Which is better? The Modern or the Pirc?

March 14, 2024 Matthew Sadler 4 comments

A little while back, I published some blog articles and some videos on Dragon’s creative 5.Qd2!? idea in the Pirc (https://matthewsadler.me.uk/openings/a-stunning-dragon-idea-against-the-pirc-5-qd2/ and https://youtu.be/DuFfJwBgMD8 to start you off!) A lively Twitter discussion followed with Ali Mortazavi (English IM) and Peter Heine Nielsen (GM and of course Magnus Carlsen’s second) that moved on to debate the relative merits of the Pirc

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

and the Modern

Position after 1. e4 g6 2. d4 Bg7 3. Nc3 d6

Both felt that the Pirc was clearly inferior to the Modern – indeed Peter Heine even suggested that the Pirc might be a loss at correspondence chess!

Why might the Pirc be so inferior to the Modern? The reason lies in the early commitment of the knight to f6. This donates two possible avenues of attack to White:

1. The knight on f6 presents a target for the (dangerous) e4-e5 central break, often reinforced by the aggressive early push of the f-pawn to f4.

2. The knight no longer protects h6 which allows White to play Be3/f4/g5, Qd2 and Bh6 to exchange Black’s dark-squared bishop and weaken Black’s kingside dark squares.

The Modern avoids presenting White with any targets by keeping the king’s knight on g8 – often for long periods of the opening. This

1. Dampens the power of e4-e5

2. Keeps the white plan to exchange dark-squared bishop impossible.

It’s rope-a-dope tactics, staying out of reach of White’s play! That’s all very impressive, but what active play does Black have then? Well, primarily Black has a wide range of options to gain space and influence on the queenside before the king’s knight has to pop its head out of the door! The most attractive one is the “Tiger Modern” approach (named after the Swedish grandmaster Tiger Hillarp Persson who wrote an excellent book on the Modern) with ..a6, …b5, …Nd7, and …c5 (with or without …Bb7). The following line is an example:

Position after 1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.Be3 a6 5.f4 b5 6.Bd3 Nd7 7.Nf3 c5

This type of play can be quite difficult for White to counter, but as always the engines offer plenty of ideas! I’ve been looking a lot at systems against the Pirc involving the early development of the dark-squared bishop (4.Bg5, 4.Bf4 and 4.Be3) and 4.Be3 in particular is also a dangerous main line against the Modern. While running some engine matches from various early positions in 4.Be3 against the Modern, I spotted a rather stunning Stockfish win. This used a concept of attack I had never seen before and a quick perusal of the database showed that it was barely-played at all. I did spot however that Victor Moskalenko mentions it in his excellent new book on the Pirc and Modern – I wouldn’t expect any less! Take a look also at the associated video on my Silicon Road YouTube channel () and the associated pgn which is available from the normal place: http://cloudserver.chessbase.com/MTIyMTYx/replay.html)

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Bg7 3.Nc3 d6 4.Be3 a6

Black delays the development of the king’s knight and prepares to develop typical Modern queenside play with ..b5, …Nd7 and …c5


An extraordinarily venomous move disguised as natural, quiet development!


Position after 5…b5

Black continues in the Modern way, delaying the development of the knight on g8 and expanding on the queenside. A recent elite blitz game between Nihal and Maxime Vachier Lagrave continued with the normal 6.h3 (covering g4 and thus preventing both …Bg4 and a later …Nf6–g4 harassing the bishop on e3) but the engines scream out for another move!


Yessir! Black delays …Nf6 so White exploits the downside: no cover of the h5–square! However, Black has a natural defence.


Black develops the king’s knight “just in time”, preventing White’s advance h4–h5 with a developing move. At the same time, the knight on f6 attacks e4 which means that the undermining …b4 is threatened.


Anyway! I simply did not understand this move when I saw it. I’m not going to sacrifice the exchange with 8.Rxh5 after 7…Nxh5 am I? That just looks rubbish!

7…Nxh5 8.Ng5

Position after 8.Ng5!

Wow! That’s a concept I hadn’t seen before! White’s idea is clear: Rxh5 *IS* going to be very dangerous soon!


The engine number one move and far better than the previous attempts. Black may – with some luck, a following wind and Stockfish in your pocket – manage to survive!

A) 8…h6 is the most brazen of all Black’s options! Black simply challenges the knight on g5 and asks for proof that White can still make progress!


At your service! The tactical justification is very neat!

9…Kxf7 10.Qf3+ Kg8 11.e5

Position after 11.Qf3

Hitting the rook on a8

11…c6 12.g4

wins back the knight with a super position!

B) 8…Nf6 has been the main human choice but you need an engine to hold it!

9.e5 dxe5 10.dxe5 Qxd1+ 11.Rxd1 Ng4

The human move, and it had to be forced on the engines!

11…Nh5N is the only chance to hold and is examined in depth in the pgn mentioned in the introduction. It’s just impossible for a human to defend!

12.Nd5 Bxe5 13.g4 is your starter for 2!

12.Nd5 Bxe5 13.Bd4

puts Black into an awful mess!


13…Bxd4 14.Nxc7+ Kf8 15.Rxd4 Nc6 16.Rxg4 Ra7 Black avoids losing a piece by some miracle but the resulting position is dead lost. 17.Rf4 Rxc7 18.Rxf7+ Kg8 19.Rfxh7 Rxh7 20.Rxh7 with a healthy extra pawn.

14.Bxe5 Nxe5 15.Nxh7

is terribly embarrassing for Black as 15…Re8 loses to 16.Nxc7 and 15…Rd8 loses to 16.Nxe7+. Black therefore loses the exchange without compensation.

15…Bg4 16.Be2 Bxe2 17.Kxe2 Nbc6 18.Nxf8 Rxf8 19.Rh3 g5 20.f4 gxf4 21.Nxf4 Kg7 22.Rg3+ Kf6 23.Nd5+ Kf5 24.Nxc7 Ng6 25.Rf1+ Ke5 26.Rxg6 Nd4+ 27.Kd3 Rd8 28.Rxf71–0 Efroimski,M (2442)-Chatalbashev,B (2529) Norway Chess op-A Stavanger 2022 (5)]

Now on with the engine novelty 8…e6!


9.Rxh5 gxh5 10.Qxh5 can be parried by 10…Qe7 but the engines find a fresh way to fuel the white initiative!

9…Nf6 10.e5 dxe5 11.Bg2 c6 12.dxe5

Black gets no respite as the attacking blows keep on landing. However, Black will start picking up pawns at an alarming rate!

12…Qxd1+ 13.Rxd1 Nxg4

That’s number two!

14.Bc5 Bxe5

And that’s number three! Black captures on e5 with the bishop to cover the d6–square against Nce4–d6+


Position after 15.f4

And number four is offered!!


A sad necessity to gain a tempo for defence against the threats of Nxh7 and Nce4

15…Bxf4 16.Nxh7

threatens Nf6+


Covers f6 and h8

17.Ne4 Renewing the threat of Nhf6+

17…Rg8 18.Bf3

Hitting the black defender of f6

18…f5 19.Nd6+ Bxd6 20.Bxd6

and Black is not long for this world.

16.bxc3 h5

Covers the threat of Nxh7! Black has no dark squares but 3 pawns!


We now enter a forcing line where White keeps on hitting the dark squares and Black has just a single path to survive (sort of).

17…e5 18.Rhd3 Bd7

The only move to block the d-file. It’s amazing that Black isn’t losing anything major!

19.fxe5 Nxe5 20.Re3 f6 21.Rd6 fxg5 22.Rxe5+ Kd8 23.Rxg5 h4 24.Rdxg6

Position after 24.Rdxg6

Black has just 1 extra pawn and is still terribly tied up but it isn’t easy for White to put much more pressure on Black’s position. Objectively the position is a draw (the engines give about 0.7 advantage to White) and most engine games ended in a draw (though not exactly a comfortable ride for Black!) Let’s give one example:

24…h3 25.Bh1 a5 26.Kd2 Ra6 27.Bd4 Re8 28.Be5 Rb6 29.Bg3 Kc8 30.Rg8 Na6 31.Bf3 Rb7 32.Rxe8+ Bxe8 33.Rg8 Rd7+ 34.Kc1 Re7 35.Bd6 Re3 36.Bg4+ Kb7 37.Kd2 Re4 38.Bf5 Rh4 39.Rxe8 h2 40.Bc8+ Ka8 41.Bxa6+ Ka7 42.Re1 h1R 43.Rxh1 Rxh1 44.Bc8 Kb6 45.Be7 Ra1 46.Bd8+ Kc5 47.a3 Kd6 48.Bxa5 c5 49.c4 Rxa3 50.Bc3 bxc4 51.Bb7 Ra7 52.Bf3 Rh7 53.Be2 Kd5 54.Kc1

A draw was agreed in Stockfish – Dragon 3.3 Matthew Engine Games 2024.

So what is best play for Black? Well funnily enough, Stockfish prefers after 5.Nf3 to play 5…Nf6

Position after 1. e4 g6 2. d4 Bg7 3. Nc3 d6 4.Be3 a6 5.Nf3 Nf6

…which transposes back into a Pirc! It seems that one of the advantages of the Modern is that you gain more flexibility in choosing the systems you are willing to play the Pirc against! Here for example, Black’s move order has avoided the hyper-aggressive lines such as 1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 g6 4.f4. You are committed to …a6, but that’s not a bad system at all! (I lost a game as White to Ivanchuk in this line more than 25 years ago!)  Take a look also at the related video on my Silicon Road YouTube channel https://youtu.be/jJs8TjvsYNo as well as the associated pgn with all these lines and many MANY more 🙂 which is in the normal place: http://cloudserver.chessbase.com/MTIyMTYx/replay.html

4 Comments on “Which is better? The Modern or the Pirc?

  1. It was easier for me to follow on the blog then on the video. I might try the modern soon, but one thing is sure i still remember some souffrances with the Pirc as it was one of my first selection against 1.e4 … the good point about it is that i learned how to defend myself. But with the modern i might have more counterplay in hands.
    Thanks Matthew.

  2. Ivanchuk still plays the Pirc move order in classical chess, so probably doesn’t consider it a forced loss with best play… Is that enough to rescue my favourite opening? 🙂

    1. 🙂 🙂 Yes he’s very faithful to it indeed! I’m slightly less extreme than Peter Heine on this one, but I do like the idea of using Modern move orders to smooth over some of the awkward lines!

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