The Sicilian Defense – A Complete Guide

A Complete Guide on Sicilian Defense

As the most popular opening from black, Sicilian Opening has caused a fair share of troubles and victories in some of the most remarkable games in the world.

The opening begins with white playing e4 followed by black playing c5 – the Sicilian Defense. The basic idea of c5 is to gain control over the d4 square. c5 is the most popular response to white’s e4 and is considered to break the symmetry of the board, unlike the e5 opening, which is the second most common response to e4.

Usually, the blacks c5 pawn is exchanged with white’s d4 pawn. Grandmasters like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov swore by this opening, and 17% of all games played by Grandmasters were opened with this opening. 

History

Giulio Polerio introduced this opening to the world in his 1594 manuscript on Chess where he did not name it the Sicilian Defense.

Initially, the chess players of the world deemed it defensive and far from the best. The first world champion – Wilhelm Steinitz also disliked this opening. Although the opening gained some popularity in the mid-nineteenth century, it lost its charm among players in the twentieth century when the world champion Capablanca said that “Black’s game is full of holes” when playing the Sicilian Defense.

It was in the late twentieth century when aggressive world champions like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov recognised this defense as an opening that provides black the most winning chances. Today, most grandmasters and world champions use this opening as their first choice when playing black. 

Variations of The Sicilian Defense

Open Sicilian

75% of the games beginning with e4,c5 are followed with white playing Nf3, after which black has three main choices- d6, Nc6 and e6. If white responds with d4, then all the lines that continue after are known as ‘Open Sicilian’. Black then trades the c5 pawn and d4 pawn to get central advantage and gains an open ‘c’ file. After white plays Nxd4, black can branch out into the following variations :

  • Classical
  • Dragon
  • Najdorf
  • Scheveningen

Classical Variation

  1. e4 c5
  2. Nf3 d6
  3. d4 cxd4
  4. Nxd4 Nf6
  5. Nc3 Nc6

In this variation, black goes with d6, after which there is a trade of the d4 pawn followed by knight playing Nf6 and then Nc6.

This variation puts maximum pressure on white’s centre.

White’s common responses are Bg5 called the Richter-Rauzer Attack, and Bc4, the Sozin variation. Black usually responds with e6 to prevent double pawns on the kingside in the former and to limit the c4 bishop’s range, and e5, the Boleslavsky system, the most typical setup, in the latter.

Following this, black has a wide range of moves, both developmental and tactical, and can safeguard his king by developing his kingside bishop followed by castling. 

Dragon

  1. e4 c5
  2. Nf3 d6
  3. d4 cxd4
  4. Nxd4 Nf6
  5. Nc3 g6

This variation was named by Fyodor Dus-Chotimirsky in 1901 because he saw a resemblance between the positioning of the pawns and the Draco constellation.

Here, after the trade of the d4 pawns, black plays Nf6, followed by white’s Nc3 to which black plays g6. The primary point of the g6 move is to fianchetto the black bishop on h8-a1 diagonal in the next move. Fianchetto means to develop a bishop by placing it at a square where it controls a long diagonal of the board.

In this variation, the opponents castle on opposite sides with white castling on the queenside and black castling on the kingside. The game then leads to a ferocious battle where white tries to break black’s dragon by playing the ‘Yugoslav attack.’ Although this variation is one of the sharpest chess openings, one can play, it has often been called unplayable due to the vast complications that can arise.

World champion Garry Kasparov played this opening twice to defeat Vishwanathan Anand in their World Championship matches in 1995.

Njadorf Variation

  1. e4 c5
  2. Nf3 d6
  3. d4 cxd4
  4. Nxd4 Nf6
  5. Nc3 a6

This is black’s most famous variation in the Sicilian Defense.

After the trade of the d4 pawns and Nf6 and Nc3, black plays – a6, Najdorf. a6 prevents white from giving a check by playing Bb5+ and also prevents the knights from coming to the b5 square. Black is now preparing to play b5 in his next move to focus on a more queenside play. Playing a6 first instead of e5 temporarily prevents white’s g4’s thrust.

Black’s most popular response to a6 is Be3 which is known as the English Attack. White is further planning on playing f3, Qd2 and then long side castling. If white plays G4 immediately after Be3, it is known as the Hungarian Attack. Black usually responds by playing moves like e6,e5 or Ng4.

The mainline is Bg5 in response to a6 followed by black playing e6. 

Scheveningen

  1. e4 c5
  2. Nf3 d6
  3. d4 cxd4
  4. Nxd4 Nf6
  5. Nc3 e6

Here, after trading the d4 pawns and developing the knights, black plays e6 covering a small centre. To this, white can play g4, called the Keres attack, further threatening g5 to attack the knight.

The most common move played in response to this h6 to prevent g5, however even after this move, black has gained a fair amount of kingside space, and the idea of kingside castling may seem discouraging to black. Following h6 white can either play Be2 or Bg2. Another typical response to white’s g4 is also a6.

Black can hold the balance under the Keres attack, but a lot of players avoid this by playing a6 first before e6.  

Although this opening is strategically rich, it is highly complex.

There are at least a dozen subvariations under the open Sicilian; however, these are the most commonly played and popular variations. This immensely strong opening is not a beginners play. Still, if you are interested in playing an exciting, aggressive game with dozens of possibilities and complications, this one is for you.

A lot of strong players have a love-hate relationship with this opening, but the spectrum of options makes the sharpest minds the most curious. 

White’s Response to the Sicilian Defense

Although the Sicilian Defense has proven to be the most popular and strongest response to White’s e4, it is believed to be a double-edged sword. Black may suffer favorable or unfavorable consequences. Hence, we are going to discuss White’s responses to the Sicilian Defense.

Alapin Variation

Here white’s response to c5 is c3.

This opening allows white to avoid trading a central ‘d ‘ pawn for black’s ‘ c ‘ pawn. Semyon Alapin exhaustively played this opening, and hence the name was coined. Today, Sergei Tiviakov is one of the Grand Masters that is often seen playing this opening.

After c3 white aims to play d4 to control the center, hence black plays either d5 or Nf6 to try to maintain control. The Nf6 variation would resemble Alekhine’s Defense if white plays e5 followed by black playing Nd5. In the Nf6 variation, black immediately attacks White’s e4 pawn.

Nf6 Variation

  1. e4 c5
  2. c3 Nf6
  3. e5 Nd5
  4. d4 cXd4
  5. cXd4 d6
  6. Nf3 Nc6

White can now play Bc4 and gain a spatial advantage.

Another Alapin variation is if Black plays d5 instead of Nf6. Here, white usually end up with an isolated d pawn after the queens are exchanged, however white is left with more space.

d5 Variation

  1. e4 c5
  2. c3 d5
  3. exd5 Qxd5
  4. d4 Nc6
  5. Nf3 Bg4
  6. Be2 cxd4
  7. cxd4 e6

Black’s strategy now is to play Bb4 and develop his king side. This variation also transposes into the Advanced French Defense. Alapin is usually played to divert Black from the main lines of Sicilian and to force Black to adapt to White’s plan for controlling the center.

Grand Prix Attack

  1. e4 c5
  2. Nc3 Nc6
  3. f4

Instead of playing d4, White tries to convert the spatial advantage into a king side attack. White intends to play Nf3 followed by Bb5 or Bc4 to castle king side soon into the game and plan the further attack.

If White plays Bb5, attacking the Knight on Nc6, it is Black’s decision to either allow the double pawns by doing bxc6 or to prevent the trade between the bishop and the knight. If Black chooses to allow the double pawns, then Black’s queen side expansion with a6 will not be possible.

Black usually avoids the trade and plays a popular move – Nd5.

White can also play Bc4 placing the bishop on a strategically good square keeping an eye on the f7 pawn and hoping to play f5 at some point in the game. Unfortunately, black can exploit this situation to develop pieces by playing moves like b5 to attack the bishop on c4.

Black can even play e6, blocking the c4 bishop from controlling the f7 diagonal. White’s king may seem open here, but White has a decent amount of control over the center.

Smith-Morra Gambit

This is an extremely aggressive response to the Sicilian defense.

Morra Gambit Accepted

  1. e4 c5
  2. d4 cXd4
  3. c3 dXc3
  4. NXc3 Nc6
  5. Nf3 d6
  6. Bc4 Nf6
  7. e5 dXe5
  8. QXd8 NXd8
  9. Nb5

Morra Gambit Declined

  1. e4 c5
  2. d4 cXd4
  3. c3 Nf6
  4. e5 Nd5
  5. cxd4

This usually leads to one of the main variations of Alapin. White now has a spatial advantage, and Black isn’t even up by a pawn. Morra Gambit can prove to be dangerous, especially if Black is unprepared for this opening. Even if Black can tackle this opening, black has the capacity to gain. an extremely pressurizing position.

Closed Sicilian

Nc3 is a common response to Sicilian as well. Usually, Black responds in a similar way like that to Nf3. Black usually avoids playing a6 or g6 after Nc3. White can follow Nc3 with Nf3, and other possible moves are g3,f4 and Nge2. Many lines of the Closed Sicilian can transpose into Open Sicilian.

Closed Sicilian is not as challenging for Black as Black has various responses to Nc3.

  1. e4 c5
  2. Nc3 Nc6
  3. g3 g6
  4. Bg2 Bg7
  5. d3 d6

White can follow this with Be2, Qd2 and castling.

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