Pirc Defense – How to Play (as White & Black)


Table of Contents

Welcome to the dynamic, counter-punching Pirc Defense. A sound, fighting defense that will give you many enjoyable chess games.

  • Gain a deeper understanding of this hypermodern opening by learning the ideas and strategies for both sides in the Pirc Defense.
  • Arguably, White’s most aggressive option is the Austrian Attack (4.f4), but do not underestimate the deceptively dangerous 4.Bg5
  • Another attacking option for white involves Be3, Qd2, and a long castle with a kingside pawn storm heading Black’s way.


In chess, the more pieces you have on the board, the easier it is to play for a win, and the Pirc Defense certainly keeps pieces on the board. Adding to your winning chances is the flexibility of the Pirc Defense.

This flexibility makes it harder for White to play against the Pirc Defense since the strategies and plans available to Black are not as clear-cut as in many other 1.e4 defenses.

One of the most significant advantages of the Pirc Defense is you need not fear White leading you into the mind-numbing positions found in many exchange variation chess openings. The battle will take place with lots of pieces and pawns involved in the fight.

The Ideas and Strategies in the Pirc Defense

The opening moves in the Pirc Defense are:

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6

The starting position of the aggressive, hypermodern Pirc Defense.

In typical hypermodern fashion, the Pirc Defense invites White to build a broad center and then counter-attacks. The bigger the claim White makes in the center, the bigger the target for Black.

Although the Pirc Defense is holding its own at the highest levels in chess today, it is not a very fashionable opening. This is something Pirc Defense players can view as an advantage.

Korchnoi used it to win against Bobby Fischer in 1962

There are two main pawn levers for Black in the Pirc Defense – …e5 and …c5. They attack the vulnerable d4-pawn, supported by the bishop on g7.

A dark square strategy is one of Black’s main strategies, along with queenside expansion and delaying castling or castling long.

One vital aspect of playing the Pirc Defense is to ensure your knights have a retreat square on d7 or e7. White will often advance either the e-pawn or d-pawn and attack the black knight. 

If the knight on f6 gets forced to retreat to e8 instead of d7, it risks becoming extremely passive.

Pirc Defense Austrian Attack

White often goes into this variation, knowing his center will crumble at some point. White hopes to checkmate the black king in exchange for sacrificing the center. 

The Austrian Attack in the Pirc Defense is one of the most aggressive options White can play. In light of this, when playing the Pirc Defense, you must know how to counter this variation.

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.f4

This is the starting position of the Austrian Attack.

4…Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.e5

Advancing the e-pawn is the most natural move for White in this position. Black is doing fine since this attack is a little premature. 

6…dxe5 7.fxe5 Nd5 8.Bc4 Nb6 9.Bb3 Nc6 10.0-0 Na5 11.Ne4 Nxb3 12.axb3 f6

White usually recaptures with 7.fxe5 instead of 7.dxe5 to avoid the trade of queens. Playing the attacking Austrian Variation in the Pirc Defense does not make much sense if you allow the exchange of queens as early as move seven.

After exchanging the dangerous bishop on b3, Black begins attacking the White center. Black’s light-squared bishop will prove highly effective on b7 since White no longer has a light-squared bishop to oppose it on the long diagonal.

Black’s light-squared bishop won the game for Matinian against Karaoglan.

Austrian Attack With 6.Bd3

Since the natural 6.e5 poses no real threat to black, White’s most popular move is 6.Bd3.

 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Bd3

Because the main reason 6.e5 fails is White’s lack of development 6.Bd3 is a very sensible move. White decides to develop, get the king to safety, and then choose how to proceed with the attack.

The most likely approaches involve the f5 advance and bringing the queen to the kingside with Qe1-h4. Another option is to proceed with even greater restraint and tuck the king away on h1 first.

Whenever you play an early f4 and castle short with white, it is prudent to take your king off the open a7-g1 diagonal.

6…Na6 7.0-0 c5 8.d5 Bg4 9.a3 Nc7 10.Qe1 Bxf3 11.Rxf3 e6

After …c5, if White plays Bxa6 intending to wreck Black’s pawn structure, always check if you have the in-between move …cxd4 – attacking the c3 knight. 

The bishop on d3 defends the e4-pawn and is one of White’s important attacking pieces, so Bxa6 is a move to welcome if you are playing the Pirc Defense.

White will usually play a3 ahead of Qe1 to stop the knight on a6 going to the b4 square, where it attacks the bishop on d3 and pawn on c2.

Besides supporting …e6, the knight on c7 also supports the b5 advance.

Pirc Defense With 4.Bg5

What might prove surprising to many people who adopt the Pirc Defense is that facing 4.Bg5 is a lot more challenging than the Austrian Attack (4.f4). This line requires accurate defense by Black.

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Bg5 Bg7

The two main ideas behind 4.Bg5 are:

  1. Qd2, long castle and attack with the h-pawn, or
  2. Play a delayed Austrian Attack with the bishop beyond the f4-pawn.

In the opening, it is always a good idea to play the moves you know you will play ahead of the moves you might play. The dark-squared bishop is going to g7 against all of White’s attacking plans.

White Plays 4.Bg5 and 5.Qd2

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Bg5 Bg7 5.Qd2

Black plays an early h6-g5 and …Nh5 to obtain the bishop pair. Black will usually castle long in this variation since he has voluntarily weakened his kingside.

Although obtaining the bishop pair is an advantage, do not neglect king safety!

There are times when Black will let the bishop on g3 find safety on h2 if it means playing long castle before …Nxg3. Sometimes when playing black, it is important to be happy with stopping your opponent’s dangerous attacking option.

5…h6 6.Bh4 g5 7.Bg3 Nh5 8.0-0-0 Nc6 9.Qe3 e6 10.Nge2 Bd7 11.h4 Qe7

When playing the Pirc Defense, do not be afraid of playing backward. In this hypermodern attacking defense, you often want to draw White forward before suddenly stopping retreating and counter-attacking.

Wolfgang Homuth did this with stunning effect in his game against Stefan Lupor.

White Plays 4.Bg5 and 5.f4

Against 4.Bg5 and 5.f4, Black will castle short and attack the center with …c6 and …d5.

Do not be afraid of doubling your f-pawns after Bxf6. The second f-pawn is often invaluable in keeping control of the e5 square after the first advances to f5.

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Bg5 Bg7 5.f4 c6

6.Qd2 0-0 7.Nf3 d5 8.Bxf6 exf6 9.exd5 cxd5 10.0-0-0 Nc6

White cannot easily attack the isolated pawn on d5, and it provides an excellent square for Black’s knight on c4. The Nc6-a5-c4 maneuver is an important one to keep in mind because preventing it with b3 weakens the pawns in front of White’s king.

Despite facing an opponent rated more than 250 Elo higher than himself, Michael Jaehn earned a draw against Markus Loeffler.

Pirc Defense: Meeting 4.Be3

One of the most well-known attacks against the Pirc Defense is found in the 4.Be3 variation. This attack is known as the “150 Attack”.

The name stems from the English Chess Federation rating of 150 ECF (or 1850 Elo). There was the belief among grandmasters in England that only players rated 150 ECF played this attack.

No matter who plays it, having a method to counter it is essential for Pirc Defense players.

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Be3

Against 4.Be3, a sound strategy for Black is to begin expanding on the queenside with 4…a6. 

Remember, if White plays Qd2, it is crucial to delay castling and continue with your queenside expansion strategy.

4…a6 5.Qd2 b5 6.f3 Nbd7 7.g4 Nb6 8.g5 Nfd7 9.h4 b4 10.Nd1 c5

Notice that White’s attack with the kingside pawns is not proving very dangerous thanks to delaying castling. In the next game, the space left behind the pawns proved very costly for white.

Nowadays, 5.h3 is popular when White intends to adopt a more modest, classical approach. Black can go ahead and castle short and create a small center with pawns on e6 and d6.

Showing that the Pirc Defense is playable at the highest levels today, here is how Grishchuk responded when Caruana played 5.h3 against him.

The Classical Variation of the Pirc Defense

When faced with an unfamiliar opening, many chess players rightly fall back on classical development with e4, d4 Nc3, Nf3, Be2, and 0-0. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but it poses no threat to the Pirc Defense.

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Be2 0-0 6.0-0

One effective strategy for Black is to attack the dark squares, particularly d4, with …Bg4 and …Nc6. Play might reach a position that looks like one you would expect to find in the King’s Indian Defense.

6…Bg4 7.Be3 Nc6 8.Qd2 e5 9.d5 Ne7 10.Rad1 Bd7

Assisting Black is the classically developed knight on c3, which prevents the c-pawn from advancing. The c4-c5 advance is a typical attacking strategy for White in the King’s Indian Defense.

None other than Vishy Anand played the line with success against Alon Greenfeld.

Facing the Pirc Defense Fianchetto Variation

Positional players will often use a fianchetto system against many of Black’s defenses. Although it might not give them a theoretical advantage, their in-depth knowledge of the setup can make it dangerous for the unwary defender.

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.g3 Bg7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.Nge2

The knight gets developed to e2 to avoid a possible pin with …Bg4. Placing the knight on e2 also keeps the diagonal open for the bishop.

Black can achieve excellent counterplay by striking in the center with …e5.

6…e5 7.h3 c6 8.a4 exd4 9.Nxd4 Re8 10.0-0 Na6 11.Re1 Nb4

Apart from b4, another perfect square for a black knight is e5. The exchange of pawns on d4 has opened the long diagonal for the bishop on g7, while White’s g2-bishop is often nullified by black pawns on b7, c6, and d5.

Once again, we see how effective the Pirc Defense can be when facing a higher-rated opponent.

In Conclusion

Do away with those demoralizing exchange variations and take the fight to White with the Pirc Defense. Indeed if Grischuk can hold his own against Caruana, regular chess players like us will find it a sound defense.

The limited number of variations you need to prepare for makes the Pirc Defense even more attractive. The majority of White’s plans are easy to understand and counter.

Sometimes it helps us if our chosen defense is unfashionable because it adds to the surprise value. There is also a good chance you will find novelties and surprise your opponents.

There is absolutely no harm in having your opponent think you are playing an inferior opening. Such an attitude only makes your victories with the Pirc Defense taste much sweeter.

The Pirc Defense is a tricky defense for both black and white. However, if you become familiar with the underlying principles and learn the tricks, you will find the Pirc Defense a reliable, fighting defense.

Pirc Defense Lifetime Repertoire

IM Christof Sielecki is one of the most popular content creators at Chessable. His high-quality courses and willingness to answer questions have made him a fan favorite.

Peek inside his course to learn about his experiences learning and playing the Pirc Defense.

Isn’t it time you got in on the fun and began playing this exciting opening? 

The sooner you get your copy of the Lifetime Repertoire: The Pirc Defense, the sooner the fun will begin.

The Pirc Defense Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Pirc Defense good?

Yes, the Pirc Defense is a good defense. You can combine it with the King’s Indian Defense to give yourself a complete repertoire against almost every opening for white. These two defenses involve a kingside fianchetto and counter-attacking, so many common strategies exist.

How to play the Pirc Defense?

The Pirc Defense is counter-attacking. You allow White to take control of the center and then attack the center with …e5 or …c5.
In some variations, Black can take advantage of the space left behind by the advanced white pawns.

How to beat Pirc Defense?

The best way to play against the Pirc Defense is to choose a variation that suits your style of play. White has many approaches, including the Fianchetto and Classical variations, which suit positional players.
Attacking players will enjoy the Austrian Attack (4.f4) or the “150 Attack” (4.Be3). 

Is the Pirc Defense aggressive?

Yes, the Pirc Defense is an aggressive opening. White gets invited to grab lots of space and central control. The only way to counter these advantages is to play actively and counter-attack. 

Is the Pirc Defense suitable for beginners?

The Pirc Defense is a tricky open, making it a little more challenging for beginners. However, a well-prepared beginner can undoubtedly play the Pirc Defense. 
You are unlikely to face many well-prepared players with a pet line against the Pirc Defense at a beginner level or even when you improve to post-beginner levels.

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