Petroff Defense is one of the most solid and reliable openings in chess.
White has always been struggling to find an advantage against it. It usually leads to symmetrical and balanced positions where it is hard to complicate the game.
It makes Black’s play rather simple and straightforward.
In the last two World Championship matches, Petroff was the main defense of the contenders Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi. The opening is always popular, and that is reasonable. It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or a grandmaster – Petroff Defense is a great opening to play at any level.
Petroff Defense starts after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6
Instead of protecting the pawn on e5, Black attacks White’s e4-pawn. If White avoids trading the central pawns with passive moves like 3.Nc3 or 3.d3, it gives up the initiative, and Black should have no issues neutralizing White’s advantage. Instead, the best ways to counter the Petroff are the energetic 3.Nxe5 and 3.d4.
Let’s start with the most popular move 3.Nxe5. Although the best move for Black is 3…d6, the alternatives are quite popular in rapid and blitz.
Petroff Defense: Stafford Gambit and Damiano
Taking back on e4 (3…Nxe4, the Damiano Variation) is usually described as a mistake in chess books for beginners.
After 4.Qe2, the knight can’t leave the e-file because then, a discovery check (5.Nc6+) would win the queen. In reality, it is more complicated than that. Black can reply with 4…Qe7 5.Qxe4 d6 and win the piece back. After 6.d4 dxe5 7.dxe5 Nc6, the following position arises:
This is the main position of the Damiano Variation.
The line is an interesting practical weapon for blitz games because White often tries to save the pawn on e4 and gives Black great counterattacking chances. Instead, they can preserve a safe endgame advantage with 8. Nc3 or keep the tension in the position with 8.Bb5 Bd7 9.Nc3 0-0-0 10.Bf4.
Another popular line in blitz is the Stafford Gambit, popularized on YouTube by Eric Rosen. It starts with 3…Nc6 4.Nxc6 dxc6.
Objectively, Black’s easy development is not enough to compensate for the sacrificed pawn. Yet, the position is tricky, and White should be cautious. 5.d3 Bc5 6.Be2 h5 7.c3 seems like a good start.
After 3…d6, White’s most common reply is 4.Nf3. Now Black can safely grab the pawn with 4…Nxe4.
In this position, White’s most popular move is 5.d4. The other moves we will discuss are 5.Nc3, 5.d3, and 5.Qe2.
Petroff Defense: The Shirov Attack
One of the most dangerous tries against the Petroff is the Shirov Attack 5.Nc3. After 5…Nxc3 6.dxc3, White plans to castle queenside and attack Black’s king.
Black has a choice. 6…Be7, followed by kingside castling, can lead to sharp positions with attacks on opposite flanks. It requires theoretical knowledge from both sides.
Another plan is to castle queenside after 6…Be7 7.Be3 Nc6 8.Qd2 Be6 9.0-0-0 Qd7. It leads to solid but a bit passive positions for Black.
Both plans are good and playable. It is usually a matter of taste what Black chooses.
The move 5.Qe2 usually leads to a queen trade after 5…Qe7 6.d3 Nf6 7.Bg5. White is a bit better developed, but the endgame should be equal.
The Exchange French – part 1
Instead of playing d2-d4, it is possible to kick Black’s knight away from e4 with 5.d3 Nf6 6.d4 d5.
This fully symmetrical position can also arise from the Exchange Variation of the French Defense (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5 4.Nf3 Nf6). One of White’s recent ideas here is 7.Bd3 Bd6 8.Qe2+, but it is hard to believe White can be better in this line.
More often, White plays 5.d4 and then attacks Black’s e4-knight with pieces. After 5…d5 6.Bd3, we get to the crossroads.
The old main line is 6…Nc6. This move served well to Artur Jussupow, Vladimir Kramnik, and Boris Gelfand. The new fashion is 6…Bd6, promoted by Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi. The solid plan connected with 6…Be7 and 7…Bf5 was favored by Chinese players.
White, on the other hand, usually tries to either undermine Black’s centralized knight with c2-c4 or trade it off with Nbd2 or Nc3 to speed up the development.
For example, one of the main lines of Petroff Defense goes 6…Nc6 7.0-0 Be7 8.c4 Nb4 9.Be2 0-0 10.Nc3 Bf5 11.a3 Nxc3 12.bxc3 Nc6 13.cxd5 Qxd5.
We have come 13 moves deep, but at the grandmaster level, the theory only starts here. We will not get into the subtleties of this position. White is slightly better, but Black’s position is solid and has no weaknesses. Below, you can see one of the high-level encounters in this line.
Similar positions arise in the Chinese line after 6…Be7 7.0-0 Bf5 8.Re1 0-0 9.c4 Nc6 10.cxd5 Qxd5 11.Nc3 Nxc3 12.bxc3:
From the Black side, this position was played by Wesley So, Jan-Krzystof Duda, Li Chao, Wei Yi, Yu Yangyi, Ni Hua, and many other strong players. Black rarely loses here.
The Exchange French – part 2
In the US Championship 2022, Lenier Dominguez managed to trick Elshan Moradiabadi with 8.c4 (instead of 8.Re1). Black should have replied with 8…dxc4. Instead, they fell for a trap after the natural 8…0-0? 9.cxd5 Qxd5
Dominguez Perez Lenier (2747) – Elshan Moradiabadi (2534) [C42]
U.S. Championship Saint Louis, MO USA (7), 12.10.2022
10.Bxe4 and Black resigned! After 10…Qxe4 11.Re1, White would win the e7-bishop; the same happens after 10…Bxe4 11.Nc3 Qe6 12.Nxe4 Qxe4 13.Re1.
The trendiest line for Black is 6…Bd6. This was played by Ian Nepomniachtchi against Magnus Carlsen in the World Championship match 2021 as well as against Fabiano Caruana in the Candidates Tournament 2022. Both games followed 7.0-0 0-0 8.c4 c6 9.Re1 Bf5 10.Qb3 Qd7:
Carlsen followed the main line with 11.Nc3 Nxc3 12.Bxf5 Qxf5 13.bxc3 b6 14.cxd5 cxd5 15.Qb5 Qd7 16.a4 Qxb5 17.axb5 a5 to unleash a new idea 18.Nh4. Nevertheless, Nepomniachtchi turned out to be prepared for that. The game ended in a draw. Fabiano Caruana, in a must-win situation, went for 11.Nh4 immediately (in the position above). Yet, Black was solid enough to stand that test as well.
You can see both games in the viewer below.
Petroff Defense: 3.d4
3.d4 is another popular and interesting move for White. Black usually replies with 3…Nxe4.
In this position, White can break the symmetry with 4.dxe5 d5 5.Nbd2. Interestingly, Fabiano Caruana scored 3 out of 3 against it with Black. He beat Harikrishna and Grischuk with 5…Nxd2, and Vitiugov with a novelty 5…Qd7!?
Another popular way for White to break the symmetry is 4.Bd3 d5 5.Nxe5 Nd7 6.Nc3 Nxe5 7.dxe5 Nxc3 8.bxc3:
This line got popular after Nikita Vitiugov employed it to beat Wesley So (FIDE World Cup, 2019). Later, Magnus Carlsen won in this line against Alexei Shirov (FIDE Grand Swiss, 2019). Both games featured 8…Be7. Lately, Black is doing fine in the games after 8…Bc5.
Another important line for Black to know is 6.Nxd7 (instead of 6.Nc3 in the line above) 6…Bxd7 7.0-0 Bd6 8.c4 c6 9.cxd5 cxd5 10.Nc3 Nxc3 11.bxc3 0-0 12.Qh5:
Black can play 12…g6! 13.Qxd5 Qc7, targeting c3 and h2 at the same time. For example, after 14.Bh6 Rfd8 15.Qg5 Qxc3 16.Rfd1 Bf8, nearly all the games ended peacefully.
Petroff Defense: Conclusion
Petroff Defense is one of the most reliable chess openings. White has tried various ways to play against it, but Black looks solid against all of them. Most of the lines lead to symmetrical positions where Black can equalize with precise play. Some variations are long and require memorization from Black. Nevertheless, what applies to the top grandmasters is often irrelevant to lower-rated players. If White is not equipped with long computer lines, Black’s play is easy. It makes Petroff Defense a solid and easy-to-learn opening at the club level.