What is the Sicilian Dragon?
The Sicilian Dragon is one of the sharpest and most popular of all variations of the Sicilian Defense. Amongst its practitioners throughout history, there are illustrious names like Bent Larsen, Anthony Miles, and Kiril Georgiev. In recent times GMs Vladimir Malakhov and Gawain Jones have been some of its most faithful defenders although World Champion Magnus Carlsen and former world number two Hikaru Nakamura have relied on it often too.
The Dragon is totally deserving of its name and it’s one of the most fascinating openings in chess. It’s risky for both sides because black goes all in for the win and White is forced to react accordingly or else, they get washed from the board. Oftentimes, the Dragon will be called dead and refuted. But its resourcefulness has proven to be never-ending.
Although it’s not a fix in any elite player’s repertoire, all of them have played it at some point, which shows the respect the Dragon deserves.
Move orders and opening nuances
The Sicilian Dragon arises after the moves:
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6
The Sicilian Dragon
It takes its name from Black’s kingside pawn structure, which resembles the Draco constellation. The name also refers to the fire-breathing Dragon bishop, which is destined to terrorize the board along the long diagonal from its den on g7.
Note that the move-order 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 is called the Accelerated Dragon, which may transpose to the Classical Dragon sometimes, but its natures are fundamentally opposing most of the time.
The Accelerated Dragon intends to save a tempo by playing the …d7-d5 break in one go, without ever playing …d7-d6 . It would seem a clever idea but, white has 5.c4 strengthening control of d5 and establishing a formation known as the Maroczy Bind. This is impossible in the Classical Dragon as the move 5.Nc3 cuts off that option.
And there’s even a Hyper-Accelerated Dragon after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 g6 but it’s not remotely as popular as its older brothers as it gives White too much freedom of options. For example, 3.c4 secures a Maroczy bind, 3.c3 is also interesting, and keep in mind that 3.d4 cxd4 4.Qxd4 can be pretty annoying too.
The idea of the Dragon
In addition to causing problems for White along the long diagonal, Black will also seek out play on the queenside. In particular, the half-open c-file is tailor-made for the rooks find activity (as it is in most Sicilians). The c4 square is a common seat for a knight or a rook (after the light-squared bishop is traded for a knight). And the c3-knight is often the victim of a vicious exchange sacrifice that aims to shatter the queenside pawn structure (where usually the white king hides when they go all-in for an attack in the kingside) and to weaken control of the important central squares e4 and d5.
Tactics are the order for the day, for both sides. The Dragon Bishop can wreak havoc down the board in multiple ways. Consider the following position for example:
In this innocent-looking position, Black has a simple win owed to the strength of the monster on g7. Can you spot it? Highlight the space below to check the answer.
1…Nxd4 opens the action of the c8-rook over the c4-bishop so the queen must get in the snipper’s fire-line. 2.Qxd4 Ng4 check to the queen! But how can it defend both bishops at the same time? 3.Qd3 Nxe3 4.Qxe3 Rxc4 Black is a piece up.
Key Lines in the Sicilian Dragon
White has a number of ways of tackling the Sicilian Dragon. The most popular lines for White are currently the following:
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 is the start of the Yugoslav Attack.
The Yugoslav Attack
This is the most popular way to counter the Dragon as everything else gives Black an easy life. So if Black only has time to study one Dragon variation in depth, it has to be this one. White is going to castle on the queenside and roll their kingside pawns forward. The idea is to use the h5 hook to open the h-file (at the cost of material if needed) and coordinate queen+rook on h7. Sac, sac, and mate was Bobby Fischer’s formula for these positions.
Note that the seemingly innocuous move f2-f3 is actually paramount for White’s setup. The pawn secures its colleague on e4 (remeber the c3 echange sacrifice mentioned above), supports g2-g4 which will be needed sooner or later to launch the kingside attack, and more importantly, it stops …Nf6-g4 ideas! Why does that matter? Because the e3-bishop is essential for the whole plan as its mission is to go to h6 (supported by the queen on d2) and trade itself for its par on g7.
And mind you, Black’s g7-bishop is so important (both in attack and defense) that Black is often willing to retreat it to h8, even at the cost of the exchange on f8. Once it’s uncontested, that bishop can easily defend the black king and collaborate in the queenside attack. Yes, the Dragon is quite something!
The theory of this variation is very detailed and a good memory is required to be able to successfully play it from either side of the board. Black must start to generate play on the queenside as quickly as possible.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be2. This is the Classical System.
White intends castling kingside and playing a more positional game than that we find in the Yugoslav Attack. Black will play on the queenside, with …a6, …b5 and …Rc8. There is also the option of hitting White’s center with a timely …d5 break. Theoretically, this variation doesn’t pose much trouble for Black.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.f4 is the Levenfish Attack.
This is a very aggressive approach by White, who is looking to land a speedy e4-e5 jab to disrupt Black’s natural development. However, it can be parried if Black knows what they’re doing. It is advised to add more support to the e5-square with 6…Nc6 or 6…Nbd7, but there is a deadly trap that must be avoided (see below).
I used to play the Sicilian Dragon, back in the 1980s. I persuaded (the late) Mike Closs, my best friend at the time, to start playing it too and showed him a few of the ideas.
Shortly afterwards, when we were playing in a tournament together, he had his first chance to unleash his new Dragon. After five or so minutes he was walking around, looking at the other games. I got up and asked him how he was enjoying his Dragon. He suddenly looked very upset and said: ‘I’ve already lost!’
Unfortunately, his independent preparation had failed to unearth the trap in the Levenfish Attack.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.f4 Bg7 7.e5 dxe5 8.fxe5 Ng4
A natural reaction by Black, trying to exploit the weak-looking e-pawn. Unfortunately, after 9.Bb5+, there is a major problem.
9…Nc6 10.Nxc6 bxc6 11.Bxc6+ wins material for White.
Blocking the check on d7 with either the knight or the bishop allows 10.Qxg4, winning the knight.
Therefore, players as Black, when seeing this line over the board, may assume that 10…Kf8 is forced and that a period of discomfort awaits them.
Unfortunately, as my friend discovered, this is the worst option of all.
Black either resigns immediately or loses the queen, followed by the game. My friend chose the first option. Incidentally, he knew the value of resilience; he went on to become an expert in the Sicilian Dragon – the finest in our area. Of course, Dragon players will have more than their share of fun, as we are about to see.
The Dragon in Action
The follwing game illustrates very well, the nature of the Dragon.
Bednar-Mamedov, Prague Open 2012
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Bc4 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Be3
The move order was slightly different from the usual but it amounts to the same. Had White played 6.Be3 and 7.f3, now 8.Qd2 would be possible, which is considered the modern mainline. Nevertheless, 8.Bc4 is the old mainline, and it is totally fine.
The difference between them is that 8.Qd2 rushes castling queenside and hopes to play Bf1xc4 in one tempo but it allows Black to play 8…0-0 9.0-0-0 d5 which is always good in the Sicilian, although things are far from clear anyway. In the old mainline White spends a few tempos playing Bf1-c4-b3 and then exchanging it on c4, but should Black choose a different plan, the bishop is excellently placed on b3, eyeing the kingside. Furthermore, the d5 break is ruled out.
8…Bd7 9.Qd2 Rc8 10.Bb3 0-0 11.0-0-0 Ne5 12.Kb1
After some slightly uncommon move-order, we’ve reached a Dragon tabiya.
To give you an idea of the wealth of ideas in the Dragon, consider that in the last few moves, Black could have chosen from a number of setups:
8…Nxd4 9.Bxd4 Be6 10.Bxe6 fxe6, exchanging a powerful attacker, gaining control of d5 and opening the f file for the rook (and also the king!);
8…Nd7 9.Qd2 Nb6 10.Bb3 Na5, eliminating the bishop pair, which considerably decreases the fire-power of the kingside attack;
9…0-0 10.0-0-0 Rb8, known as the Chinese Dragon, with the idea of sacrificing the b-pawn on b5 to open the queenside for Black’s heavy pieces;
11…Qa5, the most active square for the queen and opening the way for the f8-rook to go to the queenside;
In the present position Black can play 12…Re8, to save the exchange after 13.Bh6 Bh8; 12…h5 hindering the kinside pawn storm; 12…Nc4 again, eliminating the bishop pair; 12…a5 creating threats on the b3-bishop with …a5-a4 after the exchange sacrifice on c3; and the move of the game, starting the march in the queenside.
A totally different method for White would be 13.h4, which is more direct. 13…b5 14.h5 Nxh5 15.g4 Nf6 16.Bh6 and it seems White made progress faster. For example, a dream scenario would be 16…Qa5 17.Bxg7 Kxg7 18.Qh6+ Kg8 19.Nd5 Rfe8 20.g5 Nh5 21.Rxh5 gxh5 22.Nf6+exf6 23.gxf6 or 19.g5 Nh5 20.Rxh5 gxh5 21.Rh1 with mate to follow shortly in both variations. Of course, Black can improve on several moments, but this line shows how unfurgiving the Dragon is. One wasted tempo and you’re out of the race!
13…b5 14.h4 b4 15.Nce2 a5
Here Black’s attack arrives first. Better was 15.Na4 which is a better execution of the idea from the game of sacrificing a piece for the attack. After 15…Qa5 16.h5 Bxa4 17.hxg6 hxg6 18.Bh6, the open h-file is a little victory for white, where as in the game, he couldn’t take advantage of it.
16.h5 a4 17.hxg6 axb3 18.gxh7+ Kh8!
This is the key. Black tolerates the h7 pawn as it’s currently serving defensive purposes.
19.cxb3 Qa5 20.g5 Nxf3!
Wow! Where did that come from? Now the g7 will breathe fire down the long diagonal as the prophecies foretold.
21.Nxf3 Nxe4 22.Qd5 Nd2+!!
And not so unusually, also the light-squred bisop! In case of 23.Qxd2 Bf5+ wins in similar fashion to the game.
23.Rxd2 Bf5+ 24.Ka1 Qxa2+!
The last piece in a cascade of brutal sacrifices. White is mated and the black bishop-pair can take all the credit.
25.Kxa2 Ra8+ 26.Qxa8 26.Rxa8+ 0-1
For more Dragon inspiration, also check out this masterful game.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is it called the Sicilian Dragon?
The pawn chain d6-e7-f7-g6-h7 resembles the Draco constellation and the shape Dragons have in Chinese mythology. The name was coined by Henry Bird, a strong player from the early 20th century, a Dragon player himself, and incidentally, an astrology aficionado.
Is the Sicilian Dragon good?
You bet it is! The Dragon is a wonderful weapon for attacking players and for must-win games. It is played at all stages of chess ability with good results for Black. If you’ve heard rumors of the Dragon being dubious, it’s a misinterpretation: at the top level, the Dragon is more a surprise weapon.
The reason is its convoluted nature. Top players using the Dragon every time become sitting ducks for engine-fueled opening preparations, where one false step seals the game’s fate (something similar happens in the Poisoned Pawn variation of the Najdorf these days). But the Dragon is widely popular at levels where preparation is not as deep and, for instance, 2500-GM use it all the time.
Is the Sicilian Dragon refuted as an opening?
Not at all! Articles claiming to have found the Dragon’s refutation were a common sight in the 70’s chess magazines. But as explained above, the Dragon lives on! If sometime, a variation suffers a heavy blow, it goes into reparation mode (which in the engine era means a week or so) until an improvement or new idea is found. In the meantime, other variations are revised and put back on line. And that’s how modern chess theory works for all openings.
Which is better—Sicilian Dragon or Najdorf?
They both are good so the answer lies in everybody’s taste and needs. They both can get pretty direct but at the same time, there’s a deep strategic content to both of them.
If you are trying to decide for one of them, make sure you feel comfortable in complications, calculating complex lines, and -all has to be said- fighting for your life. Play a few games to see which structure and plans are you most comfortable with, or see which one plays your favorite player.
What are the ideas behind Sicilian Dragon?
In a nutshell, the idea is to pressure the queenside with the power of the g7-bishop, the rook on c8, and a minority attack. If White tries to attack the fianchettoed castled with a pawn storm, that means their king will be in the danger zone, so let the fastest attack win.
Lifetime Repertoires: Dragon Sicilian by Grandmaster Anish Giri is definitely going to make the Sicilian Dragon popular once more.
More Chess Opening Basics
Here are links to the other parts of our series on Chess Opening Basics. More openings will be added soon.
Berlin Defense, Rio de Janeiro Variation
Sicilian Najdorf, Poisoned Pawn Variation
Queen’s Pawn Openings