, you have several opening experts to follow.
Nowadays, the biggest expert in the Petroff Defense is undoubtedly Fabiano Caruana, who frequently plays it against all the best players in the world.
Other strong players to follow are Vladimir Kramnik, Vishy Anand, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Wesley So and Boris Gelfand.
Model Games In The Petroff Defense
Many great games have been played in the Petroff Defense and it’s definitely worth studying them.
In order to properly learn a new opening, it is not enough to take a close look at theoretical lines – you also need to study some classical model games.
Checking complete games has various advantages. Most importantly, you get a better overall understanding of the positions arising from your opening. The focus is less on theory than on a general understanding of the resulting middlegame and endgame positions.
As the famous Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan once put it: “Study entire games. Your study can become disjointed if you just learn an opening set-up. Don’t just study the opening and early middlegame but instead play the entire game. Don’t just stop when your side has a good position.”
Let’s now take a look at some classical games in which Black (the Super-GMs Fabiano Caruana) showed how to play the Petroff Defense against decent opposition:
Robson, Ray (2660) – Caruana, Fabiano (2804): US Chess Championship 2018
The following game is a recent game Fabiano won in one of the main lines of the Petroff Defense. The game shows us that Black definitely had his counter-chances when playing the Petroff Defense.
Carlsen, Magnus (2834) – Caruana, Fabiano (2811): Wijk aan Zee 2018
This is another recent game in which Fabiano Caruana holds an easy draw.
The fact that Carlsen plays the calm 5.Qe2 shows that there is no clear way for White to put pressure on Black in other lines. The Petroff Defense is very solid. In this game, it was even Fabiano Caruana who pressed for a win in the endgame.
Opening Study Tip: Analyze The Games Your Opening Experts Lost
In the following video, GM Eugene takes a look at a game Fabiano Caruana lost in the Petroff Defense against Vishy Anand.
It’s a recent game from the strong 2018 Tata Steel Masters – a 14-player single round-robin taking place from 13-28 January. With chess giants like Magnus Carlsen, Vladimir Kramnik and Peter Svidler participating in the tournament, the average rating of all 14 players was 2750 Elo. Let’s see what happened:
So, once you’ve checked the game, it’s important to repair the line. In order to do this, you can use databases and strong engines. As Caruana’s move 12…Nc7 (see the diagram on the right) was a novelty, looking at the database won’t help to fix the line in this case. Yet, 12…Nc7 was perfectly playable for Black.
After 13.f3, Caruana’s knight on e4 was hanging, but he simply plays the cool move – 13…Bg6. Due to the fact that Caruana spent only seconds to come up with this move, it is very likely that this was all still home preparation.
In the video, GM Eugene Perelshteyn explains why the hanging knight on e4 can’t be taken. Mainly, it is the weak d4-square which forces White to go for another continuation. Hence, Anand played 14.c5! which is the best move in the position.
Surprisingly, it seemed like Caruana wasn’t prepared for this move as he started to invest a lot of time into the next moves. He continued with 14…Bxe5 15.dxe5 Ng5 (so far, so good) 16.Bb2 (see the diagram on the left).
Now, Caruana went for 16…d4? which is a mistake. He could have kept equality with 16…Bxd3 17.Qxd3 a5! 18.f4 Ne4 (see the diagram on the right).
White has a strong pawn duo on the e- and f-files, but Black has a strong knight on e4 and counterplay on the queenside. Black has the chance to open the a-file at any moment with …axb5.
In conclusion, Caruana’s line remains playable for Black if you improve it on move 16.
This was just an example on how to fix variations which opening experts have lost in your opening. You can do the same with many other games, too.
Conclusion – Master The Petroff Defense
The Petroff Defense is a strong opening for club players, and you should consider giving it a try to expand your horizons.
It’s a very solid and reliable opening which also helps you to become a better overall strategic player.
Yet, the Petroff Defense is a positional chess opening. In order to play the resulting structures well, you need to be a good positional player.
If you want to improve your overall positional play, we’ve got a special offer for you.
In his 8 hour Petroff Defense Deep Dive course, GM Damian Lemos studies every aspect of this opening for Black.
This course is full of up-to-date coverage of the Petroff Defense, featuring the most recent top-level games.
Take those e4 players out of their comfort zone and into your territory with the flexible Petroff – a positionally sound opening full of hidden bite!
Solutions To The Test Positions:
- Top Left Corner: This position occurred in a game between Anand and Kramnik in 2005. The Black queen is misplaced. 1.Bd1! Qd3 2.Re3! Qxc4 3.Re5! and White wins material. The bishop and the knight are hanging and both can’t be defended.
- Bottom Left Corner: Black wins with 11…Nb4!, attacking the bishop on d3, eyeing the c2-square for a potential knight fork and caging in the queen on b7. Black can continue with …Qf6, followed by …Rfb8, trapping the queen.
- Top Right Corner: Black has the winning move 17…d4! White is lost after 18.Bxd4 Rad8 19.Qe3 Nxd4 20.Rxd4 Bc5.
- Bottom Right Corner: Black still traps White’s queen with 16…Bxe5 17.dxe5 Nxd5! (threatening …Nb6, trapping the queen) 18.Be3 Nxe3 19.Rxe3 Na6-+.