Petrov Defense: Opening Guide for White & Black

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Table of Contents

When it comes to making progress in chess, one of the critical factors is to minimize your losses. The super-solid Petrov Defense will undoubtedly help you achieve this goal with the black pieces.

  • The Petrov Defense is such a solid opening; even today’s chess engines have been unable to tear down this fortress. When you choose to play the Petrov Defense, there is little chance of getting caught out by a computer-generated novelty early in the game.
  • In many chess openings, you often find each side has a choice between two or three moves of similar popularity. However, in the Petrov Defense, the main move is likely to get played more frequently by a large margin. In light of this, there is less theory to learn in the Petrov Defense than in many defenses against 1.e4.
  • One of the biggest challenges in the Petrov Defense is accepting that a draw with the black pieces is not a bad result. Yes, a win feels better than a draw, but a draw feels better than a loss.
  • Natural development and simple, easy-to-remember strategies make the Petrov Defense a good choice for players at all playing levels. The Petrov Defense will serve beginners as well as it does world chess champions.

History of the Petrov Defense

First mentioned as far back as the late 15th century by Lucena, Damiano gave the Petrov Defense (also known as the Petroff Defense and Russian Defense) serious attention thirty-three years later. However, he only considered 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 Nxe4 4.Qe2.

Naturally, Damiano’s analysis did not make this defense attractive to the black players. This game of his is a model example of why we now play 3…d6 before capturing with …Nxe4.

That is not to say Damiano’s Petrov Defense is not playable. You can meet 4.Qe2 with 4…Qe7 and win back the piece with …d6. However, you must be well prepared. FIDE Master Kamil Plichta certainly believes in Damiano’s Petroff.

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Secret Blitz Weapons: The Damiano Petroff

The opening is named after the Russian chess player Alexander Petroff who realized that 3.Nxe5 is best met with 3…d6 before …Nxe4.

Petroff made this discovery over three hundred years after Damiano’s analysis. The Petrov Defense lay dormant for a long time, but judging by its popularity nowadays, it will be a long time before it gets to rest again.

In 2018 Fabiano Caruana went undefeated with the Petrov Defense in his World Chess Championship Match against Magnus Carlsen.

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The Unbreakable Petroff: Caruana's complete repertoire against 1. e4

Here is an example of how badly things can go wrong for black if he forgets 3…d6. After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 Nxe4 4.Qe2 Nf6?? (4…Nd6?? Does not make a difference) 5.Nc6+ winning the queen.

Ideas and Strategies of the Petrov Defense

Petrosian once remarked it is easier to play for a win from an equal position. This advice is at the heart of the Petrov Defense.

The Petrov Defense is a solid defense where a draw is not considered a bad result. From this solid base, Petrov Defense players wait for their opponent to strive for too much.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6

Starting position of the Petrov Defense

This drawish reputation often gives rise to the impression that the Petrov Defense is dull, yet some lines can get very tactical.

When you play the Petrov Defense, you also avoid having to face popular openings like the Ruy Lopez, Four Knights, and Scotch Game. Because of its solidity, when you play the Petrov Defense, you need not worry about forgetting any razor-sharp theoretical lines.

If you prefer to postpone any significant engagement until the middlegame, you will enjoy playing the Petroff Defense. The fortress you create in the opening will see you safely through to the middlegame without any trouble.

White Can Enter a Tactical Battle Early

White can attempt to make the game take on a tactical nature as early as move four by sacrificing his knight for two pawns. In the Cochrane Gambit, white meets 3…d6 with 4.Nxf7.

Of course, if this gambit gave white any real advantage, then nobody would play the Petrov Defense today. Black must know how to play against the Cochrane Gambit, but accepting the sacrifice is perfectly okay.

Another, more cautious attempt by white to unbalance the position is with 6.dxc3 (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3 Nxc3) when opposite-side castling is often the norm.

White intends to use the doubled-pawns to help defend against Black’s attack while generating play in the semi-open d-file.

Of course, there are lines within the Petroff Defense that are extremely likely to lead to a draw, but if white wants to take the game into drawish lines, it hardly matters what opening you choose with black.

Petrov Defense with 4.Nf3

The main battleground of the Petrov Defense is reached after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4

Capturing the pawn with 3.Nxe5 is the natural move for white. Apart from the possibility of transposition on move 6, the following three moves are

5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Nc6 7.0-0 Be7

Black can just as easily play 6…Be7 and 7…Nc6. White will usually meet either 6…Be7 or 6…Nc6 with 7.0-0.

Now there are two main choices for white – 8.c4 or 8.Re1.

White Plays 8.c4

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Nc6 7.0-0 Be7 8.c4

Vladimir Kramnik has earned draws from this position against former world champions Vishy Anand and Garry Kasparov. He has also held this position against 2700+ rated players, including Vassily Ivanchuk and Vesselin Topalov.

If players as strong as Ivanchuk and Topalov can’t break through the Petrov Defense, then think how challenging it will prove for your opponents?

The idea behind 8.c4 is simply to remove the defender of the knight on e4.

8…Nb4 9.Be2 0-0 10.Nc3 Bf5 11.a3 Nxc3 12.bxc3 Nc6

In this game, despite being rated 150 Elo lower than Garry Kasparov, another former world champion, Anatoly Karpov, won the game with the Petrov Defense.

White Plays 8.Re1

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Nc6 7.0-0 Be7 8.Re1

The rook on e1 attacks the black knight on 34 and threatens to win a pawn. Black can gambit the pawn with 8…Bg4 when white does better to continue with 9.c4 or 9.c3.

Although 9.c4 certainly looks more aggressive, the more restrained 9.c3 is doing better statistically for white. Advancing the c-pawn two squares often resolves the central tension and easy equality for black.

Attempting to hold onto the pawn with 9.Bxe4 dxe4 10.Rxe4 allows black to equalize with 10…Bxf3 11.Qxf3 Nxd4 12.Qd3.

9.c3 f5 10.Nbd2 0-0 11.Qb3 Na5 12.Qb5 c6 13.Qa4 Bd6

Both sides have developed their pieces towards the center. The black knight on a5 has gained time by attacking the queen and is eyeing the c4-square. All the others pieces are centralized, so it is hardly surprising the most frequent outcome is a draw.

The game between Peter Svidler and Vladimir Kramnik was drawn in less than thirty moves.

Petrov Defense Steinitz System: 3.d4

Despite 3.Nxe4 being considerably more popular than 3.d4, this is a dangerous system and actually offers white better winning chances.

The move 3.d4 asks black what pawn he wants to capture? Unsurprisingly …Nxe4 is the usual choice. The alternative 3…exd4 is not bad either and will get covered next.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.d4 Nxe4

The next few moves are ones we are already familiar with and help make learning the Petrov Defense a lot easier.

4.Bd3 d5 5.Nxe5 Nd7

Black rightly does not want to let the white knight get comfortable and linger on the e5-square. Whenever an enemy piece enters your half of the board, it must get challenged as soon as possible.

6.Nxd7 Bxd7 7.0-0 Bd6 8.c4 c6 9.cxd5 cxd5 10.Nc3 Nxc3 11.bxc3 0-0

In the Steinitz variation of the Petrov Defense, you can get to dazzle your opponents with your endgame skills. Positions like these are when all the time you invested learning about minor piece endgames will serve you well.

Theoretically, this might be a draw, but since the endgame is the most neglected area of chess study by many, any effort you put into improving your endgame will serve you very well.

After 12.Qh5, the most solid move is 12…f5. Playing solidly might be in keeping with the Petrov Defense; however, you can sacrifice the d5-pawn and play 12…g6.

Petrov Defense Steinitz Variation With 3…exd4

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.d4 exd4 4.e5 Ne4 5.Qxd4

There are not many variations in the Petrov Defense where you can keep your opponent guessing by playing two different captures. In light of this, it is a good idea to make use of it when you can.

Although black is not worse in this variation, making 3…Nxe4 your primary choice against the Steinitz Variation is best. Naturally, this depends on your playing style, and you might find the positions after 3…exd4 more to your liking.

Sometimes personal preferences need to outweigh theoretical evaluations and general consensus about an opening. Anatoly Karpov played this variation against Garry Kasparov and earned a draw, so there is no reason to discount this approach.

5…d5 6.exd6 Nxd6 7.Nc3 Nc6 8.Qf4 Nf5

The knight moves again to allow …Bd6 to attack the queen. Obviously, with both the d-file and e-file open, getting castled soon is a necessity.

Fortunately for black, developing the bishop with tempo gives black the opportunity to castle within two moves.

Leventic has achieved numerous draws in this variation, so keep it in mind when you get paired with a much stronger opponent. Leventic and his opponent agreed to a draw as early as move seventeen in one game. This game took a little longer.

White Plays 5.Nc3

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe4 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3

The move 5.Nc3 has been played since the 1800s. This move is a good attempt to take black out of their prepared theory. Since black is doing well in the mainlines, looking for alternatives makes sense.

5…Nxc3 6.dxc3 Nc6 7.Bf4 Be7 8.Qd2 Be6 9.0-0-0 Qd7 10.Kb1 0-0-0 11.Bb5 a6 12.Bd3 h6.

Black’s lack of space is offset by the structural weakness of White’s doubled c-pawns. The doubled pawns do help provide extra cover for the white king.

Through dynamic and courageous play, black has every opportunity to emerge victorious as Jose Camacho Collados did against Javier Vallejo Diaz.

Petrov Defense Cochrane Gambit

Despite the chess engines inability to tear down the Petrov Defense fortress, they have managed to prove the Cochrane Gambit is unsound. It is easy to forget this piece of wisdom when facing the Cochrane Gambit, though.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nxf7

When faced with the Cochrane Gambit, the first thing to remember is that accepting the gambit is okay. Black has already given up two pawns, and adding an exchange to this material deficit makes no sense at all.

4…Kxf7 5.d4 c5 6.dxc5 Nc6 7.Bc4+ Be6 8.Bxe6+ Kxe6+ 9.Nc3 Kf7 10.Bf4 dxc5

Black has managed to keep his material advantage, which can be very useful later in the game. Being material up allows you to return the material in exchange for other positional or tactical advantages.

Now that he has weathered the storm, black can adopt a strategy of simplification to increase the value of his material advantage. Despite the exposed nature of the black king, there are enough pieces nearby to keep it protected.

White Avoids the Petrov Defense

3.Nxe5 and 3.d4 are the main moves of the Petrov Defense, but sometimes white will try to sidestep the Petrov Defense, either by playing 3.Bc4 or attempting to enter the Four Knights with 3.Nc3, or playing a Reversed Philidor Defense.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6

Against 3.Nc3 entering the Four Knights is a safe approach for black. If you need a win or simply want to spice the game up a bit, then 3…Bb4 is the way to go.

Play can continue with 4.Nxe5 0-0 5.Be2 Re8 6.Nd3 Bxc3 7.dxc3 Nxe4 8.Nf4 d6

Black has a nicely centralized knight, and if white rushes to drive it back with f3, there is …Qh4+.

White Avoids the Petrov Defense With 3.Bc4

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bc4

There is certainly no harm in playing 3…Nc6. The difference between this and the Italian Game is the black knight on f6, not c6.

This gives black the option of grabbing a pawn with 3…Nxe4 and defending it with …f6. If white responds with 4.Nxe5, there is 4…d5 5.Bb3 Qg5 with a double-attack on the knight and g2-pawn.

That is why white plays 4.Nc3, and we get 4…Nxc3 5.dxc3 f6 6.0-0 d6

Black can play Nd-b6 to drive the bishop away or block the bishop with …c6 and …d5. The loss of tempo in moving the d-pawn twice is compensated for by being a pawn up.

White Plays the Reversed Philidor Defense

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.d3

Against the Reverse Philidor Defense, black can continue with natural developing moves and enjoy a space advantage. Simple, natural moves like …Nc6, …d5, and …Bc5 will ensure you get a perfectly playable position.

3…Nc6 4.Be2 d5 5.Nbd2 Bc5 6.0-0 0-0 7.c3 a5

There is nothing to concern black in this position. Black will play …Re8, giving the bishop a lovely retreat square on f8 if white plays b4.

Final Thoughts

The Petrov Defense establishes a fortress that has stood for many years and will undoubtedly continue to stand rock-solid for many more years to come.

We are fortunate that all the nuances that make this opening such a stout defense have been worked out for us by some of the best chess players ever to play the game.

If a chess legend like Garry Kasparov cannot make headway against the Petrov Defense, there is no reason to doubt it is a viable option against 1.e4. Even better, the opening has a surprisingly light amount of theory for you to learn and helps you sidestep openings that do require a lot of opening study.

The Petrov Defense is difficult to crack, but the bigger the challenge, the better it feels when you find a novelty. Simply because white has not found a way to make headway against the Petrov Defense is no reason to stop trying.

This video is from Lifetime Repertoires: Gajewski’s 1. e4 – Part 1

Petrov Defense: Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Petrov Defence good?

The Petrov Defense is a solid, reliable defense for black and is the choice of former world champions, including Karpov, Kramnik, and Anand.
World chess champion challenger Fabiano Caruana played the Petrov with success as recently as 2018. In his world championship match that year against Carlsen, he went undefeated with the Petrov Defense.

Is the Petrov Defense good for Black?

Yes, the Petrov Defense is an excellent choice for black. The defense is sound and offers both sides the chance to play for a win. Another important advantage of the Petrov Defense is it cuts down on a lot of opening theory. You do not need to learn how to play against the Ruy Lopez, Scotch, Two Knights, or Italian Defense.

How do you beat Petrov Defense?

The most popular approach against the Petrov Defense is the mainline with 6.Bd3 (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5). Interestingly, this is the choice of Anand and Kramnik when they face the defense they enjoy using with black

What is the Petrov opening?

The Petrov Opening is the symmetrical 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 chess opening. Despite the balanced nature and its reputation for being a drawish opening, the Petrov offers both sides winning chances.

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