The Sicilian Defense is a chess opening for black that arises after the moves 1.e4 c5. If you play the Sicilian Defense, you will usually play asymmetrical positions and create imbalances that will allow you to play for the win from move 1.
Estimated reading time: 20 minutes
The Sicilian Defense for black (1…c5) is the most popular response to 1.e4, more than twice as popular as the second most played response – 1…e5.
This is an unbalancing and fighting defense that you can make as simple, or as complex, as you desire. There is something to suit every chess player’s taste in the Sicilian Defense.
Yes, there are lines where theoretical knowledge is extremely important but there are other lines of a quieter nature.
This guide will help you test the waters of this magnificent defense.
Appeal of the Sicilian Defense
There are three very good reasons to play the Sicilian Defense with black:
- asymmetrical positions
- better pawn structure
- caters to all playing styles
The Sicilian Defense avoids symmetrical positions from the first move thus creating an imbalance as early as possible. Creating imbalances is the first step to playing for a win!
Playing 1…c5 frees the queen, so always be on the lookout to win material with …Qa5+. For example, after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 there’s no knight to protect a bishop on g5.
Also, look to play …Qa5+ if white plays an early e5.
By exchanging a flank pawn for a center pawn, the c-pawn for the white d-pawn, black gets a central pawn majority.
Keep in mind the best way to meet a flank attack is striking back in the center. Your extra center pawn will make this counter-strike more effective.
The Sicilian Defense caters to players of all different playing styles. Those who enjoy a positional game can consider the Classical and Scheveningen Variations.
More attacking-minded players can choose between the Sveshnikov or the Najdorf.
Common Strategies in the Sicilian Defense
Even in the more positional variations, Black must remember the Sicilian Defense is a counter-attacking opening, one with numerous tactical opportunities for both sides.
Always be on the lookout for the chance to unleash tactics. Passive play will allow white to rollover your position without much difficulty.
Common strategies for black include:
- expanding on the queenside with …a6 and …b5 – it isn’t only white who plays a queenside minority attack
- the exchange sacrifice …Rxc3 is useful for both exposing the king and creating endgame weaknesses
- the …e5 central strike followed quickly with …d5 will free the black pieces.
10 Great Variations of the Sicilian Defense for Black
Because the Sicilian Defense caters to players of all playing styles, it’s not surprising there are numerous good choices.
What’s particularly helpful is if you decide to change your playing style, you can continue to play the Sicilian Defense. All you need to do is change your chosen variation.
Here are 10 variations to get you started.
Don’t be afraid to dip more than just your toe into the deep, inviting waters of the Sicilian Defense. Your commitment will be well-rewarded with positive results in your games.
1. Classical Sicilian Variation
We reach the starting position of the Classical Sicilian Defense with the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6
The most common continuation for white is 6.Bg5 when black must defend against Bxf6 which would ruin his pawn structure. 6…e6 is a dual-purpose move defending against Bxf6 and increasing central control.
Now white usually prepares queenside castling with 7.Qd2.
Castling queenside is by no means obligatory for white. A system favored by Karpov is the positional 6.Be2.
A lot of players choose to meet 6.Be2 with 6…e5, which is playable if you remember to meet 7.Nf3 with 7…h6. Any other move allows white an easy game playing against the d6-pawn and weak d5 square.
If the weakness on d5 looms a little too large for you, then you can comfortably play 6…e6 7.f4 Be7 8.Be3 O-O 9.O-O Bd7.
Black has obtained a comfortable position without any weaknesses. Do not discount the value of achieving equality with black.
Tigran Petrosian once reminded another chess player that instead of playing weaker moves to complicate the game, it is easier to play for a win with black from an equal position.
If you decide the Classical Sicilian Defense suits your style, let GM Bryan Smith be your guide. You can learn more from this informative article.
2. Sicilian Dragon Variation
There are three variations of the Dragon variation in the Sicilian Defense for black to choose from:
- Mainline Sicilian Dragon
- Accelerated Sicilian Dragon
- Hyper Accelerated Dragon.
By refraining from playing 2…d6 and playing 2…g6 in the Hyper-Accelerated Dragon, black signals his intent to play …d5 in one move.
Opposite-side castling is common in all three Dragon Variations. Black mustn’t forget about striking back in the center with his pawns and not fixate on his pawn storm against the king.
Active play is a must in the Dragon Variation. Opposite-side castling frequently occurs in this variation, so always keep the exchange sacrifice …Rxc3 in mind.
Apart from a compact pawn chain, black often gets to show how very powerful the bishop on g7 can become. Another exchange sacrifice to consider is meeting Bh6 with …Bh8 allowing Bxf8.
Yes, the dark-squared bishop is really that powerful. Especially if white no longer has a bishop to oppose it.
Delaying …Nc6 allows black to avoid the Rossolimo Variation by white. The Rossolimo Variation is reached when white plays Bb5.
One of the main strategies employed by white against the Sicilian Defense is the Maroczy Bind. This is an attempt by white to clamp down in the center with c4.
White hopes to keep black from counter-attacking in the center by placing his pawns on e4 and c4. Although black needn’t fear the Maroczy Bind, he must learn how to play against it.
Take a look at this game played between two former world champions.
Anand versus Kasparov, 1/2-1/2, 2003
This enlightening article will help you learn how to deal with it and much more!
For even more information on this exciting variation of the Sicilian Defense be sure to read the following article.
3.Najdorf Sicilian Variation
The Najdorf Variation is named after Miguel Najdorf, a Polish-Argentinian grandmaster. Arguably, the player who did the most to popularize the Najdorf Variation was none-other than Bobby Fischer.
5…a6 is the defining move of the Najdorf Variation. The opening moves are 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6
Black intends to expand on the queenside with …b5 and develop with …Bb7 and …Nbd7. If black can play …d5, he often obtains the more advantageous position.
Against 6.f4, Bobby Fisher would often play …e5 combined with a delayed kingside fianchetto.
White can consider queenside castling combined with Bd3 and Qf3. In this instance, black is advised to delay castling kingside and seek a safer haven by castling queenside.
6.Bg5 is best met with the solid …e6. White can follow up this bishop move with rapid expansion on the kingside.
The Bg5 and g4 combination leads to complex positions. These positions are perfectly playable for black, but you must be well-prepared.
In fact, if you choose to play the Najdorf, be willing to devote time to learning the opening theory.
If you want to follow in the footsteps of Bobby Fischer and other past greats, this is the price you must pay. The time and energy you invest in being well-prepared will pay handsome dividends on the board.
As you will learn from the following illuminating article, the theoretical burden is not heavy enough to make this unplayable for the club player.
4. Scheveningen Sicilian Variation
Solidity and flexibility are the two main qualities of the Scheveningen Variation – 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6
Black creates a small center with …e6 and …d6. The knights are developed in classical fashion on c6 and f6.
The compactness of the black position is not a hindrance. There is a lot of potential in the position, and the black pieces often become very active.
Although black initially places his pawns on e6 and d6, black is striving to play the d5 advance. This is an essential freeing move.
If black is forced to play …e5, following it up with a quick …d5 advance gives black good central control.
After black develops a knight to f6, the typical …a6 and …b5 expansion carries the added threat of driving away the e4 defender with …b4.
Playing flexible positions in the Sicilian Defense goes well with a flexible mindset. Do not be afraid to un-develop your bishops and fianchetto them if needed.
Getting your pieces to better squares is always a sound plan no matter which opening you are playing.
Within white’s arsenal against the Scheveningen is the Keres Attack – 6.g4. The solidity of the black position gives you every reason to meet with confidence.
Simply respond with 6…h6 and know the solidity of your position is more than capable of repulsing this early attack.
Here is a game by Dmitry Andreikin against Fabiano Caruana showing you how to play against the Keres Attack.
5. Sveshnikov Sicilian Variation
In the Sveshnikov Variation of the Sicilian Defense, black plays a quick …e5 accepting a backward d-pawn.
This is a favorite variation of many strong chess players, including Shirov, Ivanchuk, and Topalov.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5
There is little variation early on in this variation and the moves 6.Ndb5 d6 7.Bg5 a6 8.Na3 b5 9.Nd5 Be7 10.Bxf6 Bxf6 11.c3 brings us to this tabiya:
Now black will usually castle, intending to attack the e4-pawn with f5.
11…O-O 12.Nc2 Bg5 13.a4 bxa4 14.Rxa4 a5
The …a5 advance is necessary to prevent white from playing b4 and tying the rook down defending the a-pawn.
A dangerous tactic white can play is an exchange sacrifice on the queenside to create a passed pawn. This tactic has been used by Kasparov and Anand.
That’s not to say the position isn’t playable. In fact, here is a game Kasparov won playing with the black pieces.
6. Kalashnikov Sicilian Variation
The Kalashnikov variation is very similar to the Sveshnikov except without the moves …Nf6 and Nc3.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nb5 d6
As in the Sveshnikov, black is willing to accept a backward d-pawn and a hole on d5. The main difference is black retains the option of playing …Nge7 avoiding Bg5 and Bxf6.
Black also has the choice of delaying the knight development and getting the bishop into play with Be7-Bg5. By avoiding …Nf6 black can play f5 without losing a tempo by moving the knight.
7. Lowenthal Variation
The Lowenthal variation has been out of style for several years but has been played by Super GM Vallejo Pons.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nb5 a6 6.Nd6+ Bxd6 7.Qxd6
One of the main reasons for the Lowenthal not being played at the top levels is Black giving up the bishop pair at the start of the game.
This is certainly a solid variation of the Sicilian Defense for black to play.
One of the most important strategies for black is striking in the center. This might involve sacrificing the d-pawn.
Enjoy this instructional video by Judit Polgar on breaking the central tension in the Sicilian Defense.
Now a good way to play, in this variation of the Sicilian Defense with black is 7…Qf6 8.Qd1 Qg6 9.Nc3 Nge7
Black can make use of his active queen on g6 and sacrifice the d-pawn with 9…d5. Of course, the move 9…Nge7 doesn’t mean black has given up playing …d5.
Sacrificing the pawn gives black space for easy development and active piece play.
Play might continue 10.h4 h5 – Black doesn’t want the pawn advancing to force …g6 when the absence of the dark square bishop is more noticeable.
And now, 12.Bxe7 d4 13.Bc5 dxc3 14.f3 cxb2 15.Rb1 Qg3+ 16.Bf2 Qg6 when after …O-O, black has a good position.
Play might also continue with 12.exd5 Nd4 13.Bd3 Bf5 14.Bxf5 Ndxf5! This is the game Efimenko – Vallejo Pons, from 2005.
If the Lowenthal variation is good enough for a super-GM to play, you can trust it is a sound choice that allows you to play actively for a win!
8.Taimanov Sicilian Variation
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e6.
In this variation of the Sicilian Defense, Black has the option of switching 2…Nc6 with 4…e6.
Playing 2…e6 is one way to avoid the anti-Sicilian variation Karpov favored against 2…Nc6. Karpov played 2.Nc3 to avoid the Sveshnikov variation.
When black plays …e6, Karpov would transpose back to an Open Sicilian with 3.d4.
If you choose to play the Taimanov, don’t be in a hurry to play …d6. The pawn on d7 is a good defender of the e6-pawn. This pawn is often attacked with a sacrifice by white.
The e6-pawn also serves to block any attacks against f7 from a bishop on c4.
After 5.Nc3, the main move for black is 5…Qc7. The queen does dual-duty on c7
- guarding the e5 square
- and applying pressure along the c-file
6.Be3 a6 7.Qd2 Nf6 8.O-O-O Bb4 9.f3 intending to launch a kingside pawn storm with g4 against 9…O-O.
That’s why black usually plays in the center with either 9…Ne7 or 9…Ne5.
In this game Vassily Ivanchuk played 9…Ne7 and went on to defeat Magnus Carlsen in a marathon game lasting 90 moves!
9. Sicilian Kan Variation
The best plans are often the simplest plans.
Since the moves …a6 and …Qc7 are played in almost every variation of the Sicilian Defense by black, why not play them early?
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6
4…a6 keeps a white knight from the b5 square where it will harass the queen on c7.
5.Nc3 Qc7 6.Bd3
There are numerous ways for black to proceed but continuing with the strength in simplicity approach play 6…Bd6?!
This move was a favorite of Aleksandrs Koblencs, famous trainer of Mikhail Tal.
Apart from making it impossible for white to castle now because the h-pawn would drop, the move adds to black’s control of the f4 square.
Yes, the bishop on d6 does prevent the d-pawn from advancing to give the bishop on c8 space. This bishop can easily get developed on b7 after …b5.
Then black will have two bishops taking aim at white’s kingside. However, black must be careful to avoid the tactical shot Bxb5.
For example: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Nc3 Qc7 6.Bd3 Bd6 7.Nf3 Nc6 8.O-O Nge7 9.Be3 b5? 10.Bxb5!
Black does best to support the b5 advance with 9…Rb8 with …Ng6 to follow. The knight on g6 adds more control to the f4 square.
If white plays 7.Be3 play 7…Nf6 8.Nf3 Nc6 9.h3 Be7 and …d6 will give black the mini-center.
This solid, simple play has given black a position without weaknesses while presenting any unwary white player with the chance to go wrong.
10. 4…Bc5 Sicilian Variation
This is a little-known but sound variation requiring only a minimal amount of theoretical knowledge.
This system is definitely one where knowing the plans works very well. Especially since the strategy is pretty straightforward.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Bc5
Now the most common move by white is 5.Nb3 Bb6 to keep the pressure on f2. Black’s plan is simple …Ne7, …O-O, and …f5 when fxe4 will allow the rook to add to the pressure on f2.
Here’s an example of how it can go wrong for white if he takes this variation too lightly.
Black can also play 6…Nc6 before …Ne7. Active play in the center is the best approach for black with the pawn breaks …f5 and …d5.
This is a splendid variation for players who enjoy a tactical battle without the d5 weakness of the Sveshnikov and Kalashnikov variations.
There is plenty of scope for independent study in this variation of the Sicilian Defense for black.
With the aid of today’s strong chess engines, you could very well develop your own personal opening system.
Here is a very nicely played game by black to whet your appetite.
Final Thoughts on the Sicilian Defense
There is no reason to shy away from playing the Sicilian Defense.
Chess is indeed a game that can take a lifetime to truly master. There’s no reason you can’t make the Sicilian Defense a lifelong companion for the journey.
You will certainly have a formidable defense to every attack White launches at you.
The deeper your relationship grows, the more you will realize just how dependable the Sicilian Defense is.
Your commitment to the Sicilian Defense will be richly rewarded over time.
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