Let's face it: when it comes to chess, playing second puts you at a distinct disadvantage. Most of your moves end up being reactionary and you have to struggle to gain any dominance.

Come to think of it, that's true in life, too.

There are quite a few high-level chess players who perceive playing Black as an ill omen; a sure sign that they will lose the match. It doesn't have to be that way.

Don't let such a superstition lead you to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Learn the Sicilian Defence so that, no matter which side of the board you play, your game skills will checkmate your opponents.

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The Origins of the Sicilian Defence

In this opening, as per usual, White immediately claims dominance over the board's centre with their king's pawn on e4. Nothing says Black have to confront it.

The Sicilian Defence: 1. e4 c5

A strong Black pawn line is a key aspect of this defence
A key feature of the Sicilian Defence is a strong Black pawn line. Photo credit: Conal Gallagher on VisualHunt

The Sicilian Defence has been around for centuries. It was written up in a 1594 chess manuscript penned by Giulio Polerio, an Italian chess player who enjoyed deep dives into chess theory.

At the time of his writing, it was not called the Sicilian; that name was assigned some 220 years later, when one of England's top chess players, Jacob Henry Sarratt translated it from a different unnamed chess manuscript that referred to it as 'the Sicilian game'.

That and other written works indicate that this opening enjoyed long-term popularity.

During the latter years of chess's Romantic era, the Sicilian fell out of favour. Actually, it was more like 'plunged into the depths and shattered magnificently on impact'.

Leading players around the world - Paul Morphy in the US, William Steinitz in Austria and Englishman George Hatfield Gossip all decried the weakness of that response, the asymmetry and the fact that, while Black rambles along his pawn rank, White is developing their pieces.

Indeed, Paul Morphy so loathed this opening that he would only compete in chess matches provided that at least half of the games he played would start with 1. e4 e5 - an opening that may signal the Scotch Game or any other Open Game.

He also loathed the Queen's Gambit and any other queenside opening.

The Sicilian derision continued throughout the early 20th Century, with ever-more-famous voices heaping on the scorn - Tarrasch, Mason, Capablanca... And then, a small publication titled Modern Chess Openings reversed the Sicilian's fortunes by cautiously stating that, if well-played, it could be one of chess's best defenses.

After the Second World War, the Sicilian soared in popularity due to awed accounts from renowned players of how, despite its many flaws, it still manages to lead Black to victory more than any other opening.

There is truth to that assertion. Modern chess statistics show that Black wins a higher proportion of games when responding to 1. e4 with the Sicilian than with any other move.

How can that be? And what makes the Sicilian Defence so effective? Let's find out more.

How the Sicilian Defence Differs

Contrary to the weakness Romantic-era chess masters decried the Sicilian runs on an undercurrent of combativeness.

Sure, starting out, it seems like Black doesn't know what they want to do with their pawns; that gives White early advantages in piece development and taking control of the centre. You might say that it's the chess equivalent of giving someone enough rope to...

However, rather than just trying to equal their opponent, Black's objective is to gain the upper hand. That's done by stalling any opportunity at a pawn exchange.

By advancing their queenside bishop's pawn, Black controls square d5, a move that gives them some control over the centre while keeping their pawn safely distanced.

Another remarkable feature that distinguishes the Sicilian is that Black tends to develop queenside pieces while most of White's positioning takes place kingside.

You might wonder how developing pieces on either side of the board could lead to combativeness. After all, the King's Gambit opening is a face-off with a near-immediate capture opportunity.

Just like any good military commander, you have to first get your fighters in place and then, the action begins. The aim is to steer the board toward tactical or positional lines, and then make use of them.

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The Importance of Niche Lines

A niche line is a little-known and unanticipated response to a standard move.

High-level chess players rely on niche lines to score amazing upsets
Chess players often consider niche lines when hoping to provoke a stunning upset. Photo credit: Robot Plays Guitar on Visualhunt

Unless you're an absolute beginner, you (should) know how to read chess notation and have a bit of experience playing. If so, you likely know that chess openings consist of (a series of) questions and answers expressed by moving pieces to specific squares.

Let's take the Ruy Lopez opening, for example. Its algebraic notation is 1. e4 e5     2. Nf3 Nc6     3. Bb5

How Black will respond on their third move is a matter of chess theory. They may choose their answer from a number of variations or adopt a typical response such as the Morphy Defense.

The takeaway is that chess theory projects how a game might play out if players adopt this strategy, that attack or the other defense.

Niche lines might be thought of as obscure theory. These moves might have been played before and even theorized but were not considered staple moves - not considered mainstream theory for a reason: they were counter- or unproductive, too risky, too costly... and so on.

Any reason that a move might have been discarded from standard theory is a great reason to consider it when playing the Sicilian Game.

Remember that its nature is combative so, any time you can launch a sneak attack - always providing it is well-timed and won't affect you further into the game, you should.

Several grandmasters have used this strategy to great effect, the current World Chess Champion and (perhaps) the world's most renowned chess player among them.

You know who they are, right?

Sicilian Defence Variations

Niche lines aside, the Sicilian Defence has an extensively developed theory, replete with variations. And, there are different Sicilian games, too: the Open Sicilian and Closed Sicilian. In fact, there are so many different ways the Sicilian Defence could steer a game that, if we wrote them all up, it would take an hour to read this article.

Thus, we'll expound only on the four main variations, possible when playing the Open Sicilian.

Classical Variation

1. e4 c5     2. Nf3 d6     3. d4 cxd4     4. Nxd4 Nf6     5. Nc3 Nc6

The distinguishing aspect of this variation is Black's deferment of their kingside bishop. Instead, they develop their queenside knight.

Another move sequence could lead to this variation: 1. e4 c5     2. Nf3 Nc6     3. d4 cxd4     4, Nxd4 Nf6     5. Nc3 d6

The aim Black has in adopting this variation is to put heavy pressure on White's d4 knight while maintaining the game's asymmetry.

Dragon Variation

1. e4 c5     2. Nf3 d6     3. d4 cxd4     4. Nxd4 Nf6     5. Nc3 g6

This variation is where the kingside versus queenside development comes into play. Particularly vicious, rapacious play.

As you can see in the notation, there are two rapid-fire captures, after which Black advances his g-file pawn in preparation of a fianchetto; a move that will see his kingside bishop poised for action on the chessboard's most important diagonal.

Note that fianchetto translates from Italian to 'side wall' or 'side panel'. That makes it a very apt description of this strategic move... do you wonder whether it plays well in the Italian Game?

The a1-h8 is the chessboard's critical diagonal line
These chess pieces are all lined up along the board's most critical diagonal line. Photo credit: Traveller_40 on VisualHunt

Najdorf Variation

1. e4 c5     2. Nf3 d6      3. d4 cxd4      4. Nxd4 Nf6     5. Nc3 a6

The idea behind this line is for Black to prepare moving their king's pawn to the centre to confront their opponent's e-file pawn, with the secondary purpose of controlling square b5. This variation gives Black an even greater centre presence and gives them more ways to attack.

The Najdorf is the Open Sicilian's oft-chosen variation.

Scheveningen Variation

'1. e4 c5     2. Nf3 d6     3. d4 cxd4     4. Nxd4 Nf6     5. Nc3 e6

Remember the long-ago criticism for this opening - specifically the ones about Black fiddling around with their pawns while White gobbled up the board? Those naysayers' complaints overlooked something.

This variation provides Black with enormous flexibility to use their pawns for many innovative attack strategies and, even better: White could play off of Black's pawn structure to advance a few strategies of their own.

The Synthesized Sicilian Defence

The Sicilian Defence is one of chess's top openings and, as more players find victory through it, its popularity is sure to continue growing.

But what could the Alan Parsons Project have to do with it?

Let's keep in mind that the Sicilian Defence is a particularly tactical game, fully combative and ferocious. That's how Eric Woolfson felt when recording their album titled The Sicilian Defence.

While he was negotiating the band's new contract, their record label was holding their feet to the fire to deliver the last album due from the previous contract. Indeed, they refused to offer the band a new contract until the old one's obligations had been fulfilled.

Full of frustration and more than a bit of ire, the Project quickly put together 10 tracks, all of them titled in chess notation,

As far as the band was concerned, there was barely any artistry needed. They were making a series of strategic moves to come out on top after an extended battle with record label executives.

Come to think of it, that does rather sound like they were playing the Sicilian Defence, doesn't it?

Enough rock'n'roll trivia! Now, let's learn how to use the French Defence in chess...

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.