These top 5 chess defenses were selected because they have stood the test of time. The richness of chess gives us a smorgasbord of great, aggressive chess openings to choose from.
What these particular defenses offer is a blend of solidity, classical opening principles, and hypermodernism.
The defenses recommended here give you the option of staking an immediate claim in the center or counterattacking. Whichever style of chess defense you select you will keep chances of playing for a win with black.
Here’s what you’ll learn:
- What makes up a defense in a chess opening.
- The importance of strategy.
- A selection of 5 of the most dependable chess defenses.
What Is A Chess Defense?
Because White starts with the first move, White is said to be on the attack. Naturally, this means Black starts the game on the defensive.
There are, of course, many ways for White to start his attack. Equally, Black has numerous ways to defend.
Essentially, it’s how Black arranges his pieces that form the defense he is using. Will he seek to provoke White into overextending, or will he immediately strike back?
For example, if White starts with 1.e4, Black can push back with 1…e5 staking a direct claim in the center. Black could control the center indirectly with his pieces instead of pawns and play 1…b6.
Likewise, White could seek to begin his attack by playing 1.b3 or 1.b4 and seek to undermine the Black center. Once again, Black must decide what defensive strategy he will adopt.
Black can play 1…e5 or 1…d5 and develop his pieces to support the central pawns. Another strategy would be to keep his pawns close and develop his pieces with 1…Nf6, …g6, ..Bg7.
It’s important to remember even if Black chooses a positional defense in the opening, he isn’t forced to play this way the entire game. One of the most effective defensive resources in chess is the counter-attack.
Know The Strategy Of Your Chosen Defense
Think of your chess opening strategy as your map. When you are uncertain about which move to play, thinking of the opening strategy will help you find the right one.
Another benefit to knowing your strategy is it cuts down on the theory you need to memorize. Even in the opening, it’s good to ask the reason for each move.
This applies to your and your opponent’s moves. Naturally, it’s good to keep asking this question through all three phases of your game.
One key factor to include in your strategy is the pawn breaks you want to play. Learning the pawn breaks for both colors helps you make it more difficult for your opponent to implement his plan.
When you know the strategy for both sides in an opening, it helps you play prophylactic moves. We’d all like to focus on our plans with every move, but we must take time to restrain our opponent’s ideas too.
The strategy in the Sicilian Defense is to control the d4-square with 1…c5. Other moves like …Nc6 and …Bg7 put more pressure on d4.
In the French Defense, Black aims to control the e4-square with d5. His first move 1…e6 intends to support his pawn after 2…d5. Black is willing to accept a cramped position in exchange for a solid structure. The f6 and c5 pawn breaks will help him gain more space.
5 Dependable Chess Defenses
To provide a common strategy in the defenses to white’s popular moves– 1.e4, 1.d4, and 1.c4 – the following chess defenses were chosen.
Against 1.e4– Caro-Kann Defense or the Pirc Defense.
Against 1.d4 play the Semi-Slav or the King’s Indian Defense.
Against 1.c4 play the Symmetrical Defense.
Which defense you choose depends on if you prefer to challenge directly for central control or enjoy a more positional, hypermodern approach.
Both the Caro-Kann and Semi-Slav Defenses share the move …c6. The Pirc and King’s Indian Defense make use of developing the bishop to g7.
Chess Defenses Against 1.e4
Beyond doubt, the Caro-Kann is the safer option and more suited for those players who enjoy a more classical approach to the opening.
If you’re the adventurous type play the Pirc Defense which is both exciting and dependable.
The Caro-Kann Defense
Named after two players, Horatio Caro and Marcus Kann, the Caro-Kann got introduced to chess late in the 19th century. Because gambits were the height of chess fashion, the Caro-Kann wasn’t well-received.
The growth in understanding of positional chess led to an increase in its popularity.
What the Caro-Kann defense offers are easy development, a solid pawn structure, and active play.
Three past greats who have played this opening include Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, and Anatoly Karpov.
After 1.e4 c6, Black intends to support the d5 advance without blocking in his light-squared bishop. The drawback is the loss of a tempo when Black plays the c5-pawn break.
This is sometimes balanced by an e5 advance by White. If White chooses to release the central tension, …c5 is a good response.
The fundamental strategy in the Caro-Kann Defense is to get fully developed and challenge any White space advantage. Play can easily transition from positional in nature to quite sharp.
Since Black played …d5 to claim space in the center, a logical continuation of this strategy involves pawn structures.
These structures are usually fixed (Exchange Variation), dynamic in the form of an IQP, or central tension in the Panov Variation. It’s always a good idea to study the typical pawn structures in an opening.
Pawn Breaks For Black In The Caro-Kann
The two pawn breaks for Black are …e5 and …c5. They are aimed against the d4-square. Although Black usually has a good pawn structure, keep in mind, they don’t control much space.
This lack of space means Black should strive for active piece play immediately upon getting all his pieces developed. Centralization is essential to getting the most from your piece play.
Don’t be afraid to use the moves played by Botvinnik, Petrosian, and Karpov in your own games.
Shirov, Alexey versus Karpov, Anatoly, 0-1 Vienna, Austria 1996-08-17
When learning the Caro-Kann, invest the majority of your time to the theory of these dangerous variations:
- Panov – 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.c4
- Advance – 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5
- Classical – 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bf5
Other less threatening variations like the King’s Indian Attack, Exchange, and Fantasy Variation can be successfully dealt with if you understand the ideas behind them. Knowledge of theory is not as critical.
The Flexible Pirc Defense
This defense is named after the Slovenian grandmaster Vasja Pirc.
Players whose games you will want to study include GM Gawain Jones, GM Mihail Marin, and GM Vladimir Kramnik.
The Pirc Defense is reached after the moves 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6.
Welcome to the wondrous world of the hypermodern opening that is both flexible and double-edged. Grandmaster SP Sethuraman recommends it to his students seeking to win with blackB
Pawn breaks are essential knowledge when playing the Pirc Defense as is knowing when to play them.
After Black develops his bishop on the g7 square, he begins an attack on the White center. Either with e7-e5 or c7-c5 and further expansion on the queenside.
Because Black can enter unbalanced positions, he often gets more active play in the Pirc Defense than in other openings.
Avoiding premature exchanges keeps more pieces on the board. This leads to many great strategic battles at the board when Black can play for the full point.
Once again, White gets a space advantage. In the Pirc Defense, it’s easy for White to gain control of the center too.
However, Black’s position is deceptive enough to lull White into a false sense of security. The dynamic and strategic resources available to Black has often surprised many an opponent.
Shyam, Nikil P versus Jones, Gawain, 0-1, Dubai op 19th (5), 2017
Play The Pirc Defense Fearlessly
One system that is a lot more dangerous than it appears is 4.Bg5. A good continuation for Black is 4…Bg7, followed with …h6, …g5, and …Nh5, gaining the bishop pair.
Against 4.Be3, play the waiting move 4…a6. If White decides to clamp down on the b5 break with a4, he gives up on queenside castling.
In response to 5.Qd2, Black continues with …b5, …Nbd7 and …Nb6. Black will place the bishop on b7, queen on d7, and castle long.
The English Attack (4.f3) is one of the most aggressive options White can play. 4.f3 adds protection to e4 and supports the g4 advance.
Again 4…a6 intending the same set-up as against 4.Be3 is a sound choice. Keep in mind if White plays g4, you want the d7 square open for your knight after g5.
The Austrian Attack is a challenging line to face and requires careful study of both theory and games.
1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.f4 Bg7 5.Nf3 O-O 6.Bd3 is the mainline Austrian Attack.
For Black, 6…Nc6 combined with a quick …e5 is essential. Yes, it’s double-edged, dangerous, and a little scary, but you’re playing for a win with the Black pieces.
Chess Defense Against 1.d4
Because investing a lot of time studying the opening isn’t a good idea for anybody below expert level, choosing similar chess openings against 1.e4 and 1.d4 is a good idea.
Fortunately, we can keep with our plan to play either …c6 or …Bg7 against 1.d4 as well.
Two very dependable chess defenses against 1.d4 are the Semi-Slav (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6) and King’s Indian Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6).
The Semi-Slav Defense
In the Semi-Slav Black doesn’t delay the move …e6. However, if you are going to have a bad bishop you must be willing to play dynamically with your other pieces.
There are several ways for Black to achieve dynamic play by creating a pawn phalanx on the queenside while going a pawn up. It’s also possible to give the bad bishop a role in the game by developing it on b7.
Both Mikhail Botvinnik and Garry Kasparov have employed this dependable defense in their chess careers. There is even a variation in the Semi-Slav named after Botvinnik.
Main Variations Of The Semi-Slav
There are three main variations in the Semi-Slav Defense
- Botvinnik Variation
- Moscow Variation
- Meran Variation
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 introduces the Semi-Slav Defense. Now 5.Bg5 is the Botvinnik Variation.
White’s aim is to continue with natural developing moves like Bd3, Qc2, and O-O. Solid play by Black will see him in a worse position because of his timid development.
5…dxc4 is the active response. When play can continue 6.e4 b5 7.e5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nxg5 hxg5 10.Bxg5 Nbd7.
White will regain the piece and have a clear kingside pawn majority. On the queenside, it’s Black who has the extra pawns.
The biggest middlegame battle is a fight for the initiative. In the endgame, you often get to enjoy a pawn race.
Instead of accepting the gambit pawn, with 5…dxc4 Black can play 5…h6, introducing the Moscow Variation, forcing white to make a decision. The advantage of this variation is knowing the ideas is more important than theory. Quite different from the theoretical Botvinnik Variation.
Giri, Anish, versus Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime, 0-1, Magnus Carlsen Invitational, 2020-04-18
Both 6.Bxf6, and 6.Bh4 have proven to be equally strong. Positional players like Kramnik tend to favor 6.Bxf6 while attacking players like Topalov tend to choose 6.Bh4.
Of course, White does not have to gambit the c4-pawn. White can play 5.e3, which leads to the Meran Variation
when play can continue with 5…Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5 8.Bd3 when the most common move is 8…a6, but both 8…b4 and 8…Bb7 can be played.
The last move, 8…Bb7, has the advantage of keeping both pawn options available.
The Semi-Slav is both an exciting and dependable chess defense that will serve you well. This is an opening that’s a lot of fun to play with both colors.
The King’s Indian Defense
The King’s Indian Defense is an aggressive defense to 1.d4. This defense will appeal to players who enjoy counter-attacking and drawing White into over-extending their position.
The popularity of the opening has risen and fallen since the 1920s. In the late 1940s, David Bronstein and Isaac Boleslavsky invested a lot of time into the opening theory.
Chess openings often reflect the character of the current world champion. Thus, it isn’t surprising the King’s Indian Defense flourished when Garry Kasparov won the crown.
Among club players, the King’s Indian Defense has remained popular. You can use it against 1.d4, 1.c4, and 1.Nf3, often transposing into variations of the King’s Indian Defense.
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 e4 brings us to the starting position of the King’s Indian Defense.
A lot of the struggle is decided by how well Black manages to activate the bishop on g7. Keep in mind that giving up a pawn to open the King’s Indian Bishop is well-worth it.
Popular Variations In The King’s Indian Defense
These are three popular variations you are likely to encounter:
- Classical Variation
- Samisch Variation
- Fianchetto Variation
In the Classical Variation 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 O-O 6.Be2 it’s a good idea to avoid all the forcing theory with 6…e5 and opt for the little-known 6…Qe8!?
Along with saving you from having to learn lots of theory, it avoids a queen exchange after 6…e5 7.dxe5 dxe5 8.Qxd8.
The Samisch Variation 5.f3 leads to fun games because the sides often end up castling on opposite sides of the boar. If White plays 7.d5 to block the bishop on g7, Black brings his knight to f4 via h5.
Freeing up the bishop at the cost of a pawn is a no-brainer!
Elbilia, Jacques – Shirov, Alexei, 0-1, FRA 1993
If you choose to play the King’s Indian Defense against 1.Nf3 or 1.c4, you will often transpose into the Fianchetto Variation of the King’s Indian Defense.
6…c6 is a good way to blunt the attack of the bishop on g2. Follow this up with …Bf5, …Qc8, and …Ne4.
Supporting the bishop with the queen gives you the chance to exchange the g2 bishop with …Bh3.
Naturally, a defense as dynamic as the King’s Indian Defense has led to White trying several moves against it. Apply yourself to learning this defense because you will get rewarded with lots of enjoyable chess games.
A Defense Against 1.c4 – The English Opening
The English Opening can lead to a position where you are playing a reversed Sicilian Defense. Since the Grand Prix Attack is a dangerous weapon often used by White, it makes sense to play it with Black.
Play often unfolds 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 Bb4 4.Bg2 f5.
One of the critical strategies for Black is to exchange the dark-squared bishop for the White knight on c3. Castle kingside, play …e6 to activate your bishop and bring the queen into the attack with …Qe8 and …Qh5.
The Reversed Grand Prix Defense is a flexible system allowing you to launch an attack on the kingside or play in the center. In this opening variation, it’s often Black who enjoys a space advantage.
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Final Thoughts On Chess Defenses
Be certain to take some time to explore a variety of different chess defenses to find the right fit for you.
Remember, you can tell if something is a good fit by playing the opening and noticing how you feel. Set aside computer assessments for the moment.
No matter what is in vogue or how your chosen defense is viewed, you work magic at the board if you feel good about your “dubious” repertoire.
When evaluating a defense be certain to assess the opening honestly. Don’t toss aside a defense if you made a mistake in the middlegame or endgame.