The Sicilian Defense is one of the most interesting and versatile openings. It leads to imbalanced positions and suits dynamic players.
While some variations, such as the Dragon, are razor-sharp and aggressive, there are solid alternatives for Black as well. One of such lines has recently become trendy – the Taimanov Sicilian.
This variation has frequently been seen played by Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, Viswanathan Anand, Anish Giri, Vassily Ivanchuk, Pentala Harikrishna, and many other strong grandmasters. Black opts for a flexible setup and aims to seize the initiative in the center and the queenside later.
The Taimanov Sicilian (also often called the Paulsen) arises after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6. In this article, we will focus on the most popular line of it that starts with 5.Nc3 Qc7:
What makes this line popular? Let’s briefly discuss its advantages:
- Black’s position in the center is super solid thanks to the pawn still staying on d7 and supporting e6. It makes White’s attack less effective.
- Black’s dark-squared bishop can be developed actively to b4, c5, or solidly to e7.
- The variation is not analyzed as thoroughly as the Najdorf, so both sides still have a lot of room for creativity.
- Black has a simple scheme of development: the plan involves …a6, …b5, …Bb7, …Nf6, with counterplay in the center and the queenside.
Now let’s discuss White’s options. First of all, 6.Ndb5 is not as scary as it seems. Black replies with 6…Qb8 and is ready to kick the knight away with …a6 next. White has a spicy try 7.Be3 a6 8.Bb6 axb5 9.Nxb5, when things indeed look dangerous for Black.
The Taimanov Sicilian: 6.Be3
Here you need to remember an important sequence: 9…Bb4+! 10.c3 Ba5. The idea is to sacrifice the queen after 11.Nc7+ Qxc7! 12.Bxc7 Bxc7. For the queen, Black gets three minor pieces and can look ahead with confidence: the engines already prefer Black’s position!
Now let’s get back to the starting point of the variation. In this article, we will focus on White’s most popular tries: 6.Be3, 6.Be2, and 6.g3.
6.Be3 is the most popular move. White strengthens their knight on d4 and prepares queenside castling. Black usually responds with 6…a6. White’s traditional move in the spirit of the English Attack is 7.Qd2.
In a recent high-profile game between Jan Krzysztof Duda and Fabiano Caruana, after 7…Nf6 8.f3 b5, White decided to avoid sharp play with opposite castling and went for a positional plan with 9.Nxc6 dxc6 10.Qf2. The encounter ended in a draw. You can see the full game below.
In the case of 9.0-0-0, Black has different plans. To give you an example, we also provide you with a game of GM Emilio Cordova below.
At some point, White switched their attention to 7.Qf3.
From here the queen can be transferred to g3. Again, Black has a lot of different systems to respond to it with. You can see below how Fabiano Caruana treated this line as Black against Sergey Karjakin in 2017.
Lastly, let’s mention 7.g4. This is the newest trend. White launches the pawn storm and will decide where to put the queen later.
Below, you can see how the World Champion Magnus Carlsen reacted to this line as Black in a rapid game against Ian Nepomniachtchi.
After this classical move, White usually castles kingside and that leads to more balanced positions. Black’s choice is mainly based on where to place their dark-squared bishop.
It usually goes either to e7 or to b4. After 6.Be2 a6 7.0-0 Nf6 8.Be3,
8…Be7 transposes to the positions of the Scheveningen variation. The game usually proceeds with 9.f4 d6, where White’s main moves are 10.Qe1 and 10.Kh1.
After 10.Qe1 0-0 11.Qg3 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 b5 13.a3 Bb7, the following position arises:
Black developed their pieces harmoniously and has good chances to obtain counterplay in the center and the queenside. This position has been seen in practice a lot. With different move orders, Black can reach it via the Scheveningen, the Najdorf, or the Taimanov.
10.Kh1 is often connected with the idea to restrict Black’s play on the queenside with a2-a4. After the 10…0-0 11.a4, the following position arises:
White will play Bf3, and then launch an attack with g4-g5. Black needs to react in the center and the queenside. This scenario was seen in the famous 24th game of the World Championship match 1985 between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. You can take a look at that fascinating game in the viewer below.
8…Bb4 is more active and goes well with the spirit of the Taimanov.
Looks like White has some issues. The e4-pawn is hanging and if White passively protects it with 9.f3, Black can castle or immediately hit the center with 9…d5 10.exd5 exd5 – with a good position.
But White can play 9.Na4! instead. Now the pawn on e4 is immune: after 9…Nxe4?? 10.Nxc6 bxc6 11.Qd4, Black loses a piece; 10…Qxc6 doesn’t help either: 11.Nb6 Rb8 12.Qd4 Bf8 13.Bf3, etc.
So Black usually responds to 9.Na4 with 9…0-0 or 9…Be7. For example, 9…Be7 10.Nxc6 bxc6 11.Nb6 Rb8 12.Nxc8 Qxc8:
The theory still goes on, but overall Black is very solid and has some activity to compensate for White’s pair of bishops.
The Taimanov Sicilian: 6.g3
You also should always be ready to meet White’s fianchetto. This way of development may not be dangerous for Black in the Dragon or some other Sicilian variations, but against the Taimanov, it is one of White’s most popular systems.
Black has a broad choice of setups. Most often grandmasters go for a more or less forcing sequence: 6…a6 7.Bg2 Nf6 8.0-0 Nxd4 9.Qxd4 Bc5 10.Bf4 d6 11.Qd2 h6 12.Rad1 e5 13.Be3
In this position, Black usually chooses from five moves. Let’s list them by popularity: 13…Be6, 13…Ke7, 13…Bg4, 13…Bb4, 13…Bxe3. Below, you can see how Pentala Harikrishna defended Black’s position with 13…Bb4 against Nils Grandelius.
The move 5.Nb5 is less popular than 5.Nc3, but it has been played by Fischer, Karpov, Leko, Ivanchuk, and others, so Black should be ready for it.
The knight is heading to d6, so Black should cover that square with 5…d6. It gives White something to celebrate – now Black won’t be able to develop the dark-squared bishop actively. On the other hand, White lost a lot of time by moving their knight, so Black shouldn’t be worried that much. In this position, White usually chooses between 6.Bf4 and 6.c4.
The move 6.Bf4 was many times successfully used by Robert Fischer against such strong opponents as Tigran Petrosian, Mark Taimanov, and Miguel Najdorf. Since then, Black found good ways to defend themselves. 6…e5 7.Be3
Black has a backward pawn on d6 and a weak d5-square, but experienced Sicilian players know that this pawn structure can give Black a lot of counterplay. Basically, Black gets an improved version of the Sveshnikov or the Kalashnikov Sicilian here. You can see an illustrative game below.
6.c4 was the favorite of Anatoly Karpov. White grabs space and hopes to strangle Black’s position.
After 6…Nf6 7.N1c3 a6 8.Na3, Black usually builds a hedgehog setup with …Be7, …0-0, …b6, …Bb7 to follow. White lost a lot of time on the knight maneuvers, so Black has all the chances to obtain counterplay.
The immediate 5.c4 is possible too.
Now Black’s dark-squared bishop is not locked in, so Black can play 5…Nf6 6.Nc3 Bb4. White usually replies with 7.Nxc6 bxc6 8.Bd3.
Now Black can blow the center with 8…d5 or go for the dark-squared strategy with 8…e5 instead. In both cases, Black is doing well.
The Taimanov Sicilian: Conclusion
We have looked at the most popular lines arising from the Taimanov Sicilian. White has many other tries possible as well, but Black’s play mostly remains the same: aiming for …a6, …b5, …Bb7 and developing counterplay in the center or the queenside. Overall, this system is a good choice for those who seek active play but prefer not to burn the bridges too early.