The Sicilian Defence is a chess opening that begins with the following moves: 1. e4 c5. The Sicilian is the most popular and best-scoring response to White's first move 1.e4. 1.d4 is a statistically more successful opening for White due to the high success rate of the Sicilian defence against 1.e4.
Chess Traps | Sicilian Defence
The Sicilian Defence is a chess opening that begins with the following moves:
1. e4 c5
The Sicilian is the most popular and best-scoring response to White's first move 1.e4. 1.d4 is a statistically more successful opening for White due to the high success rate of the Sicilian defence against 1.e4. New In Chess stated in its 2000 Yearbook that of the games in its database, White scored 56.1% in 296,200 games beginning 1.d4, but 54.1% in 349,855 games beginning 1.e4, mainly due to the Sicilian, which held White to a 52.3% score in 145,996 games.
17% of all games between grandmasters, and 25% of the games in the Chess Informant database, begin with the Sicilian. Almost one-quarter of all games use the Sicilian Defence.
Grandmaster John Nunn attributes the Sicilian Defence's popularity to its combative nature; in many lines, Black is playing not just for equality, but for the advantage. The drawback is that White often obtains an early initiative, so Black has to take care not to fall victim to a quick attack." Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson considered why the Sicilian is the most successful response to 1.e4, even though 1...c5 develops no pieces, and the pawn on c5 controls only d4 and b4. Rowson writes:
To my mind, there is quite a straightforward explanation. In order to profit from the initiative granted by the first move, White has to make use of his opportunity to do something before Black has an equal number of opportunities of his own. However, to do this, he has to make 'contact' with the black position. The first point of contact usually comes in the form of a pawn exchange, which leads to the opening of the position. … So the thought behind 1...c5 is this: "OK, I'll let you open the position, and develop your pieces aggressively, but at a price – you have to give me one of your centre pawns."
— Jonathan Rowson, Chess for Zebras: Thinking Differently About Black and White
The earliest recorded notes on the Sicilian Defence date back to the late 16th century by the Italian chess players Giulio Polerio and Gioachino Greco.
By advancing the c-pawn two squares, Black asserts control over the d4-square and begins the fight for the centre of the board. The move resembles 1…e5, the next most common response to 1.e4, in that respect. Unlike 1...e5, however, 1...c5 breaks the symmetry of the position, which strongly influences both players' future actions. White, having pushed a kingside pawn, tends to hold the initiative on that side of the board. However, 1...c5 does little for Black's development, unlike moves such as 1...e5, 1...g6, or 1...Nc6, which either develop a minor piece or prepare to do so. In many variations of the Sicilian, Black makes a number of further pawn moves in the opening (for example, ...d6, ...e6, ...a6, and ...b5). Consequently, White often obtains a substantial lead in development and dangerous attacking chances.
Meanwhile, advancing a queenside pawn has given Black a spatial advantage there and provides a basis for future operations on that flank. Often, Black's c5-pawn is traded for White's d4-pawn in the early stages of the game, granting Black a central pawn majority. The pawn trade also opens the c-file for Black, who can place a rook or queen on that file to aid their queenside counterplay.
The Sicilian Defence was analysed by Giulio Polerio in his 1594 manuscript on chess, though he did not use the term "Sicilian Defence". It was later the subject of analyses by leading players of the day Alessandro Salvio (1604), Don Pietro Carrera (c. 1617), and Gioachino Greco (1623), and later Conte Carlo Francesco Cozio (c. 1740). The great French player and theoretician André Danican Philidor opined of the Sicilian in 1777, "This way of opening the game ... is absolutely defensive, and very far from being the best ... but it is a very good one to try the strength of an adversary with whose skill you are unacquainted."
In 1813, the English master Jacob Henry Sarratt effectively standardised his English translation of the name of this opening as "the Sicilian Defence", referring to an old Italian manuscript that used the phrase, "il gioco siciliano" ("The Sicilian Game"). The Sicilian was fairly popular for much of the nineteenth century; Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais, Adolf Anderssen, Howard Staunton, Louis Paulsen, and Carl Jaenisch all played it with some consistency. In the ninth edition of Modern Chess Openings, Walter Korn noted that the Sicilian "received three of its earliest practical tests, and a big boost in popularity, in the 1834 MacDonnell [sic]–La Bourdonnais match, 1843 Staunton–St. Amant match, and the 1851 London Tournament." Staunton wrote of the Sicilian, "In the opinion of Jaenisch and the German Handbuch, with which I coincide, this is the best possible reply to 1.P-K4, [1.e4 in algebraic notation] 'as it renders the formation of a centre impracticable for White and prevents every attack.' "
The opening fell out of favour in the later part of the nineteenth century, when some of the world's leading players rejected it.[A] Paul Morphy, the world's best player in the late 1850s, decried "that pernicious fondness for the Sicilian Defense ... extending from about 1843 to some time after 1851". Wilhelm Steinitz, the first World Champion, also disliked the Sicilian and rejected it in favour of 1...e5.[B] The death of the opening's two greatest proponents, Staunton and Anderssen, in 1874 and 1879 respectively, also contributed to its decline. It has been said that "these losses almost dealt a knockout blow to the Sicilian because it took a long time to find such important figures to carry the Sicilian's standard." George H. D. Gossip, in The Chess Player's Manual, first published in 1874, wrote, "Of late years ... discoveries have been made which have the effect of considerably strengthening White's attack, and the 'Sicilian' is now considered by most modern authorities to be a comparatively weak mode of play." Freeborough and Ranken, in their treatise Chess Openings: Ancient and Modern (1889, 1896), wrote that the Sicilian "had at one time the reputation of being the best reply to 1.P-K4, but this has not been confirmed by popular practice. Several eminent players have, however, held to the opinion that it is quite trustworthy."
The Sicilian continued to be shunned by most leading players at the start of the twentieth century, as 1...e5 held centre stage. Capablanca, World Champion from 1921 to 1927, famously denounced it as an opening where "Black's game is full of holes". Similarly, James Mason wrote, "Fairly tried and found wanting, the Sicilian has now scarcely any standing as a first-class defence. ... It is too defensive. There are too many holes created in the Pawn line. Command of the field, especially in the centre, is too readily given over to the invading force." Siegbert Tarrasch wrote that 1...c5 "is certainly not strictly correct, for it does nothing toward development and merely attempts to render difficult the building up of a centre by the first player. ... The Sicilian Defence is excellent for a strong player who is prepared to take risks to force a win against an inferior opponent. Against best play, however, it is bound to fail." The Sicilian was not seen even once in the 75 games played at the great St. Petersburg 1914 tournament.
Nonetheless, some leading players, such as Emanuel Lasker (World Champion from 1894 to 1921), Frank Marshall, Savielly Tartakower, and Aron Nimzowitsch, and later Max Euwe (World Champion from 1935 to 1937) played the Sicilian. Even Capablanca and Tarrasch, despite their critical comments, occasionally played the opening. It was played six times (out of 110 games) at New York 1924. The following year, the authors of Modern Chess Openings (4th edition) wrote, "The Sicilian has claims to be considered as the best of the irregular defences to 1.P-K4 at Black's disposal, and has been practised with satisfactory results by the leading players of the day." In this period Black's approach was usually slow and positional, and the all-out attacks by White that became common after World War II had not yet been developed.
The fortunes of the Sicilian were further revived in the 1940s and 1950s by players such as Isaac Boleslavsky, Alexander Kotov, and Miguel Najdorf. Reuben Fine, one of the world's leading players during this time period, wrote of the Sicilian in 1948, "Black gives up control of the centre, neglects his development, and often submits to horribly cramped positions. How can it be good? Yet, the brilliant wins by White are matched by equally brilliant wins by Black; time and again the Black structure has been able to take everything and come back for more." Later, Bent Larsen, Ljubomir Ljubojević, Lev Polugaevsky, Leonid Stein, Mark Taimanov, and Mikhail Tal all made extensive contributions to the theory and practice of the defence. Through the efforts of world champions Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, the Sicilian Defence became recognised as the defence that offered Black the most winning chances against 1.e4. Both players favoured sharp, aggressive play and employed the Sicilian almost exclusively throughout their careers, burnishing the defence's present reputation. Today, most leading grandmasters include the Sicilian in their opening repertoire. In 1990, the authors of Modern Chess Openings (13th edition) noted that "in the twentieth century the Sicilian has become the most played and most analysed opening at both the club and master levels." In 1965, in the tenth edition of that book, grandmaster Larry Evans observed that, "The Sicilian is Black's most dynamic, asymmetrical reply to 1.P-K4. It produces the psychological and tension factors which denote the best in modern play and gives notice of a fierce fight on the very first move."
Open Sicilian: 2.Nf3 and 3.d4
Over 75% of games beginning with 1.e4 c5 continue with 2.Nf3, after which there are three main options for Black: 2...d6, 2...Nc6, and 2...e6. Lines where White then plays 3.d4 are collectively known as the Open Sicilian, and result in extremely complex positions. White has a lead in development and extra kingside space, which White can use to begin a kingside attack. This is counterbalanced by Black's central pawn majority, created by the trade of White's d-pawn for Black's c-pawn, and the open c-file, which Black uses to generate queenside counterplay.
2...d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3
Position after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3
Black's most common move after 2.Nf3 is 2...d6. This prepares ...Nf6 to attack the e-pawn without letting White push it to e5. The game usually continues 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3. Black can then choose between four major variations: the Najdorf (5...a6), Dragon (5...g6), Classical (5...Nc6), and Scheveningen (5...e6). The rare Kupreichik Variation (5...Bd7) may transpose to one of the more common variations such as the Classical or Dragon, but it may also lead to a number of independent lines.
There are a few ways for either side to deviate from the sequence in the heading. After 3...cxd4, White occasionally plays 4.Qxd4, the Chekhover Variation, intending to meet 4...Nc6 with 5.Bb5 Bd7 6.Bxc6, when White hopes that their lead in development compensates for Black's bishop pair. Another unusual sideline is 3...cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.f3!?, the Prins Variation, which by delaying Nc3 maintains the option of setting up a Maróczy Bind formation with a later c2-c4. Black can avoid the Prins Variation by playing 3...Nf6, when 4.Nc3 cxd4 5.Nxd4 transposes to main lines. However, 3...Nf6 gives White an extra option in 4.dxc5!?, when Black can play either 4...Nxe4 or 4...Qa5+.
Najdorf Variation: 5...a6
Najdorf Variation: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6
The Najdorf Variation is Black's most popular system in the Sicilian Defence. Najdorf's intention with 5...a6 was to prepare ...e5 on the next move to gain space in the centre. The immediate 5...e5?! is met by 6.Bb5+!, when Black must either play 6...Bd7 or 6...Nbd7. The former allows White to exchange off Black's light-squared bishop, after which the d5-square becomes very weak; but the latter allows 7.Nf5, when Black can only save the d-pawn by playing the awkward 7...a6 8.Bxd7+ Qxd7. In both cases, White's game is preferable.
Thus, by playing 5...a6, Black deprives White of the check on b5, so that ...e5 might be possible next move. In general, 5...a6 also prevents White's knights from using the b5-square, and helps Black create queenside play by preparing the ...b5 pawn push. This plan of 5...a6 followed by ...e5 represents Black's traditional approach in the Najdorf Variation. Later, Garry Kasparov also adopted the 5...a6 move order, but with the idea of playing ...e6 rather than ...e5. Kasparov's point is that the immediate 5...e6 (the Scheveningen Variation, discussed below) allows 6.g4, which is White's most dangerous line against the Scheveningen. By playing 5...a6 first, Black temporarily prevents White's g4 thrust and waits to see what White plays instead. Often, play will eventually transpose to the Scheveningen Variation.
Currently, White's most popular weapon against the Najdorf is 6.Be3. This is called the English Attack, because it was popularised by English grandmasters Murray Chandler, John Nunn and Nigel Short in the 1980s. White's idea is to play f3, Qd2, g4 and 0-0-0 in some order. Black can respond with 6...e6, 6...e5 or 6...Ng4. A related attacking idea for White is 6.Be3 e6 7.g4, known as the Hungarian Attack or Perenyi Attack.
Formerly, 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 was the main line of the Najdorf, when White threatens to attack the pinned knight with 8.e5. Black can simply break the pin with 7...Be7, when White usually plays 8.Qf3 and 9.0-0-0. Some of Black's alternatives are 7...Qb6, the Poisoned Pawn Variation popularized by Fischer, Gelfand's 7...Nbd7, and 7...b5, the Polugaevsky Variation, which has the tactical point 8.e5 dxe5 9.fxe5 Qc7! 10.exf6 Qe5+ winning the bishop in return for the knight. A modern alternative to 6...e6 is 6...Nbd7.
White has other choices on the sixth move. 6.Be2 prepares to castle kingside and is a quieter alternative compared to 6.Be3 and 6.Bg5. Efim Geller was an early proponent of this move, after which Black can stay in "pure" Najdorf territory with 6...e5 or transpose to the Scheveningen with 6...e6. Other possibilities for White include 6.Bc4 (the Fischer–Sozin Attack), 6.f4, 6.f3, 6.g3, and 6.h3, (the Adams Attack, named after Weaver Adams), which was used several times by Bobby Fischer.
Dragon Variation: 5...g6
Dragon Variation: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6
In the Dragon Variation, Black fianchettoes a bishop on the h8–a1 diagonal. It was named by Fyodor Dus-Chotimirsky in 1901, who noticed a resemblance between Black's kingside pawn structure (pawns on d6, e7, f7, g6 and h7) and the stars of the Draco constellation. White's most dangerous try against the Dragon is the Yugoslav Attack, characterised by 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0-0 8.Qd2 Nc6, when 9.0-0-0, 9.Bc4 and 9.g4 are White's most common moves. This variation leads to extremely sharp play and is ferociously complicated, since the players castle on opposite wings and the game becomes a race between White's kingside attack and Black's queenside counterattack. White's most important alternative to the Yugoslav Attack is 6.Be2, the Classical Variation.