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The Sicilian defense is one of the most fundamental chess tactics that a player new to the game should master. It is a classic defensive manuever by black in response to one of the most standard openings by white and clearly illustrates the thought processes that go into the opening moves of a chess match. As an avid chess player, the Sicilian defense is one of the first elements of opening theory that I show a new player, and it usually clicks and gives them a glimpse of some of the amazingly elegant strategy that the game holds.

The Sicilian defense is a response to the common white opening of 1. e4, known as the king's pawn opening. This opening is diagrammed below for those unfamiliar with chess notation (rather than using a standard diagramming scheme, I'm using a very simple one in order to make the layout as clear as possible).

1. e4
              black
---------------------------------
| R | N | B | Q | K | B | N | R | 8
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
| P | P | P | P | P | P | P | P | 7
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 6
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 5
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   |   |   | P |   |   |   | 4
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 3
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
| P | P | P | P |   | P | P | P | 2
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
| R | N | B | Q | K | B | N | R | 1
---------------------------------
  a   b   c   d   e   f   g   h
              white

If you're interested, I encourage you to set this up on your own chessboard, so that you can visualize it for yourself.

Now, one of the most common of responses to this opening is the Sicilian defense. In that, black responds 1. e4-c5. Let's take a look at the board position after the black player moves.

1. e4-c5
              black
---------------------------------
| R | N | B | Q | K | B | N | R | 8
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
| P | P |   | P | P | P | P | P | 7
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 6
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   | P |   |   |   |   |   | 5
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   |   |   | P |   |   |   | 4
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 3
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
| P | P | P | P |   | P | P | P | 2
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
| R | N | B | Q | K | B | N | R | 1
---------------------------------
  a   b   c   d   e   f   g   h
              white

That is the heart of the Sicilian defense. It has been well studied over the years and is considered to be one of the foundations of opening defense in chess. Some basic analysis is in order here.

Why would white open with the King's pawn opening?
It is widely known and repeatedly demonstrated that the player who gains control of the middle four squares of the board will dominate the game. This is because, due to their central location, many pieces have to move into that region of the board; it is the most vital of positions on the board. When white opens by moving a pawn to e4, the white player is staking an early and immediate claim to the center squares, already controlling one square but, more importantly, in position to capture any piece that black may want to place in d5.

If black makes no response to this opening, the white player can then play 2. d4 (promoting the pawn in front of the queen two rows), making a complete dominance of the center four squares of the board and essentially putting black in a world of hurt. The black player has no way to immediately move onto the board center without developing a number of pieces, allowing white to construct a more long-term offense that would almost assuredly defeat the lagging black player.

With such an early claim to the center four squares on the board, black has to respond to this King's pawn opening in some fashion.

Why respond to the King's pawn opening with the Sicilian defense?
It is a simple way to make sure that white will not respond with 2. d4, because if white does this, that piece will be taken immediately. As a result, white has to spend the next turn preparing d4 with 2. Nf3 (preparing, in this context, means creating some sort of way to capture opposing pieces in a particular square). This gives black a chance to formulate his own defense, essentially giving a turn of breathing room. The most common way black goes about this is through d6, which frees the queen's bishop to attack the promoted white knight. Another response, one that I am currently exploring in my spare time, is Nc6, where black promotes a knight in a more direct response to white's promoted knight.

What does the Sicilian defense lead to?
Inherent in its strong style, it sets up black to take an offensive stance throughout the game, particularly if the white player is very timid. It almost always leads to black quickly moving the queen's knight and bishop, creating a heavy offensive front for the black player.

Here are two of my favorite examples of longer openings involving the Sicilian defense.

The Velimirovic Attack

1.   e4 c5 
2.  Nf3 d6 
3.   d4 cxd4 
4. Nxd4 Nf6 
5.  Nc3 Nc6 
6.  Bc4 e6 
7.  Be3 Be7 
8.  Qe2 0-0 
9.0-0-0 Qc7 
10. Bb3 a6 
              black
---------------------------------
| R |   | B |   |   | R | K |   | 8
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   | P | Q |   | B | P | P | P | 7
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
| P |   | N | P | P | N |   |   | 6
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 5
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   |   | N | P |   |   |   | 4
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   | B | N |   | B |   |   |   | 3
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
| P | P | P |   | Q | P | P | P | 2
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   | K | R |   |   |   | R | 1
---------------------------------
  a   b   c   d   e   f   g   h
              white

Discussion: Basically, this demonstrates how white can turn the situation into a strong attacking stance. It brings into play both knights and bishops by the seventh turn, then castles on turn nine to protect the king. Essentially black starts to lag a turn behind in development because of white's early pawn sacrifice. A clever way for white to turn things around in response to the defense.

The Dragon

1.  e4 c5 
2. Nf3 Nc6 
3.  d4 cxd4 
4.Nxd4 g6 
5. Nc3 Bg7 
6. Be3 Nf6 
7. Bc4 O-O 
8. Bb3 

              black
---------------------------------
| R |   | B | Q |   | R | K |   | 8
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
| P | P |   | P | P | P | B | P | 7
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   | N |   |   | N | P |   | 6
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   |   |   |   |   |   |   | 5
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   |   |   | N | P |   |   |   | 4
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
|   | B | N |   | B |   |   |   | 3
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
| P | P | P |   |   | P | P | P | 2
|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|
| R |   |   | Q | K |   |   | R | 1
---------------------------------
  a   b   c   d   e   f   g   h
              white

Discussion: This is called the Dragon mostly because of black's strongly offensive stature, with both knights ready to strike and the black queen holding one of the white knights in place (if the white knight at c3 is moved anytime soon, the black queen can move to a5 for an early check). Black definitely has the upper hand in most playings of the Dragon; the white player should try very hard to upset it.

The Sicilian defense is a foundation of chess strategy and one that young players should learn quickly. I myself have explored it greatly, and the possibilities it opens up are still very intriguing to me.

A New Way Of Playing Chess

Because it is so popular, and because so many games are played in it, the theory of the Sicilian Defense has become so extensive that it can be better described as an opening system than a mere opening - entire books have been written about minor sub-variations of the Sicilian, beginning at move 10 or later. It has been the mainstay of several past world champions, including Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, because it allows the player of the Black pieces to fight for a win from the start, at the cost of assuming more risk than more classical openings.

A slight digression may be in order here for those who may know the basics of chess, but not much about how opening theory has developed over the last several decades. Traditionally, according to the classical principles of chess laid down by such players as Siegbert Tarrasch and Wilhelm Steinitz, Black must seek to establish equality before attempting to play for a win. This is due to the disadvantage of having to move second. Played perfectly, chess is a draw, but in practice, the person who makes the second-last error usually wins. Playing for a win from the very beginning, while still labouring under the slight disadvantage of moving second, was held to be too risky for Black. Openings tended to be played with a high degree of symmetry, with Black trying to combat White's control of the centre directly. In response to White's most popular opening move (1.e4 or 1.P-K4) Black would most often reply with the symmetrical move 1...e5 or 1...P-K4, opposing White's strength with strength.

+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
| r  | n  | b  | q  | k  | b  | n  | r  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
| p  | p  | p  | p  |    | p  | p  | p  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    | p  |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    | P  |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
| P  | P  | P  | P  |    | P  | P  | P  | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
| R  | N  | B  | Q  | K  | B  | N  | R  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+

All this changed in the second half of the 20th century, when new systems of thought entered the chess world and began to achieve stunning practical results. Known as the hypermodern revolution - a massively overdramatic name for a change in how people thought about a board game - a slew of young masters demonstrated in their games that alternative ways of playing against the centre were possible. Rather than attacking White's central control head-on - an approach which often only accentuated White's 1-move advantage in an otherwise symmetrical situation - Black players invented new opening systems that attacked the centre squares from the side, creating unbalanced, unsymmetrical positions in which both players must tread very carefully. At the cost of a higher risk of a loss, they also gave themselves a greater chance of winning, and therefore these openings immediately became extremely popular among young, ambitious players who felt able to rely on their sharp calculating ability against grandmasters of the old, classical principles of chess play.

The king of these new systems was the Sicilian Defense (which should more accurately be called the Sicilian Counterattack). More than any other opening, the Sicilian typifies the Modern approach to chess, in which players are happy to create risky situations with dynamic imbalances in order to create winning chances for themselves and outplay their opponents. In response to White's move 1.e4 or 1.P-K4, which controls two central white squares and prepares for rapid piece development, Black plays 1...c5 or 1...P-QB4.

+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
| r  | n  | b  | q  | k  | b  | n  | r  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
| p  | p  |    | p  | p  | p  | p  | p  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    | p  |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    | P  |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
| P  | P  | P  | P  |    | P  | P  | P  | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
| R  | N  | B  | Q  | K  | B  | N  | R  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+

The move has had a chequered (ho ho) history. First recorded in a chess game in the 16th century, it was rarely ventured until the modern era. One of the greatest players ever, Jose Raul Capablanca, hated it, saying "Black's game is full of holes." It was regarded as inferior and risky for most of the first half of the twentieth century, with top players only venturing it as a surprise weapon, usually against weaker opponents. However, as time passed and new ideas and methods were found for Black, and as chess understanding deepened in general, the Sicilian gradually grew in popularity, until it reached the exalted pinnacle it occupies today, where 25% of all games in the Chess Informant (the database of all significant chess games recorded every year) are in the Sicilian Defense.

Strategic Ideas

According to the classical principles of chess, this move is a failure. It only controls 1 central square, and does not allow for the development of any black pieces except for the queen, which should not be developed early in the game anyway. However, according to the new, dynamic principles of chess, there is a deeper logic to the move, as follows:

  • White has staked a claim to the light central squares. Rather than starting a direct fight for the light squares, an approach which might highlight White's extra move advantage, Black strikes the dark squares.
  • White's response to this can take 1 of 2 forms. He can ignore the dark squares and continue to focus on light square domination (for example with the move 2.Nc3, the Closed Sicilian) or - as is most popular - he can open the position to its maximum extent and try to blow Black off the board, by preparing the pawn move to d4.
  • Pawn to d4 requires preparation because if it is played straight away (2.d4 cxd4 3.Qxd4) White is forced, after Black captures the pawn, to recapture with his queen, which can then be chased away with the move 3...Nc6. This nullifies White's lead in development and gives Black easy equality (White can in fact sacrifice the pawn with 3.c3, leading to the Smith-Morra Gambit, but that's another story).
  • The move 2.Nf3 is most usually played. After the possible moves 2...d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3, we have one of the most basic starting positions of the Sicilian Defense (see diagram below).

+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
| r  | n  | b  | q  | k  | b  |    | r  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
| p  | p  |    |    | p  | p  | p  | p  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    | p  |    | n  |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    | N  | P  |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    | N  |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
| P  | P  | P  |    |    | P  | P  | P  | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
| R  |    | B  | Q  | K  | B  |    | R  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+

Some strategical features of the position are now apparent. The good news for White:

  1. White has free, rapid development. No further pawn moves are necessary to free all of his pieces.
  2. Black, in contrast, needs at least 1 more pawn move in order to develop his dark-squared bishop and get castled.
  3. White has 2 pieces out in comparison to Black's 1.
  4. White has more space. He has a piece and a pawn on his 4th rank, while Black has no pieces beyond his 3rd rank.
  5. Black must, in almost all circumstances, castle on the kingside. The loss of the queen's bishop's pawn would weaken his king position too much if he were to castle queenside.
  6. White can castle on either side. Castling queenside is quite usual, as it develops one of his rooks straight onto the half-open d-file (queen's file).
  7. All of this makes for a nice tidy equation which determines the form of a great many Sicilian games: White's rapid development + more space + Black castles on the Kingside = Huge Kingside Attack!

There is, however, plenty of good news for Black too:

  1. He has 2 central pawns to White's 1. This is a long-term factor of the position (i.e. it is unlikely to change) and gives Black's position a great solidity. White will find it difficult to attack directly in the centre.
  2. This also means that in response to White's usual plan (attacking on the kingside) Black always has in reserve an appropriate response according to the best classical chess principles (strike in the centre). A central strike at the right moment can take the wind out of a White kingside attack with embarrassing speed.
  3. Black has a half-open file of his own - the c-file (queen's bishop's file). At some point, he is very likely to put a rook or two on this file, where they will point directly at White's king if it castles on the Queenside.
  4. While White controls the light central squares, Black controls the dark squares. The position is not equal - it is highly unbalanced, and White must be very careful not to overstretch.
  5. As pieces are exchanged and the game heads towards an endgame, Black's structural superiority will begin to tell. If you took all the pieces off the board and only left the kings and pawns (see diagram), Black would have a very slight advantage due to his extra central control and the (almost imperceptible) weaknesses created in the white position by the advance of the e-pawn to the 4th rank.

+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    | k  |    |    |    |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
| p  | p  |    |    | p  | p  | p  | p  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    | p  |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    | P  |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
| P  | P  | P  |    |    | P  | P  | P  | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
|    |    |    |    | K  |    |    |    |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+

Nuances And Variations

Slightly different opening moves are possible on black's part, while still preserving all of the features mentioned above. For instance, after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3, besides the move 2...d6 he also has the popular alternatives 2...Nc6 or 2...e6. These lead to different variations of the Sicilian Defense, each of which has its own particular flavour. Also, there are numerous transpositional possibilities. For example, in the Sicilian Scheveningen, Black solves the problem of developing his dark-squared bishop by creating a small, compact pawn centre:

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

+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
| r  | n  | b  | q  | k  | b  |    | r  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
| p  | p  |    |    |    | p  | p  | p  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    | p  | p  | n  |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    | N  | P  |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    | N  |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
| P  | P  | P  |    |    | P  | P  | P  | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
| R  |    | B  | Q  | K  | B  |    | R  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+

However, this same position can also arise with Black moving his e-pawn on move 2, e.g.

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

There are so many different variations of the Sicilian Defense that it is impossible to do more than scratch the surface in this writeup. A full list of the variations is given at the bottom.

White sometimes tries to avoid the very sharp lines of the Open Sicilian by varying as early as move 2. Strong alternative lines which have appeared as high up as World Championship matches include the Alapin Sicilian or C3 Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.c3), in which White tries to assert more central control by ensuring that when he plays his pawn to d4 he can recapture with a pawn, and the Closed Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3) in which White focuses on dominating the light squares at the cost of surrendering the central dark squares entirely, and plans a kingside attack revolving around pushing his f- and g-pawns. These lines, while perfectly adequate for White and popular at club level, are not considered dangerous by the top grandmasters, since theory and practice have shown that Black gains sufficient counterplay for dynamic equality.

Some Corrections

I would like to clear up some of the incorrect or misleading statements in 18thCandidate's writeup above.
  • The Sicilian Defense is not "classic" (in chess terms, it's the opposite), and it is not a "defensive manuever" despite the name. If you're looking for truly defensive openings, try the French Defense or the Caro-Kann Defense. The Sicilian is best played by attacking players who are not afraid of heavy complications.
  • The purpose of the move 2...d6 is not to "free the queen's bishop to attack the promoted white knight". This knight will be on d4 in 2 moves time, when it cannot be attacked by the bishop. The main purpose of the move 2...d6 is to increase Black's control of the central dark squares, and more immediately, to prepare Black's knight's development to f6 by preventing White's e-pawn from moving to e5. Later in the game, it will also allow for the development of the light-squared bishop, but this is a secondary purpose since this piece is rarely important early in the game in a Sicilian Defense.
  • "It almost always leads to black quickly moving the queen's knight and bishop, creating a heavy offensive front for the black player." - As noted above, the queen's bishop is usually developed more slowly, when the appropriate square for it becomes clear, and it certainly does not create a "heavy offensive front". Let's be clear about this: in the early game, White is going to be doing the attacking. Black's defense revolves around balancing prophylactic moves with counterattack at the right moment.
  • As noted in more detail below, Black does not have "the upper hand in most playings of the Dragon".

Illustration Of Ideas

I'd like to finish with a note on the Dragon Variation, given at the end of 18thCandidate's writeup, since it can be seen as the archetypal Sicilian variation, clearly illustrating the ideal plans of both sides. 18thCandidate says "Black definitely has the upper hand in most playings of the Dragon; the white player should try very hard to upset it." - This is simply not true. Black does not have the upper hand in this opening. Like many Sicilian variations, Black is involved in a sharp fight, with attacks on opposing wings, and he is in as much danger as White, if not more. The opening moves are as follows:

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

+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
| r  | n  | b  | q  | k  | b  |    | r  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
| p  | p  |    |    | p  | p  |    | p  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    | p  |    | n  | p  |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    | N  | P  |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    | N  |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
| P  | P  | P  |    |    | P  | P  | P  | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
| R  |    | B  | Q  | K  | B  |    | R  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+

This is the characteristic move of the Dragon Variation, so-called not because of any of the Black pieces, but because of the shape of the pawn structure - the dragon's "head" being the h7-g6-f7 fianchetto structure, and the "tail" being the a7-b7 pawn pair which can whip forward to attack the White queenside. Black's bishop will appear on g7, where it aims along the long black diagonal towards White's queenside. Black will usually complete his development, castle kingside, put his rook on the c-file, move his queen to a5, and attack on the Queenside by pushing forward his a- and b-pawns or by sacrificing his rook for the White knight on c3 at the right moment. White will usually castle queenside, strengthen his centre by playing his pawn to f3, try to exchange off Black's powerful g7-bishop, and attack Black's king by pushing his g- and h-pawns. The problem for Black is that even through in strategic terms g7 is the idea square for the bishop, moving the pawn to g6 creates weaknesses around the Black king that can be exploited in White's attack. A typical series of moves might be as follows:

6.f3 Bg7
7.Be3 Nc6
8.Qd2 0-0
9.Bc4 Bd7
10.0-0-0 Rc8
11.Bb3 (otherwise White's bishop will be lost after e.g. 11.h4? Nxd4 12.Qxd4 Ng4 13.Qd3 Nxe3 14.Qxe3 Rxc4)
11...Ne5 (Black must force the exchange of at least one of White's powerful bishops)
12.h4 Nc4
13.Bxc4 (It's more important for White to keep the dark-squared bishop - this is the piece he's going to try to exchange for Black's g7-bishop, the "Dragon Bishop" that the variation is named after)
13...Rxc4
14.h5! Nxh5
15.g4 Nf6
16.Bh6 Nxe4! (the typical continuation 16...Bxh6? 17.Qxh6 Rxc3 18.g5! loses violently).
17.Qe3 (alternative moves for White can be investigated if the reader is interested - this is the best line)
17...Rxc3!
18.bxc3 Nf6
19.Bxg7 Kxg7
20.Qh6+ Kh8!

+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    | q  |    | r  |    | k  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
| p  | p  |    | b  | p  | p  |    | p  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    | p  |    | n  | p  | Q  | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    |    | N  |    |    | P  |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
|    |    | P  |    |    | P  |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+
| P  |    | P  |    |    |    |    |    | 
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+ 
|    |    | K  | R  |    |    |    | R  |
+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+----+

We can now see clearly how each side has pursued their ambitions. White has sacrificed two pawns in order to open up the h-file for his rook and his queen. He has succeeded in exchanging off Black's dangerous dark-squared bishop, and his pieces are starting to loom ominously around Black's king. In response, Black has sacrificed the exchange (a rook for a minor piece such as a knight or bishop) in order to destroy White's pawn structure around his king and create counter-threats. The exchange sacrifice on c3 is a vital resource in many variations of the Sicilian, perfectly illustrating the philosophy of this "defense" which is that The best defense is a good offense.

The "mysterious" king retreat on move 20 by Black, to h8 instead of g8, is an essential nuance which allows the Black rook to defend the king's hideout by the maneuver Rg8-g7. Retreating the king to g8 instead, a seemingly insignificant difference, loses quickly after 21.g5 Nh5 22.Rxh5 gxh5 23.Rh1, as anyone is welcome to verify for themselves.

If You're Thinking Of Taking Up The Sicilian Defense

The key thing to realize is that although Black's sacrifice on c3 in the above line is a good move, it is also the only move that does not lead to a very quick loss! The White knight on c3 had to be eliminated in order to prevent it from jumping to d5, where it would be able to remove the Black knight on f6. To visualize the problem with this, look at the above diagram without the Black knight on f6. White's queen would be able to capture Black's h7-pawn, giving checkmate. Sacrificing on c3 also creates counterplay from White's weakened king. The same applies to the king retreat to h8 instead of g8. This is typical of many Sicilian lines: Black's resources are sufficient, but only just, and he must play very accurately not just to hold equality, as in more traditional openings, but to survive at all. Often, you must find the only move in a position in order to survive and continue to play for a win. This is what's meant by a "sharp" opening.

The bad news for those interested in playing these sharp variations is that after 18 moves of a chess game, we are still in the realms of very well-known theory, and we won't be out of it for a while. Some Sicilian Variations, such as the Dragon Variation and the Najdorf Variation have been so well-studied that in order to avoid disaster or seek an improvement, the top players must memorize the theory up to 30 moves deep in places. It's not an uncommon occurrence for entire games to play out that are nothing but someone's computer-assisted opening preparation.

For club players, there's no need to stay abreast with the latest wrinkles of critical opening theory, but if you're going to play an opening as sharp as the Sicilian, you really do have to do a bit of study otherwise you're going to get steamrollered by White's easy, natural attacking moves. Finding the right balance between defensive and counterattacking moves is the key to playing this difficult, but very rewarding opening.


Further Reading

Due to the wealth of information out there about the Sicilian Defense, there are a great many books I could recommend. From my own experience, the misleadingly-titled Beating The Sicilian series by John Nunn and Joe Gallagher is a great introduction to the Open Sicilian from White's point of view, while any books by Eduard Gufeld on the Black side of the Sicilian will provide a wonderful introduction to the general strategic ideas and many of the main lines. Perhaps the best possible introduction is to play through the annotated games of Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer.


Appendix: Major Variations of the Sicilian Defense

The following are the major options for White and Black in the Sicilian Defense. Bear in mind that this is the most general possible grouping - there are many named sub-variations (for example the English Attack, a sub-variation of the Najdorf Variation) whose theory runs extremely deep and about which multiple books have been written. In the case of the most studied lines, e.g. the Dragon Variation, it's no exaggeration to say that hundreds of books have been written.

White doesn't play 2.Nf3
The Open Sicilian (White plays 2.Nf3)

Notes

Writeup As Reply

I tried hard to avoid making this too much of a "reply", but I wanted to correct the inaccuracies in 18thCandidate's writeup above. I found that the best way of doing this was to write my own introduction to the Sicilian, but I also felt that some specific statements he made should be contradicted. If anyone thinks this was inappropriate please let me know.

ASCII Chessboard

Note on ASCII art: For simplicity and readability, I have opted for an ASCII chessboard in which the light and dark squares are not distinguished. I tried distinguishing the light and dark squares with # marks, and I found it only made the pieces more difficult to make out. I have adopted a convention whereby the White pieces are upper case and normal font, whereas the Black pieces are lower case and bold. If anyone has any readability issues with this (e.g. if your browser doesn't render the bold properly) please /msg me and I will try to improve it.

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