The Philidor Defence is a chess opening characterised by the moves:
- 1. e4 e5
- 2. Nf3 d6
It is named after the famous 18th-century player Fran ois-Andr Danican Philidor, who advocated it as an alternative to the common 2...Nc6. His original idea was to challenge White's centre by the pawn thrust ...f7 f5.
Today, the Philidor Defence is known as a solid, though passive choice for Black, and is seldom seen in top-level play except as an alternative to the heavily analysed openings which can ensue after the normal 2...Nc6.
The ECO code for Philidor Defence is C41.
The Philidor occurred in one of the most famous games ever played, the "Opera Box game" played in 1858 between the American chess master Paul Morphy and two strong amateurs, the German noble Duke Karl of Brunswick and the French aristocrat Count Isouard. The game continued 3.d4 Bg4 however, a deviation from modern standard lines.
, there are no top players who employ the Philidor with any regularity, although tienne Bacrot and Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu have occasionally experimented with it. However, its popularity in master play has increased slightly over the last twenty years.
Lines starting 3.d4
With 3. d4 White immediately challenges Black in the centre. In this position, Black has several options.
The most common Black response is 3... exd4 which relieves the central tension, though it gives up the centre. After 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3, Black normally continues ...Be7 and ...0-0 and achieves a strong defensive position.
In this line Black can also fianchetto his bishop to g7, though this is uncommon. Bent Larsen tried this in a few games, including a draw against Mikhail Tal in 1969.
Instead of 4.Nxd4, White can also play 4. Qxd4, as Paul Morphy favoured, intending 4... Nc6 5. Bb5 Bd7 6. Bxc6 Bxc6 7. Nc3 Nf6 8. Bg5 followed by 0-0-0. This line was played in many 19th-century games.
The other main option for Black is to maintain the central tension and adopt a setup with ...Nbd7, ...Be7, and ...c6. This plan is named the Hanham Variation (after the American chess master James Moore Hanham) and was favoured by Aron Nimzowitsch.
A common line is: 3... Nf6 4. Nc3 Nbd7 5. Bc4 Be7 6. 0-0 (6.Ng5 is an interesting alternative: after 6...0-0 7.Bxf7+ Rxf7 8.Ne6 Qe8 9.Nxc7 Qd8 10.Nxa8, White is material up, but Black can develop a strong initiative after, for example, 10...b5 11.Nxb5 Qa5+) 6... 0-0 7. a4 (to prevent ...b5) 7... c6 (see diagram).
Grandmaster Larry Kaufman, in his book The Chess Advantage in Black and White, notes that the Hanham Variation aims to maintain Black's pawn on e5, analogously to closed lines of the Ruy Lopez, and opines that "it would be quite popular and on a par with the major defenses to 1.e4, except for the annoying detail that Black can't actually reach the Hanham position by force."
As an alternative to 4.Nc3 in response to Black's 3...Nf6, according to both Kaufman and Grandmaster Christian Bauer, White retains some advantage with: 4. dxe5! Nxe4 5. Qd5! Nc5 6. Bg5 Be7 7. exd6 Qxd6 8. Nc3.
Alternative move order
Black sometimes tries 3... Nd7 intending 4.Nc3 Ngf6, reaching the Hanham Variation. But then 4. Bc4! is awkward for Black to meet, since 4...Ngf6 loses to 5.Ng5, and 4...Be7 loses a pawn to 5.dxe5 Nxe5 (5...dxe5?? 6.Qd5! wins) 6.Nxe5 dxe5 7.Qh5!
4... c6 is best for Black, but leaves White with the advantage of the bishop pair after 5. 0-0 Be7 6. dxe5 dxe5 (6...Nxe5 loses a pawn to 7.Nxe5 dxe5 8.Qh5) 7. Ng5! Bxg5 8. Qh5! Qe7 9. Qxg5 or 9. Bxg5.
Black experiments to reach the Hanham Variation
In recent years, Black has experimented with other move orders in an attempt to reach the Hanham Variation while avoiding 3...Nf6 4.dxe5! and 3...Nd7 4.Bc4!
One such line is 1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 Nbd7 intending 4.Nf3 e5. However, White can deviate with 4. f4!? or even 4. g4!?
Another try is 1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 e5 which transposes to the Hanham after 4. Nf3 Nbd7, but White can instead try to gain a small advantage with 4. dxe5 (Kaufman opines that 4.Nge2 is "also promising") 4... dxe5 5. Qxd8+ Kxd8 6. Bc4. After 4.dxe5, Bauer concludes that "White stands a trifle better" but that "provided he plays accurately, Black doesn't have much to fear following 6.Bc4, by choosing any of the three valid replies, 6...Ke8, 6...Bb4, or 6...Be6. Then 7. Bxe6 fxe6 his position remains a hard nut to crack."
Philidor's original intention: 3...f5
A more aggressive approach for Black after 3.d4 is 3... f5!?, now called the Philidor Counter Gambit, a move which Philidor himself recommended. According to Philidor, the move 3...f5 can also be played after 3.Bc4, which can lead to unique positions such as 3.Bc4 f5 4.d3 c6, possibly followed by f5 f4, b7 b5, a7 a5, and even g7 g5 and h7 h5, when all Black pawns have moved before any piece.
In the 19th century, 3...f5 was also played by Paul Morphy. The move can lead to more open positions than the other lines, but is often considered dubious. Others, however, maintain that 3...f5 is a valid idea. Grandmaster Tony Kosten treats the move with respect in his monograph on the opening. The move was also played by David Bronstein and by Teimour Radjabov.
The main alternatives after 3.d4 f5 are:
4. Bc4 after which Black should reply 4... exd4
4. Nc3 is also best followed by 4... exd4
4. dxe5 forces Black to complicate matters further with 4... fxe4
- 4. exf5 e4
All of these lead, with correct play, to a small advantage for White.
Inferior is 3... Bg4?!, in light of 4. dxe5 Bxf3 (alternatively, Black can gambit a pawn with 4...Nd7?!, known as the Duke of Brunswick Gambit) 5. Qxf3 dxe5 6. Bc4 giving White the advantage of the bishop pair in an open position. (Now the "natural" 6...Nf6? allows White to win a pawn with 7.Qb3. This was played in the famous "Opera Box game", when Paul Morphy as White declined to win the pawn but retained a strong initiative after 7...Qe7 8.Nc3.)
Line starting 3.Bc4
An alternative approach for White is to play 3. Bc4, and either delay d2 d4, or forgo it altogether and instead play d2 d3.
3.Bc4 is also White's route to an attempted L gal Trap.
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