Philidor Defense

The starting position of the Philidor Defense is reached after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6. It is quite a complex chess opening, despite its seemingly modest opening move of 2…d6 by black. The famous 18th-century French composer and chess master François-André Danican Philidor was the first player to advocate this move order; therefore, this line is named after him.

Philidor Defense

Winning Percentages on both sides

Results Rate
Win as White 42%
Draw 20%
Win as Black 38%

Main Ideas of the Philidor Defense

Philidor Defense’s original idea behind 2…d6 was to open up the diagonal for black’s light-square bishop and support the advance of the f pawn to f5 to strike white at the center: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 f5 would be an example line of Philidor’s main intention. However, the move 3…f5 has significant drawbacks for black. It does create weaknesses around the black king by exposing it to possible attacks from diagonals such as a2-g8 and h5-e8 diagonals. For this reason, modern versions of the Philidor Defense use a different approach to the opening.

In the Philidor Defense, black does prioritize staying solid, and such an emphasis on a safety-first approach has given it the reputation of a passive line. Therefore, it is not a popular choice among top players. The marking move of the opening, 2…d6, is rather a defensive move (protecting the e5 pawn) compared to the more active 2…Nc6 move that not only defends the e5 pawn but also fights for the control of dark squares (d4-e5) in the center. However, by not committing the knight to the c6 square yet, black keeps its options open. As a result, the c-pawn can be pushed to c6 or even c5 at times, leading to a variety of pawn structures. The versatility of pawn formations that black can choose in this opening gives black a high degree of flexibility, which is one of the main strengths of this opening and one of the reasons why it is played. The main plan usually depends on the concrete pawn structure, but in general, we can name the following ideas for both sides:

Typical Ideas for Black:

1) Counter-attack using queenside pawns;

2) The c-pawn will usually go to either c6 to support a breakthrough with d5 or to c5 to control the d4 square;

3) A setup with Nd7-Be7-Re8 is very common.

Typical Ideas for White:

1) Maintaining a space advantage in the center;

2) Expanding on the kingside with f4 after the kingside castle or with f3-g4-h4 if white has castled queenside.

Philidor Defense Theory

The main reply against 2..d6 is 3.d4 and it is the most sensible reaction to the absence of a black knight on c6. The move 3.Bc4 is also playable, but 3.Bb5+?! makes little sense now as black can simply block the check with a tempo move like 3…c6.

Main Piece Formation of the Philidor Defense

After 3.d4 the game can go in different directions depending on how black chooses to deal with the double attack on the e5 pawn. Black can capture on d4 with 3…exd4, entering the Exchange Variation. Other options would be to defend the pawn with a knight: 3…Nd7, so-called Hanham Variation, or simply counter-attack white’s pawn on e4 with either 3…Nf6, which is the Nimzowitsch Variation, or 3…f5 also known as Philidor Counter-gambit.

Exchange Variation: 3. d4 exd4

In the Exchange Variation, the central tension is immediately resolved with 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 (4.Qxd4 does not give white any particular advantage and allows black to play Nc6 with tempo later).

Philidor Defense - Exchange Variation

Now in the position after the recapture with 4.Nxd4, we can see that white has not only centralized its knight but also increased the scope for the bishops as well as the mobility of the f-pawn. On the other hand, black’s dark square bishop is a problem piece because the d6 pawn is blocking the way for the bishop.

Another very important thing to note about the current structure is that it resembles an open-Sicilian type of game, with the difference that e-file is open instead of c-file for the black. So typically, black will try to put pressure on e4 by playing Re8 or will prepare a d5-break in the center, while white will try to maintain its spatial advantage. 4…Nf6 (4…g6 was also used to be played, but it usually leads to a bad version of the Pirc Defense), and now this is basically a critical position where white has to decide which setup to go with and which side to castle.

The fact that the c-file is closed makes it hard for black to launch a counter-attack on the queenside. Therefore, white can logically choose to have a game with the opposite side castling resulting in an attacking race. The game might then continue: 5.Nc3 Be7 6.Bf4 0-0 7.Qd2 Nc6 8.0-0-0 Nxd4 9.Qxd4 Be6 and white will try to advance their kingside pawns forward with f3-g4-h4-h5, while black will try to counter-attack with a6-b5 and Nd7-Bf6.

Instead of a game plan with a long-side castle, white can choose to fianchetto the light-square bishop on the kingside with 5.g3 0-0 6.Bg2 Re8 7. 0-0 Bf8. The sequence with Re8-Bf8 is a very typical way for black to put pressure on the e-file and the pawn on e4. After 9.h3, white wants to advance kingside pawns with moves like f4, while black will try to complete the development of its pieces on the queenside.

The third alternative for white on the sixth move is 6.Be2, which is also the most played move by top players and the main line in the exchange variation of the Philidor Defense.

The prophylactic idea behind Be2 reveals itself in the continuation with 6…0-0 7.0-0 Re8 8.f4 Bf8, where white can now defend the pawn on e4 with 9.Bf3. Black will try to dislodge the knight with 9..c5 10.Nb3 Nc6. Later on, Black will try to chase away the knight from even b3 with a5-a4 moves to play Nd4. If White tries to stop a4 by playing a4, this will give Black a chance to play Nb4 instead, from which it can support the thematic break with the d5 move.

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

Philidor Defense - Hanham Variation

The most popular way of playing the Philidor Defense at the highest level is by entering the Hanham Variation. It is also the most solid option black has in the Philidor Defense. The variation can be transpositioned from Pirc Defense with the move order of 1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 e5 4. Nf3 Nbd7. The intention behind this move order is to avoid the 4.Bc4 move in the line 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Nd7 4.Bc4 which stops the 4…Ngf6 by tactical means: 4…Ngf6 5.dxe5 Nxe5 6.Nxe5 dxe5 7.Bxf7 Kxf7 8.Qxd8 Bb4+ 9.Qd2 Bxd2 10.Nxd2 and white is a pawn up. In the long run, black wants to achieve an expansion on the queenside with c6-b5.

Main line: 5. Bc4

Philidor Defense - Main Line

5.Bc4 is by far the most standard way to continue the game as white and it is also the main line of the Hanham Variation. Both sides then typically continue with their development 5…Be7 6.0-0 0-0 and keep up with the tension in the center.

After 7.Re1 (or 7.a4 c6 8.Re1) black goes with the thematic 7…c6 in order with the idea of playing b5 or even d5 sometimes. At the same time, c6 makes room for Qc7 later on, which makes the d8 square available for the a8 rook to occupy. 8.a4 to stop b5. Both 8…b6 and 8…a5 are possible ways for black to continue the game. In the case of 8…b6, Black wants to follow up with a6 and b5 later. The reason why black does not play 8….a6 and then play b5 in one go, instead of losing time with b6, is that white can play 9.a5 and now after 9…b5 white can capture axb6 because of the en passant rule. Therefore, preparation with b6 first is necessary. So for example: 9.h3 a6 10. Ba2 Rb8 (if 10…b5 11.axb5 cxb5 12.Nxb5 axb5 13.Bxf7+ Rxf7 14.Rxa8 and white is better) 11.Be3 b5.

After 8…b6, white has a more ambitious try with 9.d5:


This move might seem counterintuitive at first because it seems to block the way of the bishop on c4. But this is temporary. If somehow white’s d-pawn gets exchanged with black’s c6 pawn, white will have the d-file opened up for the queen, and more importantly, it will have a stronghold on the critical d5 square. Additionally, black’s backward pawn on d6 will cause only a headache. If black wants to avoid this exchange of the pawns and plays 9…c5, it will only create weaknesses on the light squares, such as c6 and b5. After 10.a5 white simply has an advantage. Therefore, 9…cxd5 is the usual response and less problematic than 9…c5. Black will then try to exchange minor pieces on the d5 square, until white recaptures with a pawn and will follow it up with a pawn to f5 at the right time.

Shirov Gambit: 5. g4

Philidor Defense - Shirov Gambit

As an alternative to 5.Bc4, white can play more aggressively with 5.g4. The Gambit is named after Grandmaster Shirov, who has contributed to the theory of many openings by finding a way to play g4. The idea behind this move is straightforward. White wants to exploit black’s passive position without giving them any time to properly develop pieces. Capturing on g4 with 5…Nxg4 (other moves such as 5…h6 give white a slight advantage after 6.Rg1) will open the file for white’s kingside rook. 6.Rg1 Ngf6 7.Bc4, threatening Ng5, 7…h6 8.Be3 c6 9.dxe5 dxe5 and after 10.Qd3 white will castle queenside: 10…b5 11.Bb3 Qa5 12.0-0-0. The imbalances in the resulting position are likely to lead to a sharp middlegame.

Philidor Counter-Gambit: 3. d4 f5

Philidor Counter-gambit

As mentioned earlier, the move 3…f5? drastically weakens the light-squares around the king as well as making the diagonal a2-g8 harder to defend. The best way to take advantage of this situation for white is to go after the f7 square right away with 4.Bc4 with the idea of Ng5. Now if 4…Nc6, after 5.Ng5 black is forced to play the ugly 5..Nh6, otherwise white will give a check on f7 with Bf7 next, and black’s king will be stuck in the center. White will then continue with the attack on the kingside after gaining a space-advantage in the center with 6.d5

Black can also try 4…Nf6 with the idea of supporting the d5 push. But after 5.Ng5 d5 6.exd5 h6 6…Nxd5 7.dxe5 hxg5 8.Bxg5 Qe7 9.Qe2 +− white is just winning. There are many more complicated lines, but it is fair to say that the Philidor counter-gambit gives white a big advantage already on move four and not the best choice for black to play.

Common Trap in Philidor Defense

This trap involves a thematic sacrifice of the queen on d1 in order to give a checkmate with minor pieces. There are many variations leading to Legal’s mate, but the idea is the same. One example of such a line would be: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.Bc4 Bg4 5. h3 Bh5 6. Nxe5! Bxd1 7.Bxf7+ Ke7 8.Nd5#.


In this article, we have seen that in the Philidor Defense, the game can result in very different types of positions, from an exciting attacking race with opposite-side castles to slow-closed positions. Such versatility in structure makes it hard to prepare against, especially as white. For the players, who wish to avoid mainline theory such as Ruy Lopez or Italian Game and just play simple chess with a rich middlegame, Philidor Defense offers itself as a good option to be considered.

Written by
Deniz Tasdelen, National Master
National Master with over 20 years of experience. He has participated in many prestigious tournaments, including the European and World Youth Chess Championships.
Ask Question


Is the Philidor Defense good?

The Philidor Defense is a solid and enduring choice in chess, known for its defensive resilience. While it’s not as aggressive as other openings, it provides a strong foundation for middle-game strategies, making it a good option, particularly for players who prefer positional play over immediate tactical skirmishes.

Why do people play the Philidor Defense?

Players opt for the Philidor Defense for its solid structure and durability. It offers a safe and steady development of pieces, minimizes early vulnerabilities, and leads to a strong middle game position. This defense is particularly favored by players who are adept at handling the game’s deeper strategic complexities in the middle and endgame.

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