Here’s Why The Sicilian Defence Is So Popular In Chess

Did you know that there are over 1,000 named openings in chess? They all have varying degrees of popularity but by far the most popular option for players with the black pieces is the Sicilian Defence and variations of that line of opening. Given the huge range of options available to players, what makes the Sicilian Defence so attractive?

Why is the Sicilian Defence so popular in chess? The Sicilian Defence is so popular because it allows for a fairly aggressive defence for black. It is often seen as a way for the black pieces to gain momentum after white moves first.

Despite its popularity, the Sicilian Defence is probably not the best option for beginners. Let’s see why that is exactly.

Why the Sicilian Defence is so popular - ChessPulse.com
Why the Sicilian Defence is so popular – ChessPulse.com

What Is The Sicilian Defense?

There are many openings in chess but, in general, most players with white begin a game with e4. This allows a pawn to take advantage of the double move first move, it opens up white’s strongest bishop and their queen on diagonals and prepares the pawn to be easily defended with other pawns or white’s knights.

The Sicilian Defense is when black responds to this by pushing their pawn two spaces to c5. This is statistically proven to be the best method of responding to 1. e4. It has shown a win rate for white of just 52.3% compared to 56.1% of other games where white began with this move.

Nearly a quarter of all games begin with the Sicilian Defense being employed and even at the grandmaster level nearly 17% of games do! This makes it, by far, the most popular individual opening in chess.


Why Do Grandmasters Love The Sicilian So Much?

Jonathan Rowson, the grandmaster, has said of the Sicilian Defense, “To my mind there is quite a straightforward explanation. In order to profit from the initiative granted by the first move, White has to make use of his opportunity to do something before Black has an equal number of opportunities of his own. However, to do this, he has to make “contact” with the black position. The first point of contact usually comes in the form of a pawn exchange, which leads to the opening of the position. … So the thought behind 1…c5 is this: ‘OK, I’ll let you open the position, and develop your pieces aggressively, but at a price – you have to give me one of your center pawns.’” in his book Chess for Zebras.

Other grandmasters simply wax lyrical on the beauty of asymmetry. White when faced with this opening is almost obliged to develop the kingside of the board and thus leaves black free to develop the queenside.

Exciting Chess Is Important

This leads to exciting and aggressive games where both players jostle for the advantage, in short, it’s a bit less boring than some other forms of chess and what grandmaster doesn’t want to play exciting chess? Particularly, if there are sponsorship deals waiting in the wings for those that can catch the attention of chess fans.

John Nunn, also a grandmaster, warns that the big temptation of this opening is that because it gives white a substantial initial boost to initiative that black must be very careful that it does not fall prey to a swiftly launched and stealthy attack. He notes though, in counterbalance, that the joy of this opening is often the ability of black to play not just to equal things out on the board but to wrestle the advantage from the player with the white pieces.


Why Is The Sicilian Effective And Why Is It Called The Sicilian Defense?

By moving onto c5, black has held control over the square d4 and thus, prevents white from shoring up total domination of the center by pushing their king pawn up to the queen pawn’s side. The alternative move for black to exert similar control of this square is to move to e5 but this offers symmetry which can be unattractive to many players.

The downside is that c5, in itself, doesn’t develop black’s position very much and if playing one of many variants of this opening – the black player may find their position is hugely underdeveloped by the midgame and that they’ve opened themselves up to attack from white.

Mostly, though, what tends to happen is that the c-pawn is swiftly traded for white’s d-pawn and this can open up the white king and give black domination in the center. It also makes it easier for black to get a rook onto the board to give power to attacks on the queenside.

A Rose By Any Other Name?

Why is it called the Sicilian defense? Well, it wasn’t given that name when it began use. It had no name in early chess literature at all. It appears to have been given this formal name by an Englishman (and chess master) Jacob Sarratt who found an old Italian text which found the opening referred to as “the Sicilian Game” and the name stuck with a slight change from game to attack.

Oddly, despite its current popularity there was a time when many chess players simply refused to play the Sicilian deeming it a dangerous and risky strategy. It was the Fischer and Kasparov years that made the opening truly popular, when suddenly everyone could see the power of the opening in improving black’s chances of winning.


What Are Some Of The Variations Of The Sicilian Defense?

The main variant of the Sicilian defense is known as the “open Sicilian” and the moves are:

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

As you can see if you run this through on a board – you end up with a very asymmetrical position on the board from here and it’s this that leads to a lot of the best games in chess.

Then there is the Najdorf:

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

Bobby Fischer and Gary Kasparov both loved this version of the dense. This sees black move a pawn to interrupt the power of white’s knights and most favored bishop.

And the Dragon:

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

Another popular variant which gives black the incentive to fianchetto a bishop and then to really push through queenside. Magnus Carlsen, on the other hand, skips g6 and goes straight for the fianchetto.

There’s the classical too:

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

If you like a battle on the board then this might be the way to go about it – develop your knights and leave the bishop for later in the game.

And the Scheveningen:

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

This can create a lovely attacking pawn structure that makes for really edge games.

There is also the closed Sicilian and a group of variants that tend to keep things less aggressive from white’s perspective.

  1. e4          c5
  2. Nc3        Nc6
  3. g3           g6
  4. Bg2        Bg7
  5. d3          d6

If you want to take fewer risks then closing things down can be a good way to balance out the Sicilian Defense, we think though that on balance – white still wins more games than it loses against this defense, there’s no need for caution unless your opponent is much stronger than you.


Conclusion

Why is the Sicilian Defense so popular in chess? The Sicilian Defense helps black mount a counterattacking and then attacking game much more readily than many other lines of defense. There are some variations of this defense that lead to an almost equal number of black wins to white wins, this is very different from most games of chess where white will usually find itself picking up about 54% of all wins.

However, there are drawbacks to this opening and particularly for people just learning chess. It leads to a lot of complex positional play in the center of the board which can be too much to handle when you’re just learning the ropes. Sometimes, it’s best to keep things simple until you gain a bit more knowledge and experience and are ready to jump into the deep end and play the Sicilian Defense as it’s meant to be played.

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