f4 Sicilian

The “f4 Sicilian” is where White immediately plays “2.f4”. According to opening theory, Black has a good reply in “2..d5”, which seems to have stopped White playing this line. Hence, White often defers the f4 move by first playing Nc3, which is a different anti-Sicilian line called the “Grand Prix Attack” and is far more popular. The independent f4 lines with d5 are more tactical than the Grand Prix Attack.

Diagram: f4 against the Sicilian Defence

If Black replies with “2..d5” then White plays “3.exd5” and it’s a quite tactical line. In fact, it looks a bit like a Scandinavian where there’s been the extra moves of “f4” and “c5”. Indeed, there are lines that are like the Icelandic Gambit with “c4 e6!?” in some variations, which is an Icelandic-Like Gambit.

Diagram: d5 line in the f4 Sicilian

Black usually plays “3..Nf6” rather than “3..Qxd5”, but the Queen recapture is also playable for Black.

Is this d5 and Nf6 line actually so bad for White? Analysis of the theory of this “2..d5” line has cowed White into playing 2.Nc3 rather than 2.f4, but is the fear deserved? A lot of the lines have White playing greedily to keep a gambit pawn, thereby handing Black a typical gambit opening style. Perhaps White should decline the gambits and return the “d5” pawn by allowing Nxd5, which is examined further below. It’s also not clear that White should bother, since 2.Nc3 and 3.f4 gets to an aggressive position for White without risk, but perhaps White has a better plan than Nc3, such as c3 and d4, also examined below.

Black 3..Nf6 Line

Diagram: d5 exd5 Nf6 line in the f4 Sicilian

The move Nf6 is Black’s usual reply, just as it is in the Scandinavian. Black defers recapturing the pawn. White can play greedily trying to keep the pawn with Bb5+ and/or c4, or White can play more slowly allowing the recapture Nxd5. The main book lines in this anti-Sicilian opening seem to favour greed, whereas in the Scandinavian White often allows Nxd5. One possible reason is that after Nxd5, the Knight is actually threatening Nd5xf4 in the f4 Sicilian. Another problem is that White wants to play “d4” (common against the Scandinavian) but here it gets captured by “c5xd4” which is less good for White.

So it appears the main book lines in this “…d5” line involve trying to keep the pawn with either Bb5+ or c4.

Diagram: f4 Sicilian with d5 (Longer Line in MCO 15)

In this line, White has retained an extra pawn into the endgame, but the White pawn structure is a mess and Black has somewhat of a bind on the White position. It’s an endgame gambit position!

Diagram: f4 Sicilian with d5 (Longer Line in BCO 2 with Bb5+ and Bd7)

Diagram: f4 Sicilian with d5 (Longer Line in BCO 2 with Bb5+ and Nbd7)

Icelandic-Like Gambit

Diagram: Icelandic-Like Gambit (White plays c4 not Bb5+)

The Icelandic Gambit in the Scandinavian Opening has the moves “c4 e6!?”. Similarly, this can occur in the f4 Sicilian, where there has been an extra pair of moves: White’s f4 and Black’s c5. The result is a similar gambit line for Black, which is a classic style of gambit: Black has given up a pawn, but has extra piece activity and some initiative as compensation for the pawn.

Declining the Gambits: Should White avoid c4?

A lot of the positional problems and the gambit opportunity for Black arise because White has played c4. The move is static and slow, and does not help White’s development. After c4, the “e6” gambits look very active for Black. Does White have alternatives instead of c4?

Diagram: f4 Sicilian with d5 (Bb5+ Bd7 but avoiding c4)

White cannot play 5.Bc4, which is a common line in the Scandinavian. Black will simply reply with “5..b5” when “6.Bb3?? c4!” wins the Bishop. So White has to give up protecting the "d5’ pawn and Black plays Nxd5 with at least equality.

Diagram: f4 Sicilian with d5 (Bb5+ Nbd7 but avoiding c4)

In the Bb5+ Nbd7 line, White might consider a few lines to hold the pawn (other than 5.c4). Or perhaps White seeks only to hold the pawn for another move or two but ultimately surrender it for some positional advantage. Options for White moves include:

  • 5.Qf3
  • 5.Nc3
  • 5.d4 .. Allows the recapture Nxd5 but then White plays d4xc5.

Some of these moves look promising in this Nbd7 line, but the options in the Bd7 line look less so.

White Alternatives to 4.Bb5+

Perhaps it’s better to avoid Bb5+ completely? Is there a way to deter or take advantage of Black’s planned Nxd5 recapture? Perhaps 4.Bc4? 4.Qf3? 4.Nc3? 4.Qh5? 4.d4?

Diagram: f4 Sicilian with d5 (Bc4 not Bb5+)

This Bc4 and Qf3 line looks playable, but nothing special. Black has numerous options: 5..Nb6, 5..Nc7, 5..Nb4 (6.Na3 or 6.Qb3), 5..Nf6, 5..e6. White intends Ne2 and O-O, amongst other possible plans such as b3 and Bb2 (interfering with Black’s kingside development), or “f5!?” at some point. Material is equal, but at least White looks more active than in a lot of the gambit lines that start with Bb5+.

Nc3: Recapture Nxd5 Allowed

Diagram: Recapture Allowed (White plays Nc3, not c4 or Bb5+) (BCO 2)

This line with Nc3 is given in BCO 2, but looks somewhat dubious. Why cannot Black play Nd5xf4? Is it an oversight and error in the analysis?

Black 3..Qxd5 Line

Diagram: d5 exd5 Qxd5 line in the f4 Sicilian

The reply 3..Qxd5 is less common than 3..Nf6. It is playable for Black, but doesn’t look like something that White should fear, and is rarely played. This older line with Qxd5 looks very much like the old lines of the Center Counter Defence, where Black plays Qxd5 as well. But here, after White’s obvious Nc3 reply, Black cannot play Qa5, but has to consider:

Qd8 is actually more playable here than in the Scandinavian, because the “f4” pawn actually prevents Fischer’s refutation of the Qd8/g6 line (which involved Bf4 and Qd2).

Is Qd6 playable? Note that the attack on the “f4” pawn after Qd6 doesn’t look much of a threat: White need not passively play d3 or d4 to protect it, but could simply allow the Queen to capture on f4, gaining a huge time and development advantage by kicking the Black Queen around. That line after Qxf4 looks like a promising gambit line for White.

Black Slower Alternatives to “2..d5”

Black also has other less tactical replies than “2..d5” such as:

  • 2..e6
  • 2..g6
  • 2..d6
  • 2..Nc6
  • 2..Nf6

Diagram: f4 Sicilian (Other Black Replies: 2..e6)

Diagram: f4 Sicilian (Other Black Replies: 2..g6)

Diagram: f4 Sicilian (Other Black Replies: 2..d6)

Diagram: f4 Sicilian (Other Black Replies: 2..Nf6)

Diagram: f4 Sicilian (Other Black Replies: 2..Nc6)

Transposition to Grand Prix Attack: In these slower variations, where Black avoids “2..d5” then White can usually transpose to the Grand Prix Attack or a Closed Sicilian by playing “Nc3”. But if that’s White’s plan, then why did White play the “f4 Sicilian” and not immediately “2.Nc3”? If there’s nothing better here than transposing to the Grand Prix Attack, then there’s probably little point playing the f4 Sicilian.

Can White play c3 (French) instead of Nc3 (Grand Prix Attack)?

Transposition to French Defence: An interesting question is whether White can gain some advantage in these lines (without “2..d5”) by not having played Nc3. In particular, White might consider a plan of playing “c3” and “d4”, possibly leading to an unusual type of French Defence (e.g. an Advance French where White has already played “f4”, after Black plays “d5” later, and White plays “e5”). Playing a French Defence is probably not what Black had in mind when playing the Sicilian! If Black has played “d5”, then Black may consider playing “d4!?” to prevent White playing “d4”! These are all lines without much theory.

Grand Prix Attack

Grand Prix Attack: The slower move order which aims to avoid Black’s “2..d5” line is that White plays “2.Nc3” (stops d5) and then “3.f4” on the next move. This is the “Grand Prix Attack” line for White.

Diagram: Grand Prix attack (anti-Sicilian)

Anti-Sicilian Openings List

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