The Dragon's Lair (part 1)
In the world of chess, the Sicilian Dragon variation has achieved almost the same mythical status as its fire-breathing namesake had in the Dark Ages. Legends of villagers cowed in fear lest they lose their cattle or children, and maps marked 'Here be Dragons!' which terrified and mesmerised ancient sailors in much the same way that books and articles on this most fierce of openings do to players today, were the stuff of nightmares!
There is, naturally, good reason for this: dazzling tactical wins, beautiful mating nets, the chance to wipe out your opponent with a crushing attack! Who wouldn't be attracted to it? Who wouldn't be appalled at the prospect of facing it?
Of course, with such notoriety comes consequences - there are plenty of would-be Dragonslayers out there, itching to test their mettle against the beast, armed to the teeth with weapons of their own. The Dragon's fiery breath against the Slayer's sharpened steel blade!
(Play through option at bottom of article!)
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 Nf6 4. Nc3 cxd4 5. Nxd4 g6
This is the main starting point of the Dragon Variation. It's usually here that the Dragonmaster starts to feel the tension rise; will the would-be slayer enter the sharpest lines? Or 'wimp out' with something more sedate?
6. Be3 Bg7 7. f3 Nc6 8. Qd2 O-O
The second major crossroads in the opening - 9.0-0-0 or 9.Bc4? This is a question that theory seems to change its mind about every year or 2.
9. O-O-O The main focus is usually on 9... d5 although my own long-time favourite 9... Nxd4 10. Bxd4 Be6 is still alive and kicking, although kicking more than alive for the most part!
9... Bd7 10. O-O-O Ne5 11. Bb3 Rc8 12. h4
12. Kb1! The last few years has seen this subtle king move take centre stage, and has given Dragoneers more than a few headaches. A useful move in itself, it also delays committing the h-pawn, often preferring instead the g4 thrust. While looking through some games yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to find a sub-variation of this line named after myself! 12... Nc4 13. Bxc4 Rxc4 14. g4 b5 15. b3 b4!? Apparently this is now the Burnett Variation! It's a move I devised after losing heavily to GM Jonathan Rowson in the then mainline, with 15.b3 being a huge surprise to me. I won't go into detail about the move now; suffice to say that black is prepared to invest an exchange and a pawn to destroy white's pawn structure and try to wrest the initiative from white.
This heralds in the Soltis Variation, an ultra-sharp approach which usually sees both sides swinging wildly to see who can land the first, or heaviest, blow. A few 'rules' are broken with both this move, and with the 15.b3 of the previous line, namely; do not advance pawns on the side where you will be attacked! However, black's big idea is to hold up white's imminent onslaught just long enough so that he can unleash his own powerful forces into action and distract white from his attack.
13. Bg5 Rc5 14. Kb1
Again a useful, often necessary, prophylaxis. Consider the following line: 14. g4 hxg4 15. h5 gxh5 16. Bxf6 Bxf6 17. f4 ( 17. Rxh5? Nd3+ and the rook on h5 falls ) 17... e6 18. fxe5?? Bg5 and the white queen can go back in the box.
Now my opponent paused for over 20 minutes before playing his next move. Continuing with the analogy in the introduction, it's as if he has set out to do battle with the beast, braved the swamps and climbed the dragon's mountain, found himself at the mouth of his adversary's cave only to find....he has left his grandad's magical golden sword at home!
What to do? He can't just trundle off back to the village without a tale of great daring to tell, so...he picks up a small rock and throws it into the cave, hoping against hope that the beast won't really notice it clunking off its scaly hide! This way he can regale his friends and kin with a story of battling the monster with rocks the size of elephants, but with his own skin still intact!
The chess version of my last note can be described thus: white has entered one of the sharpest lines known to chess, but has suddenly had second thoughts about continuing the theoretical debate with lines of mind-boggling tactical complexity. Instead, he hopes to steer a clearer course away from the minefields. The knight move is not so bad in itself - it's a common enough move, intending to swap off one of black's chief defensive pieces, but it usually only comes when an attack has already been launched and the battle is in full swing. Here it allows black to begin his own q-side demonstration.
15... Nxd5 16. Bxd5 Nc4 17. Bxc4!?
Perhaps it would have been better to move the queen here, but it's never nice to leave a big knight sitting on such a threatening square.
17... Rxc4 18. Nb3 Be6!?
18...Re8, allowing for ...Bh8 to keep the dragon bishop, is a normal move in this opening, but I always prefer to play actively if possible - white needs time to exchange bishops and I hope to use this time to set-up threats of my own.
19. Bh6 Qb6 20. Bxg7 Kxg7 21. g4 Rh8!
This move is one of the main reasons why exchanging pieces off before attacking is not so effective against the dragon. The black rook holds the h5-square, and taking on g4 next move is a serious option.
Regardless of the merits of the alternatives for white, this move cannot be justified. Closing the k-side means that white all but condemns himself to a slow-but-gruesome death.
22... Rhc8 23. Rc1 b4 24. Rhd1 a5
Once these pawns get moving, the black initiative will prove to be extremely dangerous.
25. Nd4 Bd7 26. Qe3 Qc7
Avoiding any sneaky Nf5+ traps.
27. Rd2 a4 28. f4 e5!
Allowing f5 would introduce unnecessary complications
29. Ne2 Be6 30. fxe5 dxe5 31. Qd3
(The obvious 31. Ng3 allows the Dragon to bare its teeth in a series of attractive combinations - prospective Dragoneers would do well to play through them. 31... Rc3!!
32. bxc3 ( 32. Qf2 b3!! 33. bxc3 ( 33. axb3 axb3 34. bxc3 b2 35. Rf1 Qa5 36. Kxb2 Rb8+ 37. Kc1 Qa1# Throwing in Qf6+ by white changes nothing. ) 33... bxa2+ 34. Ka1 Qxc3# ) 32... bxc3 33. Rf2 ( 33. Ka1 Qc4 is also terminal ) 33... Qb7+ mates next move. These patterns need to be learned and remembered! It's so much easier to attack when you have these typical mating patterns and combinations to hand when required.
White is wriggling hard, but now that he has weakened the e-pawn his game becomes untenable.
32. Qf3 Bg4 33. Qf2 Rxe4 34. Rf1 Bf5 35. Ng3 Rf4 36. Nxf5+ gxf5!
Although weakening the pawns around black's king, the 2 passed pawns are the relevant, decisive factor.
37. Qe2 Qe4 38. Rxf4 exf4
Even doubled they are mightily strong
39. Kc1 f3 40. Qf2 b3 and finally the breakthrough against the white king!
41. axb3 axb3 42. Qd4+ Kg8 43. c3 Ra8 44. Qxe4
The mate threat on a1 compels white to exchange queens, but there is a nasty sting in the Dragon's tail to finish the 'would-be slayer' off once and for all.
44... fxe4 45. Rf2 and here white resigned because...? Over to you, the reader!
A pretty and unusual finish.
So, this is what can happen if you enter the Dragons' lair without a really good idea of what is required to test the beast in battle! Black was given ample time to set up his forces against the white king - all he had to watch out for were a few minor traps, and then make sure he spotted the blows required to bring white to his knees.
In part 2 we will see what happens when the 'village hero' takes on the beast armed with a weapon of his own making. As the great writer Tolkien once said, 'It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him!'