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Chess 101: What Is the Sicilian Defense? Learn How to Perform and Defend Against the Chess Opening With a Step-By-Step Guide

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 15, 2019 • 4 min read

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There are few more complex or studied chess openings than the Sicilian Defense. Known since the sixteenth century, it is now recognized as black’s most popular and best-scoring response to white playing 1.e4. But don’t let the word “defense” fool you—the Sicilian is an aggressive, complex opening with many variations, and in the modern era has been a staple of many grandmasters’ repertoires.

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What Is the Sicilian Defense?

The Sicilian is really best thought of as a large collection of systems and variations, all of which begin with 1.e4 c5. What’s so special about black playing c5? If you’ve been studying chess openings, you know that that 1.e4 is one of the most popular opening moves for white, one that immediately attacks the center squares while also freeing up her light-squared bishop and queen for potential development.

In that context, c5 can seem like a strange move. It develops no pieces (which is usually a priority during the opening) and only gives black control over one center square. But in the case of the Sicilian, black’s strategy isn’t necessarily to occupy the center with pawns.

Because it’s an asymmetrical opening, the Sicilian tends to lead to aggressive, exciting contests as white presses her advantage on the kingside while black develops queenside counterplay. The complexity of the positions and the sheer number of variations make it an intimidating opening for beginners, which is why it’s important to understand the main ideas behind the opening and its major variations before jumping into a game with them.

Red and white graphic of Sicilian defense

Step-by-Step Guide: the Open Sicilian and Major Variations

White has a number of ways to respond to c5, but most of the time they’re going to choose Nf3 (though Nc3 is also popular). From Nf3, white generally plays d4, leading to a so-called Open Sicilian game. The typical sequence looks like this:

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

From here, the Open Sicilian leads to highly asymmetrical play, with white typically going for a strong kingside attack while black enjoys an advantage in center pawns. Now things start to get more complicated. If the Open Sicilian is played, black can pursue four major options.

  1. The Najdorf. Favored by all-time greats Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, the Najdorf (5 … a6) is currently the most popular system of the Sicilian Defense and often referred to as the “Rolls-Royce of openings.” By placing a pawn on a6, black neatly defuses white’s knights and light-squared bishop, which could otherwise check from b5. It creates a vast number of possibilities, but usually leads to an attack on the queenside while also pressuring white’s e4 pawn with a pawn on b5 or a bishop on b7.
  2. The Dragon. Named for its supposed resemblance to the constellation Draco, the Dragon (5… g6) is one of the most popular variations of the Sicilian and one of the sharpest openings in chess. The main idea here is that moving the g-pawn to g6 allows black to fianchetto her bishop on g7. This bishop can exert tremendous pressure (often in concert with a rook) on the queenside of the board, especially if white castles on that queenside. The Accelerated Dragon variation (favored by World Champion Magnus Carlsen) foregoes g6 to get the bishop on g7 a turn sooner, at the expense of pressure on e4.
  3. The Classical. Unlike the other major Sicilian variations, the Classical (5 … Nc6) eschews developing her kingside bishop in favor of the knights. It often leads to more protracted fights for position than some of the other variations here.
  4. The Scheveningen. Though most associated with the Najdorf, Garry Kasparov was also known to transition into the less-common Scheveningen (5 … e6). Here, the pawn duo on e6 and d6 creates a solid defense for black. White has a number of options for attacking, from the extremely sharp Keres Attack and the equally combative English Attack, both of which create sharp games on the kingside.
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White’s Responses to the Sicilian: The Anti-Sicilians

There are a lot of highly theoretical ways to play the Sicilian Defense. If you’re playing white, it can be very intimidating to proceed into a variation whose lines you’re unfamiliar with. Fortunately, there are other responses than 3. d4 or even 2. Nf3. These are collectively called Anti-Sicilians.

In general, Anti-Sicilians don’t press white’s advantage as much as the Open Sicilian variations, but they also tend to involve less theory and can lead to some surprising situations.

1. The Closed Sicilian. This is a well-developed line that advances white along the kingside but does not attack the center as in the Open Sicilian variants. The mainline goes:

      a. 1.e4 c5 
      b. 2.Nc3 Nc6 
      c. 3.g3 g6 
      d. 4.Bg2 Bg7 
      e. 5.d3 d6.

2. The Rossolimo Variation. Here white begins with 2.Nc3 but instead of 3.d4 plays Bb5, with the eventual intention of playing Bxc6 and exchanging the bishop to force black into doubling her pawns on the c-file.
3. The Alapin Variation. The Alapin Variation has been used by a number of Grand Masters and World Champions in recent years, as well as by the supercomputer Deep Blue against Garry Kasparov in 1996. Rather than 2.Nc3, white plays 2.c3. This variation can lead to active, complex play for the center, with potential sacrifices.
4. The Smith-Morra Gambit. With this gambit, white plays 3.c3, hoping to sacrifice the c-pawn in exchange for rapid development of her bishop and rooks. If black declines the gambit, you might also wind-up transposing into the Alapin Variation.

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