How To Play The Sicilian Dragon

 

The Dragon Variation is the Sicilian in its most natural and logical form. Black develops his pieces on their most active squares. In particular, the ‘Dragon bishop‘ is fianchettoed on the long diagonal, down which it exerts its significant presence.

Sicilian Dragon Opening 

sicilian dragon

How To Play The Sicilian Dragon

The Sicilian Dragon begins with the moves: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6. It’s possible that the Dragon derived its name from the shape made by Black’s pawn island from the d- to h-files. Its name is certainly consistent with the type of chess it produces: aggressive, cut-throat and fearsome.

This line of the Sicilian is not for the faint-hearted! The Dragon has been around for over a century. It was first used in the 1880s by the renowned openings theoretician Louis Paulsen and it was also taken up by Harry Nelson Pillsbury, one of the world’s leading players at the turn of the century.

Nowadays it has supporters at every level of chess and in 1995 it received an ultimate seal of approval when Garry Kasparov utilised it with great success in his world championship match with Vishy Anand.

The Sicilian Dragon is broken down into 4 parts:

  • Yugoslav Attack
  • Classical Variation
  • Levenfish Attack
  • g2-g3 Variation

With that said, let’s discover how to play the Sicilian Dragon:

Related Post: How To Play The Sicilian Najdorf

1. The Yugoslav Attack

The mainline of the Yugoslav attack begins: 1.e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 g6 6. Be3

yugoslav dragon variation

This bishop move, further developing the queenside, signifies that White intends to play the Yugoslav Attack. This line which is sometimes also referred to as the ‘Rauzer Attack’, occurred a few times in the 1930s in the Soviet Union and was later refined by leading Yugoslav players.

I can safely say that the Yugoslav Attack is the ultimate test of the Dragon. White quickly develops his queenside and castles long before turning his attentions to an all-out assault on the black king. To the untrained eye, this attack can look both awesome and unnerving.

6…Bg7

Attacking the bishop with 6…Ng4?? is a bad mistake as the reply 7.Bb5+! wins material after either 7…Nc6 8.Nxc6 bxc6 9.Bxc6+ Bd7 10.Bxa8 or 7…Bd7 8.Qxg4 (the bishop on d7 is pinned).

7.f3

Preventing the annoying possibility of …Ng4 and thus preparing Qd2 and 0-0-0.

7…0-0 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.Be4

Another major possibility for White is the immediate 9 0-0-0, not expending time with the manoeuvre Bc4-b3. This can give White extra time to conduct his attack.

However, this also gives Black the extra option of an immediate strike in the centre with 9…d5!?

9…Bd7 10 0-0-0

Typical starting position in the Yugoslav Attack

Strategies in the Yugoslav Attack

White plans the following:

1) Prise open the h-file with h2-h4-h5, perhaps supported by g2-g4.

2) Exchange off Black’s main defenders on the kingside. The Dragon bishop on g7 can be exchanged with Be3-h6. The defensive knight on f6 can be exchange or eliminated in a number of ways, including Nd5 and g4-g5. Put another way, in the words of Bobby Fischer, ‘pry open the h-file, sac, sac … mate!’

3) Black plans to gain counterplay on the queenside with moves such as …Ra8-c8, …Ne5-c4, …b7-b5 and …Qd8-a5. Sometimes Black sacrifices a rook for knight with …Rc8xc3, disrupting the pawn structure around the white king.

4) Defensively, Black can consider halting the advance of White’s h-pawn with …h7-h5. Although this allows White to continue an attack with g2-g4, this is sometimes more difficult to arrange. If given time, Black may move the f8-rook, a point of which is to answer Bh6 with …Bh8. This allows Black to keep the ‘Dragon bishop‘, which does such a good job along the long diagonal both in defence and attack.

Compared to the other variations in the Dragon, the Yugoslav Attack is by far the most tactical and dynamic. Mating combinations and sacrifices are the order of the day as both players go for an early kill.

Positional play rarely enters the fray but is more likely if the queens are exchanged early. This can .sometimes be achieved if an early …Qd8-a5 is answered by Nc3-d5, offering an exchange on d2.

Theories in the Yugoslav Attack

The Yugoslav Attack is perhaps the most theoretically complex line of all openings. General principles are useful, but in this opening there is no substitute for learning the seemingly endless amount of critical variations.

If you wish to play the Dragon then you need to be thoroughly prepared for all of White’s options in the Yugoslav Attack. This means a lot of hard work, but the reward for the well-prepared can be many easily obtained points.

Statistics In the Yugoslav Attack Dragon Variation

Because of the excitement it brings, the Yugoslav Attack is fantastically popular at all levels of chess. The Yugoslav attack of the Sicilian dragon has been reached literally thousands of times in international chess.

According to Mega Database 2020, White scores 41% win with 6.Be3, while black has 22% win. 37% of the rest of games ended in a draw.

Illustrative Game

D Koval Vs Berman Correspondence 1985

2. Classical Variation

The mainline of the Classical Variation begins: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Ne3 g6 6.Be2

Classical sicilian dragon

While it’s true that the Yugoslav Attack is the crucial test of the Dragon, playing in such a flamboyant way does not suit everyone’s tastes. For the more peacefully inclined, the Classical Variation is an ideal choice. White simply develops in a ‘classical’ manner and castles kingside.

6…Bg7 7.0-0 Nc6

Adding early pressure onto d4. Now White must be wary of tactics.

8.Be3

 This is logical, supporting the knight on d4, but let’s also look at a couple of alternatives:

  1. a) 8.f4? (White neglects to deal with the threat) 8…Nxe4! (unleashing the power of the bishop) 9.Nxc6 (9.Nxe4 Nxd4 also wins a pawn) 9…Qb6+ 10.Kh1Nxc3 11.bxc3 bxc6 and Black has won a vital pawn.

NOTE: In the Dragon Black has many tactics available to exploit the pressure along the long a1-h8 diagonal.

  1. b) 8.Nb3 chooses at once to move the knight away from the crossfire in the centre. After..0-0 White often continues with 9.Bg5, a line which was made popular by Karpovin the late 1970s.

8…0-0 9 Nb3

 Again removing the knight from the centre, thus eliminating annoying tactics for Black. A semi-waiting move such as 9.Kh1 is met directly by the strategically desirable advance 9…d5!. Following 10.exd5 Nxd5 11.Nxd5 Qxd5 12.Bf3 Qa5 13.Nxc6 bxc6 14.Bxc6 Rb8 Black is extremely active.

Beginning a kingside offensive with 9.f4!? looks logical, but Black can exploit the weaknesses in White’s position with the dangerous 9…Qb6. The theory is rather complex but Black is more than holding his own.

NOTE: White should normally try to prevent the …d6-d5 advance.

9…Be6

A good square for the bishop, pointing menacingly at the queenside.

Typical position in the Classical Sicilian Dragon

Theory

The Classical Variation is much less theoretical than the Yugoslav Attack and players are more likely to be able to get away with just playing on general principles.

Statistics In The Classical Variation

Everything else dwarfs in comparison to the popularity of the Yugoslav Attack, but it’s safe to say that the Classical Variation comes a safe second. According to Mega Database 2020, The Classical Variation has been reached in over 12,000 games. Overall White scores around 33% wins, Black scores 28%, and the rest of games  that ended in a draw is 39%

Illustrative Game

D Apicella vs Svidler (Yerevan Olympiad 1996)

Levenfish Attack

The Levenfish attack begins with the moves: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.f4

Starting position of the Levenfish attack

 

The Russian Grandmaster Grigory Levenfish developed this trappy line in the 1930s as an alternative to the tried and trusted Classical.

6Nc6

6 Bg7!? is the most natural move in the position, but this allows White to complicate matters with 7 e5.

7.Nxc6 bxc6 8.e5 Nd7 9.exd6 exd6

Strategies In the Levenfish Attack

 White hopes to catch Black cold with an early advance in the centre. Aided by the f-pawn, White quickly pushes his e-pawn to e5, dislodging Black’s f6-knight and impeding Black’s comfortable development.

Black’s strategy must be to get through the opening few moves without any disasters occurring, which is sometimes easier said than done! However, if Black can negotiate these difficult early moves then he has a good chance of reaching a very promising position in the early middlegame.

The Levenfish often begins with a flurry of tactics. However, assuming Black gets through these without any harm, then the positions can become either tactical or strategic in nature.

Theory

Black players are advised to methodically learn an acceptable defence to the Levenfish Attack. Refraining from this can lead to an early disaster and on this occasion one would rather not learn from an unpleasant experience!

Statistics In the Levenfish Attack

 The Levenfish is not popular at the highest levels and there have been very few grandmaster games in the past few years. At lower levels however, the Levenfish is both more popular and more successful. Many inexperienced black players keep falling into one or other of the many pitfalls.

White Plays g2-g3

 The fianchettoed system begins: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.g3

Starting position of the g3 variation

This introduces a positional and sophisticated system of development which is, however, considered by most to be quite harmless against the Dragon. White expends an extra tempo to develop his kingside bishop on g2, where it will be blocked by the e4-pawn.

When put like this, it is surprising that this line has gained any popularity at all. However, as we shall see below, there are some redeeming features to this method of development.

6…Ne6 7 Nde2

For 7 Bg2 Nxd4 8 Qxd4 Bg7 9 0-0 0-0

7…Bg7 8 Bg2 0-0 9 0-0

Strategies

 For once in the Dragon, White’s play is not motivated by an attack on the black king. Instead, White normally aims for positional pressure on the centre.

The bishop on g2 overprotects the e4-pawn. This allows White’s knight on c3 to move and a common idea for White is to play Nc3-d5,which can prove to be of great annoyance value. If Black captures on d5, then White normally recaptures with the e4-pawn, offering him the chance to utilise the newly formed half-open e-file.

If instead Black attacks the knight with …e7-e6, then this leaves the d6-pawn slightly vulnerable. Again Black looks to the queenside for counterplay, although he must be careful not to advance his queenside pawns too early as this may allow White to unleash his light-squared bishop with e4-e5.

Rather than acquiescing to an exchange, when the white knight reaches d5, Black generally tries to play around it before ejecting it with a timely …e7-e6

Theory

The g3 line of the Dragon is hardly theoretical and is often played by players who are looking to avoid a heavyweight theoretical battle. There are only one or two variations which need to be learnt.

Statistics

would have said that this is not a particularly popular line, but I did find just over a thousand examples of Diagram 14 in Mega Database 2020, with White scoring a surprisingly high 60%. So perhaps g3 is an underestimated move against the Dragon! At lower levels, however, I would imagine that this line is less popular as most players are lured by the rewards and the complications of the Yugoslav and Levenfish Attacks.

Final Verdict – Should You Play The Sicilian Dragon?

 The Sicilian Dragon is for brave souls. If White plays the dreaded Yugoslav Attack then both players can look forward to a bloodthirsty battle. White players of a more peaceful nature will be inclined to play either the Classical or the g3 variation.

The Levenfish Attack contains lots of early tricks and black players need to memorize a reliable defence against this. The g3 variation is deceptive and it’s better than it looks!