Why 2 Nf3 and 3 d4 is White’s Main Line against the Sicilian

When I started playing chess seriously and studying the opening, the books I consulted were generally good at showing what were (or had been) the main lines of play. However, in a number of instances, they didn’t give any explanation as to why certain obvious approaches were not employed. One opening where this was especially evident was the Sicilian, which I took up for Black early on and have played pretty consistently since then.

Looking at these books, I could see that the “Open Sicilian”, as it is generally called, was White’s main approach. This involves White playing 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3, when 2…d6, 2…Nc6 and 2…e6 are met by 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4, and if 4…Nf6, then White plays 5 Nc3. A few deviations from this sequence were mentioned. However, there was no real comment on why (for instance) White didn’t simply develop with moves such as Nf3, Nc3, and Bc4.

What was lacking, and perhaps still is lacking, is a coherent overall explanation as to why certain lines became the main line, and why others were rejected. While an opening ultimately has to be justified by concrete variations, such analysis can rarely be comprehensive; players are often led to choose an opening line and then attempt to justify it by their general considerations regarding a particular approach.

Over the years I have attempted to put together such an explanation regarding all the openings I have played. Here I am going to share my thoughts on the Sicilian.

We should start with the fundamentals of the position after 1 e4 c5.

When White plays 1 e4, he normally hopes to follow up with 2 d4. If Black does not contest the centre either immediately or at least within the first half dozen moves, he is likely to end up in a very passive position.

Black’s main idea in playing 1…c5 is therefore quite simple: he wants to prevent White controlling the centre with his pawns, so he prepares to meet d4 with …cxd4, leaving him with a majority of pawns in the centre, and therefore better long-term prospects of controlling the middle of the board. This also has the bonus of opening the c-file for counterplay.

There is also another important consideration. In contrast to 1…e5, which has the same objective as 1…c5, Black does not create a target for White to attack. Therefore, White lacks an equivalent to the Ruy Lopez (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5) against the Sicilian, and therefore a simple means to exert nagging positional pressure on the Black position.

Given the above, it would therefore seem strange that White’s main approach is to fall in with Black’s plans by playing 2 Nf3 and 3 d4. Why then does White so often play this way?

The advantage of 1…c5 over 1…e5 is that it does not create a target. The disadvantage is that Black’s development is slower. After all, 1…e5, like 1 e4, is a developing move in that it allows the king’s bishop to be brought into play, and therefore is part of a sequence such as …Nf6, …Bc5 followed by …0-0. While after 1 e4 e5, Black’s king can sometimes be caught in the centre, in order to achieve this White has to resort to violent means involving sacrifices that can backfire against accurate defence. On the other hand, it is simpler for White to open the position up without allowing immediate counterplay after 1 e4 c5, and it is sometimes a challenge to get the Black king to safety. Also, even when Black has castled, White still can have immediate attacking prospects.

The above is I believe the essence of why after 1 e4 e5, White’s main approach is positional (the Ruy Lopez), while after 1 e4 c5, White’s main approach is attacking (the Open Sicilian). After 1 e4 e5, attacking approaches either backfire against or are neutralised by well-established defensive lines. After 1 e4 c5, positional approaches are less challenging than attacking ones.

There is I think another important consideration. What is noticeable about these main lines is that they offer a far richer range of possible approaches for White. If White fails with one variation or sub-variation, it is much easier to find a viable alternative. In contrast, the side lines tend to be more limited.

Having said this, I don’t want to give the impression that I think that the main lines are the only viable approach. Of course, a number of alternative lines have proved effective in practice, especially at club level. Even at the top level, we have seen the best players employ alternative systems. However, they have tended to use them as an alternative to the main lines, rather than a replacement. For instance, Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov all used alternatives to the main line Ruy Lopez in important games, in the form of the Exchange Ruy Lopez, Giuoco Piano and Scotch Game respectively; however, these alternatives remained just that: alternatives. For the most part, they stuck to the main line Ruy Lopez. This was ultimately I think because of its greater richness.

Let us return to the position after 1 e4 c5, and look at the specifics.

As noted, White’s main approach against the Sicilian is to exploit his lead in development by 2 Nf3 and 3 d4. The first question to address is what other approaches White could take.

The most obvious, in a sense, is to persist with his original plan of dominating the centre, by preparing d4 with 2 c3. However, Black has two effective means of crossing this in 2…Nf6 and 2…d5. In practice, this line actually turns into an attempt to exploit White’s lead in development. For instance, the traditional main line runs 1 e4 c5 2 c3 Nf6 3 e5 Nd5 4 d4 cxd4 5 Nf3 Nc6 6 Bc4 Nb6 7 Bb3 d5 8 exd6 Qxd6. Black has clearly countered the plan to form a strong pawn centre by liquidating the e-pawn, but still needs to complete his development. Black should be OK here, although there are still plenty of pitfalls, as demonstrated by my recent game against Sheila Jackson.

White can delay c3 by playing 2 Nf3 first. However, should Black play 2…Nc6 or 2…e6, the situation will be much the same after 3 c3 Nf6 or 3…d5; the e-pawn will either be liquidated, or White will end up with pawns on d4 and e5, leaving d5 open to a Black piece. The situation after 2…d6 is different; 3 c3 Nf6 leads to an odd situation where neither side can realise its plans, as White cannot play 4 d4 because of 4…Nxe4, while 4 Be2, 4 Bd3 or 4 h3 cannot be met by 4…Nxe4 because of 5 Qa4+ winning a piece. The upshot is that White either fails to play d4 at all, or does so after plenty of manoeuvring which allows Black the chance to arrange counterplay.

A more radical take on achieving d4 is represented by 2 b4 or 2 Nf3 and 3 b4. However, not only does this involves sacrificing a pawn, it also fails to stop Black playing the disruptive …d5, which neutralises the White centre.

Having dealt with White’s unsuccessful attempts to seize the centre, let us now turn our attention to White’s various approaches to developing his pieces.

There are a number of slow systems based on g3, such as 1 e4 c5 2 Nc3 Nc6 3 g3, where White does not usually attempt to exploit his lead in development, but rather to outplay Black more slowly in the middlegame. While Black needs to be careful in meeting these systems, they cannot be regarded in any way a critical test of Black’s play.

More aggressive is the system referred to as the Grand Prix Attack. Here White plays f4, combined with either Bc4 or Bb5, either immediately with 2 f4, or by 2 Nc3 followed by 3 f4. This can be dangerous against the unprepared defender, but good defensive schemes have now been worked out for Black. For instance, 2 f4 can be met by the dangerous gambit 2…d5! 3 exd5 Nf6. Alternatively 2 Nc3 Nc6 3 f4 g6 4 Nf3 Bg7 5 Bc4 e6 followed by …Nge7 and …d5 sees the bishop on c4 not only neutralised but also become a target for attack. 5 Bb5 is a better try, but Black has sufficient resources.

The above line with Bc4 is illustrative of why White really needs to play d4 to develop actively, while making Black counterplay less easy. A similar scenario occurs after 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 e6 4 0-0 a6 5 Nc3 b5 and now the natural 6 Bb3 is not possible because of 6…c4. The point is that with the c-pawn still on, Black can form a powerfully pawn roller in the centre and on the queenside. Contrast the following popular line of the Najdorf: 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 6 Bc4 e6 7 Bb3. Now 7…b5 is Black’s traditional main move, when he has counterplay, but the whole situation is much riskier for him. There is no longer the simple plan to trap or at least block the bishop, while the more open nature of the position gives White various attacking possibilities. Indeed I think that is the biggest argument in favour of playing a quick d4; White needs to open the position otherwise he lacks the avenues to get at the Black king.

The most sensible way to play d4 is via 2 Nf3 followed by 3 d4 against 2…d6, 2…Nc6 and 2…e6. The Morra Gambit (1 e4 c5 2 d4 cxd4 3 c3) is to my mind misguided. White has no need to sacrifice a pawn, because he is already getting the kind of open game he wants. The one advantage of the Morra is that Black still needs to defend accurately, as he does in the Open Sicilian, but because he faces the line less often, his preparation is likely to be less good. I should mention that another defect of the Morra is that as well as accepting the gambit with 3…dxc3, Black can play 3…Nf6; after 4 e5 Nd5, we have transposed the main line of 1 e4 c5 2 c3, which is solid for Black.

We should note that White has a few deviations after 2 Nf3 and 3 d4 that fall outside the Open Sicilian proper. For instance, there are 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Qxd4 and 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 f3, which crop up from time to time. However, these tend to have an artificial feel, and rely more on surprise value than anything.

The Open Sicilian itself is a vast complex. To illustrate my point relating to its richness, let us consider the position after 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6. Here White has the following major systems:

  • 6 Bg5
  • 6 Bc4
  • 6 Be3 or 6 f3
  • 6 Be2
  • 6 f4
  • 6 g3

There are a number of other possibilities that pose some sort of threat to Black.

Within these systems there is a considerable range of possibilities. For Black, for instance, there is the choice of both 6…e5 and 6…e6 against most moves (except 6 Bg5 and 6 Bc4), as well as some other continuations. For White too there are different approaches; e.g. 6 Be3 e5 can be met both by 7 Nb3, which implies queenside castling, and 7 Nf3, which is a more positional approach.

A comparison between this and the main line after 2 c3 is instructive. There White’s range of possible choices is narrower, the play is more forcing and it is therefore much harder to find new approaches that set Black sufficiently complex problems.

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