The Sicilian Defense is a King’s Pawn Opening  beginning with 1. e4 c5

 

Black plays the Sicilian

Similarly to symmetrical King’s Pawn openings like the Ruy Lopez, black ensures himself of some central space by occupying the center on move one.  But in the Sicilian Defense, black guarantees that the position will become imbalanced!

This has made the Sicilian Defense weapon a popular fighting weapon at all levels of chess for the past several decades.

 

Compared to 1…e5, the downside of the Sicilian Defense is that moving the c-pawn doesn’t really open up any lines for black’s pieces to develop (except for the queen, which often doesn’t want to develop too early).  This means that white will often achieve a lead in piece development in the Sicilian Defense…but how can white exploit this?

White can try to open the center with an early d4, in an attempt to make use of their more active pieces…but there is a positional downside.  If white plays d4, black will be able to exchange their c-pawn for white’s more central d-pawn, and obtain the long-term positional advantage of having two central pawns against one!

 

Black obtains a central pawn majority

We’ll consider a few different approaches white can take against the Sicilian Defense:

  • White opens the center quickly with Nf3 and d4 (The Open Sicilian)
  • White opens the center quickly with c3 and d4 (Alapin Variation)
  • White plays d4 immediately (Smith-Morra Gambit)
  • White doesn’t open the center, and builds up slowly on the kingside where they have more space (Closed Sicilian)

 

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 – The Open Sicilian

White opens the center

Note that black has a couple options on move two. 2…d6 is popular, but so is 2…e6 and 2…Nc6.  Various transpositions are possible between the three options, though there are many continuations that are specific to each.

The Open Sicilian is a highly complex opening with at least a dozen subvariations, and is certainly not a beginner-friendly opening – for either side!  White accepts black’s challenge and opens the center right away, striving to make use of their development lead.

Some common themes in the Open Sicilian:

  • White may castle queenside in some lines, leaving the kingside pawns free to advance towards the enemy king on g8, if black castles kingside
  • Black often attempts to pressure white’s center from afar. Playing …a6 and …b5 followed by a later …b4 is a common plan, kicking away white’s knight from c3 and weakening white’s defense of e4.
  • Black’s rook will often be active on the semi-open c-file.
  • Black may play a later …e5 to equalize the space in the center – but must be sure that their d-pawn does not become weak if they choose to do so!

Let’s take a look at just one exciting, aggressive continuation to highlight how dangerous the Open Sicilian can really be!

1. E4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6

Black pushes the queen's rook's pawn

This is the popular Najdorf Variation of the Sicilian Defense.  Playing an early flank pawn move like …a6 may seem in violation of the Opening Principles, but black wants to deny the b5 square to the white pieces and eventually expand with …b5 himself.

6. Be3 e5 7. Nb3 Be6 8. f3 Be7 9. Qd2 Nbd7 10. 0-0-0 0-0

 

Both sides have castled

The stage is set.  White’s set-up, categorized by the early f3 and queenside castling, is known as the English Attack against the Najdorf Sicilian (yes, even the subvariations have subvariations!)

White wants to advance his kingside pawns towards the enemy monarch, and to do so without exposing his own king, white castles in the other direction. The f3 pawn does a good job of stabilizing the center as well as supporting the advance of the g-pawn.

11. g4 b5 12. g5 b4 13. Ne2 Ne8 14. f4 a5 15. f5 a4

Black attacks on the queenside

Insanity! Both sides are racing full-speed-ahead towards the enemy king. It turns out that 16. Nbd4! is white’s strongest move here – temporarily sacrificing a piece, but after 16…exd4 17. Nxd4, black’s bishop is still under attack and white is threatening the powerful fork Nc6.  White will regain the piece…in a highly imbalanced, double-edged position.

This is just one exciting, perilous variation of the Open Sicilian – consider yourself warned!

1. e4 c5 2. c3 – The Alapin Variation

White wants to play d4

Compared to the thrills of the Open Sicilian above, the Alapin variation is much more friendly to those who don’t want to go down a rabbit hole of opening memorization.

White’s plan is sound and simple – white wants to play d4 next turn and grab the center, and if black exchanges on d4, white will be able to recapture with a pawn instead of a piece, white will be able to recapture with a pawn instead of a piece.

Against an unprepared Black player, this plan works great.  My very first tournament chess game ever began 1. e4 c5 2. c3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. cxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3:

good alapin variation

Success! Complete central control.

But black can fight back better than this.  The biggest downside of 2. c3 is that it takes away the best square for white’s queenside knight, which black can exploit.  2…d5! Is one common response (others are 2…Nf6 and 2…e6).

After 3. exd5 Qxd5, Black’s queen is a lot more secure in the center than it usually is this early in the game, as white cannot play Nc3 and kick it away!

The Alapin variation probably doesn’t give white more than equality if black knows how to handle it, but it’s simple to learn and hard to go wrong with.

1. e4 c5 2. d4 – The Smith Morra Gambit

White sacrifices a pawn

White tries to accelerate his lead in development even more, by playing d4 immediately with no preparation. White intends to sacrifice a pawn to open up the position.

2…cxd4 3. c3

Of course, white could take back with the queen on move 3, but this doesn’t make much sense.  Black will just get to play …Nc6 and kick the queen away while gaining time, and white is just playing an inferior version of the Open Sicilian mentioned above.

This pawn sacrifice is white’s idea behind the second move.

3…dxc3 4. Nxc3

White is down a pawn, but has chances to get a big lead in development. White’s rooks will eventually exert pressure along the semi-open d-and-c files, and meanwhile black will have to be careful how they develop! For example, after 4…Nc6 5. Nf3 d6 6. Bc4 Nf6?!

Black is busted
  1. e5! Is very strong. 7…dxe5 8. Qxd8+ Nxd8 9. Nb5! The position has opened up long before black’s pieces were ready to fight.

Black can defend against the Smith-Morra with accurate play, but it’s a tall task. Many strong players decline to accept the “free” pawn, leading to a position more akin to the Alapin variation mentioned above.

Closed Sicilian

White can forgo all three of the ideas above and not play an early d4 at all, keeping the center closed for the time being.

One such idea is known as the Grand Prix Attack – 1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. f4

White advances on the kingside

As with many closed Sicilian lines, the Grand Prix Attack can be better understood conceptually than by delving into variations, as both sides have plenty of options to continue with. Rather than opening the center up right away, white builds up on the kingside.

Black is likely to do the same on the queenside. Both sides reserve the right to strike in the center at a later point if it becomes advantageous to do so!

3…g6 4. Nf3 Bg7 5. Bc4 e6 6. 0-0 d6 7. d3 Nge7 8. Qe1 a6 9. f5 b5

Grand Prix Attack

This is Hrair – Ivanov, Russia 2006, and is a good illustration of how play can proceed! Both sides have an advantage on their respective wings, though white emerged victorious in this particular game.

 

The Sicilian Defense is a strategically rich, highly complex opening.  Many players who play the King’s Pawn Opening as White find this daunting, but there’s a variation for everyone! Whether you prefer the highly ambitious Open Sicilian, the simple and sound Alapin, the sacrificial Smith-Morra Gambit, or the slow build-up of the Closed Sicilian, learn it well, and you can stop fearing the dangerous Sicilian Defense!

 

Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to sign up in the box below – I’ll send you a free “Move by Move Guide to Chess Thinking” and make sure you never miss new content.

Blake

Will you allow me to help you on your chess journey?

Enter your email address to sign up for free!