Chess Opening Basics: The Pirc Defense


Table of Contents

What is the Pirc Defense?

The Pirc Defense is an opening for Black against 1.e4, in which the second player allows White to build a strong centre in the hope of breaking it down later. Black has to accept a spatial inferiority, at least in the initial phase of the game, but the position holds significant energy, offering good chances of successfully combating the white centre.

The Pirc Defense is reached via the following moves.

1.e4 d6

2.d4 Nf6

3.Nc3 g6

The Pirc Defense

The Pirc Defense

History and Ideas

Players with White now have a large number of plans at their disposal. This is because of the lack of pressure on their position. Black is content to complete the development of the kingside by 4…Bg7 and 5…0-0 and then reacting to whichever set up White adopts. The fianchetto of the bishop is a defining feature of the Pirc Defense.

Black’s plans include attacking the centre with a timely …e5 or …c5. The bishop on c8 often goes to g4 to pin a knight on f3, thus adding to the pressure on White’s centre.

Note there are numerous transpositional possibilities from the Modern Defense (1…g6). Seasoned campaigners have developed a  number of move-order tricks to avoid certain aggressive White variations.

The Pirc Defense is not to everyone’s taste and has yet to enjoy a significant period of popularity at the highest levels. Bobby Fischer played it against Boris Spassky in their 1972 title match, but only once (the game was drawn). Viktor Korchnoi used it twice in his match against Anatoly Karpov in their 1978 match, drawing one game and losing the other.

The development of the Pirc Defense was helped by the games of English Grandmasters Raymond Keene and John Nunn in the 1970s and 1980s. Both players used the Pirc often, wrote fine books about it and made notable contributions to the theory of the defense.

White’s Choices

From the diagram, White’s choices include:

4.f4 – The Austrian Attack.

Pirc Defense Austrian Attack

This aggressive move creates a three-pawn centre and limbers up for the advance e4-e5. Incidentally, if White advances too soon with 4.e5 then Black gains a very easy game with the simple 4…dxe5 5.dxe5 Qxd1+ 6.Kxd1 Ng4, with treats against f2 and e5. This is why White needs a second pawn to support the e4-e5 push. The Austrian Attack is a popular and dangerous variation.

4.Nf3 – The Classical System.

Classical Pirc

This was a favourite of Anatoly Karpov when he was in his prime. Karpov was excellent at making a small advantage grow into winning proportions, with simple-looking moves.

4.Be3 – The 150 Attack.

150 Attack

So-called because good club players using the British grading system, as opposed to the universally accepted Elo rating system, were often around the 150 mark. They typically attacked fianchetto systems with an early Be3, Qd2 and Bh6. Despite the lack of sophistication (hence the slightly derogatory name), the 150 Attack still packs a considerable punch.

4.Bg5 – The Byrne Attack, named after the American Grandmaster Robert Byrne.

Byrne Variation

Similar to the 150 Attack, 4.Bg5 has additional ideas of following up with f2-f4, which can produce an Austrian Attack with added bite.

4.Bc4 – A tricky and occasionally popular line. Strange complications arise after 4…Bg7 5.Qe2 Nc6 6.e5 Nxd4 7.exf6 Nxe2 8.fxg7 Rg8 9.Ngxe2 Rxg7, when it is unclear whether or not the queen is superior to the three minor pieces.

Complications With Bc4

4.g3 – The Fianchetto Variation.

Fianchetto Variation

This is uncommon but should not be underestimated. It can be very potent in the hands of positional players and Black must tread carefully to avoid ending up in a passive position.

Chessable Courses

Lifetime Repertoires: Pirc Defense is available now for anyone who would like to know more about this tricky defense.

Lifetime Repertoires The Pirc

A Short and Sweet version of the course is also available.

Short and Sweet: Pirc Defense

More Chess Opening Basics

Here are links to the other parts of our series on Chess Opening Basics. More openings will be added soon.

Arkhangelsk Defense

Berlin Defense, Rio de Janeiro Variation

Budapest Gambit


Caro-Kann Defense

The Chigorin Defense

Göring Gambit

Grünfeld Defense

The Jaenisch Gambit

Leningrad Dutch

London System

Najdorf Sicilian

Nimzo-Indian Defense

Queen’s Gambit Declined

Ragozin Defense

Ruy Lopez, Cozio Defense

Ruy Lopez, Exchange Variation

Sicilian Najdorf, Poisoned Pawn Variation

Sicilian Wing Gambit

Semi-Slav Defense

Symmetrical English

Taimanov Sicilian

Highlighted course

The Checkmate Patterns Manual

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