Openings

How to Play Against the Sicilian Dragon Defense

How to Play Against the Sicilian Dragon Defense

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!

The Classic Dragon Variation

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.

  • As a strict rule, after Nx4, Bxc4, Rxc4, White starts the attack with g4. Otherwise he starts with h4. However, keep in mind that these two moves are interchangeable, and switching the order can be a good idea to avoid the opponent’s home prep.
  • Do NOT retreat the Bishop to b3 “just because”. Wait to have a good reason, usually after Rac8.
  • Do NOT freak out if Black starts the attack with a5, instead of b5. That’s just a inaccuracy, so keep advantage of it. Answer it with a4 and occupy the b5-square.
  • After you play g4, if Black does not take hxg4, then you should take gxh5, then play Rg1 and Rg5. In most cases, the exchange sacrifice Rg5xNh5 wins the game. Full analysis and example of this in the PGN at the end!
  • It’s okay to let Black’s Knight anchor itself on h5, like after 20. h4 h5 21. g4 hxg4 22. h5 Nxh5 23. fxg4 Nf6 24. g5 Nh5. It seems like it stops White attack, but usually White has the time to bring over his own Knight, like Nc3-Ne2-Ng3, unlock the Kingside and… deliver checkmate!
  • Finally, keep in mind that White has the battery Qd2 and Rd1 on the d-file. So, in a typical position where Black still has Qd8 and Bd7, a tactical pattern to remember is e4-e5, because after dxe5 White has also g4-g5!, deviating the Nf6 which leaves the Bd7 en prise.

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.

Illustrative Line 1

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.

Illustrative Line 2

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.

Classic Dragon Model Game 1

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.

Classic Dragon Model Game 2

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 Accelerated Dragon Variation

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.

The first and (in my opinion) most important point to remember are the following ones.

  • There’s always a brief moment when Black could play Qb6 with double threats to d4 and b2. This happens if, instead of O-O Black plays d6 and White answers with f3, trying to transpose to the classic Dragon. However, White can meet Qb6 with Nf5! because the Bg7 is unprotected. White is better, but the variation is quite complex, so it’s worth memorizing it. We will look at it later in the PGN file.
  • After that single moment when Bg7 is unprotected, if Black plays O-O then White should pretty much always answer with Bb3, thus protecting b2 and making Qb6 a pointeless move.
  • When the normal developments moves are finished, that is after 8. Bb3, Black has several plans to chose from. A classic structure with 8 … d6, a French-hybrid one with 8 … e6, throwing in 8 … Ng4, or starting some early operation on the Queenside with 8 … a5. That’s quite a lot of options indeed!

Before looking at the full PGN file, let’s try to think about how to meet each of these plans, when playing with White. First of all, 8 … d6 will simply transpose to the Classic Dragon Variation, which we’ve already studied.

What about the somewhat surprising 8 … Ng4!? This is a sound move that, however, looses some development time. Strictly speaking, the best option for White is 9. Qxg4 Nxd4 10. Qd1!? This Queen retreat can look strange at first, but it’s based on the idea that White is well ahead on development, and also after 10 … Nxb3 11. axb3 Black will have to spend one more move to protect a7. So, the big advantage in development is worth even more than the pair of Bishops. There’s also the option to play 10. O-O-O instead of Qd1, which seems a very fighting alternative, but in fact Black can equalize with a couple of precise moves.

What about the fast Queenside expansion with 8 … a5!? Black’s main idea when playing it is the hope that White will spend one tempo playing 9. a4. Black thinks he’s threatening 9 … a4 himself, which would deviate one of White’s pieces from the defense of e4. Truth is, White can ignore this threat. After 9. O-O! a4 10. Bxa4 Nxe4 11. Nb5! White is again ahead on development and ready to take advantage of Black Queenside’s many holes. The central pawn e4? Without it there’s one more line opened for White’s army (Re1).

Black has one additional possibility, the pseudo- pawn sacrifice 8 … d5!? When facing this idea with White, you simply need to remember that after taking with 9. exd5, you should then give the pawn back in d6. This will spoil Black structure and guarantee a small advantage to White.

Finally, Black can try to set-up a hybrid structure starting with 8 … e6, and continuing with 9 … d5. That becomes a mix between the French Defense and the Sicilian Dragon. For some reason, this line seems very popular at mid/low level, and especially in internet games. Therefore, I spent quite some time figuring out the best options for White.

After long research, my conclusions and my suggestion for you is to go for the plan with 9. f4 and a Kingside attack. The important thing to remember here is that White Queen should go to f3. A typical line would be 9. f4 d5 10. e5 Nfd7 11. Qf3 a6?! 12. O-O-O Nxd4 13. Bxd4 b5 14. h4! +/= White attack is much faster and dangerous. Instead of 11 … a6 Black should try to create some space with 11 … Nxd4 12. Bxd4 f6!? although even here White can grab the (smaller) advantage. We will see this and much more in a moment in the PGN file.

Before that, I also want to mention that in this hybrid structure Black is not forced to go 9 … f5, but can play with 9 … d6. This pawn is very awkward, but offer some dynamic chances, especially because Black will soon play e5 himself. Nonetheless, White enjoys the better position even here.

Alright now, here is the full PGN from my own Opening Repertoire, shared via LiChess (you can also download it for free).

Now, to further improve our understanding of the Accelerated Dragon Variation, I want to analyze two model games with you.

Accelerated Dragon Model Game 1

The first game we are going to study was played between two strong Russian GMs. One of them, Aleksander Grischuk, is actually quite well-known and has been in top-10 for long time. The other player, GM Zvjaginsev, is a lesser known but also very strong GM (2650+ Elo). You might have heard of him as the “inventor” of the 1. e4 c5 2. Na3!? line (which is named after himself).

The two Russians create a big mess on the board in this game. An exciting and complex fight!

Let’s talk a bit about the Opening. In the Accelerated Dragon, Zvjaginsev decides to pull the trick Ng4, which we have already seen in my Repertoire. Grischuk takes in g4 and thus Black takes the piece back in d4.

At this point, White decides to challenge Black’s strategy with O-O-O. The games continues along the lines that we have already discussed, until Black’s tries to complicate further with 13 … f5?!

In fact, this strange-looking move is also a big mistake. Maybe a difficult one to exploit, due to the complexity of the position, but definitely a mistake.

The first point to remember is: if you plan to play the Accelerated Dragon with the Ng4 trick, then do not push e6. Save that time for a immediate d5, maybe.

Alright, now let’s take a look at this fun game.

I think we can learn two main lessons by looking at the way a top-GM like Grischuk handled the position.

  1. The very instructive maneuver Rd6, Rb6, along with the reply b4 (when facing Black’s a4), is a very instructive way to defend the Queenside and gain some tempos for White’s attack.
  2. The pawn sacrifices on the Kingside, which appear to be extremely thematic even in such an uncommon Dragon position, are the first attacking mean you should always think of.

The remainder of the game, is just about White pieces chasing Black’s King and finally check-mating it.

Accelerated Dragon Model Game 2

The second game I want to show you is a old game played by a very young Sergey Karjakin, against GM Gawain Jones. For sure you know Karjakin: he has been one of the top-players for many years now, and was also World Champion Challenger (loosing at the rapid tiebreaks against Magnus Carlsen). Jones, is a strong British GM who has been British Chess Champion multiple times, and has a strong record also in Open Tournaments.

Also, I do know that Jones is very well prepared in his favorite Openings. These include the King’s Indian Defense and the Sicilian Dragon. I wrote an article with a very deep analysis of the King’s Indian Defense, and practical tips on how to include it in your Opening Repertoire. You can find the article here.

So, Jones is a very well prepared player in the Openings. In this game, he chooses a line that we have analyzed as well. Precisely, the line with early a5-a4, exchanging the Black’s a-pawn with White’s e-pawn. As we already know, even though in general exchanging offside pawns with central one is a favorable thing to do, in this case White gets a lot of activity and a dangerous initiative on the Queenside.

And Karjakin is ready to take on the challenge, and go for the main line with 10. Nxa4 and 11. Nb5. White’s Knights look very threatening.

Then, a surprise! Jones sacrifices the exchange with 11 … Rxe4!? Although very suspicious at first look, this is not the only game where this sequence of moves was played. Furthermore, as I already said, Jones does know well his Repertoire, therefore this must be a “somewhat” theoretical sacrifice.

And in fact, to be honest, I think Black has good practical compensation. He gets one pawn for the exchange, get rid of the dangerous White’s Knights, and has a simple plan to advance his central pawns.

Nonetheless, an exchange is an exchange! White must be slightly better, and must be happy to play this variation.

So here’s why I am showing this game to you. If you meet this sacrifice at the board, now you are better prepared and know that White is doing well. This knowledge is extremely important, both practically and psychologically.

Let’s now take a look at how Karjakin handled the position.

Calmly, Karkjakin contains Black’s central pawns and then uses his material advantage to advance his own pawn on the Queenside. This is the correct strategy to apply in this position: exchange Queens and one pair of Rooks. Then play with the Rook left against one Black’s minor piece.

One very nice move in the game is 37. f4! Karjakin offers a second pawn in order to be able to double Rooks on the a-file, with the only purpose to then exchange one pair of Rooks. This is a general advice that you should keep in mind: in many positions with the exchange up, try to swap off one pair of Rooks. By doing so, the advantage will be even more evident.

Conclusions

In this post we went together through some serious analysis of the two most common ways to play the Sicilian Dragon: the Classic Variation, and the Accelerated Variation.

I presented the entire analysis from White’s perspective, offering strategies, examples and tips on how to play “against” the Dragon. Nonetheless, keep in mind that the Dragon is a fully sound opening, so you can use some of my analysis also to improve your own Black’s Repertoire, if you are a Dragon player.

Have fun!!