How To Play The Chinese Dragon

How To Play The Chinese Dragon

| 34 | Opening Theory

In the early 21st century, a new permutation of the evergreen Sicilian Dragon appeared: rather than place the queen's rook, obviously, on the open c-file, to put it instead on the closed b-file, supporting an advance of the b-pawn:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 0-0 8.Qd2 Nc6 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0-0-0 Rb8!?

At the critical branching point at move nine, White has a major choice between castling queenside or playing 9.Bc4. The latter prevents Black from breaking out with ...d5, but also has some downsides. The bishop is vulnerable on the c-file, and also vulnerable to an advance of the black pawns on the queenside.

Until the arrival of the Chinese Dragon, Black had almost always played the natural 10...Rc8 (or 10...Qa5 followed by ...Rfc8) here. But there was a conceptual precursor: 10...Qb8!? had been played, with a similar idea -- to push the b-pawn, if necessary, as a pawn sacrifice.

Apparently, the move 10...Rb8 was first played in the game Sirotkin-Kosenkov, USSR 1957. Like many games from those times, all I can find about this game is a small mention in a New In Chess Yearbook, but it is allegedly the first game featuring what was to be called the Chinese Dragon.

Although the move 10...Rb8 was used several times in the 20th century, it was amazingly unknown until in 2002, when the Belgian master Luc Henris wrote an article about the variation for New in Chess. In this article, he christened the variation the "Chinese Dragon," since he was living in China when he began to analyze the move.

It might have been hard for Dragon aficionados to give up their thematic ...Rxc3 sacrifice, but it was not long before the Chinese Dragon took off, and new positional and tactical themes began to be elucidated. By 2009 the move 10...Rb8 was no longer an unusual sideline, but perhaps the main line of the 9.Bc4 Dragon.

In particular, a key idea, which some creatively-positional minds came up with, was to put the knight on a5 rather than e5 (on a5 the knight could capture a bishop on b3, while it also left the e5 square free for the black pawn), meet Bh6 with ...Bxh6, followed by a combination of ...b5-b4 and ...e7-e5. Thus, the advance ...e7-e5 -- normally unacceptable in most Dragon positions -- could be played, due to the exchange of the dark squared bishops.

Black then could create real pressure on the c-file, while defending the kingside.

White was not particularly successful in these positions, and later another method of combating the Chinese Dragon became more common: by playing an early g2-g4, White managed to prevent ...e7-e5, since then the reply N(d4)-f5 would be too strong. Black then needed to switch plans. By 2009, the number-one player and future world champion was already playing the Chinese Dragon:

Somehow, although the exchange of dark-squared bishops is one of White's main plans against the Dragon, in this line it was not particularly successful. The paradoxical ...Bxh6, normally not a capture which Black considers since it brings the queen into a dangerously aggressive position, worked out well in the Chinese Dragon, where Black was able to create a defensive line on the seventh rank by playing ...e7-e5. The white queen, indeed, turned out to be out of play; and with several pawns on the light squares, White's dark squares were drafty.

Thus the simple advance h2-h4-h5, without the exchange of bishops, is another critical approach for White. Playing ...b5-b4, as in the earlier lines, would not be so successful, so Black always utilized the second point of ...Rb8 and ...b7-b5 - to support ...Nc4, recapturing with the pawn and opening the b-file.

The transfer ...b5xc4 in the Sicilian is a double-edged structural change in the Sicilian. Sometimes Black gets a powerful attack on the b-file, but this is not always the case. In the long run Black's pawn structure is harmed by this change, and if White defends b2 successfully, quite often the c4-pawn just gets in the way and White uses squares like c3 and d4 to great effect.

In a recent game, Dragon expert Ognien Cvitan got a difficult game against Sam Shankland, but surprisingly he managed to hold. The rare line Shankland used is an important challenge to the Chinese Dragon.

The Chinese Dragon burst on the scene, and in not more than 10 years its intricacies have been deeply explored. This sideline -- however logical -- was practically unknown for half a century since the Yugoslav Attack became the main counter to the Dragon.

Its first pioneers -- as is the case with those who stray from the beaten path -- surely got many good victories as well as the excitement of uncovering new ground in an otherwise very explored opening. But, as usual, the novelty wore off and the key variations were clarified. Nevertheless, the variation remains sound and remains a key line for Black in the Dragon.

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