The Sicilian Defense
Note: Throughout this guide I will be using the Algebraic system of chess notation. If you are not familiar with this system, or you want to review how it works, please see this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algebraic_chess_notation
What is the Sicilian Defense?
The Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5) is one of, if not the most popular defenses to the King Pawn opening. It dates back to the late 16th century, however, it has only become popular in recent times. Since then, many variations have been developed. Around 25% of recorded master games are the Sicilian or one of it’s many variations.
Why should I play the Sicilian?
Well, this opening offers something for players of almost every style. With its many variations you should be able to find several lines that you enjoy in both the positional and tactical styles.
A brief summary…
The Sicilian is a common opening played by Black as a response to a King pawn opening (1.e4). Black will immediately create an unbalanced position by indirectly challenging White’s center control on his very first move. This move tends to lead to sharp positions with both players getting decent attacking chances.
Typically, as the game progresses White will attempt to further increase his grip on the center while gaining Kingside attacking chances. Black will most often challenge White’s center control while increasing counter play on the Queenside. This is usually seen on the semi-open C file created early in the game.
Let’s get into it!
The Sicilian Defense
This is the starting position of the Sicilian defense. White has one pawn in the center and Black has none. Both players are attacking a central square on the opponents half of the board (Black is attacking d4 while White is attacking d5). White will try to occupy the d4 square with a minor piece (a Bishop or a Knight) and he will also like to apply pressure on the d5 square. One of Black’s major goals is to support d5 and eventually find a way to safely put his pawn on d5. If Black can do this he will have gained at least equality.
This is the basic theme of the Sicilian Defense. Black is hoping for a chance to play …d5 with little consequences. White however is a bit more fortunate. He is able to begin working on the goals described earlier almost immediately. Common moves for White’s second and third turns are 2. Nf3 followed by d4. Although he is losing a center pawn, this trade (Black will immediately capture with his c-pawn) creates a space advantage which increases mobility. This comes in handy when White decides to actually go for an attack.
A common opening sequence
Since the Sicilian has so many different variations, it would be almost impossible to cover all of them. Because of this, I will only cover one or two variations that I see most often in my own games.
The first set of opening moves is as follows: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cd 4.Nxd4
Position after 4.Nxd4
The game is only four moves in at this point and white has already succeeded in his first goal. He has placed a Knight on d4. He has obtained an advantage in space as well as a lead in development. In contrast, Black has two central pawns and a semi-open c-file which will hopefully be put to great use later in the game.
In the move sequence chosen below, Nf3 and d6 are not mandatory. As an example, Black could develop a Knight to either c6 or f6. The pawn move e6 is also a popular choice which helps to prepare d5. It is important to note that at this position if it were still White’s turn, c4 could be played to increase the grip on d5 making it harder for Black to accomplish his goal of …d5. Black now must find a way to prevent c4. A common choice for black is to play Nf6. White must now deal with the threat of Nxe4. As a general principle, Knights are to be developed before Bishops in the opening. The logical response for white is to defend the pawn with a Knight on c3.
Position after 5.Nc3
It is finally after this position that Black really gets to choose from many different variations. His next move could possibly be 5…a6, 5…Nc6, 5…e6, or 5…g6. It doesn’t really matter. White has a dominant position over d5 and Black is looking to undermine it by applying pressure on the e4 pawn. In the end, the result of this struggle will show which player’s strategy was more successful overall. Again, White will begin trying to attack on Kingside, while Black on the queenside.
White’s Kingside Attack
First, there are some key reasons why White attacking on the Kingside is a smart decision:
• The semi-open c-file means Black will probably not be castling to that side due to reduced King safety.
• White’s queenside pawns are not disturbed. It is possible for White to castle that direction in preparation for kingside pawn advancement.
• White’s king bishop can be aggressively placed on the d3 and c4 squares applying pressure on Black’s kingside pawns (h7 and f7).
• The presence of Black’s Knight on f6 creates a target for White’s Queen Bishop or g pawn.
An example attacking formation
This picture is an example of a Kingside attack carried out by white. White’s bishop has arrived on the a2-g8 diagonal through c4. It helps prevent d5 and also puts pressure on Black’s kingside. A possible continuation for white would be 1.Qh5 threatening Rg3, followed up with Rh3. Black follows up with Rfc8 creating room for the King to escape. However, White still wins with 2.g6 hg 3. Rxg6 fg 4.Bxe6+ Kf8 5. Qh8 mate.
This type of attacking formation is very common in games where the Sicilian is played. In response, Black can do one of two things. The first is to launch an early attack on the queenside. Secondly, Black may choose to pressure the center so heavily that white never finds the time to develop his kingside assault. I will briefly go over a situation where Black goes for a counter-attack.
Black to move
I chose this position because I think it illustrates just how sharp the game can become with the Sicilian. Black is bearing down on White’s king through the a8-h1 diagonal. At the same time, if White can find a chance to play Rg1, Black can have a hard time dealing with Rg3 and then Qh6.
A possible continuation would be 16…b4 17.Ba4 Qc7 18.Rh3 h6 19.Bxd7 bc 20.Bxh6 g6 and with 21.Rg3 Kh7 22.Qh3 Rh8 white has over-extended himself. That is all I have to say right now about Black’s attack on the queenside.
The Dragon Variation
The Sicilian: Dragon Variation is a line of the Sicilian where Black’s kingside pawn structure resembles a dragon. I haven’t really been able to recognize the shape but whatever. At least it sounds cool. This position is reached after these opening moves: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cd 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6.
Black's Pawn structure resembles a dragon
Black will look to place his Bishop on g7 serving multiple roles. First, a Bishop on g6 can be used offensively as it is posted on the long a1-h8 diagonal. Secondly, the Bishop on g7 along with the Knight helps create a pretty strong defense against the Kingside attack that white usually has planned.
A common response to the Sicilian Dragon by white is to play a line called the Yugoslav Attack. To explain it simply, White will castle Queenside and immediately launch an all out attack on the kingside. If Black is not careful, he may find himself mated by move 25, or even earlier. However, with accurate play, Black has enough resources to defend properly.
White’s Basic strategy in the Yugoslav Attack is as follows:
1. Open the h file by moving his pawn to h5 and exchanging on g6.
2. Trade off dark squared Bishops through h6.
3. Attack on h7 with a queen-rook combo and remove Black’s f6 knight.
4. Finally, deliver checkmate on the h7 or h8 squares.
Meanwhile, Black has a few goals of his own. They can go something like this:
1. Bring a rook to the c file.
2. Manoeuvre a knight to c4, attacking white’s queen on d2 as well as the bishop on e3 so white is forced to trade his light squared bishop.
3. Play for an exchange on c3. This can change White’s game completely.
Bednarski-Szpotanski, Poland 1966
In this position we see White aiming for this rapid attack on the kingside. Black has a rook on the c-file and he is ready to accomplish more of his own goals. The correct continuation is as follows: 12…Nc4 13. Bxc4 Rxc4 14.h5 Nxh5 15.g4 Nf6 16.Bh6 Nxe4 17.Nxe4 Rxd4 18.Qh2 Be5 19.Qh4 Rxe4 20.fe Qb6
White has not managed to trade off the dark squared bishops and Black’s initiative has become overwhelming. Play continues with:
21.c3 Rc8 22.Bd2 Be6 23.Qxe7 Bxa2 24.Qd7 Be6 25.Qa4 Bb3 26.Qd7 Rd8 27.Qe7 Qa5 0-1.
Final Position, white resigned
Finally, there are a couple general rules you should keep in mind when you are playing a Dragon Sicilian, or playing against one.
• Black must be active or he will find himself mated on the h-file.
• White should try to control d5.
• Black should be willing to play an exchange sacrifice on c3 as long as he has already, or can get at least a pawn from it.
• If white launches a kingside attack before castling, Black can, and usually should play d5.
And specifically for the Yugoslav Attack:
• White must exchange the dark squared bishops.
• As white you should open the h file, but do not expect the attack to be automatic. You still must play accurately.
• When white has his bishop on b3, Black should get his queens knight to c4 encouraging the light-squared bishop to be traded off.
• Often it is not a good idea to play Na5-Nxb3 (as black) because the resulting pawn structure often is beneficial to White’s king.
Rules of thumb for the Sicilian Defense
• Black should almost always play d5 if given the chance. He will usually come out with at least an equal game.
• As Black, do not give up your fianchettoed king’s bishop (one that has been developed to the side, like on g7 in the dragon) to win a pawn if Queens are still on the board. This may make it easier for white to score a quick win.
• If you are not sure what to do, improve on your position by relocating your worst placed piece. You may also begin an attack on the kingside as white, or the queenside as black.
• Endings tend to favor Black in the Sicilian because his half open c-file is of greater use than White’s half-open d-file.
Some final words
There are many, many more topics that could be written about, but if I were to try to cover everything, or go into half as much detail as possible, this would never get finished for many reasons. There is just too much to write about. The deadline for Beta key submissions is approaching shortly. And finally, the level I play chess at makes me nothing close to an authority on the subject.
There are tons of Chess books, websites, videos, and other resources about this opening, other openings, and chess in general. The ones that I would recommend are just off of personal experience. I am sure there are many great resources I do not know about but these are the ones I would recommend you read if you can find them:
Winning Chess: Openings – Yasser Seirawan
How to Play the Sicilian Defense – David Levy and Kevin O’connell
The c3 Sicilian – Gary Lane (I.M.) (a fairly popular line where white plays 2.c3)
Also, any other generic chess opening book should cover some main lines of the Sicilian due to the opening’s popularity.
Finally, I hope you enjoyed this guide and good luck in your games.