The Philidor Defense – A Dogged Defense

The Philidor Defense is a chess opening for Black that starts with the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Nf6.

the philidor defense a complete guide blog image

The Philidor Defense is a classic example of looks being deceiving. On the surface, it looks like black is adopting a very passive, cramped position.

A more accurate way to look at it would be to think of the position as a coiled spring.

Considering Philidor’s most well-known quote is “Pawns are the soul of chess,” it is unsurprising the Philidor Defense has a super-solid pawn structure.

There is a lot of potential in the primary starting position for expansion, and black’s pieces can come into play very quickly!

Likewise, the Philidor Defense is best known for the pawn structure with …e5 and …d6, but that is only one of many.

Take a new look at the classical, dogged Philidor Defense.

Getting you started on this exciting new opening adventure is IM Valeri Lilov. Here he shows you how quickly the cramped position of the Philidor Defense can suddenly come to life and leave black with the better piece activity!

Estimated reading time: 20 minutes

The Philidor Defense Pawn Structures

Harmony among your chess pieces is crucial to winning chess games. The pawns play a pivotal role in creating good piece coordination, and the Philidor Defense is no exception.

Pawns are the soul of chess, said Philidor

They provide outposts for your knights and create space for your bishops.

In the Philidor Defense, there are two main types of pawn structures:

  • the standard symmetrical pawn structure, and
  • the resulting pawn structure after exchanging on d4.

Symmetrical Pawn Structure in the Philidor Defense

The following pawn structure commonly found in the Philidor Defense shows why it is good to remember that pawns create weak squares behind them as they advance.

The moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Nf6 brings us to the following position.

philidor defense symmetrical pawn structure
Philidor Defense symmetrical pawn structure

After the d and e pawns are exchanged, the symmetrical pawn structure is equal because the black pawn is on c7, not c6. 

The advance …c6 weakens the d6 square and is a weakness white can exploit. 

Pawn Exchanges on d4 in the Philidor Defense

Black plays …exd4 to create a semi-open e-file and attack the pawn on e4.

In the following position, black’s counterplay is found in the mobile b, c, and d-pawns combined with attacking the e4-pawn.

Philidor 3...exd4 exchange by black.
3…exd4 exchange by Black

White usually generates play with Nxd4-Nf5 combined with Qf3. 

When white develops a bishop to c4, black must always be on the lookout to play …Nxe4 and after Nxe4, he has …d5 forking the knight and bishop.

Third Move Alternatives for White in the Philidor Defense

Of all the possible ways white has to avoid the Philidor Defense, the most sound is 3.Bc4. 

This position in the Philidor Defense can be reached through transposition from the Bishop’s Opening and the Italian Opening.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bc4

philidor defense 3.bc4
Philidor Defense 3.Bc4

White often attempts to seize control of the center with c3 and d4 in this variation. After 3…Be7 4.O-O Nf6 5.Re1 O-O 6.c3 Nc6 black has achieved easy development of his pieces.

philidor defense 6...nc6
Philidor Defense 6…Nc6

In the following game, Etienne Bacrot uses the …d5 fork and goes on to defeat Vassily Ivanchuk.

Ivanchuk, Vassily – Bacrot, Etienne, 0-1, Wch Blitz 3rd, 2007

Other white moves like 3.c4 or 3.c3 are well met in the Philidor Defense with 3…f5! This is particularly effective against 3.c3 because white can’t defend his e4-pawn with 4.Nc3.

Black can also meet 3.c3 with 3…Nf6. This keeps the pawn trio intact to shelter the castled king. 3…Nf6 is also an excellent way to meet 3.Nc3.

Here are two chess grandmasters rated over 2700 to show us how play might go after 3.Nc3 Nf6. This game also shows us the Philidor Defense is good enough to hold its own at the highest levels.

Morozevich, Alexander (2770) – Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar (2726) 2016.05.29, 0-1

The Philidor Defense 3.d4 exd4

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4

philidor defense 3...exd4 1
Philidor Defense 3…exd4

Because the move 3…Nf6 has left black under pressure in the past 3…exd4 is the more dynamic and safer approach. 

White can play in gambit style with 4.Bc4 when 4…Nf6 is a good response.

Play might continue 5.O-O Be7 6.Qxd4 Nc6

3...exd4 with 6...nc6
Black plays 3…exd4 and 6…Nc6

Black has achieved equality and will continue in typical style with …O-O, …Re8, and expand on the queenside.

The two main moves after 3…exd4 are

  • 4.Nxd4 and
  • 4.Qxd4

Philidor Defense Larsen’s Variation: 3…dxe4 4.Nxd4

After 4.Nxd4 in the Philidor Defense, black can enter the dynamic Larsen’s Variation with 4…g6.

If you are concerned about entering Maroczy Bind positions after 4….g6 5.c4, it’s possible to first play 4…Nf6 and after 5.Nc3 g6. 

4…g6 5.Nc3 Bg7 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Qd2 O-O 8.O-O-O brings us to a position often found in the Sicilian Dragon

Here is a game between two highly rated grandmasters showing how play might continue from this dynamic position.

Le Quang, Liem – Mamedov, Rauf, 0-1, Moscow Aeroflot op-A1, 2008

Instead of 8…Re8 played by Mamedov against Le Quang, black can aim for simplifications with 8…Nc6.

philidor with 8...nc6 aiming for simplifications by exchanging on d4
Philidor Defense 8…Nc6 aiming for simplifications by exchanging on d4.

The idea is to exchange knights on d4 and follow up with queenside counterplay. Black intends to play …c5 and …Qa5.

Interestingly enough, black does statistically better with this more straightforward second option. White’s winning chances drop from 54% against 8…Re8 to 48% against 8…Nc6.

In the next game, Vladislav Vorotnikov managed to obtain a draw in only 17 moves against the great Maxime Vachier Lagrave. MVL was rated 247 ELO higher than his opponent at the time.

Black obviously has every reason to feel confident about this position in the Philidor Defense if a player like MVL is held to a draw by a much lower-rated opponent. 

Vachier Lagrave, Maxime – Vorotnikov, Vladislav V, 1/2-1/2, Basel Hilton op 15th, 2013

3…dxe4 4.Qxd4

Although an early queen sortie is usually not advisable, each position should be evaluated on its merits.

The usual 4…Nc6 allows 5.Bb5 when black must be willing to play the Steinitz Defense of the Ruy Lopez.

Black’s best response to 4.Qxd4 is 4…a6 and after 5.Bg5 Nc6 6.Qe3 Be7 7.Nc3 

philidor defense 4.qxd4
Philidor Defense 4.Qxd4

Black has a choice between immediate equality with 7…Bxg5, or choosing to make play more complex with 7…Nf6.

Novgorodskij, Vladimir – Kuzmin, Gennadi P, 0-1, RUS-Cup01 Chigorin Memorial, 1996

The Solid Antoshin Variation of the Philidor Defense – 4.Nxd4 Nf6

This variation is named after Russian GM Vladimir Antoshin. Black intends to develop the bishop on e7 to add more protection to the queen on d8.

Another advantage of the Antoshin variation is white doesn’t have the g6 hook to assist him in a full-frontal assault on the black king.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 6.Bf4

philidor defense antoshin variation 6.bf4
Philidor Defense Antoshin variation 6.Bf4

Against this plan, black has two dependable moves:

  • 7…Nc6 and
  • 7…c6

The idea for black in both variations is to expand rapidly on the queenside. White must guard against …b4 driving away the defender of the e4-pawn.

Opposite side castling almost always leads to exciting chess, but black has nothing to fear. The classical development of the Philidor Defense ensures black’s position remains solid.

In this variation, it’s easy to see the dynamic potential of the black position in the Philidor Defense.

The Antoshin Variation with 7…Nc6

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 6.Bf4 O-O 7.Qd2 Nc6 8.O-O-O Nxd4 9.Qxd4

philidor defense antoshin variation 6.bf4 with 7...nc6
Philidor Defense Antoshin variation 6.bf4 with 7…Nc6

When black chooses 7…Nc6, he is once again looking to exchange knights on d4. This knight is one of white’s most active pieces in the Philidor Defense.

This allows him to play …c5 with a gain of tempo by attacking the queen.

Every gain of tempo is vital in a game with opposite side castling. 

Although it appears black can gain two tempi by attacking the queen and knight, white both defends and prepares his attack with f3. Thus, gaining back a tempo.

The position is dynamically balanced with chances for both sides! You can’t ask for more from your chosen opening.

The Antoshin Variation with 7…c6

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 6.Bf4 O-O 7.Qd2 c6 8.O-O-O b5 9.f3

philidor defense antoshin variation 6.bf4 with 7...c6
Philidor Defense Antoshin variation 6.Bf4 with 7…c6

White defends the e4-pawn in anticipation of black playing …b4. When black chooses 7…c6, he is placing a high priority on a queenside pawn storm.

When both sides are attacking opposite sides of the board, speed is the most critical factor of your assault.

Although the black pawns lead the way in this assault, take note of how Taddel used his pieces. 

First, they came back to defend, and then they advanced with devastating effect!

Calistri, Tristan – Taddei, Benoit, 0-1, Juvisy sur Orge, 2013

Antoshin Variation: Alternatives for White on move 6

Apart from 6.Bf4 in the Antoshin Variation of the Philidor Defense, white has three main alternatives:

  • 6.Be2
  • 6.g3
  • 6.Bc4

The Antoshin Variation: 6.Be2

The move 6.Be2 is a quiet move you might underestimate. 

Anatoly Karpov certainly had great success with it against the Sicilian Defense. Fortunately, we are playing the solid, dynamic Philidor Defense.

Although the move might give white a very slight edge at best, there is nothing for black to fear.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 6.Be2

philidor defense antoshin variation 6.be2
Philidor defense Antoshin variation 6.Be2

Once again, simple development serves both sides well. It’s interesting to note that two great grandmasters, Ivanchuk and Anand, playing with the white pieces, couldn’t earn a win with 6.Be2 against the Philidor Defense.

Ivanchuk, Vassily – Aronian, Levon, 1/2-1/2, Amber-blindfold 15th, 2006

Antoshin Variation 6.g3

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 6.g3

philidor defense antoshin variation 6.g3
Philidor Defense Antoshin variation 6.g3

We have all heard it countless times – the best way to counter a flank attack is to play in the center!

White might not have launched an attack, but playing on the flank with 6.g3 allows black to equalize with 6…d5!

In most openings, if black gets to play …e5 and …d5, he will achieve equality. The Philidor Defense is no exception.

Against 7.exd5 black will seek to exchange or drive the white knight from d4. This usually means playing …Nb4 setting up the tactical blow of a possible …Qxd4 and …Nxc2 combination at the appropriate moment.

White must either keep a bishop on e3 to support the knight on d4 or move the knight to b3. This allows black to exchange queens and transition to an equal endgame with the Philidor Defense.

If you have honed your endgame skills, this can be a great strategy to safely reach the endgame.

Apart from 7.exd5, white can play 7.e5 when black responds with 7…Ng4. The knight might look misplaced, but it isn’t easy for white to attack it. 

You know the position is fine for black when Magnus Carlsen can’t make any headway against it. In fact, Mamedyarov scored a win in this position of the Philidor Defense against Carlsen

Here is how he did it.

Carlsen, Magnus – Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar, 0-1, Wch Blitz, 2012

The Antoshin Variation 6.Bc4

White develops in the classical style in this variation of the Philidor Defense and trusts his well-centralized pieces and space advantage to give him an edge.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 6.Bc4

philidor defense hanham variation 5.bc4
Philidor Defense Hanham variation 5.Bc4

Once again, black will look for counterplay on the queenside. The common strategies for black in all variations of the Philidor Defense make it a good choice for reducing your opening study time.

Thus, it shouldn’t surprise you that a good way of meeting 6.Bc4 is 6…c6. Look at how effective the black bishops were in the next game even though they were both on the back rank!

This game shows that even games that end in a draw can be exciting.

Garcia, Gildardo – Gelashvili, Tamaz, 1/2-1/2, World op 40th, 2012

No matter how good the Philidor Defense, or any other defense, is, you will want to have more than one option. Your opening repertoire might change because you’ve switched to a different playing style. Here is IM Hans Nieman sharing how he creates an opening file for himself.

Philidor Defense: Hanham Variation

Although the endgame after 1.e4 d6 2.d4 e5 3.dxe5 exd5 4.Qxd8+ in is equal and poses no real threat to black, it’s possible to keep queens on the board in the Philidor Defense.

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nbd7 3.Nf3 e5 4.Nc3 Nf6

philidor defense hanham variation starting position
Philidor Defense Hanham variation starting position

In this position of the Philidor Defense, you can expect to face 5.Bc4 or 5.g4. The development of the bishop is by far the most often played move.

5.g4 is more of a surprise weapon and one you must know how to face. Accepting the challenge with 5…Nxg5 is playable, but 5…h6 has scored better for black.

Play is likely to continue thematically with 6.g5 hxg5 7.Nxg5 exd4 8.Qxd4 c6, when black is not only doing fine, he can play for a win!

Vaisser, Anatoli – Bauer, Christian, 0-1, FRA-ch Prelim Gr-B, 1999

The Philidor Defense Hanham Variation 5.Bc4

White’s most popular choice in the Hanham Variation of the Philidor Defense is 5.Bc4. This puts immediate pressure on f7, which can be increased with Ng5.

Black has no sound response other than 5…Be7

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nd7 3.Nf3 e5 4.Nc3 Ngf6 5.Bc4 Be7

philidor defense hanham variation 5.bc4 1
Philidor Defense Hanham variation 5.Bc4

Although white can win material in this variation of the Philidor Defense, with the immediate 6.Bxf7 it is at the cost of considerable time! 

6.Bxf7 Kxf7 7.Ng5+ Kg8 8.Ne6 Qe8 9.Nxc7 Qg6 10. Nxa8 Qxg2

hanham variation 6.bxf7
Philidor Defense Hanham variation 6.Bxf7

From this position, black has won 82% of the games!

This is hardly surprising when you consider how much time white has lost. Of the two pieces he developed, only the knight remains, and it is on a8!

There are, of course, many games to choose from if you want to see how black can win from this position. Here is a game black won in only 18 moves!

Baules, Jorge – Narciso Dublan, Marc, 0-1, Iberoamerican-ch GpA 3rd, 2010

Philidor Defense Hanham Variation 6.O-O

When white castles on move six, we enter the mainline of the Hanham variation.

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nd7 3.Nf3 e5 4.Nc3 Ngf6 5.Bc4 Be7 6.O-O

hanham variation 6.o o
Philidor Defense Hanham variation 6.O-O

Black will look to either develop his knight to …c5 or to gain space on the queenside.

Now black can continue with the solid 6…O-O or, if you are looking for a less-explored path, 6…h6. The move h6 supports …g5 and creates space for the knight to reach g6 via f8.

The danger of this approach is the center has not been closed yet. 

6…O-O is a solid move that does not diminish black’s chances for a win.

The main move in this position is 7.Re1. White’s other attempt to gain an advantage is 7.a4.

Black can offer white the chance to return to the mainline by meeting 7.a4 with 7…c6. If white avoids, the mainline black will continue to expand on the queenside or place his knight on c5.

The following game shows how black creates a pawn majority on the queenside and gains a space advantage.

Ye, Jiangchuan – Hamdouchi, Hicham, 0-1, World Cup of Rapid Chess-B, 2001

The Philidor Defense Hanham Variation 7.Re1

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nd7 3.Nf3 e5 4.Nc3 Ngf6 5.Bc4 Be7 6.O-O O-O 7.Re1 c6 8.a4 b6

philidor defense hanham variation 7.re1
Philidor Defense Hanham variation 7.Re1 8.a4 b6

Playing 8….b6 shows that black has confidence in his position no matter where white chooses to play – on the queenside or in the center. White usually continues with 9.b3 or 9.d5.

Hanham Variation 7.Re1 with 9.b3

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nd7 3.Nf3 e5 4.Nc3 Ngf6 5.Bc4 Be7 6.O-O O-O 7.Re1 c6 8.a4 b6 9.b3

philidor defense hanham variation 9.b3
Philidor Defense Hanham variation 9.b3

White decides the more direct approach of 9.d5 isn’t needed. He is content with his space advantage and will fianchetto the bishop on b2.

The other bishop will go to d3, and both white bishops will be aiming at the black king. White can bring another piece to the kingside with Ne2 and Ng3.

Both sides can continue with their plans without interference for the next few moves.

9…a6 10.Bb2 Bb7 11.Bd3 Re8 12.Ne2 Bf8 13.Ng3 g6

philidor defense hanham variation 7.re1 9.b3
Philidor Defense Hanham variation 7.Re1 and 9.b3

The move …g6 is a dual-purpose move that restricts the knight on g3 and gives the bishop on f8 the chance to challenge the long diagonal.

Take a look at how Maxime Vachier Lagrave plays this position with the black pieces. MVL uses his central pawns to block the bishop on b2 and develop his knight to e5. 

Yu, Shaoteng – Vachier Lagrave, Maxime, 0-1, World Cup, 2009

Hanham Variation 7.Re1 with 9.d5

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nd7 3.Nf3 e5 4.Nc3 Ngf6 5.Bc4 Be7 6.O-O O-O 7.Re1 c6 8.a4 b6 9.d5

hanham variation 7.re1 9.d5
Philidor Defense Hanham variation 7.Re1 9.d5

Now that the pawn on c6 is no longer defended by the b-pawn, white intends to exchange it and get access to d5. 

Although at first glance, this might seem like a simple way for white to gain an advantage, things aren’t as simple as they appear.

Black has sufficient counterplay, and the statistics support this claim. After 9…cxd5, white’s winning percentage is only 30%!

After 10.Nxd5 Black can choose between two equally good moves – 10…Bb7, and 10…Nxd5. Both of these moves have been played by GMs rated over 2500 ELO.

Take a look at how Pavel Eljanov skillfully advanced his d-pawn to eliminate the weakness on d5. 

Naiditsch, Arkadij – Eljanov, Pavel, 1/2-1/2, RUS-chT 13th, 2006

Now, c3 wins back the piece, so the players agreed to a draw.

Final Thoughts on the Philidor Defense

The Philidor Defense might appear passive and cramped on the surface, but as you have seen, the position is dynamic and flexible.

The Philidor Defense is a good choice for players who wish to spend more of their study time improving their middlegame and endgame play. 

You can play the Philidor Defense with confidence if you learn the strategies and tactics of the opening.

The Philidor Defense is based on sound classical principles you can trust to ensure you reach an extremely playable middlegame position.

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