Sicilian Defense – How To Play and Counter it?

Sicilian Defense - Attack and Moves

The Sicilian Defense, also known as the Sicilian Opening or simply ‘The Sicilian’, is one of the most popular and formidable chess openings. It is also one of the oldest openings in chess, with books dating back to 1594 detailing aspects of it. The Sicilian has been used by several famous grandmasters such as Gary Kasparov, Magnus Carlsen, and Bobby Fischer.

Chess amateurs and masters alike favour the Sicilian defense due to its aggressive defense and offense. It is a complex move that carries many variations and is a great way to tell your opponents that you have come to win.

This article examines the anatomy of Sicilian Defense, understands why players across all levels of “chess expertise” opt for it, and look at ways to counter it. Before we move forward, make sure that you know how to play chess.

What is Sicilian Defense?

The Sicilian Defense is a response to the King’s Pawn Opening, a combative first move represented by 1.e4, that most chess players choose to begin their game with. The Sicilian comes into the picture when a player responds with a “Black” c5.

Sicilian Defense - The starting position

The priority of the Sicilian Defense is not to develop other pieces on the board but to deter White from gaining a strong foothold in the center of the board. And this happens when Black assumes an attack on the d4 square.

The Sicilian opening does not guarantee a victory by itself. Therefore, players require a strong follow-up strategy to ride on the advantage a Sicilian defense might offer. Chess players must have a fundamental understanding of this opening as well as a sound knowledge of all its variations. Failing to do so might just turn the tables on them.

Why the Sicilian Defense?

One of the prominent reasons why novice and seasoned players use the Sicilian is to overthrow the “Black disadvantage”.

According to chess connoisseurs, the player who makes the first move (White) is more likely to win. Even statistics say that White tends to win around 56% of all games.

The Sicilian throws away the White advantage by allowing the Black to attack the d4. This stops White from establishing dominance. Also, since the opening moves decide the ambiance of the game, a Sicilian start almost always guarantees that the game will be an exciting one. It forces the players to actively devise clever plans to topple the other, creating a tense yet thrilling atmosphere.

Sicilian Defense variations

Based on how White responds to c5, the Sicilian Defense can be divided into two variants:

  • The Open Sicilian
  • The Closed Sicilian

The Open Sicilian

The Open Sicilian comes into play when White chooses to respond to Black c5 with Nf3 (Knight to f3) and then a d4. The sequence of moves looks somewhat like this:

Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 1 to 5
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 6
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 7

If encountered with the open Sicilian as shown in the image above, Black can respond via one of the following variations:

  • The Najdorf Variation
  • The Dragon Variation
  • The Classical Variation
  • The Scheveningen Variation

Let’s look at each one of them in detail.

The Najdorf Variation

The Najdorf variation is the most popular Sicilian line out of the four, having been a favorite of chess masters such as Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. Named after chess legend Miguel Najdorf, this variation appears on the chessboard when Black plays the a6 move after White has placed its knight at c3. By doing this, Black exerts its power on the b5 square, preventing White from engaging two of its knights and a light-squared bishop. Here is the sequence of moves:

Najdorf Variation - Open Sicilian Defense
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 1 to 5
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 6
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 7

The Dragon Variation

The Dragon variation is named so because Fyodor Khotimirsky, the great Ukrainian chess master, was reminded of the Draco constellation after looking at the placement of the pawns.

Black plays the g6 against the potential thrust of White e4. This allows Black to move its bishop to the g7 square and assume a powerful attacking and defensive posture on the queen’s side. Here is the sequence:

The Sicilian Defense - Dragon Variation
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 1 to 5
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 6
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 7

The Classical Variation

The classical variation sees Black place a knight in the c6 square in response to the White Nc3. So, rather than moving Pawn to a6, black develops a piece instead and brings his knight out to its most effective square c6. The Classical is different from the others as it foregoes the development of the king-side bishop for the knight, putting immense pressure on White’s center. Here is what the sequence looks like:

The Sicilian Defense - Classical Variation
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 1 to 5
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 6
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 7

The Scheveningen Variation

The Scheveningen was a popular move in grandmaster Kasparov’s arsenal alongside the Najdorf. After White has played the Nc3 move, Black responds by placing the queen’s pawn in the e6 square, signifying the Scheveningen variation. Thanks to this, the e6 and d6 pawns create a strong defense and provoke White to respond with a sharp move.

Scheveningen Variation
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 1 to 5
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 6
Sicilian Defense - The open Sicilian Move 7

The Closed Sicilian

The Closed Sicilian is for those players who want to avoid racking their brains early in the game. Also called the “anti-Sicilian”, it differs from its “open” counterpart in that it abstains from attacking the center, adopting a less exciting approach. Although termed as a variant, the Closed Sicilian is a countermeasure and will be discussed in the subsequent section.

How to attack the Sicilian Defense?

It’s a no-brainer that there are countermeasures against the Sicilian Defense, called the “anti-Sicilians”. These measures are not that popular among the higher-ranked players, primarily due to their lack of theory and lackluster nature.

Let’s take a look at some popular anti-Sicilian variations.

The Closed Sicilian

As discussed earlier, the closed Sicilian is a popular anti-Sicilian measure that starts when White develops the queen-side knight by placing it in the c3 square. Here is the sequence of play:

Closed variation in Chess

Black can then reply with an Nc6, d6, a6, or e6.

The Rossolimo Variation

The Rossolimo variation sees White move the king-side bishop to the b5 square after the 1.e4 c5, 2. Nf3 Nc6 moves. Although the Black knight at c6 isn’t a requisite, White players use the Rossolimo primarily when they encounter the Nc6 move.

The Rossolimo Variation

The Alapin Variation

This variation is a strong response to Black’s tendency to get comfortable in the game. The Alapin move starts with White. Instead of going for the more general Nf3 move, White decides to play c3. This move helps White target the d4 square, essentially taking away Black’s initiative to rule the center of the board.

The Alapin variation was famously used by IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer in a now-famous chess match against the then reigning world champion Gary Kasparov in 1996. Here is the sequence of the play:

The Alapin variation in Chess

Smith-Morra Gambit

The Smith-Morra Gambit is a rapid strategy that entails White sacrificing two of its pawns to eliminate Black’s presence at the center. The whole strength of this gambit lies in a king-side knight who is lurking in the back, waiting for Black to capture c3, so it can recapture the square with Nc3. The result: no Black pawns are left in the center of the board. The sequence of moves in looks like this:

Smith Morra Gambit - Move 1 to 3
Smith Morra Gambit - Move 4 to 5
Smith Morra Gambit - Move 6
Smith Morra Gambit - Move 7

White players generally use the Smith-Morra Gambit to counter any instances of Black employing Sicilian defense lines. However, this gambit works only if Black plays into it.

Conclusion

If the Sicilian Defense had a tagline, it would be: sometimes the center is all that matters.

On a serious note, chess players have time and again heralded the Sicilian as the best opening for Black against White’s 1.e4. But, considering its inherent complexity and the whole gamut of its variations, many tend to steer clear of it.

Sicilian Defense – FAQs

Is the Sicilian Defense for black or white?

Sicilian Defense is a chess opening that is undertaken by the Black player as a response to the White king’s pawn opening move (1.e4). Take a look at the best chess opening moves here.

What is the point of the Sicilian Defense?

The Sicilian Defense or the Sicilian opening is a move that allows Black to contend with White for control over the center of the board.

Can a beginner play the Sicilian Defense?

The Sicilian defense is an intricate chess move, one that many players dread to make. However, beginners should use the Sicilian in their games to get more familiar with it and enjoy its aggressive countenance in action.