Philidor Defense: Complete Guide

Philidor Defense: Complete Guide

For amateur players, the study of openings should not take up most of their time. Other topics like strategy, tactical vision, and practical decision-making have a far greater impact on the game than memorizing opening moves. But you cannot fully remove the study of openings as well. In such cases, you can play openings like the Philidor Defense.

The Philidor Defense is an easy opening to learn because Black has an easy piece placement and development scheme. It will just take you a few hours to learn the opening and use it in your games.

Even if computers don’t prefer it you can compensate for it by having a superior understanding of the middlegame positions and resulting endgames. This is an effective gameplay strategy in club-level play.

In this article let’s take a look at the main ideas and variations of the Philidor Defense.

Overview

The Philidor Defense starts with the moves

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6  3.Nc3 e5

Philidor Defense: Complete Guide

Black uses the d-pawn to defend the e5 pawn. The upside of this move is that Black gains flexibility in pawn structure and piece placement on the Queenside. However, the downside is that it blocks the f8-bishop.

White can now take on e5 and go into an endgame. This line is known as the Endgame variation. White can also refrain from taking on e5 and instead focus on development. In this case, Black clarifies the situation in the center.

Endgame Variation

The Endgame variation starts with the moves

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6  3.Nc3 e5 4.dxe5 dxe5 5.Qxd8+ Kxd8

Endgame Variation

Here we will look at three main options for White:

Queenside Castling with 6.Bg5

Philidor Defense: Complete Guide

This is the most natural move in the positions. White pins the f6 knight and prepares to castle Queenside. White also puts pressure on the critical d5 square.

Here you can play Be6 followed by Nbd7 holding everything together.

The critical try for White is to get in the f4 break.

6..Be6 7. 0-0-0+ Nbd7 8.f4

White’s idea is to use his lead in development.

8..exf4

Black has to take the f4 pawn otherwise White will play f4-f5 and gain a solid clamp on the position. With exf4 Black gives up the control over the center but White remains with an isolated pawn.

Reference Game: Richard Biolek vs Vladimir Malaniuk, Katowice 1992

Here is an instructive moment in this game

Reference Game: Richard Biolek vs Vladimir Malaniuk, Katowice 1992

How will you continue after 20 Bxc4?

Malaniuk played the instructive Be3 and captured the f4 Knight. After the exchange of pieces, Black is left with a superior Knight in the center against a “bad” Bishop.

Philidor Defense: Complete Guide

You need to be tuned into such finesses if you want to achieve the most out of this opening.

6.Bc4

White plays a normal developing move and puts pressure on Black’s position. Here Black can play the move 6..Be6

6.Bc4

You have two other alternatives: 6..Ke8 and 6..Bb4

The move 6..Be6 invites White to double our pawns with Bxe6. How can this be good? Well, visually the pawns look bad and the King is still on d8. But Black gains many positives as well. The Knight will go to c6 and the Black king will go to e7 after Bd6. This is a safe square for the King as there is no immediate way for White to attack the King. The doubled pawns control important central squares as well.

With a fixed center, Black can base his play on the flanks. Some standard ideas include a7-a6 to prepare b7-b5. You can also play Rhb8 to further support actions on the Queenside.

Philidor Defense: Complete Guide

Reference Game: E Bacrot vs Branko Tadic, Austria 2022

The other option is to play 6..Bb4

6..Bb4

Black’s idea is to either take on c3 and damage White’s pawn structure or put pressure on White’s center. In the resulting positions, the Bishop pair will be the focal point of the game. This leads to interesting battles and the player who understands the resulting positions better will win the game.

Aggressive 6.f4

Let’s look at how to deal with immediate aggression from White. The reason for such aggression may be due to underestimating Black’s resources in the Philidor Endgame.

Philidor Defense: Complete Guide

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6  3.Nc3 e5 4.dxe5 dxe5 5.Qxd8+ Kxd8 6.f4

This move is overly aggressive and Black can equalize comfortably. Now Black can play this position in multiple ways.

One idea is to exchange on f4, Black can also play 6..Bd6 and ask White what he wants to do with the central pawn structure. The principled move is 6..Bb4

This move puts pressure on the e4 point indirectly and forces White to decide. You can see that as a consequence of playing 6.f4 White lost the option to play 7.f3 to defend the e4 pawn.

Now White can play two moves 7.Bd3 and 7.Bd2

7. Bd3 Re8 8.fxe5 and it looks like White gains the initiative

7. Bd3 Re8 8.fxe5

But Black solves his problems using tactics 8..Nxe4!

One of the advantages of the Philidor defense is that it is a resourceful opening. You have many resources even in difficult positions.

After 8 Nge2 (Defending the c3 Knight and simultaneously blocking the e-file) Nbd7 9 0-0 c6 10.fxe5 Nxe5 and Black has a comfortable position.

Philidor Defense: Complete Guide

Main Line

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

Main Line

The Bishop on e7 is passive and somewhat confined. However, you can develop rapidly and get your pieces into play. After castling the standard idea is to play Bf8 and Re8 to put pressure on the e4 pawn.

With the move exd4, Black accepts a backward pawn on d6, therefore, d6-d5 is an important break to remember.

Black can counteract the pressure on d6 by placing a knight on e5 and f6, thus creating pressure on e4.

On the Queenside we play c7-c6 and b7-b5 to drive away the Knight on c3. The Queen goes to c7 and Black has a compact yet solid position.

The downside of playing in this fashion is that White has the freedom to decide how he wants to position his pieces.

In the following game, we see the d6-d5 break in action in response to a premature Kingside attack by White.

Reference Game: Sipke Ernst vs Anish Giri, Amsterdam 2012

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Updated 05.10.2024

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