Hence this article, that will give you some ideas to play this defense with both colors.
Knight to c6 is a well-known move that drives the game towards the Italian Game or the Ruy Lopez, two immensely rich opening systems. d7-d6 is a solid move, leading to the Philidor defense. Yet, sometimes, Black makes another choice, surprising at first sight.
This move 2… Nf6 is quite provocative in a way. Black is saying to White: “I don’t care if you take my pawn on e5 ! I’ll capture your pawn on e4 afterwards !”
Black is right, of course, but the way to capture the e4-pawn is not so straightforward…
White Takes On e5
This is of course White’s main move. Even without calculating at all, it is clear that capturing on e5 cannot be bad for White: the position is symmetrical, so either Black finds a way to equalize, or White is better.
Now there is a big question: if Black wants to keep the game balanced and equalize easily, the simplest way is to play symmetrically as long as possible. So far, with 1… e5 and 2… Nf6, Black has mirrored White’s moves. Then the upcoming question is: how long can Black play symmetrically and mimic White’s moves ?
How Long Can Black Play Symmetrically ?
In this section, we are going to assume that Black continues playing symmetrically with 3… Nxe4.
Of course, Black did not play the right moves and made several mistakes along the way. If Black really wants to play 3… Nxe4, the best is probably the following line, after which it is not great for Black, but not lost either.
So, take 3… Nxe4 for what it is: not a losing move, but if this was Black’s only possibility, there is no way the Petrov defense would be that popular ! In the next section, we will finally discover what is Black’s best third move. Ready ? Go !
And What If White Plays Symmetrically ?
Symmetry is a great question in the opening theory. In general, Black tries to achieve it to equalize, while White is trying to avoid it.
But what if White embraces symmetry, at least in the few first moves ?
This is not White’s most common way to play against the Petrov, but this can be recommended to players starting to play against the Petrov: this is a low-risk line, and you might even get a better position is you know the plans ! This is a position that is often seen in the French defense, and in particular in the French Defense Exchange Variation.
The isolated Queen’s pawn gives White better chances of attack, but also a long term structural weakness. At least the symmetry is broken now ! This symmetrical play with d2-d3, then d3-d4 is certainly not the most critical line, but it gives White a clear strategic plan, with very few counter play for Black.
White Plays The Main Line Of The Petrov Defense
So, in the last chapter, we have learnt something very important: Black’s only decent third move is 3… d6 !
And now, I will play a few moves of the main variation. This is probably a better attempt for White to get an advantage than the fully symmetrical plan we saw earlier !
In this seemingly quiet line, the move order matters a lot, especially for Black. Let’s imagine Black played Bishop to d6 instead of e7.
Why did I show you those two lines ? The Petrov is for sure a solid defense, but you should not get into autopilot mode when playing it with Black, this is a sure recipe for a disaster !
Now let’s come back to the position where Black has played the correct Be7, as see what are the main ideas for both sides here.
The main line of the Petrov becomes very often a positional game, where White can seize the opportunity to play c2-c4 and play with an isolated queen’s pawn structure.
The Fashionable Line with 4. Nc3
White has another option though, that has become fashionable in the last few years: it involves castling on opposite sides to build a quick attack on the opponent’s position !
In this line, White will castle queenside, Black can choose any side. But there is something specific I want to show you. In some cases Black has a threat that is important to understand, even if does not always works.
The Bxa2 idea is very important in this whole line of the Petrov. Of course White did not play the best moves here.
But again, modify a couple of moves and this sacrifice can work again if Black prepares it a bit better and White is careless !
But replace White’s faulty 10. h4 ? by a better move, and again the sacrifice does not work for Black !
Do you see how subtle differences in the move orders make Bxa2 possible or not ? It means that once Be6 appears on the board, Bax2 must be carefully calculated by both players.
But actually, more often than not, Bxa2 does not work if White plays the right moves. Thus Black is probably better off being less direct and keep a more flexible approach (keeping the possibility to castle Queenside to delay White’s attack for instance).
There is of course a lot more to say about this line, especially because very few of the games played actually feature the move Bxa2, but we will not cover that here. Enough to say that this is probably the best attempt to play an imbalanced game against the Petrov defense.
The Cochrane gambit
You might think that the previous line with 4. Nc3 is still a little too mild and you are probably wondering: “Isn’t there a good gambit against the Petrov, like those countless gambits I can play against the Italian Game or the Scotch Game ?”.
This is enough for an overview of the Cochrane gambit. This is a long-term gambit in which White has some chances, but Black has several ways to handle it, as we have seen above.
White Does Not Take On e5
Even if Black does not defend his pawn, White is not forced to take on e5. We are going to see two possible ways for White to avoid taking on e5 on the third move.
3. d4: The Move From Steinitz
White has a very good possibility: playing 3. d4. This move was favored by the first world champion of Chess, Wilhelm Steinitz.
It would not be interesting to watch all the possible variations from this position. Suffice to say that White has a good game, the position is balanced, and both players will simply play Chess in a position that, most likely, has not been analyzed in depth by any of the two players.
Which is sometimes exactly what you want to play.
The takeaway from this is simple: Black should probably play 3… Nxe4 and reach a symmetrical position. Chances will be a tiny bit better for White, but not by much. The next line we will see is much sharper.
A Tricky Gambit Starting With 3. Bc4
There is a line played at Club level or in Blitz games a lot. You don’t encounter it a lot in long games as it is unsound. Yet, it is very hard to fight against in practice if you don’t know it and for this reason, we have to cover it in this overview of the Petrov defense. This line is the Boden–Kieseritzky Gambit.
Knight to g5 is a pattern you may have already seen, in particular in the Two Knights’ defense, but it works even better here, thanks to the better control of d5 by White. Let’s note also that 5… d6 would lead to the same result than 5… Nc6.
Let’s finish this quick overview of the Boden–Kieseritzky Gambit by showing White’s best way to maintain some pressure, even if Black plays the right 5… f6. This is probably not enough for an advantage, but White has some pressure that Black cannot easily neutralize in a few moves.
As you see, even that last line that is supposed to be Black’s most favorable option does seem a bit scary, and some players with the white pieces have managed to win this. Thus we should not treat this gambit too lightly: it is a dangerous weapon.
Conclusion On The Petrov Defense
That’s it with the Petrov Defense, one of the most solid defenses against 1. e4. However, as you have seen, White has some ways to make the game sharper, either by playing a gambit, or by castling Queenside. In those cases, the Petrov can turn into a wild opening as well !
I hope I convinced you to try it. Else this page will give you ideas to fight against it at least !