Have you got a comfortable seat? Belt fastened? I hope so, because in this article we are going to explore one of the wildest opening variation: The Sicilian Dragon!
When the Dragon appears on the chessboard, everyone is happy! White is happy, because he thinks he’s going to checkmate Black’s King. Black is happy too, because he believes that he’s going to deliver checkmate first. And spectators, oh yes, they are the happiest, because they are going to have a lot of fun.
I have studied the Dragon Defense deeply enough to share with you my PGN file and my thoughts on it. There are rumors that appear every now and then, about the Dragon being refused by the computers running chess software and engine. That’s totally untrue. The Dragon is a sound and playable opening that has been played by many great players, including (recently) World Champion Magnus Carlsen, and top-players such as Nakamura and Radjabov.
So, are you ready yet? This is what we are going to do today:
Look at the main ideas, strategic plans and tactical patterns in the Classic Dragon Variation. Take a look at some model game. Come back to the theory and revisit the concept more in depth, under the light of the model games. Then, we will switch to the Accelerated Dragon Variation, and do the same. Let’s start!
In the Classic Dragon Black does not force White’s hand, and quite calmly develops with d6, Nf6 and g6. The most common move order is 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 g6 6. Be3 Bg7 7. f3 O-O
The whole strategies of the two players revolve around the opposite castles that are going to appear after White plays 8. Qd2 and 9. O-O-O. As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that White can refuse to enter the sharpest lines, and instead play for a more quiet set-up, with short castle (although, in this latter case, the move 7. f3 makes no sense). We are not going to analyze such a lame approach in this article.
If White does accept the challenge, once he executes the long castle then the field is ready for the wildest of the battles.
As it’s well-known, White strategy is based on the attacking maneuvers h4-h5-hxg6, Bh6 and Qh6. Sometimes, we may see a Nf5 appearing out of the blue, but it’s quite a rare sacrifice in this line. The other common idea is to play Nd5, so that after exd5 the White pawn in d5 will interrupt communication between the two flanks, and make Black’s defensive task more difficult.
On the other side, Black has many way to carry on the attack, but the most common is via the c-file. Doubling, or even tripling, the heavy pieces on the file is a good start: Rac8, Rc5 (or Rc4), and Rfc8. Ne5-c4 is also a standard way to exchange the strong Bb3 and lift the rook up to c4. Qa5 is a common move too, and the exchange sacrifice on c3 must always taken in consideration. As possible twist to this common plan, Black can take Nxd4 and then quickly push forward the pawns with b5-a5.
So far, so good, these all are well-known ideas that you can guess even without much study on this Opening. Now, I want to share with you some deeper ideas and insights, that are the results of my personal home prep.
This seems like a lot to assimilate, so let’s stop for a moment and take a look at some illustrative lines and/or model games.
The first idea that I want to analyze in further detail with you is the exchange sacrifice in h5. Based on my research, this is a very common pattern.
How does such idea arise, in the game? Basically, White will always play h4-g4, or g4-h4 in the Classic Dragon. Black has a choice, to play h5 himself or not. After that, he has another choice, to take hxg4 or not. In my experience many players do not capture on g4, although that’s the best move, in many cases.
If Black does not capture on g5 then White should capture himself gxh5. Black will invariably take back with the Knight, Nxh5, and then White has the maneuver Rdg1, Rg5 (often threatening the Black Qa5) and Rxh5. This opens up the g-file for the other rook, which along with Bh6 gives White a deadly attack.
Let’s know look at some more concrete lines.
The second idea that I want to analyze deeper is the Knight jump in f5. This is actually fairly rare, surprisingly. Why surprisingly? Well, in my opinion, in a opposite-castles position, where white launches all his pieces toward Black’s King, and the Knight stands beautifully in d4, Nf5 could be a very common pattern. Well, it’s not.
In fact, the Knight from d4 often is rerouted to e2, offering protection to the other Knight in c3, or to b3, in case Black rushed with Qa5 too early.
The cases where the sacrifice Nf5 appears are mostly when Black has taken hxg4, White has given up another pawn with h4-g5 and Black has taken that too, with Nxh5. At that point, Nf5+ followed by gxf5 would leave the Nh5 en prise. So, more often than not, Nf5+ is not a real sacrifice.
Let’s look at some lines now.
Let’s now continue studying the Classic Dragon with a couple of model games. I want to show you to games played by absolute top-players, to emphasize how well respected is the Dragon at the highest level.
To start off, let’s have a look at the game Topalov vs Carlsen, from 2008. Keep in mind that in 2008 Magnus Carlsen was already in the high 2750 Elo, and that Topalov was number #1 in the World, and in those years he was always either the World Champion or the Challenger.
This time, let’s start by looking at the game!
The first interesting moment in the game is at move 12, when Black chooses 12 … a6. This is a move that was quite trendy at that time (ten years ago), in conjunction with the idea of lifting the Rook to c5, from where it offers protection along the fifth rank. Magnus does both things indeed.
Nonetheless, after 19 f4! White seems already clearly better. Magnus then makes a further mistake with 23… Rc6?!, when 23 … Rc8 would have been better.
After that mistake yet, it took Topalov many moves to cash the full point. And the winning plan he found is based on a weird Queen diversion on the Queenside, 35 Qa5! I don’t know how many players would even consider such a move.
What is that I want to focus on, by looking at this game? A simple evidence: Black position is tough to break, more than it seems.
If you play against the Dragon, and go all-in with a Kingside attack, then well done! You have many chances to win. However, bear in mind that Black has many defensive resources, and even if it seems on the verge to collapse, it will take a patient and dedicated effort to finally force resignation.
The second game I want to analyze with you features Magnus Carlsen again on the Black side. On the White side, we have pluri- World Champion Vishy Anand. Again, a top-class match.
Magnus chooses the same variation that we just saw in the previous game, but then deviates at move 16, playing 16 … Qa5 instead of 16 … Rc5 as he did against Topalov.
The key moment of the entire game is right after that, at move 17. Vishy plays 17 Bh6 and Magnus sacrifices the exchange on c3 with 17 … Rxc3.
In fact, it’s likely that Vishy simply outplayed Magnus in the calculation of this complex line, because after the intermezzo 18 Bxg7 Black’s is already dead lost, and forced to even sacrifice his Queen.
As a reference, in the same position after 17 Bh6, top-GM Radjabov played 17 … Bf6!? against top-GM (and World Champion Challenger) Karjakin, and went on winning the game with Black.
Here’s the game.
So, overall, this is a short game in which future World Champion Magnus Carlsen blunders a “deep” tactical sequence, well spotted instead by Vishy Anand. You may ask why this is an important game.
Well, in my opinion, the first and foremost thing to remember after watching this game is the long sequence of moves before the blunder (that is, until move 17). Why? Because that’s the most topical, and typical, line of the Classic Dragon. Therefore it’s extremely important to remember.
In second place, the most important variations were not shown in the game, and stayed in the background. I think it’s a nice motivation to have: if you want to explore further this variation, take 20-30 minutes to look and understand the complications after move 17. White has so many tactical ideas, such as Rxh5, the f7 pinned pawn that therefore does not protect g6, the undefended Queen in a5 (for example if White plays Rxh5 gxh5 then Qg5+ and Black cannot play Ng6 because of Qg5xa5!!).
I have added some lines also in the PGN above (and in LiChess), so it should be easier to navigate them.
Let’s now switch over the second most important way to play the Sicilian Dragon.
The whole idea of the Accelerated Dragon line is that Black does not put early pressure on the e4 pawn, and therefore invites White to play c4.
The pawn formation e4-c4 is a strong one because it firmly controls the d5 square. On the other hand, such pawn structure makes the light-square Bishop quite bad. In addition to that, White position is over-extended, in the sense that Black has a few sound approaches and plan to choose from, such as preparing b5, preparing f5, or just standing still.
Of course, White position is fine. Don’t get me wrong on this. White position is fine and if you like this Marozcky-like structures, then go for it. But I don’t like them. These types of structures are very static, whereas I do prefer having a dynamic game.
This is why, against the Accelerated Dragon Variation, I suggest a hybrid approach. The results is a solid variation that gives plenty of attacking opportunities if Black is not careful.
Let’s look at the first few moves.