There are different schools of thought on how a chess player should structure their opening repertoire. Many of the top players nowadays seem to play a huge variety of different openings, each picked to match a particular opponent or a particular competitive situation. I think part of the reason is that top players want to create a ‘moving target’ for their opponents’ preparation. This is understandable, since they may play each other ten or more times a year, and because of the advent of computer databases and the general increase in information it has become much easier to prepare for a specific opponent.
While playing a different opening in every game has the advantage that it makes it harder for opponents to prepare against you, it has the obvious disadvantage that you will have less knowledge – and, more importantly, less of a ‘feel’ for the type of position than you would if you were more consistent. Personally, I think a player who is not at the very top level does best to have one or two defenses to each white opening that he sticks to, and thus learns to understand and know like they are his ‘home’. I have always felt that this is the best for me, and have spent some time trying to find ‘my’ openings. Although my opponents can and do prepare for me (especially in tournaments in Europe, where the pairings are announced the day before), their preparations are not as sophisticated as those of the world’s top players, and therefore the result of the game still comes down to who understands the position better, in addition – of course – to such things as nerves and competitive form.
For a long time I played the French Defense as black against 1.e4. At some point I began playing the Sicilian too. At first I was hesitant to play the Dragon Sicilian in its basic form because I did not like the position in the Yugoslav attack after 9.0-0-0 (more on this later). Instead I used the accelerated Dragon (which cuts out this possibility) or a very risky hybrid of the Dragon and the Najdorf known as the Dragadorf.
In the fall of 2008, however, the Dragon turned into my main opening against 1.e4. I might have been a little influenced by someone I used to know who was a Dragon fanatic. In any case, it became my main opening against 1.e4, and I played it pretty much constantly for the next few years. My trust in it was almost religious.
The Dragon is named for its resemblance to the Draco constellation. Black’s play has been entirely logical. He traded a white center pawn for his c-pawn. He developed rapidly, preparing to castle kingside and putting a bishop on a great long diagonal. Yet this opening is considered to be sharp and risky, almost radical?!
It is easy to understand why the Dragon became popular. As soon as it was realized that it is not necessary to be putting an immovable pawn in the center in classical fashion to please the gods, such an opening would be accepted. Black develops easily, without obvious weaknesses, and gets strong pressure on the queenside.
Then along came Vsevolod Rauzer, the Ukrainian theoretician who had a strong belief in the advantage of the first move. He developed the system where White develops his c1 bishop and queen along the c1-h6 diagonal and castles queenside. This system was originally known as the Rauzer attack but later became known as the Yugoslav attack, after the Yugoslav players who extensively analyzed the variation.
Although other attacks against the Dragon are still important, the bulk of the theory is found in the Yugoslav attack. To play black in the other variations you just need some feel for the position, but in the Yugoslav attack, you are playing with fire!
This is the reason the opening is considered so radical. With the players castled on opposite sides, White is facing an open c-file and the fianchettoed “dragon bishop”; while Black has his own weaknesses on the kingside in the form of the sticking-out g6 pawn and White’s clear plan of h2-h4-h5 and Bh6. Both side’s plans are often very clear, and the only question becomes how well these plans are carried out. Rather than strategy, tactics becomes the order of the day.
So let’s see some (not all, of course) of the basic ideas of the Dragon, particularly in the Yugoslav attack:
1. The dark-squared black bishop
This is the life of Black’s position. It is the whole point of the opening and what breathes the fire. It is the norm for Black to happily give the exchange to keep his dark squared bishop (i.e., offer to trade the white dark squared bishop for a rook, so his own bishop will be unopposed, or to avoid the “equal” trade of bishop for bishop). For example, Dragon expert GM Sergei Kudrin offered an exchange sacrifice in what has become a typical form, in the following position:
Kudrin played 12...Bh8!!, saving the dark-squared bishop from exchange and offering instead a rook. White declined this sacrifice. The implication is that after 13.Bxf8 Qxf8 Black will have more than enough compensation in the form of threats on the long diagonal and b-file, bringing the white king into danger. Indeed when the kings are castled on opposite sides, material values often work differently, since most important is the initiative.
Here is an example from one of my games where I was happy to give a rook to get the dark-squared bishop unopposed, and it turned out there was more than enough compensation:
2. The exchange sacrifice, in various forms.
Looking at my games played in the Yugoslav Attack, the large majority of them involve an exchange sacrifice. It almost seems that if Black does not succeed in giving up the exchange, it is a bad sign!
The most common square for Black’s exchange sacrifice is on c3. Usually the aim is to destroy the white king’s position by forcing bxc3. Sometimes it is simply to remove the dangerous knight which can leap into d5, exchanging off the black kingside’s defender on f6. Here is an example of the ...Rxc3 sacrifice:
Black also often sacrifices the exchange on d5. White has his own exchange sacrifice, usually in the course of a kingside attack, on h5 – as in the following classic game:
One of the positional justifications for the exchange sacrifice is the following…
3. There are no useful open files for White!
This may seem strange, since it is the “open Sicilian”. However, the peculiarities of the opening make it that White often has no way to use his extra exchange. White has only the open d-file, but that is blunted by the pawn on d6, which – unlike in other Sicilians – is solidly defended by the e7 pawn. If the b-file is open (due to a bxc3 capture) then it can be blunted by Black simply playing …b6.
Most importantly, it is very difficult for White to open any files. All of these factors make the advantage of the exchange strangely less important than usual in the Dragon structure, and many endgames with an exchange down are quite playable for Black.
4. White has the d5 square.
Unlike in the Scheveningen, where d5 is solidly guarded by a pawn on e6, in the Dragon the black e-pawn usually has to stay on e7 to guard d6 (since instead of being on e7, the dark squared bishop is on g7). Thus the d5 square is a sort of pseudo-hole in Black’s center. That said, it hardly looks as damaging as in the Kalashnikov, for example. Sometimes Black can trade a knight that comes there. Then White takes with the e-pawn and gets some space advantage and pressure against e7. Nevertheless, Black is often okay anyway because there is queenside pressure to counterbalance. For instance, the following game:
5. Don’t imagine that things are so simple as “White attacks on the kingside, Black attacks on the queenside”.
Quite often, White sacrifices some pawns on the kingside, and Black sacrifices material back to destroy White’s initiative and remain with a hoard of passed pawns on the kingside. Such as in the following epic game:
Alternatively, especially in the 9. 0-0-0 d5 line, Black gets weaknesses on the queenside which White can try to exploit, such as in this game:
And in that line, particularly with the white pawn on h4/black pawn on h5 pawn structure, the White pawn on h4 often ends up a fatal weakness.
As I said before, I had not wanted to play the Dragon in its most basic form for a long time, because of the 9.0-0-0 line. Black’s alternatives to Konstantinopolsky’s pawn sacrifice 9…d5 looked rather dubious, and I did not like the position in the main line of the pawn sacrifice. Black has split pawns on the queenside and apparently a lot of weak squares. But being persuaded to look closer, I saw some hidden attraction in the otherwise ugly position. Soon after, I had one of my first successes in the Dragon, a win as black against a strong grandmaster.
In the past year I haven’t been playing the Dragon very many times. I have found that in many situations it is not the best opening. For example, in a recent tournament I played against WGM Iva Videnova. A look at her games showed that she was very into theory. I preferred to avoid too much of that, and chose to play the French Defense. In addition, since there are some forcing lines in the Dragon, there is always the danger, when playing a lower-rated player, that they can force a drawish position. Therefore in the last year and a half or so I have tended to play other openings against lower-rated players. Meanwhile, against grandmasters I have been willing to play the Dragon, but they have not! Thus I have seen a large variety of anti-Sicilians, such as 3.Bb5+, 2.Nc3, 2.c3, and 3.c3. After one game, my opponent, a strong grandmaster from Poland who played 2.Nc3 against my Sicilian, told me "I couldn't find anything against the Dragon!"
The Dragon could be called a very “theoretical” opening. This is because the basic plans are fairly clear, and the question is more about how effectively they are realized. Nevertheless, I feel that there is less about memorization than in other sharp openings. Somehow, without a ton of theoretical work, I am able to play it – and I don’t think I have a very good memory either. The point is that the methods of play are fairly straightforward. You can understand the positions easily, so even if you don’t know the exact move, you can find it. Compared to a Najdorf, where Black’s king is often dodging bullets (and he might have a won position anyway, provided he finds – or knows – the exact moves!) in the Dragon if your king is dodging bullets, you are probably already lost. In many Dragon positions you have a little less freedom of action than in a calmer opening. For example, in some quiet openings the pieces hardly clash early in the game, and you can choose from a variety of plans. This is a sort of trade off – you have more freedom there, but it is more boring. In an opening like the Dragon, it is more exciting, but things are more concrete, and the penalty for making a wrong move is higher.