Philidor Defense Chess Opening

Philidor Defense is a King’s Pawn Opening that starts with 1. e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 .

Simply protecting the e5 pawn, black accepts the passive play but is still very much playable. If you are a player who likes to develop pieces naturally and avoid tactical sharp play, Philidor defense can be a good choice for you. As you will see, the development of pieces comes very naturally. There are only a few key moments where you need to remember the line.

Opening: Philidor Defense

White has two main alternatives here. 3.d4 and 3.Bc4.

White Plays 3.d4

After 3.d4 black’s has two ways of playing. 3…exd4 is the Exchange variation and 3…Nd7 4.Nc3 Nf6 is called the Hanham variation. The Hanham variation can also be reached with a different move order. 1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3  e54. Nf3 Nbd7. With this move order, black keeps the option of playing the pirc defense (3…g6) open.

In above diagram, 3…e5 leads to Hanham variation and 3…g6 leads to Pirc defense.

The Exchange variation

Now white can take either with Knight or Queen.

White Plays 4.Nxd4

After 4.Nxd4, Black has very natural developing plan with Nf6-Be7-0-0. And it can be carried out most certainly without any interference from white.

The line goes 4…Nf6 5.Nc3 Be7 6.Be2 0-0 7.0-0 Re8 8 f4. In this position, it is important to remember that black can’t play passively with Nbd7-Nf8. Since white has started the attack with f4, black must take active measures by counter attack in the center. Correct move is 8…c5

Black’s c5 move weakens the d5 square and d6 pawn. But as we shall see, white can’t really take advantage of it. Line goes 9.Nb3 Nc6. Now white can’t play 10.Nd5 because the e4 pawn is hanging. Therefore the main line goes 10. Bf3 Bf8! Again attacking the e4 pawn, stopping Nd5. White plays 11.Re1 and here the move to remember is 11…a5! Black takes advantage of the position of b3 knight.

Again 12.Nd5 will be bad because of 12…a4! 13.Nd2 Nxd5 14 exd5 Nd4 with comfortable position for black.

So white has to stop black’s a4 move. The main line goes 12.a4 Be6. Here also, 13. Nd5 is not that great because of 13…c4 14.Nxf6+ Qxf6 15. Nd2 Nb4 16. Kh1 Rd8 with the idea of …d5 and black has good game.

So the main line goes 13.Be3 Bxb3 14.cxb3 Qb6. Black can also play 14…d5 which leads to complicated lines. But black has no need to rush. Line goes: 15.Kh1 Rd8 16.Rc1. Here 16…d5 is possible!

Take some time to calculate variations after 16…d5 before moving further.

17. Nxd5 Nxd5 18.exd5 Nd4! 19.Bxd4 Rxe1+ 20. Qxe1 cxd4  21.Qd1 Re8!, and black has wonderful compensation for the pawn.

Black’s rook is coming to e3 and also always threatening back rank mate in case white is not careful. For example, 22. Rc4 leads to 22… Qxb3!! Because white can’t take the queen on b3 due to back rank mate! White has an extra pawn but it is doubled b pawn. Black’s activity will soon win him the pawn back. Thus this line is very much playable by black.

White Plays 4.Qxd4

Here black can choose 4…Nc6 or 4…a6. Since Nc6 allows 5.Bb5 pin, it is more natural to first play 4…a6, to stop Bb5 with the idea to play Nc6 next move. White continues 5.Bg5, and here black has to remember the continuation.

Black has to play 5…Nc6. Counter-attacking the white queen. After 6.Bxd8 Nxd4 7.Nxd4 Kxd8 8. Bc4 Ke8 9.Nc3 c6… black’s pawns restrict white’s pieces while black can finish the development with Nf6-g6-Bg7.

White has a better development in this position and he can take advantage of it. But since the queens are exchanged, there is no immediate attack on black’s king and black has time to complete his development.

On move 6. White can choose to simply drop back with the queen: 6.Qd2. Then black can simply play 6…Be7 and have a good game.

The Hanham Variation

After 3.d4 Nd7 4.Nc3 Ngf6 we have the main line Hanham variation. The main line goes 5.Bc4 Be7 6.0-0 0-0 7. Re1 c6 8.a4 b6 9.h3 a6 we reach following position.

Black has a solid position with flexible queenside pawns which can advance as per white’s responses. Black can play …b5 or …d5 after preparing with ..Bb7.

The Shirov Gambit

In the Hanham variation, white can choose to play 5.g4!? instead of Bc4, revealing the agressive intentions and readiness for sharp play. This is called the Shirov gambit.

This typical pawn sacrifice is seen in many lines. White aims to open up the g file for his rook and make black’s development difficult. Black can get into trouble if he is not careful. The line goes 5…Nxg4 6.Rg1 Ngf6 7.Bc4 h6 8.Be3 c6 9.dxe5 dxe5 10.Qd3

In this position it is important to check the threat of Bxf7+. Black can play either 10…b5 or 10…Qa5. But not Qc7? Because black needs to keep c7 square empty for his king. For example after 10…Qa5 11.Bxf7+ Kxf7 12. Qc4+ Ke8 13. Qe6+ Kd8 14.0-0-0 and here black can play 14…Kc7 and get the knight out of pin. Had the queen be on c7, this move wouldn’t be possible and black would have a lost position!

Philidor Countergambit (3…f5?)

Philidor’s original idea was this counter gambit with …f5. But If you think, this counter gambit doesn’t make much sense because on one hand black has moved 2…d6, showing a passive play even at cost of falling behind in the development. So the follow up 3…f5 is a completely contradictory to black’s 2nd move. The lines are sharp in this gambit, but white has a clearly better score. Therefore this should be avoided as black. White can continue with either 4.Nc3, 4.dxe5 or 4.exf5.

White Plays 3.Bc4

On move 3. White can choose a quiet developing move with the bishop and attack on f7. Here it is simple to remember that black should play 3…Be7 first. Black can play 3…Nf6 also, but why allow 4.Ng5 and complicated variations? Black can avoid those variations by simply choosing to play Be7 first!

After  4.0-0 Nf6 5.d3 c6 6.Nbd2 Nbd7 Black has a clear plan. Black wants to play moves like b5-a5 Nc5 and develop the queenside initiative. 

The line can go 7.c3 b5 8.Bb3 a5 9.a4 Nc5! 10.d4 Nxb3 11.Qxb3 Be6 12.Qc2 and here remember the rule of thumb that black doesn’t want to exchange pawns. Black shouldn’t exchange with bxa4 or exd4 and relieve tension for white. Black wants to maintain the tension as long as possible in the center and play 12…Qc7!

In case white exchanges with 13.dxe5 dxe5, it is better for black because black can use open d and b file to attack with the rooks.


As we have seen, the lines in the Philidor defense are more positional and intuitive. One can almost play the opening without studying lines. You only have to remember some key moments where precise move is required. Even though passive in nature, Philidor defense is very much playable. Instead of remembering variations, try to remember plans for black for each line. For example,

  • In 3.Nxd4 variation, black develops naturally but has to play c5 when white starts attacking with f4. Then series of moves prevent Nd5 while black continues his development and can achieve a good position.
  • In 3.Qxd4 variation black has to be ready to play a game where his king is in the center after exchange of the queens. But with proper play black can develop well and have a playable position
  • If black chooses the Hanham variation with 3…Nd7 and 4…Ngf6, he should be prepared to play against the sharp Shirov gambit which occurs after 5.g4
  • In 3.Bc4 variation it is important to remember the plan of queenside attack with Nbd7-c6-b5-a5-Nc5. Also important to remember that black wants to maintain the tension and not exchange pawns too quickly.

Harikrishnan A

I am an International Fide Rated player with 10+ years of experience. Played many International Chess Tournaments and Commonwealth games.

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