The Sicilian Dragon – Pawn Structure 101

When you see the name “Sicilian” on the title of a pawn structure article like this one, you can already be sure that there will be some fun coming your way.

As you may know, the Sicilian defense is widely known for presenting chess players with sharp games and complex positions, where creativity to attack is as necessary as is tenacity to defend.

The Sicilian – Dragon pawn structure is no exception. It is one of the most important structures – it comes from the Dragon variation, which, some years ago, was at the very top of the most played variations in the Sicilian.

If you are asking yourself why this structure is named after a mythological creature, here’s an interesting curiosity to work up an appetite: in an autobiography in 1953, a Russian chess player and aspiring astronomer said to have previously named the Dragon variation of the Sicilian after the Draco constellation.

While the similarities are clear, looking at the sky won’t tell you how to play in this structure – but this article certainly will.

What does the Sicilian – Dragon pawn structure look like?

Diagram 1a: The Sicilian – Dragon pawn structure.

Here is our constellation of pawns: White’s standing on a2, b2, c2, e4, f2, g2 and h2, and Black’s on a7, b7, d6, e7, f7, g6 and h7.

As you may know, the open Sicilian defense is characterized by the exchange of a Black pawn on c5 for a White pawn on d4: that’s the only exchange that happened before we had a Dragon structure on the board.

All of the other pawns still remain, and that is usually a sign of a complex position that will be open to possibilities and different kinds of plans and ideas – and all of this is an accurate description of this structure.

By now, you must know that when a c-pawn is exchanged for a d-pawn, two files are opened on the board, which are precisely the ones where those pawns had standed before.

White will try to control the d-file as much as Black will try to control the c-file. However, unlike in certain Sicilian positions where Black’s e-pawn has already been advanced (like in the Scheveningen or the Najdorf variations) in the Dragon the pawn remains on e7.

This has advantages and disadvantages: a clear advantage is that the d6 pawn is protected by its neighbor on e7. A disadvantage would be that Black is not controlling the d5 square as well as he would if the pawn were, for instance, on e6.

The d5 square is critical in this position. Later on in the article, we will see White trying to exploit this square by placing a strong central Knight there, and how Black will be able to fight back with his own weapons.

Diagram 1b: The critical d5 square.

By looking at the position closely, you will also be able to tell a main difference between this structure and other Sicilian structures you may know: Black’s g-pawn is on g6 and not on g7.

As everything in chess, this also bears its own pros and cons.

A good thing that comes from the pawn being on g6 is that Black will be able to fianchetto his dark-squared Bishop. In chess, we use the Italian word fianchetto to describe a situation where a Bishop is on the great diagonal (either a1-h8 or a8-h1) shielded by his pawns in triangle shape all around it. This is known as the Dragon Bishop, an incredibly strong piece which will aim to put pressure on White’s Queenside and control the dark squares – continuing the mythology theme, it is the element of fire in this position.

On the other hand, a downside could be that g6 could potentially create some weaknesses on the f6 and h6 squares, and White may be able to exploit that by advancing f4-f5 or h4-h5.

Diagram 1c: Imbalances created by the g7-g6 advance.

Now that you can identify a Dragon structure in the blink of an eye, it’s time to move on to more complex matters: how do we get there? And, more importantly, how do we play once we get there? All of the answers to your questions are coming soon.

How do you reach this pawn structure?

As happens in many Sicilian structures, the pawn structure shares its name with a given opening variation, and the Dragon is no exception.

Therefore, as you might guess, the most straightforward way to reach this structure is precisely with the move order of a Sicilian – Dragon variation. We get to this exact structure after these moves:

  1. e4 c5
  2. Nf3 d6
  3. d4 cxd4
  4. Nxd4 Nf6
  5. Nc3 g6
Diagram 1d: The Dragon Sicilian.

As you have probably heard by now, the Sicilian defense bears extensive amounts of opening theory, regardless of the variations. Since the Dragon is actually one of the most famous variations, we can’t escape from a little bit of opening knowledge if we want to be successful in playing it.

The move order we have just seen is the way to play the Classical Dragon setup. There are other semi-variations within the Dragon, such as the Accelerated Dragon and the Hyper Accelerated Dragon.

It must be noted, however, that in these variations Black refrains from playing an early d6: his idea is to try to counterattack in the centre with an immediate d5, without losing a tempo with d6 first, if White decides to start an attack too early.

However, in later stages of the game, if White decides to castle Kingside and play in a more positional way, trying to achieve control of the d5 square (which is exactly what he should do against the Accelerated and Hyper Accelerated Dragon), Black will more often than not end up moving the pawn to the d6 square and achieving a Sicilian – Dragon pawn structure.

The difference between the Accelerated and the Hyper Accelerated Dragon is that on the latter, Black plays g6 right on the second move, showing his intentions very clearly. This gives White the extra option of playing Qxd4 against cxd4, as you can see in Diagram 1e.

  1. e4 c5
  2. Nf3 g6
  3. d4 cxd4
  4. Qxd4
Diagram 1e: The Hyper Accelerated Dragon: Position after 4.Qxd4.

This line is not especially threatening, but it’s another possibility you must prepare for if you intend to play this variation with the Black pieces.

In the Accelerated Dragon, Black plays Nc6 on the second move instead of d6 or g6. While this move may seem the most logical out of the three, bringing a piece out from early on, it isn’t without its drawbacks, as everything in chess openings.

The extra option White gets against the Accelerated Dragon variation is to reply with 3.Bb5, the Rossolimo variation, intending to exchange the Bishop on c6 and creating doubled pawns.

The Rossolimo variation goes:

  1. e4 c5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bb5
Diagram 1f: The Rossolimo variation.

While we can also say the same as we did about the Qxd4 variation in the Hyper Accelerated (it is not particularly critical or dangerous) it does bear a great amount of theory in itself, and the player who chooses this move order must be prepared to face it rather often – there are many replies, one of them being g6, perhaps the one that is more in the spirit of the Accelerated Dragon ideas.

All of these are extra options for White that deserve a mention, but the main line against either of these openings is to play d4 and take back with the Knight, which may lead to our beloved pawn structure in only a few moves’ time.

In diagram 1g you can see how this structure was reached coming from the Accelerated Dragon move order:

  1. e4 c5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. d4 cxd4
  4. Nxd4 g6
  5. Nc3 Bg7
  6. Be3 Nf6
  7. Bc4 0-0
  8. Bb3 d6
Diagram 1g: The Accelerated Dragon Sicilian: Position after 8…d6.

It is also possible to transpose to the above position with the Hyper Accelerated Dragon, with the moves:

  1. e4 c5
  2. Nf3 g6
  3. d4 cxd4
  4. Nxd4 Nc6
  5. Nc3 Bg7
  6. Be3 Nf6
  7. Bc4 0-0
  8. Bb3 d6

After this theoretical introduction, you can not only identify a Sicilian – Dragon pawn structure on any chess board in the world, but you also know exactly how to reach it with many different variations.

Let’s ask ourselves the following question that comes to mind…

What are the characteristics of this pawn structure?

Now that you’ve read all about the basics of the Sicilian – Dragon pawn structure, it’s time to take a step further and dive into the characteristics of the position.

As you now know, this Dragon-shaped constellation of pawns offers both White and Black many interesting possibilities, regardless of how it is reached: either by the Classical Dragon, Accelerated Dragon or Hyper Accelerated Dragon move orders.

Furthermore, you now know that Black will put his dark-squared Bishop on g7, where it will be fianchettoed and aim to control the dark squares in the position, and that White will try to exploit the weaknesses created by the move g6, either by advancing f4-f5 or h4-h5.

You also know that the d5 square is quite critical in the position: if Black manages to control it and even breakthrough in the centre, he will often stand well. White will try to place a Knight on this strong central square, where it controls a great share of the board and inhibits Black’s active play.

As in many Sicilian structures, the fact that White’s pawn is on e4 grants him a space advantage, while Black must seek counterplay using his own weapons: the open c-file and his majestic Bishop on the great diagonal (diagram 1c).

While in many Sicilian structures Black’s e-pawn has already been moved, in the Dragon it stands on e7, which makes Black’s centre more solid.

If Black plays d6 from early on, one of White’s plans will be to castle Queenside and generate an attack directed at Black’s King. If this happens, Black will also exploit the open c-file with the same intentions, while advancing his own pawns on the Queenside.

On the following diagram, you can see a typical double-edged position, where both sides will run towards the enemy King – the fastest and most dangerous attack shall triumph.

Diagram 1h: Typical Classical Dragon setup.

Even if Black does play d6 from early on, White faces a difficult choice between castling Kingside or Queenside, while Black will always castle Kingside. This decision will shape the character of the game to a great extent.

On the other hand, Black might save his d6 move for later, as you have seen in the Accelerated and Hyper Accelerated variations. As we have seen on the previous section, this way of playing has its own drawbacks, but it is indeed effective at stopping White from attacking on the Queenside.

This happens due to the d5 central break, which is even stronger when Black has not wasted the d7-d6 tempo. Take a look at diagram 1i to see what could happen if White is careless.

Diagram 1i: The strong d5 break.

As you can see, Black gains a lot of counterplay in the centre. The e4 pawn is now under fire, and so is the d4 Knight, since the Bishop on g7 is looking at it from a distance.

If White continues his plan and castles Queenside, Black could simply take on e4 and have many dangerous threats, such as Ng4 attacking the Bishop and putting even more pressure on the d4 Knight.

Since this plan is clearly not very effective for White if Black has not played d7-d6 in the early stage of the game, players have started choosing other ideas over the board. These ideas are calmer and more positional, and their primary focus is to place a Knight on the d5 square and control the d-file.

Diagram 1j: Typical Dragon position with the Nd5 move.

White’s idea is to provoke Black to exchange on d5, leaving the e7 pawn backwards, and then to redirect all of his pieces to attack it in the most effective way, especially by placing major pieces on the newly opened e-file. An ideal setup for White in this variation would look like this:

Diagram 1k: White’s ideal setup.

As you can see, the e7 pawn is under extreme pressure, as White has managed to double his rooks on the open file.

Exchanging the dark-squared Bishops was also clearly in White’s favor, since the Bishop could be a potential defensor of this pawn, as well as of the dark squares around the King.

In general, Black does not ever want to exchange his beloved Dragon Bishop, so if White forces him to do it, it is usually an achievement.

Black’s Queen and Rook will be forever tied to the defense of the e7 pawn, and there won’t be any chance for him to generate any kind of counterplay without severe material loss.

Black’s usual ideas to fight against this setup are to generate as much play as possible on the open c-file. In this position, it simply isn’t possible, since White will close the position with the move c2-c3, and keep on pressuring the e7 pawn until Black eventually has to give it up.

However, things had to go extremely wrong for Black to reach a position like this: if he plays accurately, there are many ways to reach what would be an ideal setup for himself.

Take a look at diagram 1l, for instance.

Diagram 1l: Black’s ideal setup.

This position was extracted from the game Short-Kamsky, played in the Candidates tournament of 1994. Even if there are barely any pieces left on the board, this is an ideal setup for Black, because he fully controls the open c-file.

The e7 pawn is still a weakness in Black’s field, but to compensate for that, White has far more worrying weaknesses: the c2 and d5 pawns.

In addition to this, Black has not exchanged the dark-squared Bishops, and he holds an advantage since his Bishop is beautifully placed on the open long diagonal, and can effectively defend and attack the dark squares in the position.

It must also be noted that White has advanced his Kingside pawns further, which has created long-term weaknesses around the King – this is something that Black must be aware of, since in many situations White can be overly ambitious and overadvance his pawns.

Let’s take a moment to summarize everything we have learned on this section of the article, so we can move on to seeing examples of these themes being put to the test in real games:

White’s position

  • Generally, White enjoys a lead in development and space;
  • Black’s g7-g6 advance has weakened the King, and White may exploit this with a Kingside attack via the advance f4-f5 or h4-h5;
  • The d5 square is critical and White must seek to control it by placing a Knight there;

Black’s position

  • The dark-squared Bishop will be fianchettoed on g7, from where it will control the long diagonal;
  • The c-file is open, and Black can seek to generate counterplay by occupying it;
  • Black can often exploit the weaknesses created by White’s Kingside pawn advances;

After reading this section of the article, you will realize that the Sicilian – Dragon pawn structure is extremely rich, since both sides have interesting ideas they will try to present on the board. However, there are many ways to play the position, and sometimes one may have the correct idea, but not be able to put it in practice in the best way – and that’s what our next section is all about.

How do you play in this pawn structure?

We now know that the Sicilian – Dragon structure often leads to complex and sharp games, and we have a rough idea of what each of the players should be trying to do.

However, in chess practice and theory are two distinct fields, and we need to put all of these ideas to the test.

There’s no better way of learning a given structure than carefully analyzing the games of those who deeply know how to play it, and that’s the reason why we will now study some top-level chess games.

Let’s start by covering White’s main plans.

As you have read in the previous section, a major decision for White is whether to castle Kingside or Queenside.

Both are interesting options with their own ideas and characteristics, but we will start by the one many players with the Black pieces will be most afraid of: castling Queenside and producing an attack.

Since a direct attack to the King is very objective and tactical, this can of course be deadly if Black does not find a way of defending against it or creating his own threats.

First, let’s analyze a game between two of the strongest players in chess history, Karpov and Korchnoi, to see what White strives for with this Kingside attack.

  1. e4 c5
  2. Nf3 d6
  3. d4 cxd4
  4. Nxd4 Nf6
  5. Nc3 g6
  6. Be3 Bg7
  7. f3 Nc6
  8. Qd2 O-O
  9. Bc4 Bd7
  10. h4
Diagram 1m: Karpov – Korchnoi, 1974: Position after 10.h4.

Karpov, who is best known for his positional masterpieces, starts building up an attacking setup from early on: he places his Bishop on c4, prepares to castle Queenside and advances the h-pawn, creating threats of h4-h5 and g2-g4.

The game went on:

     10…Rc8

  1. Bb3 Ne5
  2. O-O-O Nc4
  3. Bxc4 Rxc4
  4. h5
Diagram 1n: Karpov – Korchnoi, 1974: Position after 14. h5.

Karpov decided to sacrifice a pawn in order to make the attack go faster, while Korchnoi had not started advancing his Queenside pawns yet. The weaknesses around Black’s King start to become more and more evident at this point.

    14…Nxh5

  1. g4 Nf6
  2. Nde2 Qa5
  3. Bh6 Bxh6
  4. Qxh6
Diagram 1o: Karpov – Korchnoi, 1974: Position after 18.Qxh6.

The exchange of the dark-squared Bishops favours White, as it makes the weaknesses around the King stand out even more. Karpov was at this point thinking about bringing the Knight over to g3 to help the attack, and kicking the f6 Knight away with g4-g5.

    18… Rfc8

  1. Rd3 R4c5
  2. g5 Rxg5
  3. Rd5 Rxd5
  4. Nxd5 Re8
  5. Nef4 Bc6
  6. e5!
Diagram 1p: Karpov – Korchnoi, 1974: Position after 24.e5.

This tactical blow finishes off the game in great style. If the pawn is taken, Nxf6+ exf6 Nh5! will lead to a great advantage for White, with checkmate to follow in only a few moves. If anything else, White will simply take on f6 and checkmate will also be peeking at every corner.

When you see such a game with Black, you might feel discouraged to play this structure: but fear not, since dangerous attacks also happen all the time with colors reversed!

Take a look at diagram 1q, extracted from the game Erenburg – Sakaev, played in the World Cup of 2005.

Diagram 1q: Erenburg – Sakaev, 2005: Position after 21.b4.

In this situation, Black has clearly arrived first in the opposite-castling attack. White has tried to advance his Kingside pawns, but the structure offers him no possibilities to pursue an attack at this point, since the h4-h5 break is no longer available and f4-f5 will be extremely unlikely, since Black is defending this square with both the e6 and g6 pawns.

At the same time, Black has already placed all of his pieces in excellent squares: the Knight on c4, eyeing the b2 pawn; the Rook on c8, the open file Black always strives to exploit; and the Queen on a5, threatening a3 and overall controlling the dark squares.

In addition to this, Black has also advanced the b-pawn all the way up to b4, where it helps the attack be even more threatening.

A few moves later, we see Black triumph:

  1. Qb7 O-O
  2. Qxb4 Qc7
  3. b3 Ne3
  4. Rd2 a5
  5. Qa4 Qc3
Diagram 1r: Erenburg – Sakaev, 2005: Position after 26. Qc3.

The attack comes to an end and Black emerges victorious, as both the Rook and mate on a1 are threatened. White has no effective defense.

As you can see, tactical ideas are flooding the position for both sides – but what makes the Dragon so incredibly rich is the fact that you can also find positional masterpieces as easily.

If White castles Kingside instead of Queenside, the main idea won’t be to create a dangerous attack, but to try to achieve a positional advantage, often by exploiting the control over the d5 square and the open d-file.

Diagram 1s: Carlsen – Radjabov, 2010: Position after 15.Nd5.

The proof that these ideas can be as dangerous as opposite-side castling positions is that when the current World Champion faced this structure with the White pieces, he decided to go for this positional approach, calmer and more strategic than the double-edged attacks we have just analyzed.

In this kind of variations, White tries to achieve a long-term advantage.

As you have read before, the Knight jump to d5 is very effective, as if it gets taken, Black will be tied to the defense of the weak e7 pawn.

Another game in which White chose this plan was Karjakin – Maki, dating from 2013. In diagram 1t you can see how the structural transformation favors White, who got an unbearable pressure on the e7 pawn and won a smooth game.

Diagram 1t: Karjakin – Maki, 2013: Position after 23.exd5.

Black’s pieces are quite disconnected from each other, as the Knight on b8 has no useful squares, as well as the Queen, which stands purposeless on h6.

In addition to this, the major pieces are controlling the central files, and even the Bishop on a4 is in an ideal square, pinning the d7 Knight to the e8 Rook – it must also be noted that this Rook on e8 has a hard time moving, since it plays an important defensive role.

This plan definitely seems to be effective for White, but Black also has more than enough ways to avoid getting such a passive position for himself.

Diagram 1u: Silva Lucena – Perez Mitjans, 2017: Position after 11…Ne5.

The most effective way to get counterplay against this positional setup is to place a Knight on e5, where it will be prepared to jump to c4. Black should also control the c-file, as in most cases, and push his Queenside pawns in order to try to create some weaknesses in White’s field.

If he can carry out his own plan successfully, he will have no concerns with the weak e7 pawn, as there will also be weaknesses to play against in White’s position.

A few moves later in the above game, the following position was reached:

Diagram 1v: Silva Lucena – Perez Mitjans, 2017: Position after 23. Rb5.

Black’s plan of advancing the a7 pawn all the way up to a4 worked to perfection. White was obliged to exchange Knights on e5, which granted Black a very well supported Bishop on that square. With patience, he maneuvered his pieces to attack the newborn weakness on b2 – the Rook and Queen are extremely active on the b-file.

If the b2 pawn falls to Black’s hands, the whole Queenside complex will be weakened, as the a3 and c3 pawns will be left with no defense.

As you can see, as much as White’s plans might seem threatening, Black has many ways of countering them – it comes down to each individual position, each particular player and how plans are carried out.

The fact is that if you come to find the Sicilian – Dragon pawn structure in your chess games, you will already know how play should follow for both sides.

Now that we have extensively covered these plans, and analyzed some games by the experts in the Dragon Sicilian, let’s take another moment to make a list of what is important and should be kept in mind:

White’s plans

  • If White decides to castle long, he will try to generate a Kingside attack with the advance h2-h4-h5 and attempt to place major pieces in the h-file, in order to create deadly threats;
  • If White decides to castle short, he will try to positionally control the central squares, by placing a Rook on the open d-file and a Knight on d5. Often, this leads to positions where e7 will be a major weakness;

Black’s plans

  • If White castles long, Black must create a Queenside attack by occupying the c-file with a Rook, advancing the a and b pawns, and bringing a Knight into c4;
  • If White castles short, Black must create play alongside the c-file, again with a Rook and a Knight coming into c4. The main goal is to create weaknesses on White’s Queenside;

This is the perfect moment to finally draw some conclusions about what all the things we have just learned about the Sicilian – Dragon pawn structure.

Conclusions

We have reached the end of our coverage of the Sicilian – Dragon pawn structure, which was hopefully interesting for you to read, and useful for your chess games from now on.

Remember that even if you do not have the chance to actually play this structure during your games, studying pawn structures will provide you with a lot of knowledge that will definitely be useful to increase your chess level.

From this article, there are definitely some conclusions to draw:

  • The Dragon pawn structure offers chances for creative and complex play for both sides;
  • This structure can be reached via the Classical Dragon, the Accelerated Dragon and the Hyper Accelerated Dragon openings;
  • The game can be sharp and double-edged, but also calm and positional;
  • Much of the game’s character will be shaped by White’s decision to castle Queenside or Kingside;
  • The d5 square is a critical square that White will strive to control;
  • Black will seek to generate play on the open c-file;
  • If White castles long, the game will be double-edged with attacks for both sides;
  • If White castles short, the game will roughly be a strategic battle between the control of the d5 square for White and counterplay on the Queenside for Black;

Congratulations on reaching the end on yet another pawn structure article! If you keep on studying pawn structures, be prepared to see your overall chess knowledge increase – and most likely the rating points you desire will follow.

Stay tuned for a lot more pawn structure articles coming your way!

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