Chess Opening Basics: The Classical Sicilian


Table of Contents

What is the Classical Sicilian?

The Classical Sicilian arises after the moves:

1.e4 c5

2.Nf3 d6

3.d4 cxd4

4.Nxd4 Nf6

5.Nc3 Nc6

It is also possible to switch the moves around with 2…Nc6 and 5…d6.

Classical Sicilian

The Classical Sicilian

As the name suggests, Black wants to develop the minor pieces in classical fashion rather than spend valuable time in the opening with more pawn moves. This is in contrast to the more popular Dragon (5…g6) and Najdorf (5…a6) Sicilians. Indeed, those lines, with their incredible amount of theory, remain extremely popular, while the Classical Sicilian remains somewhat in the shadows of modern theory.

Black’s knights exert pressure on the key central squares e4 and d4, making it more difficult for White to dictate the early play.

If you play 1.e4 as White, ask yourself if you feel as prepared for the Classical Sicilian as you do for the more popular lines. If not, then there is one reason to consider playing it as Black.

A Little History

Louis Paulsen was one of the great pioneers of the Classical Sicilian in the late-1880s, but there is already Sicilian Paulsen variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6), which partly explains why this one ended up with such a generic name. Other early practitioners of the line include Amos Burn and Harry Nelson Pillsbury and it then gained the attention of future World Champion Max Euwe, who used it from the 1920s onwards. The opening gained in popularity in the 1960s, with the likes of Mikhail Tal and Bent Larsen adding to their expanding repertoires.

It reached its height at the World Championship level when Boris Spassky used it three times against Bobby Fischer in their fascinating 1972 title match. All three games were hard-fought draws. Jan Timman picked up the baton in the 1970s and the Classical Sicilian remains a significant part of his repertoire to this day.

Vladimir Kramnik relied heavily on the Classical Sicilian throughout the 1990s, which made his switch to the Berlin Defense in his 2000 title match with Kasparov even more of surprise.


Flexibility is one of the keys to Black’s success. After 5…g6, for example, it is clear that Black is committed to Dragon. By developing the two knights first and leaving six of the pawns unmoved, Black clearly has more options when it comes to setting ups the pawn structure. In some lines, …e7-e5, taking strong action in the centre, may be better then setting the hedgehog spines after …e7-g6. The point is that Black can adapt to circumstance and head for the most appropriate pawn structure at the right time.

For example, if White tries to set up the standard system attack with f3, Be3, Qd2 and 0-0-0 then Black can react quickly.

6.f3 e5!

Classical Sicilian: f3 e5!

White can no longer play on auto-pilot.

Other tries for White bring a different reaction for Black, who refuses to play in stereotypical fashion.


6.f4, 6.g3 and 6.Be2 all allow Black to head back into the Dragon lines with 6…g6, when the sharpest lines of the Yugoslav Attack are no longer accessible to White.

6.Bc4 Qb6! and White needs to know some specific lines to avoid standing worse very quickly.

Classical Sicilian 6.Bc4 Qb6

Position after 6.Bc4 Qb6!

The most testing move is by White’s queen’s bishop.

The Richter-Rauzer Attack

There is one variation which Black needs to know more about than the others.

1.e4 c5

2.Nf3 d6

3.d4 cxd4

4.Nxd4 Nf6

5.Nc3 Nc6


The Richter-Rauzer Attack

The name comes from Kurt Richter and Vsevolod Rauzer, two players who helped to develop the attacking variation.

This is White’s most dangerous option against the Classical Sicilian. Attempts to head into a Dragon with 6…g6 allow the pawn structure to be compromised with 7.Bxf6 exf6. Remarkably, this line has been played rather more than one would think reasonable. It turns out that Black can unleash the bishops with a timely …f6-f5, although the weak d-pawn may drop off in the early middlegame. It is worth a look for anyone wanting a surprise weapon.

Meanwhile, White plans Qd2 and 0-0-0 after 6.Bg5. Black’s best move is 6…e6, preventing the possibility of incurring doubled pawns after 7.Bxf6 (because 7…Qxf6 is absolutely fine for Black). Black’s bishops will typically go to e7 and d7. Black certainly needs to know some concrete lines here, but then again, so does White.

Chessable Course

Lifetime Repertoires: Classical Sicilian

Our new course, Lifetime Repertoires: Classical Sicilian by Grandmaster Sam Shankland, is now available. This is easily the most comprehensive and up to date coverage of the Classical Sicilian and should be essential reading for anyone interesitng in playing 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6.

Sam also presents material to arm the reader against the standard anti-Sicilian lines, such as the Alapin (2.c3) and the popular 3.Bb5+.

More Chess Opening Basics

Here are links to the other parts of our series on Chess Opening Basics. More openings will be added soon.

King’s Pawn Openings

Arkhangelsk Defense

Berlin Defense, Rio de Janeiro Variation

Caro-Kann Defense

Göring Gambit

The Jaenisch Gambit

Pirc Defense

Najdorf Sicilian

Ruy Lopez, Cozio Defense

Ruy Lopez, Exchange Variation

Scotch Game

Sicilian Najdorf, Poisoned Pawn Variation

Sicilian Wing Gambit

Taimanov Sicilian

Queen’s Pawn Openings

Budapest Gambit


The Chigorin Defense

Grünfeld Defense

Leningrad Dutch

London System

Nimzo-Indian Defense

Queen’s Gambit Declined

Ragozin Defense

Semi-Slav Defense

Symmetrical English

Highlighted course

Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual 5th Edition

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