The Powerhouse Pirc Defense: How to Play this Hard-Hitting Opening

Sound, counter-attacking, and dynamic are qualities that make the Pirc Defense one of the best chess openings for Black against 1.e4. These same qualities can be found in the Sicilian Defense, but the Pirc Defense comes with a lot less theory, making it an excellent choice for club players.

ThePirc Defense How to Play This Opening

By choosing the Pirc Defense, you will learn how to play with the kingside fianchetto and can make the kingside fianchetto the cornerstone of your opening repertoire with Black. Against 1.d4, you can play the King’s Indian Defense or the Modern Benoni Defense.

There are two variations for White that don’t appear threatening at first glance but have scored very well for White in practice. These are the moves 4.Bg5 and 4.Bf4, which have a higher winning score for White than the more popular Austrian and English Attacks.

Black must play precisely, but he has more than sufficient defensive resources to meet these threats!

Before we show you how to deal with these two lines, here is an excellent game by GM Vassily Ivanchuk showing what a powerhouse opening the Pirc Defense is for Black. First, he played an exchange sacrifice, and then he played with three minor pieces for the queen!

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Table of contents

White Plays 4.Bg5 against the Pirc Defense

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

Pirc 4.Bg5
Pirc 4.Bg5

In this variation of the Pirc Defense, White intends to launch a quick kingside attack with the simple plan Qd2 and h4-h5.

After 4…Bg7 White has two significant moves:

  • 5.e5 and
  • 5.Qd2

There is no reason for Black to cooperate because queenside castling is an excellent option.

Queenside castling is particularly effective against the second option (5.Qd2). Against 5.e5 short castles help support the …f6 break.

After 5.e5 Nfd7, Black keeps the tension in the center and attacks White’s e-pawn.

6.f4 0-0 7.Nf3 Nb6 8.Be2 Nc6 9.0-0 f6 10.exf6 exf6 11.Bh4 d5

Pirc 5.e5
Pirc 5.e5

White has created weaknesses on the e-file, and Black has certainly achieved equality. In fact, the Black position looks easier to play.

Vassily Ivanchuk played this position against Vugar Gashimov, who was rated 2761 when the game was played. Black’s position was not only good enough for a draw against a 2700 rated grandmaster but helped Ivanchuk get the whole point!

Gashimov, Vugar (2761) – Ivanchuk, Vassily (2766), Tata Steel-A 74th, 2012, 0-1

When White plays 5.Qd2, Black can seize the opportunity to obtain the bishop pair with 5…h6. The queen on d2 means White must choose between giving up the bishop pair or making compromises in the center.

Move 5.Qd2
Pirc 5.Qd2

6.Bh4 (6.Be3 Ng4 7.Bf4 e5 8.dxe5 Nxe5 gives Black an easy position to play) g5 7.Bg3 Nh5 8.0-0-0

Moves 5.Qd2 and 8.0 0 0
Pirc 5.Qd2 and 8.0 0 0

Take a look at how Markowski defeated a player rated 125 Elo higher than him in an epic battle lasting 80 moves!

Tiviakov, Sergei (2655) – Markowski, Tomasz (2530), Rubinstein Memorial 32nd, 1995, 0-1

White Plays 4.Bf4 against the Pirc Defense

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Bf4

4.Bf4
Pirc Defense 4.Bf4

This was the move chosen by Maxime Vachier Lagrave when Magnus Carlsen played the Pirc Defense against him in 2018.

Against 4.Bf4, a good reply for Black is 4…c6, which helps control the center while allowing the queen to develop to b6 or a5. On the a5-square, the queen supports Black’s play across the fifth rank. The queen can also swing across to the kingside if needed in defense.

White often sets up a queen and bishop battery with Bf4 and Qd2, so …Qa5 has the added advantage of lining up the two queens on the same diagonal. Exchanging queens makes White’s attack a lot less dangerous.

Against 4.Bf4, Black’s plan is to strike in the center with …e5.

Play might continue in thematic fashion with 4…c6 5.Qd2 Nbd7 6.Nf3 Bg7 7.Bd3 0-0 8.Bh6 e5 9.Bxg7 Kxg7 10.0-0 b5

Pirc Defense 4.Bf4 10...b5
Pirc Defense 4.Bf4 10…b5

Black can expand on the queenside and play in the center, which means he has already achieved equality in this position. 

Take a look at how Yuriy Kryvoruchko turned the tables on White. When his opponent resigned, Black attacked the White king while his own king was perfectly safe.

Kucherenko, Daniil (2310) – Kryvoruchko, Yuriy (2405), 2004.05.16, Alushta UKR-chT Round 2, 0-1

And in case you were curious about how the game between Maxime Vachier Lagrave and Magnus Carlsen unfolded, here it is for you to enjoy.

Vachier Lagrave, M. (2779) – Carlsen, M (2842), 2020.02.09, 0-1

Conclusion

To play winning chess, you need to take chances and unbalance the situation. This doesn’t mean playing recklessly. 

By choosing to play the Pirc Defense in chess, you get great counter-attacking chances based on sound positional principles.

The Pirc Defense has been played by some of the strongest GMs in chess today, including GM Gawain Jones, GM Vladimir Kramnik, and GM Vassily Ivanchuk, to name but a few. 

Follow in their footsteps by looking at their games, and you will find many devastating tactical blows to unleash against your opponents. You will improve your all-around chess abilities too.

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